Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Biblical Prophecy

Bible prophecy is one of those subjects that comes up a lot. It’s mostly brought up by people who need some external way of proving the Bible is truly a reliable document. The lack of external sources is kind of a problem for those who want others to buy the Bible as a worthwhile book. Since there are no corroborating sources, then, the Biblical apologist must come up with some other way to make it all tie together. This is often where Biblical prophecy comes in. Friday was the Zerg rush on Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum.” For those who don’t know what that means, a Zerg rush is a reference to Starcraft. The Creation Museum is a stupid fucking place filled with the shitty, shitty propaganda of a bunch of crazed men who think that the Earth popped in to existence six thousand years ago. It’s a monument to a gigantic pile of bullshit. And on Friday PZ Myers and the Secular Student Alliance led a group of three hundred-ish intrepid atheists on a visit. Good times were apparently had by all. PZ has built up a clearinghouse post in case you want to know about that. I have no real intention of talking about the rush itself, since I wasn’t there and all. I’m more interested in this picture somebody took in Ken Ham’s monument to ignorance and insularity. There are five points on that plaque. All of them are wrong to some degree. I’m mostly concerned right now with point four, however: “Hundreds of BIBLE PROPHECIES have been fulfilled and none has failed.” This is one of those statements that’s at the core of Christianity and one which is completely and totally wrong. It’s long past time for me to start looking at Bible prophecy. See, I grew up in the sort of church that brought it up. It wasn’t in the obsession with Revelation sort of way. But many, many sermons hinged on the idea that the particular passage we were looking at in the New Testament was presaged by another passage in the Old Testament and this is how we knew Jesus was, well, Jesus. This idea was taken as being self-evident and it didn’t really matter that apparently the Jews didn’t see things that way. It often didn’t even matter that the so-called prophetic passages had absolutely nothing to do with anything in the New Testament. The idea comes up almost immediately in the Bible. Genesis 3, in fact. You know the general story. Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, god finds out, curses everyone involved. It’s that loving god thing we’re always hearing about. Genesis 3:15 says “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel." But, see, this isn’t just a curse from Yahweh against the serpent. It’s actually a prophecy that foretells Jesus’ defeat of Satan on the cross. Don’t see it? Maybe this commentary from Matthew Henry will help.
A gracious promise is here made of Christ, as the Deliverer of fallen man from the power of Satan. Here was the drawn of the gospel day: no sooner was the wound given, than the remedy was provided and revealed. This gracious revelation of a Saviour came unasked, and unlooked for. Without a revelation of mercy, giving some hope of forgiveness, the convinced sinner would sink into despair, and be hardened. By faith in this promise, our first parents, and the patriarchs before the flood, were justified and saved. Notice is given concerning Christ.
Still don’t see it? Yeah, me, neither. Truth be told, I didn’t see it back when I was in church, either. I’m pretty sure that it would come up, I’d look at the passage and think, “I don’t see that here,” and then I’d move on to something else. The problem is that all of the Biblical prophecies are like this. Let’s just stick with the stuff I brought up in a footnote yesterday. Actually, let’s extend it to Matthew 2 as a whole, since this entire chapter is a whole big pile of WTF if taken in context of prophecy fulfillment. Matthew 2 starts with the arrival of the Magi. They’ve been following a star to worship the King of the Jews and…aw, nuts, I need to hit Matthew 1 for this to make sense. Okay, Matthew 1 starts with the genealogy of Jesus from Adam to, well, Jesus. This is in order to fulfill Jeremiah 23:5: “’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land.’” There are several problems with Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in light of this, primarily the fact that the line traces through Joseph, who isn’t actually related to Jesus if you believe the whole virgin birth story. Matthew 1:17 offers an even bigger problem, though.
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
There’s no way the math in this works out in any way, shape, or form. Traditionally a generation is 20 years. From Abraham to David there were far more than 280 years, as we’d get from 14 generations. There were at least three generations on either side of the captivity in Egypt (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s 12, so that’s four in the front end. Moses, Joshua, and the Judges period on the other, and I’m pretty sure that the Judges period was more than a single generation). In between there was a 400 year period when the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt, so we're talking about at least 27 generations. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument and my laziness that the 14 generations from David to the Babylonian Captivity were accurate. Nebuchadnezzar II sent the Israelites to Babylon in 586 BCE. By my calculations that’s 29 generations and change. So we’re obviously already looking at revisionism in order to make the story fit the interpretation. Anyway, the Magi. Let’s get back to them, since they’re interesting and all. They apparently headed west because of a prophecy, specifically the one from Jeremiah 23:5. They ended up in Bethlehem because of Micah 5:2: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” So, obviously, anyone who wants to convince the Jews that they have the Messiah would have to put the Messiah in Bethlehem. Matthew doesn’t present a problem here, but Luke does, since Luke 1 starts with Mary hanging out in Jerusalem. How do we know this? Because she was hanging with Elizabeth and Zacharias. Zacharias was the High Priest and Elizabeth was his barren wife who would eventually give birth to John the Baptist. John the Baptist was important as the voice in the wilderness going forth before the Messiah. So Jesus and John the Baptist had to be photographed together in the same room. But then Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill prophecy. So Luke’s narrative in chapter 2 starts with the Deus Ex Machina of Caesar Augustus’s census of the entire world. This is immediately problematic. There was a census taken of Syria and Judea for taxation purposes. Caesar Augustus had effective systems of both census and taxation. One naturally led to the other. The census, however, was under Publius Sulpicius Quirinius and only covered Syria. It had nothing to do with an overall census directed from Rome itself.