Thursday, February 23, 2017

The New Biblical Scholars and the Problem of the Exodus

"The Exodus is so fundamental to us and our Jewish sources," writes Senior Fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem. "that it is embarrassing that there is no evidence outside of the Bible to support it."[1]

      That's the fact, according to the New Biblical Scholars, that brings the whole narrative of the Old  Testament and Jewish history down. For most of them the debate about the history of Israel in the Old Testament is about whether the narrative of the Old Testament can be trusted and about whether the story of God in the Old Testament can be trusted. And for most of the New Biblical Scholars it cannot.

     That is what brought Dr. Hector Avalos to write, "The only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it." [2] Avalos is joined by many of the brightest and best biblical scholars who inhabit the warrens of academia. You might recognize some of the names: Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and others, some from the disciples of Archaeology like Israel Finkelstein. These scholars have in the past 30 years worked to bring biblical scholarship in line with historical methods (a good thing) but have mixed their scholarship with their own personal biases and have nearly succeeded in ending "biblical studies as we know it."

     But as Rosenburg implies, ending biblical studies as we know it is more than about theology. It is about rewriting history, and that rewritten history threatens the very existence of Israel. It is about flesh and blood for the Jews.  Because so much is on the line, it is imperative that we get it right.

     Let's examine the new scholars' premise. That premise is that biblical history that we find in the Bible is largely a fiction created in the 6th or 5th century B.C. perhaps by Jews returning from the Exile in Babylon, perhaps earlier. The purpose of this fiction was to provide the Jews with a history that would give them an identity as people in their newly reclaimed land - to to firmly establish Josiah's right to rule, depending on which story you prefer.  At least, that is what I gathered from one of the New Biblical Scholars from whom I took a class several years ago, Dr. Jacob Wright Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

     What these scholars propose is that there is a metanarrative behind the biblical narrative, a story behind the story. They declare such a metanarrative is necessary to understand the biblical narrative. I'd like to interact with that idea from the point of view of a student and teacher of literature.

     History as we read it in every history book and as we read it in the Bible is a narrative. It is a story. Yes, even the biblical narrative is a story.  It ties together the brute facts of primary sources, of which the writers were aware, and archaeology with some references to biblical texts to build a story about what actually happened in real history. In doing so, it is inevitable that the narrative is something of an interpretation of the brute facts. Interpretation cannot be separated from the telling of history. The is assumed. In fact, the biblical writers, as they wrote the biblical history narrative, constantly bring interpretation to the facts by telling us what God thought of the events.

     However, sometimes there are gaps in the primary sources and archaeological evidence, especially from our perspective of several thousands of years.  And gaps make everyone nervous.   In those cases, historians are pressed to create what in literature is called coherence. It is at that point the New Biblical Scholars pause. There are a lot of gaps  between the biblical narrative and the brute facts they have. (We might assume that those writing closer to the events, like the biblical authors, had better knowledge, they even refer to primary sources no longer available. But the New Biblical Scholars are not inclined to cut much slack.) What are they to do then with the gaps? How are they to fill them in? The solution has been to create the modern metanarrative. They rewrite history.

     There is one condition to writing history, a historical narrative must be anchored to brute facts to be valid.  Let me illustrate with an analogy to a cargo net on a pickup.

     The cargo is real history. The cargo net is the narrative that holds the cargo together. The anchor points where the net is anchored to the bed of the truck are the brute facts. The points of intersection in the web of the net are the elements that create coherence.

     Add in your visualization strands that are woven into the net. (I've colored several in the picture below.) These are in literary terms motifs. [3]

Motifs in color
     Motifs are evidence of  the coherence of the narrative. Remove any significant motif and the cargo net loses integrity and will fail. The cargo is blown out of the truck. 

     Passover is one of those motifs, according to Rosenburg in his article in The Jerusalem Post. Passover is found in many places in the Old Testament and intertwined inextricably with the rest of the narrative. And it is a continuing central celebration among the Jewish people today. Notice what Rosenburg says: " the account in the Torah is the basis of our people’s creation, it is the basis of our existence and it is the basis of our important Passover festival and the whole Haggada that we recite on the first evening of this festival of freedom."[4] Passover exists only because of the exodus story.

      He is not kidding. The Torah and the exodus are woven as a motif through virtually every book in the Old Testament. The rituals and sacred places such as the temple, the laws, and the people who are part of the exodus story cannot be removed from the biblical narrative without the whole narrative falling apart, without all Jewish history falling apart.

     But that is where it gets sticky. according to Rosenburg. There are no anchor points to primary sources, apart from the biblical text, and little to archaeology for this story. However, there are anchor points, a lot of them, for the rest of the biblical narrative.

Western Wall
     Space does not allow anything like a complete list, but it is safe to say that virtually all the archaeological finds in Israel are anchors points for the biblical narrative. The remnants of the temple wall called the western wall, is an anchor point for the historical narrative that tells of the building of the second temple.

Mernepteh Stele
     The Mernepteh Stele firmly anchors the narrative to 1200 B.C shortly after the exodus.

      Scarabs and pottery Dr. Bryant Wood found at the Jericho tel anchors the narrative to about 1400 B.C. when Joshua led Israel into Canaan. Jericho  And there are many more.

     Dr. Rosenburg suggests that the brute facts of the context provide, at least,  plausibility for the exodus narrative. One specific:
The first is that the Israelites were slave workers in mudbrick. They had to manufacture the material and they were semi-skilled workers in laying the bricks. As there were thousands of Israelites, what projects were they working on? The pyramids and the temples were in stone, the mudbrick houses of the peasants were built by themselves, so what project needed hundreds of workers in mudbrick?
His answer: "[a] new city ...at El Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile, where there was plenty of soft mud for the bricks but little straw." And when was that? Akhetaten built the city, and it was in the time frame of the exodus in the biblical narrative.[5]

     Though that does not prove the narrative of the exodus is historically accurate, it provides a plausible explanation for part of the narrative.

     There are more than sufficient brute fact anchor points for us to be confident that the larger biblical narrative is a valid interpretation of real history.

     So in the debate between then New Biblical Scholars and more conservative biblical scholars, the biblical narrative looks pretty good, even when there are gaps in anchor points. Gaps, after all, are places where we do not have information. But lack of information is not evidence that there is none to be found or that there was none. Tomorrow we may documents or artifacts that are anchor points for the exodus narrative. Or we may find brute facts that contradict the biblical narrative. But in either case  brute facts of primary sources and artifacts are the anchor points.

     But what about the metanarrative? This is the story that scribes one thousand years after the exodus (alleged exodus) created this fictional biblical narrative.  Are there brute facts to anchor this metanarrative? The answer is no. There is no hint in any biblical or extrabilical literature that scribes wrote a fictional history of Israel after the Exile. There is no artifact that provides an anchor.  There is only speculation. Do we not expect the metanarrative to stand the typical tests that all history narratives must?


