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Reading Idea: Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics

Broken Words

Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics
by Jonathan Dudley
$4.99 on Kindle

I had no idea that many (most?) evangelicals didn't believe that human life begins at conception. It'll take a lot to convince me that it doesn't, but I'm willing to read the history of how beliefs shifted in the evangelical community.

The 'biblical view' that's younger than the Happy Meal

In 1979, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

Sometime after that, it was decided that the Bible teaches that human life begins at conception.

Ask any American evangelical, today, what the Bible says about abortion and they will insist that this is what it says. (Many don’t actually believe this, but they know it is the only answer that won’t get them in trouble.) They’ll be a little fuzzy on where, exactly, the Bible says this, but they’ll insist that it does.

That’s new. If you had asked American evangelicals that same question the year I was born you would not have gotten the same answer.

That year, Christianity Today — edited by Harold Lindsell, champion of “inerrancy” and author of The Battle for the Bible — published a special issue devoted to the topics of contraception and abortion. That issue included many articles that today would get their authors, editors — probably even their readers — fired from almost any evangelical institution. For example, one article by a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary criticized the Roman Catholic position on abortion as unbiblical. Jonathan Dudley quotes from the article in his book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics. Keep in mind that this is from a conservative evangelical seminary professor, writing in Billy Graham’s magazine for editor Harold Lindsell:

God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22-24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.

Christianity Today would not publish that article in 2012. They might not even let you write that in comments on their website. If you applied for a job in 2012 with Christianity Today or Dallas Theological Seminary and they found out that you had written something like that, ever, you would not be hired.

At some point between 1968 and 2012, the Bible began to say something different. That’s interesting.

Even more interesting is how thoroughly the record has been rewritten. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

I heartily recommend Dudley’s book for his discussion of this switch and the main figures who brought it about — Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Richard Viguerie, etc.

The Bible on Immigrants

Evangelical Christians are forming the backbone of President Trump's support — and driving the Republican Party's anti-immigrant agenda. I thought I'd review my Bible to see what God had to say about how his people should treat immigrants, the strangers and the sojourners.

You Were Immigrants

God reminds his people that they were the immigrants in Egypt. (Fleeing, let us remember, economic collapse in their own land.)

Exodus 22:21:

"You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9:

"You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:17–19:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. —

Treat Immigrants Well

God wants his people to treat immigrants well, to leave work for them to do, giving them a way to support themselves.

Leviticus 19:10, 33–34:

And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. … "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 23:22:

"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God."

Leviticus 25:35:

"If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.

Deuteronomy 14:28–29:

"At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.

Deuteronomy 24:14–22:

"You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.

"Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

"You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

"When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.

You Are Immigrants in God's Land

In fact, the Israelites are now living in land that God gave them, making them immigrants into God's land.

Leviticus 25:23:

"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.

1 Chronicles 29:15:

For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.

God Condemns His People For Mistreating Immigrants

And God uses his prophets to tell people that He's not happy about the way that they've been treating immigrants.

Ezekiel 22:7,29:

Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you. … The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.

Zechariah 7:8–12:

And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, "Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart."

But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts.

Malachi 3:5:

"Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

How You Treat Immigrants Is How You Treat Jesus

Finally, Jesus sees how we treat others as a direct reflection of whether or not we love Him.

Matthew 25:35–46:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'

And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?'

Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

"Sustainer", Not "Help Meet"

I find Robert Alter's Bible translations fascinating because of his footnotes and his uniquely fresh take on translating different passages. I recently bought, and started reading, The Five Books of Moses, his translations of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. He caught my interest right away.

Long time Bible readers will be familiar with Genesis 2:18 (rendered here, from the KJV).

“And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”

Because of this verse, there's a nice tradition (at least in traditional Christian circles) of referring to one's husband or wife as "a help meet". I do it myself, on occasion. So I stopped and took notice when Alter footnoted this section.

The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “opposite him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.

Instead of "help meet", Alter translated the phrase as "sustainer".

“It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.”

I really like that. It has a much more active sound and still maintains the same connotation as someone that a person needs to thrive in his or her life.

This entry was tagged. Bible Marriage

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch. 2, Part 1)

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_Posting a wee bit early, 'cause I'm packing tonight and traveling tomorrow. _

We may be able to get away with speeding through Chapter 2 in no more than three posts. Most of it's just Geisler and Turek explaining the various reasons people have for believing religious claims and why the only good reason to believe a theory is because it best fits available data. They won't get any argument from me there.

If I were a less contentious man, in fact, we could probably skip this chapter altogether, since there's no point within it directly relating to G&T;'s 12-step argument that I'm unwilling to accept. But as they set out their perfectly sound arguments for why we should uphold only logical beliefs, they also touch on a few ideas held by "fundamentalist" Christians which are not only worth discussing, but also just kinda stick in my craw. So I'm going to take this opportunity to shake my fist at them.

ULTERIOR MOTIVES

The first of these ideas is that atheists choose not to believe in God for what Geisler and Turek refer to as "volitional" reasons, i.e. personal motivation.

"Many beliefs that people hold today are not supported by evidence, but only by the subjective preferences of those holding them. As Pascal said, people almost invariably arrive at their beliefs on on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive." (54)

They say something similar back in the introduction:

"Although few would admit it, our rejection of religious and moral truth is often on volitional rather than intellectual grounds - we just don't want to be held accountable to any moral standards or religious doctrine." (36)

It will not surprise you that they are referring to atheists. They (and the majority of Christians, in my experience) believe that:

"Belief requires assent not only of the mind, but of the will. While many non-Christians have honest intellectual questions, we have found that many more seem to have a volitional resistance to Christianity. In other words, it's not that they don't have evidence to believe, it's that they don't want to believe." (30)

Let me just say here and now that this is utter stercus tauri - and a case of what psychologists call "projection" if ever there was one.

If anyone has the motivation to will themselves into believing something untrue, it's the Christian, not the atheist.

PASCAL'S SCALE

Geisler and Turek mentioned Pascal earlier. Let's go back to him.

As you probably know, Pascal is famous for his rather calculated decision to embrace the tenets of Christianity. He said that one should be a Christian because if you turn out to be wrong, you've lost far less by living the life of a Christian than you're bound to lose if you end up a mistaken atheist. After all, the Christian stands to lose some opportunities for fun and a portion of his income, but the atheist stands to lose eternal life (or rather loses the chance to enjoy it somewhere other than in a fiery netherworld).

Though most atheists (and Christians) reject his appraisal as an unsound reason to join a church, there can be little doubt Pascal correctly valued the respective promises of the two world views. By no remotely sane calculation are atheists more optimistic about the future than Christians. Whatever freedoms atheists gain by rejecting religious regulation of his lifestyle, they do surrender far greater benefits (or the promise of them) in return. They lose the comfort of having a great celestial guardian over them who will one day right every injustice they suffer. Instead they have to simply suck it up when faced with this world's evils, even though crimes are a thousand times more terrible to behold when your world view allows for the possibility the perpetrators might never be punished and their victims never compensated. They also lose the easy answers to the existential dilemmas that bedevil everyone else on the globe. Atheists have to decide for themselves what their dreams are, then run the risk of failing to obtain them in this life - with no hope of a second chance in another.

And oh yeah, did I already mention...? THEY HAVE TO RESIGN THEMSELVES TO DYING. That's an absolutely traumatic experience which the majority of Christians can't appreciate. Their theology neuters the concept.

