Archive for March, 2012

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What if God Threw a Flood and No One Came?

March 24, 2012

The folks over at Answers in Genesis recently tackled the question, “When exactly was the Flood?”. After consulting his Bible and with a little help from Bishop James Ussher, David Wright of AiG provides the answer:

Using the Bible, well-documented historical events, and some math, we find that the Flood began approximately 4,359 years ago in the year 1656 AM [anno mundi] or 2348 BC.

So there you have it. Only 8 people left alive on the planet in 2348 BC.

That got me thinking. What other “well-documented historical events” might have been going on in the 24th century BC? Let’s take a look …

 

Mesopotamia

Sargon the Great

Sargon the Great

It must have come as a real shock to Noah and his children when, in 2334 BC – only 14 years after the flood – Sargon the Great began establishing the powerful Akkadian empire. This task involved defeating in battle a variety of Sumerian city states, some of which had populations in excess of 100,000 inhabitants (e.g. Lagash and Uruk). By the end of his reign (2279 BC), Sargon’s vast empire stretched from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf – basically the entire Fertile Crescent.

Such an empire only 69 years after the Flood is a feat indeed. But the real credit has to go to the four women on Noah’s ark. “Barefoot and pregnant” doesn’t begin to describe the work involved in repopulating the planet at the pace necessary to give Sargon armies to fight and people to rule.

 

Egypt

Down in Egypt, the United Kingdom established by Menes circa. 3000 BC was humming along nicely. By the time of Noah’s flood, the Egyptians were just wrapping up their 5th dynasty. Pharaoh Unas was, no doubt, quite perturbed to see his empire underwater, especially since he was in the middle of building a pyramid complex at Saqqara, which you can visit to this day.

inside Teti's pyramid

inside Teti's pyramid

Undeterred, the now soggy Egyptians moved seamlessly into the 6th dynasty with Pharaoh Teti at the helm. Teti built himself a nice pyramid complex too. Given that Teti came to power only 3 years after the global population was reduced to 8, you might have thought cheap labor for pyramid building would be hard to come by. Nonetheless, even Teti’s high court officials were building themselves massive funerary monuments during his reign.

 

Indus Valley

ruins of a bath in the Harappan city of Mohenjo-daro

ruins of a bath in the Harappan city of Mohenjo-daro

By the time of the Flood, the vast Indus Valley Civilization had been in existence for about a millennium. It was now at its zenith in the period known as the Mature Harappan Period (beginning in 2600 BC). We don’t know as much about the Harappan culture because we still haven’t interpreted their script. But the archaeological record evidences large cities, hundreds of settlements, impressive architecture, and a rich material culture.

What we can say with confidence is that the Harappan were excellent swimmers. Their population managed to tread water for the entire year of Noah’s flood, allowing their civilization to continue uninterrupted for another 4 centuries before a gradual decline from 1900 to 1700 BC.

 

I could go on. In fact, it’s hard to pick a spot on the globe that didn’t have some form of continuous civilization both before and after 2348 BC.

The problem gets even worse for AiG because they take the Tower of Babel story as literal history as well, which forces them to push the beginning of all civilizations another 100+ years into the future to 2200 BC.

I’m not sure if it’s hilarious or just plain sad to see them teaching good Christian folk that Egypt was founded in 2188 BC. For reference, this date falls at the tail end of the 6th dynasty, after the entire Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods. That’s 1000 years of Egyptian history swept under the rug. 2188 BC is also 3-400 years after construction of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza. I guess they were built by aliens after all.

Insistence on a literal global deluge is a cardinal doctrine among most young earth creationists (YECs). YEC claims are regularly challenged on scientific grounds. This is to be expected when your theory defies modern geology, biology, paleontology, physics, astronomy, and genetics. Less frequently do we hear YEC claims held up for comparison against history. But there too, the YEC must continually dismiss the conclusions of professional historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, choosing instead to construct yet another alternate version of reality.

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Hellbound? the Documentary

March 21, 2012

Now this looks interesting …

The release date is September 2012. Until then, you can learn more about the movie at http://www.hellboundthemovie.com.

