Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Invisible Unicorn

I was sitting in the middle of the class hoping not to be noticed. Professor John Whitehead, philosophy, Portland State University, was about to deliver the coup de grâce in his argument against the existence of God, and I didn't want to be his target.

   I was a Christian and had been for seven or eight years, pretty young still, and this was my first experience of an attack on my faith.

   Prof. Whitehead's opening argument was that a statement of fact that could not be falsified could not be proved; they were merely unfounded statements of faith. He then told as an example the invisible unicorn story.

(For those who aren't acquainted with science or philosophy, "falsifiability" is the belief that any scientific hypothesis must be disprovable if it is to be accepted as more than a guess or prediction or an empty faith. Falsifiability )

   The story went this way. "There is an invisible unicorn in my office. Every time I get to the office in the morning something is disturbed, and it is the unicorn that is doing it." He fancied up the story some, but that was the gist of it.

   "Can you prove me wrong?" Dr. Whitehead asked.

   We all sat silent, of course. We knew that there was no such thing as an invisible unicorn, but we couldn't prove it. We could not falsify my Prof's claim. And we all knew what Dr. Whitehead's point was: You can't prove God.

   What we did not know was that Dr. Whitehead had set us up. He knew that he had misused the falsifiability test that Karl Popper in the 1930s had  articulated as the test for the truth of a scientific hypothesis by applying it to a philosophical proposition (an invisible unicorn is beyond the scope of scientific analysis). He knew also that not even all scientific hypotheses can be tested scientifically, so the test had limited usefulness.

   Most interesting, he knew that if the puzzle were probed a bit further the invisible unicorn in his office could at least have been shown to be to a high probability false. 

   But he knew that the students in his class did not know any of this. He had us.

   I walked away from the class troubled. My conviction that God not only existed but was the creator of the universe and the God who revealed himself through a Abraham's family and then by means of the Bible to me was shaken. Is God not provable? And if he is not provable, does he not exist?

   I pondered the puzzle that Dr. Whitehead had presented to us. But after some thought, I realized there was something that would falsify God  It was Israel. But before I explain, I want to go back to the details and assumption in Dr. Whitehead's challenge.

   One detail was the claim of evidence, the spilled coffee. If we had investigated the claims of evidence that Dr. Whitehead made for the invisible unicorn we could have come to a high probability conclusion that the particular invisible unicorn either did or did not exist.

   Dr. Whitehead gave as evidence for his "faith" in the invisible unicorn the spilled cups of coffee he occasionally found in his office. He said that there were days when he arrived at his office to find the half-filled coffee cups from the day before turned over and the coffee spilled. Since his office had been closed from the time he left it the evening before to the time he arrived the next morning, what else could have tipped over the coffee?

   Okay. That was spooky. Maybe there was an invisible unicorn cavorting around the office?

   But the fact was, his claim could be investigated. We didn't have to accept it as a fact without examination of the evidence. We could have a student stay the night in the office. Or we could check to see if the janitor came in during the night to clean. In other words we could check the factuality of Dr. Whitehead's presupposition of an invisible unicorn.

   With deeper investigation we might have found that there were other clues. We might have found that papers were being moved around on Dr. Whitehead's desk. We might have found that his files were being unexplainably organized. If no obvious answer for the spilled coffee was found and if further surprises surfaced, then Dr. Whitehead's claim gained ground.

   But if the problem of the spilled coffee was solved by finding that the janitor did move things around as he cleaned, the claim could reasonably be dismissed. It would be falsified.

   Then too, we could have investigated the claim of spilled coffee. Had the coffee actually spilled during the night as Dr. Whitehead hurried to leave for the night?  He had spilled the coffee earlier and failed to remember accurately?  Or was it a fiction altogether?

   Those are the things Sherlock Holmes would have done. But we didn't think to do that.

   Investigation is the way to go if we want to explore the claim that an invisible unicorn exists. It is also the way to go to explore the claim of existence of God. We can explore any evidence found and weigh the reasoning that infers the evidence is sufficient to conclude God exists. The claim is not merely that God exists, after all, but that he does things - like the spilled coffee - and if he does things, those can be investigated.

   There was one more thing, however. Not only could the claim be investigated but the assumptions could be challenged.  The assumption was that God is not falsifiable, and if not falsifiable, then not real.

   The assumption, however, assumed too much. On the totally silly end, if I am standing with a rock in my hand and am asked to provide a falsifiable claim that the rock exists, I need not. It is self-evident that the rock exists. I feel it. I see it. And I can throw it through your window if you don't believe me. Belief in the existence of the rock, though unfalsifiable, was yet true. Only a blind man would deny it. Belief in the existence of God for many is in that category. It is self-evident.

    On the other end, the assumption that the test would provide definitive evidence for the non-existence of the invisible unicorn was also assuming too much. It is very difficult to prove a negative. Even if evidence could not be found that prove the claim, there is always the Raven Paradox. That is the logical weakness in inductive reasoning. If you say on the basis of your observations  that no ravens are white, you make a statement that can be shown to be false with further observation. The fact is, there are albino ravens that are white or partially white. One white raven falsifies the claim that no ravens are white.  Inductive arguments, which are the basis of science and logic are never absolute.

   Related to the existence of God, if we say there is no evidence for the existence of God and, therefore, God does not exist, we run head on into that Raven Paradox.

   But is there evidence? Yes. Without hesitation we can say that. There is the evidence of what God has done.

   I've written about the evidence for a creator we find in the universe, The fine-tuning of the universe for life. That evidence, though not absolutely conclusive, is persuasive.

   But there is also the evidence of Israel. If this God was the God of Israel and if he made promises to Israel, then the failure of those promises would falsify the existence of this God. If on the other hand, those promises were fulfilled to Israel, especially if after a long time and many tests, then the probability of this God's existence is great.

