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Misinterpreting Scripture (Part 2: Applying “Secret Techniques” to the Iron Chariots Story)

May 17, 2012 1 comment

Two posts in two days…what is going on? Well, yesterday put a little wind in my sails, and I wanted to keep some momentum going. Plus, I already had this post written inside of my head, so I wanted to get it out. 

What I am about to share with you all is a biblical interpretation technique that is so powerful, it will aid you for the rest of your life. It is so profound, no aspiring scholar can do without it. If skeptics picked up this one simple tool, many of us would be spared their bad arguments. It is a springboard to figuring out many of the Bible’s puzzling passages.

Am I exaggerating a bit? Sure. I’m being a little facetious. But honestly, this patented (not really) technique of mine will prove useful in pointing you in the right direction.

It is simply this: Assume Basic Competence (ABC) of the Jews. That’s it. (It also works great in tandem with another secret technique, UCS: Use Common Sense.) Why is this important and how do we apply this technique? By assuming that the Jews behind 65 of the 66 books of the Bible were not complete morons, that’s how. Make the basic assumption that the Jewish people, especially in biblical times, took their theology seriously. They grew up studying and discussing theology throughout their lifetimes, and they pretty much had all of the biblical stories memorized to the detail, especially during the times of oral tradition. It was not uncommon, for example, for young Jewish boys to memorize the entire Torah word-for-word. In short, whether you believe the Bible is God-breathed or not, at least give the Jews credit for knowing their own theology.

Let’s apply this technique to the following commonly misinterpreted passage. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is an absolute favorite of anti-religious people everywhere.

Judges 1:19: “The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.”

Wait, what? An army powered by God Almighty lost the battle because of the superior power of iron chariots, a man-made invention?

Hold yer horses! Let’s assume the Jewish person responsible for recording these events was not a complete neophyte, and if he were, someone would have corrected him before his book went to print, so to speak. Let’s assume that he grew up hearing the widely told stories of Moses crossing the Red Sea, God destroying Pharaoh’s army (which included chariots), or even God being the creator of the entire universe. Is that a fair assumption to make?

Let’s go even further (I know, I’m getting crazy here) and assume that the writer of “Judges” did not have a complete memory meltdown when he later wrote three chapters later that the Jews were able to triumph over an army of iron chariots (see Judges 4:13-15).

So what is a possible explanation here? Well, we don’t really need to get technical just yet. Let us use our reasoning skills and even personal experience to try to come up with a preliminary solution. From the passage, it is clear that God was with the men of Judah. That’s a good thing for sure. But what could have possibly contributed to their defeat? Could it have been a lack of faith and dependence on God? Whenever you see God commanding His people to go head-on into overwhelming odds, they see victory IF they obey with conviction. Apparently, these Jews forgot the mighty God that they served and instead thought to themselves, “This is impossible, how could we possibly defeat these iron chariots?”

With this kind of doubt thrown in the face of God, it’s no wonder they were not given victory. We do the same thing every day. True believers have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but we still try to do things our own way, which is why we still sin. We sometimes feel God calling us to do something or pulling us one way, but we decide to calculate and plan in our own wisdom. What ends up happening is that we crash and burn, and we wonder why God let such calamity fall upon us. It’s due to a lack of obedience and faith. We are now empowered to do right, but we often choose to do wrong because of our disobedience. It is our own failure, not God’s.

The same thing apparently happened here in chapter 1. The Jews had won previous battles and instead of thanking God, they probably attributed their victories to their own might. When it came to iron chariots, however, they were completely stricken with fear because they could no longer rely on their own strength. Their reliance on God had gotten rusty, which contributed directly to their defeat.

That wasn’t so hard was it? By giving even the slightest bit of credit to the biblical authors, it pushed us in the right direction to draw some reasonable conclusions.

Now, let’s go a little deeper.

The Book of Judges is written with a general circular pattern that goes like this:

1) The Jews rely on God and achieve great victories;

2) The Jews start to forget about God and start crumbling to the insistent pressure from their enemies;

3) God chooses a great prophet or “judge” to wake the Jewish people up and turn them back to obedience and faith; and

4) Go back to #1, rinse and repeat (but each time, God starts to lose patience and increasingly delays His deliverance).