     That's a problem for these new biblical scholars. A historical narrative without anchors is no more than a theory. And, to be honest, the metanarrative theory raises more problems than it solves, not the least of which is the conspiracy that had to have been behind the creation of the fictional biblical narrative. The biggest problem, however, is not the theory or the conspiracy; it is the implication that the Jews had no earlier real history and somehow appeared out of nowhere with no pre-history. Every people group has a real history, just as every effect has a cause. No historian would leave that lie. So how does the metanarrative handle that?

     Here's the scenario: The Jews are in the land of Israel in 400 B.C. Fact. Where did they come from? Exile in Babylon. Fact. Why were they in Babylon? The Babylonians conquered Israel in 600 B.C. and took many of the people back to Babylon. Is that a claim with brute facts to support it? Yes.

      If the Jews were in  Israel prior to the captivity, how did they get there? They were nomads and just gradually moved in and took over. That is one of the theories I hear from the New Biblical Scholars. Or they were Canaanites who gradually differentiated themselves from their Canaanite culture and became the dominant people in Canaan. Are there brute facts (primary sources or artifacts) to support that claim? No. It is simply conjecture.

     That's a big problem. It is not how history is done.

     So bottom line: the metanarrative should not be believed until there are brute facts to support it and until that narrative can connect the Jews with a pre-history that also has brute facts to support it.
..........................................    

     Writing history is an ongoing process. It is a complex and demanding process. New evidence (brute facts) will be discovered. New methods of analysis (Bayes' theorem) may change how we interpret the facts which are the anchor points of the history narrative we write. But as of the moment relative to the New Biblical Scholars' rewrite of history, the weak link is the metanarrative. Until that is well anchored in brute facts, the biblical narrative we have in the Old Testament is far superior. You can take that to the bank.

     

     

1. The Jerusalem Post, April 14, 2014
2.  Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies.  Prometheus Books; 1St Edition edition (July 12, 2007). page 15. Quoted from DebunkingChristianity.com
3. Motifs are recurring symbols or ideas or, in history, things or events that extend across many years of history.
4.Rosenburg, Stephen Gabriel. "The Exodus Does Archaeology Have a Say?" The Jerusalem Post. April 14, 2014.
5. op cit.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Origin of Religions


They Walked With God

“The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”
Genesis 3:8

The isolated village was at the end of a difficult and little-travelled track. The collection of simple huts was so far back in the Himalayan foothills of southwestern Yunnan Province of China that it was seldom visited by outsiders and never before by a white European - until Allyn Cooke and his companions from the China Inland Mission, hiking back into this mountainous region to take the message of Jesus to the Lisu people who lived there, discovered it in the early 1930s. It was there in this remote village that the surprising events he related to me fifty years later occurred.

    As the party of missionaries approached the village the Lisu gathered to greet them and were curious both of these strange people and why they had come. But very quickly their curiosity turned to excitement. They noticed Mr. Cooke’s big ears, and they remembered a story that had lain dormant in their tribal memories for centuries. The story predicted that one day a man would come to tell them about God. He would have a book of God’s words. And he would have big ears.

    As it happened, Mr. Cooke not only had big ears – I can attest to that myself, for Mr. Cooke was a friend – but he had a book of God’s words, and he had come, he told them, to tell them about God. Over a period of weeks, as Mr. Cooke told the story about Jesus, nearly the entire village accepted the good news of this message and became followers of Jesus. Why would they not? Their ancestors had told them to expect this.

    In fact, through the work of James O. Fraser and Isobel Kuhn, whose work among the Lisu is well documented, and through the work of my friend Mr. Cooke working with them as translator more than half of the Lisu people in Yunnan Providence numbering in the hundreds of thousands turned from their primitive animistic religion to follow Christ. Today the Lisu church is strong in China and the neighboring countries of Burma, Laos and Thailand. But that is not the point of the story. The point is that these Lisu people had been somehow prepared by their traditional story to receive the message of the one true God. How did that happen?

    The how it happened is lost in the past. The memories of the Lisu did not go back that far. But the experience of finding primitive people like the Lisu with such a story in their ancestral memories turns out not to be unique. Don Richardson, a missionary to Western New Guinea, found in his research of missions experiences across the world that there were as many as a hundred similar stories of primitive people having a story that uniquely prepared them to hear the message of the one true Creator God. He collected those stories in his book Eternity in Their Hearts. My point here, related to the topic of the development of religion from prehistoric times, is that there is something going on here that many anthropologists miss. There is a core knowledge of God that preceded the development of religions and gods. And that is ignored in the history of religion as told in the typical text books of anthropology.

    But how did religions, as distinct from this core knowledge, develop? That is the question. For that we look to archaeology for the beginning of religion.

God Consciousness
    One of the first indicators of religious beliefs is found in graves.
Graves provide direct confirmation of a culture's belief in an afterlife. Grave goods are included with corpses -- mummified, confined in coffins or laid simply into the ground -- to show the rank or profession of the deceased and to provide utilitarian value in the underworld...
writes anthropologist Benna Crawford. Earliest Evidence

    And when do these kinds of artifacts begin to show up?

    A news story of the excavation of a cave in Vietnam reported in Vietnam.net says of the Con Moong Cave:
The attraction of the Con Moong cave is that it is considered to be the only place in Southeast Asia with the longest and most continuous existence of human and the clear image on physical cultural and spiritual culture [emphasis mine] of ancient people. The cave records that developing culture from about 18,000 to 7,000 B.C.  Vietnam.net

    The author writes:
The cave is the 'big house' of the ancient Vietnamese. But this is not just a place of residence, but also the burial site. Digging to a depth of 3.6 m, archaeologists discovered the remains of four individuals of the Old Stone Age. Among them, there is a relatively intact tomb. The dead were buried in the lying position, with working tools made of stone.
    The tools in the graves are evidence that these primitive people back to 20,000 years ago had a belief in the afterlife. But what is missing from the grave, or at least not mentioned, are religious artifacts such as images (idols) or ritual related jewelry. Their belief had not developed an organized religion, at least not one that produced artifacts.

    But more than the belief in the afterlife, the graves witness to a consciousness of mortality and, though not yet evident in artifacts, a consciousness of God.  A more organized system in which gods were invoked and were assumed to have a role in life would follow later.

    One anthropologist Barbara Tedlock writes about the development of more organized religion in her article on Wikipedia and in her book linked to the article. After a lot of conjecture and “are-thought-to-haves” this Wikipedia article points to the earliest religious artifacts: “The earliest known undisputed burial of a shaman [spiritual tribal leader]  dates back to the early Upper Paleolithic era (c. 30,000 BC) in the area of the present-day Czech Republic.” Paleolithic religion  There is a caution. Tedlock’s focus on shamanism may have led to Wikipedia including a note that the neutrality of this article is disputed.  So there is a question mark about whether evidence of shamanism and a protoreligion was found. But what follows is clearly  confirmed by archaeology, so clearly that it cannot be misinterpreted, Gobekli Tepe. 