   One such promise was made to Abraham almost 4000 years ago. We read it in Genesis 12. It is this:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 
I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
   Now, consider. Abraham was childless when God made this promise to him, so the promise was made to one man and one woman. In the intervening 4000 years, Abraham's family grew to become a nation of people. But during those years of growth, this family and nation could well have disappeared from history.

   Several generations after Abraham his family -  by that time they numbered only 70 - traveled to Egypt where they found refuge from a regional famine. They might easily have been absorbed into the Egyptian culture and people. But they emerged from Egypt several hundred years later a distinct people and more numerous and stronger and migrated back to Canaan.

   There in Canaan they grew into a nation with kings and armies; they built cities and planted crops.  Then 300 years later the nation was attacked by the Assyrians and three quarters of the people were killed, deported and dispersed among the peoples of the Assyrian Empire. These people were lost to history. (No matter how much credence is given to the earlier history, from this point on the history of Israel is confirmed by Assyrian and Babylonian sources.)

   One hundred and fifty years later Israel was again attacked and conquered, this time by the Babylonian Empire. Most of its people were killed and its leaders were carried away to Babylon where again they were dispersed across the Babylonian Empire and then the Persian Empire. Fifty years later by decree Cyrus the Great returned Israel, now known as Jews, to the land of Israel. Still their numbers were small. They struggled against local opposition to rebuild their cities and the temple, but had the protection of Persia and persevered.

   Four hundred years later the Jewish nation, now subject to Rome, rebelled and was again nearly demolished by the Roman armies. They rebuilt again, but in 135 A.D the Jews rebelled again, and Rome totally removed the Jews from Judea. But by this time there were Jewish communities scattered around the Roman Empire and far beyond. Though they had no homeland, they continued as an ethnic entity.  What people has ever experienced such adversity and survived? But it was not over.

   During the next 1800 years the Jews were attacked by other enemies, both Christian and Islamic. They were driven out of one land after another. They were isolated in ghettos in Russia and across Europe. They were persecuted. They were further scattered. Yet they did not disappear. They were not absorbed. In fact, the hatred they endured caused them to more firmly hold onto their ethnic heritage.

   In our era, the Jews were attacked again by a powerful enemy, the Nazis. Over 6 million were killed in the holocaust. That is approximately two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe in 1935 and two fifths of the world Jewish population.

   Yet 70 years later the world Jewish population is again 16 million, and the Jews have returned to their homeland as a nation. Who has heard of such a thing? God's promise to them holds true. They persist as a people.

   The second part of God's promise also holds true. The Jews, in an extremely disproportionate number relative to their numbers, have benefited blessed) the world culturally and scientifically.
Although Jews constitute only about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population, Jews won 29 percent of the Nobel Prizes in literature, medicine, physics and chemistry in the second half of the 20th century. Jewish Magazine
   The percentage is even larger in this century.

   Americans are well acquainted with the names of Jews in the arts and sciences:  Mel Blanc, Itzhak Perlman, Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Paul Simon, Kirk Douglas, Albert Einstein, Gerald Schroeder, and many, many others. Google "Jewish writers" or "Jewish scientists" or "Jews in medicine."

   Jews have enriched (blessed) the world in every way. And Jews have become famous, the third part of the promise, beyond what anyone could ever have imagined 2000 years ago, not to speak of 4000 years ago.

   Consider famous. There is no other name so well known in all the world and in all of history as Jesus. And Jesus is a Jew.

   Is there any doubt that God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham? No. Israel is proof of the God of Israel.

   And if all of that had not occurred? If Israel had disappeared or been absorbed into the peoples of the world - and there were plenty of times when that seemed about to happen - that would have been adequate proof that the God of Israel and the God of Christians did not exist. We would be sitting here with an ancient book of fables in our laps, the book of Israel's crushed aspirations. Instead we have in our hands a book of Israel's history and of God's protection and blessing of a family and people, as he promised. Amazing.

   Israel is the tested evidence. Israel proves God exists.



Friday, September 23, 2016

Which Religion?

“Why do you NOT believe in all the other gods, but you believe in yours?”

   That’s a classic challenge I see regularly on skeptic videos and read repeatedly on skeptic websites. Even so, it is a reasonable question from someone for whom all religions seem the same. It deserves an answer. My answer as a Christian is the Bible. But the rationale is not what you probably think.

   There is wisdom in almost all the holy books of major religions. Some of what you read in the other religious books is even close to what you'll read in the Bible. But none of those books is really like the Bible.  Unlike other religious books, the Bible is not simply a collection of wise sayings or religious instructions. The Bible is a story, and it is  one story. 

   It is comprised of what we might better describe as 63 chapters (Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were written as single books, not in two parts.) That one story displays the unity, coherence, and plot that we would expect of a single story. And it does so with unusual elegance as it combines a variety of genres into that one story.

   I have been a student of literature since I worked on a degree in English literature in college. I taught world literature for fifteen years to high school students. I have also studied the Bible as literature, earning a post grad degree in the Bible about 25 years ago. I am convinced that the Bible is unique in all of world literature.

   But as a story?

   Yes. As a story it has all the features we have come to expect of a story. It begins with an exposition in which the setting, backstory, characters, and conflict are introduced. It has a antagonist, who is introduced as the serpent in Genesis 3, and in the same chapter it foreshadows the appearance of the protagonist, the offspring of the woman.

   The story continues as the conflict develops in what is called rising actionSuspense builds with new clues foreshadowing the appearance of the protagonist. However, while we wait for this mysterious son to appear, there are times when it looks like the serpent will win without a fight by preventing the appearance of the son.

   The tension of the conflict builds until the protagonist, who now has the name Messiah, is revealed.  We know by this point that the Messiah is a king who promises to overcome the serpent and establish a new kingdom. But the outcome of the battle is still in question. The Messiah is attacked by kings who consider him a rival and by the religious establishment who sees him as a threat to their power and  even by storms on the sea.

