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Sunday, 6 July 2014

An introduction to ancient Sumerian religious literature

Readers of this blog will know that I have posted various essays in which I made reference to the ancient Sumerians and their influence on the Biblical tradition. In this essay Johan Coetser discusses the ancient Sumerian religious thinking in more detail. He gives special attention to one of the first literary documents ever produced, namely the Kesh Temple Hymn. The oldest copies of this poem, which belongs to the genre of songs glorifying temples, date back more than four thousand years to 2600 BC. This gives us some insight into the ancient world where Abraham's family lived more than a thousand years before the time of Moses.
‘‘[T]he efforts to achieve and ensure divine presence took the form of building temples’’ - Thorkild Jacobsen
About 5500 years ago the Sumerians settled in southern Iraq on the alluvial plain between the two rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris. There they established the world's first urban civilization centered around the great city of Uruk. The Sumerians are remembered, among other things, as the people who were the first to write. The first traces of writing appear in about 3500 BC and took the form of pictographs on clay tablets. Gradually these developed into the well-known cuneiform script that produced the first know literature by 2600 BC.
At first the script was mostly used for administration and business purposes. Soon afterwards, however, the earliest wisdom sayings, like The Instructions of Shurrupak, as well as religious literature, like The Kesh Temple Hymn, were produced. Unlike today, these documents were not meant to be read by the wider population since very few people could read and write. Instead, this was the privilege of a small literate elite who spoke the Sumerian language and used that script. As part of the curriculum for trainee scribes they studied and copied these early documents.
The documents that the Sumerians produced more than four thousand years ago provides us with an unique opportunity to peek into the minds of those ancient people. One of the genres produced by the scribes was temple hymns, of which the Kesh temple hymn is an example. Four fragments of the hymn were found at Tel Abū Salābīkh in Iraq dating to about 2600 BC [1]. Over the next 800 years this document was continuously copied and by the time of the Old Babylonian period (c.1800 BC) we have a hymn that shows little difference from the archaic copies.
The Kesh temple hymn describes the temple dedicated to a goddess called Ninḫursag or Nintu. Ninḫursag was one of the four great gods/goddesses worshiped in ancient Sumeria, together with Enlil, An and Enki. The name Nintu refers to her role as goddess of birth-giving. In the hymn her temple is described with various metaphors which capture its glory and glamor. It tells how the head of the Sumerian pantheon, Enlil, originally gave permission to build the temple. The hymn describes the various parts of the temple, the gods living there and the personnel who served them.
Ancient temples were more than a place of worship; they were part of the economy of the city where they were situated. Temples held vast tracts of land worked by slaves and freedmen, producing surplus grain. They gave loans in silver, employed women as weavers and sold the products. The kings gave offerings to the temples and many other worshipers gave dedications. The priests administered oaths between parties and kept business records for merchants. They themselves also participated in trade. Temples were central to the Sumerian civilization and had a variety of functions. The most important, however, was that temples served as places of human-god interaction.We will now discuss this in more detail.
The use of metaphor in the Kesh hymn
One of the important aspects of Sumerian poetry is the extensive use of metaphor. The Kesh hymn is no exception. Various metaphors and similes are used to describe both the temple and the goddess [2]. Naomi Miller said it well: "Metaphors were basic to Sumerian poetic expression" [3]. Hirchman, following in the Jungian tradition, suggests that metaphors were born from the deepest human psyche: "Humans were now able to think metaphorically: archetypes became cognitively available to us [4]. And Moser suggests "Analyzing metaphors thus not only gives us tactic knowledge and mental models which shape the individual understanding of the self, but also the cultural models provided by language to express individuality, self concept and the 'inner world'" [5].
Although the Sumerian metaphors includes a far wider domain than we can reconstruct, the language of the Kesh hymn gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of those ancient people. It allows us to see something of their world. We can explore one of these metaphors used in this hymn to depict the temple, namely that of the boat. We read that the temple is
"Like the princely Mag-ur boat floating in the sky
Like the pure Mag-ur boat provided with a ...gate
Like the boat of heaven, foundation of all the lands
Cabin of the banda-boat which shines from the beaches..." [6].

The image of a sickle-shaped boat floating in the sky brings the moon to mind. The reason is that the so-called Ma-gur boat belonged to the moongod Nanna (also called Suen/Sin). This boat was used to take the yearly produce from the city of Ur to the temple of Enlil, which was situated in Nippur [7]. The waxing and waning of the moon depicts fruitfulness. This corresponds with the temple as a place of fruitfulness and production, linked to the changing seasons.
The mythical theme of the voyages of the gods are depicted on many cylinder seals [8]. The image of the moongod’s boat would have meant a lot more to those ancient people than to us. The partial glimpse of the meaning of the metaphor allows us to see that the idea of fertility was important to the Sumerians; in fact it was crucial for their survival. Droughts and floods were a real threat that could lead to famine. They needed the goodwill of the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. As such, the image of the Mag-ur boat moving on the canals that crossed the land, spreading the bounty of the harvest in its wake, depicted the temple as a source of fertility.
These are some of the ideas behind the complex metaphor and similes of the Sumerians of which the full meaning is still inaccessible to us today. We can, however, see that the idea that the gods were the source of fertility, was crucial in the mind of these ancient people. The temple was the place where god and human could meet to negotiate the god's favor and blessing on society.
Music in the Kesh temple hymn
Music played a very important role in worship all over the ancient world. The Kesh temple hymn was therefore also meant to be sung [9]. We learned a lot about this aspect of their worship from the Cylinders of the priest Gudea, who lived in the city of Girsu in the south of Sumeria during the end of the third millennium BC. He even had a director of music. Needless to say, music features prominently in a temple hymn that he wrote for the temple of the god Ningirsu [10]. We read in the hymn
"With his divine duties,
namely to soothe the heart,
to soothe the spirits
To dry weeping eyes:
To banish mourning from the heart...
Gudea introduced his drum, Lugal-igi-uš,
to lord Ningirsu" [11].

The purpose with the recitation of the hymn was to invoke the presence of the gods. The great Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen writes: "Poetry was another means of invoking the presence of the powers, for word pictures, too, created the corresponding reality" [12].
The Kesh hymn mentions music made both by singing and the use of instruments
  • They recited the e-šub and uru-šub (verses)...
  • The pašeš beat on the (drum)skin...
  • The bull’s horn is made to growl;
  • The drumsticks are made to thud.
  • The singer cries out to the ‘ala’ drum;
  • The grand sweet ‘tigi’ drum is played for him.
  • The house is built; its nobility is good [13].
Singing hymns of praise comes naturally to us. This was also true in ancient times. Music was part of the pageantry of the rituals that involved offerings to the gods. One can say that the music in itself was an offering to the gods. It allowed humans to conduct ritual actions vital to the well-being of the country.
Various instruments were used, especially various kind of drum. Other instruments included the harp, lyre and various kinds of flute. Sir Leonard Woolley found a beautiful lyre decorated with a bull’s head in excavations at Ur in 1923. It is currently to be seen in the British Museum. Instruments were important enough to merit their own names as we can see from the quotation from the Cylinders of Gudea where the drum is called Lugal-igi-uš. All this was done with the worship of the gods in mind and to secure human prosperity. To have the gods on your side meant no famine or foreign invasions.
Ritual
The temple was a place where the gods were invoked to help humans prosper. Daily offerings were made to keep the gods happy. The Kesh hymn also mentions this
"The temple consumes many oxen.
The temple consumes many sheep" [14].