The supposed sacrifices entailed in converting to Christianity - "[changing] thinking, friends, priorities, lifestyles, or morals" (30) - are a clear joke in comparison. They're also greatly exaggerated. When Norman Geisler writes "Christianity is free, but it can cost you your life" (30) I can only imagine he's thinking of Christians who live in the (non_secularized_) parts of the world extremely inhospitable to their presence. Those Christians, however, are a comparative minority, and the dangers they face are not unique - or even typical - to Christianity. In fact the great majority of Christians live their lives basically unmolested, in the comparative safety of their like-minded communities, living lives not vastly different from their fellow countrymen.

Now, you can say Christians who live unremarkable lives are wrong to do so. You can say they are not living up to Jesus' example. For the purposes of this discussion, that only strengthens my argument. It says quite a lot that atheists are unwilling to convert to even a supposedly watered-down version of Christianity, one divested of its most unattractive qualities.

Let me add also, concerning the so-called sacrifices involved in becoming a Christian: having to "[change] thinking, friends, priorities, lifestyles, or morals" (30) isn't only a problem faced by the religious convert. Every atheist who has "deconverted" from his or her faith, like myself, has had to make the same changes. What's more, new atheists don't necessarily have a ready alternative to their religious community available. Whether or not you believe Atheism is just another belief system, it's certainly not just another religion. No unified community of atheists really exists, much less an institution central to the life of every atheist, a la the Christian's church or the Muslim's mosque. This can make it much more difficult to meet new friends with similar views.

So can we toss the idea right now that your average atheist is simply shying away from the great burden under which Christians must struggle for the sake of Christ?

DOUBLETHINK

Actually, I doubt very much we can. Toss the idea, I mean.

The fact is, most Christians already understand the majority of what I've just written, and they speak often amongst themselves about how horrible it must be to not know Jesus. Shoot, evangelists among them talk to nonbelievers about it. It's part of the pitch. "Come and find rest."

As if to prove my point, Christian friends and family have recently been circulating around versions of Steve Martin's "Atheists Ain't Got No Songs" - which, let me just add, I do find funny.

(But you remember why the funniest jokes are so funny, right Guys? It's 'cause they're true.)

So why are Christians still talking about atheists' "volitional reasons"? We'll talk about it next post.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch1 Conclusion)

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Pages 42-43 of I Don't Have Enough Faith... comprise an anecdote from Norman Geisler's time in the "Evangelism Explosion" program.

You may be familiar with "EE". It's a very popular training course for Christians, meant to teach them how to effectively evangelize neighbors, coworkers, and everyone else. Some of the high school students I taught in South Korea even enrolled in it and showed up at my apartment one night to practice. Not that I knew that was why they'd come. No, it took me a good five bewildering minutes to realize they were sticking to a prepared script as we talked. After which, of course, I started messing with them by replying in ways I knew their script didn't anticipate. But I digress.

I'm not a fan of EE or other systematic evangelizing strategies. I wasn't one before I lost my faith, either. My strong distaste for them originates from my brief career as a vacuum salesman after high school. Six days a week I would go to someone's house and use my presentation - one provided me by the company but which after a certain period I adapted to my own style - to convince them they should make a decision that very day to buy a $2500 appliance. And believe it or not, just prior to my early retirement from the business, I was succeeding in two out of every three households.

That's how truly vulnerable people are to bad ideas, even ones easily answerable. Most of us aren't naturally quick on their feet, haven't spent a lot of time training ourselves to think critically (much less debate the finer points of our ideas at a moment's notice), and find face-to-face discussion of a contentious issue very intimidating. Easy prey for a strong and prepared personality.

So when I read Norman Geisler's account in I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist of how easily he evangelized a man named Don, I don't find myself impressed. I just shake my head and feel sorry for the guy who was watching TV or eating his dinner.

But to the anecdote itself. I won't get into the question of whether Geisler's justification for God's judgment is valid. That topic yawns before me like a black hole; I know if I come close to its edges I will be sucked into a vortex of points unrelated to this chapter from which this series may never emerge.

Nor will I remark once more upon his nonsensical deployment of the Road Runner Tactic (TM). That's been adequately covered.

Let's just join the conversation at the bit where Don tells Geisler he (Don) doesn't believe in God.

"Well, are you absolutely sure there is no God?" I asked him.

"He paused, and said, "Well, no, I'm not absolutely sure. I guess it's possible there might be a God."

"So you're not really an atheist, then - you're an agnostic," I informed him, "because an atheist says 'I know there is no God,' and an agnostic says 'I don't know whether there is a God."

This is pretty clearly unfair. All Don does is admit the possibility he could be mistaken in his beliefs. That's no more than Geisler and Turek themselves do on page 25. Quoth they:

Whatever we’ve concluded about the existence of God, it’s always possible that the opposite conclusion is true.

Does that make Geisler & Turek agnostics? Of course not. Geisler and Turek are just admitting... well, exactly what Kant was trying to prove, ironically: that there's always a chance you're wrong because there's always a chance you've received imperfect data. They were right to say so and aren't alone among Christians in believing it. Here's what my fellow Minor Thoughts blogger wrote not too long ago, paraphrasing content from In Search of A Confident Faith:

The first philosophical aspect of faith is that beliefs are not binary. It’s not true that you either believe something completely or disagree with it entirely. Beliefs are expressed in degrees of confidence. You can either believe something (51-100%) confidence, disbelieve something (0-49% confidence) or be completely counterbalanced (50% confidence or no confidence either way). This is true of everything in our lives, not just religion.

For instance, I’m 90% confident that Republicans will retake the House this year — I believe it. I’m only 40% confident that Republicans will retake the Senate — I disbelieve it. You can see that it would take a lot to change my belief about the outcome of the House elections but only a comparatively little to change my belief about the outcome of the Senate elections.

For a Christian, it’s possible to believe in God with only a 51% or 55% confidence. You would believe, but your faith wouldn’t be very strong. You would be constantly reevaluating your beliefs and seeking new evidence to either increase or reverse your existing beliefs. This is important because it indicates that the presence of doubt is not fatal.

All our beliefs are based on data that is at least questionable. So as Kyle over at ExChristian.net writes in his own rebuttal to I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist:

“By [Geisler's and Turek's] definition, an agnostic is one who has the integrity and intellectual honesty to admit that he is not absolutely sure about the existence of God. Being agnostic, then, is a good thing. Anyone can be agnostic, no matter what conclusions he has drawn. You have drawn the conclusion that God exists, and because you also believe in Jesus, you correctly call yourself a Christian. I have drawn the opposite conclusion, and I correctly call myself an atheist. Yet we are both agnostic, too; we both admit the possibility, no matter how remote we think it is, that our conclusions are wrong. So you are an agnostic Christian and I am an agnostic atheist.”

Couldn't have said it better myself.

... Which is why I quoted him.

CONCLUDING CHAPTER 1: THE APPLICABILITY OF AGNOSTICISM

In the spirit of the agnostic, allow me to note that it's possible I am wrong about all of this.

Geisler and Turek's main problem with the agnostic's philosophy - and the reason why they spend two chapters trying to debunk it - is their perception that its adherents use it to abdicate responsibility. As they write on page 32, "there's a big difference between being open-minded and being empty-minded."

Geisler and Turek aren't wrong here. A lot of self-described agnostics, when it comes to larger questions about the universe, do tend to punt in a way they never would when it comes to other issues. They use the incompleteness of their data as an excuse not to think.