With this knowledge in hand, we might notice that the first 18 verses or so constitute step #1 above. The Jews seem to be winning every battle handily. The verse where they failed to defeat the iron chariots, however, is the start of step #2. We now see some victories, some failures—we start to see some chinks in the armor.

There is also a literary device being employed here that could prove very enlightening. Let me start by saying that everyone should acknowledge that the Bible is written with all kinds of different styles—sometimes through very straightforward prose (such as genealogies or historical facts being retold), poetry, allegory, and other literary styles that facilitate storytelling.

In the case of Judges 1:19, the author is employing a perspectival device that views the story from the eyes of the characters involved; namely, the men of Judah. (This literary feature was more common in ancient literature, but it’s almost nonexistent today.) Because they themselves thought it was impossible to defeat iron chariots, the author recorded that as the reason for their defeat. They viewed it as a match-up between Jewish military strength and the unstoppable power of iron chariots. They should have seen it as God > everything.

As mentioned earlier, just a few chapters later, the Jews are able to defeat an army of iron chariots. What was the difference this time? No, the author did not have a brain fart previously—ABC. What happened was that God sent a great prophetess, Deborah, to wake the people up (remember, step #3). They finally obeyed God fully—in their hearts and in their actions—and were victorious (back to step #1). At least for a while.

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Palestinians in the Old Testament

September 28, 2011 2 comments

Before I get into scripture, here is some background information.

Modern day Palestinians can be traced back to the ancient Canaanites and Philistines, the two ancient enemies of God’s chosen people. Though these two people groups were originally separate nations, they eventually came in close proximity to each other, assimilating around the area of modern Israel, west of the Jordan River (though back then, it was called the Land of Canaan and it was much larger).

God made a covenant with Abraham as early as Genesis 15 to give his seed the Promised Land of Canaan for their own. It wouldn’t happen for generations, but the stage was set. Moses led the Israelites (so named after Jacob, also called Israel) out of enslavement in Egypt toward the Promised Land, but because of an act of disobedience, was never allowed to enter. A successor, Joshua, would lead the Jews into the land to conquer and claim it for their own.

However, God gave specific instructions to the Jews that they were to destroy the inhabitants of the land completely, including all of their religious altars. Not one stone was to be left standing. (Not that God needs to justify His commands to us, but the reason for these instructions was that God knew the Jews would be prone to compromise and temptation to worship the other gods and idols.)

In Judges 1, you see that instead of completely destroying the peoples of Canaan, they decided to simply subjugate them into slave labor.

That context in mind, here is Judges 2:

1Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said,  ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4As soon as the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept.

Later on in the same chapter, we see the resulting unfaithfulness of the Jews’ disobedience:

12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 13They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.

God knew this would happen. The sad thing is, the Jews had multiple other opportunities to turn from idolatry and religious assimilation, but they kept failing over and over. It became a cycle of being oppressed by the people of the land, crying out to God for deliverance, God obliging, thankfulness and revival, then complacency and a turning back to idolatry. Each time, God would delay more and more in delivering the Jews, as His patience started to wear thin.

Fast forward thousands of years to 1967. Instead of Canaanites and Philistines, you have the Palestinians in the rightful land of the Jews, Israel. Instead of Baal or Dagon worship, you have a huge Muslim mosque (for Allah) being a “snare” to the Jewish people.

After the six-day war, the Jews had successfully defeated the Palestinians. As one man went to blow up the Muslim mosque with dynamite (think “altars” from Judges 2), a general who was afraid of inciting more violence stopped him. Rather than more fighting, he reasoned, why not make concessions to coexist with some semblance of peace? You can bet God was not pleased.

To this day, the Palestinians (and their supporters) are thorns in Israel’s side. Their mosque and their god, Allah, keeps the Jews without a holy temple at all. Eventually, all the nations of the world (except maybe the U.S.? *fingers crossed) will turn against Israel until the final battle of Armageddon—which will start somewhere at the Euphrates River. God will no longer hold back and will finally come to save His people one last time for good. All of Israel’s enemies will be vanquished. But it could have happened a lot sooner with far less oppression and suffering if the Jews had been obedient in the first place.

