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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)



Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A New Iranian Empire is rising

In this essay I consider the dramatic rise in Iran's influence and power in the Middle East over the last few years and how that impacts on future developments in that region. I discuss the possible scenarios regarding such a resurgent Iran in the context of the Syrian conflict, IS and the conflict in Yemen (where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Iranian-supported Houtis).

The last few years have seen a spectacular reshaping of the Middle-Eastern political landscape. Although most commentators focus on the rise of IS (Islamic State), whose cruelty has grabbed the headlines, in my view the really important event is the dramatic rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Suddenly Iran has become a much more assertive player in that region, which leaves the other major powers like Israel, Saudi-Arabia, Egypt and Turkey very uneasy.

In this essay I consider the reasons why Iran has been able to expand their influence so dramatically as well as the implications that this has for the future of the Middle East. The issue over Iran's nuclear program is now overshadowed by the enormous power that they have gained in the period while the talks lasted. Even if Iran would never build a nuclear bomb, their power has grown to such an extent that all future geopolitical analysis would have to include them as one of the major players - even as the most important one (Israel excluded) - in the Middle East.

Iran's growing influence and power in the Middle East

Over the last few years the Iranians have extended their hold on power all over the Middle-East - in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. In this regard they have empowered all the Shiites or related groups across the Middle East (like the Syrian Alawites to which the Assad dynasty belongs). At first they merely supported the Assad regime in Syria. When their partners, the Lebanese Hezbollah, became involved in the Syrian civil war their influence grew to such an extent that Iranian generals now lead the Syrian-Hezbollah-Shiites in some areas in their conflicts with the Syrian rebels.

In Iraq the Iranian influence has grown due to the threat posed by IS. Many of the Shiite militias that sprang up in Iraq are now coordinated as a single group, called the Popular Mobilization Committee (Hashid Shaabi), by the Iranians. They are led by Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, right-hand man of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who is head of the Quds Force, a part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In the battle for Tikrit Soleimani became openly involved as leader of those groups. In Yemen Iran's partners, the Shiite Houthis, have become the de facto rulers after taking over most of the important parts of the country, including the capital Sanaa. Their southward push toward the city of Aden, last bastion of Yemen's elected President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (who fled to Saudi-Arabia), resulted in the intervention on 26 March of the Arab states under the leadership of Saudi-Arabia in that conflict. The primary reason for this Saudi intervention is to counter the enormous growth in Iranian power in the region.

What we see is that the Iranians with their alliance partners, Hezbollah, the Assad regime, the Iraqi Shiites and the Houthis are now in control of a large part of the Middle East stretching from Iran to the borders of Israel and Saudi-Arabia. Even though they do not officially control all these countries, their partners have strong military forces that are not subjected to the national armies (and can operate as they please). They are indeed in a very powerful position and it is very possible that they would in future become an even more powerful force. As one can expect, this leaves the other Middle Eastern countries very nervous and uneasy about these developments.

The role of the Obama administration

How did this happen? This Iranian projection of power is primarily due to the manner in which the Obama administration handled the situation in the Middle East. First they did not provide any significant support to the moderate Syrian rebels which allowed IS to become the dominant force in eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. It seems that they did not want to upset the Iranians who are involved in that conflict and with whom they were in talks regarding their nuclear enrichment program. When the US-led coalition became involved in the fight against IS, they even had to accept Iran's involvement in Iraq against IS [1]. In fact, according to newspaper reports president Obama sent a secret letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he suggested the possibility of US-Iranian cooperation in fighting IS once a deal regarding its nuclear program has been reached. It seems that the whole US strategy against IS has to some extent become reliant on Iran.

Irrespective of the eventual outcome of an agreement with Iran, the space which the Obama administration allowed Iran to occupy in the Middle East cannot be easily reversed. Iran has dramatically extended its influence in the Middle East at the cost of the other countries. It might be that this was in fact from the beginning an important aspect of Iran's strategy during the nuclear talks, namely to play for time while they extend their power in the Middle East! This expansion of Iranian power have brought them to Israel's borders where Iran is involved in the fighting between the Assad-regime and the rebels at Israel's Golan border where they (Israel) some time ago shot down a helicopter leading to the death of an Iranian general and various Hezbollah military commanders. In this Iranian offensive, the divisions in the ranks of the US's Middle Eastern partners, namely between those who represent the counter-revolution after the Arab Spring (Saudi-Arabia, the UAE and Egypt) and those who support Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who gained momentum through the Arab Spring (Turkey and Qatar), have played into Iran's hands.