HT: Randal Rauser

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Does Matthew Gild the Lily?

March 17, 2012
Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Last week, James McGrath posted a link to a fascinating article by Zeba Crook. Crook, a professor at Carleton University, argues for the need for a secular Bible translation (i.e. a translation that does not concern itself with upholding the theological commitments of a faith community). In the course of doing so, Crook described a translation issue that was new to me – one involving the circumstances of Judas’s death.

Most readers will already be aware of the two quite different versions of the story found in Acts and Matthew. In Acts 1:18-19, Judas takes the money he receives for betraying Jesus (no amount is ever specified; see Luke 22:3-6) and buys some land. While on his newly-acquired property, Judas falls, spills his guts (literally), and folks take to calling the place “Field of Blood” as a result.

Matthew’s Judas, on the other hand, is not in the market for real estate. Rather, in Matthew 27:3-10, Judas is so overcome with remorse that he throws his ill-gotten 30 pieces of silver into the temple, runs off and hangs himself. Matthew doesn’t tell us where. The chief priests collect the coins and decide to use the money to buy “the potter’s field”. In Matthew’s account, the field comes to be known as the Field of Blood, not because it was the location of Judas’s death, but because it was bought with “blood money”.

If you’re familiar with evangelical apologetics, you’ll have heard the creative harmonization in which Judas is said to have first hung himself and then, after a bit of decomposing, had his intestines spill out. Voila! No contradiction! … Except for the two completely different stories about what happened to the money, who actually bought the field, and why it was called the Field of Blood. It’s enough to keep an inerrantist awake at night.

But the Acts/Matthew conflict is a topic for another day. The translation issue described by Crook involves Matthew’s claim that the circumstances of Judas’s death fulfilled prophecy. In verses 9-10, the author of Matthew writes as follows:

Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.

Matthew’s reference to Jeremiah appears to be a mistake. Most would acknowledge that the author actually has in mind this passage in Zechariah 11:12-13:

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the LORD.

Comparing the two passages, we find these elements in common:

  • Someone being valued at a price of 30 pieces of silver.
  • The throwing of coins in the temple.
  • Something about a potter.

Matthew’s story of Judas’s final hours has all of these elements, allowing him to contend that the event was a fulfillment of Scripture.

But are these details historical? Note that the version of Judas’s death in Luke/Acts has none of these elements. Did Matthew get a little creative with the historical details in order to make the “prophecy” work? To borrow the language of John Dominic Crossan, is this “history remembered” or “prophecy historicized”?

This is where Crook’s article comes in. It turns out that the Hebrew word translated “potter” in Zechariah is more properly translated “treasury”. Zechariah is throwing his money into the temple treasury, not to a potter. If you read Zechariah 11, you’ll see that the reference to a potter comes completely out of the blue. Why exactly is there a potter in the temple? Why is he getting the money? It makes WAY more sense for Zechariah to throw money into the treasury in the temple than to throw money to some random potter in the temple. Crook’s complaint is that translators refuse to correct the errant translation in Zechariah because they don’t want to embarrass Matthew.

The problem for Matthew is magnified by his claim in Matt. 27:6-7:

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

In Matthew, the temple treasury is the one place the money cannot go!

Was Matthew actually aware of a tradition in which the blood money was used to buy a “potter’s field” or did he misread the reference to the treasury in Zechariah 11 as a reference to a potter and decide to add the potter detail to his Judas story?

If this were an isolated incident, I’d be more inclined to give Matthew the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time Matthew appears to have stumbled in attempting to fit his narrative to an OT passage. All four gospels record the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Matthew declares that this act was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which reads:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! 
   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! 
See, your king comes to you, 
   righteous and victorious, 
lowly and riding on a donkey, 
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Perhaps this was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 – perhaps even a deliberate fulfillment on Jesus’ part. The problem is that Matthew appears to misread the OT passage. He reads Zechariah as referring to two separate animals – a donkey AND a colt. In reality, the passage in Zechariah is simply employing Hebrew synonymous parallelism, wherein the same object (a donkey) is described twice using different language.

