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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Book of Genesis - the Sumerian hypothesis

The Book of Genesis is one of the most discussed books in the Bible and stands at the center of the great debates about the origin of our universe and of all life on earth. To what extent can we take it serious in the context of current scientific research? The problem bedeviling the interpretation of this book is the modernist approaches that had been used to read it since the beginning of the science-religion discussion - readings that take our contemporary perspective as point of departure. I propose a different approach, grounded in a Sumerian hypothesis. This changes our reading of the book in substantial ways and solve many of the interpretive problems, especially in the first few chapters. It also provides some answers regarding origins.

The Book of Genesis is one of the great books of the ancient world. Few other ancient books are so intensely discussed in our time as this book. Although there are many other ancient books and stories that give an ancient perspective on creation, this book is unique in that so many well-educated people from all over the world take it serious even in our day and age - believing that it had been divinely inspired and as such provides answers, not merely about the origins of the cosmos and life in it, but also about the true meaning of human existence. This is indeed the great quest before humans, trying to answer the question: What is the meaning of our existence? And it seems that the Book of Genesis may give some answers in this regard.

The problem with the Book of Genesis is that so many different people have so many different ideas about the manner in which we should understand the book! People from other religions than the Judaeo-Christian tradition and secularists are obviously not so taken by the book, but this does not mean that they cannot also appreciate the remarkable agreements between the book and modern science - for example, that the cosmos had an origin "in the beginning" when matter (heaven and earth) came into existence in time and space (in accordance with Einstein's general theory of relativity and the Big Bang theory). One also finds that the increase in the complexity of life forms which came into being through time is a feature of both science and the first chapter of the book. Some Christian scientists have developed detailed outlines showing a remarkable correspondence between these two perspectives.

There are also people, however, who think that there are some fundamental disagreements between the Book of Genesis and science. This is also the reason why many secular minded people do not engage with the book - and even think that the Bible teaches unrealistic stories about creation that had long ago been refuted by science. Some Christians - especially those from traditional communities as well as the Seventh-day-Adventist church - do in fact believe that the book teaches that the cosmos is only a few thousand years old. But many other Christians disagree with this: they think that the best reading of the book is indeed one that allows for a long period of creation. One of the main concerns of my approach is to answer such questions through a proper consideration of the ancient world in which the book originated and the context in which the author produced it.

On the whole there are three approaches to the book. The first group follows a "fundamentalist" approach that asserts the literal reading of the text (which its opponents think is excessively literal, neglecting due consideration of the context). The second approach is the "scientific" approach used by Christian scientists that work towards reconciling the book with science (which may lead to neglecting the context of its origin in an ancient world very different from our own). The third approach is that used by Biblical Criticism scholars which may be called a "secular" approach since they often assert that we should study the book without regard for its supposed divine origin (which their opponents think takes an excessive critical stance towards the book). In my approach I discuss all these views when I engage with the various relevant topics.

How should we navigate between all the rocks of bad interpretation to arrive at an appropriate reading of the book? In my view we should use good hermeneutical principles developed by the best philosophers of our day (people like Hans-Georg Gadamer; see [1]) while at the same time give serious consideration to the period in which the book originated. I suggest a Sumerian hypothesis according to which the Mesopotamian source material in the first few chapters (called the "ancient history") should be understood as originating in the land of Sumer from which Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites, is said to have come. This goes against the view currently accepted in Biblical Criticism circles, namely that the book (for the most part) originated during or after the Babylonian exile - which would mean that we should merely consider the book in literary terms. I assert that the book is much more than that.

Rereading the Book of Genesis

The Book of Genesis is important to Christians because it touches on many issues of central concern to their faith, including divine creation, God's purpose with man, the Fall, the promise of the "seed" (Messiah), the calling of Abraham etc. These are indeed issues that stand central to the whole message of the Bible. For Christians the story of the Fall brings God's salvation for mankind through the work of Jesus Christ into focus. The critical stance of traditional Christians towards other interpretations is grounded in the fear that these might in some manner undermine good Christian doctrine. They often think that believe in an old age for the cosmos in accordance with the scientific view necessarily implies support for Neo-Darwinistic evolution (which all traditional Christians reject). They also think that such views undermine the teaching of the Fall - which for them is indissolubly linked with an historical Adam and Eve who were created as the very first humans six thousand years ago. They do, however, not consider the possibility that these might be false dichotomies, i.e. that certain other interpretations might be in agreement with science without undermining good teaching.

On the other hand, one often find that scholars from the Biblical Criticism tradition think that their view is the only scientifically accepted approach to the Bible. Since many of these scholars do not have any concern for good Biblical teaching, they do not have to take these into consideration when studying the Biblical text. In fact, they often think that since they are not motivated by religious concerns, their approach is superior to that used by such Christians - and they absolutely reject the idea that we should in any manner relate the text to current scientific concerns. The problem with this view is that all people, scholars included, both religious and non-religious, have some preferences - there is no such thing as an "objective" perspective, especially insofar as texts like the Bible are concerned. Many of these scholars, therefore, also think in terms of false dichotomies, either we study the Bible "scientifically" or our views are religiously determined.

The only manner in which these problems can be resolved, is to understand what good interpretation is. So often, in both traditional Christian and Biblical Criticism circles, the views of the readers are forced onto the text without any real concern for the voice of the author and the tradition from which he/she originated. This goes back to the days of modernism in previous centuries, when philosophers and scientists thought that we can achieve one final and objective view on texts and reality - a view that is not taken seriously today because we now know that there are always various possible interpretations of texts and reality (which does not mean that one supports the post-modernist view, i.e. that all interpretations are in some manner acceptable, which would again be a false dichotomy!!).

In traditional circles their interpretation is often considered as "the truth" of the Bible - they do not have a feeling for the fact that there is an enormous gap between present-day readers and those ancient authors, that all humans interpret the Biblical text and that we do not have access to the thoughts of Moses. In Biblical Criticism circles, on the other hand, the scholarly field has been deeply discredited by the modernist approach of earlier days which determined the later development of the discipline [2]. Early scholars thought that they had an "objective" view on the texts which goes beyond the "primitive" views of the authors of those texts. In both cases the views of readers are forced onto the text!

There are some very basic problems with both these views which are immediately observable to any careful study of the ancient context in which the book originated. The traditional view asserts that the seven days of creation are literal solar days in spite of the fact that the sun, moon and stars were only created on the fourth "day" and served "for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years" (Gen. 1:14). How the first three solar days were possible without the sun, or how solar "days" as well as "seasons" and "years" came into being only on the forth day, is only explained with remarkable interpretative gymnastics. The story of Eve being created from Adam's rib is taken in a literal sense, even though other similar stories from that period show that it was a well-known literary motif.

In my view, we may believe the stories (and even take it in a literal sense) insofar as we understand the context in which they originated and were later written down. I argue that we may accept an historical Adam and Eve (even though we can obviously not prove it!), although they might also be regarded as archetypal parents of the human race. Accepting them as historical persons does not mean that they were the very first humans. Traditional questions as to where their sons got wives or where the other people outside the garden (whom Cain feared) came from, are resolved once we view the word 'adam when it is first introduced in Genesis 1, not as referring to the person Adam who is the main character in the garden story but to mankind who was created on the sixth period ("day") of creation.

Without deciding what "creation" means - we read that the "earth" or "waters" produced species (which is not that specific!) - we may accept that humans were created long before the story of the garden of Eden unfolds. The garden story then tells about later events when Adam and Eve were present in a holy garden, probably on an early "mountain of God". The geographical details given in the beginning of the garden story are in agreement with ancient Sumerian tradition regarding such a mountain - showing that the Biblical tradition is very much part of the ancient world in which it originated.

I furthermore argue that the Fall is already implied from the beginning in the story of creation (words like "chaos" are used; the snake is a fallen creature; the people outside the garden are presented as possible killers) which means that the Fall did not happen through Adam and Eve's disobedience; their fallen human condition was rather "revealed" through their disobedience. Once humans became aware of their fallen condition, the need for salvation arose which is the primary concern of the Biblical message, and which became a reality, as was promised, through the death of Jesus Christ. I show how this reading is in agreement with statements in this regard in the rest of the Bible (especially of St. Paul). It is also in agreement with science which shows that death goes back to the earliest times - long before the time of Adam and Eve about six thousand years ago.

This interpretation means that there is no conflict between the narrative in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis and science - in fact, it aligns, as Christians should expect since they believe that God is the author of both creation and the Scriptures (our understanding of these can therefore not be in conflict; traditional Christians often have a deep distrust in science since they believe that scientists are out to show the Bible wrong, but this is a very simplistic way of seeing things). The power of my reading - which does not merely express our contemporary standpoint, but shows a sensitivity for the ancient milieu in which the author produced the work - is that it resolves many other problematic issues, for example, that of the speaking snake and the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The Biblical Criticism view has its own problems. Many of these scholars, for example, believe in the sources theory of the Pentateuch (for a critical discussion, see [1,2]) according to which there are two creation stories (Gen. 1:1-2:3; Gen. 2:4-3:24) in which two different names of God (Elohim, Yahweh Elohim) appear, which in their view reflects the different sources incorporated in the book. In this reading the whole Book of Genesis is cut into many pieces that the author supposedly brought together in one book. The problem is that this view essentially negates the unity of the book as produced by one author. I show that there are better ways to read these passages which are to be preferred, for example that the two creation stories are in fact a creation and garden story, and that the two names of God reflect the two manifestations of the God El (El-Alyon and El-Sjaddai) who are introduced later in the book and who can only be understood in the context of the ancient concept of the council of God (or: the gods).

Biblical Criticism scholars also assert that the book was written late (nowadays: during or after the Babylonian exile). This is how they account for the Mesopotamian material in the book. This immediately implies that the information in the book should not be taken as referring to historical persons and events - in their view these stories were not part of a long tradition in Israelite circles; rather, they were literary products of a later period which have no relation whatsoever to the ancient history of the forefathers of the Israelites. I show that this view is not in accordance with the facts.

The Mesopotamian material in the book shows absolutely no sign of being influenced by developments after the time of Abraham's journey from Sumeria (Mesopotamia) which excludes a Neo-Babylonian origin during the Babylonian exile (agreement with the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elis is superfluous)! I show that certain motifs in the early chapters, for example, the view that the seven days of creation are the divine model for the Sabbath (see Gen. 2:3), strongly suggests that this was written when the Sabbath was first introduced in Israelite circles - in ancient Mesopotamia the divine model typically served as basis for the introduction of cult practice. This means that the book may have been written by Moses who is so closely connected with the Mosaic law, which included the Sabbath, as is traditionally accepted. I make similar arguments regarding the first introduction of the Mosaic sacrifices.

In my view the traditional young earth and the Biblical Criticism views are build on simplistic modernist readings of the text. There are many other interpretations possible which involve good hermeneutic (interpretative) practice. In my series on the Book of Genesis I develop such an alternative which answers many of the questions that are traditionally ascribed to the book - especially to the first part thereof.