Iran can easily consolidate its power. Even if they do not build a nuclear bomb, they now has a very powerful base from which to consolidate and expand their power. Even though the division in the ranks of the Sunni states weakened the Arab response, this dramatic rise in Iran's power has forced them to find common ground. The GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab countries) has recently decided on a unified military command and at the last Arab League meeting at the end of March in Egypt they decided to form a joint military force of willing countries.  

Saudi-Arabia was also able (on short notice) to put together a coalition of nine countries to fight the Houtis and to enforce a no-fly zone in Yemen (i.e. Saudi-Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan. Turkey also expressed their support for this action. The new Saudi king, King Salman, who is more pragmatic than his predecessor, may eventually succeed in overcoming the divisions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood which would unite the Sunni block (which may include Turkey) in any military confrontation with the Shiite alliance led by Iran.

The larger geopolitical game

On the surface it is difficult to understand the Obama administration's decisions which are the most important reason why Iran ended up in this powerful new position. Why would the US allow Iran to use the period of the nuclear negotiations to expand their power so dramatically? It seems to me that a possible answer may lie in the larger geopolitical picture which also involves Russia's role in the Middle East.

When we compare the Obama administration's handling of the Ukrainian crisis with their handling of the Syrian crisis, they are much more decisive in the first situation. Whereas the US takes a more confrontational position against Russia - who has also expanded their own sphere of influence in annexing the Crimea and supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine - they were much more reluctant to do anything in the Syrian situation so as not to affront Iran. The US played a major role in the sanctions that have so far been installed against Russia whereas they allowed the Iranians to spread their sphere of direct involvement up to Israel's border's.

Why this difference in approach? It is possible that the US is trying to win the Iranians over from a possible Russia-Iran-China axis. In this regard the US may think that a future world in which these countries are aligned would seriously limit their own sphere of interest - comparable with the Cold War period when the balance-of-power in the world was quite evenly balanced between the USSR and the West. We may compare the Obama administrations' move in this regard with Henry Kissinger's China "card" - when he went in secret to China in 1971 and convinced them to enter into more friendly relations with the US. The result was that the USSR was left isolated in its conflict with the West. This was part of the containment strategy that eventually led to the fall of the USSR. As such, flipping Iran would also leave Russia quite isolated - especially regarding its geopolitical aspirations in the Middle East. In this context, the successful conclusions of the negotiations with Iran may be viewed not merely in terms of Obama's legacy or resolving the nuclear issue for some time, but as an effort to change the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

There is, however, another possible outcome to this approach that may not be so positive. We can compare the beleaguered Iran with the Russia at the end of the Cold War. In contrast with the aftermath of the Second World War when the main enemies of the West, namely Germany and Japan, were effectively defeated and then incorporated in the Western sphere of influence, Russia was treated as an equal after the collapse of the USSR. The West did not assert their victory (they could not effectively do that due to Russia's nuclear weapons) but treated Russia very much as an equal. At first it seemed that Russia would accept Western values and become a democracy - but that is not what happened in the end. Russia is rising again as an opponent of the West and commentators now talk of a new "Cold War".

What would Iran do? In my opinion this approach will not result in Iran becoming part of the Western sphere of influence. In spite of any agreement with the P5+1 countries (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, i.e. the US, Britain, France, Russia, China as well as Germany), Iran will assert their own (new-found) position and try to extend their influence even further. The only way in which Iran would become included in the Western world is when they are defeated in war (as was the case with Germany and Japan). If this does not happen, they would take exactly the same route as Russia after the Cold War. They would take care of their own interests - which would be to consolidate their position.

Since Iran is not as powerful as China, the China-card option will not work with them - they know that any distance between them and Russia would leave them vulnerable to future Western demands and actions. One can therefore expect that Iran will not allow the West to drive a wedge between them and Russia. They would rather try to consolidate their new role as one of the most important players in the Middle East.