Mark, Luke, and John all describe Jesus riding a single donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew is the only author to add a second animal:

They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. (Matt. 21:7)

The bizzare spectacle of Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt into Jerusalem appears to have its explanation in Matthew’s overzealous attempt to match the details of his Jesus narrative to what he believed to be the OT text under fulfillment.

Here, I think, Matthew is caught red-handed. It would seem that Matthew was willing to change the details of an event to make it line up with an OT passage in which he believed he had identified a messianic prophecy.

I get that ancient authors didn’t feel the need to conform to our modern standards of objective history writing. I get that the gospels contain theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus, not just flat biographical accounts. But it sure makes a mess out of apologetic claims that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies when, in some instances at least, the NT author is fudging the facts to make the events of Jesus’ life appear to match OT passages.

If Matthew is willing to do this, what then should we make of his account of Joseph & Mary fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus? Is this a bit of creative storytelling in service of Matthew’s aim of portraying Jesus as the new Moses? I’m tempted to think so.

What should we do with Matthew’s claim (in Matt. 1:22-23) that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14? Isaiah 7:14 actually refers only to a “young woman” giving birth, not a “virgin”, as Matthew claims (relying, presumably, on the mistranslation in the Septuagint). In the case of the virgin birth, I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that Matthew invented this detail, given that Luke provides the same information independently.

Still, it makes you wonder.

I’m certainly not suggesting that there isn’t a historical core underlying Matthew’s narrative in most instances. I don’t suppose, for instance, that the entire Passion narrative is just a pastiche of OT prophecies stitched together into a fictitious whole (à la Crossan). But those instances where Matthew’s misreading of an OT passage allow us to catch him in the act of adding prophetic flourishes to his narrative do make me a little uneasy about accepting his history at face value.

There was a day, not so long ago, when an issue like this would have had my little fundamentalist self all tied up in knots. Today, I’m okay with it. Because I’m learning, as Rachel Held Evans puts it, to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be.

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My Sister & the Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan

March 2, 2012

My sister in Yida on Valentines Day

Today, I am pleased to feature a guest post written by my sister, who has a Masters in Public Health from the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This, apparently, qualifies her to live in thatch huts, contract malaria semi-regularly, and kill snakes in her bedroom.

My sister has spent the past two months working in Yida, a refugee camp in South Sudan where tens of thousands of Nuban people have sought refuge from the atrocities being committed by Sudanese government forces. The situation is grim. The Nuban people are the victims of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. Close to half a million have been displaced. Many are on the verge of starvation.

My sister’s small team has been working to provide the Yida community with food, healthcare and other essential services, like water and sanitation. [For security reasons, I won’t mention her name or the organization with which she works.] My sister’s focus is on maternal and child health, particularly nutrition.

Also, my sister is my hero. I can think of no truer expression of the Kingdom mission than the work that she is doing. She binds up the broken, feeds the hungry, and (as you’re about to read) is risking her life to rescue the oppressed.

Here is her story:

I live and work in the Yida refugee camp, located a few miles south of the border between Sudan and the world’s newest nation, South Sudan.

I received a phone call from human resources about an hour after accepting the position. “I’m just calling to tell you that I am taking out a war insurance policy in your name,” she said.

“Okay,” I replied.

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into,” she said.

“I do,” I reassured her.

But I didn’t.

Yesterday morning I was awakened by the sound of explosions. Another battle had broken out in a town along the border. The shelling and bombing lasted for hours.

This morning we were all at the food distribution site when an Antonov bomber appeared, circling low above the camp. They fly over all the time and no one bats an eyelash, but this time something was different. Everyone started running for cover, sure that the plane was going to bomb us. As a large group of people, we were a clear target. We all hit the dirt until the plane left (my foxhole of choice was a partially-dug latrine), then jumped in our pickup and raced back to the compound.

Then the bombing began. It wasn’t in the camp, but it was close enough to make the ground shake and send everyone rushing for cover. Suddenly the Antonov was back again, right above us. I sat cowering in my foxhole, looking straight up at the belly of an Antonov bomber as it droned slowly over our camp. We sat, deathly quiet, waiting to see if a bomb would fall. I kept saying to myself, “You are going to be bombed. It is going to be okay.” And I prayed a lot, “God, please protect our camp!”