The trustworthiness of the Book of Genesis

When the ancient context in which the book originated is carefully considered, one finds that the book gives a remarkable accurate depiction of historical events - even those that happened in the countries from which the Israelite forefathers originated, for example the stories of Enoch, Nimrod, the tower of "Babylon" etc. If the book is in fact a trustworthy account of the early history of Israel (even though it is obviously not history in the sense that we understand the term today), then its remarkable agreement with modern science may imply that the book is more than just another old document - it might in fact be divinely inspired as the Scriptures themselves assert and as such provide reliable answers to the meaning of human existence and the role of God therein, if it is read in a sophisticated manner.

When we consider the trustworthiness of the information in the book - much of which cannot be proven for the simple fact that archaeology is not an empirical science which produce representative samples of historical events (see [3]) - we should ask how that would be possible? In my view we should take the story of Abraham's journey serious - this would explain how the earlier Sumerian traditions ended up in the Book of Genesis. In Biblical Criticism circles the historicity of Abraham has traditionally been rejected, but new archaeological evidence suggest otherwise. All the main events surrounding Abraham's life are either supported by evidence (the Elamitic incursion towards northern Syria in the correct year under the command of a king with a corresponding name) or we may read the evidence as supporting it (Abraham's journey to Egypt). The correctness of especially the first data makes it impossible to accept that this story is not in some manner grounded in history.

Once the story of Abraham is shown to be trustworthy insofar we are able to confirm it (and the problem with verification is not with the Bible, but with the nature of archaeology [3]), the ground for the Sumerian hypothesis is laid. We can now consider the possibility that the older stories may also reflect historical events since the information regarding them may have come with Abraham's family from Ur in Sumeria (ancient Mesopotamia). I show that there are in fact a remarkable agreement between the Biblical stories in the "ancient history" (Gen. 2-11) and a sensible reconstruction of Sumerian history which take both their cuneiform texts and archaeological data into consideration.

All the important Biblical figures like Adam, Enoch, Noah, Nimrod etc. are also found in Sumerian tradition under similar names - which I read as two traditions going back to the same original events. This obviously does not proof that any of those people lived, but it is surely possible and the Jewish and Christian belief in their historicity is not totally unjustified (for many Christians it is anyhow a matter of belief). Although various possible narratives of ancient Sumerian history may be reconstructed, I show that we have good grounds to do it in such a manner that in agrees with the Biblical narrative.

Conclusion

I therefore argue that the Sumerian hypothesis is not only the best possible way to understand the Book of Genesis - it also solves many of the traditional problems that scholars have with the book. It shows that the book was written early by someone (probably Moses) who used source material that was handed down for many generations in patriarchal and Israelite circles. The narrative in the first part of the book agrees remarkably well with a sensible reconstruction of early Sumerian history. Once we use this ancient context in our interpretation of the book, many of the other problems associated with the book, which originated from a modern reading of the book, disappears.

The book gains a very special place, not only as a remarkable document in which issues that concern us today are presented from an ancient standpoint, but also in presenting deep insights into the greater picture of our human existence. If the picture presented in the book is indeed trustworthy in the context of that time, and agrees with modern science, a good argument may be made that the book is indeed divinely inspired and that we may believed it when it tells about a creator God and sets the stage for the eventual coming of the Messiah.

[1] Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical perspective
[2] A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline 
[3] Part 2: Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. (Ref. www.wmcloud.blogspot.com).
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

Parts of the series on the Book of Genesis that are available:

 
If readers find the essays interesting, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others, including their pastors or other scholars. 





Monday, 3 August 2015

Die probleem met Goddelike wreedheid in die Ou Testament

Vir die eietydse mens is dit moeilik om die gedeeltes in die Ou Testament te verstaan waar mense op God se bevel onder die banvloek kom en doodgemaak word. Vir ons lyk dit gewoon na Goddelike wreedheid wat op geen manier goed gepraat kan word nie. Hoe is dit moontlik dat God sulke wreedhede kon beveel? Maak dit van Hom 'n wrede en aggressiewe God? Ek toon dat hierdie moeilike sake wel sinvol verduidelik kan word. Ek argumenteer selfs dat daar 'n besondere kontinuïteit tussen die Ou en Nuwe Testamentiese beskouings bestaan ten spyte van sommige populêre uitsprake tot die teendeel.

Eietydse lesers van die Bybel stoei dikwels om die etiese norme van ou Israel te verstaan. Hoe is dit moontlik dat God kon opdrag gee dat mense - mans, vroue en kinders - met die banvloek getref word? Hoe is dit moontlik dat 'n profeet van God soos Elia die priesters van Baal met wie hy verskil het, kon slag? Hoekom is daar soveel wreedheid wat in opdrag van God gepleeg is in die Ou Testament - en hoe is dit moontlik dat dieselfde God wat Homself in Jesus Christus sou openbaar (wat die toonbeeld van Goddelike liefde is), terselfdertyd sulke wrede opdragte aan sy dienaars en sy volk kon gee? Alhoewel hierdie 'n moeilike kwessie is, poog ek in hierdie essay om sinvolle voorstelle op die tafel te plaas.

Wanneer ons die Ou Testament lees, dan is dit belangrik dat ons besef dat dit in 'n antieke wêreld afspeel wat op 'n radikaal ander wyse as ons oor dinge gedink het. Ons moet hulle histories-kulturele verbondenheid in ag neem as ons hul verhale lees. Die wreedheid wat ons in die vroeë periode van Israel se geskiedenis vind, was tipies van die wyer wêreld waarin hulle geleef het. Vandag nog vind ons 'n soortgelyke konteks in sekere afgesonderde dele van die wêreld soos in Afganistan waar stamme 'n besonder wrede benadering tot die lewe volg. Die vraag is egter: Hoe kon dieselfde God wat Christene vandag dien, destyds sulke wrede opdragte gee? Staan God nie buite die mens en sy historiese gebondenheid nie?

Alhoewel God volgens die Bybel buite die skepping staan, is dit terselfdertyd so dat God deur sy Gees deur die profete gepraat het binne die konteks van daardie tyd. Vir hulle was daardie dinge duidelik nie verkeerd op dieselfde wyse as wat ons dit as verkeerd beskou nie. Alhoewel ons mag dink dat ons vanuit ons eietydse posisie hul waardes en dade moet veroordeel, verduidelik dit nog nie hoe hulle daardie waardes as reg kon beskou nie. Die eintlike vraag wat ons moet beantwoord, is dus: Hoe kan ons die etiese waardes van destydse Israel regverdig? En hoe kan die veranderende etiese waardes van die Bybel met 'n onveranderlike God versoen word? Is daar iets soos vaste morele waardes?

Die etiese konteks van ou Israel

Dit is vir ons onmoontlik om ons in die posisie van ou Israel in te dink. Ons is, net soos hulle, onlosmaaklik binne ons eie kultuurraamwerk vasgevang. Dit het filosowe soos Heidegger ons kom leer. Tog kan ons hul kultuurraamwerk bestudeer en dit kan ons help om meer begrip vir hul denkwyse te hê. In hierdie verband is dit belangrik om te besef dat ou Israel die kosmos en hul plek daarbinne totaal anders as ons gesien het. Die konsepte wat hulle hieromtrent gehad het, was deel van die antieke wêreld waarbinne hulle gelewe het.

Wanneer ons die antieke wêreld bestudeer, dan is daar veral een faktor wat 'n prominente rol in hul verstaan van die wêreld gespeel het. Dit is dat hulle voortbestaan voortdurend op die mees basiese, eksistensiële vlak bedreig is. In daardie tyd was die stryd om oorlewing baie meer intensief as vandag in soverre invallende hordes enige dag kon opdaag, plunder en mense om die lewe bring. Dit was 'n wêreld waarin chaos en wanorde die reël was - daar was voortdurende onsekerheid oor basiese voortbestaan in die toekoms. Ons moet die kulturele raamwerk van die antieke Midde Oosterse mens binne hierdie konteks verstaan - dit is die konteks waarbinne die destydse etiese norme nie alleen algemeen aanvaar is nie, maar ook as die enigste sinvolle regulerende beginsels geopereer het.

Binne die konteks van die fundamentele bedreiging van hul wêreld, was die natuurlike reaksie van die antieke mens nie alleen om binne groepsverband skuiling te vind nie, maar ook om die groep se belange bo dié van individue te ag. In hierdie konteks is mense se waarde volgens hul potensiële bydrae tot die voortbestaan van die groep waartoe hulle behoort het bepaal. Dit beteken dat mense primêr volgens hulle utilitêre waarde (usefulness) vir die groep beoordeel is. Mans wat kon veg was oor die algemeen meer werd vir die groep as vrouens wat hoofsaaklik belangrik was om nasate vir die groep te verseker.

Vanweë die voortdurende eksistensiële bedreiginge was individue beperk in die mate waarin hulle onafhanklik van die groep besluite kon neem - daar was 'n streng gesagstruktuur waarin die koning en die oudstes oor die belange van die groep gewaak het. Die rede hiervoor is eenvoudig: individuele besluite kan maklik in stryd wees met die belange van die groep en kan dit selfs ondermyn. Ons vind vandag nog in sekere gebiede waar stamme 'n groot mate van kohesie het (veral in die woestyngebiede van die Midde-Ooste, Noord-Afrika, Afganistan ens.) dat die gesag van die oudstes die hele familielewe bestuur. Ons kan hierdie konteks makliker verstaan as ons dit met ons huidige weermag konteks in verband bring waar gesagstrukture streng is en waarin elkeen se waarde hoofsaaklik op utilitêre gronde bepaal word.

Daar was egter ook 'n ander beginsel wat veral in die raamwerk van families, stamme en volksverband (in soverre volke uit stamme bestaan het) asook in stede geopereer het. Binne die konteks van die familie het familiebande en onderlinge liefde tot 'n sekere mate die utilitêre beginsel oorskadu. In soverre iemand tot 'n familie behoort het, het so iemand 'n menswaardigheid gehad wat hulle nie daarbuite kon hê nie. In die wyer konteks van die eie samelewing is hierdie menswaardigheid formeel in die raamwerk van die etiese wette opgeneem. Om te verseker dat niemand bevoordeel word nie en dat geregtigheid seëvier is sulke wette in die antieke Midde-Ooste rondom die beginsel van 'n oog vir 'n oog en 'n tand vir 'n tand geformuleer (dit was die basis vir 'n regverdige orde in 'n wanordelike wêreld). Sulke wette was in die algemeen nie op diegene buite die groep (en diegene wat in die groep aanvaar is) van toepassing nie behalwe tot die mate waartoe enige onreg volgens dieselfde beginsel van geregtigheid vergeld moes word - buite die groep het utilitêre beginsels oorheers.