The war scenario

One possible scenario is that the Middle Eastern situation regarding Iran is defused by an agreement between Iran and the P5+1. This would effectively mean that the other Middle Eastern countries (grudgingly) accept the new hegemony of Iran over large parts of the Middle East. This may mean that some agreement between the moderate rebels, whose power has been significantly reduced by the al-Nusra and Syrian regime forces, and the Assad regime has to be reached. If Iran can achieve this, they would be able to further consolidate their power. They could, for example, enhance the military capabilities of their partners - which would put further pressure on Saudi-Arabia and Israel. They have already deployed heavy weapons, including missile systems, in the conflict in Iraq (Fajr-5 artillery rockets and Fateh-110 missiles are mentioned). If this process continues unchecked, Iran's offensive capabilities in the region may eventually overshadow that of the Sunni block (such a change in the balance of power in the Middle East may also upset this peaceful scenario).

Another scenario is that the situation in the Middle East is not defused even when an agreement is reached. Although the Obama administration may confirm the outcome through a UN resolution, this may not dissolve the tension that Iran's increased projection of power in the Middle East has caused - it could even increase such tension if the Sunni block (and Israel) feels that their core interests have been compromised. An increase in Iran's power in the Middle East may force a future US administration to become more aggressively involved to counter the Iranian influence - especially insofar as Israel, Syria and even Yemen are concerned. That may mean that an agreement with Iran may eventually be regarded in similar terms than the Munich Agreement of 1938 which led the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to proclaim "peace for our time", but which ended in World War II. In that case Obama would be remembered in the same way as Chamberlain (in fact, Obama referred to Chamberlain's words during his last inauguration speech).

The scenario that is especially dreadful, is the one that ends in another great war. The greatest potential for escalation in this regard is probably in the context of the Syrian civil war (although the Yemen situation is also escalating fast). The US has belatedly decided to start official training of moderate rebels - to assist in the fight with IS (but not against the Assad regime). Although the Obama administration would probably try to keep it at that, the possibility is not excluded that they would at some stage have to support such forces against the Assad regime (both the Turks and the Saudis strongly support military engagement against the Assad regime). That could lead to a dramatic escalation in the conflict.

The reason why the conflict in Syria has the potential for such escalation is that Iran is so deeply involved. Once the US-led coalition decides to include the Assad-regime with IS as an target for attack (maybe under the next US administration), this will bring the US and its Arab partners in conflict with Iran and even Russia. (Although the conflict in Yemen may escalate in that direction, this would not involve Russia as long as it is contained to that area). Iran would try to disrupt such an effort against Assad, using their partners to destabilize other parts of the Middle East. At this point the conflict can easily escalate into a war between the Iranian led Shiite-axis and the Sunni block supported by the US (and even Israel). One of the reasons why the US tries to stabilize Iraq (over and above improving their ability to fight IS) is to prevent that country from being used as a mere proxy of Iran. But even if the Iraqi army becomes a powerful and neutral force in the country (as we find in Lebanon), Iran would still be able to call upon the powerful Popular Mobilization Committee - at the very least to provide soldiers for battle.

Such a Middle Eastern War could escalate to include other important countries in the same manner that happened during the Vietnam War. In this regard one can expect that an Iran-Russia-China axis could come into being. This will bring NATO into the picture. Even without going into detail, one can imagine that this could change our world for good [2]. One outcome would be that the EU would become much more integrated - even developing a clear military dimension far beyond the current coordination. Another may involve a weakened but resurgent Iran - similar to Germany after the First World War. One thing is sure: Iran's rise has changed the Middle East for decades to come.

A new Persian empire?

At this point we should consider the current growth of Iranian influence in the Middle East in historic context. We should remember who the Iranians are. Although post-revolutionary Iran is a newcomer on the world scene, the Iranian people has a long and distinguished history. During a visit to this great country, one do not only see the ruins of the palaces of the great Iranian rulers of the past; one also find a proud nation who remembers those days. Any visitor who leaves without a beautifully illustrated copy of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh - The Epic of the Kings - has truly missed out.