The offerings were administrated by a plethora of priests. The Kesh hymn mentions a remarkable number of different types of priests working in the temple. Even the man playing the drum was considered to be a priest.
  • Whose nu-eš priest are the sacrifices to the E-anna (E = house; anna = of heaven)
  • The lugalbura priest...stepped up to the temple
  • The good en-priest..held the lead-rope suspended
  • The atu priest held the staff
  • The ...brought the gathered waters [name missing in text]
  • The... took his seat in the holy place [name missing in text]
  • The enkum bowed down in prayer.
  • The pašeš beat the (drum) skin.
  • They recited the e-šub and uru-šub verses [15].
After invoking the presence of the gods, it was time to placate them to do their duty toward humans. The reason why the gods created humans was that they can provide the gods with food and drink. Elaborate meals were offered at least twice a day before the cult statue of the god. This included drink-offerings. The god's image was enclosed by a curtain, allowing it to eat and drink without being observed by humans. When the god was finished eating, the meal was taken to the royal table for the king to eat [16]. This act of worship was not available to ordinary citizens.
Wealthy persons had small statues of themselves made, inscribed with a prayer, which they placed before the cult statue. This allowed them to offer continuous prayer before the god and ask for blessings. The offerings maintained the relationship between man and god and kept the blessings flowing. Failure to do this could be catastrophic, causing the god to abandon the city - with horrifying consequences. The offerings and rituals had to be maintained at all times in order to keep the gods happy.
One of the most important types of priests was the En priest/priestess. The most famous among these was the princess Enḫeduanna, who became the En-priestess of the moongod Nanna at Ur during the early years of the Akkadian period (c.2300 BC). This post was so important that it was held only by members of the royal family, who in this case was a daughter or sister of the reigning king.
The name Enḫeduanna means "lady gift of heaven". She is the first known poet in history and became famous for her poetry [17]. The En priestess lived in the so-called giparu (holy precinct) at Ur and was the human mate of the god [18]. Her primary duty was to pray and intercede for the life of the king. On a secular level, she also administrated the large estates of the giparu. Some of these priestesses, like Enannatumma and Enmegalanna, were later worshiped in their own right [19].
Ninḫursag of Kesh
We can now meet the lady (goddess) of the Kesh temple, Ninḫursag. Her name is usually interpreted as "lady head mountain". It has also been proposed that the name could be translated as "lady of the mountain of the gods" [20]. In the Kesh hymn she is also called Nintu. As such, she represents the goddess of birth. In the hymn she is depicted as sitting curled up in the cela, the most holy part of the temple
"Ninḫursag, like a great dragon, sits (in its) interior
Nintu, the great mother, has brought about its birth
Ninḫursag, its lady has taken a seat in its..." [21]

The goddess is here depicted as a snake or dragon. The Sumerian word for dragon is ušumgal and means literally "great snake". Much later, in Greek times, the word drakon was still used to describe a great snake [22]. The temples of goddesses were also sometimes described as great snakes, as we can see in the collection of Sumerian temple hymns by Enḫeduanna
"Keši, valient (city)...of heaven and earth,
Like a great poisonous serpent, installing fear,
house of Ninḫursanga, built on an awe inspiring place" [23].

The snake was associated with the underworld and the earth. Even in Greek times the snake remained a symbol of the underworld. It was especially goddesses who were linked with snakes [24]. The snake was a powerful symbol for regeneration, because it sheds its skin from time to time. As a symbol it was used as a metaphor for the fruitfulness of the earth and was especially apt for the goddess of birth-giving. The use of the snake as a symbol for regeneration goes back to the Neolithic age (the new stone age c.8000–4000 BC) and continued as a metaphor for regeneration until Greek and Roman times.
In our hymn, however, the goddess is not only described as a snake, but also as a lion. As Nintu, the ‘great mother’ she was responsible for the ‘birth’ of the temple
"Keš tempel borne by a lion,
whose interior the hero has embellished,
Nintu, the great mother has brought about its birth" [25].

Inside the temple, in the cela (most holy), was the cult statue made of wood and plated with gold and/or other precious metals.The idea of being born was also applied to the cult statue, which was given life through a ceremony called mis pi or "mouth washing". On this occasion the equipment of the artisan who made the statue was ceremonially thrown into the river - while he proclaimed that his hand did not make the statue [26].
After receiving the spirit of the god, the cult statue became the living embodiment of the god, who, at the same time, remained present in heaven. Great care was taken of the statue because of the fear that the god could leave it if it was damaged. The statue was dressed in costly robes. People visited it to present their petitions, in the same manner that they petitioned the living king. On certain occasions the statue would travel by barge or chariot to visit the cult centers of other gods.
The cult statue was the supreme focus of the temple and stood central in the worship of that god. It was hidden from profane sight in the cool depths of the cela, adored in secret, away from the bustle of the wider public. If the city lost a war, the cult statue was carried away in captivity to the victor’s land. When this happened, it was necessary to restore the cult statue to secure blessings for the city again.
The heavenly dimensions of the temple
The Sumerian temple had a cosmic function, bringing heaven and earth together.While the top of the temple was in heaven, the bottom was anchored in the abyss [27]. The Sumerians called the abyss ‘abzu’, envisioned as an underground sweet water lake. It was the realm over which the god Enki ruled. It has been suggested that the temple was pictured as a boat adrift on the water of the abzu [20]. The Sumerians also used the metaphor of a mountain to express the temple's cosmic dimensions: the temple was rooted deep in earth with its top reaching like a large mountain high up into heaven. We read (about the Kesh temple?)
"Growing up like a mountain, embracing the sky...
Temple, great shrine reaching the sky
Great, true temple, reaching the sky
Temple, great crown, reaching the sky
Temple, rainbow, reaching the sky
Temple, whose platform is suspended from heaven’s midst
Whose foundation fills the Abzu..." [28]

At the end of the hymn it is reaffirmed that the temple was the place where man and god interacted. Although ordinary citizens could not enter the temple, they benefited from its presence in their midst. The temple was the source of abundance and divine blessing, bringing heaven close to the realm of man:
"To the city, to the city, man, approach!
To the city Keš, man, approach.
Its hero Aššir, man, approach!
Its lady Nintu, man, approach!
(well) constructed Keš, Aššir, praise!
...Keš, Nintu, praise!" [29]

The duty of the priests was to ensure that the gods were happy; that the lines between heaven and earth were kept open. In this regard they functioned similar to the retainers at the king’s court. The cult statue was treated as a very real and important person. The god in the statue was the source of all blessings to the larger community. Although ordinary citizens were not allowed to enter the temple, and there was a huge distance between cult and citizen, they still benefited from the gods presence in their community. They worshiped from afar and only saw the god on special festivals and when it was brought forth to visit other gods.
The Sumerians, however, also worshiped their gods in a more personal manner, namely as the personal gods who were worshiped by particular families. These gods spoke for the individual in the council of the gods. They trusted in their personal gods for their daily spiritual needs. Being discarded by your personal god meant great suffering. You had to do everything in your power to live in peace with your god.
Conclusion
It is clear from this short journey through the Kesh Temple Hymn that those ancient people did not share our religious mindset. The gods were awesome personages who had to be carefully handled to prevent them from becoming angry and withholding their blessings on which the city depended.
Music and ritual were part of their lives; they kept the gods happy with offerings. Cult statues were revered like a king or queen and treated with great respect. The metaphors that were used to describe temples and gods had meanings for the ancient Sumerians which we can only partially access - as we can see from the metaphor of the boat. Since ancient times worship of the gods were very important for the well-being of the state. Disasters that befell the city were the consequences of botched relationships with the gods. A whole genre of lamentation was developed in response to this, namely to soothe the angry deity’s heart and to lure him/her back to his/her place in the temple.
The ancient Mesopotamians did a lot to maintain good relationships with their gods and feared the consequences if such relationships broke down. The fall of a city like Ur (the city of Abraham), which was sacked by the Elamites (c.2004 BC), was ascribed to the goddess abandoning the city. She did that because a decision was taken in the council of the gods to destroy the city.
The Kesh Hymn gives us some insight into ancient Sumerian religious thought and how different it was from modern conceptions [30]. This should serve as a warning that we should be careful not to read ancient texts like the Bible as if they were written from a modern perspective. Although this is the world that Abraham left behind when he moved to Canaan, the Biblical worldview still has more in common with the ancient world of the Sumerians than with our own.
Notes
[1] Alster, B.1976. On the earliest Sumerian literary tradition. Journal of Cuneiform studies 28 (2):112.
[2] Ehrlich, C.S. 2009. From an Antique land: An introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature. p22.
[3] Miller, N. 2013. Symbols of Fertility and Abundance in the Royal Cemetary at Ur. American Journal of Archaeology 117 (1):128.
[4] Hirchman, E.C. 2002. Metaphors, archetypes, and the biological origins of semiotics. Semiotica 142 (1):316, 317.
[5] Moser, K. 2000. Metaphor Analysis in Psychology - Method, theory and fields of application. Forum Qualitative Soziafforschung/ Forum Qualitative Social research 1(2).
[6] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A. L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p168.
[7] Ferarra, A. J. 1973. Nanna-Suen's journey to Nippur. p203-5.
[8] Jacobsen, T. 1976. The Treasure of Darkness: A history of Sumerian Religion. p7.
[9] Galpin, F. 1937. The music of the Sumerians and their immediate successors the Babylonians and Assyrians. p51.
[10] Polin, C. 1954. Music of the Ancient Near East. p160.
[11] Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., & Zólyomi, G. 1998. The building of Ningirsu’s temple (Gudea cylinders A and B). The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/). lines 1048-1057.
The Cylinders of Gudea contains the longest Sumerian temple hymn. It tells about the building of the Eninnu temple for the god Ningirsu and is dated to c. 2100 BC.
[12] Jacobsen, T. 1976. The Treasure of Darkness: A history of Sumerian Religion. p15.
[13] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p239.
[14] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p171.
[15] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p174.
[16] Schneider, T.J. 2011. Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian religion. p104.
[17] De Shong Medeaor, B. 2009. The Sumerian Temple hymns of Enheduanna: Princess, Priestess, Poet. p19.
There is debate about the authorship of the works attributed to Enheduanna. I believe she wrote the poems herself.
[18] Black et al. 2006. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. p316.
[19] Weadcock, P.N.1975. The Giparu at Ur, in Iraq 37 (2):101-104.
[20] Personal conversation with Willie Mc Loud.
[21] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p173,175.
[22] Ogden, D. 2013. Drakon: Dragon myth and Serpent cult in Greek and Roman worlds. p2.
[23] Sjǿberg, W. 1969. The Collection of the Sumerian Temple Hymns, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed) Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p22.
[24] Ogden, D. 2013. Drakon: Dragon myth and Serpent cult in Greek and Roman worlds. p6.
[25] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p172.
[26] Walls, N.H. 2005. Cult image and divine representation in the Ancient Near East. p57,63.
There is some debate as to whether temple buildings should be understood in terms of birth giving or not.
[27] Edzard, D.O. 1987. Deep-rooted skyscrapers and Bricks: Ancient Mesopotamian Architecture and its Imagery in, M. Mindlin, Geller & Wansbrough (eds). Figurative language in the Ancient Near East. p13.
[28] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p167,169.
[29] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. P175.
[30] Readers who are interested in reading the full text of the Kesh Temple Hymn can google The Electronic Text Corpus of The Sumerian Language.