Diegene buite die eie groep is net soos diegene binne groepsverband primêr binne hul groepskonteks onderskei. Mense se groepsidentiteit het grotendeels hul menslike identiteit bepaal. Aangesien dit slegs binne iemand se eie groepsverband was dat hulle wesentlike menswaardigheid toegesê is, is hulle buite daardie konteks feitlik uitsluitlik in utilitêre terme gesien - hetsy as 'n bedreiging of as iemand wat op een of ander wyse die groep tot voordeel kon dien. Tot vandag vind ons in tye van oorlog - wanner groepe voel dat hulle op 'n radikale wyse bedreig word - dat die "ander" maklik as 'n groep gekarakteriseer word en dat diegene wat tot hulle behoort of hulle daarby skaar maklik onder suspisie kom en dat daar gewoonlik baie streng teen "verraaiers" opgetree word.

Die verhouding met die goderealm

In die konteks van eksistensiële bedreiging is daar na die gode vir beskerming gekyk. Deur die aanbidding van die gode (en al die kultushandelinge wat daarmee gepaard gaan) kon daar op die beskerming van die gode aanspraak gemaak word. In die raamwerk van die derde/tweede millennium in die antieke Middel-Ooste het families dus tipies sekere familiegode vereer wat na daardie families sou omsien. Ons vind ook dat volke sekere (families van) gode vereer het. As sodanig kan ons van die "sakrale" beginsel praat: almal binne 'n sekere familie of volkskonteks het tot dieselfde heilige orde (godsdienstige kultus) behoort. Aangesien die familiegode as beskermers van families in die raamwerk van eksistensiële bedreiginge opgetree het, is individuele keuse natuurlik ook nie in hierdie verband toegelaat nie.


Volgens die boek Genesis was El-Sjaddai Abraham se familiegod. Die volksgod van Israel was Jahweh, wat telkens die "God van Israel" genoem word. Jahweh is die naam waaronder El-Sjaddai Homself volgens die Pentateug aan Moses geopenbaar het (sien Ex. 6:2). Volgens die Mosaïse verbond sou Israel Hom vereer en sou Hy na hulle omsien. As volksgod word sy verhouding met die volk in terme van beide liefde en onderwerping aan sy gesag beskryf (die verhouding tot God as koning oor Israel is gewoon as 'n verlenging van die familieverhoudinge beskou waarbinne die koning en oudstes gesag uitgeoefen het); Hy is ook die een wat teenoor hul vyande hul voortbestaan sou verseker.

Wat die antieke mens (ou Israel) se verhouding met die gode (God) betref, het hulle ook nie die groter kosmos soos ons gesien nie. Hulle het 'n radikaal ander konsep van die kosmos gehad wat ek nie hier in enige diepte kan bespreek nie. Wat wel vir ons huidige bespreking belangrik is, is dat hulle die menswêreld in die wyer raamwerk van die godewêreld geplaas het. Die rede hiervoor is dat die menslike gees (genus) net soveel as deel van die geesteswêreld (godewêreld) beskou is as ander geeste en gode - wat ten nouste in die daaglikse familielewe van die antieke mens ingeweef was. Die dood het nie die menslike bestaan in enige finale sin afgebaken soos ons vandag daaroor dink nie - die mens het terselfdertyd tot die geestesrealm behoort. Die menslike bestaan het gewoon in 'n ander vorm na die dood voortgegaan. In soverre sekere volke sekere gode aanbid het, het hulle in lewe en dood tot die ryksgebied van daardie gode behoort. Die gesag wat die gode oor die mense uitgeoefen het, het dus verby hierdie wêreld tot die groter raamwerk van die gode gestrek.

Vanuit die Ou Testamentiese perspektief staan beide Israel en hul vyande uiteindelik onder God se gesag wat as die koning oor die kosmos beskou is - bo al die ander gode. God se gesag strek verder as die aardse bestaan waarbinne etiese wette die eie samelewing reguleer - alle mense en gode staan uiteindelik onder God se gesag of sal hulle uiteindelik daaraan moet onderwerp (vgl. Ps. 82). As sodanig kon God sy gesag soewerein oor die hele kosmos uitoefen - en was Hy uiteindelik die een wat die mensdom op morele gronde sou oordeel. As sodanig is alle mense aan die basiese morele wette wat God in die kosmos ingestel het onderwerpe (alhoewel nie spesifiek aan die Mosaïse wet nie) - wette wat uiteindelik deur God in alle mense se gewete ingegee is (sien Paulus se argument hieromtrent in Romeine 1:18-2:16).

In hierdie verband is dit God se soewereine reg as heerser oor die kosmos om mense volgens hul dade aan die hand van sy morele wette te oordeel (die gedagte dat mense uiteindelik vir hul dade geoordeel word is regoor die antieke Midde Ooste aanvaar [1]). Binne hierdie konteks maak dit geen verskil of God sy oordeel binne hierdie wêreld of in die hiernamaals uitvoer nie. Voorts kon God besluit wat die tydstip is waarop Hy sy oordeel uitvoer - en Hy kon dit doen in die konteks waarin Hy sy volk se oorlewing en voortbestaan verseker (soos toe Hy die inwoners van Kanaan in hul hand oorgegee het).

Ons kan nou die probleem van Goddelike wreedheid in die Ou Testament in hierdie konteks probeer verstaan. In alle gevalle waar ons vind dat volke onder die banvloek gekom het, word dit duidelik uitgespel dat hulle onder God se oordeel gestaan het wat op die uitoefening van 'n bevel in die konteks van Goddelike regspraak verstaan moet word. In die geval van die nasies van Kanaan word daar dikwels op hul sondige (gruwelike) praktyke gewys en in die geval van die Amalekiete het dit met hul handelinge tydens die uittog te doen. Vanuit die profetiese perspektief het die "maat van hul sondes" vol geraak (sien Gen. 15:16) en het die tyd van God se oordeel vir hulle aangebreek. Selfs in die geval waar Elia die Baalpriesters geslag het moet dit in hierdie terme verstaan word. Baie later, toe Nebukadnesar Jerusalem ingeneem en hy verskeie onder die Israelitiese adel en hul kinders "geslag" het, is dit ook in terme van God se oordeel verstaan omdat hulle die praktyke van die volke van Kanaan gevolg het (2 Kon. 17: 1-23; 21:1-12; 25:7).

Ons vind dus dat vyandige volke nie maar willekeurig uitgewis is nie. God se oordeel word altyd in die raamwerk van sy regverdigheid geplaas - binne God se raad was daar 'n regverdige verhoor wat (in die gevalle onder bespreking) in die raamwerk van die banvloek voltrek is. Alhoewel sy oordeel deur natuurrampe kon plaasvind (dink aan Sodom en Gomorra), kon dit ook deur oorlog (in die voltrekking van die banvloek) en selfs deur individue soos Elia volvoer word. As sodanig is dit belangrik om daarop te let dat die volvoering van God se oordeel in hierdie wêreld verby hierdie aardse bestaan strek - dit het primêr met God se gesag oor die totale kosmos te doen. Diegene wat deur die banvloek sterf staan onder God se oordeel soos wat alle mense onder God se (regverdige) oordeel staan na die dood.

Tog bly dit 'n vraag waarom almal, vrouens en kinders ingesluit, deur die banvloek getref is. Ons kan dit duidelik nie losmaak van die antieke denke waarvolgens vyande as 'n groep onder dieselfde kam geskeer is nie. Ons kan dit net verstaan in die konteks van die bedreiginge van die tyd waarin daardie mens gelewe het - enige iemand wat tot die vyande behoort kon dalk meewerk om die identiteit en voortbestaan van die groep te bedreig. Dit is ook die rede wat in die Ou Testament aangevoer word (vgl. Deut. 7). Die rede waarom almal onder die banvloek gekom het, is dat die sterk kultuurgebondenheid van daardie tyd maklik daartoe kon lei dat gespaardes uit die ander volke (kinders ingeslote) mettertyd kon poog om wraak te neem of in die geheim ander gode sou aanbid. Laasgenoemde het die fundamentele verbondsverhouding tussen God en Israel bedreig en as sodanig dus ook God se beskerming van sy volk wat aan daardie terme onderworpe was.

As sodanig is hierdie bedreiging as 'n eksistensiële bedreiging vir Israel se voortbestaan as volk van God beskou - en 'n mens kan dink dat dat dit selfs daartoe sou kon lei as die beginsel van die banvloek nie onder sekere omstandighede toegepas is nie. Heelwat later, in die tyd van Elia en Elisa, is die familielyn van Dawid byvoorbeeld bykans uitgewis (vgl. 2 Kon. 11 ens.). Sonder die voortbestaan van Israel as volk van God in die raamwerk van die Mosaïse verbond, en van die familielyn van Dawid, sou God se beloftes nie waar word nie en sou die Messias nie gebore word nie.  

In hierdie konteks kan ons sien dat die antieke mens - ou Israel ingeslote - 'n sekere vorm van utilitaristiese etiek toegepas het waarvolgens etiese beginsels deur die "groter belang" (greater good) bepaal is. Vandag nog gebeur dit in die raamwerk van etiese dilemmas dat die lewens van mense ter wille van die groter belang opgeoffer word. So word individue ter wille van die voortbestaan en voorspoed van die groter groep prysgegee. Tot vandag staan die beginsels van universele morele waardes (met alle mense se menswaardigheid as basis; filosofies begrond op Emmanuel Kant se morele filosofie) en die utilitaristiese beginsels waarvolgens sommige persone soms vir die "groter belang" opgeoffer word (bv. in oorloë, slagoffers van alle vorme van land-, see- en lugverkeer ens.; filosofies begrond op Jeremy Bentham en John Stuart Mill se morele filosofie) in konflik met mekaar. Alhoewel sulke besluite gewoonlik nie in terme van die veroordeling van sulke persone in regsterme gemaak word nie, is dit wel hoe die banvloek in ou Israel verstaan is. 

Die Nuwe Testamentiese bedeling

Die etiese waardes van die Ou Testament het in die Nuwe Testament subtiele veranderinge ondergaan. Alhoewel daar 'n duidelike kontinuïteit is tussen die Ou en Nuwe Testamentiese wêrelde in soverre beide ou Israel en die vroeë kerk uit die Israelitiese tradisie gegroei het, is daar tog 'n baie belangrike klemverskuiwing. Met Jesus Christus het die ou beginsels verander. Ons kan nou kyk hoe dinge verander het. Dit in sigself sal ook help om die ou Israelse konteks beter te verstaan.

Die eerste belangrike verskuiwing in denke is dat God die hele wêreld in sy genade insluit. Alhoewel proseliete al vroeg in ou Israel aanvaar is (dink aan Ragel in Jerigo) en van die latere profete hul boodskap tot die omringende volke gerig het, is dit eers met die Nuwe Testament dat die gedagte dat God graag mense van alle nasies by sy koninkryk wil insluit, werklik begin veld wen het. Waar die Ou Testament primêr van God as die "God van Israel" praat wat hom met Israel as volk bemoei, verbreed die Nuwe Testament die fokus sodat God nou die God van die gelowiges uit alle nasies word. Nou vind ons dat alle mense tot die verbondsverhouding met God toegelaat kan word. Een van die belangrikste uitsprake in hierdie verband is seker die bekende Johannes 3:16: "Want so lief het God die wêreld gehad, dat Hy sy eniggebore Seun gegee het, sodat elkeen wat in Hom glo, nie verlore mag gaan nie, maar die ewige lewe kan hê".