Religious Rituals
    Gobekli Tepe is the oldest temple ever found according to this National Geographic article: “The National Geographic   (If this link does not work see National Geographic .)  Gobleki Tepe is a large stone structure decorated in bas-relief carvings of animals and presumed by the discoverer of the site, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, to be a religious pilgrimage site.


    The author of the National Geographic article writes, “What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.”

    What we know for sure is that Gobekli Tepe was built before metal working, before pottery, before agriculture, before organized villages, and before any other structure larger than a hut. It sits in the hills of southern Turkey and dates to about 9,000 B.C.  And we know Gobekli Tepe was not alone. Since its discovery other smaller sites in southern Turkey have been found. Evidently religion was big.

    Another thing is certain, a more sophisticated technology than we could have imagined available so long ago was used in Gobekli Tepe’s construction. It reminds me of the technologies attributed to Cain's line in Genesis 4.

   One more thing seems reasonable to infer: Religion rather than agriculture was the driving force in the development of civilization in the Middle East. It is possible also to infer that this early religion and its rituals were animistic as there were no obvious images of human-like gods.  Zeus and Thor would come later in history.

    Interestingly, in the biblical story of Cain, Abel, and Seth there is the hint that at some point the stream of God consciousness that developed into the religion of Gobekli Tepe and later into the religions of the Sumerians and Babylonians divided early in the history of mankind. Cain’s stream went in one direction and Seth’s in another with Seth’s family establishing what seems like the first informal monotheistic religion, the religion that is later identified with the monotheistic religion of Yahweh: "Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord" (Genesis 4:26). 

    On the other hand, the family of Cain developed technologies like metal working and musical instruments and cities (Genesis 4:17-22), the things that we see in the Sumerian civilization in the 4th millennium B.C., but there is no mention of religion, except that earlier Cain had killed Abel over religion and he had been banished by God and that Cain had chosen to turn away from God and go his own way. 

Creation Myths
    Those emerging technologies attributed to Cain’s family along with the divergent animistic religions are evident in Gobekli Tepe. The development of polytheistic religion millennia later are evident in the creation myths created by the Sumerians.
  
    The Sumerian creation myth Enuma Elish Link begins in chaos then narrates the development of a pantheon of gods who were responsible for bringing the chaos to order. It is the earliest creation myth in written form, dated in the clay tablet on which it was written to about 1600 B.C. But it can be reasonably inferred to have originated much earlier. And, of course, the Sumerian creation myth was not alone. Similar creation myths, beginning in chaos and ending in order and creating other pantheons of gods were painted on the walls of temples in Egypt. And other peoples separated at great distance from the Middle East also had creation myths.

    Among the most interesting are the Maori myths from New Zealand. In one myth the development of the cosmos is described as “a series of periods of darkness () or voids (kore), each numbered in sequence or qualified by some descriptive term. In some cases the periods of darkness are succeeded by periods of light (ao).” The similarity to the Genesis story should be obvious, darkness and light are themes there as well, and the creation act in Genesis is divided into six days divided by “it was evening and it was morning.”  In addition, the Maori myth describes the earth at the very beginning as pō and kore, darkness and void, as in Genesis 1:2 where the earth is described as tohu v’bohu, empty and void. 

    And who is the creator in the Maori myth? Dr. Brian Doherty of the University of Texas in Austin writes: “Io is known as the Supreme Being and ex nihilo (out of nothing) creator of the entire universe.” Univerity of Texas link 

    April Holloway writes on Ancient Origins,
It is obvious that the Maori myths also have many similarities to the Babylonian creation epic, but they also share similarities with the Ancient Greek creation stories. How it is possible for an isolated civilization to have commonalities with such myths is yet to be found, increasing speculations that the myths contain a common truth of external intervention. Link

    The site Ancient Origins describes itself as “pop archaeology,” but the observation that there are similarities is obvious. The connection with the Genesis narrative is also obvious.  The picture emerging from archaeology and anthropology is that there was a common origin of religion that is preserved in the myths and stories. And at the core of those is the idea of a Creator God.

    The creations myths of most of the native peoples of America are equally interesting. Most of the various tribal myths acknowledge a Creator God above all the other deities. Here is the Abenaki myth:
The Great Spirit, in a time not known to us looked about and saw nothing. No colors, no beauty. Time was silent in darkness. There was no sound. Nothing could be seen or felt. The Great Spirit decided to fill this space with light and life. firstpeople.us  
All of the native peoples of American added to the belief in a Creator God myths that associated various animals with the phenomena of the natural world. In the Pacific Northwest where I live, Coyote was the animal who with typical coyote-like cunning and humor  was responsible for many of the phenomena and features of the area.

    The picture emerging from archaeology and anthropology research across the globe is that there common knowledge of the origin of the world. That origin was preserved in the myths and stories. At the core of those myths is the idea of a Creator God.

    It is as though there was a racial memory of something in the distant past shared by all peoples. And that is where the research of Richardson in Eternity in Their Hearts  intersects with this quest for the origin and development of religion. Richardson found that many people groups, both primitive and more advanced, had a traditional knowledge of God.

    One of those people groups was the Santal from a region north of Calcutta, India. When the  Santal first heard missionary Lars Skrefsrud  tell them in the late 1800s of God and the gospel of Jesus,
[They] were electrified almost at once by the gospel message. At length he [Skrefsrud] heard Santal sages, including one named Kolean, exclaim, ‘What this stranger is saying must mean that Thakur Jiu has not forgotten us after all this time!’ Skrefsrud caught his breath in astonishment. Thakur was a Santal word meaning ‘genuine.’ Jiu meant ‘god.’  (Richardson, Don. Eternity in Their Hearts (Kindle Location 555). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
     They knew about this God because their ancestors back into prehistory had preserved the legend of their origins.

    That legend was finally disclosed in detail by a Santal elder. It amazingly followed the Genesis foundational stories clear through the narrative of the flood in Genesis 6. It even explained why the Santal had adopted the worship of spirits of the mountains, the Himalayas over which the Santal had migrated millennia before on their journey from the Middle East to India.

    From Africa, the Gedeo people of Ethiopia people tell the story of a man who followed the traditional belief in Magano, the omnipotent Creator of all, and was given powerful and detailed visions of two messengers, white men, who would come with a message from Magano. He told the tribal elders his vision. Eight years later two missionaries from Canada drove their rusty old International truck into the village and fulfilled the vision Warrasa Wange had experienced. (Richardson, Don. Eternity in Their Hearts (Kindle Locations 750-751). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The Creation of a Pantheon
    The point of telling these stories is that primitive people in many, many locations across world share something in common. They had a core belief in a Creator God and sometimes a detailed story that coincided with the Genesis stories and an anticipation that this God would reveal himself to them.  In the absence of no more than a belief in a Creator God, all these peoples layered upon that core belief a pantheon of gods or spirits that often were related to their tribal history or natural phenomena. Around those pantheons of gods these tribal people devised myths. Those myths varied considerably, from the gods of the Greek pantheon to the animistic gods of native American people. But the core belief was not lost, just submerged.