Published on wmcloud.blogspot.com
For essays in which the Sumerian influence in the Bible is discussed, click on
Adam and Eve: were they the first humans?

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Is A Third World War Brewing?

In this essay I discuss the possibility that the current situation in the Ukraine and Syria would escalate into a third world war. I take the model of war and peace cycles, the current international geopolitical game and the situation in Syria into consideration. I also discuss the when-question.

The year 2014 is both the 100th commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 as well as the 75th commemoration of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. And suddenly talk of war is back in the air. Suddenly, after Russia's annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine on 21 March, Europeans and others around the world are suddenly considering the unthinkable: war can once more encompass Europe and even the world.

Western leaders have reacted in saying that Russia's actions are a breach of the post-Cold War security arrangements on the continent. The acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, has accused Russia of wanting to start a third world war. He told his interim cabinet in remarks broadcast alive: "The world has not yet forgotten world war two, but Russia already wants to start world war three... Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe".

Although the world is certainly at this stage not even close to a third world war, it is surely in order to consider the possibility of such a war. We have become so used to peace that the possibility of war seems unreal and even farfetched. There is, however, good reason for informed readers to give it serious consideration. Long before the present escalation of conflict in Ukraine I wrote that we must seriously consider the possibility of another great war, comparable with the First and Second World Wars, breaking out in the next few years [1]. I based that on the work of one of the greatest minds in the history of political thinking, namely professor Nicholas John Spykman (1893–1943) of Yale University.

In this essay I consider strategic, geopolitical and historical reasons why another great war is a real possibility. In this regard we should not only focus on Russia; we should consider the bigger picture in the world. This picture includes the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, the standoff with Iran as well as China. We should consider the likelihood of broad network of strategic alliances being formed between opposing factions without which such a war would not be possible (although regional wars would obviously be possible). Only when all these aspects are integrated into our considerations, are we in a position to evaluate the current threat to world peace.

War and peace cycles

In 1942 Prof. Spykman published a study entitled “America's Strategy in World Politics”, sponsored by the Yale Institute of International Studies. In this he made the astonishing claim that war and peace follow a cyclical pattern. Although there are many wars in the world, he arranged them (especially those in which the British participated) into a pattern, showing that for the past 150 years (at that stage) all major wars could be classified into three types, with one of these, the truly great wars, somehow adhering to a cyclical pattern. In my own study I have confirmed that this pattern persisted even after the Second World War and statistical analysis predicts that, if this is true, then the period around 2014 is the most likely date for another great war. This does not mean that such a war will break out this year; rather, it suggests that if there is indeed such cycles of war and peace, then another great war can be expected in the next few years. 

I first discussed these war and peace cycles and the possibility of another great war breaking out in the next few years in my book Die Arabiese Opstande (2011). In early 2012 I posted a more detailed analysis of war and peace cycles on this blog [1]. In that essay I considered the last 100 years in some detail, focussing on the characteristics of both the war and the peace phases of such cycles. In this period I found four war and peace cycles, commencing on average every 25 anew, which adhered to the same characteristics. The great wars during this period were the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the climax of the Cold War (which had some unique characteristics due to the fact that the opposing powers both had nuclear weapons). 

In all these wars there were worldwide networks of opposing military alliances which included all the major powers in the world. Britain's participation in such wars was subsequently replaced by that of the Anglo-American establishment, about whom another well-known historian, professor Carroll Quigley, wrote the very informative book The Anglo-American Establishment (1949). This alliance holds to this day and NATO became its military arm. The characteristics of the war and peace phases of these cycles which I discerned in my previous analysis are:

The war phase of the cycle typically commences with a financial crisis, followed by a recession/depression and a period of economic stagnation. Thereafter occurs a great war against one of the most important imperialistic competitors of the Anglo-American establishment. Sometimes the initial crisis is followed by short period with some economic growth, but eventually it results in a recession, after which the war starts. During the war there is a concerted effort (not always successful) to restrict and reduce the power of their most important political and economic competitors and to promote the Anglo-American political-territorial interests. A new balance of power is also established with the purpose of keeping the most important role players in check.

The peace phase starts directly after the war. It is typically characterized by a post-war recession (a “reconversion crisis”), followed by a prolonged period of economic growth and boom. During this period some mild economic downturns may occur, but on the whole it is a long period of growth. Although it is called a peace phase, some of the other types of war (mentioned earlier) do occur during this period, through which the scene for the next great war is set up. During the peace phase the objective is to include as many countries as possible in the framework of world trade with the purpose of maximizing the gains of the Anglo-American financial magnates, who pursue a policy of free trade.

In that essay I came to the conclusion that Iran would be the primary opponent in such a war for the simple reason that it poses a major threat for Anglo-American interests in the Middle East which are closely interwoven with that of Israel. And the fact that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon makes them a soft target. But this does not mean that Iran would be the only country involved in such a war. For it to be a major war, compared with the ones mentioned, other major powers will have to be involved also. In this regard Russia, with its close ties with Iran, would seem to be an obvious partner as part of the network of military alliances opposing NATO in such a war. Russia's possible involvement, as well as that of other countries such as China, must, however, be considered in geopolitical terms. 

Geopolitics

Another important aspect of the war and peace phases, is the play between stability and instability during those phases. The peace phase is characterized by a stable balance of power between the world powers, with the winners of the previous great war dominating the scene. When the war ends without a clear winner among the great powers, such stability rests on the even balance between those powers (for example, after the Vietnam War when the West and the USSR were evenly balanced). Towards the end of this phase, however, some of the other powers become real imperialistic competitors of the Anglo-American establishment. 

During the war phase, which typically commences after a great financial and subsequent economic crisis (these economic crises were in 1907-8, 1929-33, 1957-58, 1980-82, 2008-9), the world suddenly becomes more unstable. The reason for this is that the stable balance of power in which one superpower dominates a mono-polar world (empirical Britain or the US) or two powers are evenly balanced in a bi-polar world (the US and USSR), makes way for a multi-polar world in which various players actively participate in the pursuit of power - when the great powers try to maneuver themselves into positions of power. This happened before all the great wars which I mentioned. It is now happening again with the other powers sensing that the Great Recession has damaged the financial power of the West and with it its ability to project power. And they are preparing strategies to assert themselves in ways unthinkable a few years ago.

One of the most important factors which determine such actions are geopolitical concerns. This is when countries take geography into consideration in their political ambitions to expand and project their power. Again, in this area Prof. Spykman is probably the most important thinker of the past century. His theory of "containment" to this day plays a central role in the thinking of all the war strategists of the major powers. I discussed his theory (as well as those of Mahan and Mackinder) in an essay that I wrote earlier this year (posted on 2 February) in which I focused on the present international pursuit of geopolitical power [2]. 