Met hierdie verbreding van God se verbondsbedeling, kom daar ook 'n radikale verandering rakende die sakrale beginsel. Waar die oudstes van die familie en die volk voorheen die besluite namens individue geneem het, vind ons dat die individu nou tot sy eie besluit rakende die aanbidding van God opgeroep word. Skielik moet die individu self kies of hy/sy Jesus Christus as Messias en Verlosser wil aanvaar. Nou kom daar 'n stryd binne die konteks van families - volgens Jesus sal families ten diepste oor Hom verdeeld raak (Matt. 10:34-37). Wat die "ander" betref, diegene wat vroeër as vyande hanteer is: nou vind ons dat die volgelinge van Jesus opgeroep word om hul vyande lief te hê (vgl. die gelykenis van die barmhartige Samaritaan, i.e. binne en buite volksverband). Diegene wat op 'n menslike vlak as vyande gereken mag word, is nie noodwendig vyande van God nie.

Die klem op individuele keuse het belangrike implikasies. Individue ontvang 'n sekere waardigheid (dignity) wat nie voorheen as sodanig erken is nie. Volgens die Nuwe Testament is die individu so belangrik dat Jesus Christus vir hulle kom sterf het. Die individu is 'n persoon wat vir God belangrik is: daarom moet ons hulle ook so beskou. Voorts beteken dit dat daar nie gewoon op die groep en hul belange gefokus word nie; individuele omstandighede moet in ag geneem word. In die Nuwe Testament word die wet (die reëls wat die samelewing orden) met genade gekomplimenteer soos ons lees: "die wet is deur Moses gegee; die genade en die waarheid het deur Jesus Christus gekom" (Joh. 1:17). Wanneer die individu se omstandighede in ag geneem word, dan bring ons eie menslike gebreke en swakhede God se genade in fokus (Heb. 4:15, 16).

Die vraag omtrent wie aan God se koninkryk behoort raak nou baie meer kompleks. Waar dit in ou Israel relatief eenvoudig was omdat volke in hul geheel sekere gode aanbid het, is dit in die kerkera allermins die geval: elke individu is teenoor God verantwoordelik vir sy/haar lewe (in die Ou Testament het hierdie beginsel ook ten opsigte van God se uiteindelike oordeel oor die kosmos gegeld). Nou is die mens - selfs die wat waarlik met God wandel - ook aan gebreke en swakhede onderworpe. Die kwessie van die uitvoering van God se oordele raak baie meer kompleks; omdat ons menslike oordeel beperk is kan die mens nie meer namens God sy oordeel uitoefen nie. God alleen kan regverdig oordeel. In soverre die latere Rooms Katolieke Kerk weer die sakrale konsep wou terug bring en namens God wou oordeel, het hulle inderdaad onregverdig opgetree - in die Nuwe Testamentiese bedeling is daar nie meer plek vir Ou Testamentiese beginsels nie!

Ons kan dus sê dat die kultuurraamwerk van Israel in die Nuwe Testamentiese tyd sodanig verander het (veral omdat die politieke milieu baie meer stabiel geraak het) dat 'n nuwe stel etiese reëls in gebruik kon kom. Hiervolgens word alle individue as sodanig belangrik geag (as iemand met menslike waardigheid (dignity)), wie se eiesoortige omstandighede in ag geneem moet word. Mense kan nie meer namens God sy oordele uitvoer nie - Christene moet selfs hul vyande liefhê. Die groep wat binne God se verbond ingesluit word verbreed om individue uit alle volke en tale in te sluit. Op hierdie wyse raak die etiese waardes gebaseer op individuele menswaardigheid wat vroeër binne die volksraamwerk van ou Israel gegeld het, nou ook op 'n sekere wyse op alle mense van toepassing. Alhoewel die Mosaïse wet primêr met uiterlike handelinge en verhoudings te doen het, kon die beginsels wat dit onderlê in een fundamentele morele beginsel opgesom word wat alle mense geld: liefde tot God en ander mense.

Ons kan nou vra: as mense nie God se oordele regverdig kan uitvoer nie (vanweë hul eie swakhede en foute), hoe kan die oordeel wat God deur mense in die Ou Testament uitgevoer het as regverdig beskou word? Alhoewel dit in die konteks van daardie tyd waarin individue nie binne groepsverband onderskei is in soverre vyande betref nie, en dit sekerlik in daardie konteks die enigste sinvolle regulerende etiese beginsel was (i.e. gebaseer op utilitêre beginsels), mag dit tog beteken dat dit binne die individuele beoordeling van 'n persoon se dade onregverdig kon wees. In hierdie verband dink ek dat Paulus se verwysing na die "tye van onkunde" hier van toepassing is alhoewel hy die term vir die periode van heidense onkunde gebruik (Hand. 17:30). Selfs Israel was toe nog vanweë hul kulturele gebondenheid in 'n periode van onkunde (alhoewel hulle gedink het dat hul etiese beginsels regverdig was). As sodanig sal God sekerlik alle individue uiteindelik op hul eie terme oordeel volgens die beginsels wat Hy in die Nuwe Testament geopenbaar het (na my mening sal kinders wat nie toerekeningsvatbaar is nie, byvoorbeeld nie onregverdig veroordeel word nie).

Morele waardes: is dit relatiewe waardes?

Hoe moet ons nou oor die Christelike morele waardes dink? Is dit relatiewe waardes? Om hierdie vraag te beantwoord kan ons na die verband tussen die Mosaïse wet en die wet van Christus (vgl. 1 Kor. 9:21 ens.) in die Nuwe Testament  kyk. Die Mosaïse wet is op kliptafels gegee. Alhoewel dit die "woorde van God" bevat het, was dit tog onvolmaak in soverre die materialisering daarvan op kliptafels dit tot 'n aardse konteks gereduseer het. Die feit dat Moses daardie tafels stukkend gegooi het is 'n kragtige uitbeelding van die onvolmaaktheid van daardie wet. Dit is ook hoe Paulus dit in die Nuwe Testament verstaan (sien 2 Kor. 3). In die Nuwe Testament word God se wet deur sy Gees op die tafels van gelowiges se harte geskryf en dit kan opgesom word met die woorde "Goddelike liefde". Hierdie wet is volmaak want dit is die essensie van God se Gees wat in ons woon. Alhoewel dit as sodanig buite enige kulturele konteks staan, bring ons uitlewing daarvan dit altyd weer binne so 'n konteks. Alle pogings om dit binne 'n sekere praktiese konteks uit te werk vind terselfdertyd binne 'n kulturele konteks plaas.

Ons kan sê dat presies dieselfde geld rakende God se woorde aan die profete. Dit is woorde van God wat deur mense uitgespreek is in die kulturele konteks waarin hulle gelewe het. Binne hulle konteks is God se woorde inderdaad regverdig. Daar was geen ander manier waarop God Homself op 'n sinvolle wyse aan hulle kon openbaar nie - omdat hulle kultuurgebonde was (net soos ons vandag) kon hul etiese waardes (volgens utilitêre beginsels) nie anders beslag kry as in daardie konteks nie. As ons dit egter buite daardie konteks in die raamwerk van die Nuwe Testamentiese of ons kontemporêre waardesisteem beoordeel, lyk dit onregverdig. Dit is omdat die maatstaf van regverdigheid (as uitdrukking van God se geregtigheid) volgens konteks verander. Alhoewel dieselfde morele beginsels geld, verander die konteks van toepassing, i.e. etiese waardes is kultuurgebonde [2]. In hierdie verband praat teoloë van die progressiewe openbaring van God - dit was eers in Christus Jesus dat God Homself volkome geopenbaar het.

Slot

Die kwessie van sogenaamde Goddelike wreedheid in die Ou Testament is nie maklik om te verstaan nie - veral omdat ons in 'n totaal ander kultuurkonteks lewe waarin hul etiese norme glad nie vir ons sin maak nie. Op dieselfde wyse sou ons etiese norme glad nie vir die mense van daardie tyd sin maak nie - hul wêreldbeskouing was totaal anders as ons sin.

In hul wêreldbeskouing is daar 'n duidelike en definitiewe onderskeid tussen die volk Israel (en diegene wat hulle by haar geskaar het) en die ander volke in soverre God in 'n verbondsverhouding met Israel gestaan het. In die raamwerk van daardie tyd was dit algemeen dat mense 'n fundamentele onderskeid tussen hul eie samelewing en die "ander" getref het. Aan die ander kant was daar weinig onderskeid tussen die menslike en goderealms - die goderealm het binne die menslike sfeer gestalte gekry. Wanneer God sy oordeel (deur mense) op andere voltrek, staan dit op 'n sekere wyse op dieselfde basis as dié waarin Hy sy oordeel na die dood oor mense asook oor gode volbring.

Ons kan daardie etiese norme beter verstaan as ons begryp hoe daardie antieke wêreldbeskouing in die Nuwe Testamentiese konteks aangepas is. Nou is die konsep van God se verbond aansienlik verbreed - waar dit voorheen op die volk Israel gefokus was, raak dit nou 'n wêreldwye konsep wat persone uit alle volke en tale insluit. Die sakrale konsep maak plek vir individuele keuse. In hierdie raamwerk raak dit vir mense onmoontlik om God se oordeel uit te voer - alle mense het foute en swakhede en dit word in die feilbaarheid van menslike oordeel gereflekteer.

Ons kan nou verstaan dat God se geregtigheid binne elke kultuurkonteks op 'n ander wyse as regverdig beskou kan word. Alhoewel God se morele wet ewig en onveranderd is, is die etiese manifestasie daarvan altyd kultuurgebonde. Wanneer ons God vir "wreedhede" in die antieke tyd wil verkwalik, dan verstaan ons nie die basiese beginsel rakende ons eie lewe nie - ons etiese waardes maak net sin in die konteks van ons eie wêreldbeskouing. Dit is juis die feit dat ons van sulke dinge in die Bybel lees, wat bevestig dat die Bybel 'n betroubare verhaal bevat wat binne 'n antieke konteks afgespeel het. As dit nie so was nie sou niemand die Bybelse verhale geloofwaardig gevind het nie!

[1] Shushan, Gregory. 2009. Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations. Londen: Continuum.
[2] Ons kan agter al tien gebooie sulke morele beginsels onderskei wat as die gronde vir beide die Mosaïse Wet en die wet van Christus dien. Neem die Sabbat as voorbeeld. In die konteks van Israel as volk het die beginsel van rus binne die uiterlike rus van 'n Sabbatdag beslag gekry. In die konteks van die Nuwe Testament kry dit primêr beslag binne die konteks van gelowiges se innerlike rus (vgl. Heb. 4).


Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)

Monday, 13 July 2015

Wrong choices

Choices bring us into a web of relations and circumstances which may be either loving or eventually leave us with a deep feeling of hopelessness. Since we never have complete data for choices, we may ask: what should guide our most important choices? And especially: What should guide us in deciding our belief systems? I give my view from a Christian perspective.