However - and here I think that if Geisler and Turek were to read what I'm about to write, they would nod their heads - their position is a sham. You can be a close-minded Christian or a close-minded atheist or an open-minded (read: agnostic) Christian or an open-minded atheist or a close-minded Buddhist etc., but you can't be simply an unhyphenated agnostic. It's functionally impossible.

Imagine a general is faced with a battlefield shrouded in an impenetrable fog. He has no way of knowing what's inside of it. Regardless, he must decide on a plan and implement it, for the alternative is paralysis. Just so, one must base one's behavior in life on some rudimentary idea about Heaven and Earth, using the data available, however imperfect. So if a self-described agnostic is living as if no god exists which plans to punish him for his sins, I submit to you that agnostic has already judged for himself what the more likely answers are to his questions.

Thus Kant and other agnostics don't really pose a threat to the Christian world view. They only impose a certain level of humility upon us all as we decipher for ourselves the reality around us, using the faculties with which we are armed.

Despite the Christian's consistent call for humility in all things - I've gotten finger-wagging from a lot of Christians already for being too self-confident in my denunciations of Geisler and Turek - this particular need for meekness drives a lot of them mad. I attribute that to a number of "volitional" reasons, myself. And what do you know? Looking at Chapter 2, I see those are what we'll be discussing on Wednesday.

Until then: Stay thirsty, my friends.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch.1, p.40-49)

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Ha! It's still Wednesday! This post's on-time! He slides into home!

(Ahem.)

Ere we return to the contents of I_ Don't Have Enough Faith..._ scheduled for today, I wish to regale you with a joke - one made by my father's side of the family whenever the occasion is suitable.

Imagine, if you will, that the entire family is about to sit down to a meal. Prior to seating herself, one of the cooks - likely my grandmother - notices the oven has been left on, even though its contents have long since been removed to the table.

She immediately demands: "Who left the oven on?!"

Whereupon one of us replies: "Well... I guess we all did."

Cue much laughter and mirth. Or groans and denunciations. Whichever happens to suit your temperament. You get it though, right?

Sure you do. But wait! There's more. Please imagine that after the joke is acknowledged, my grandmother once again asks: "Seriously, though! Who left the oven on?!"

Oops - turns out she really is a little upset about this. We probably shouldn't have joked about it. The atmosphere grows a little uncomfortable.

But not as uncomfortable as when two voices pipe up from the end of the table: "We just told you."

The voices belong to two men named Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. They were in town for the holiday, so my family invited them over. My father's a fan of Geisler's work. He bought me a copy of The Big Book of Bible Contradictions for Christmas one year.

"Excuse me?" my grandmother might reply (might, because we are of course firmly in the territory of fiction now).

"We all left the oven on," Geisler and Turek say again.

"Yes, but who forgot to turn it off?" my grandmother asks.

"Everybody!" Geisler and Turek respond. They are smirking to each as they say this, clearly congratulating each other on their brilliance. Everyone else, meanwhile, is exchanging nervous glances. On the one hand, they're guests in our home and we must treat them well. On the other hand, they're being jerks, and they don't even seem to realize it; it's as if they really, truly believe they've addressed the question. Something should be done.

So, as is the way with anecdotes, especially fictional ones, I become the hero of the story by saying: "OK. Who removed the turkey from the oven and did not proceed to then twist the knob to the 'off' position?"

At this point, the culprit sheepishly owns up. My grandmother gives him an appropriately withering look. Luckily, however, her glare transmits far less ire than it might have otherwise. By now, most of her anger has been diverted and firmly fixed toward toward our guests.

OK. That's my tale. Please keep it in mind as we return to today's pages of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.

When last we left our heroes (I mean authors Geisler and Turek, not Joe and me... lest there be any confusion), we had just been introduced to their patented Road Runner Tactic.

Just to review: the Road Runner Tactic is "the process of turning a self-defeating statement on itself" (39), so named because:

it reminds us of the cartoon characters Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote... Just when the Coyote is gaining ground, the Road Runner stops short at the cliff's edge leaving the Coyote momentarily suspended in midair, supported by nothing. As soon as the Coyote realizes he has no ground to stand on, he plummets to the valley floor and crashes in a heap.

Well, that's exactly what the Road Runner tactic can do to the relativists and postmodernists of our day. It helps them realize that their own arguments can't sustain their own weight.

The authors primarily intend to utilize this tactic to defeat claims that all truths are relative, or that all truths might as well be relative since it's impossible to know anything for certain - claims they have labeled ornery agnosticism. The reason they seek to invalidate ornery agnosticism, of course, is because it provides a convenient excuse for people not to believe evidence for their Christian claims.

So they list multiple examples of how one might become an "absolutely fearless defender of truth" (p.39 - no, really) by deploying the Road Runner Tactic against

self-defeating postmodern assertions such as: "All truth is relative" (Is that a relative truth?); "There are no absolutes" (Are you absolutely sure?); "True for you but not for me" (Is that statement just true for you, or is it true for everyone?).

You see their point - and presumably, also the point of my story.

Yes, the Road Runner Tactic allows for some fun "Gotcha!" moments, but it doesn't remotely address the actual argument of the ornery agnostic, does it? It's just a quibbling over semantics - a diversion from the real issue.

Let's Tarantino back real quick to my grandmother, who is an excellent example of an ornery agnostic because she's demented and has Alzheimer's. Her five senses and memory are constantly misinforming her. Let's say she has what alcoholics call "a moment of clarity" - she becomes briefly, terrifyingly aware of her mental illness - and looks over to Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, who happen to be standing by her at the time.

"Help!" she says. "I can't tell what's real! I can't know anything for sure!"

"Oh?" one of them replies, unable to keep a smile from creeping onto his face. He knows he's about to look like a super genius. "Do you know that for sure...?"

In this scenario, hopefully my grandmother maintains her sanity long enough to kick one or both of them in their groins. But perhaps she doesn't, because before things go any farther someone nearby might roll their eyes and say to the apologists: "OK, I'll answer. No, she doesn't know that for sure. Maybe her brain is telling her truth, but she can't tell. Duh!"

Similarly, if any ornery agnostic says: "Since our brains are capable of misinforming us, we can never be completely certain of our findings."

And Messrs. Geisler & Turek respond: "Are you certain of that?"

The ornery agnostic is quite within his or her rights to answer: "No. Maybe my brain always tells the truth, but I can't be sure. That's the point."

QED. So much for the Road Runner Tactic's disproving of the ornery agnostic's position - which doesn't mean it's useless, only misapplied in this case. Thumbing through the second chapter, I see other points at which Geisler and Turek deploy the R.T.T. quite effectively. Here are a few other paraphrased examples of theirs, both hits and misses:

  • "I don't believe in the Law of Causality." "What caused you to come to that conclusion?" (Thumbs up.)
  • Page 40: "All truth is relative!" "Is that a relative truth?" ("Nope, you're right. It's not. So we've identified one truth that is. Yay." Bad usage.)
  • Page 43: "I'm skeptical about everything." "Oh? Are you skeptical about skepticism?" (What is that even supposed to mean? Oy vey.)
  • Page 59: Off-hand, the doctors' attack on Hume's principle of empirical verifiability looks solid, but then I'm not really schooled in Hume. In regards to Kant, I think they make the same error I've been trying to illustrate for these last two posts. Kant's point is clear to those willing to honestly wrestle it.

CHECKING ARGUMENTS AGAINST REALITY

Here's another, more simple way of putting all of the above:

When Geisler and Turek say that truth is knowable, it's implicit that they mean: "People can accurately observe Reality."

We know for a fact, however, that many people like my grandmother cannot accurately observe Reality.