In my discussion of the major players in this game, namely China, the EU, the US and Russia, I mentioned that the eastern expansion of the EU has placed enormous geopolitical pressure on Russia and that the eastern partnership program of the EU, had it been signed with all the earmarked countries (the Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), would have contained Russia beyond the Ural mountains. I wrote that "such a Russia is effectively stripped of all geopolitical possibilities to expand its power". Since Russia is cornered, one should not be surprised by the "strong armed" tactics of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. No wonder that (shortly after my writing) Russia initiated its program to take control over the Crimea, where its Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol. This followed directly after the successful uprising against the Russian-favored Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

 I will not here repeat the things discussed in that essay (which is now even more relevant than before). In the same manner that Russia is strangled by the expansion of the EU, China is encircled by US allies or partners (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia). In the same manner that Russia has annexed the Crimea, China has also annexed certain reefs in the South China Sea in recent years. In November 2013 China even proclaimed a new air defense zone which includes the Senkaku islands (called Diaoyu by the Chinese) which belongs to Japan. In January 2014 it further announced that it would this year take over control of the Philippine-occupied Pagasa island (the second biggest island in the Spratlys). 

The main difference between Russia and China is that Russia is a declining power, struggling to keep its options for future power projection open, whereas China is a growing power who's strategic interests are coming more and more in direct conflict with that of the US. China's rise would result in it becoming a major sea power (see the mentioned essay) and its projection of power into the East and South China Seas will become more asserted. Both Russia and China are at a paradigmatic moment regarding their geopolitical interests and would use every possible opportunity to take control of surrounding areas which they consider of strategic interest. If they work in concert, and initiate sudden moves which do not endanger US core interests, thinking they can get away with it (testing the waters), the worldwide situation can easily escalate towards more confrontation. 

The recent 400 billion dollar agreement between these countries, according to which Russia would supply China with gas for 30 years, must be seen in this context. This can be the beginning of closer ties between these countries against the US and its allies. Russia is clearly preparing for war insofar as its military budget is concerned, which has just surpassed that of the US in GDP terms. For a large scale confrontation with the West, to try and secure its geopolitical interests, Russia would need China; China can gain a lot from such an alliance in its growing confrontation with Japan and other Western allies and partners in that region. 

 The theater of war

We should not see the events in the Ukraine in isolation. Russia is not only under pressure in its own backyard; it is also under enormous pressure in the only other important part of the world where it still has some influence after the fall of the USSR, namely the Middle East. There its partners Syria and Iran are under great pressure. Syria is involved in a civil war and Iran is strangled by sanctions. In a certain sense the conflict in Syria stands at the center of the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. If the Syrian regime falls, Russia will not only loose its Mediterranean naval base at Tarsus, it will be effectively excluded from the Middle East (except for its relation with Iran). This is why Russia so fiercely defends its ally, both in the UN Security Council and on the ground where it provides the Syrian regime with weapons and even training. 

Already in December 2011 in an essay on this blog I predicted that Russia would stand by Syria and that it would not follow the path of the other Arab Spring countries where revolutions had been successful (that is before the counter-revolutions in some of those countries). I also mentioned that Iran would probably become involved and that the Syrian conflict can eventually escalate into a wider Middle Eastern war. Although other neighboring countries have not thus far become directly involved, Iran did and today the Iranians play a very important role in steering the Syrian war effort with its allies Hezbollah and other Shiites from Iraq. As in the case of Russia, Iran also has a lot to loose would the Syrian regime fall. Not only would the important Iran-Syria-Hezbollah Shiite axis, which allows Iran to project its power all over the Middle East, be broken and its ally Hezbollah be left isolated, it would also make it much easier for the Israelis to attack Iran on its home ground. 

I seems to me quite possible that the conflict in Syria (which includes Iran) could eventually become the theater where the next great war begins - if it comes to that. Although such a conflict would also play of in other areas of the world (near Russia or China), I think the epicenter would be in the Middle East. It seems very unlikely that such a conflict would ever be fought on Russian soil (because of its nuclear weapons); it is, however, very possible that it would, at least in part, be fought in Syria and Iran. Not only are Russia and Iran already supporting the Syrian regime, the West are slowly but steadily increasing its support for the rebels. Over the last few months funding, weapons and training of certain moderate rebel groups have strengthened their relative power in rebel circles.

In a major foreign policy speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama recently announced a five billion dollar “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to train local forces in the Middle East and Africa. Obama reversed his past opposition to large-scale American arming and training of Syrian rebels and said that strengthened moderate rebel groups could serve as a counterweight to radical Islamist groups. The US, Saudi-Arabia and others are already training the rebels for some time in Jordan (at least since 2013) and the CIA played a major role in establishing Brig.Gen. Abdul-Illah al-Bashir, an important leader of the Free Syrian Army, in the Golan town of Quneitra. They have also started providing the rebels with heavy weaponry.

The Syrian conflict and Russia's involvement in the Ukraine would probably with time become closely intertwined. The US would try to force Russia's hand in Ukraine with threats of providing the rebels with even better weapons. We can see Obama's speech in these terms. Furthermore, Russia and Iran are not only close friends which are involved in the same conflict in Syria, both are now also under Western sanctions. This would bring them even closer to each other and it is quite possible that Russia (and China) would in future break ranks with the West on Iranian sanctions if the nuclear negotiations do not succeed. Russia and Iran also recently announced a 20 billion dollar oil-for-food deal and they are in talks about another 10 billion dollar energy deal. One can easily see how Iran can become part of a Russia-China-Iran axis of powers opposed to NATO.

When can such a war be expected?

The important question is: If the war and peace cycles and geopolitical concerns suggest that we can expect a major war over the next few years, when will it commence? This is an extremely difficult question to answer, but I can mention some of the factors that would play an important role in this regard. I ranked them from the most to the least importance. 

1. The war phase. We can consider the details of the war phase of the cycle more closely to see what precedes the outbreak of such wars. These phases typically begin with a financial crisis, followed by a deep depression or recession and a prolonged period of stagnation thereafter. The present cycle clearly commenced with the financial crisis of 2007 which was followed by the Great Recession of 2008-9 and the period of stagnation (especially in the EU) ever since.

In two of the previous cycles this involved another recession just before the war starts. Since this did not occur in all the cycles we cannot in general take it as signalling the outbreak of war. The average period from the financial crisis to the outbreak of war is 7 years. In the period which preceded the Second World War, it, however, took 10 years (the longest period registered) from the financial crisis in 1929 to the outbreak of the war in 1939. This means, statistically speaking, that the chance for such a war is the greatest over the next three years (2014-17), but it is always possible that it can take even longer before it starts. 

2. Iranian nuclear negotiations. Although the present negotiations between Iran and the six world powers are not often described in those terms, they are probably the last effort to avoid direct confrontation between Iran and a US-led alliance (that includes Israel), which can easily escalate into another great war. Without a deal Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and the Anglo-American establishment will not tolerate that. A breakdown in negotiations can therefore lead to war with Iran, which in my opinion can easily lead to another great war in the cycle of such wars.

As long as the talks proceed it seems unlikely that the situation in Syria would escalate into direct Iran-US-Israel confrontation. One can furthermore expect all the parties to the talks to do everything in their power to come to an agreement. The problem is that such an agreement must not only satisfy Israel, it must also satisfy the Iranian security establishment. Although the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, he face growing criticism at home. A coup against him would change everything and can dramatically escalate the conflict between Israel and Iran. The Iranians have all reason to think that giving up their nuclear deterrent would leave them exposed to Western attack [3]. This makes an agreement very unlikely.

3. The Obama administration. I have previously discussed the strategic interests of the US, Israel, France, Iran and Russia regarding the situation in Syria [3]. Since the US is the leader of the Western nations, they will not go to war without her. The Obama administration, however, will do everything to avoid war. They are nonetheless under enormous pressure in the US because of the perception that the enemies of the US are taking advantage of Obama's reluctance and even aversion in war. It seems, however, that Obama will not easily take the US into another war. If they are not overtaken by events, it will probably fall to the next US president to decide on this. But remember President Woodrow Wilson, who promised peace and then took the US into World War I.

4. Oil and gas supplies. One can expect that a great war with its epicenter in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the oil price and can destabilize the world economy. This will count in Russia's favor, who is a major oil and gas exporter. Also, Russia is in a strong position because of the EU's dependence on it for its fuel. The EU imports about 39% of its gas and about 33% of its oil from Russia. Since the Ukraine crisis the EU has been actively exploring other options. They have access to other fuel resources but some of these are also under pressure, for example in Libya.