We all make choices - all the time. Each day we have to make choices. Some choices are more important than others and wise people spend time thinking about the outcome of their choices. I am often amazed by the fact that we have to make so many important decisions so early in life when we know so little about life itself. Most of us make decisions about our future occupation and our partners with which we want to share our lives while we are rather young. Often we later regret those decisions. Although many things in life are outside our control, one can say that eventually our whole life comes down to one word - decisions.

To make decisions we need data. All sorts of data. Once we think that we have weighed all the pros and cons, and have taken all aspects into consideration, we eventually come to a decision. The decision is the outcome of a long process of thinking (and for some - praying) in which we consider all the available data. The information that we process does not merely concern physical facts; it also includes the background data that forms our belief systems. We have been brought up in a certain kind of family, studied at a certain kind of school or university, enjoyed listening to certain persons, reading certain books, watching certain programs on TV or clips on the internet and in general engaged with our world through all kinds of life experiences.  

The main problem with all choices is that we never have complete data. We do not know how things will evolve in future. We do not even have all the data regarding our situation at the time when we make our choices. This is why Christians do not trust themselves in this regard but pray that God would lead them - maybe that God would reveal his will through their reading of the Bible. The wise among us have learned not to force decisions but to carefully consider the flow of events. A closed door is closed for a reason. That is why people often say that they go with their "gut feeling". Christians may ask themselves whether they have real inner peace about something, whether the circumstances align and whether in their understanding God's Word confirm these beacons.

In our day we are exposed to many different points of view - different ethical views and different worldviews. We hear the arguments for other lifestyles and religions. The mainstream media often present alternative views not merely as equally acceptable, but as something to actively explore. And many people explore this plurality of choice. They seriously consider alternative belief systems than those of their parents and the community from which they originate. In our day it seems very much "in" to make daring decisions. In this view life is considered as disposable - we should experiment and "follow our heart". The journey is important - not the destiny.

This sounds nice on the ear. Since we do not have complete knowledge about things, it seems reasonable to think that we should explore and see for ourselves. Often we are not satisfied with our present situation or we want to explore alternatives because we do not feel that the our present situation satisfies our deep desires. The problem, however, is that exploring ethical and spiritual matters involve us as humans on the deepest level - it is not comparable with exploring our material world. So often the high expectations and intense feelings of exploration eventually make way for a different conclusion, namely that one has become entangled in an unsatisfactory web of relations which has more in common with a prison than a resort. One should not exchange one prison for another!

Major decisions in this regard are always made after many smaller and less obvious decisions concerning the kind of influences that we engage with. Sometimes it is not so much that people regret making certain decisions; it is, rather, that they experience the outcome of allowing decisions to be made for them in that they merely followed their desires and even lusts. Going with the stream of popular opinion is surely not a guarantee that the outcome would be satisfactory. Once people become ensnared in unsatisfactory webs of entanglement - often the eventual outcome of their decisions - they might loose hope. In their deepest essence they might feel that the journey has become so unpleasant (satisfying lusts may eventually lead to the acknowledgement that this is an empty pursuit with no real joy in sight) that it is not worth proceeding. On the other hand, when one experiences a deep sense of fulfillment in life and has hope for the life to come, one might overcome a lot of pain and sorrows with the end in mind.

There is another aspect to decision-making. This is trust. Often people make decisions not because they think that they have considered all the data, but rather because they trust the persons involved in their decisions. Since we can never have a complete set of data, we may accept that we can never make the perfect decision. But most decisions eventually involve other persons. These involve the person whom I marry, the persons with whom I spend time or hang out with and as well as those with whom I must work.

Decisions involve building a web of such relationships. When we make choices, we decide for or against certain relationships and circumstances. One may make choices in line with your desires and lusts and find oneself imbedded in a web of superficial and untrustworthy relationships. Or one may explore life to the fullest and at the same time experience the love and guidance of those who surround you. Such decisions may lead to loving relationships and inner fulfillment that lies on a deeper level than the mere excitement of trying something new.

In the Christian view, this also involves a loving relationship with God through his Spirit that dwells in us. True Christians experience the peace that God brings into their lives and this motivates them to make decisions which would not harm that relationship. They take care to stay within the boundaries of this loving relationship. As such Christians acknowledge that as humans they may make wrong choices; that is why they trust God to lead them. They believe that God knows the future and that he would lead them even though this may involve situations of pain and loss. They believe that only God gives true satisfaction in this life and also promises a future life with him.

Why would people make a choice to accept Jesus into their lives? Why would they allow him to come through his Spirit into their lives and start this spiritual relationship? On the other hand, why would people turn away from the Christian life? It all comes down to trust. If people see the love of Jesus in the lives of Christians they are drawn to also experience it. If people experience that Christians are superficial, arrogant and judgmental, they turn away to explore other possibilities. Many people who have turned to other lifestyles and even to other worldviews, have been hurt by Christians.

The most important command that Jesus gives to his church is that they should love each other. So often Christians are not so much committed to Jesus as to some doctrine or principle. They think that their view of Scripture is the only Truth. In fact, there are often various possible views and interpretations of Biblical passages that adheres to good Christian doctrine. Even when we stand up for Christian values, we should do so with humbleness and respect for those holding alternative views. We should stand firm but without being aggressive and arrogant. If we as Christians want to bring people to Jesus Christ, we should live his love. We should demonstrate the love of Jesus in our daily lives. Those who experience such loving relationships would also be willing to trust such Christians and eventually also to entrust their lives to Jesus Himself.

The most important choice that I ever made was to allow Jesus into my life. For 36 years now, I have enjoyed his love, peace and joy in my live. Every day I have the deeply satisfactory experience of his presence in my life. Although I surely walk in faith, nothing can be compared with the inner peace that God gives. I am always thankful to him for calling me, for appearing at the door of my life. For presenting me with the gift of salvation. I can only hope that readers who has not yet done so, will also give God a chance in their lives; that they may share the experience of true Godly and Christian love.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)

Read also
Meeting God
God hoor
Die profeet


Friday, 12 June 2015

Reconsidering The Fall

In this essay I reconsider the Biblical teaching about the Fall. This is especially relevant in the light of interpretations of the garden story in Genesis 2-3 that do not regard Adam and Eve as the very first humans. Is the teaching of the Fall compatible with the view that humans were around long before 4000 BC? I focus on the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 as well as the Pauline understanding thereof. This is the fifth part in the series on the Book of Genesis.

The first story about humans in the Bible does not end well. It is a story about wrong choices which severely impacted on the lives of the main characters, Adam and Eve, their descendents and even the whole of mankind. It is the story of the "fall" of man. The author tells how they lost the earlier care-free life of innocence and ended up outside the garden of delight; they and their descendents were fore-ever prohibited from entering again.

The story of the Fall and the doctrine derived from it, is of special importance in Christian teaching. One can even say that all Christian teaching is grounded on this basis - the fall of mankind underlies God's plan of salvation in accordance with the hope already announced in the story of Adam and Eve, namely that the "seed" of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. The salvation that came through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ removed the stain of the Fall - it brought forgiveness from sin. Eventually Jesus will be victorious over all the remnants of the Fall, including death itself.

In this essay I discuss the doctrine of the Fall with special reference to the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. In this regard St. Paul's understanding of those events takes center stage - he was the first to formulate the doctrine of the Fall in the context of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection in his Epistle to the Romans, chapter 5-7. Often this doctrine is understood in terms of Adam and Eve being the very first humans: through their wrong choices the whole human race (who is taken as descending from them) and the whole of nature became fallen and death became part of life. One can, however, ask if this is the best way to understand St. Paul's writing on the topic? In this essay I propose that both the story in the Book of Genesis as well as St. Paul's writing suggest that we should not understand the Fall in such terms.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve by the Italian painter Giulio Romano (Orbetto) (1499-1546)

Problems with a simplistic view about the Fall

Christians often assume that the doctrine of the Fall is a rather straight-forward matter. This is, however, not the case. Although the casual reader - before careful consideration - might think that Adam and Eve's disobedience was the reason why human nature as well as nature as a whole became fallen and death entered the world, there are certain red herrings that should warn against that position. We, for example, find in the garden story which tells about Adam and Eve's fall from grace, that the serpent who tempted Eve is already depicted as one who works against God! This means that the author obviously did not want to say that the world became fallen because of Adam and Eve's disobedience. In fact, it seems that he assumes that some aspect of the world was fallen long before Adam and Eve enters the picture!

The context and background of both the creation and garden stories confirm this view. Of special interest in this regard is the fact that certain words and expressions that reflect imperfection occur right from the beginning of the story, for example: "without form", "void". This seems to imply that the cosmos was in some sense already "fallen" at that early stage. We also find that some of the things mentioned in the creation story symbolize sin and fallenness in the rest of the Bible, for example "night" and the season of Winter. Winter has since the earliest times been taken as a typical symbol of death.

Together these things give the distinct impression that the Fall did not originate with Adam and Eve! It rather suggests that there is a wider context in which the Fall should be understood, namely within the framework of the conflict between God and some other gods (i.e. fallen angels; Gen.3:5). In the garden story this is manifest in the conflicting roles of God and the serpent. Even among those Christians who view Adam and Eve's disobedience as the cause of the Fall, there are many who believe that this should be understood within the broader context of the fall of Lucifer (Satan) which happened (long) before the fall of Adam and Eve. This means that some aspect of creation was already fallen before Adam and Eve's fall from grace!

At this point the manner in which we regard this earlier fallen nature of the world (the cosmos) would depend on our view of creation and of Adam and Eve. If one holds to the young earth view (see [1] for a discussion of the different views) and think that Adam and Eve were the very first humans, then one would probably think that all humanity and even the earth became fallen (and that death entered the world) because of their disobedience. If, however, one holds another view (maybe the old earth, the polemical view or the view I presented in [1]) and interpret Genesis 1-3 as saying that there were other humans before Adam and Eve [2] (or take them as mere archetypical forebears), then one may assume that those early humans were already fallen - and would have died - long before the time of Adam and Eve.

I previously showed (in part 2 of the series) that we should distinguish between the 'adam (man) mentioned in the creation story, who includes both males and females and refers to mankind (Gen. 1:26-29; Gen. 5:1-2) and the central personage in the garden story who is later identified as Adam (Gen. 3:20). We read, for example, regarding 'adam: "Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name 'adam" (Gen. 5:1-2)  This implies that humans may have been around for a long time before the time when the story of Adam and Eve unfolds and would explain the presence of the people whom Cain feared beyond the boundaries of his home. (These people shared the fallen human condition as is clear from the fact that Cain feared for his life.)

The view that humans and animals existed and died long before the time of Adam and Eve is consistent with archaeological and biological (DNA) evidence. It rejects the idea of the Fall as the event through which all humans and nature as a whole became fallen. But how is this view to be reconciled with Adam and Eve's fall from grace and especially St. Paul's understanding of those events? Before I engage with that question, we should first consider the relevant motifs in the garden story.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil

There are various motifs in the garden story that are closely connected with Adam and Eve's disobedience and fall from grace. Among these are the strange name given to the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden, namely "tree of the knowledge of good and evil' (Gen. 2:17; 3:2-3), 2), the manner in which their disobedience is connected with death as well as the depiction of their awareness of their nudity. We should carefully consider these when we want to understand the Fall.