   Finally, the Messiah protagonist is arrested and through political intrigue is sentenced to death. There is no escape. He is executed. The serpent has won. But no. In a fascinating plot twist the Messiah returns to life.

   This is the crisis or climax of the story, the point at which the plot turns toward resolution. The serpent now seems to be defeated. But not yet. The Messiah is beyond his reach, but he attacks the followers of the Messiah. If the King cannot be killed, the citizens of his kingdom can be. Or if not, they can be prevented from succeeding in establishing the Messiah's kingdom. But no. Every attack by the antagonist is met and overcome (resolved). Despite everything, the King extends his kingdom in the part of a plot called falling action.

   But the serpent does not go away, and there is an inevitable showdown (the book of Revelation) in which the final battle between the serpent and the King occurs. It is the final resolution. The serpent is defeated, and in the denouement of the story, the Messiah's kingdom is established forever.

   It is the epic of human history from the beginning to the not yet realized end. It has been the all time best seller. It ought to be made into a movie. It would be a blockbuster. The author's name would be in lights. But the surprise is that this epic story was written by dozens of human writers.

   They wrote over a period of over 1000 years having no idea that they were writing a story other than the stories of their individual chapters. Many were writing with no knowledge of the outcome of the story. Yet their stories fit together in one developing  plot and foreshadow the events of the final chapter with great detail. How can that be?

   The author of this story cannot be one of the human authors of the chapters, nor can the resulting unified story be the product of an editor. The early chapters (the Old Testament) were collected by editors before the story was completed. The editors had no idea how the climax would develop or how it would end. And the collection of the later chapters (the New Testament) was done not on the basis of how they fit the story but on whether each chapter individually was inspired.

   All of this is written in virtually every literary genre and incorporates virtually all the classic rhetorical tropes and schemes we find in the best literature of our day, all with extreme elegance, so that I am truly amused when someone with no knowledge of or training in literature claims the Bible was written by "Bronze Age goat herders."

   This book is a miracle. There is no other book in all of literature like it. And it is evidence for an author who is divine and who not only knows the future but writes the story of the future. That is why I believe that this God who calls himself Yahweh is the only true God and  the Who that wrote this book. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What Has 2nd Peter Got to Do with Anything?

I stood intimidated before dozens of Bibles that stood shoulder to shoulder on the shelf of my local Bible bookstore in Spokane. Of the many new translations shouting for my attention, some dressed in warm brown covers, some friendly paperbacks, some with reverent gold leaf pages, which one was best? Which was most accurate? Which most readable. As I struggled to make a decision, I began to wonder about inspiration. Were these many versions inspired?

   I had been taught a standard definition of inspiration by my Bible teacher in Christian school, "verbal plenary." That means every word is inspired and inspired equally. It was easy to remember, but how did it work with these new translations? I asked a pastor.

   He said that "verbal plenary"  only had to do with the original "autographs." That's a fancy name for the actual document written by the author, not copies or translations. But that wasn't very satisfying because of the many Bibles on the shelf, not one was an autograph. In fact, it turns out no one has an autograph. All we have are copies and translations. But I wasn't done thinking.

   I asked my pastor whether maybe God had inspired the ideas rather than the words. Maybe the issue of which translation is the best translation is not so important. He was of a generation older than myself and had received a pretty fundamental education. He said no; God inspired the specific words - in the autographs - and that was important. We need to get as close to those words as we can.

   A year or so later, in the same church, we had a retired Wycliffe missionary visit and speak. He had been a missionary to a Mayan tribal people in Mexico and had there helped translate the Bible into the Mayan language. I asked him about his translation. He said it was rough. But rough as it was it had led many Mayan people to place their trust in Jesus and had transformed their lives and tribal culture. At that point I got it.

   Inspiration is not simply about the original documents written by the prophets or Apostles. It is also about the way God uses those sometimes imperfectly translated books to change lives. Being as accurate as possible to the originals is important, but just as important is the Holy Spirit's presence in the reading.

   To be fair with the theologians, that is called "illumination" and distinct from "inspiration. But in real life one is not sufficient without the other. And as in the case of my Wycliffe translator friend, God uses the imperfect if that is all he has to work with. And that is all God does have. We do not have the theoretically perfect originals. We must depend upon illumination by the Spirit.

   So the next leap in my mind was this question: How do we know if the books we have in our Bibles are inspired?

I had no idea at the time how complicated the answer to that question was going to be - or how simple.

   The complicated answer is that the process of deciding which books are inspired was long and messy. As far as the New Testament books were concerned, it took several centuries for Christians to come to a settled decision, if it can even be called that. The fact is, the 1st and 2nd century Bible book store was crowded and messy. There were a lot of books written about Jesus or written as instruction to the church. There were gospels everywhere. There were letters written to churches and books of instructions and books of stories and allegories. Most do not show up in our present Bibles.

   Why not?

   In the late first century and second century the question of which books were "Scripture" was pressed upon the church by the shear numbers of books and the diversity within those books. Early on there was little consensus about which of the new books were to be considered authoritative or inspired. The Hebrew Scriptures, of course, were assumed by nearly everyone to be God's inspired words. But what about these newer books?

   In practice, some were pretty much accepted by everyone. Among them were the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were the foundation of the new list of books that would become known as the canon or approved list - which is what the word canon means. Others were rejected outright as being out of keeping with the word already received and out of keeping with Jesus as he was revealed in the flesh and in the collected memories of the disciples and Apostles. Some few were on the fringe. They were accepted as authoritative by some and neglected if not rejected by others in the churches. Among them were the books of Revelation, 2nd and 3rd John, James, Jude, and 2 Peter.

   It was not until the 4th century and early 5th century that there was something of a final list drawn up. And even then, there continued to be less than great enthusiasm about some of the books. Martin Luther, for example, in the 1500s called the book of James a "strawy epistle" because it seemed to contradict Paul's firm stand on salvation by faith. The book of Revelation has always been a puzzle and was often neglected by teachers of the Scriptures. And lately questions about 2 Peter have resurfaced.

