Long, Long Ago, in a Land Far, Far Away…. (What I’m Saying is the Bible is Really, Really Old)

This is the eve of a significant event in Jewish history. 2532 years ago tomorrow, August 29, 520 BC, according to Haggai 1:1, God gave the command to rebuild Israel’s temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC.

That’s a long time ago, is all I’m saying.

Think about it. Just 1/5 of this length of time takes us way back to about 1500, the days when Europeans were just staring to explore (and exploit) the known world by ship and people still thought the earth was the center of the cosmos.

If we were transported back to those days, only 500 years ago, many of us would probably be dead within a week, unable to negotiate the dos and don’ts of daily life.

Take just half of 2532 years and we are back in the mid-8th century. Vikings began invading Europe, the stuff of legends. Paper was introduced to the Arabs by the Chinese.

We live in a world where huge numbers are thrown around daily: trillions upon trillions of dollars of national debt, billions upon billions of galaxies each containing billions upon billions of stars, trillions of cells in the human body. We can’t wrap are heads around numbers that large, but they are part of our daily consciousness.

With numbers that large floating in our heads, we tend to forget how large numbers like 500 years, or 1000 years, or 2532 years are when seen from the point of view of our daily human experience.

So, Haggai began urging his countrymen to rebuild the temple over 25 centuries ago. 100 years, 25 times.

Imagine living to be a hundred–and doing that over and over again 25 times. Frankly, I have a hard time truly “experiencing” in my minds’s eye what just one 100-year span looks like. I am currently watching Ken Burns’s excellent series The Civil War, with photographs of soldiers, wives, children, slaves, buildings, and farmland 150 years old. I am taken by the profundity of how much time has elapsed, how foreign this world is to mine.

And the Israelites began rebuilding their temple 2532 years ago.

This bit of the human drama will forever remain outside of my capacity to comprehend. The distance of it all. I cannot get inside of it. I remain a foreigner to this ancient landscape, and outsider looking in.

I guess my point is this. It seems many of us, myself included, can get a bit careless, even cavalier, about the Bible, thinking that we “get it” because we happen to read it regularly in our native tongue. Perhaps we should regain a sense of respect for the distance this book has travelled to land on our coffee tables and work desks.

Perhaps we should remember that in the Bible we are coming face to face with a very foreign (and small) slice of the human drama–with customs, habits, a whole consciousness, that we do not share–and so we should be respectful enough not to claim for ourselves too great a familiarity.

We can study it and even teach it, as I do. But we kid ourselves if we think we control it.

Perhaps we can try to keep that in mind when we disagree over what it means.  We are all on foreign soil.

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  • http://kolhaadam.wordpress.com Joseph Ryan Kelly

    What our “History of Ancient Israel” discussions is actually like: http://www.cracked.com/video_18117_a-history-channel-documentary-from-future-beatles-3000.html

    • peteenns

      Hehe. Good one.

  • Larry S

    Excellent thoughts Dr. Enns
    “Perhaps we should regain a sense of respect for the distance this book has travelled to land on our coffee tables and work desks.”
    I would add … “and to our computers and tablets.”

    Does my view of the Bible change when I have it on the palm of my hand along with 1000’s of other books encoded into a computer? Push this forward another generation or so. How will the computerization of the Bible affect those people? Will they have any concept of time and history in the way you’ve outlined in your post?

    Thanks for this

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  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com craigvick

    Thank you Dr. Enns,
    Though my interactions with you have been indirect and internet driven, you have given me a new respect for listening to the Scriptures with as little arrogance as possible.

  • Oliver Crisp

    Brilliant!

  • Matteo Masiello

    Dr. Enns I think you are absolutely right. I think the Truth of its contents lies in how it endures throughout the ages, like other scriptures of world religions. It is in a constant state of flux and growth as we try to understand what it means to us in the here and now, which is the only relevant point in time. What it meant to others back then is more complex given what we know about the past. What it will mean in the future has nothing to do with us, as those who wrote it were not writing it for us, but for them. This is why I think the Truth of it is not in it being eternal, but evolving. That’s just my opinion.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    What a wonderful post! I love your gentle admonishment of our hubris.

    As someone who has no head for numbers, I appreciate your examples that illustrate how long ago 2,532 years really was. One of the reasons I enjoy studying biblical Greek and Hebrew, (despite the headaches involved in such endeavors), is because when translating passages, I have this weird sense of being connected to something very old. There is something bizarrely comforting in reading a text in its original language. It always makes me think about some scribe in a monastery copying the passages. And who knows, that particular monk might have been thinking, “This text is really really old…” I also remember having a similar sense of awe when traveling in Israel and Jordan a few years ago. The desert seemed to reverberate with ancient vibrations. I remember thinking, “This place feels really really old. Much older than Europe and European culture is old!” Thanks for this post!

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  • James

    We can’t control it, but we can drill until we strike oil, hopefully a gusher. My son-in-law (a nice boy) fingered my margin filled one-year Bible (it’s taken two) and said, I’m too busy to read it. Lord, help him start drilling again!

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