We can ask the question: Where did the name of the forbidden tree originate? According to the speaking serpent (see [3]) Adam and Eve's "eyes would be opened" once they ate of the fruit of the tree and they would be as gods, "knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). Does this mean that they would only then know the difference between good and evil? That they were originally innocent like small children who cannot distinguish between right and wrong? It seems to me extremely unlikely that this is what is meant. How could a just God punish them if He knew that they do not have the ability to decide between right and wrong? But this immediately suggests the next question: If they had the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and had an uncorrupted nature, why did they make the wrong choice? This question has haunted all interpreters of this passage. It seems to be a contradiction to say that their uncorrupted nature gave in to temptation (see James 1:14). 

There may be another way to understand the expression "knowledge of good and evil". I have previously proposed that the material in Genesis 1-11 reflects a very old tradition handed down in Abraham's family (who came from Sumeria to Canaan). As such the garden story should be understood in the context of ancient shamanistic practice [3]. I argued that the close connection between the serpent and the tree that bears this name - with the qualities of the fruit of the tree aligning with the serpent's purpose - goes back to ancient shamanistic contexts in which the cosmic tree plays a central role (regarding the fruit of the tree, see [3]). In such contexts a serpent was typically depicted at the bottom of a very large and beautiful tree. Although the Bible does not mention it, an eagle is also typically depicted in the top of the tree (I argued that the eagle corresponds with the Biblical cherubim). In the ancient world these symbols represented opposing cosmic powers.

How would that relate to the knowledge of good and evil? Since one can assume that it was general knowledge at that time that these realms stood in opposition to each other, it is unlikely that "good and evil" refers to the mere knowledge regarding these opposing realms. Rather, the knowledge of "good and evil" seems to be something that became known (knowledge) through their choice: they did not only made the wrong choice regarding these realms; it seems that their choice revealed something that goes much deeper, namely that they had an inclination (previously unknown to them) to disobey God. Although they knew what was right (good), their disobedience revealed something else, namely their fallen nature - it revealed something "evil" in their human condition. As such they became like the gods who presumably knew this (which explains why the serpent tempted Eve in the first place). In this interpretation of the garden story, Adam and Eve's disobedience did not bring about the Fall; rather, it reflected the Fall.

Since the Fall is so closely connected with death, we can now also reconsider the relation between Adam and Eve's disobedience and death. According to the story, God said that "in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die" (Gen. 2:17). The speaking serpent also mentions this when it said that they would not die when they touch the fruit of the forbidden tree as God has said (Gen. 3:3). On the surface it seems that the serpent was right after all; they did not die when they ate the fruit. This may suggest that physical death is not in the first place intended here. So, in what sense would they die?

Of special interest is the ancient Akkadian and Sumerian traditions according to which the serpent ruled over the realm of death. Not only is the symbol of the serpent closely associated with death; we find in some ancient Mesopotamian stories like that of Etana that the serpent controlled a deep pit at the bottom of the cosmic tree, which signifies the realm of death [4]. The serpent in the garden story therefore also represents the interests of that realm. As such the serpent seemed to have known that Adam and Eve's human condition had a tendency to go against God, i.e. that it would align with the interests of the realm of death. That means that the realm of death had some hidden power over them which became manifest when they disobeyed God. Their choice therefore resulted in their "death" once they recognized the implications thereof. The reason why humans end up in that realm after death could then be ascribed to the power that Death (the realm of death) has over them due to their human condition.

This interpretation may explain why Adam and Eve's nakedness is so accentuated in the story. Their wrong choice revealed the deepest essence of their nature - it laid them bare before God. Their efforts to cover themselves with fig leaves reflect their shame in this regard. This also explains why they could no longer share communion with God. As sinful creatures (who are no longer in a state of innocence regarding this), they could no longer live in the presence of God in his garden close to his holy mountain (see [5]). They were expelled and the only way in which God could be approached in future would be through the atonement brought by sacrifice.

In the story shamanistic practice (which follows from the context) is rejected: Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree - which is now named after the events involving Adam and Eve. Instead another form of worship is introduced. Although shamans might operate as spiritual leaders in the context of the spiritual realm of the gods (i.e. angels), the mountain of God can only be approached through sacrifice. In the story God seems to have been the one who introduced sacrifice: He is said to have made Adam and Eve coats of skins to replace the fig leaves. This would have involved the slaughter of animals (Gen. 3:21). Furthermore, God did not require an offering of the fruit of one's labor which symbolizes one's own effort, but of animal sacrifice.

In this regard, it may be possible that the story had a particular purpose, namely to provide a divine model for the right kind of sacrifice (in the same manner that the creation story provides a divine model for the Sabbath; see [1]). This would mean that the author included this story in his narrative not merely to recount the earliest remembered interaction between God and man (i.e. to start at the known beginnings of that relationship), or to tell how this involved the discovery of man's fallen human condition (which seems to be the logical outcome of their first encounter with God), but especially the implications of this, namely that God rejects certain practices (i.e. to come into contact with the spiritual realm) and requires others to atone for sin.

As such God rejects those practices that are grounded in shamanism - practices like those ascribed to Balaam which involved enchantments (Num. 24:1; although such practices may also involve sacrifice that is not in the manner required by God). We find this rejection of occult practice throughout the Pentateuch. Instead, God requires certain animal sacrifices like those which Moses is said to have introduced into Israelite practice after the exodus during their time in the desert. The story therefore serves to confirm the validity of the Mosaic ceremonial laws. Such a context of writing would constitute a strong argument that the Book of Genesis was indeed written early as has been traditionally accepted [6].

In the final instance, we can say that this interpretation of the garden story places it at the transition from early hunter-gatherer society, which often involved shamanistic practice, to farming society. This transition involved various changes in society which are here taken as the outcome of Adam and Eve's exclusion from the garden: more decent clothing (replacing near-nakedness), domestication of animals, introduction of agriculture etc. The author also reinterprets certain things as the cursed outcome of Adam and Eve's fall: the snake would go on its belly, Eve would bring forth children through sorrow and Adam would work the ground in the sweat of his face. Although these things were present long before that time, they now became symbols of man's fallen (cursed) state. We find something similar later, when the rainbow is reinterpreted after the Flood as a symbol of God's covenant with man.

St. Paul's interpretation of the garden story

The fallen nature of man is never discussed in any detail in the Old Testament - it is merely accepted as a fact of life (see Job 14:4; Ps. 91 etc.). The first Biblical author who discusses it in some detail is St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans where he presents it in the context of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. In this regard he contrasts the first Adam with the second Adam, namely Jesus Christ. It was through the first Adam that sin entered the world, and with sin, also death: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses..." (Rom. 5:12, 13). The second Adam dealt with this problem though his free gift of salvation.

Readers often understand this passage as saying that Adam was the first to sin (in accordance with Jewish custom Adam is taken as the responsible party) and that through his sin all humanity became fallen - which is manifest in the fact that all die. But is this the best way to understand it? In my view we should understand it differently: through Adam came the knowledge of our sinful human condition and that this gives death power over us (see above). When St. Paul says that though Adam "sin entered into the world" he is merely saying that our knowledge about sin (as a human condition) goes back to Adam. What does this knowledge consist in? That all humans share that condition, which results in them dying. As such physical death can be understood as the consequence of sin.


Nowhere does St. Paul says that all humans became fallen through Adam's sin! He does not even hint at that. At most we can say that through Adam's sin the human condition was first revealed. (The arguments that all humans became fallen though Adam are based on the idea that God created him, as the first human being, sinless, that he in direct contradiction to his supposed sinless nature sinned, and that his subsequent fallen condition is shared with all humanity who descends from him - none of these reasons are given by St. Paul!).

One should note that St. Paul's discussion is about the role of the law. According to St. Paul the role of the law is to reveal sin for what it really is, i.e. that the human condition constitutes a law (namely, that of sin) which is only discovered though God's commandment (the Mosaic law). When the law came, "sin revived, and I died" (Rom. 7:9), that is, when humans recognize that they are ruled by the law of sin, then they become aware that they are under God's punishment: the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

When we assume that St. Paul applied the same logic throughout his discussion, including when he first introduced sin, then we can accept that he most probably thought (even though he never states it explicitly) that the fallen human condition was originally revealed in the same manner, namely when God gave Adam a law, i.e. not to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree (as precursor to the Mosaic law). Although sin and death then in some sense "reigned" from Adam to Moses, it was only when the Mosaic law came that God spelled out in detail what constitutes sin (previously humans had to rely in this regard on the law written on their hearts, i.e. their conscience - see Rom. 2:15). So, through the Mosaic law sin became "exceedingly sinful" (Rom. 7:13). It is in this context that St. Paul introduces the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as dealing with the problem of sin.

From this discussion it is clear that the idea that the Fall happened at the time of Adam and Eve is closely connected with a particular interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (a young earth, etc.). This is a view that does not reflect a good interpretation of the text (see [1, 2]) and which assumes many unwarranted things when interpreting what St. Paul says. Once we remove all this fog from the text, we can clearly see that the Fall and death that accompanies it, go back far in history. This is not only the better reading of the text, it is also in agreement with all scientific evidence. Christians who believe that Adam and Eve were real historical persons (see [2] for a discussion) may understand Adam and Eve's fall as the moment when the fallen human condition was first revealed. Christians who take them as mere archetypical figures may also regard their story as revealing the fallen human condition. As such, the death of Jesus Christ is the solution to that condition.

Conclusion

In this essay I discussed the Fall. I showed that Christians often hold a simplistic view of the Fall which they accept without due consideration. Once we carefully consider the story of Adam and Eve as well as St. Paul's writing in this regard, it is immediately clear that the simplistic view creates more problems than it solves. How could Adam and Eve have sinned if they did not have a sinful human condition? Where did the people who lived beyond the area where Adam and Eve established themselves, came from and why did they share in their fallen condition (Cain feared for his life in this regard)? A careful analysis of the creation and garden stories show that the Fall went far beyond Adam and Eve - all earlier humans shared the same fate. Once we accept this, there is no reason why we cannot accept that it was merely the effect of the Fall that was revealed through Adam and Eve's disobedience.

My view of the Fall does not in any manner contradicts good Biblical teaching. It does not undermine the work of Jesus on the cross. In contrast, it does more to affirm that than the simplistic view. It accommodates more views. It shows that the Bible does not (radically - according to the simplistic view) contradicts science. In this manner it confirms the credibility of the Bible, as a book that guides us spiritually but which is also a credible source of history.