We also know that people who cannot accurately observe Reality are often incapable of understanding their condition.

So Geisler and Turek are quite simply wrong here, just as biologists were quite simply wrong (and to their credit, understood they were wrong) when they decided it was physically impossible for a bumblebee to fly. They've gotten so hung up on their rhetorical argument that they've failed to notice its departure from their actual experience (an obvious irony when we're discussing ornery agnosticism, but there it is).

That's a mistake with a history, especially in religious apologetics.

NEXT: As we cross over into Chapter 2, we hopefully finish up with I Don't Have Enough Faith's treatment of Agnosticism - and after having spent so much time showing why they're wrong to discount it like they do, nevertheless (reservedly) agree with Messrs. Geisler & Turek that it's not a worthy a world view.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch.1, p.35-39)

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Sorry I'm late with this one. The wife fell ill this week and the new employee needed training. Wah, wah, wah. Onwards.

With Chapters 1 and 2 (they are grouped together in the book, so we'll do it too), Messrs. Geisler and Turek seek to prove, as you might expect, the first two points of their case for the Bible. In keeping with their intention to prove the inerrancy of the Bible "from the ground up" - taking no link in the chain of their argument for granted - these first points are pretty basic:

  1. Truth about reality is knowable.

  2. The opposite of true is false.

For purposes of clarity, I'm dividing their first point into two sub-points (both of which they address):

1.1. Truths about reality exist.

1.2. Truths about reality are knowable.

The first point of these two sub-points and the second point are easily and ably proven through logic. Since all truths exclude their opposites, they can't all be true; most of them have to be false. Easy. So let's just check those right off by bolding them, like Geisler and Turek do in their book:

1.1. Truths about reality exist.

1.2. Truths about reality are knowable.

2. The opposite of true is false.

Now: in my opinion, the first thin ice upon which Geisler and Turek walk concerns Point 1.2.

The doctors declare that truths about our reality can be induced and deduced through information we obtain via our five senses and some good logic - and as easily agreeable as that sounds, many a philosopher would disagree. A school of thought exists which suggests we can never be certain of anything, because our five senses are easily fooled and our ability to analyze anything logically depends on our senses.

My maternal grandmother is a perfect example of what these philosophers mean. To my family's general horror, my grandmother's mind has disintegrated over the last several years; she is now "demented" in the medical sense of the word, as well as a victim of Alzheimer's. As a result, I have entered her home to find her hiding in her house from intruders she can clearly see, but we can't; had to stop her from going into the forest to look for her lost children (my parents); and watched helplessly as she spoke with her reflection in her bedroom mirror. I've never witnessed anything more heartbreaking or disturbing.

I can compare my grandmother to other people and see that yes, she must be the one who's crazy. All evidence points to her view of reality being mistaken, not mine. But try telling my grandmother that.

I certainly have. To my regret I occasionally became frustrated with her - mad because as many times as I told her my aunt is not her sister or some other rudimentary fact about the world, she did not absorb that information - but now I've come to accept she can't will her way out of her current perspective. Her way of looking at the world is as unshakable as mine is now... which apparently isn't that unshakable at all. All it would take to change it is a good, hard hit to the head or a neurological disorder.

So what if you were afflicted with my grandmother's disorders? Yes, you'd be insane - but how could you tell? And how, some philosophers add, can we tell that we're not already afflicted with "disorders" of our own? We can't, of course. And thus the truth may be out there, but we can't know it for sure. Geisler & Turek name this viewpoint ornery agnosticism*.

Or so many of us might think, say Drs. Geisler & Turek, before reading I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist - because they claim to have coined a method by which you - yes, you! - can easily demonstrate the absurdity of such notions. And if you think I'm merely mocking the good doctors with my enthusiasm, well, here's their introduction of it:

If someone said to you "I have one insight for you that will absolutely revolutionize your ability to quickly and clearly identify the false statements and false philosophies that permeate our culture," would you be interested? That's what we're about to do here. In fact, if we had to pick just one thinking ability as the most valuable we've learned in our many years of seminary and postgraduate education, it would be this: how to identify and refute self-defeating statements... (38)

They call it... the Road Runner Tactic.

"Acceleratii incredibus"

And it is certainly as simple as advertised: you're supposed to identify a self-defeating statement (if I write "I can't write a word in English" I am clearly wrong) and then turn it back on its itself ("Ah ha!" you might wittily reply, "That can't be true, because you just wrote that in English!"), thus revealing it as the nonsense. Simple as it is, though, Geisler and Turek assure us:

This will make you look like a super genius!

And as is their wont, they offer us a few anecdotes to show us how well it's worked for them.

Which we'll judge for ourselves on Wednesday.

*I just tried to google "ornery agnosticism", since it struck me as an odd label, and can't find it referenced outside of Christian apologetics.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (p.17-19)

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The 12-point argument for the Bible's divinely-inspired authority doesn't actually start until Chapter 1, but Mssrs. Geisler and Turek make a couple of assertions in their book's introduction ("Finding the Box Top to the Puzzle of Life") that require addressing - and more importantly, also begin to reveal a tendency they have to manipulate their readers.

Their introduction begins by recounting Frank Turek's experience as an undergraduate in a university's course on the Old Testament. Turek writes:

From the beginning, the professor took a very skeptical view of the Old Testament. He immediately affirmed the theory that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, and that many of the Bible's supposed prophetic passages were written after the fact.

At the end of the semester, Turek claims he was nearly convinced the Bible could not be taken as read, but still didn't know whether that meant God existed. So he decided to ask his professor.

Without a moment's hesitation he snapped, "I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"No, I have no idea."

Hearing this, Turek "simply walked out, frustrated with the entire semester... I expected a lot more from a university religion professor. I later learned that my expectations were too high for the modern university" (18-19).

Like most Christian conservatives, Turek and Geisler have a serious axe to grind with today's public universities. They deride the attitude they believe has taken hold in the "_plura_versities" that "deem every viewpoint, no matter how ridiculous, just as valid as any other" (19).

This accusation of theirs is, I think, an oversimplification of what's actually a pretty reasonable point-of-view. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who just so hate conflict that they've chosen to protect themselves from it by effectively shutting off their minds to the question of who's right and who's wrong in politics and religion. There are also those who've put serious thought into the matter, however, and have decided against judging world views because if The Truth is unknowable - and there are good reasons to suggest it's not - then practically speaking, all that matters is what works for you, while not infringing on others' search for what works for them. I'm not really a fan of this view, but it makes more sense than Geisler and Turek are suggesting here when they condescendingly explain how two mutually contradictory claims can't both be true (do they truly believe this idea's never occurred to the "_plura_versities" with whom they disagree?).

But we'll talk more about agnosticism when Geisler and Turek do; I don't want to get ahead of them. Today I just want to talk about Turek's Old Testament professor, because the episode irks me. The avowed agnosticism of Turek's professor doesn't bother me as it did (and apparently still does) bother Turek because it's clearly only a summary of the man's ideas on the subject. As a lone statement it doesn't tell us much at all; the specifics of his world view clearly require a little unpacking. All of which is to say that if Turek had simply stuck around long enough to ask a second or even third question, he probably would have gotten a much more concrete response.

Obviously I can't know what Turek's O.T. professor would have said if given the chance, but here's just one of many possibilities:

"If you don't know if God exists, how do you know the Bible isn't 100% true?"

"Oh no, I'm as certain as I can be that the Bible's version of God is incorrect. It bears all the marks of simply being a man-made document. But in so far as whether a being we could rightly name 'God' exists in our vast multiverse? Whether the Prime Mover was or is intelligent? I really have no clue and I'm not convinced we can. I wish it were otherwise."