There is, however, a very important change in world fuel production in progress which would impact on the situation. Gas-fracking has changed the fuel market beyond recognition. The US is already self-sufficient and will probably start exporting in the near future. The EU leaders have even talked to President Obama about getting fuel from the US. He mentioned that this is subject to the successful conclusion of the free trade agreement between the US and the EU. One expects that the Western nations would try to solve this problem before deciding to go to war.

5. The US-EU free trade agreement. For some readers it would seem strange that I mention this point. I, however, think that this is a very important issue which will decide whether and when such a war breaks out. The reason is that such a great war would generate a common enemy for the EU on a scale not seen before. This will propel the EU into further integration in the same manner that the economic crisis did. Such a war, which includes Russia as aggressor on its eastern border, will bring the EU nations together and allow the Euro countries to proceed with further integration. Those right-wing groups who have done so well in the last EU election, and who view President Putin as hero, will come under enormous pressure to be "patriotic" and loyal to the EU. The reason why the US-EU trade agreement is important, is that the US would not like to see the EU become so powerful if it is not safely imbedded with them in one economic zone. The US would probably want to see at least substantial agreement on trade issues before going into a large-scale war.  

In my opinion the Vietnam War in important aspects provides our best precedent for the current situation. Both then and now we see a proxy war which escalated (or can escalate) into a war in which all the major world powers participated (or participates). In that case the conflict between the Viet Cong and the government of the anti-communist South began in 1955. The US sent the first support troops in 1961 and became directly involved only in 1965. The current Syrian conflict started early in 2011 and the US have only recently announced that they would become more actively (but not directly) involved. One can expect that particular incidents would serve as reason for deeper participation, but that is obviously impossible to predict. I do not think that we can take the timescales of the US involvement in the Vietnam War as basis for projections (one example cannot count as statistics), but I do think that the present situation can follow at least that pattern in the run-up to such a war.

Conclusion

There have recently been talk about a "third world war". Leaders often engage in such talk for reasons of their own. In this case, however, it seems that there is reason to think that the present situation in Syria and the Ukraine can easily escalate into a major war which involve the major powers around the globe (if not The Third World War). The most important reason why I think that such a war could very well be on hand, is that the present circumstances fits perfectly with my model of war and peace cycles. The events in Syria and the Ukraine are not isolated instances; they are closely connected in the geopolitical game currently underway in the world. An analysis of the geopolitical situation shows that more such conflicts can be expected and that it can easily escalate even more. Of central importance in this regard is that Russia, China and Iran are moving closer to each other. Their short term goals are closely linked and they all experience some form of Western containment which strangle them.

When would such a war break out if it comes to that? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. I have mentioned various factors which are important in this regard. On the whole it seems that the West is not yet ready for war. Although the situation can change fast, it seems that such a war will not easily start under the Obama administration (but remember President Wilson!). The most important factor which will determine what will happen and when, is the nuclear negotiations with Iran.We can take it as an important barometer regarding a possible future war which could include not only Israel and Iran, but also the other major powers. Obama will try to prolong the negotiations as far as possible, but things do not always go as one wants them to - even if you are the president of the US. The situations in Syria and the Ukraine can easily spoil those negotiations - and throw the world into war.

[1] Click on Predicting a war against Iran? - an inquiry into war and peace cycles
[2] Click on The pursuit of geopolitical power in an emerging multi-polar world
[3] Click on War-clouds darken over the Middle East

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

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical perspective.

In this series I consider the question: Can we still believe the Bible? from different angles, namely from hermeneutic (interpretive), archaeological, scientific and prophetic perspectives. This essay focuses on the hermeneutic aspect.

The Bible is probably the best-known book in the world. The Biblical narrative includes stories from ancient Sumeria (6000-2000 BC) to the end of the apostolic age (100 AD). There are more than two billion people today who adhere to the Christian and Jewish religions and who take the Bible (or at least the Old Testament) as basis for their faith. Many among these believe that the Bible is the "Word of God". This would necessarily imply that the Bible is a trustworthy document. Over the past several hundred years, however, some Biblical scholars in the Biblical Criticism tradition have leveled severe criticism against the trustworthiness of the Bible. Most academics in secular society have accepted these criticisms. So, the question is: Can we still believe the Bible?

It has become widely accepted in academic circles that the Bible was written long after the events mentioned therein by authors who did not have any direct connection to those events. This would imply that we cannot take the historical information in the Bible serious. It has also been argued that the Biblical authors wrote with particular agendas to forward their own viewpoints. We should therefore view the Bible as propagandist and untrustworthy. Some archeologists do not even want to use the Biblical text in the archeological reconstruction of Biblical history because they reject it as valid source about that history. In this essay I discuss the philosophical background within which these views originated and ask if they are still valid. Both the modernist and post-modernist approaches are evaluated. What is the best hermeneutic approach to the Bible and what is the implications thereof for Biblical scholarship? What does it say about the credibility of the Bible?

Hermeneutic approaches to the Bible

One of the main reasons why the Bible is regarded with skepticism in contemporary secular society, is because of the learned opinions of Biblical scholars in the Biblical Criticism tradition over the past few hundred years. These people were regarded as scholars who knew their field of study and their views impacted enormously upon the scholarly views regarding the Bible. Students at universities were brought up within that scholarly paradigm and many scholars in their particular fields of study have been influenced by those views. But were they right? Did they use an acceptable approach in their study of the Bible? Today it is generally acknowledged that the modernist framework in which they operated is deeply flawed and that their views in this regard should be discarded. But the scholarly paradigm that they started persists, sometimes with minor adaptions, even today. And generations of other scholars have been influenced in their thinking by these distorted views. Many of their basic standpoints have become well-established "truths".

I have previously written a critique of Biblical Criticism in which I focused on the modernist roots of that discipline (this is a very important essay [1]). The hermeneutic (interpretive) approach used by those scholars assumed that the scholar could have an objective viewpoint on the text, wrongly thinking that their hypotheses could be confirmed in the same or similar manner than in the natural sciences. They believed themselves to be masters of the text. But what they were in fact doing was to reflect their modernist perspectives onto the text. Their basic working principle was: "What the text clearly states can, by no means, be true" [2].

This radical doubt with which they approached the texts reflected their modernist radical doubt of all tradition, but especially Biblical tradition.  The agendas which they ascribed to the Biblical authors reflected their own scholarly psychology. The settings and interpretations which they ascribed to the Biblical texts, did not reflect respect for the views of the authors and their tradition but only for the view of the readers. We can compare this with someone with whom you are in conversation, who are skeptical about everything you say, who do not think much of your views, who ascribes all sorts of agendas to you, who speaks all the time and tries to force his view on you. 

The post-modern paradigm was built upon this. Although the post-modernist reader criticized the modernist paradigm, he/she did not start from scratch in their study of the Biblical text. They all came from the modernist perspective and it was therefore impossible to turn a clean page. Those modernist conclusions that has become widely accepted, became the basis on which the new paradigm was formed. Now, following the hermeneutic views of  (especially) the philosopher Derrida, they accepted that in any text the meaning is fluid and could give rise to any amount of interpretations. The endless multiplication of meaning is celebrated. Every person can develop his/her own interpretation and we cannot affirm the one above the other.

Although we can understand that Derrida rejected fixed meanings, which he called the "logocentric" bias of Western tradition, as typical of the modernist hermeneutics, he went to the other extreme where all stable meaning is discarded. This immediately means that there is no sensitivity for the voice/word (logos) of the author of the text. Even though we cannot reconstruct the intentions of the author, we should surely have an openness to listen to the voice of the authors and their traditions. We cannot disrespect the author and empower the reader at the cost of the author! We can say that whereas the modernist view killed the author, the post-modernist view accepted his/her death and believes that we can freely form our own individual interpretation. Whereas the modernist approach violated, yes, "raped" the text, the post-modernist approach accepts that she is silenced and that we can use her as we like.

A very important question is: Can we find a middle way between these two extremes? Is there a more balanced hermeneutic approach available? [3]. Yes, there is. In this regard the hermeneutic approaches of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur are of great importance in the study of the Biblical text. Although Gadamer agrees that meaning is independent of the intention of the author (we cannot reconstruct the intention of the author), he nonetheless believes that in the interaction between author and reader some stable meaning comes into being (considered as an ontological "event"). For Gadamar it is important that we respect the author and the tradition from which he/she originates and have an openness in our listening to the text. He wrote: "I must allow tradition's claim to validity, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me" [4]. Ricoeur built upon this approach and says that we should approach the text not as master, but as disciple. We should learn from the text.