   That gives an idea of how complex and messy this drawing up a list of inspired books was. However, for most Christians it was simple. The question for them was this: Does God speak in this book? Was there a spark of the Spirit?

   The formal selection process included limiting the books to those written by Apostles or those near the Apostles. It included the question of unity or theological agreement with the previously written Scriptures in the Old Testament and those books early deemed authoritative in the first century, the four gospels. It was an intellectual process. In the end, however, the books that made the cut were those in which God spoke to the reader and to the church.

   That freshness and sense of God's immediate word (the Greek word for that is rhema) to them is what impressed Christians. That sense of rhema was what impressed people about Jesus' teaching. They said, "He speaks with authority, not as the Scribes and the Pharisees." That impreciseness seems to those who would like something more measurable terribly subjective, but to the mature Christian in the 2nd century or the 21st, it is the ultimate and most important test.

   It is with that background in view that we come to the current challenge to one of the books in our Bibles, the book of 2 Peter. As I began to considered 2 Peter seriously, I asked why it had not been embraced as enthusiastically as some of the other books.

   Second Peter was one of the last books to receive the qualification "canonical." Not until the late 3rd century was 2 Peter included in the official canon.  In fact, in several cases it was called a forgery - as it is called by some today - even though it had been recognized by various groups of Christians as the rhema of God from late in the 1st century.

   As I searched for an answer I stumbled upon the webpage of evangelist Steve Cha, Authenticity of 2nd Peter   He has done an exceptional job of defending 2 Peter as an authentic book by Peter and as the inspired rhema of God to the church. The research and thought he put into the defense of 2 Peter is  impressive. But I wondered why an evangelist would be so interested in 2 Peter. Wouldn't other books be more suitable in his evangelistic calling?

   I wondered also why 2nd Peter is so passionately opposed by the new atheists.

   As I often do, I slept on those questions. I wanted to allow God time to lead me to the answers. I woke in the middle of the night with this:
  • Second Peter was not written primarily for the Christian of the 1st century or the 2nd. It did have a message for them. It spoke to their circumstances and the challenges they were facing. It was an encouragement to persevere in the face of the opposition they faced.  But it was more a message about the future. It spoke of the hope of new age to come. And they, the church of the 1st century, weren't there yet.
  • Second Peter is God's rhema for our time more than any other. We are living in the time Peter spoke of. We are at the end of the age. We are faced with the dangers from the within the church Peter wrote about and the attacks of scoffers from outside the church - more than any generation in the past. This book and, interestingly, the other books that were in the early centuries considered a little ify - Revelation, James, and Jude -  were meant for us. They are time capsules meant to be opened and understood  anew in our age.  And that is what evangelist Steve Cha implies when he ends with this: "In a time when false doctrine and theories abound (in this case against 2 Peter itself), it is important that 2 Peter is preserved for the good of the church’s instruction, which is to combat false teaching and to uphold the glorious truth of the gospel in a dying world. Without it, the church is bereft of instruction concerning the importance of upholding truth and rejecting error."
  • Second Peter is opposed by the new scoffers because they are in it. Nowhere else in the Scriptures are the scoffers of the end of the age called out and identified as in 2nd Peter. Peter writes: "Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come." They will deny and oppose the truth of God's word. They will mock believers and seek to destroy the message and raise doubt by their questions. Yet at the same time nowhere is there a message of grace so directly spoken to them: "God is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
   That message moves me. I pray that it moves you. If you are reading this as a Christian, stand firm in your faith while at the same time holding out grace to those who oppose you. If you are a scoffer, I beg you to consider God's grace. He loves you. He holds out to you forgiveness and peace and hope.

   Peter ends with this message to his readers - you and me: "Grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ."

 "To Him be glory both now and forever, amen."

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Promised Land or Bust

The Problem with Large Numbers and the Exodus

In a video of a lecture Dr. Hector Avalos gave at Minnetonka, MN, in 2007, Dr. Avalos takes issue with the number of fighting men, some 600,000 according to Exodus 12:37, who crossed the Red (Reed) Sea from Egypt to the Sinai at the beginning of the Exodus.  Dr. Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, in his lecture  “How Archaeology  Killed Biblical  History,” contends that the number cannot be accurate.  Archaeology does not support that huge number, and therefore biblical history must be wrong.

Let’s see.

Dr. Avalos claims that 600,000 fighting men in Exodus 12:37 translates into  2,000,000  people when women and children are added. That is an unbelievable number. But is that truly what is implied in Exodus?

Dr. Ron Allen, my Hebrew professor in grad school, writes about the questions of large numbers in the book of Numbers where the fighting men are again counted:
Literal interpretation of numbers includes understandings that extend from mathematical exactitude, through general approximation, to literary license. The only demand of literal interpretation (better, “normal” interpretation) is that the reader ought to seek to find the use he or she believes the text itself presents and demands.1  (p. 69)

And that is what we’d expect of a scholar dealing with ancient texts, biblical or not. Unfortunately, Dr. Avalos does not seek to find the use the text presents.  He reads the text in English and ignores the genre,  the cultural and literary  conventions, and evidence from the period. Ironically,  he reads the text uncritically and through the eyes of a literalist rather than a scholar.

But there is more going on here than a critique of a small detail in the Exodus narrative. There is an attempt to argue that because of the obviously impossible numbers the entire narrative is discredited.

So let me deal with that first before suggesting a solution to the problem of the numbers.

The question is whether the Hebrews (Israelites) left Egypt, crossed the Red (Reed) Sea and conquered and settled in the land of Canaan in the 14th through the 12th century BCE.  That is the biblical narrative. Is it factual?  And is it supported by archaeology?

Interestingly Dr. Avalos mentions in passing but dismisses one of the crucial pieces of archaeological
evidence, the Armana Letters.