See? That wasn't so hard, was it?

Here's the thing, though: taking this episode in isolation, I would simply chalk up Frank Turek's huffy exit here to a young man's impatience. But a pattern begins to emerge when you read through the other chapters of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. It turns out Geisler & Turek love to provide us with anecdotes in which they wittily outmaneuver an atheist in a debate. Chapter 2 includes a plethora of them, including several more examples of how much smarter Christian apologists were as young men than their secular college professors (come to think it, it's practically a genre of anecdote in Christian apologetics: David and Goliath recast in an academic setting). And the cut-off points for a number of these recounted conversations are problematic for me in the same way Turek's opening story of his semester in an Old Testament class does, particularly when G&T; get to their patented "Road Runner Tactic" for debates in Chapter 2. I'll note them as we come upon them.

For now, I'm just going to point out that Frank Turek's lack of further inquiry into his old professor's belief accomplishes something: it makes the professor look more foolish than he probably was. As we continue reading through I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, I think we'll find Geisler and Turek do this often.

(A twice-weekly schedule, by the way, is looking about right for now. So see you on Sunday.)

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (p.1!)

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That Geisler and Turek have written a book about how much more intellectual sense it makes to be a Christian is, to my mind, interesting in itself for what it says about modern Christianity.

The title isn't simply a catty remark about how ridiculously unsupportable Geisler & Turek believe atheists' world view to be; it's the central contention of their book - that one reason to believe in Christianity is because it's the shortest leap of faith available. As early as their introduction, they set out very carefully an understanding of faith as an unnecessary evil, one which everyone is forced to employ to the least possible degree because none of us have omniscience. And they are very clear on the point; later they spend part of their second chapter insuring we understand the only good reason to believe something is if it's supported best by the available data.

Which is not an argument with which I'm inclined to disagree... but, er, isn't it an unbiblical position? I mean, I can't be the only one who remembers that faith is considered a good thing in the Word, right? Isn't Faith one of Paul's three virtues?

I realize I'm open to charges of equivocation here. "Faith" has a number of definitions and the one Geisler & Turek use ("belief that is not based on proof") is different from the faith Jesus finds and applauds in a Roman soldier ("confidence or trust in a person or thing"), or the faith of the three Hebrews before Nebuchadnezzar's oven ("the obligation of loyalty or fidelity").

But it's not different from what Jesus is talking about when He says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Or when He demands we come to Him with the belief of little children (i.e. unquestioning) in Matthew 18:3 & 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, and Luke 18:15-17. Or when God informs Israel that any messenger capable of "signs and wonders" should nevertheless be distrusted if his message does not conform to prior revelation, so that even actual, first-hand evidence of the supernatural is no excuse to change one's mind. No, these are all ringing endorsements for faith irrespective of evidence. In fact, the less evidence you need the better.

The modern rationalist, of course, dismisses this world view as a near-perfect inversion of the true respective worths of faith and evidence. In I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, it's clear Geisler & Turek agree it's more important to have evidence than faith, as do many other Christians here in the West (just check out Webmaster Joe's own introductory posts on the book In Search of A Confident Faith. The first one's here, second one's here). But by doing so, they in effect cede that the Bible's own point-of-view about belief is antiquated.

If you ask me, that's not a good way to start an argument for the Bible's inerrancy.

NEXT: The book's introduction.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist": Intro

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A couple of days ago I wrote about why I wouldn't be writing a series on this blog rebutting Norm Geisler's and Frank Turek's I_ Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist_, a book I feel is pretty emblematic of Christian apologetics as a field.

This is the beginning of that series.

I changed my mind and decided to write it for a couple of reasons. First, I was pretty convinced that such a series would be merely redundant, since Kyle over at ExChristian.net has already done an excellent job of putting paid to Geisler and Turek's book, but on further reflection Kyle's responses to the majority of these arguments aren't (all) mine. Second, the book's 12-step line of reasoning for why the Bible is divinely-inspired and inerrant also looks like a handy way to organize a discussion not only of Geisler and Turek's points, but the points of other Christian apologists like the odious Dr. William Lane Craig. Third, I have to read the book anyway - I promised - so I might as well get some mileage for Joe's blog out of it.

Webmaster Joe, incidentally, is reading and annotating a book of Christian apologetics himself: In Search of A Confident Faith, by Drs. Moreland and Issler. I think it'll be interesting to see how the two books we're reading compare. I suspect, for example, to find the two books replicate many of the same arguments. I will, of course, continue to snap at his heels whenever he posts, and gladly invite him to return the favor.

OK then! So here's Geisler and Turek's chain of logic, which is designed to take one from no presuppositions whatsoever in favor of Christianity to believing the Bible is the divinely-inspired Word of God.

  1. Truth about Reality is knowable.
  2. The opposite of truth is false.
  3. The theistic God exists, which we can tell from the Cosmological Argument, Teleological Argument, and Moral Argument.
  4. If God exists, miracles are possible.
  5. Miracles can be used to confirm a message from God.
  6. The New Testament is historically reliable.
  7. The New Testament says Jesus claimed to be God.
  8. Jesus' claim to be God was miraculously confirmed by his fulfillment of prophecies, sinless life, miraculous deeds, and resurrection.
  9. Therefore, Jesus is God.
  10. Whatever Jesus/God said is true.
  11. Jesus taught the Bible is the Word of God.
  12. The Bible is the Word of God and anything which contradicts it is false.

We'll start either tomorrow or the day after.

If anyone has any good ideas for what to call this series of posts, by the way, I'm open to suggestions. Nothing's coming to me just at present and unless something does, I'm just going to be boring about it.

Battle of the Giants

There's only one possible debate between a skeptic of the Bible and a Christian apologist I would care to hear more than Dr. Robert M. Price vs. Dr. William Lane Craig: a debate between the aforementioned Dr. Craig and Dr. Jeremy Beahan (unfortunately not yet the recipient of a Wikipedia page) of the always-excellent Reasonable Doubts podcast.

I'm still sadly unaware of such an event - but I'm more than content to learn today that my second-place dream match-up did in fact take place as far back as 1999 at Ohio State and can be downloaded here. And so utterly convinced am I of its entertainment value that as of this writing I've yet to listen to it for myself.

Which means I might as well throw out my prediction ere I enjoy: I think Dr. Price is the most Biblically literate and clear-thinking skeptic I've ever discovered, but I cringe to suspect Craig will acquit himself better, as his debating skills are legendarily sharp (thus my hope he'll one day debate Dr. Beahan, who I'd wager anything knows at least as much bout philosophy as Lane, if less about the Bible, but most importantly knows how to formally debate). Let's find out...

UPDATE: Yeah, I had it just about right. Craig stayed completely on-target and Price rambled, allowing himself easily to be diverted by whatever side-subject caught his interest. The former came to a debate, the latter merely to talk. What I find curious about this result is its (herein demonstrated) predictability; how bizarre that Craig's opponents, from Hitchens to Price, either never seem to realize he intends to engage them in an old-school, formal debate - in which points are systematically laid down, then attacked and defended - or simply refuse to put in the time to prepare for one with him (and preparing wouldn't even take them that long. This particular apologist rarely varies his case; listen to any one of his presentations and you've listened to them all). What's more, they don't seem to understand how ineffectual they look when they fail to address his points.

Ah, well. Maybe one day I'll get my debate with Dr. Beahan.

The Land of Milk and Jam?