The Iranians did not only give the world a few great empires throughout history; they also constituted a formidable enemy to the Western nations and their empires. The great Persian empires embodied the most important opponents of both the Greeks and the Romans. East and west first met each other when Darius the Great, ruler of the First Persian Empire (539-312 BC), invaded Greece but was halted at Marathon (490 BC). Later Xerxes again invaded Greece (480-479 BC) in the first great confrontation between these powers which eventually led to the formation of the Athenian Empire (448 BC). Later the Parthian empire (250 BC - 224 AD), which included Persia, stopped the eastern expansion of the Roman Empire. This was followed by the Sasanian Empire (also called the second Persian empire; 224-651 AD).

Sasanian Empire in 620 AD [3]
Now, after slumbering for a long time, the Persians are back. In this case they are using the ties between Shiites to project their power. If one believes that history follows certain patterns, you might see this within the context of the current geo-political rise of the European Union in the footsteps of the great Greek and Roman empires of old. Is the rise of Iran in some manner linked with that of their ancient foes? Are we once again going to see the same great opposing powers of old rising up to oppose each other? Would a more powerful and politically integrated EU rise from such conflict in a similar manner that the old Athenian empire did? Would the geo-political map of recent history, in which the United States and Russia became important players, again over the next few centuries give way to a world in which the EU and Iran fill the shoes of the great Roman and Persian empires of old?

At this point one might add an eschatological perspective to this picture. There is a major current in Biblical eschatology that takes the beast of Revelation 13 as referring to the final (Antichristian) empire of this age. This beast is depicted as combining the various beasts mentioned previously in a prophecy in the Book of Daniel (ch. 7), which is taken as referring to the various great empires that would arise throughout history to rule over Israel. These beasts include a lion (the Babylonian empire), bear (Persian empire), leopard with four heads (Alexander the Great's empire and its divisions) and an enormous beast with ten horns on its head (taken as the Roman empire). The fact that all these are included in one depiction in Revelation 13 is taken to mean that the final world empire would include the geographical area of all those past empires (see [4]).

As such this final empire will include a re-established Roman empire in Europe that rules over all the areas of the other empires, including that of the Persians. This reminds of the empire of Alexander the Great, who ruled over both west and east. For this to happen, the Western forces would have to eventually include Iran in their family of nations. The current overtures of the Obama administration toward Iran may be the first step towards bringing Iran closer to the West. In the light of the discussion above, I can, however, not see this happening if Iran is not dramatically destabilized or even conquered by Western forces and then integrated into the West (like Germany and Japan after WWII).

This prophecy seems to imply that Iran will never be able to grow a nuclear arsenal which will make such a victory very difficult (but maybe not impossible). The question is when one can expect this prophecy to go into fulfillment if this interpretation is correct? In my view, the world may very well be moving in that direction, but it will take many years for it to come to pass. We also do not know if such a war or wars with Iran lie in the near or distant future. What we do see, is that a resurgent Iran is back on the world stage just as in times of old.

Conclusion

At this point I have to leave the reader to form his/her own opinion. The analysis given above suggests that we are entering a new phase in world history which might involve more conflict than the previous decades combined. I gave various possible scenarios - without asserting that they are the only ones. The dramatic rise in the power of Iran over the last few years during the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program has already changed the world. There is no turning back. What is strange, is that this is the direct result of the policies of the Obama administration. In trying to make the world a safer place in which the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved, they may have actually made it much more dangerous! In allowing Iran to extend its power up to Saudi-Arabia and Israel's borders, they have sown the seeds for future conflict.

Although the relation with Iran may yet be managed in a peaceful manner, it seems to me that the enormous growth in Iranian influence and power in the Middle East has already upset the balance of power in that region. Once the US-led alliance decides to also focus on the Assad regime (and not only on IS) - to cripple the Iranian axis at its weakest spot - this would bring the Shiite axis in direct confrontation with the Sunni block (although such a confrontation may also evolve out of the conflict in Yemen). At this point things can easily escalate into chaos - and another great war may ensue. Normally peace follows war; in this case war may follow the peace effort. The white horse of peace might be followed by the red horse of war!