The Armana Letters are tablets written from Canaanite and Syrian vassal rulers to the king of Egypt and date from the late 14th century BCE.  They contain reports of the political and military situation in Canaan from a period of time that would coincide with the biblical description of the conquest in the books of Joshua and Judges.

Dr. Avalos claims that the letters do not show evidence of Israel as an entity in Canaan: “There is no mention of a kingdom of Israel in 1375.”  Now, that will not come as a surprise to a Bible reader. The Bible’s description of that period of time, only 25 years after the exodus, is found in Joshua and Judges, and there is no mention of a kingdom of Israel. There was no kingdom for two hundred and fifty years or more. There were tribal leaders, called judges, and there were ongoing, sporadic, and local battles between Israelite tribes and various Canaanite cities.

The outcome of those battles as described in Judges and even in Joshua, a more heroic version of the “conquest,” is less than decisive. The Canaanites are not immediately nor entirely vanquished.  Many are assimilated.  In some cases the Canaanites live alongside the Hebrews for a long period of time.  The Bible even explains why.  It is because after failing to drive the out Canaanites the people of Israel began to adopt the gods of the Canaanites and did not obey Yahweh. So God left the Canaanites in the land  to test their faithfulness. (Judges 2:20-23) So the situation in Canaan in the late 14th century BCE was not total conquest but ongoing conflict.

And that is what the Armana Letters reveal. They speak of the Habiru or Apiru who were harassing the local Canaanite cities that were in tribute to the king of Egypt. 

Now, the Hapiru are mentioned in many sources from the mid-18th century to the 14th century and in many locations in the Near East, and they could not all be references to the Hebrews. But the name is obviously similar.

Many current scholars dismiss the similarities because they do not see a connection between the Habiru and the Hebrews. Avalos is among them. But that may be a mistake.

Robert Wolfe, PhD history, argues that the connection may be in the identifying characteristics of the Habiru and the Hebrews. 2 The Habiru were nomads, raiders, and escaped slaves. It is entirely possible that the Canaanites would see the Hebrews exactly this way. The Bible itself describes the Hebrews as escaped slaves and nomads.

The other connection is with the cities mentioned in the Armana Letters and the biblical narrative.  In
tablet EA254,  the “mayor of Shechem” reports that his son has joined with the Habiru. Shechem was in the center of the Canaanite hill country northwest  of Jericho. It is the place at Mt. Ebal where Joshua had the Israelites pronounce blessings and curses and where the conquest was initiated (Joshua 8:30).  Yet it is not reported that Shechem was ever conquered or destroyed. Was that because the king’s son joined with the Habiru?  Whether or not that was the case, a number of letters refer to the Habiru in terms that match the biblical narrative.

In addition, archaeological evidence for Israel (the Hebrews) in Canaan is found in the classic markers archaeologists use to  distinguish different groups and identify particular times, pottery shards.

At Hazor, a northern Canaanite city that the Bible describes as destroyed and burned by Israelite invaders (Joshua 11:11,12), Mycenean pottery was found under the burn layer. Mycenean pottery was imported into Canaan by Canaanites.

When was Hazor burned? That can be dated quite reliably to the 14th or 13th centuries.

Yigael Yadin writes, “The Mycenean III type serves as evidence—nearly the only firm testimony available to archaeologists—for absolute dating of strata to the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.”3 An early 14th century date fits perfectly with the biblical account and is a definite marker for a powerful Hebrew presence in Canaan.

Another evidence for the Israelites in Canaan is the Merneptah stele. It is a victory monument of Pharaoh Merneptah. On that stele, dated to 1206 B.C., are listed  peoples in Canaan conquered by the Pharaoh.

That list ends with “Israel.”   It indicates that the people called Israelites or Hebrews were well enough established in Canaan to be considered a trophy by the Pharaoh.

William Dever, PhD archaeology Professor  University of Arizona, says of the significance of the stele in a NOVA 2008 interview: “So the Egyptians, a little before 1200 B.C.E., know of a group of people somewhere in the central highlands—a loosely affiliated tribal confederation, if you will—called "Israelites." These are our Israelites. So this is a priceless inscription.”

The archaeological evidence – and there is more than I’ve listed – is pretty conclusive. The Hebrews/Israelites were in Canaan at the time the Bible indicates. And there is no indication they were there before that date.

But did they arrive in Canaan in a massive invasion about 1400 B.C.? This is the point Dr. Avalos challenges. This is where I return to the issue of huge numbers.

I should note that Dr. Avalos is not alone in his skepticism about the huge numbers. Many biblical scholars have tackled the issue. But one scholar made this point:

The more absurd the figures the less likely it is that they were invented. Absurdity suggests the likelihood that someone has been trying to transmit records faithfully, in spite of the fact that they do not seem to make sense. Failure to recognize this point has tended to make scholars cavalier in their dismissal of phenomena which are crying for explanation.4

That would be my point as well. It would be silly to think that the people to whom the Exodus account was first addressed would have not recognized the absurdity of the numbers – if  they meant to them what they mean to us. It is reasonable therefore to begin with the assumption that the numbers express something different from the 2 million people at which our “traditional” calculation and Avalos' have arrived.

It is appropriate here to note that the huge numbers in Exodus 12 to which Avalos referred are not the
only huge numbers in the Bible nor in the literature and histories of the Ancient Near East. The men before the flood in Genesis 6 are said to have lived many hundreds of years. And in the Sumerian King List, kings were recorded with incredibly long lifetimes.5

Were these kings real? There is no reason to think that they were not. But the lifetimes recorded are surreal. What do we make of them?

There have been various explanations for the large numbers in the Bible. Dr. Ron Allen in the Tyndale commentary on Numbers already cited does a good job of listing and discussing the alternative explanations. (The introduction to the book of  Numbers in the NIV Study Bible lists some of these.)