    The exception to that trend in the development of religions was one family, Abraham’s. Abraham was born into a culture in Ur of Mesopotamia where the moon God was revered and worshiped from the top of their ziggurat. It would be expected that Abraham, too, along with his family would have been worshipers, but it does not appear that Abraham was. He evidently revered another God, the God of whom we also read in the book of Job, a God whom Job called Eloah Maal, God above or God exceedingly. 

    (The book of Job, at least the core of the narrative poem, is the oldest document in the Hebrew Bible. Its origin was Uz west of the region of Ur, and the date, based on the geographical and cultural descriptions, was about 2000 B.C. That is about the time of Abraham. In fact, several of the people mentioned in the narrative poem appear to be related to Abraham. Biblereadingarchaeology.com )

     Abraham’s family is traced in the book of Genesis back to Noah and from there back to Seth the third son of Adam. It was Seth’s line in which the belief in one Creator God was preserved most faithfully and in whose line the worship of that God developed from simple ritual of sacrifice to the well defined and organized religion we see in the books of Moses. Seth’s line, according to the Genesis narrative, preserved the belief in one true Creator God without being layered over by the religions and myths created by the peoples around them. The narrative of Abraham intersects the line of that development at a point when the belief in this God had not developed into an organized religion or dogma.

    The reason that Seth’s stream does not show up in archaeology is that there was no organization or written text. And the numbers of believers were few, basically families, certainly not nations or civilizations.  There were no pictures as in Egypt or idols as in Sumer and Babylon. There were no rituals such as burials with religious objects. The religion of this God whom Abraham knew as Eloah Maal or as El Elyon (God Most High) left no trace – except in the orally transmitted stories, stories that were not written down for another 400 years.

Organization and Codes
    About 1500 B.C. this God spoke to Moses and called him to bring out his Hebrew people from Egypt to Canaan. Along with Moses’ mission, God gave to this new nation through Moses the rituals, religious organization,  and dogma that are found in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

    In addition, Moses icluded the foundational stories in Genesis:  creation, the first man, and the flood. These stories had been preserved orally and preserved not only in the line of Seth but preserved also in stories and myths of many of the various primitive cultures around the world.

Two Streams
    That is the story of the development of religion, two streams. One stream became layered over by rituals, traditions, myths and dogmas and had all but lost the core truth of the one true personal God. That stream became the religions we see in human history, religions that vary from Zoroastrianism, the belief in one universal, transcendent, supreme god Link Zoroastrianism  to Hinduism, belief in many gods.  That is the stream that shows up as we study the past through archaeology and anthropology.

    The other stream proceeds from the most ancient belief in a Creator God, the same origin as the first stream, but remains as a simple faith undistorted through the many centuries until it eventually receives (develops) an organization, rituals, and dogma through Moses. That faith remained clearly monotheistic, even though it was surrounded by cultures in Ur, Canaan, and Egypt that were polytheistic.  During the 1st and 2nd millennium B.C.  it exploded into a worldwide faith. In the modern era it remains true to its origins as a belief in one true personal God, Creator of all. 


Chart of the Development of Religion

Two Streams
Seth's Stream
Cain's Stream
Consciousness of God and mortality, monotheism Consciousness of a Creator God and mortality, latent in most religions now
Religious Rituals -sacrifice Religious Rituals - sacrifice and many others, artifacts
Creation story - one only Creation Myths - many different

Creation of a Pantheon of Gods, different according to culture
Creation of Codes and Dogma, artifacts Creation of Codes and Dogma, different according to religion


Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Tower of Babel


John  in Why I Became an Atheist  considers this a myth and superstitious. Is it? Do Christians think of it as a myth?

     Well, if the pictures in Sunday school materials are any indication, they do. I especially like the one
painted in 1600 that pictures the tower of Babel pushing its way up into the clouds and the ground disappearing in the distance. Now, That is ridiculous.

     But the writer of this story could not have had anything like that in his head. He lived in the land of ziggurats. And that is what he described in his story.

     In fact, if we read the details of the tower carefully, we can pretty well establish when this tower was constructed and how it syncs with the history of the Middle East in the Sumerian period.

     Of course, John leaves that part out of his quote. But here it is from Genesis 11:
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.
     Notice the technology. The tower, a ziggurat, was made out of mud bricks. That is the building material used in the ziggurats in the land we now call Iraq. (By the way, ziggurats rose to no more than 300 feet.) In fact, some of those still stand, or the ruins of them. Further, the bricks were fired. See the history of brick making  History of Brick Making In Mesopotamia mud was abundant, and rock rare, just as it is today.

     At first brick was made out of sun-dried brick. We can even find structures of that composition that remain in Iraq. But sun-dried brick is not strong enough to hold up a tall structure, so eventually the Sumerians found that firing the brick made them much stronger. And that can be seen in the ruins around Iraq.

     The Sumerians also discovered that bitumen (a petroleum substance available in the Middle East area of Iraq) was a superior mortar mixture because it gradually mixed with the fired brick to form a rock-hard material. Those technologies were first developed in the fourth millennium B.C. A high tower could not have been constructed in Mesopotamia before then.The pyramids of Egypt were taller but were made of stone and pyramidal in shape allowing for a taller edifice. They were also later in origin, circa 2500 B.C.

     Dr. John H. Walton in an article in Biblical Archaeology writes:
Then the decision to undertake the project may have come toward the end of the fourth millennium, perhaps during the Late Uruk period, or perhaps as late as the Jamdet Nasr period, when we actually have the beginning of baked brick technology. Biblical Archaeology Review
     Notice the history. There is the further evidence of the languages. Genesis 11 says that "the whole world had one language." That does not mean the whole globe. It means the whole people since the word world becomes the subject of the verb traveled. But what about the phrase "the whole world?"

     The Sumerians knew nothing about the globe. Their world was their land. (That is exactly what the word world (eretz) means in Hebrew.) So, the whole land of the Iraq region spoke one language and apparently thought of themselves as "the people" in much the same way as American Indian tribes often referred to themselves as "the people." The Wiki article on Sumer says: "Modern historians have suggested that Sumer was first permanently settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a West Asian people who spoke the Sumerian language (pointing to the names of cities, rivers, basic occupations, etc., as evidence)" In other words, the Sumerians had one language at the beginning of the civilization and the time chronicled in the Tower of Babel story. Wiki Sumer

     How did building the tower result in the differentiation of languages among these people? Perhaps it was the result of urbanization associated with the building of the tower along with crowding. Crowding together of previously nomadic tribal communities built tensions between people  Eventually, those tensions tore the community apart and scattered them.  Dr. Walton speaks to this also surmising:
The project [building the tower] would then result in different (Semitic?) languages being created, or perhaps would represent the differentiation of the Semitic languages from Sumerian.
(If you are interested in a fuller examination of the archaeology of the Tower of Babel read Dr. Walton's article.)

