In a previous post, “An Unserious Response to the Theist’s Guide“, I poked fun at a religious apologist – apparently a Jewish rabbi – who made a set of obviously insincere demands for what evidence he would require to become an atheist. So much for that. But our friend the rabbi also thinks that he has convincing evidence for the existence of God. In this post, I’ll consider his claims and see how they hold up.
The following quotes were given before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel and promised them that they’d settle into their homeland and get comfortable, but in time they’d pursue other gods and be kicked out of the Promised Land as a result:
(Deut 4:25-26 GW) “Even when you have children and grandchildren and have grown old in that land, don’t become corrupt and make carved idols or statues that represent anything. I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today: If you do this thing that the LORD your God considers evil, making him furious, you will quickly disappear from the land you’re possess on the other side of the Jordan River. You won’t live very long there. You’ll be completely wiped out.”
…In this case we have a prophesy of Moses predicting that the Israelites would enter the Promised Land and be well situated and in time they’ll be expelled from their homes and land. What seer would dare predict doom and disaster and get away with it?
The obvious answer to this question is: a “seer” who was writing after the events he claims to foretell and knew that they had already happened. And that’s almost certainly what happened here.
Our apologist friend assumes something not in evidence: that this prophecy was given “before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel”. He goes so far as to uncritically attribute the authorship of Deuteronomy to Moses, something that no reputable textual scholar has believed for decades. He presents no evidence for either of these claims. As critical scholars have long recognized, the biblical books collectively known as the Deuteronomic history were only completed sometime after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE. This was a catastrophe where the Babylonian Empire swept down on the Israelite kingdom of Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and sent much of the population into exile. To account for why an omnipotent God had permitted such a disaster to visit his chosen people, the Deuteronomic historians wrote new verses – such as the one my correspondent quotes above – which explained the destruction and exile as God’s punishment for idol worship and other sins the Israelites had not ceased to commit. (See, for example, Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?)
But my correspondent tries something audacious. After establishing that the above verse was in existence by Roman times (which I don’t doubt), he argues that these verses were actually a prediction of the later Roman destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 CE, not the earlier Babylonian invasion.
Deut 28:49 “The LORD will bring against you a nation from far away, from the ends of the earth. The nation will swoop (literally: “descend”) down on you like an eagle. It will be a nation whose language you won’t understand.”
The Roman army did this very thing in the first century, and the symbol of the Imperial Rome was the eagle. In contrast to the Babylonians who spoke Aramaic which is closely related to Hebrew, the Latin is in a different language family and was unintelligible even to those Jews who spoke Greek as a second language.
This is the same sort of exegetical wordplay that religious apologists and Nostradamus devotees alike have used for centuries, trying to turn a vague prediction into a specific one by identifying “hidden” correspondences in the text. There’s nothing to indicate that “like an eagle” is anything more than a metaphor for the strength and fierceness of the enemy. But there are several other things my correspondent has overlooked.
First: The official language of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was not Aramaic but Akkadian, a rather different tongue which was derived in part from ancient Sumerian, a language isolate unrelated to Hebrew. Akkadian could easily stand in for the “language [the Jews] won’t understand”.
Third: The facts of the biblical prophecy fit Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion much more closely. The chapter my correspondent quotes goes on to say that the Israelites will be punished by being returned to Egypt [Deut. 28:68], and that’s just what happens in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion [2 Kings 25:26].
In sum, my correspondent has no clear evidence that this or any other passage is meant to refer to Rome, and that fatally weakens his argument. Imagine that I find an ancient document which reads, “A great American president will be assassinated by a lone gunman.” If I want to prove that the author had miraculous foresight, it’s not enough to prove that the document was written before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After all, it could also have been written after the death of Abraham Lincoln as a false “prediction” of that event. To disprove this, I’d either have to show that the document was specifically intended to refer to Kennedy, or that it also predates the death of Lincoln. My correspondent has done neither.
Finally, my correspondent makes one last attempt to argue for the veracity of a biblical miracle:
What I call the Sinai event was where the Israelites were at Mt Sinai and the entire nation was recorded to be ear-witnesses to God having spoken to them from the top of the mountain, and where God gave the Ten Commandments to the entire Israelite nation… Now one may argue that the Children of Israel experienced a mass hallucination. Well, if everyone had a hallucination there was nothing to make certain that 2+ million people had the exact same hallucination. How could something like an identical mass hallucination occur?
Have you ever noticed that religious apologists only ever consider the most improbable natural explanations for their myths, even when much more probable ones are available?
I have a much simpler explanation: no identical mass hallucination is needed because the Sinai event never happened. There is no archaeological evidence of either an Egyptian captivity of the Israelites or an Israelite conquest of the Promised Land – and Moses’ supposed conversation with God falls right in between those two events. The overwhelming likelihood is that it’s part of the myth, a pious fiction invented by later authors and editors as the Hebrew Bible took the shape it has now. The written account may be based on oral folklore, but regardless, there is no evidence for it or for any of the surrounding events in the story it’s part of.
…if the miraculous history of the Sinai experience and the Exodus from Egypt were contrived by story tellers who spun the tale around a campfire, or an act of deliberate myth-making then asking the elders for confirmation would be fatal to the contrivance. If it didn’t happen then grandpa would say “My grandparents said that they never heard of such a thing. It’s bogus.”
The problem with this apologetic is that it explains too much. You could use a similar argument in favor of every miraculous event recorded in the annals of every people, from the Roman rain miracle of Marcus Aurelius to Native American stories about invulnerable shamans. How did any of these stories get started?
My correspondent’s confident claim that the Jews wouldn’t accept a newly-invented law or story, because they had no historical traditions of such a thing, is disproven by an example from the Bible itself: King Josiah’s “discovery” of the “book of the law” (probably Deuteronomy) hidden in the temple [2 Kings 22:8]. According to the text, Josiah’s discovery made him rend his clothes in grief, because it contained so many laws that had been forgotten. Did the Jews reject this book because they had never heard of it before? On the contrary, it’s now part of their canon. All this goes to show is that when those in power find it convenient to wage a propaganda campaign to convince the people to believe certain things, they very often succeed.