* It also took place in 6/7 CE. Herod the Great was long dead by then, which is a problem, since it was apparently his fear of the supposed King of the Jews that led to the next big prophecy. Herod engaged in what is known as the “Murder of the Innocents” to most. To historians it’s known as “that thing that probably didn’t actually happen.” Herod ordered the death of any child under the age of two. So an angel appeared to Joseph and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” (Matt. 2:13) The writer of Matthew helpfully points out “He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.’” (Matt. 2:15) This refers to Hosea 11:1, which says: “When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.” Yup. That’s a prophecy. One of the many, many prophecies that proves the Bible is true because the Old Testament prophesied Jesus and, hey, here’s Jesus. It gets worse, though. Because then they go and drag Numbers 24:8 in to it. “God brings him out of Egypt, he is for him like the horns of the wild ox he will devour the nations who are his adversaries, and will crush their bones in pieces, and shatter them with his arrows.” Seriously, what the fuck does that have to do with anything? Did Jesus devour nations, crush their bones, and shatter them with arrows? No. Not at all. However, I’m assuming that this is supposed to presage the orgiastic slaughter that is Revelation. It’s important to take these things in context, but that almost always destroys any attempt to cull a prophecy out of anything. The Numbers account is of a dude named Balaam, who had been hired by a king named Balak to curse the Israelites. Balaam instead blessed the wandering tribes. The Israelites would go on to crush their enemies and shatter them with arrows. And Numbers, along with the books that came afterwards, would be written down a few hundred years later, so it was all nice and tidy. So with that in mind, let’s look at Hosea 11 in context. 1When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. 2The more they called them, The more they went from them; They kept sacrificing to the Baals And burning incense to idols. 3Yet it is I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in My arms; But they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love, And I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; And I bent down and fed them. 5They will not return to the land of Egypt; But Assyria--he will be their king Because they refused to return to Me. 6The sword will whirl against their cities, And will demolish their gate bars And consume them because of their counsels. 7So My people are bent on turning from Me. Though they call them to the One on high, None at all exalts Him. 8How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart is turned over within Me, All My compassions are kindled. 9I will not execute My fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim again For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, And I will not come in wrath. 10They will walk after the LORD, He will roar like a lion; Indeed He will roar And His sons will come trembling from the west. 11They will come trembling like birds from Egypt And like doves from the land of Assyria; And I will settle them in their houses, declares the LORD. 12Ephraim surrounds Me with lies And the house of Israel with deceit; Judah is also unruly against God, Even against the Holy One who is faithful. This is a lamentation, the lover mourning over the loss and longing for the return of the beloved. It’s the father standing at the doorway watching for the return of the prodigal son. It’s also got fuck all to do with prophesying a coming savior. This is immediate, between Yahweh and his people at the moment of writing, not in some distant, future dispensation. Honestly, to reduce this to the single verse with which the chapter starts, then say, “It’s just another prophecy before our time starts,” is an insult. It’s an insult to the Jewish people and the Biblical tradition. This, too, is why modern Christianity is so completely artless. Take the message for Hosea however you want, but it’s hard to deny that it’s absolutely poetry. The idea of god lifting Ephraim and teaching him how to walk is a tender image of a caring father and a helpless baby. The ineffectual anger at that baby who grew up and walked away, followed by the expectant wait for them to come back is incredibly vulnerable. Yes, it comes with a streak of paranoia, but that, too, is strangely human. “Why should you come back to Yahweh?” is the question of Hosea 11. “Because he’s your father who raised you, loved you, and doesn’t want you hurt,” is the answer. The prophecy-addled mindset of the Christian reduces the entire sentiment to a completely different question, specifically, “What does this tell us about Jesus?” The funny thing is, in their rush to force Hosea to answer the question they think it should, Christians completely miss the fact that Hosea as a whole answers a much larger question, at least within the context of the Christian religion. They get so wrapped up in the “who” of Jesus that they often forget the “why” of Jesus. The fact that they have to keep shoving Jesus into places he doesn’t belong, then call it fulfilled prophecy doesn’t help their case. It’s a horrible culture that rejects the content of that which came before it in the name of using that which came before it to exalt itself. ------------------------- *And, once again, there's the general stupidity of saying to everyone, "Hey, go back to your hometown so we can count you." I can't fathom why anyone would do that, especially since the goal of a census was to figure out where the people were to collect taxes from. Either you uproot everyone and lose a shitload of money while people are wandering around looking for shelter back home or you count people in places they don't actually live and, therefore, end up with a really inaccurate idea of how much tax revenue you can expect from various places. Actually, you'd end up with both those scenarios playing out at once. It's just dumb on every possible level.