     There is one more correlation between the biblical story and history. It is the origin of the Sumerians. The Bible says they migrated "eastward" to the land of Shinar. (Notice the similarity of the words Shinar and Sumer. The word Shinar is of ancient and foreign origin and probably the word the Sumerians used to refer to themselves and to their land.)  Shinar is the land of the Sumerians in modern southern Iraq. "Eastward" would be from the west or north of Shinar. Everyone in the west or north of Sumer would consider the land of Sumer east because travel east on early migration routes would go through the plains of Mesopotamia, even if in our geography the plains would be southeast of the northern mountains.

     Those northern mountains are where the proto-Sumerians came from. "These conjectured, prehistoric people are now called "proto-Euphrateans" or "Ubaidians", and are theorized to have evolved from the Samarra culture of northern Mesopotamia." Wiki Sumer

     Notice the religion. The tower was to reach up to the heavens. And that is exactly what the ziggurats were intended to do. At their top was a temple or a house for the god that was worshiped in the city.  

     Notice the politics. The goal was to make a name for themselves. And that may be the clue that tells us why God disrupted the building of the tower. The period of time (3000-4000 B.C.), was a period of city states. There was no consolidated nation much less an empire. But that was where the history of the Middle East was headed.

     It appears from the biblical account that it was the consolidation of the Sumerians that God desired to interrupt: "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them." (The Sumerians did become an empire and a military force in the early third millennium.)

     Any answer to the question why God did this would be conjecture and theological. But it is clear in the Bible that empires are cast as dangerous to God's people and thus to God's plan for history. At a time when the people of God, Shem's family (the Semites) and ultimately Abraham, were first consolidating after the flood, an empire with powerful kings would have been a threat to these people and a threat to God's plan for Abraham and his family through whom God's Messiah would come.

     One thing, however, is not conjecture. The story of the tower of Babel is firmly anchored in history and locality. The origin of the story is also clearly located in the same historical context. It is highly improbable that the author, had he lived much later, could have gotten all the details right.

     But the particular record of the story we have in the Bible was written somewhat later and from a different locality or at least for a people who were not familiar with Mesopotamia. The writer included this explanation for them: They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. That would be significant to a people who had just come from Egypt, as the Hebrews had, where temples were built of stone. If it had been written in Mesopotamia to the people living there, no explanation would have been necessary. That clue suggests that Moses was likely the author.


     It is not myth. It is history. But it is also theology. It explains how God protected the people who would become the chosen people. 

  Linguistic Trivia. John Loftus makes much of the plural "let us go down" verb in verse 7. It is plural, and John claims that the plural verb requires a plural noun, "gods" in this case, and gods implies  a pantheon of gods like the Sumerians and Babylonians believed in. That would be superstition.


     But a close look at the text reveals that the verb "let us go down" is in a juridical framework in which there are three stages. The first is an investigative stage, " the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. (v.5).


     The second is the debate,  "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them" (v. 6).

The third stage is the sentence and execution, " Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other" (v. 7).  It is entirely appropriate for the judge then to speak using the juridical plural.  Cognitive Linguistic Exploration in Biblical Studies   It is not polytheism creeping in.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Nephilim


One of the strangest stories in the Bible is the story of the flood, but particularly the period before the flood when "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose."

      It is so strange, in fact, that skeptics use it to show how silly the superstitions that birthed these stories were. They say read the story. You'll find a world far different from the world of reality. Angels have sex with human women and those women have children who were giants. That has to be myth.

     But does it really?

     In Hebrew the passage in Genesis 6 reads literally thus:
"It came to pass that when Adam (mankind) began to multiply on the face of the land (hadamah) and daughters were born to them, the sons of the mighty ones (elohim) saw the daughters of Adam (h'adam) that they were beautiful. They seized them to be wives, whomever they chose. And Yahweh said, 'Indeed, my Spirit will not always strive with Adam (b'adam) for he is flesh (metaphorically, lustful). His days will be 120 years.'"
     Notice several words.

      First, it is mankind (b'adam) that God has an issue with, not angels. There is no suggestion that angels were judged for this.

      Second, the word often translated "sons of God" is elohim. That word is variously used for God himself, for angels, and for mighty ones, rulers, judges, etc. Literally it means strong ones since it is plural. But the context determines the meaning. Here it must mean men because it is men who are judged for this sin.

     Because these "sons of God" seize beautiful women to be their wives, it implies that these "sons of elohim" are capable of marrying women - no suggestion of angels being capable of this - and having children by them. It also is implied that it is the seizing that is the crime and not the fact they the "sons of God" were angels. The narrative goes on:
"Nephilim were in the land (eretz) in those days and after that when the sons of God (elohim) came in to (had intercourse) with the daughters of mankind (adam). And they bore to them mighty men (could also mean warriors) who were of old men of renown (or infamous men)."
     Notice the word nephilim. It is very seldom used in the Bible. In one use it refers to men who were described as large. The word nephim is therefore often translated "giants". But the word is not necessarily denoting giants. It is denoting strong warriors.

     In the Genesis 6 passage nephilim are described as being in the land prior to the mighty ones (sons of God) marrying women whoever they seized. They are not necessarily the sons of these unions. The sons of these unions were described as infamous tyrants not nephilim.

     If we read the passage in Genesis without the background of translations that cast the sons of God as angels and the nephilim as giants, it sounds not at all incredible. Powerful men ruled the land. They seized women to marry according to their lust. And they oppressed those who lived in the land. This is not a myth.

     This sounds like simple historical description. It sounds like the CBS evening news.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Christian Conversion and Faith

John Loftus in his book Why I Became and Atheist recommends that every Christian apologist write a book about how he got to where he is in his faith. I would extend that to every atheist apologist, as well. John's story sets a good pattern for us all of the examined life. So here's my story.

   I grew up in a home where religion was never mentioned. It was not that my mother and family were irreligious. Religion was just not important. My grandmother attended the little Methodist church in our town on a rare Easter Sunday - actually I remember that only once. I was a kid seven or eight years old, and I found her attendance, all dressed up as she was, interesting but not enough to ask her about it. My mother and father never went to church or talked about it while I was in the home.

     I do not remember ever reading the Bible as a kid. There was one in our home. It was a thin gold-leaf-page Bible that had gone through a flood in 1948 and was all wrinkled, as books that get wet are wont to be. I found it tucked away in some box down in the basement. The type was tiny and the translation was almost assuredly King James and incomprehensible to me. I did not  read more than a few sentences.

     Christianity was in the distant background but so distant that it had no influence on me. I was happy to roam the hills and fish the river behind my grandfather's house. And do what kids do.

     However, as a very young teen I was looking for a job. I wanted to eventually buy a car - every boy in my generation did. My mother connected me with a man whom she had known for a long time who had an apple orchard. He hired me to thin apples for several summers.

     I made enough to buy the car, a 51' Chevy, before I was old enough to have a license.