One is that the figures are accurate. The argument is that given the length of time in Egypt and the fact that the Pharaoh was afraid that the Hebrews would be a threat to Egypt if they were to rebel and takes sides with an enemy (Exodus 1:9,10) that 2 million is not an excessive number.  The reasoning is that there was enough time for the Hebrews to have multiplied to 2 million and the Pharaoh would not have been concerned if the population was small.  The problem remains that 2 million rivals the number of Egyptians in the 14th century.  That doesn’t make much sense.

Another explanation is that it is a corruption of the text. In other words, the numbers we have are not what were originally written. Dr. Wenham gives numerous examples from the biblical text where two writers writing about the same events include numbers that radically differ. His conclusion is that this discrepancy is evidence of a corruption of the text. The copyist simply did not understand how to correctly transcribe the text. The problem is that we do not have a set of numbers that contradict those given in Exodus and Numbers.

Another analysis by Colin J. Humphreys, Physicist and Bible scholar, is that a marker used in the Hebrew text, אֶ֧לֶף has two meanings. One meaning is a thousand – that is how it is traditionally translated. The other is troop or squad leader.6   If we translated Exodus 12:37 that way, we would get אֶ֧לֶף (squad leaders) מֵא֨וֹת (hundred) כְּשֵׁשׁ־ (about 6).  Hebrew reads from right to left, so read in English it would be “about six hundred squads.”  The problem with that idea is that the Septuagint translates the text as ἑξακοσίας χιλιάδας πεζῶν (roughly, “six hundred thousand footmen”). Apparently the translators  didn’t understand אֶ֧לֶף as squad leaders.

There is also the idea that Exodus is an exaggerated legend written in the 3rd century BCE to create a backstory for the newly reborn Jewish nation after the Babylonian captivity.  That would be the reading of Dr. Jacob Wright of Emory University, Chandler School of Theology.  I encountered that reading in a class I audited a few years ago. It also seems to be the reading of Dr. Avalos.

The problem with that is that the Exodus story is woven through all the Old Testament scriptures, both early and late. If the legend was created in the 3rd or 4th  century, it is unlikely that it would have been picked up by the later prophets, prophets who would have been preaching at about the same time as the legend makers were busy creating the legend. Would they not have known? It is even  more of a dilemma when we consider the earlier prophets who are also reliably dated to a time before the exile. How could they have incorporated a legend not yet created?  The only possibility is that the Exodus story and allusions were written into the documents as they were copied in later centuries. But the story of the Exodus is so intertwined that merely inserting a narrative is impossible. And it is too much of a conspiracy theory to be believable.

I think the best explanation is the one suggested by Dr. Allen. He writes in his commentary on Numbers:
I suggest for consideration the possibility that the large numbers in the census lists in the book of Numbers are deliberately and purposefully exaggerated as a rhetorical device to bring glory to God, bring derision to enemies, and point forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise to the fathers that their descendants would be as innumerable as the stars. 7

David Fouts in a doctoral thesis referenced by Dr. Allen indicated that Akkadian records demonstrate a widespread use of the convention of literary hyperbole related to numbers in a military context. In other words, it was a common literary feature. That would support Dr. Allen’s analysis.

Certainly we can find many examples of poetic hyperbole in the biblical text. Psalm 91:7 says “A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand / but it [the plague] will not come near you.” We read that as a poetic way of saying many. We do not expect that it means exactly 1000 or 10,000. We ourselves use numbers this way. I might say to a friend, “I betcha a million dollars you can’t sink that putt.” And we all understand that I am not making a serious bet of $1,000,000. It is an “expression.”

But what does that do to the factuality of Exodus?

The answer is nothing.

If the Israelite readers (or hearers) of the narrative understood that these figures were exaggerated as a praise to God – as the reigns of Sumerian kings were exaggerated as praise to them – then there is no deception, no legend building.  Remember the Bible is first and foremost a religious text, not a book of history, even though the history may also be factual. It was expected that it would be written as a praise to God.

But it would be equally a mistake to conclude that the numbers in the book of Exodus chapter 12 and Numbers chapter 1 mean nothing.  They are not wild guesses. They are not boastful exaggerations. They are compiled by counting. They are the result in Numbers 1, at least,  of a census.  But they are probably not numbers that we should punch into our calculators to get a precise figure for the population of Israel or of the army. They must be understood in the light of the cultural and literary conventions of the day.

What does this reading do to the historicity of the exodus and conquest narratives?

It reduces the numbers down to a realistic level. It is possible to see a group of two thousand leaving Egypt with about six hundred men of military age.  It is possible to see a group of two hundred thousand leaving Egypt with about sixty thousand men of military age. It is possible to see a group of either size (remember all that generation died in the 40 years of wilderness wandering) invading Canaan and establishing communities throughout the hill country – as the Bible describes.  And it is possible to see that population revealed in the artifacts we now have coming from the period of the 11th to 14th centuries. There is no disconnect between the biblical narrative and history revealed in  the artifacts.

And this reading does not divest the narrative of the miraculous. It does not require - and the text does not make this point - that the large numbers indicate a huge miracle. There were plenty of miraculous events associated with the story and specifically mentioned as signs of God’s provision. Among them are the manna that fed the Israelites, the water from the rock, and the success they had as they took possession of the Promised Land. But the number of people is not implied as a miracle. Escape from Egypt was a miracle, but not the numbers.

Obviously, there are a lot of explanations and no consensus. But to make a controversial issue of the numbers and imply that they are evidence that archaeology refutes the Bible as Avalos does is beyond reasonable.  He needs to do a lot more spade work than he has done to begin to make that case.