The respect with which these philosophers approach the text and the tradition in which it stands are in direct contrast with both the modernist and post-modernist approaches. Although we cannot say that the text has just one meaning, we can formulate informed meanings of the Biblical text in which the words of the authors and their tradition are respected. We cannot doubt the credibility of information in the text from the start, we cannot attribute all sorts of agendas to him/her - although we should obviously acknowledge that he/she worked within a particular perspective as well as tradition, just as we do. Although it is very difficult to really hear the voice of the authors given all the noise caused by the misuse of the text, it is important that we do exactly that. That we take their statements regarding their own tradition (history) and their own times serious. That we treat their views with the seriousness that it deserve. That we try to put our preconceived ideology apart and focus on listening to their perspectives.

When we do this we find that the Biblical authors often mention how much care they have taken to correctly preserve their own traditions and the events about which they are writing. The author of Chronicles, for example, mentions exactly which sources he has used, namely histories written by the prophets Samuel (who operated in the time of king Saul), Nathan, Gad (from the time of king David), Ahijah (from the time of king Solomon), Shemaiah, Iddo (from the time of king Rehoboam), writings by Elijah (from the time of king Ahab), Isaiah (from the time of king Hezekiah) and others. The author of the gospel of St Luke mentions how he has collected eyewitness accounts of the events concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (Luk. 1:1-2). 

Basic principles of hermeneutics

With this background, a more detailed account of what counts as good interpretation can be provided. I have often said in my essays that we should avoid the two extremes of thinking either that we can achieve one final objective interpretation (modernism) or that we can freely form interpretations (post-modernism). We must search for "better" interpretations. But what is a better interpretation and is it not too subjective an approach? 

The main problem in hermeneutics is that we do not have the tools of the empirical sciences available (see my discussion in [1]). This, however, do not stop readers from seeking some foundationalist grounds in interpreting texts. Some Christians, for example, are unaware that there is an enormous gap between us and the authors, between our traditions or paradigms and theirs. They think that they have access to the intentions of the Biblical authors and that they therefore have access to the final truth in our understanding of Biblical passages. Some think that the Holy Spirit guides them in this - forgetting that other Christians, who also have the Spirit, follow other interpretations. The apostle Paul cautions in this regard when he says: "now we know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12). 

Others think that tradition can serve as foundation for final objective interpretations, arguing, for example, that the Catholic tradition is the correct one, in part because God entrusted to them the affirmation of the Biblical canon. This view forgets that the canon was already accepted in the early church [5] and that the Roman Catholic Church made many other decisions that are clearly ungodly, for example in establishing the Inquisition which lead to the murder of millions of Christians. One good decision (i.e. accepting the canon) does not give it any foundational ground in establishing truth in all interpretation.

The acknowledgment that we do not have access to objective interpretations does not imply that we are stuck with relativism. Not at all. But we should accept that our human mind restricts us (we do not have a so-call God's eye view) in a manner that we cannot overcome. All our interpretations are colored by our individual and traditional/paradigmatic backgrounds [6]. All our interpretations are underlain by our system of belief which could be religious (with all its variety) or agnostic (atheistic), but which are always situated within a certain informal (cultural) or more formal (academic) paradigm. This is the basic ground from which we interpret texts.

Furthermore, there is an uncrossable gap between us and the world of the texts. In Kantian terms (in reference to the philosopher Immanuel Kant), we can speak of the world in which the authors operated, the tradition from which they came, their worldviews and their personal intentions, as a "world in itself", i.e. the world of the authors as it really is beyond any possibility of us ever accessing it. (In the rest of the essay I will also use some examples from Kantian interpretation). This includes the manner in which that world is presented in the text as well as the background behind the coming into being of such texts (for ancient texts like the Bible, the real textual history is forever lost [7]). Since we are so severely restricted, both by our own human condition as well as the inaccessibility of world-in-itself of the text, and we do not have the tools of the empirical sciences available in hermeneutics, we can never arrive at an objective interpretation which can be empirically confirmed. 

This inaccessibility of the ancient world of the text as it really was, is also the reason why there are certain aspects of the earliest Biblical world which we would probably never fully understand, for example, why the early forefathers mentioned in the Book of Genesis (and those mentioned in the ancient Sumerian king-list with which the lists in Genesis show agreement ) have been accorded such long lives. Some agnostics and atheists are quite good in snuffing out such passages, but it is unclear to me how that helps their case. Once we understanding the reasons behind such passages we would probably also be able to make sense thereof.  


Although we cannot achieve objective interpretations, we can nevertheless formulate certain rules of interpretation which should guide our interpretation of texts. We should bring all interpretation of texts under these basic rules of understanding. These are well-founded (but not foundational) and enable us to discard wrong interpretations (on both sides). They show that we have good reasons to discard certain interpretations (and therefore reject relativism) but also that we cannot achieve one single objective interpretation (and therefore reject foundationalism). And they force us to acknowledge that other interpretations than our own (even from other paradigms than our own) could be valid interpretations of the Biblical text. These are

1. No internal inconsistencies. We can accept that any rational author would try to eliminate inconsistencies from his/her writing. Although it is possible that the text does in fact contains inconsistencies of its own, often perceived inconsistencies are caused by the distance between us and the texts and are therefore pseudo-inconsistencies. Pseudo-inconsistencies arise due to insufficient information about the world of the author and the events that he/she is writing about. It can also be due to artificial conflicts created by simplistic readings, sometimes by scholars who think it is scientific to accentuate and articulate all sorts of assumed conflicts in the textual accounts.  The use of this rule implies that interpretations which find important inconsistencies in the text should be rejected in support of those which reduce inconsistencies to a minimum. The reason for such inconsistencies lies with the interpretation, not with the text! In Kantian studies, for example, the so-called two-object interpretation has lead to many notorious inconsistencies in his view. Since these disappear in the alternative two-aspect interpretation, we know that these are not of Kant's own making. 

In Biblical studies the same thing happens all the time. Often inconsistencies appear when readers interpret the Bible from a scientific standpoint, forgetting that the authors did not write with such factual perspectives in mind; they wrote with integrity, but we should not take everything that they wrote as if they made scientific statements about the world. Writing with integrity implies that they wrote what they saw and experienced, not about things far beyond their knowledge (except with regard to prophecy, which involves a particular form of divine inspiration). We, for example, find in the six solar day interpretation of creation in Genesis 1 the glaring inconsistency that God made the sun only on the fourth solar day. So there were three solar days without the sun! Clearly, it is wrong to think that the author made a scientific statement that God created in six solar days! He did not. There are other better interpretations in which this inconsistency does not occur (see my discussion of these issues in the series on the Book of Genesis [8]). On the other hand, agnostics and atheists often use these pseudo-inconsistencies as evidence that the Bible is full of errors.

2. Sufficient use of context. The background in which texts were written, the relevant historical and archeological data, related texts from that period etc. should be used to establish well-grounded (but not foundational) interpretations. We cannot arrive at good interpretations of Biblical texts if we do not take the world from which the Bible originated into account. In texts from more recent periods, such background information can establish final confirmation of some aspects of texts. In ancient texts, like the Bible, we often find that the text can be situated in various possible contexts. Often traditional scholars would place the time of writing in an early context whereas Biblical Criticism scholarship would place it much later. 

How do we solve this problem? This is where the insights of Gadamer are important. If we have insufficient external data or there is no good reason to distrust the textual account, we should have an open attitude and be willing to really listen to the voices of the authors and the tradition from which they originated. We should not just automatically assume that the textual tradition is untrustworthy. One of the reasons why contemporary Biblical Criticism scholarship date many Biblical texts to the Babylonian exile and later is due to their belonging to that paradigm - they cannot absolve themselves from that paradigm in spite of all the major errors made by previous scholars, for example, in their formulation of the documentary hypothesis (see [1]). 

The errors of modernist scholarship have resulted in many contemporary scholars from that paradigm accepting a post-modern perspective - but, as I have shown above, even this is indirectly grounded on the interpretations of modernist scholarship (it is a reaction to that). Such scholars will find every possible reason to adhere to the established paradigmatic grounds for interpretation for the simple reason that it is deeply ingrained into their very being by the paradigm in which they operate (the same is, obviously, true for the traditional paradigm, but in that case we do not have such obvious errors which discredited the general Biblical Criticism approach in interpretation (see [1]).

3. Use the hermeneutic circle. We should accept that any author writes a unified account in which he/she weaves all the parts of the narrative into a whole, irrespective of the sources that is being used in doing so. This allows us to use the parts to understand the whole and the whole to understand the parts. We should also value the continuous tradition in which the authors wrote. The reason for this is simple: At that period tradition was still very resistant to change; it is only with mass media that culture can be changed quite rapidly. This rule allow us to treat the Old and New Testaments as part of one continuous and interwoven tradition, rejecting all approaches which atomize the Biblical material.