     I also began to go to Sunday school. My employer was the boys Sunday school teacher and had invited me. It was a little strange. The old church building interested me, but the stories were, well, odd. In the several summers when I attended Sunday school I do not remember ever hearing about a personal faith. I don't remember ever hearing what I came later to understand as the gospel. I hardly heard about God, at least, in my memory.

     The gospel is the story of Jesus and the fact that he came into the world as God's Son to provide salvation for all who trusted in him. I simply never hear that. I don't think I ever heard about salvation. The stories I heard were all Old Testament stories.

     I was thinking about my future. I wanted to be a forest ranger. I loved the outdoors, and I wanted to spend as much of my life there as I could. But things changed.

     My mother and father were divorced, and my mother struggled to make a living for herself and three kids as a waitress and bar maid. So when she had the opportunity to go to school to learn flower arranging, she did. I and my siblings were sent to live for a few months with an aunt and uncle.

My Conversion
My aunt and uncle had recently become Christians, and they had decided to send their sons to a Christian school. I and my siblings were enrolled with them. It was there that I was first introduced to the Bible and to the gospel. I was fourteen.

     In a chapel service in  September of that year I listened to a man tell the gospel story. It was the first time it really clicked. It made sense, and it made sense out of my life. I wouldn't have been able to express it at the time, but I was having an existential crisis. I was puzzled about who I was, what life was about, and where it all was going. The message I heard convinced me that I could find that in a relationship with God.

     I raised my hand at the invitation.

     Nothing radical happened. I did not have an emotional experience. I did not find my conversion experience exciting. But then I am not a guy who gets excited much. I did find it satisfying. It was as if I had finally found answers to the questions that were running around in my head. I, of course, didn't know all the answers yet. I didn't even know the questions. That would come in time. But I was satisfied that this was the right way.

     It was really several years before I felt any great emotion about my becoming a Christian. But I had become a Christian. I had made a radical change and had committed myself to follow Jesus wherever that led.

     So, I determined to find out where it would lead. I bought a Bible I could read, a Philips New Testament in Modern English, and I began to read. It made sense. I underlined and wrote short notes in the margin. I still have that Bible, though the covers are long gone and the pages brittle with age.

     And I began to grow in my faith and in my relationship with God. I found my happiness in him. I began to pray, though somewhat haphazardly. And I began to sense a direction for my life.

     By the time I was a senior, I felt God was calling me to be a pastor. Really, I hardly knew what that meant. But I loved the Bible and wanted to share what I was discovering. My spiritual gift for teaching was beginning to poke through the soil of my life.


College
I enrolled in a Christian college after high school and attended part time for three years. I couldn't afford full time. I had no financial help from my family and no reserves myself. I had to work.

     During those years I studied the Bible, of course, but also Greek. That was tough because I was not a great student in high school and had learned little about English. In order to understand Greek, I found I needed to understand English first. So the first few years were hard. But I loved it.

     In 1964 I married my wife. We had gone to high school together and had both gone on to Portland to study, she in a school of nursing and I in college. We struggled financially. So I finally transferred to Portland State University where tuition was manageable.

I was still headed toward seminary, but that was a few years off.

I choose to study English literature, and that was one of the more important decisions I have made. Understanding how to read literature has been invaluable in reading and understanding the Bible.

Crisis of Faith
Along with English I took various courses as we all have to do. One was a beginning philosophy course that turned into more of a philosophy of religion course. My professor was John Whitehead. (I have no idea if he was related to A. N. Whitehead.) His objective, it seemed to me, was to identify the Christians in his class and building doubt in our minds about their faith.

     He was good at it, though a little deceptive. He posed questions for us that he must have known were fairly easily answered but which we as young students had no idea how to answer. I don't know how the other Christians fared. I was troubled. I had in the back of my mind always committed to know the truth no matter what. Now, what I thought was true was being seriously challenged.

     But that was good. It made me think and study.

     About the same time I picked up a book called The Passover Plot. It was an additional challenge. I was beginning to doubt. A year later I was sure that I should not go on into seminary and the pastorate. I was not strong in my faith, and my relationship with the Lord was suffering. So I added a year of study to my B.A. degree and took up teaching.

Reconversion
Out of college I took a teaching position in a small school in the mountains of eastern Oregon. I loved it. And the two years there in that tiny town were the turning point for me.

     I had not stopped attending church. And in the tiny mountain town I continued to go to a small community church in this mountain town. I continued to think and pray,. and I continued to read the Bible. Sometime in those two years I came to a passage in the book of Lamentations that God used to change my life again.

     No one who knows Lamentations would imagine that there would be anything there so powerful. But there was for me.

The passage was Lamentations 3. If you take the time to read it you will see why it seemed written especially for me.

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
    by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long.
4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
    and has broken my bones.
5 He has besieged me and surrounded me
    with bitterness and hardship.
6 He has made me dwell in darkness
    like those long dead.
7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
    he has weighed me down with chains.
8 Even when I call out or cry for help,
    he shuts out my prayer.
9 He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
    he has made my paths crooked.
10 Like a bear lying in wait,
    like a lion in hiding,
11 he dragged me from the path and mangled me
    and left me without help.
12 He drew his bow
    and made me the target for his arrows.
13 He pierced my heart
    with arrows from his quiver.
14 I became the laughingstock of all my people;
    they mock me in song all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitter herbs
    and given me gall to drink.
16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
    he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
    I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
    and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

31 For no one is cast off
    by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
    so great is his unfailing love.


It was a true word from the Lord for me. Tears came to my eyes when I realized that God was still pursuing me even in my doubt.

The Road Back
I left the job in eastern Oregon and found my way into a job in photography. That eventually led to my buying a studio and diving into the business of photography. I also was getting more involved in my church. I led studies and led worship at times. And I was growing, but I still had a struggle.

     That struggle was with a temptation that had plagued me for years and over which I had not gotten victory. I was confused and troubled. Did God not provide salvation from those things? 

     Then I picked up a book that changed my life again, Sit, Walk, Stand  by Chinese Christian Watchman Nee. Reading that book, which is a discussion of Ephesians, I discovered how to sit with Christ in heavenly places and how to walk in him in the practical everyday of life, and how to stand against the forces of spiritual darkness. From that point God began calling me back to the path leading to ministry.

     I knew, however, that I still lacked something. God led me to recognize that something that was missing was prayer. I prayed, as most Christians do, but I knew that my prayer life was not what I read of others. And because of that, my experience of God was not what it could be. I committed my self to explore prayer and began with a book by another author who has become a favorite, Andrew Murray. The first book I read of his, With Christ in the School of Prayer, revolutionized my praying. And it was the final step.

     My wife and I closed our photography  business and I headed to seminary at Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

More Doubt
Three years later I was serving a small church in a mountain and cow town in eastern Oregon. But I was still not done with doubt. I had been by default a card carrying Young Earth Creationist - by default because I had never really explored the topic of creation versus evolution. But I  picked up a book by Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watch Maker, and I found myself troubled again. I had made the commitment to follow truth wherever it led, and this seemed to be leading away from some pretty core things I had believed.