[1] See part 1 of the series
[2] See part 2 of the series
[3] See part 4 of the series
[4] In the story of Etana the symbols of the eagle and the serpent are associated with the realms of heaven and death. The eagle in the top of the tree is called Anzu, which means "to know heaven/God" whereas the serpent is associated with the "pit" at the bottom of the tree which signifies the realm of death. The conflict between these creatures may therefore reflect the conflict between these realms - very much as we find in the garden story in Genesis. The conflict between these realms (and the gods associated with them) goes back to a very early strata in ancient Akkadian/Sumerian tradition. 
[5] See part 3 of the series
[6] I have previously argued (in part 1 of the series) that we have good reason to think that Moses was the author of the Book of Genesis. I argued that the divine model of creation given in Genesis 1 would have served (as is typical in the ancient Middle East) as basis for introducing cultural practice, i.e. the Sabbath (see Gen. 2:3) as part of the Mosaic law. The most logical time for this kind of writing would have been when the Sabbath was first introduced. Since Moses is so strongly associated with the introduction of that law, we can take the claim that he was the author of the book serious. Now we find collaborative evidence: the divine model of sacrifice given in the context of the garden story in Genesis 2-5 would have served as basis for introducing the ceremonial laws. This means that this story would have been written when these were first introduced.
In the series on the Book of Genesis I have so far given many other reasons why this book should be considered as very old: lots of Sumerian motifs are included without any sign of post-Old Babylonian influences; the garden geography, the singular tree in the middle of the garden that bears fruit, the shamanistic context etc. involve ancient motifs going back to the pre-Akkadian period in Sumeria (i.e. 2350-2150 BC). There is absolutely no reason to ascribe a late date to the book - or the supposed sources used in it [7]. Obviously later editing, like the wording "of the Chaldees" (Gen. 11:28), should not be taken as evidence for a late date of the book itself!!.
[7] Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical approach.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. (Ref. www.wmcloud.blogspot.com).
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Op soek na Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

Read also the other parts of the series on the Book of Genesis:
If readers find the article interesting, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others, including their pastors or other scholars. 





Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The final seven years: the different views

In this essay I focus on the prophecy in Daniel 9:27 which is often taken as referring to the final seven years of this era. I discuss the events mentioned in the prophecy as well as the various interpretations thereof. Although this prophecy is of special importance for those views that regard the rapture as a distinct event before the final appearance of Jesus Christ during the great battle of Armageddon, one does not have to believe in the rapture to appreciate this prophecy and its possible future fulfillment.

Bible prophecy is a fascinating topic. Although there are often different interpretations of Biblical prophecies (as with all texts), it is nonetheless interesting to not only carefully consider the different views, but also to establish whether and how such prophecy has been fulfilled. Prophecy is not considered a human ability to forecast events; rather, it is under divine inspiration that the prophets wrote: "For the prophecy came not [or: no prophecy came] in the old time by the will of man: the holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Pet. 1:21). This means that prophecy was not considered as mere predictions made from a human perspective; rather, old Israel and the Biblical authors that came from that tradition, considered such prophecy as divinely inspired (see [1] for a discussion).

From our current perspective, some prophecies relate to past events; others to future events. Some prophecies involve multiple fulfillment - comparable with multiple mountain peaks that align in such a manner that they give the impression to the climber that there is only one peak whereas in actuality a few peaks can be involved. This is called "mountain peaks of prophecy" or prophetic perspective. Some prophecies, for example those that tell about the destruction of Jerusalem, may have various fulfillments that are imbedded in each other. In this case most eschatologists accept that God's revelation is continuously unfolding which means that we may become aware of multiple fulfillments when later Biblical authors under divine inspiration rework or reinterpret prophecies that has been fulfilled. 

One remarkable prophecy is found in Daniel 9:27. This prophecy tells about the conquest of Jerusalem. It mentions some important things that will happen, namely that the offerings at the temple would cease, that an abomination would be erected in the temple and that the place would become desolate. Some interpreters place these things in the past, in the time when the Syrians ruled over Israel in 171-164 BC. Others observe that Jesus said that these things have a future fulfillment (Matt. 24:15). Some of these interpreters take this to mean that the prophecy refers to events in the time of Jesus - the temple was destroyed in 70 AD.

Other interpreters think that the prophecy has yet to be fulfillment in the time of the end. In this case the prophecy forms a center piece in eschatological reconstructions of end time events. It is the single most important prophecy that underlies all views of the rapture as a differentiable event before Jesus's coming during the great battle of Armageddon. I will now discuss the prophecy, the different views and also show how it fits into the overall picture of end time events in general when a future fulfillment is assumed. 

The seventy weeks of years

According to the Book of Daniel, the prophecy given in Daniel 9:21-27 was given as a revelation to Daniel in the first year of king Darius, "of the seed of the Medes" (Dan. 9:1-2; in about 538 BC). We are told that Daniel was at that time considering the fact that the 70 years that the prophet Jeremiah had earlier pronounced regarding the desolation of Jerusalem was coming to an end (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:1,10). Daniel saw in the "books" that the time of its fulfillment was drawing near and prayed for his people in anticipation of such fulfillment. This means that the author considered Jeremiah's 70 year period to have started in 605 BC when the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar first conquered Jerusalem (the city was again taken in 597 BC and 587 BC) which was also when Daniel and his friends are said to have gone into exile to Babylon.

The Persians conquered Babylon in 539 BC from the Neo-Babylonians. According to the book, Daniel received this divine revelation in about 538 BC during the first year of the rule of Darius, the Median, over Babylon. Although the historicity of this Darius is disputed, there is no good reason to doubt that such a person lived (archaeological data has certain limits - see [2]). After him came the well-known Cyrus, who allowed Israel to return to their homeland in the first year of his reign in Babylon (Ezra 1:1). If we assume that Darius ruled for two years, then Cyrus gave his command in about 536 BC. When we allow for prophetic reckoning (a prophetic year was considered to be 360 years; see below), then the prophecy of Jeremiah may be considered to have been remarkably fulfilled (605-536 BC is 70 prophetic years).

We read that the angel Gabriel appeared to Daniel after his prayer and announced to him another period that concerns the people of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem, namely of seventy weeks of years (70x7=490 years in total). The period would start with a command to restore and build Jerusalem. It is divided into three parts, namely a first period of 7 weeks of years (7x7=49 years) when the streets and the wall of the city would be build, another period of 62 weeks of years (62x7=434 years) that would end when the Messiah (or: "anointed one") is "cut off, but not for himself", and a last period when a covenant would be confirmed for seven years. In the middle of this last period of 7 years the offerings at the temple would cease, an abomination would be erected (presumably in the temple) and the place would become desolate. Since this is not a technical discussion of all the details of the prophecy, we may for simplicity merely distinguish between the first 69 weeks (the first two parts of the period taken together; i.e. 483 years) and the last and final period of seven years.

Different interpretations of the prophecy

The first view to consider is the one that is generally accepted in Biblical Criticism circles, namely that the author wrote his narrative after the events actually took place (some time after 164 BC). In this case this is not considered to be a prophecy, but a form of history writing. These interpreters think that the period of seventy weeks of years starts with a "divine" command: this may have been when Jeremiah gave his prophecy just after Nebuchadnezzar came to the throne in 605 BC or when the city of Jerusalem was taken in 587 BC. The period ends with the events in the time of the Syrian (Seleucid) king Antiochus IV Epiphanus in the second century BC. According to this view the first 69 weeks of years came to an end in 171 BC with the assassination of the "anointed one", who is taken to be the Jewish high priest Onias III. He was earlier deposed and was an outspoken critic of Menelaus, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV's appointee.

These interpreters believe that the final seven years commenced when Menelaus became high priest in 171 BC after Antiochus IV sent an officer named Sostrates with a troop of Cyprian soldiers to install him and subdue the opposition. The events in the middle of the seven year period refer to those following Antiochus IV's capture of Jerusalem in 167 BC after a rebellion against Menelaus. The Jewish offerings at the temple were stopped, a statue of Zeus Olympus - of whom king Antiochus IV regarded himself as the physical manifestation ("epiphanus") - was placed in the temple and pig offering were brought there. The seven year period ended on 14 December 164 BC when Judas Maccabeus rededicated the temple. (Although there has been various views regarding the chronology of events, the one presented here agrees with the currently accepted reconstruction). Since the events discussed here are also mentioned elsewhere in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 8:9-27; 11:21-45) these interpreters believe that one has reason to think that all such references - including those regarding the last period of seven years - are to the same events.

There are some problems with this view. It seems a bit superficial, for example, to take the "command" with which the period commences as a divine command whereas some royal command seems more likely to have been intended. This point of departure immediately leads to another problem, namely that the lengths of the periods mentioned in Daniel 9 do not agree with the periods under consideration. The period from 605 BC (or 587 BC) to 164 BC is much shorter than 490 years. Furthermore, although these interpreters find some agreement between the historical events of 171-164 BC and those mentioned in Daniel 9:27, there was no known "covenant" concluded for seven years and the dates of the events also differ from the outline in this Biblical passage (especially when they are considered as periods of days). One should ask if such discrepancies are due to the author's miscalculations or whether it is due to a forced interpretation of the passage that takes all the events mentioned in the book as happening before 164 BC.

When the information in the passage, and especially the periods involved, are taken seriously, it would seem that the passage should in fact be understood as prophecy. As such the period of seventy weeks of years would commence with one of the royal commands concerning the Jews given by the Persian rulers and stretch at least to the time of Jesus Christ, which may imply that he is the Messiah referred to. In fact, this prophecy may be the reason why there was a general expectancy that the Messiah may appear in the time of Jesus (Luk. 2:25,26,38, Joh. 1:19-34). Jesus Himself understood this as a prophecy given by "Daniel the prophet" (Matt. 24:15).

According to Jesus the abomination and desolation spoken of by Daniel were still laying in the future which means that we should not read the text merely in historical context. Although some other passages in the Book of Daniel might refer to the events of 167-164 BC, it seems that the abomination and desolation mentioned in Dan. 9:27 refer to events that were still lying in the future during the time of Jesus (One might even consider the other passages in the Book of Daniel that refer to the events of 167-164 BC as having some further future fulfillment in this regard (Dan. 8 as well as Dan. 11-12)).

Other eschatological views take the period referred to in the prophecy as starting with one of the royal commands given by the Persian kings to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. One of the important views in this regard is that typically associated with the Historical School of thinking. Adherents to this view differ among each other as to which one of the four commands is applicable, namely the one by Cyrus in the first year of his reign (536 BC), that of Darius Hystapis in the second year of his reign (519 BC) or that of Artaxerxes Longimanus in the seventh and twentieth years of his reign (457 BC and 445 BC). These scholars think that the period of seventy weeks of years ends in the time of Jesus Christ and that no part thereof has any future fulfillment today.

These interpreters think that the "covenant" for seven years refers to the new covenant brought about by Jesus Christ's death, who is the "Messiah" that would be "cut off". The final seven years start when Jesus began his ministry and ended with the death of Stephanus who was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death. Jesus was crucified in the middle of this period - which is when the need for temple offerings ceased. According to this view the abomination in the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem are not included in the final period of seven years. It happened only in 70 AD when the Romans conquered the city.