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After referring to the Levant for thousands of years as "a land of milk and honey" simply on faith, archaeologists have finally unearthed evidence that people did farm bees there.

According to New Scientist's pretty interesting article on the matter, "Because no evidence for beekeeping had been found until now, 'honey' was deemed to mean jam."

Deemed by scholars, the writer surely means. This is one of those revelations concerning a matter about which your average person - myself included - has never known there was any doubt.

UPDATE: And here's another article from New Scientist concerning the largest study of Jewish genetics to date:

This entry was tagged. Bible

The Bible Role Playing Game

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So I'm poking around the internet for a directory of given names for Midianites or Amalekites and I find this - a step-by-step, program-assisted guide to creating whatever Canaanite name you want.

Apparently it was created as a tool for people playing roleplaying games in an ancient Canaanite setting - that is, playing Dungeons & Dragons or something of the sort in Biblical scenery. Even as a scion of the whole Comics/RPG/Sci-Fi/Fantasy culture, I've never heard of that, but imagining how such a thing might play out entertains me immensely.

UPDATE: After a little more digging about, I've learned that there is indeed a fairly new role playing game produced for enthusiasts of Biblical mythology, aptly named Testament. And there's a magazine named - I kid you not - Targum that contains supplementary information for it.

The game features character classes such as "desert hermit", "Levite priest", and of course "champion of Israel" (that is, a judge). Characters have piety ratings and glorious opportunities for advantages like the "Nazirite feat", which "adds +8 to an attribute of your choice, as long as you don’t drink alcohol, drink wine, cut your hair, or let your Piety drop below 10 (by, for example, dallying with a Qedeshot dancer and letting her cut your hair)."

I want to buy this game just to read the rest of its instruction manual.

Above is a picture of Testament's cover.

This entry was tagged. Bible Culture Links

Minor Thoughts on the Book of Joshua

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The foreword written afterward

About two weeks ago, the inexplicable bug bit me to write a daily commentary on the Book of Judges. I wanted it to have a conversational tone, with its tongue often straining at its cheek, and I wanted it to largely eschew the "spiritual metaphors" and "hidden meanings" that pastors, priests, and rabbis see in it in favor of discussing... well, what interests me: its influences and sources, its composition, its historicity. Everything that most people can spend their entire life faithfully attending church every Sunday without once hearing mentioned, but which scholars have enjoyed discussing for over a hundred years.

Below's what happened. It's not by any means exhaustive; in fact, it's intentionally the opposite, a light skip along Joshua's pages rather than a labored dissection of the ancient work. It's also certainly not authoritative. I've never attended seminary, nor was I even a Religion major in college; my knowledge of Biblical criticism comes from a few courses I took in college as electives and the reading I've done for pleasure since. And even if I was formally trained, the fact is that Biblical criticism is a field in which everyone does the best they can with the clues available, a lot of which are circumstantial. My college professor often concluded a discussion of a particular item in the Scriptures by saying, "I only know two things for sure: I don't know and you don't know."

That's not always true, of course. There are some things I think serious students of the Bible can now declare in total confidence - for instance, that Joshua's campaign as described in the Bible just doesn't match the archaeological evidence we have. But views such as mine on the origin of the Levites are easily debatable with DNA evidence and simply good questions, such as my wife's, who just asked me why Levi's featured in stories like Genesis 34 if he never really existed.

With those caveats outta the way, here's hoping you find something worthwhile in the study. I did. It's just as they say: "The best way to learn is to teach."

The Commentary Index

Joshua 22-24 - About the altar of Gilead.

Joshua 21 - The secret origin of the Levites.

Joshua 20 - On the six cities of refuge.

Joshua 12-19 - How the twelve tribes truly came into possession of Canaan.

Joshua 11 - The Anakim and other tall tales.

Joshua 10 - Joshua's greatest hit.

Joshua 9 - Anti-Gibeonite propaganda.

Joshua 7-8 - Why knowing God's will for your life may be easier than you think.

Joshua 5-6 - On the fall of Jericho.

Joshua 2-4 - Why Rahab deserves a better rep and how important God's parting the waters really is.

Joshua 1 - On the authorship of the Book of Joshua and Joshua's possible secret heritage.

Joshua 22-24 (Gilead's Altars, Recap)

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And welcome back to the Internet’s greatest Bible commentary, in which Yours Truly reads through the Bible and explains its many mysteries as best my limited education allows. I encourage you to read the Good Book along with me, because my time’s too valuable to write summaries. Here we go!

Today's entry is our grand finale. Stay tuned for another bookend post akin to the one which began this series.

22:10. And they came to the regions of the Jordan, that are in the land of Canaan, and the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar there by the Jordan, a great altar to look upon.

As Dr. Robert Price would admonish us, the first question we'll ask ourselves about Chapter 23 is the most important: what use did the writer of this passage's contemporary audience have for it? What's its function?

The answer's not difficult: this story explains why, at the time of writing, there existed altars to the LORD in the land of Gilead which matched Jerusalem's in age and grandeur. Their existence and the love of the populace for them is a sticking point for the YWHists, who have said that God desires His worship to be centralized in Jerusalem.

What the writer has come up with is pretty clever. The altars were legally built, but the original intention was never to worship with them. They're just to remind you that you're supposed to be worshiping the LORD over in Jerusalem. So: you don't have to knock 'em down, but don't use 'em!

Chapter 23 is of course "The Story Thus Far". Since the story of Joshua and other important scrolls were not collected in one volume until well after the time of Jesus, it was important to include a summary of previous events within the work.

23:15. And it shall be, that as all the good things that the Lord your God has spoken to you have come to pass, so shall the Lord bring upon you all the evil things, until He has destroyed you from this good land, that the Lord your God has given you.

23:16. When you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, that He has commanded you, and you will go and serve strange gods and you will bow to them; then the wrath of the Lord will burn against you, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land that He has given you."

This is a reference to Assyria's destruction of Israel and/or Babylon's of Judah. If you're a Christian, you likely believe that this is an example of prophecy; if you have a secular view of the Scriptures, these verses show that the Book of Joshua was either written or revised later than Canaan's foreign domination.

Chapter 24 has some fun working of the crowds by Joshua. "Choose for yourself, People, but I'm going to serve the LORD." "We will, too!" "You? Pfffft. You can't handle it." "Yes, we can! We're going to serve the LORD!" "Alriiiight... Did everyone hear that? You said it, not me."

It's worth pointing out, because I think it's one of the simplest admissions that many evangelical Christians tend not to consider but are willing to make, that "the people" didn't really all say the dialogue ascribed to them here. The author clearly made the words up in order to get across the crowd's sentiments in a stylish way.

24:33. And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him in the hill of Phinehas his son, which was given to him in Mount Ephraim.

As previously mentioned in this series, Eleazar should already have died in the desert.

NEXT: An afterword, but I don't blame you if you don't want to stick around. Thanks for reading.

Bible Translation: Judaica Press's Tanach with Rashi commentary, courtesy of Chabad.org.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Joshua 21

Joshua 20

Joshua 12-19

Joshua 11

Joshua 10

Joshua 9

Joshua 7-8

Joshua 5-6

Joshua 2-4

Joshua 1

Joshua 21 (Levites)

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And welcome back to the Internet’s greatest Bible commentary, in which Yours Truly reads through the Bible and explains its many mysteries as best my limited education allows. I encourage you to read the Good Book along with me, because my time’s too valuable to write summaries. Here we go!

I like how another blog I ran across while researching today's post started its own entry on this subject:

Who the hell were the Levites?