After repeated low altitude passes over the camp, the Antonov disappeared. We weren’t bombed. Two months before my arrival, the camp wasn’t so lucky. A UNHCR report describes that incident:

…[O]n November 10, another Antonov bomber came. The plane made three turns around Yida before it released its payload. People scattered in every direction. Two of the bombs landed on the runway next to the camp’s perimetre. Two others fell further away. But one bomb landed in the middle of a temporary school. The children had been evacuated but Zahara remembers the fear everyone shared. “People ran into the market and into the forest,” she says. “Some of us stayed in the bush for hours.” In fact some 600 pupils and students ran away after the bombing and some are still missing.

I have never experienced war. Conflict has always been an ocean away, not right above me. I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I’ve no experience with the kind of hatred and greed that prompts one group to try to destroy another. But this is what is happening in Sudan.

During the protracted Sudanese civil war, the people of Nuba sided with the south. However, when the nation split in two last summer, the Nuba found themselves part of the north and the target of a relentless military campaign. The government of Sudan claims that they are supressing a rebellion in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, but the indiscriminate arial bombardments and militia style ground attacks have brutalized the civilian population, reducing the people to living in caves in the mountains and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to safety in refugee camps in South Sudan — camps like Yida.

But these camps are not safe. There are over 28,000 people registered in the camp and many more unregistered. Due in part to our proximity to the border, we have not been classified as a “refugee camp”. Instead, the UN considers this a “transit site”. This means that even though people have been living here for months, they have never been given a full food ration. A family might receive one or two weeks worth of food and nothing more within a calendar month. Malnutrition rates are alarming. Relief agencies are prohibited from doing anything “permanent” like constructing buildings or assisting in organizing schooling for the children. This is incredibly frustrating for the people in the camp. Additionally, the government of Sudan has proved willing to follow the people of Nuba into South Sudan. Our camp was bombed three months ago, and this morning everyone thought we were being attacked again. It was terrifying, and sadly, for the people of Nuba, it is old hat.

If you have followed the situation in Sudan at all over the last few years you will remember the crisis in Darfur. The actions of Omar al-Bashir (the president of Sudan) during this conflict earned him a warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court on counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. He has never been prosecuted, of course, and many say that the crisis in Nuba is tragically reminiscent of Darfur. Bashir and his government are doing the same thing all over again, and any and all alarm bells being rung by watchful observers in the international community are being ignored.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) visits Yida

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) visits Yida

When US Congressman Frank Wolf visited the camp several weeks ago he was greeted by a crowd of Nubans, some of whom held homemade signs pleading for people like Obama and Ban Ki-moon to pay attention and protect their rights.

This blog post is my handmade sign. Please pay attention to Nuba. Please pay attention to the actions of the government of Khartoum. I’m no military strategist or humanitarian expert, but there are people with the knowledge and power to intervene wisely in this situation. You can let them know that they themselves need to pay attention.

We were so thankful to have Nicholas Kristof (co-author of Half the Sky) and Ann Curry of the Today Show (NBC) with us in Yida. Watch their stories and learn. And then act. All it takes is a letter or a phone call to your MP, congressman or senator. If we can rally the political will, action will come.

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A preview of Curry’s piece is here:

For Curry’s full report, follow this link to her February 29th segment on Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Kristof’s excellent piece is here [you’ll have to click through to Youtube]:

You can also follow this link to listen to Halima Kaga, a 32-year old Nuban woman living in the Yida refugee camp, describe her experiences and plead for justice.

It’s easy to feel utterly helpless when watching an international crisis unfold on the opposite side of the globe. I have sat on my hands more times than I care to admit. But my sister is right. We can do something. The story of the Nuba people and this growing humanitarian disaster is largely unknown. Please help get the word out. Reblog it. Tweet it. Learn more about the conflictPhone or write your elected officials [for Canada, click here; for the US, click here]. Urge them to pressure the international community to intervene before the story of the Nuba becomes the unthinkable sequel to Darfur.

And to my sister. Thank you for sharing this. May God indeed protect your camp.

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday.

-Isaiah 58:10