Seminary: Applying the Old Testament Law Today

September 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Well as some of you know, I’ve been taking seminary classes for a couple weeks now, and I’ve been learning a lot of interesting stuff! Most of the materials are in my textbooks, but once in a while, we use supplemental materials that can be publicly accessed.

Here is one article that is very enlightening: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_law_hays.html

I mean, haven’t we all wondered about some of the Old Testament laws? Which ones apply to us today, and why? Most people would use a subjective standard, namely, what seems relevant. This can get close, but the article shows a way to get closer—with more consistency.

Here’s a quick recap:

The “traditional” approach entails breaking down laws into moral, civil, and ceremonial categories. Basically, the “moral” group are the only ones that still apply today. But this approach falls short because it’s still arbitrary and subjective. How do we know what’s moral and (“merely”) ceremonial in God’s eyes?

This article suggests the approach of principlism. This method takes into account the theological context of the laws—God’s promise to the Jews, the promised land, and the Old (Mosaic) Covenant versus the New Covenant (in which we live today). A rough outline of the five steps goes as follows:

1) Identify what the particular law meant to the initial audience

2) Determine the differences between the initial audience and believers today

3) Develop universal principles from the text

4) Correlate the principle with New Testament teaching

5) Apply the modified principle to life today

Hope you’ll find the article enlightening and useful when trying to grasp the Old Testament Pentateuch! =)

Update on me and this blog (and an apology)

August 19, 2011 Leave a comment

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting with a bit more regularity these days. I wanted to get the objections finished before next week, which is when I’m starting my seminary classes. That’s right, the time is finally here, and I’m definitely stoked!

For the first half of the semester, I’ll be taking Introduction to Old Testament Studies and Introduction to Pastoral Counseling. From looking at the course schedules, it seems that there will be a LOT of reading and writing involved, so I don’t know how often I’ll be able to keep up with this blog. My goal is to have at least one entry per week, though if I can stick to my original goal of two posts per week, I’ll be very happy. This blog is definitely something I want to keep up, as it helps me think about things a bit more deeply than I otherwise would. Writing always forces me to think, which is a good thing.

These two courses cover areas in which I am definitely mediocre in my knowledge. I need to learn a lot about the Old Testament, and I suck at anything resembling pastoral counseling. I’m good at straight truth-telling, but sensitivity, compassion, and tact are not my strengths!

Which reminds me, I’ve been told that I come across as overly direct or a little arrogant sometimes. For that, I sincerely apologize. I guess I’m not as good at this righteous anger thing as I need to be. There’s part of me that can’t help it because of the inner pride that still resides in me, but there’s also the fact that I’m constantly listening to and reading atheist arguments. I guess because they are so forceful (and let’s be honest, mocking or often condescending), I mirror that tone and can’t help but get a little annoyed myself at times. It’s funny…the ignorance of Christians angers atheists, and the ignorance of atheists angers Christians.

Anyway, as I start seminary, please pray for me if you can remember to do so. Please pray that I will learn everything to the best of my ability and never lose my fire. I want to learn thoroughly and deeply so that I become ingrained with this knowledge. The last thing I want is to earn my M.Div and forget much of what I was taught. That’s what happened in my undergrad years (and apparently, to many pastors I’ve seen), but seminary is too important to make this mistake.

Hopefully, I can continually learn cool new things to bless my readers here. =)

Let the voyage begin!

Objection to Christianity #2: The Age of the World

August 9, 2011 2 comments

Update, 08/17/11: I’m actually getting a head start on some of my seminary reading (starts Monday the 22nd) and what do you know? The first essay we’re assigned to read and analyze talks about the age of the world and creation. There are definitely some theories and concepts I was unaware of, so I’m going to have to update this entry with these new findings shortly.

Ah, the good ol’ age-of-the-world problem. This is a very common objection to Christianity: the claim that science has already proved wrong the creation account found in Genesis 1. Scientific methods have dated the universe to about 14 billion years, and the earth is probably around 4.5 billion years old by their estimations. The traditional view found in Genesis seems to suggest that the world is only about 6,000-10,000 years old. Obviously, something is amiss.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in this area by any means. I’m only about to share what I’ve looked into so far and what others have found. Honestly, I think this is a subject we can never be sure about, and our conclusions are probably going to change a few more times over the years. But I hope you’ll agree with me that the issue isn’t as clear-cut as it seems, and that there is room for flexibility.