I may have to steal and modify it into my standard opening, or maybe the title format for my posts here. "What the hell are the cities of refuge?", "Who the hell is Joshua, son of Nun?", "Who the hell wrote the Book of Joshua?", etc.

21:1. And the heads of the fathers' [houses] of the Levites approached Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun, and the heads of the fathers' [houses] of the tribes of the children of Israel;

22:2: And they spoke to them in Shiloh in the land of Canaan, saying, "The Lord commanded through Moses to give us cities to dwell in, and the open land around them for our cattle."

Among the twelve tribes of Israel, the Levite tribe is uniquely cursed, uniquely blessed, and uniquely fictional. Their curse is to inhabit forty-eight cities situated throughout land belonging to the other tribes, rather than possessing a whole region to call their own. Their blessing is to be a people comprised entirely of the LORD's ministers - His priests, His temple workers, their support staff. Their history as described in the first five books of the Bible and their identification there as a separate people, ethnically related to their eleven (or twelve) brother tribes, is the invention of tradition with an assist by the priesthood's writers.

It's possible the Levites might as well have been their own tribe by the time the Book of Joshua was written; it's not difficult to imagine an exclusive caste of intermarrying priests, temple workers, seers, and their servants developing in Canaan during the Late Bronze and early Iron ages. Nor is it difficult to imagine the great advantage that being seen as a people gave them. As a race instead of just an organization they had an additional claim to land and temporal power over it, which made disdain for their authority in their power bases not only a violation of holy ground but also of a nation's sovereign borders. Again, you can compare the status they desired with that of the Catholic Church in its heyday, when it was very literally God's kingdom on Earth, with its own citizens, borders, and troops, along with numerous embassies - that is, churches - in other countries.

But the blood that ran through the veins of the Levites who dwelled in Ephraim was Ephraimite blood, just as the blood of those priests who lived in Judahite territory was Judahite, and so on. Some were perhaps of mixed descent.

As for their occupational heritage, it was not one they owed to YWH. These seers, temple caretakers, ritual butchers, and outright magicians had plied their trade as Canaan's intermediaries with the spirit world long before He monopolized their business. The name by which they're still known even references their previous service to a powerful snake deity (consider that their name shares its root word with "leviathan"), a service which dramatically ended when King Hezekiah smashed their main idol.*

Sea changes in the ritualism and theology of the Levites were not only brought about by a dynasty that schizophrenically vacillated between state-mandated henotheism and traditional Canaanite polytheism. The various clans of Levites constantly waged wars of religious propaganda against each other. A sect would attempt to undercut the authority of a rival faction by promoting unflattering stories about that group's founding members.

The Levites who speak to Joshua in this chapter represent a fusion of those two brotherhoods, who were painfully united out of necessity when the Assyrians devastated Israel. Refugees from the ruined kingdom fled into Judah and brought their beliefs with them. The compromise these Moses-touting immigrants eventually struck with the Aaronite priests of Jerusalem resulted in the stories so familiar to Bible readers today.

* Cultural shifts are never so neat, of course. Illegal worship undoubtedly continued despite Hezekiah's suppression and began to revive under his polytheistic son Manasseh, but the "YWH-Only" crowd likely dealt it a serious blow every time they came to power, from which the religion self-evidently never completely recovered.

NEXT: The weekend. Come back on Monday.

Bible Translation: Judaica Press's Tanach with Rashi commentary, courtesy of Chabad.org.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Joshua 20

Joshua 12-19

Joshua 11

Joshua 10

Joshua 9

Joshua 7-8

Joshua 5-6

Joshua 2-4

Joshua 1

"Is the Bible Fact or Fiction?" in TIME

TIME's running a feature-length article on their website about how archaeologists are informing our understanding of the Bible. I note that they quote Israel Finkelstein, the book of whom is one of my primary resources for my commentary on the Book of Joshua.

I wish the reporter had added a little more detail to this sentence:

In 1986, archaeologists found the earliest known text of the Bible, dated to about 600 B.C. It suggests that at least part of the Old Testament was written soon after some of the events it describes.

What text, Dude? Which part? Inquiring minds want to know and now will have to look it up themselves - and they're lazy, so they hate doing that!

But the piece is a pretty good summary of the history and current state of Biblical archaeology, at least as I understand the subject. Check 'er out.

This entry was tagged. Bible News

Joshua 20 (Cities of Refuge)

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And welcome back to the Internet’s greatest Bible commentary, in which Yours Truly reads through the Bible and explains its many mysteries as best my limited education allows. I encourage you to read the Good Book along with me, because my time’s too valuable to write summaries. Here we go!

Wow. That last post really pulled us ahead, didn't it? Only four more chapters to go now. You hardcore bloggers out there will think I'm a wimp for saying it, but I'm glad; publishing a daily series has been fun but tiring. I want to continue on to the Book of Judges, but I think I'll be taking a break before I do.

Onto Chapter 20.

20:2. "Speak to the children of Israel, saying, 'Prepare for you cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses.

This order was given by the LORD way, way back in Numbers/Bamidbar 35.

20:6. And he shall dwell in that city until he stand before the tribunal for judgment, until the death of the High Priest that shall be in those days. Then shall the slayer return, and come to his own city, and to his own house, to the city from which he fled."

I was confused when I first read this verse and had to seek clarification, so I'll now offer the same. A man who accidentally kills another may legally take refuge in one of six designated cities, after which he is marched back to his own town under guard in order to stand trial. If he is found guilty of intentional murder, he is executed; if not, he is returned to the city of refuge, wherein he must remain until the death of the high priest living there, an event which atones for an exile's sin.

Three cities are selected for the purpose on the western side of the Jordan River and three are selected to the east of it. Each of the three to the west - Shechem, Hebron, and Kadesh - were major centers of religion and naturally belonged to the Levites, so we can safely assume that the other three - Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan - were as well.

Their ability to protect people comes from the ancient and especially Hebrew idea of "holy ground", derived from a god's ownership of it and presence on it. Such land is naturally not beholden to any temporal authority, so its caretakers are in theory free to defy any secular parties' demands of it, such as extradition of a fugitive. This idea is basically still a part of the Catholic Church's doctrine and until the seventeenth century, it still had the clout to make its churches sanctuaries from local law.

(I should note in fairness that the Catholic Church itself argues its concept of sanctuary has nothing to do with ancient cities of refuge. Quoth the Catholic Encyclopedia: "The right of sanctuary was based on the inviolability attached to things sacred, and not, as some have held, on the example set by the Hebrew cities of refuge." Since the power of the cities rested on the inviolability of sacred things, however, I think the two concepts are justly identified with each other.)

Historically, the Hebrew cities of refuge may have not actually worked out so well in practice as they were supposed to in theory. Apparently they didn't in other civilizations of the time. Wikipedia's entry on the subject says:

Over time, these general rights of asylum were gradually curtailed, as some sanctuaries had become notorious hotbeds of crime; in Athens, for example, the regulations were changed so that slaves were only permitted to escape to the sanctuary of the temple of Theseus.

Some historians suggest this is why only six cities are listed when in theory any Levite city should work. By the time the Book of Joshua was written, other cities had eliminated the policy.

Later there was also the problem of what to do when not all six of the cities in question were under Jewish authority. Rabbis pragmatically concluded that alternative cities could be designated as necessary. Other Hebrew traditions and bylaws concerning issues with the cities of refuge are just as entertainingly practical. The Mishnah tells us that the mothers of the high priests were understandably concerned that the refugees would wish a quick death upon her son and that their thoughts would cause exactly that (an "evil eye" -type superstition), so they traditionally offered gifts of food and clothing to the new arrivals.