The problem with this view is that the new covenant is not merely for seven years but is taken by Christians as an eternal covenant. Also, the removal of certain events that are intimately connected with the last seven years from that period - like the abomination in the temple and the desolation thereof  (see Dan. 7:27) - may seem like a forced attempt to read the prophecy in terms of those historical events. Jesus seems to place the fulfillment of the prophecy in the context of his Second Coming, especially in Matt. 24:15, where we read that the events spoken of by the prophet Daniel will be followed by the "great tribulation" which will end when the "Son of Man" comes with the clouds of heaven, that is, with the Second Coming of Jesus. This would mean that the final seven years has not yet occurred.

The last eschatological view that I consider is the Futuristic School which places the final seven years in future, in the period directly before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. As such the occurrence of the events mentioned in the prophecy might be an important signal that the Second Coming is at hand. According to this view the period of seventy weeks of years commenced with the final royal command, namely in the twentieth year of king Artaxerxes Longimanus in 445 BC. This command was the only one which focused not on the temple, but on the building of the city of Jerusalem as mentioned in the prophecy. The first 69 weeks of years ended days before Jesus, the "Messiah", was "cut off" in 32 AD. (There are very detailed calculations in this regard which I would like to discuss in future.)

According to the prophecy the death of the Messiah would be followed by the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the sanctuary by "the people of the prince that shall come" (Dan. 9:26). This happened in 70 AD when the Romans captured the city. Only then is the last week mentioned in the prophecy. These interpreters take this as implying that there is a gap [3] between the first 69 weeks of years and the last week which would only be realized in the end times.



The last half of the final seven years

The essential feature of the last seven years is obviously the period involved, namely seven years as well as the last half thereof. According to the prophecy it is in the middle of the final seven years that the sacrifices at the temple would stop, the abomination be erected and "desolation" would follow. This implies that the second half of the seven years is also of special importance. This period of three-and-a-half years and the events associated therewith are also referred to elsewhere in the Book of Daniel. In Daniel 7 this period, when the saints of the Most High shall be "worn out" (be prosecuted), is called "a time [one year], times [two years] and the dividing of time [a half year]" (i.e. 3 1/2 years; Dan. 7:25).

The prophecy in Daniel 7 is interesting because it tells about all the future empires that would rule over Israel until the time of judgment, when the kingdom of the "Son of man", who comes with the "clouds of heaven", would appear (Dan. 7:13, 14). In this prophecy the period of three-and-a-half years is mentioned in the context of the final worldly kingdom that would appear just before the time of judgment, when a ruler, depicted as an eleventh horn on a great and powerful beast, would rule with ten other "kings" (for a discussion of these ten rulers, see [4]). If we take the "Son of Man" coming with the "clouds of heaven" in this passage as referring to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, as he himself interpreted it (Matt. 24:15-30), then it seems that the events associated with this period would only happen at the end of days. 

The terminology used in Daniel 7 for the period of three-and-a-half years ("a time, times and a half") is also found elsewhere in the Book of Daniel where it refers to the period of the most severe persecution ever (Dan. 12:1, 7). This is obviously the same period that Jesus had in mind when he referred to it as the "great tribulation" which will happen shortly before his Second Coming. In both passages it is referred to as the time of the greatest persecution ever. In this passage in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 12) these events are placed at the time directly before the resurrection of the just, which obviously refers to the end of time. In fact, "the time of the end" is mentioned two times in this passage and the "end of days" once! (Dan. 12:4, 9, 13).

The period of three-and-a-half years is also accentuated in the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse of St. John). In this case it is also called, just as in Daniel 7 and 12, "a time, and times, and half a time" (Rev. 12:14), which suggests that the same period is referred to (it seems like a deliberate effort to relate the period mentioned in the Book of Revelation with that in Daniel 7 and 12). It is also referred to as a period of 42 months or 1260 days (Rev. 11:2, 3; 12:6, 13:5). During this period a ruler, depicted similar to that in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 7), i.e. as a large beast with ten horns on its head, persecutes the saints (Rev. 13:7). Again, we read that ten kings, who are, as before, depicted by the beast's ten horns, will rule with him (Rev. 17:12). This ruler will eventually be conquered when Jesus rides out in battle in the end (Rev. 19:11-21).

These interpreters in general accept that the period of three-and-a-half years referred to in the Books of Daniel and Revelation, and the accompanying events, refer to the same things that will happen shortly before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. They take the ruler who will persecute the people of God in that time as the Antichrist. As such they think that the Antichrist will be responsible for the abomination in the temple. They refer to St. Paul's reworking of Daniel's prophecies in this regard (which would amount to a further fulfillment of those prophecies), where he writes: "that man of sin [shall] be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalted himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God" (2 Th. 2:3, 4; see Dan. 11:37). In this regard the Antichrist would follow in the footsteps of Antiochus IV who regarded himself as the manifestation of the Greek supreme god. These interpreters believe that the Antichrist will reveal himself as god in the temple in Jerusalem which will be rebuild before that time.

The final seven years and the rapture

The most important aspect of the prophecy in Daniel 9:27 is that it does not concern the church but the people of Israel (see Dan. 9:24 where this is clearly stated). The prophecy is obviously about events in Israel. This has led some of these interpreters to the idea of a rapture, i.e. that the church would be raptured before the final events that concern Israel. There are three views in this regard, namely 1) that the rapture will occur before the commencement of the final seven years, 2) that the rapture will occur in the middle of this period and 3) that the rapture would be part of one Second Coming at the end of this period (there are also less known views that place a few days - say 50 days - between the rapture and the final coming of Jesus Christ).

The first group of interpreters of this school believe that the fact that the prophecy is about events in Israel implies that some special Jewish dispensation is referred to. They are of the opinion that the present dispensation of the church would give way to another Jewish dispensation during the final seven years before the end. For them this implies that the church cannot be around at that time - therefore the church will be raptured away before the start of this final period of seven years. This is where the view that the rapture will happen "seven years before the end" has its origin. This whole view is based on this particular interpretation of Daniel 9:27.

Other interpreters who also take the final seven years as referring to a period at the end of days, think that the fact that the prophecy is about Israel does not necessitate a dispensation of its own. There is no conflict therein that some prophecies about Israel are fulfilled in the present dispensation. In fact, it seems strange that God would revert to some previous (or similar) dispensation in the process of his progressive revelation. This means that there is no ground to think that the rapture would occur seven years before the end.

The second group of interpreters of the Futuristic School, however, think that the accentuation of the final three-and-a-half years is significant enough to justify a rapture after the Antichrist reveals himself as god in the temple (the most important Scripture used to support this view is 2 Th. 2:1-4). But, again, one would have to ask on what eschatological grounds would one account for the rapture of the church before the present dispensation of the church has come to an end. In this case that would be some kind of period without the church - how would such a period be justified? [5]

The last group of interpreters of this school believe that there is no reason to associate the final seven years of this era - in accordance with the prophecy about that time - with the rapture. In their view the events mentioned in the Books of Daniel and Revelation regarding the last half of the final seven years will happen directly before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The rapture - if one wants to use that expression - refers merely to the moment when the saints "who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them (who have already died) to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Th. 4:17). This would happen with Christ's return during the great battle of Armageddon.

Rebuilding the temple

The most important feature of the Futuristic view discussed in the previous section (irrespective of their view regarding the rapture), is that the prophecy refers to events in the land of Israel in the end times - which means that the presence of the people of Israel in that land is a requirement for this prophecy to be fulfilled. In fact, it requires that the temple be rebuild so that the events described can happen, namely that an abomination be erected in the temple. These interpreters therefore also interpret certain details given in the Book of Revelation regarding the three-and-a-half years in such terms. We, for example, read that the author tells how he was given a rod to measure the temple of God which may be interpreted as a prophetic reference to the rebuilding of the temple. We read that he had to measure only the temple and not the court outside, "for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months" (Rev. 11:2).

One may view current events in Israel from this perspective. In 2014 there was a dramatic increase in tension regarding the temple mount. Whereas the Jewish religious leaders previously forbid them from walking on the temple mount for fear that they may tread on the most holy area where the temple once stood, there is a growing opinion that Jews should take possession of that area which would allow them to rebuild the temple. To achieve this more and more Jews think that they should actually access that area. The possibility that the Jewish authorities would change the status of the temple mount to allow Jews to worship there, has upset the Jordanian authorities who are the present guardians of that area. If this prophecy is to be fulfilled in this manner, one may expect these tensions to rise even further in future. Would it ever happen that the temple is rebuild, this would serve as confirmation that the prophecy may indeed be fulfilled in this manner.

Conclusion

In this essay I discuss the prophecy of the final seven years given in Daniel 9:27. This is the only place in the Bible where such a period of seven years is mentioned. There are, however, various passages in the Books of Daniel and Revelation which seemingly refer to the last half of this period, namely of three-an-a-half years. I also discuss the three different views or schools of interpretation, namely those who see it solely in terms of the historical events of 171-164 BC, those who see it as being fulfilled in the time of Jesus and lastly, those who believe that the fulfillment of that period lies in the future. This last group can again be divided in three groups depending on their view of the rapture: it will happen before the final seven years, in the middle of that period or at the end.

The most important feature of this prophecy is that it concerns the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. According to the prophecy the sacrifices at the temple would cease in the middle of the final seven years (of the seventy weeks of years), a abomination would be erected in the temple (which may be when the Antichrist reveals himself as god there) and the place would become desolate. If the prophecy awaits fulfillment, the rebuilding of the temple would be the most important signal in this regard. Those interpreters who regard events in the EU and the Middle East in prophetic light [4], would take this as a sign that the end of times is near. 

[1] Bible Prophecy: predicting the distant future?
[2] Part 2: Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective
[3] The gap between the first 69 weeks and the last week reflects the fact that Israel went into exile for a very long period after their expulsion in the Roman period, that is, a few decades after the events of 70 AD. Since the prophecy is about events that concern the people of Israel, they would have to be restored in their land for the prophecy to be fulfilled. The first part of 69 weeks concerns the period after the return from the Babylonian exile, namely from the royal command to rebuild the city of Jerusalem to the moment when Jesus revealed Himself as Messianic King to Israel when he entered Jerusalem on the donkey (see Sag. 9:9). The destruction of the city is mentioned in the prophecy after the 69 weeks but before the last week (the final seven years). It happened in 70 AD. The last and final part of the seventy weeks would therefore concern events after the people of Israel has again returned to their land.
[4] The rise of the final world empire: the different views
[5] It is often argued that the church would not be in the period of God's wrath. The first of the views in the Futuristic School thinks that the whole seven years would be a period of wrath, the second group thinks that the wrath would only be for three-and-a-half years and the last group thinks that it pertains only to events during Armageddon. An important question would be: Is the "great tribulation" and the wrath of God the same? And: How can we speak of a "great tribulation", that involves Christians who are persecuted (as is generally acknowledged), if this is also a period of God's wrath from which the Church is indemnified? This implies that at least the persecuted Christians would be in the period of God's wrath. On what ecclesiastic and soteriological grounds can we exclude such Christians from the church?

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)