1) Allen, Ronald B.,  Numbers-Ruth (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary).  Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2012. Print
2) Wolfe, Robert. “From Habiru to Hebrews: The Roots of the Jewish Tradition.”  New English Review . October 2009.  Newenglishreview.org. Web. Aug. 21, 2016 http://www.newenglishreview.org/Robert_Wolfe/From_Habiru_to_Hebrews%3A_The_Roots_of_the_Jewish_Tradition>
3) Yadin, Yigael. “In the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable?” Biblical Archaeology Review, 8:02, Mar.-April 1982.  Web Aug. 20, 2016.
4) Wenham, J.W. “Large Numbers in the Old Testament.” Tyndale Press 1967
5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_King_List
7) op. cit.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Fine-Tuning and God

Is the universe supernaturally fine-tuned for life? Was someone behind the scenes at Creation Central fiddling with the knobs and dials?

That question is more and more at the fore these days in any discussion of origins. Why? Because scientific evidence is mounting that the universe is in fact fine-tuned for life.  But how can that be? That now becomes the more pressing question.

To be honest, the observation that the universe is fine-tuned should be a no-brainer. The fact is here we are, and we are doing quite well, thank you. But scientists are not satisfied with relying on mere common sense. They want to know whether there is real evidence for that inference and whether there was  a Tuner. Many scientists are concluding that there was. Here is a short list of some who have come to the conclusion that the universe is fine-tuned and that there was someone behind it all. http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/quotes.html

I must insert here a small disclaimer. I have not read each of these men or collected these quotes from my personal acquaintance with the sources. There is always the danger that quotes collected by others might be cherry-picked and used out of context to support an idea that is not the original author’s.

But I am acquainted with several. Among them is Michael Denton, PhD biochemistry, whose book Nature’s Destiny I read with great interest; Hugh Ross, PhD. Astrophysics, whose books Creation and Time and The Fingerprint of God I read early in my quest for better understanding of the universe; and Richard Dawkins, PhD., biology, whose several books The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion I read with interest. In all of these whether written by agnostic, Christian, or atheist there has been agreement that intelligent design is apparent (or the appearance of design) and deeply embedded in the universe. 

So what is the evidence? 

Before proceeding I want to establish the parameters of my discussion.
First, evidence can be either direct or indirect. Direct evidence in science is the observation of a fact. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, for example, is something we can directly observe.  If you don’t believe the evidence, you can do the experiment yourself. 

Indirect evidence, sometimes called circumstantial evidence, is a set of facts (direct evidence) which is used to make an inference that an assertion is true. For example, the assertion that evolution is true is inferred from the fact that genetic mutations can result in speciation. Evolution is not observed and cannot be repeated in an experiment, but the fact of speciation (and other observations) is considered to be sufficient support for the assertion that evolution happened. 

The fine-tuning of the universe by a supernatural Tuner is such an assertion. It was a one-time event. It cannot be observed. It cannot be repeated in experiment. But there is sufficient evidence to infer that the assertion is true – or so many have concluded. 

Secondly, indirect evidence is sufficient for an inference when there is a collection of facts that together support the inference. 

Thirdly, counter inferences (arguments) must conform to the same standards as our inference of supernatural fine-tuning. In other words, they must deal with all the evidence; they must be logically consistent and not based on a logical fallacy, such as begging the question; They must not be speculative and based on what we don’t know - an argument from ignorance - rather than what we do know. And they must not redefine the terms, something  that Amir D. Aczel, PhD. mathematics,  in Why Science Does Not Disprove God claims Lawrence Krauss does when he redefines nothing as a pre-existing medium of quantum foam.

Finally, we acknowledge that an inference from indirect evidence depends on probabilities. The question will always be how probable or improbable is the inference.  How can we say that the probability of an event is 1 in 10 to the 45th power? (Douglas Ell makes sense out of the probabilities in his book Counting to God.)Nevertheless, even though indirect evidence is not absolutely certain it is how we make almost every inference and has logical basis in what has been called the prime principle of confirmation. 2

Why is it important?
The question of supernatural fine-tuning is of more than theoretical interest. It is an existential question. If the universe and life is wholly natural, if the cosmos is all there is, all there has been, and all there ever will be and we are convinced of that, it has implication in society, politics,  international relationships, medicine, science,  inter-personal relationships and morality. On the other hand, if the universe has a Tuner, that too has implications that affect every area of life. It makes a difference. 

The evidence.
May I reiterate that there is hardly any dispute that the universe is finely tuned. Even those as philosophically opposed to the idea of a supernatural tuner as Roger Penrose acknowledges that the universe is finely tune to a degree that is beyond most of our abilities to appreciate.3

Evidence 1.  The force of gravity is just right for the universe to exist and host life such as ourselves. The strength of gravity affects the rate of expansion of the universe. If is too weak the universe would expand too rapidly for stars to form. If too strong, the universe would collapse before life had a chance to appear. Leonard Susskind estimates that if the rate of expansion varied by as little as 1 in 10 to the 37th there would not be a single galaxy or habitable planet in the universe.4

Is that fine-tuning simply fortuitous? If it were the only example, it would be interesting but not decisive.

Evidence 2. Carbon is fundamental to life as we know it. But carbon was not in existence at the beginning of the universe. Carbon is created in stars and distributed in the universe by the explosion of supernovae.5 The process of carbon formation depends on extremely narrow parameters of the light quark mass: “just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn’t exist.”6

Just a slight variation.

Michael Denton develops the connection between carbon and life as we know it in his book Nature’s Destiny. It is more significant than most of us imagine.

Were we just lucky? 

Evidence 3. Even the shape of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is crucial for life. Elliptical and irregular galaxies for various reasons will not support life. And those galaxies make up 95 percent of the galaxies in the universe.7  Galaxies larger than ours produce too much radiation for life. Smaller galaxies are heavy metal poor and would not produce the elements necessary for planets such as ours and life. Spiral galaxies such as ours are just right for the formation of those elements and for the reduced radiation that allows for life. 

In the case of our galaxy, the earth is positioned just right for protection from radiation. Earth is located in a relatively low density space in a spiral arm away from the strong radiation at the center of the galaxy and from stars close enough to affect us negatively by their gravitational fields. The facts are that there are such places. We call them the Goldilocks zone. Life is possible.