     So I argued with Dawkins. The Internet was new in town, so I argued with various people on Internet forums. I read books on both sides of the debate, the Christian side and the scientific side. I bought more books. I argued. I read scientific papers. I argued.  I read text books in molecular biology. And I read Dawkins' conclusion of the matter in The God Delusion

     I finally came to the place where I saw that evolution did not really impact my faith. It was interesting, and some like Dawkins spin it to mean for them that God is absent or unimportant. For me it was evolution that was unimportant. If God created by fiat in six days or over a period of 14 billion years, it did not matter. He created. That seemed adequately demonstrated. I was now an Old Earth Creationist.

   And that is where I am now. I continue to read. That takes me to several blogs that argue skepticism and atheism. I read books, the latest being Why I Became an Atheist. I continue to test the things I believe. And I continue to adjust when the evidence is compelling. But I find less and less that is compelling.

   I am satisfied that I am in the truth as much as I can be. I am satisfied with my personal life with the Lord, and I am finding that is deepening and changing as I age. But I am concerned about those who are on the path but back a ways. That is what leads me to teach and write. I want to help young people through the doubt if that is possible.

   Now on in the next installment to what will be the Insider's Test of Faith. 

How to Read the Bible Right


After noticing that many of my friends, especially those with whom  I converse on the Internet seem to read the Bible and come up with strange ideas, I decided that we all, Christian and skeptic alike, need a refresher course in reading the Bible.

We read the Bible in different ways. The most common for Christians would be reading it
devotionally.  That means we read it to understand its promises, to encounter God more deeply, and to discover God’s instructions for our lives.

    A second way both Christians and skeptics read the Bible is to read it for information. For example, we might read the Gospels to get a better picture of what Jesus said and did. Or we might read Exodus to learn how God saved the Israelites from Egypt. Or we might read it to see what it says about the problem of sin or about the nephilim in Genesis. Usually, this way of reading the Bible is focused on particular passages and ignores the context of the whole Bible.

     A third way of reading the Bible is that adopted by skeptics. They read it to find fault. They focus on the "contradictions" and the controversial.

    Those ways of reading the Bible, however, don’t give anyone the whole picture. They provide bits and pieces here and there. But reading like that misses one of the most amazing truths about the Bible, and it misses the connections (in literature this is called coherence) between the parts of the Bible that would make them more understandable to us.

READ THE BIBLE AS A SINGLE STORY
So sometime it would be a good idea for Christians and skeptics to read the Bible as a single connected story. That is what the Bible is, after all. It is a story that begins at the beginning of time and human history in Genesis and ends at the end in Revelation. But there is a caution.

    For the most part, the Bible we have is organized chronologically just as most stories. But there are some parts that are out of order. The books of the prophets, for example, are organized as a group rather than organized  in sync with the time in which the prophets spoke and wrote.

    Isaiah and Micah both lived and wrote during the time of the king Hezekiah. The story of Hezekiah and his time is found in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32. It will provide a much richer, more meaningful story if  we read the books of Isaiah and Micah along with those passages in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

    The books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah were written during the time when Judah, the southern kingdom, was under attack by Babylon and  in captivity in Babylon. Reading them at the same time you read the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles will give you a context for what they have to say.

    You can use a chronological Bible to place the prophets in the proper time sequence with the history books. Or you can use the NIV Study Bible and the introductory material to help you place the prophets in their proper order.
  
    As you read the Bible this way, you’ll come to several books that are difficult to get through, particularly Leviticus and Numbers. It will help if you recognize that these books were written as instructions to the people of Israel as they were building the kingdom in Canaan. That understanding will allow you to see many of the laws given to Israel as laws related to this kingdom and not other kingdoms. Laws such as the laws about slaves or about dress or about sacrifices are peculiar to Israel. Other nations were not and are not today expected to follow those laws. The New Testament explains that in Colossians and Hebrews. These laws were “shadows of things to come.”

    Some laws, however, are general and universal. The Ten Commandments are that. Those laws are reinforced in the New Testament. And those are the laws that Jesus said in Matthew 5 will never pass away.

    There is one exception that everyone will wonder about. It is the commandment regarding keeping the Sabbath. That law is addressed in Hebrews 4 where the writer explains that the Sabbath looked forward to a rest of faith. It was what is called a type, a picture of something that would be more fully seen later. So according to Hebrews, if we are resting from our works and trusting in the works of Jesus, we are fulfilling the purpose of the Sabbath as God intended.

    Of course, we can keep the Sabbath on Saturday as the Jews do, and many Christians do so. We are not disobeying by keeping the Sabbath. And if you have slaves, you probably should follow at least the principles of treating slaves humanely that we read of in Exodus and Numbers.

    The fact is, however, that the laws specific to Israel as a kingdom in Canaan are not specific for us. That we will understand if we read the Bible as a single story.
  
    When we read the Bible as a single story we also get the plot.  The plot is about what happened to mankind, how we fell from perfect fellowship with God (Genesis 3)  and what God is doing about it: he is providing reconciliation through his Messiah Jesus.

    If we read the Bible as a single story, we will see that plot unfolding from the first promise God gave of reconciliation in Genesis 3:15 to the actual coming of the Messiah in the Gospels and finally to the  resolution of all the conflicts in Revelation. And it will make perfect sense.

    If we read as we usually do, a bit here and a bit there, it is like reading a novel by opening randomly to this page and another page. We could never make sense of a novel that way. Even the common practice of reading the New Testament first, although better than reading randomly, is like starting a novel in the middle. We might eventually get enough to figure out the whole story, but it would be difficult. We would miss a lot. No. Read it like a single story.

    However, if you are completely new to the Bible, it is not a bad idea to read the Gospels first. Just don’t stop there. Eventually go back and get the whole story by beginning in Genesis.


READ THE BIBLE AS LITERATURE
Literature comes in various genre or types. There is poetry, proverb, history, law, biography, prophecy, and story in the Bible. Each of these requires that we read it with some understanding. We don’t read poetry with all of its metaphors and personification, etc. as we read history.

    Among all the different types of literature we find in the Bible, story is the most common. It almost seems that God made us to read and think in stories.  Stories have power.

    Now, don’t read “story” to mean not true. A story can be true, and the Bible story is true. What “story” means is that there is a structure that makes it interesting and a point or lesson  to learn from it. It is not just a string of events. It is not random. A story is going somewhere.

    Take the story of Abraham. It is thirteen chapters long and includes many events in Abraham’s life. But it is really all about faith. It is faith illustrated in Abraham’s life. Paul in the book of Romans in the New Testament underscored the point of Abraham's story when he said “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). So, as you read the stories, whether a parable told by Jesus or the story of Abraham or Joseph or the Gospels, look for the point. As you read the whole Bible, look for the point.

    You may need help in reading some kinds of Bible literature properly. If so there is a book, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth written by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart that will help.