This rule gives preference to synchronic (unified in time) approaches to the text and reduce diachronic (distinguishing the parts and their singular histories) approaches to secondary status. Often diachronic approaches brings the text into internal conflict with itself. The various parts (supposedly derived from different sources) is thought to stand in conflict with each other. Such diachronic approaches assume that the best manner to understand the text is to use a patchwork approach. But often this approach itself creates the very pseudo-inconsistencies which such scholars think that they find in the text! It is only when we cannot find any unified key (and this does not mean that one will not eventually be found), that we can provisionally allow such approaches.

Many examples can be given in this regard. It has, for example become custom to use patchwork approaches to understand Kant's view on freedom in his Critique of Pure Reason. But some authors like Henry Allison have shown that we can in fact arrive at a unified interpretation in this regard. The same thing happened in Biblical Criticism where the documentary hypothesis, which finds various "sources" in the text of the Pentateuch, have created a patchwork of epic proportions. The unity in the text is reduced to an absolute secondary consideration. The various parts (sources) stands apart and in conflict with each other since they are supposedly written in different epochs and later crudely combined. The text is taken apart like a motor engine. This goes against the very grain of the principle of the hermeneutic circle and should be discarded (except when clear evidence to the contrary is provided as in the case of Tatian's Diatessaron, which group passages in the gospels together in one integrated work).

As I mentioned above, these rules are always applied from within a certain perspective. We cannot go beyond that. So, when it comes to metaphysical questions, our worldview which are grounded in the paradigm to which we belong, will determine our view. As evangelical Christians we can insist on the Biblical pronouncements regarding miracles, prophecy and the divine inspiration of Scripture (II Tim. 3:16, 17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). As such, we cannot accept that the Biblical text be placed on an equal footing with other ancient texts. We cannot but make a decision in this regard: either we take the Biblical perspective as basis or we take other perspectives, which cannot be anything but a rejection of this perspective, namely that the Biblical text is divinely inspired.

Re-reading the Bible

We can now focus in more detail on the material in the Book of Genesis, especially in the "ancient history" (Gen. 1-11), to illustrate the point. When reading the Bible one is struck by the amount of Mesopotamian material used in this ancient history. Clearly the author has been influenced by Mesopotamian historical and cultural perspectives. But how did that material end up in the Bible? We can discern two obvious possibilities, namely 1) that a historical Abraham brought that material from Sumeria from where he is said to have originated, i.e. from the city of Ur, after which it was handed down in the family until it was used by an early author (like Moses) when he wrote the Book of Genesis, or alternatively, 2) that the author came into possession of the material due to Israel's Babylonian exile.

Some scholars who adhere to the documentary hypothesis think that some of the sources which they find in the Pentateuch, in which that material is used, originated in the in-between period, somewhere during the monarchical period. This is not necessarily in contrast with the first view, but would be if it is assumes that the Mesopotamian material diffused to Israelite circles during this in-between period. Since all the material is grouped together in a well-presented whole in the ancient history in Genesis 1-11, and clearly includes much more than accidental or occasional borrowing, it is difficult, however, to see how this could have happened in any other period than those mentioned above, in which Israel had no direct contact with Mesopotamia.

The first view assumes that the material in the book is very old and had been delivered down in patriarchal and Israelite circles since the eighteenth century BC; the second view assumes that the material dates from the sixth century or later. The first view strongly suggests that the rest of the Old Testament narrative is historically correct and refers to real historical persons and events. The second doubts large parts of that narrative.  

Many scholars in Biblical Criticism circles believes that the second view is correct. But can this be? There is a substantial problem with this view since there is no post-Abrahamic (post-Old-Babylonian) material included in the Book of Genesis (even if we view the relevant passages as containing some argument against other contemporary views). (Definitely not from the Babylonian Enuma Elish as is often argued without any substantial evidence!). But how is it possible that there is no Neo-Assyrian or Neo-Babylonian material per se included in the book if the author lived in or after that period? How did it happen that he ignored all contemporary material? He would surely have included at least some material which reflects the period in which he was writing! But none at all! 

I challenge any Biblical scholar to show me any Mesopotamian material included in the Book of Genesis which dates from the post-Old-Babylonian period per se. That places a large question mark over this position. It seems that this hypothesis is accepted without good argumentation. It is accepted simply because of the presupposition which accepts that the Bible was written late and that no early inclusion of such material could have been possible. If we are more open, we can allow for the possibility presented in the text and Biblical tradition, namely that the book was in fact written early.

There are many features in Genesis 1-11 which underlines the ancient character of the text. It is not possible in this essay to discuss all the material in any detail (see my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel)). I can mention a few things. One is the above-mentioned Mesopotamian material included therein. Another is the lists of genealogies, the exceptionally long lives of those people and the short remarks in between, all of which also occur in the Sumerian king-list which date from about 2000 BC. (No document from the exilic period shares these features).

There is a lot of other data which affirms that the material in the Book of Genesis must be very old. A good reason to think that the Abrahamic history was written down early, is because it also records the oracles of God given to him. We know from other Middle Eastern data from that period (from Mari) that such oracles were in fact written down [9]. Also, some historical data regarding Abraham's period could only have come from historical sources in this regard. This includes, but is by no means restricted to, the fact about the Elamitic incursion into northern Syria (there was only one), the name of the leader of that incursion (the shortened form shares the root structure k-d: Chedor/Kudu), the period when it happened (1822 B.C., which agrees perfectly with the dates in the Septuagint) etc. I discuss the evidence for a historical Abraham in detail in my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel). Furthermore, the Book of Genesis also includes material which obviously goes back to the time before the name Elohim became established. This older strata is visible in the name under which the Abrahamic family worshiped their God, namely El-Shaddai (God Almighty), as well as the name of Melchizedek's God, namely El-Elyon (Most High God) [10].

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to argue in any detail that one author wrote the book (recognizing that he obviously used older source material handed down from the fathers), I can mention a few things in this regard. Single authorship is disputed in the documentary hypothesis, according to which the book is regarded as a patchwork of sources. The book is divided between the Y (Yahweh), E (Elohim) and P (Priestly) sources. Just in the ancient history of Genesis 1-11 we find the following division: Y: 2:4b-4:24,25c; 6:1-8; 7:1-5,7,10,12,16a-20,22,23; 8:2b-3a,6,8-12,13b,20-22; 9:18-27; 10:8-19,21,24-30; 11:1-9. P: 1:1-2:3; 6:9-22; 7:8,9,11,13-16a,21,24; 8:1,2,3b-5,7,13a,14-19; 9:1-17; 10:1-7,20,31,32; 11:27-31. E: starts from chapter 20.

There is, however, reasons to think that the "ancient history" forms a single whole which was written by one author as a single document. The most important of these are the very particular and unique features which clearly sets it aside from the rest of the Pentateuch (and even from the rest of the Book of Genesis!), namely the use of ancient Mesopotamian material, combined with pre-patriarcial lineages with long lives and short comments in between. The material as well as its presentation is typical of Sumerian sources, as mentioned before (I have already mentioned that no post old-Babylonian material whatsoever is found therein!). We also find, unique to this ancient history, that a strange, and clearly very ancient, manner of referring to God as "us" is used on three occasions in material which supposedly belong to different sources, namely in Genesis 1:26, 3:22 and 11:7. Since it is extremely unlikely that any later editor of the text (who may have combined the Y and P sources) would have used such archaic terminology, this is a clear sign of single authorship.

In the Masoretic text the divine name Elohim-Yahweh is used only in the garden story. This usage is not found elsewhere in the Masoretic text (except once in Ex. 9:30). In the Septuagint [11], however, we find that the divine name Elohim-Yahweh is used throughout the ancient history and even sporadically thereafter in the Book of Genesis. The unity of the ancient history (as is manifest from the use of the Godly "us") strongly suggests that the Septuagint incorporates the original reading. What is also interesting about the Septuagint reading, is that the divine names Elohim and Elohim-Yahweh alternate (i.e. both are used) throughout the ancient history. This totally negates the documentary hypothesis which allocates the sources according to the supposed use of different divine names by the authors. So, on the whole, it seems that we have good reason to reject the documentary hypothesis and accept single authorship of the ancient history in Genesis.