I must skip many evidences related to our place in the galaxy and the unique conditions of our solar system to focus on the earth.

Evidence 4. The percentage of oxygen in earth’s atmosphere (21%) is just right for life to develop here. Slightly greater and life functions for advanced life would proceed too quickly. If slightly less life functions would proceed too slowly.8 If oxygen were 25% fires would break out spontaneously. If 15% human beings would suffocate. 9   

Evidence 5. The moon. The best guess at the moment for how earth acquired its moon is that our planet was struck early on in its history by a  Mars-size  planet. The glancing impact created a debris field that circled the earth and gradually congealed into the moon. (See http://science.time.com/2013/12/04/new-take-on-an-ancient-mystery-how-earth-got-its-moon/ )  Regardless how, it was fortuitous, for  Earth’s relationship to the moon is critical for life as we know it. Its size and distance from the earth is just right to stabilize earth’s orbit and rotation.  The moon stabilizes the wobble of the earth and thus the climate of the earth allowing for life like ourselves. But it does much more.  Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee discuss many of those unique conditions in their book Rare: Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe.

One reviewer of Rare Earth quoted Dirty Harry: “Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?” That is a good question. It’s a good question because as we add up the conditions of the universe, our galaxy, our solar system and our planet, that must obtain for there to be life like ourselves, 200 now and counting, the odds that there should be even one place in the universe like ours is very close to zero. Yes,despite that fact that we are discovering new planets almost daily,none of those so far discovered even come close to meeting all the conditions necessary for life like ourselves. 

Some have gone even further to say that based on the probabilities there should not be one planet capable of supporting life like ourselves.  So were we just lucky? Or was the universe and the earth fine-tuned?

Evidences 6-200. There are too many to cover them all here. However, some of the additional evidences for fine-tuning may be found here: http://www.inplainsite.org/html/anthropic_principles.html#Anthropic

How could all those conditions come together to the end that we are here? One answer is that it was all planned, and that inference would seem to be very well supported. But what of other inferences?

One such inference is that this all is the result of chance.  Beyond the gambler’s intuition that the odds are crazy, this argument relies on a version of the special pleading fallacy. It is saying that against all odds we live in a special place. Good luck with that, but don’t place a bet for me. 

Another inference is that our universe is one of an infinite number of universes in which all these conditions might vary. The infinity of universes virtually guarantees that at least one will be like ours. But what is the evidence? There is none. But the really cute refutation of this idea is mathematical.

Infinities are useful mathematical concepts but are absurd in real life. There simply cannot be real infinites. Mathematician Amir Aczel of Boston University explains in his book Why Science Does Not Disprove God. His argument is too mathematical for me to fully understand, but his conclusion as a mathematician is clear: “the notion of the infinite multiverse – an invention so favored by the New Atheists – is absurd.”11
The final alternative inference is that the conditions of fine-tuning are necessary. In other words because the laws of nature are as they are no other universe would be possible. It is therefore inevitable that we should be here. This is interesting because it is what Michael Denton seems to be suggesting in Nature’s Destiny. But that inference begs the question not only as circular reasoning but because it leaves the real question unanswered: Why are the natural laws as they are?

Michael Denton, who was not then at least, a theist is careful about the implications, but he ends with this:
But although the journey [to man] was long, the route often slow and tortuous, the evidence increasingly suggests that the end was never in doubt. That we followed a path already charted to an end foreseen and that our success was not a matter of contingency. Like pilgrims seeking the source of their own transcendence, we have been drawn along a predetermined path from discovery of fire to the birth of science to the revelation of our own centrality in the order of nature. We have deciphered the  meaning of the constellations, and in science the cosmos has called us home. 11
My absolute all time favorite science writer anthropologist Loren Eiseley concurs:
It is not sufficient any longer to listen at the end of a wire to the rustlings of a galaxy: it is not enough even to examine the great coil of DNA in which is coded the very alphabet of life. These are our extended perceptions. But beyond lies the great darkness of the ultimate Dreamer, who dreamed the light and the galaxies. Before act was, or substance existed, imagination grew in the dark. Man partakes of the ultimate wonder and creativeness. As we turn from the galaxies to the swarming cells of our own being, which toil for something, some entity beyond their grasp, let us remember man, the self-fabricator who came across an ice age to look into the mirrors and magic of science. Surely he did not come to see himself or his wild visage only. He came because he is at heart a listener and a searcher for some transcendent realm beyond himself.12
Physicist  Arno Penzias sums up the evidence: “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe that was created  of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”13

1) Aczel, Amir D. Why Science Does Not Disprove God. New York: Harper Collins, 2014. p. 129.
2) Himma, Kenneth Einar. “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.”  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. August 17, 2016 http://www.iep.utm.edu/design/
3) Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. New York: Kropf, 2005. pp. 762-65.
4) Susskind, Leonard. The Cosmic Landscape: Sting Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. Back Bay Books: Back Bay Books, 2006. P 9.
6) “Carbon – 12. Does Its Creation in Stars Suggest a Universe” Fine-Tuned for Life? The Daily Galaxy. August 28, 2013. <http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/08/carbon-12-of-giant-red-stars-does-it-suggest-a-universe-fine-tuned-for-life.html >
7) Ross, Hugh. The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Latest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God. NavPress: Colorado Springs, 2001. p 177.
9) Hugh Ross quoted in In Plain Sight, <http://www.inplainsite.org/html/anthropic_principles.html>
10) Op. Cit. p. 228.
11) Denton,  op. cit. p. 395.
12) Eiseley, Loren. The Unexpected Universe. 1970.
13) Penzias, Arno. “Creation Is Supported by All the Data So Far.” Cosmos, Bios, and Theos, ed. Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese. Peru, Il: Open Court, 1992, p. 78