big a said...

It's always baffled me how Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Charismatics don't seem to realize there's a tremendous logical fallacy in using the Bible to "proove" their alleged Biblical Prophecy. That's like me making up words in a game of Scrabble, and when challenged, whipping out my own dictionary. Then, via the vehicle of insane and stupid abstract interpretation (as you've highlighted), I can rewrite that dictionary ON THE SPOT just in case it doesn't contain the word I just made up.

Madness, I tell you, absolute madness.

Anonymous said...

big a- Qwijybo. A large, stupid, hairless ape. Look it up in my dictionary.

Another good post, by the way. Biblical contradictions never get old.

atimetorend said...

I think using a modern lens to critique biblical errors is buying into the same view the fundamentalists use in their defense of inerrancy and literalism. I like how your posts comments on what the bible can be when viewed for what it is rather than for what Christians using that prophesy model are trying to make it into.

@big a: excellent analogy. I think the folks you are referencing think there are good external contemporary references to the historic events of the bible, they just haven't bothered to look into them beyond taking Josh McDowell's word for it.

PersonalFailure said...

You know, I thought it was just me, the inability to read prophecy into random Israelite writings. I was starting to feel kinda stupid.

Abelardus said...

... shoving Jesus into places he doesn’t belong ...

Wonderful image, there, Geds!

But now I'll return to reading the article in full. . . .

The Woeful Budgie said...

The ineffectual anger at that baby who grew up and walked away, followed by the expectant wait for them to come back is incredibly vulnerable. Yes, it comes with a streak of paranoia, but that, too, is strangely human.

Which is why that bit in verse 9---"For I am God and not man"---strikes me as one helluva crock. :)

Anonymous, you beat me to qwijybo. *shakes fist*

Jay said...

The plaque that Geds showed in the picture is pretty much word-for-word McDowell. I'm not sure where he cribbed it from, but I'd be surprised if it was original to him. The main apologetic authors tend to refer to each other most of the time - I suppose that's at least partly intended to give the impression that their views are more widely held than they really are.

Anyway, prophecy strikes me as almost as convincing as TV psychics cold-reading their audience. Any fulfilled prophecy can be adequately explained as either a postdiction or as something that could reasonably be anticipated by the author given reasonable awareness of his social and political situation - predicting that an empire will eventually fall is nothing so much as a reasonably good guess. (It's certainly revealing that all of the nations involved in Biblical prophecies are nations that were known to the Biblical writers - there aren't any references to, say, Russia or Japan.)

Furthermore, as long as one can claim that apparently unfulfilled prophecies were really intended for some unspecified time in the future, and as long as one can tease out arcane and metaphorical interpretations of the details, one never has to admit that the prophecy was just flat wrong.

Nice post, Geds.

Anonymous said...

What really got me once was reading: we know Christianity is true because only Christian books are left.(by memory, I can't cite the book).

Because the deliberate destruction of millions of texts is totally makes his case. :( Besides the fact that the statement isn't true anyway.

Then there was one book that said:the fact that a rebuilt section of Jerusalem(?) is precisely laid out as specified in the OT means that a prophecy had been fulfilled, and Christianity is true. (again dredged out of memory)