[1] I have previously said (see [2]) that the Syrian situation may force the US to become involved in the Middle East if some unforeseen incidents require that. This happened after IS suddenly conquered large geographical areas in Syria and Iran and the US brought a wide coalition of Sunni states together in the war against IS.
[2] See Is A Third World War Brewing?
[3] Map taken from Wikipedia
[4] The rise of the final world empire: the different views

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

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Part 2: Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective

In this series I am considering the question: Can we still believe the Bible? The previous discussion focused on the scholarly study of the Biblical text. In this essay I consider the archaeological study of the historicity of the Bible. To what extent is the Biblical narrative archaeologically confirmed? I develop a Kantian approach to archaeology that allows some fine-tuning not found in other approaches - and uses that to explore the question. As such I consider the conditions for the possibility of determining the trustworthiness of historical narratives in general before application to stories about historical events found in the Bible. 

The Bible is an ancient book or rather, a collection of books that originated in the ancient world. The stories told in the Bible stretch from the earliest period of remembered history to the end of the first century AD. The author of the Book of Genesis recounts stories that go back in time long before the people of Israel even existed in their land. He also tells how an early forefather named Abraham migrated sometime early in the second millennium BC from the land of Sumeria to the land of Canaan where his descendents later became the people of Israel. The Biblical narrative includes the stories of the ancient patriarchs, their sojourn in and exodus from the land of Egypt, the early stages of Israel's history in their land, the monarchical period, the Babylonian exile and return. The Christian Bible also tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the church that He founded. 

The mere fact that the Bible is an ancient book containing ancient stories, does not immediately mean that the stories about the earliest epochs are indeed ancient and as such handed down through the centuries until they were eventually written down or that the stories of later periods that recount the lives of Abraham, the patriarchs, the exodus etc. are indeed real history written by people who experienced those events. The question is: How do we determine whether the Biblical narratives are indeed trustworthy? It is surely possible that the authors could have made up the ancient stories themselves and that the later events in the land of Israel could have been written long afterwards in a context where the authors had various hidden agendas of their own. To consider this question there are two aspects of central importance. First, there is the study of the texts themselves. Secondly there is the study of the available evidence which may confirm or deny the historicity of the events mentioned in the texts.

Both the study of the texts and the evidence concern specialized disciplines, namely textual studies and archaeology (other disciplines are also involved in any integrated approach). Central to both these disciplines are the issue of interpretation. The texts as well as the data should be interpreted with careful consideration of both the methods and their limits, otherwise the conclusions could be way off the mark. Often practitioners in these disciples give up too high for their own fields of study - using the methods without due consideration of the limits within which they are valid. Since these fields have branched into various approaches during the past half-century, it is important that we carefully consider what constitutes a balanced approach before trying to engage with the above-mentioned question.

I have written two essays in which both the methods and the limits of these disciplines are carefully considered [1,2,3]. In this regard I tried to do something similar to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in his famous book Critique of Pure Reason, showed that pure reason has certain limits in its ability to make determinate judgments [1]. I merely extend that approach to the academic disciplines concerned. Instead of uncritically accepting the pronunciations of the academics involved (or those who merely assert the trustworthiness of the Bible!), such a study allows us to evaluate the validity of their claims. Often these practitioners have no philosophical training and have no idea about the limits of their discipline - some still operate in the modernist mind-set that asserts the unlimited and objective reach of their methods. Others are in reaction and think that humans are so restricted (to arrive at valid conclusions) that all viewpoints should be accommodated (they enforce limits beyond the real limits of the field of study).

In a previous essay in this series, I considered the field of textual studies and how the practice of that discipline impacts on the question regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible [4]. I showed that the modernist roots of Biblical Criticism seriously undermines the so-called scientific study of the Bible. Textual studies can never be a science - it is a mere hermeneutic discipline. I showed how deeply flawed are some of the hermeneutic tools used in that discipline and how that historically impacted on the arguments against the trustworthiness of the Bible. I also made some proposals for a balanced approach to hermeneutical analysis which in some respects show exactly the opposite of that asserted in Biblical Criticism. In this essay I proceed to consider the archaeological evidence. What does it say about the trustworthiness of the Bible?