READ THE BIBLE IN CONTEXT
Reading in context means to read with an understanding of the larger piece where the particular piece you are reading is found. For example, the book of Genesis precedes the book of Exodus and was written by Moses for the Israelites who were escaping Egypt. That is the larger piece called the context. It was, therefore, written to give the Israelites, who had been in Egypt for several hundred years as slaves, information about who they were and what God’s purpose for them was. They had forgotten their heritage. Genesis would restore that to them.

    So, when you read the creation story in Genesis 1, realize this story was intended to tell the Israelites that God was God and the gods they had learned about in Egypt were not. In Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve was to remind them why people are as they are, estranged from God. And it was to give them hope that one day things would be different.

    The story of Abraham was to remind them that they were of the family of Abraham and were given the promises God gave to Abraham’s family. It was to remind them that they were in line to both be blessed and be a blessing to the world.

    Finally, the story of Joseph was to remind them how they came to Egypt and where they came from in Canaan, the land God had given to them. The context of Genesis is the whole story of Israel’s return to the land and the mission God had for them.

    Context also is important in understanding pieces in a smaller passage. For example in Mark 13 Jesus tells his disciples what will happen in the future. The temple will be destroyed; there will be wars and troubles; there will be false messiah’s. Toward the end of that list Jesus says “This generation will not pass away until all of this is fulfilled.” Some people have read that to mean Jesus promised that the disciples, "this generation," would not die until all these things were fulfilled and he returned as king. But that is assuming a context that is not there in the passage. The context of the passage is clearly that the generation of people living at the time when the things described earlier happen will not pass away before the Son of Man comes and these all are fulfilled. Context makes a big difference.

    The context of any piece is the passage in which it is found, the type of literature it is, the place in history in which the events take place, and the culture of the time, plus other more technical things such as language. Don’t be put off by  the idea of context. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. When context is important, a study Bible will provide adequate information.


READ LOOKING FOR GOD’S MESSAGE TO YOU
There is always something we need that the Bible will supply. Ask as you read. Is there something I need to know that this passage is telling me? Is there something about God I need to know? Is there something about me I need to know?  Is there something I should do? Is there something I should not do?

    Apply the message to yourself.

    And pray. Ask God these questions and expect his answer. You will be surprised how specifically God answers that question as you ask and then wait expectantly.

THE BIBLE IS A REMARKABLE BOOK
There is no other book like the Bible. It was written over a period of 1000-1500 years by dozens of different human authors. Yet it holds together as one story as though it were written by a single author. It is powerful to change lives and nations and civilizations. And it has. It is the story of the whole human race and covers all of human history. It is so deep and personal that you will never exhaust what it has to speak to you. It is a divine book. It is loved by billions - and yes hated by others. It has been banned and burned, yet it survives. And it will survive until the story is complete. Read it. It will change your life.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Jesus Got It Wrong


A complaint often heard is that Jesus was wrong about his soon return. A principle passage that skeptics refer to is Mark 13 where they declare "this generation" means the generation of the disciples, and "you" is a direct address to the disciples. Since Jesus did not return in the time period implied, he got it wrong.

Let's take Mark 13 and ask what Jesus meant by "this generation."

Mark 13:29,30. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

The key phrase to understanding is the clause "when you see these things happening." That is the clue to understanding what generation Jesus had in mind. He used the illustration of the fig tree leafing as a sign that summer is near (v.28). When you see the tree leafing you know summer is near. "When you see:" that is the generation.

What things are those that Jesus told us to look for that would indicate that the end is near?

Verse 26 and 27 are basically describing his coming: 26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven. It will be obvious. No secret coming here.

Working our way back, Verses 24, 25 are a quote from Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4. Both have to do with a future judgment of the world called the Day of the Lord. It is following this Day of the Lord that Jesus will return in power and glory (26,27). These events have not yet happened. They did not happen in the life times of the disciples.

Verses 20-23 warn of false prophets arising claiming to be messiahs. They will do signs and miracles. Maybe we could say that these false prophets are among us now but false messiah doing signs and wonders is nowhere described in any report of the first century or within the life times of the Apostles.

Now to the beginning of the passage (v.14): It begins with a reference back to something that will happen before the events of verses 20-27 unfold.

What is the "something that will happen before?" It is the desecration of the temple (reference to Daniel 9, 11, 12) and the warning to those in Jerusalem to flee. Did this happen in 70 AD when the temple was destroyed by the Romans? Perhaps. And that event did happen during the life time of some of the disciples. But there is no record of anything like what Daniel predicted. In Daniel 9:27 there is a prediction of a covenant made and then broken and something that desecrates the temple is set up. Neither of these things happened in the Jewish Roman war. This desecration of the temple must be something later. And since the temple was completely destroyed in 70 AD there must be another temple that will take its place. That hasn't happened yet, though some Jews are making plans.

Back further, verses 12,13 speak of brother betraying brother and everyone hating them (the "you"). Has that happened? Perhaps, but it seems more intense here than what Christians (the "you") or the disciples ( the possible "you") experienced.

Back further, verse 9-11 speak of the gospel being preached to all nations before the end will come (v. 10). Had that happened or was it likely to have happen in the life time of the disciples? No. We might be able to say that it has happened in our time, but not much before.

Back further, verse 5-8 tell of wars and rumors of wars that would happen before the end. Had these happened in the lifetime of the disciples? Perhaps. But the intensity and the extent here seems greater by far than what the disciples might have experienced prior to the Jewish Roman war or after. In addition there would be many who would claim to be the returning Messiah. That didn't happen in their lifetime.

Back further, verse 2 tells of the destruction of the temple. Did that happen? Yes. In 70 A.D.

But all of the other things do not fit in the period before or even closely after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. And Jesus makes it clear that it is not the destruction of the temple that will be the beginning of the end; it is the desecration of the temple. That, of course, requires that another temple be built. That hasn't happened yet.

So either we must declare that Jesus got almost all of it wrong or that he really was speaking of something more distantly future than the destruction of the temple, something beyond the lifetime of the disciples.

Who then are the "you?" What does "this generation" mean? Neither can mean the disciples there with Jesus on the Mount of Olives. It must mean others. It fits the whole passage much better if we understand that the "you" is addressing in a direct and personal way those in the future who will see these things happen.

"This generation" refers to the those who will see these things describe in the preceding verses happen. Could that have been the disciples? We have seen that it could not. It refers to the generation that will see the desecration of the temple, the appearance of false messiahs doing signs and wonders, the appearance of false messiahs claiming that they are the returned Jesus, and the completion of preaching the gospel in the whole world.

To rip "this generation" out of the context that identifies it and apply our own personal definition does damage to the plain reading of the passage.

But all that said, Jesus goes on in Mark to explain that no one knows the day or hour of his return. Therefore, be ready. Anticipate it, even as you are patient waiting for it. Otherwise it may surprise you and you will not be ready. (See the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25.) That is why there is the tone of immediacy. No one knows, so everyone needs to be ready.