In trying to preserve the documentary hypothesis one can argue that it at least explains the use of Elohim and Yahweh respectively, which typically appear in passages where God is presented as aloof (Elohim) or in anthropomorphic form respectively (Yahweh often appears in human form in dreams or in person). But this usage can easily be explained differently. In my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel) I show that we can clearly distinguish two early forms of El in Israelite literature, namely El-Sjaddai and El-Elyon which is closely associated with the roles of "king of the gods" (Gen. 49:23-25, see especially the Septuagint reading; Ex. 15:18, which should be read with Ex. 6:2; Ps. 95:3 etc.) and "father of the gods" (Ps. 82:6 etc.) in the council of the gods [10]. Without taking the ancient concept of the council of the gods (see 1 Ki. 22: 19-22; Ps. 82: 2; 89: 7, 8; Ezek. 28: 16; Is. 14: 13) into consideration, we loose all connection with the ancient manner of thinking.

Now, it seems that the name Elohim, which could originally have been a plurality, developed as the unified form of God in which both these El-forms were combined (see Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel)). So, it makes sense that the divine names are distinguished. This would explain the usage of the divine "us" by Elohim in the ancient history (in Gen. 3:22 the Septuagint, which I take as the correct reading, have Elohim, not Elohim-Yahweh, speaking as "us"). It also makes sense that Yahweh is typically presented in anthropomorphic form. He had a special connection with the patriarchs and their early forebears (starting with Adam and Eve) because we read that this name (Yahweh) supplanted El-Sjaddai, the fore-fatherly name of the Abrahamic family, after it was revealed to Moses (see Ex. 6:2). So, El-Sjaddai, the fore-fatherly name of the patriarchal family was replaced with Yahweh, the God of Israel, after they became a people during the exodus. The author of Genesis obviously wrote after that, which is why he used the name Yahweh when referring to that particular manifestation of God. (I plan to discuss this issue in more detail in future essays on this blog).

In the same manner, we can also argue for the unity of the Book of Genesis as a whole. There are various features unique to the book which does not appear in the rest of the Pentateuch, namely the repeated use of the expression "(the book) of the generations of" (Gen. 2:4a; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12, 19; 36:1,9; 37:2), the references to the oracles of God to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-22; 18:1-33; 22:1-2, 15-18) and the other patriarchs (although this also appears sporadically later in Israel's history), the unique patriarchal setting of the narratives, the use of the divine name El-Sjaddai (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25; other than here, this name only appears sporadically in Hebrew literature) as well as the corresponding name El-Elyon (Gen. 14:18,19,20,22).

According to the documentary hypothesis this whole is cut into a lot of bits and pieces (see above). The Abrahamic oracles are divided between the Y and P sources (P: only Gen. 17:1-22) and the use of the divine name El-Sjaddai is also ascribed to both the Y and P sources, as well as EYE (Editor of YE)! (Y: 49:25; P: 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3; EYE: 43:14). The expression "book" of generations (see Gen. 5:1) seems to imply that the original author used source material which could be ordered as "books" when he wrote Genesis; not that a later editor used the terminology. These sections of "generations" stand in direct contrast with the source theory, negating the unity of these sections and cutting it into various pieces. In the light of all the unified features of the Book of Genesis the source theory seems unconvincing. There is, in fact, nowadays a general trend to discard such diachronic approaches for synchronic ones; clearly with good reason!.

An early date for and single author of the Book of Genesis does not imply that editors did not later add and reworked parts of the book. In the Israelite tradition it often happened that later authors added comments or clarified the information in the text. We, for example, find that a later author included the words "of the Chaldees" after the city name Ur to affirm which city is referred to (Gen. 11:28, 31). The Chaldees are the Neo-Babylonians who appeared after the turn of the first millennium in the area of the city of Babylon. This reference, however, does not mean that the whole book was written in this period! This would be a very simplistic reading of the book. It merely show that someone like Ezra edited the book.

We can now come back to the original question: Can we still believe the Bible? If the approaches that were previously used in the academic study of the Bible are so deeply flawed, then the present consensus in a large segment of secular society is just plain wrong. The fact that so many people believe that the Bible was written late and can therefore not be trusted as a source of history, does not make it the correct view. Informed readers should reject that assumption - on good grounds. How do we swipe all these centuries of bad scholarship off the carpet? How do we restructure deeply held opinions - assumed to be academically arrived at? In my opinion the documentary hypothesis should not be salvaged, it should be discarded. If it fails in the ancient history, or the Book of Genesis, it fails in the Pentateuch as a whole. Instead, we should recognize that we need to approach the Bible anew - with an open mind and ready to listen to the authors and their tradition who speak to us through the text. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot believe the Bible.

Conclusion

In this essay I have focused on only one basic aspect regarding the credibility of the Bible, namely hermeneutics. It is immediately clear that the modernist approach to the Bible - as well as the new post-modernist one - did/do not listen to the authors speaking with us though the text. It forced a modernist "objective" perspective onto the text - distorting the message in the text beyond recognition. Current philosophical thought rejects that approach - hermeneutics involves an open conversation between author and reader. Although we cannot reconstruct the intention of the authors, we can arrive at valid interpretations. We can confirm that there is a healthy middle ground of possible interpretations, some better than others. The rules of good hermeneutic principles should guide us in this.

Although it has become generally accepted in secular society that the Bible was written late and is an unreliable source regarding history, we can remind ourselves that society has often in the past held views that we consider to be wrong today. The problem is that the acknowledgment of the errors of modernism did not lead to a radical new beginning, but to a new phase which built on the ruins of the past.We should reject that. We can conclude that the Bible is trustworthy. In my studies I have not found any reason why we should doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible.

[1] Click on: A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline
[2] I took this from Eta Linnemann's book Historical Criticism of the Bible, Methodology or Ideology (1990), page 87. She was a Biblical Criticism scholar (professor at Marburg, East Germany) but renounced all her previous work after her conversion. Chapters 6-8 of her book is highly recommended and reflects her in-dept knowledge of Biblical Criticism. Some criticism can, however, be leveled against the rest of the book. In my opinion (as a scientist) her view is too anti-science. Her arguments about the unscientific nature of immature science is generally acknowledged by philosophers of science. When the natural sciences reach maturity, however, they are empirically well-grounded (even though the theory could include unconfirmed perspectives). The main problem with historical Biblical Criticism which she should have accentuated, is that it tried to establish itself as an empirical science. This is not possible since it is merely a hermeneutic discipline (see [1].)
Another possible criticism that I have of Linnemann's work, concerns her hermeneutics. When she says that God's Word is independent of interpretation (p154), it can (I assume, incorrectly) be taken as meaning that we have access to it without interpreting it. This, however, is wrong. But it is true that the text as divinely inspired is independent of any particular interpretation. This is reflected in 2 Peter 1:19-21 where we read: "no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit". This verse does not negate all human interpretation of the text (we have no choice but to interpret the text); it says that the text did not come into being as the result of mere human interpretations (i.e. those of the prophets regarding their times and future events). There is no reason why we cannot develop better interpretations of  the text when new information about ancient times etc. becomes available. But, for evangelical Christians, such interpretations should adhere to basic evangelical principles.
[3] Gerald Bray argues that a new hermeneutic paradigm has opened up in the academic study of the Bible, namely that three approaches to the formal, scholarly study of Scripture have evolved, namely the historical-critical tradition (which no longer possess the monopoly that it once had), the "social trends" approach (which focuses on current social and political issues) and "conservative evangelicalism" (Biblical Interpretation Past and Present, 1996, InterVarsity).
[4] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1994. Truth and Method (translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, second, revised ed.). New York: Crossroad. Gadamer is one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century.
[5] Although it took some time before the canon as we know it was widely excepted in the church, the early church used a very basic principle to decide, namely that the authors of the New Testament had to be either an apostle or brother of the Lord (Hand. 1:14 etc.), or wrote under the guidance of and with the approval of the apostles. They included only those texts in the canon of which they were convinced that they adhere to this principle.
[6] Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago. Click also on: Paradigmas in konflik: Bybelwetenskap vs traditionalisme
[7] Only in later periods, when known texts are used, can a (partial) textual history be composed. I discuss this issue in the second part of the following essay (click on): A critique of archaeology as a science
[8] The Book of Genesis, Part 1 etc.

[9] Click on: Bible prophecy: Predicting the distant future? 
[10] Herbert Niehr argued in his book Der hochste Gott (1990) that these names for God are a late development. But this view cannot explain why El-Elyon is regarded in the Biblical writings as the "father of the gods", which is a very ancient concept. It can also not explain why El-Sjaddai is closely connected with the role of "king of the gods". The only way to distinguish these roles is to take the ancient concept of the council of the gods into consideration as well as the Israelite reworking of developments in that council (see my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel).
[11] Click on: The importance of the Septuagint in Biblical studies

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. Posted on 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. 

For a more in-dept discussion of the Book of Genesis, see my series of essays on it. To read, click on Part 1 etc. 

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