So without further ado, let’s move onto some observations.

The evidence seems to point toward an old-earth theory.

By current dating methods, scientists are able to conclude on a fairly consistent basis that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Geology looks at rock strata, estimates the time in between each layer, and can pretty much count up the number of years. They know that such formations are slow and take a long time, making the young-earth view implausible.

There is also the method of carbon or radiometric dating, by which scientists can calculate the age of various fossils and other substances they find. They do this by knowing the half-life of a certain element, such as carbon-14, and judging by how much is remaining, they calculate how much has decayed and how long it took to get there.

Finally, an argument for the old-earth theory is that evolution could not have taken place to form the wide variety of complex organisms we see today in mere thousands of years. (They have enough trouble as it is trying to figure out how it could have happened to this degree in billions of years without divine intervention.) **Big side note: Do I believe fully in evolution? Well, it depends on how you’re defining it. But that’s a whole can of worms I won’t open quite yet!

That is the dumbest, quickest, crudest explanation of old-earth dating you will ever see.

Does the Bible contradict what science has shown us?

The answer is no. You’ve all probably heard the popular answer to this, which is the day-age theory: the Hebrew word “yom” in Genesis can be interpreted in numerous ways. It literally means a 12-hour period OR a 24-hour period OR a long, indeterminate amount of time. How do we know which one to use? Beats me, but I think comparing the usage of “yom” in other books of the Bible is ill-advised here since the creation account is a different animal altogether. Needless to say, we need to be flexible on its usage.

So if the duration of one “day” (“yom”) to another is indefinite, what can we glean from the scriptures that is actually useful in the context of comparing to science? The order by which things are formed. It is here that we find striking congruity between the Bible and what modern science has found. Tellingly, the Bible happens to be the only “holy book” in the world that got it right, even thousands of years before such knowledge was known by the scholars of the day.

(Click here for a fairly detailed breakdown: http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/day-age.html.)

Again, I won’t go into too much detail or regurgitate too much, but one important point to note is that in Genesis 1:1-2, it is clear that certain things were created BEFORE the first yom. What were those things? Well, it just happened to be the “heavens and the earth” (“heavens” obviously means space and the rest of the universe, as it is separate from earth, which contains our notion of “sky”). Not only that, but there were waters over which the Holy Spirit was hovering. All this before the first creation day.

Going back to cosmology for a second, we know that the very first instant of time is when the big bang occurred. It is when time, space, and matter literally came into being. Before this happened, there was no such thing as time, only a singularity, so it makes sense to call this moment of creation “in the beginning.”

Obviously, if God is eternal, there was no beginning for Him. So Genesis 1:1 is starting from the instant of the big bang.

This kind of consistency with modern science is definitely a plus, though perhaps not a must (as science is fallible and is prone to correction from generation to generation). Dr. Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist, shares this in his testimony:

I found the Bible noticeably different. It was simple, direct, and specific. I was amazed at the quantity of historical and scientific (i.e., testable) material it included and at the detail of this material. The first page of the Bible caught my attention. Not only did its author correctly describe the major events in the creation of life on earth, but he placed those events in the scientifically correct order and properly identified the earth’s initial conditions.

(Also read a detailed breakdown of why old-earth creationism may be the more accurate biblical view, not just scientific: http://www.reasons.org/age-earth/animal-death-before-adam/introduction-creation-date-debate.)

Some may wonder at this point, well what took God so long? Remember that God doesn’t operate on our timetable, and he is a being who can exist outside of time. Plus, God seems to like putting systems and natural laws in place and letting things take their course. Why wouldn’t he? He is the author of all things. One example of this would be after Noah’s flood where it took 150 days for the waters to finally subside. Could God have made the water disappear instantly? Sure. But why not let “nature,” His created system, handle things naturally?

What about Adam and Eve? Were they literal?