It was my intention to cover two chapters in today's post, but after reading Chapter 21 I've realized that doing it justice is going to require its own day's work.

NEXT: The secret identity of the Levites!

Bible Translation: Judaica Press's Tanach with Rashi commentary, courtesy of Chabad.org.

Picture: Cities of refuge, as in Joshua 20:1-9, illustration from a Bible card published 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Judah 12-19

Joshua 11

Joshua 10

Joshua 9

Joshua 7-8

Joshua 5-6

Joshua 2-4

Joshua 1

Joshua 12-19 (The Origin of Judah)

So: please find below my summary of Joshua 12-19.

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Which I lifted from a page on Wikipedia, that famous fount of information. That page also says that

... by the Bible's account, and archaeologically as well, the Israelites did not conquer the plains at that time; thus, those borders that run through the plains are nominal; they partition land that Israel did not possess.

Thanks, Wikipedia!

The above map begs an important question that I haven't yet addressed in this series: if Joshua's campaign never took place - and make no mistake, the verdict on that question is in - then how did these tribes actually come to Canaan?

Well, they didn't come from anywhere. The people who eventually identified themselves as Israel, a chosen people that had destroyed and replaced the vile Canaanite population formerly living in the Levant, were actually the latest generation of Canaanites themselves. At the risk of losing all credibility with you as a scholar (oh, wait - I have none! Well then, let's carry on!), I'm going to quote Wikipedia's summary of the question:

Since archaeological remains show a smooth cultural continuity in [Canaan in the Late Bronze Age], rather than the destruction of one culture (Canaanite) and replacement by another (Israelite), a large body of archaeologists believe that the Israelites were simply an emergent subculture within Canaanite society — i.e. that an Israelite conquest would be... logical nonsense — it would have involved the Canaanites invading themselves, from Canaan.

There is evidence that many Canaanite cities were suddenly destroyed in the Late Bronze Age, but believers in the Abrahamic religions err in taking it all as proof of an Israelite invasion. If they widened their perspective of the archaeological finds to include what was happening at the time in the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole, they'd understand that the finds are part of a greater mystery: the unsolved question of why every civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean abruptly collapsed in a very short period, with the exception (barely) of Egypt.

One tribe of desert-wanderers, who principally worshiped a god named YWH and who never ate pigs, did indeed "invade" and settle in Canaan during the Late Bronze Age. They didn't see it as an opportunity so much as a necessity; the collapse of civilization meant that the Canaanites were once again living at a subsistence level and didn't have extra grain and vegetables to trade for the wanderers' sheep. The desert-wanderers would now have to farm for themselves. This they did by settling in small villages throughout the central highlands of the Levant, laying down roots that would eventually turn them into a small, unwealthy nation named Judah. Because the highlands were so difficult to reach and held too few resources to make conquering their inhabitants worth it, it survived the new and powerful kingdoms that emerged around it.

This tribe of Judah was never part of a greater monarchy that included the far more wealthy kingdom of Israel to the north. They were clearly of the same ethnicity, as well as of the same breed as the other desert-wanderers who settled Edom, Moab, and Ammon. They once had a leader named David, famed for how brilliantly he led his army of habiru against the Israelites and Ammonites. Eventually they would come under the power of a theocratic regime led by the high priest Hilkiah and the king Hezekiah, who were determined to obliterate the traditional polytheism of their people.

They had big dreams, those men. They imagined a unified Canaan with its capital in Jerusalem, where the throne would always be occupied by a descendant of the House of David. To facilitate this expansion of Judah's power, a history was written, either over time or all at once, in which the many differing traditions of the Israelite and Judahite tribes were threaded together to form one narrative. This history showed that all of their revered ancestors - Abram/Abraham, Isaac, Jacob - were of one family, and thus so were they, and damn it, it was time to start acting like it by integrating into one political unit and reestablishing their independence from foreigners.

That didn't happen, of course. Judah's rebellion against its Assyrian master resulted in ruin, with only Jerusalem being spared thanks to a last-minute bribe. Later attempts by "YWHist" kings to throw off the yoke of foreign agents resulted in the exile to Babylon.

All of which you might say is a digression from Joshua 12-19, but I think it's related; both the chapters and this post are about how the mythic kingdom of Israel was originally organized. The chapters deal with the content of the myth itself and I've dealt here with the writing of it.

We'll return to the story of Joshua tomorrow. 'Til then.

NEXT TIME: I'll be honest with you. I'd have to read ahead to know.

SOURCES: Wikipedia, The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Joshua 11

Joshua 10

Joshua 9

Joshua 7-8

Joshua 5-6

Joshua 2-4

Joshua 1

Joshua 11 (Anakim)

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And welcome back to the Internet’s greatest Bible commentary, in which Yours Truly reads through the Bible and explains its many mysteries as best my limited education allows. I encourage you to read the Good Book along with me, because my time’s too valuable to write summaries. Here we go!

11:1. And it was, when Jabin king of Hazor heard, he sent to Jobab king of Madon, and to the king of Shimron, to the king of Achshaph.

11:2. And to the kings that were on the north of the mountains, and of the plains south of Chinnaroth, and in the valley, and in the regions of Dor on the west.

By the end of Chapter 10, Joshua has successfully conquered and obliterated all the cities in the southern half of Israel. Now Israel has to reckon with the major cities to the north, which it does.

5:18. Joshua made war a long time with all these kings.

This verse is the subject of one of Rashi's many entertainingly preposterous notes. According to the venerated sage, this verse is actually a rebuke to Joshua, because the Israelite leader, aware of his divinely ordination to parcel out the Promised Land to the tribes of Israel, took his sweet time killing the Canaanites in order to extend his lifespan.

5:21. And at that time, Joshua came and cut off the 'Anakim from the mountains, from Hebron, from Debir, from 'Anab, and from all the mountains of Judah, and from all the mountains of Israel; Joshua destroyed them completely with their cities.

Here we have mention of the Anakim, or "the descendants of Anak", a small ethnic minority that are physically intimidating to their neighbors because of their great height. Oddly enough, traditional Jewish sources tend to prefer a down-to-earth interpretation of passages involving these people, while some Christians still link them with the nephilim of Genesis and conclude they were demon-human hybrids of astonishing size.

The Anakim could well have been nephilim - giants - but remember how relative that word is. People in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age were far shorter than the average man or woman is today. Goliath's height of six feet and seven inches (200cm) was considered awe-inspiring at the time it was recorded, but today I have a cousin that tall.

In his book The Greek Myths, Robert Graves suggests that the Anakites' mighty ancestor Anak is the same mythic figure whom the ancient Greeks knew as Anax. There are undeniable parallels - like Anak, Anax was said to be the giant leader of a tall people named after him, the Anactorians - and both legends existed in the same time period, in two lands known to have been in contact. It's a neat thought, so I hope it's true.

OK, then. Since Chapter 12 is a major gear change from the type of stuff we've been reading so far, I'm going to end today's entry here.

NEXT TIME: As any policeman or military officer can tell you, behind every successful mission lies a mountain of paperwork. Join Joshua as he gets down to the less sexy, bureaucratic side of leading an invasion.

Bible Translation: Judaica Press's Tanach with Rashi's commentary, courtesy of Chabad.org.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Joshua 10

Joshua 9

Joshua 7-8

Joshua 5-6

Joshua 2-4

Joshua 1