In my opinion, Christians must believe that Adam and Eve were literal human beings. Why? Because Jesus Christ himself spoke about them as if they were literal, and to my knowledge, everything rises and falls with the perfect knowledge and divinity of Christ.

How does this gel with the old-earth view? Well, quite simply, Adam and Eve were probably the first human beings according to God’s definition. They were the first ones created in God’s image, and therefore were the first soul-bearing creatures. There may have been human-like creatures before this, possibly walking erect and resembling us, but this is where the spiritual element of man was born. To God, this is where the story gets interesting.

Remember that the Bible does not include every superfluous detail, nor is it meant to explain science to us. It is simply to point us toward God and to teach us about things that are spiritually relevant.

Isn’t this day-age/old-earth theory just a modern retreat in light of science?

Fair question, but the answer seems to be no. Even Saint Augustine, in the 5th century, postulated that the word “yom” could mean something other than literal days. This was well before the world had any concept of an old earth. If you read the Genesis 1 account carefully, there are certain events that clearly seem to take longer than a regular 24-hour day.

Are young-earth (6,000–10,000 years) creationists crazy?

Well, perhaps. Organizations like Answers in Genesis don’t seem to have a ton of street cred in the scientific community. But I’m going to admit right now that there are times when I’m tempted with this view.

I know that it goes against my usual philosophy of “going where the evidence points,” but I sometimes can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that the age of the world is one of those “earth is flat” type of things. One day, maybe we’ll look back and laugh, saying, “I can’t believe we used to think the earth was 4.5 billion years old!” I know, I’m destroying any credibility I have with each sentence I write here.

What possible support could there be for the young-earth view? Well, first there is the “simple” reading of the Bible. True, “yom” can literally mean both a regular 24-hour day or a long era—nothing figurative about it. But perhaps it’s just my conception of God and his timetable. This is a completely unreliable way to think, by the way, as the Bible clearly states that to God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (meaning time is not felt by God in the same way as people).

But second, I also find a lot of little curiosities that individually, don’t amount to anything, but together are striking (to me anyway). We don’t have any written, recorded history before about 2,500 BC. Everything we know of seems to have happened in an amazingly minuscule amount of time. Think about it: from the earliest recorded history to today, only thousands of years have elapsed…yet we have gone from using primitive tools and walking in the dirt to flying jets and broadband internet. If the 4.5 billion year age of the earth is correct, we’ve gone from primitive to very advanced in literally one-millionth (1/1,000,000) of the time the world has existed. There are a lot of little things that nag at me like this. Then again, perhaps it is because humans—as image bearers of God—have only existed for thousands of years, and it has nothing to do with the age of everything else. 

I also think that dating procedures could be prone to unseen error. I know I’m going out of my element here, but what if the half-lives of certain elements were not always at equilibrium? What if 6,000 years ago, the half-life of carbon-14 was totally different, changing a constant in the equation and affecting the outcome drastically? So anything we found that is actually 7,000 years old might be calculated completely wrong?

The biggest unknown variable in all of this, to me, is Noah’s flood. If it literally happened, which I believe wholeheartedly, there is no way to anticipate the way it could affect our dating methods. This wasn’t a simple rainstorm or flood as we know it today. This was a worldwide, biblical, supernatural event where the mountaintops were covered in water. The flood waters actually come from above AND below from within the earth, and who knows what minerals came up with it? How can we possibly attempt to simulate the effect this kind of catastrophic event would have on the earth and it’s rock layers? Is this perhaps why we have so many fossils preserved where animals seem to have suddenly died? (Why aren’t we forming fossils today, but instead, animal carcasses and bones simply decay into the earth?)

Finally, I think that it’s possible (though maybe not probable) that in creating the universe, God stretched and placed things in such a way that life could be supported. Perhaps this process gives everything the appearance of age, if we’re measuring by distances and such. To me, this is a big fat “who knows?”

I’m not saying I’m a young-earth creationist or that it’s even preferable in any way. Believe what you want; theologically, it makes little difference. But I think it’s prudent to at least acknowledge different possibilities, especially when we’re dealing in an area that can’t be fully confirmed in a laboratory.

If I were a betting man, I’d probably go with old-earth, but I don’t feel qualified to take a firm stand either way.