The Prophet, The Skeptic, & the Fulfilled Event (Pt. 2)

The ‘Fed’ Weighs in on Trusting Event Predictions

In my last post I put forward how the Jewish exile from Israel 606 BC -> 537 BC -> 1948 AD was foreseen by Ezekiel as he prophetically lay on his side for 430 days.  I used this to address Sam Harris’s demand that the Biblical prophets foretell something specific for our time.

The Prophetic Timetable for Jerusalem

What is interesting is that this same sequence also holds true for the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple – it is just frame-shifted from the above dates.  To see this we just need to know some details of Jewish history.  The Jewish nation of Judah lost its independence to the Babylonians in 606/605 BC when the first wave of deportations to Babylon occurred and which started the initial 70 year countdown.  From this point on they were a vassal state of Babylonia.  However it was not until their failed revolt a few years later that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar came and besieged Jerusalem and then took it, destroying and burning both the city and the Jewish Temple.  This occurred either in either 587 or 586 BC (different scholars argue either of these years).  This started the exile and desolation of Jerusalem proper.

The Jerusalem Temple – also desolate for 70 years

The Jews returned under the Persian Emperor Cyrus’s Edict in 537 BC that fulfilled the 70 years of exile that Jeremiah had predicted.  But when the Jews returned they were not able (because of lack of interest and local opposition) to rebuild their temple.  That endeavor was not begun in earnest until 520 BC, the temple being finally inaugurated in 516 BC.  So from 587/86 BC to 516 BC the temple was also desolate for 70 years.  The length of time was the same as the exile but just shifted over.

Jerusalem in 1967

I suggested that the re-birth of Israel in 1948 was what Ezekiel foresaw as the culmination of that first deportation in 606/605 BC and return in 537 BC with the remainder of the 430 years multiplied by seven as per the principle of Leviticus – exactly as Sam Harris had asked for.  But in that 1948 re-birth Israel did not get Jerusalem.  In the fierce war of 1948 they were not able to hold the city or the Temple site, though they were able to establish their nation outside of Jerusalem.  It was only in a subsequent war, the six-day war of 1967, that Jerusalem and the Temple site was captured by Israel.

Applying the same prophetic timetable that we used for the nation of Israel onto Jerusalem we get the following result:

586 BC + [70 + (360 * 7)]*360/365.24 + 1 => 1967 AD[1]

Ezekiel foretells the dispersal and re-gathering to Jerusalem, as a frame-shift of the schedule of Israel proper

Ezekiel foretells the dispersal and re-gathering to Jerusalem, as a frame-shift of the schedule of Israel proper

In other words, the prophetic schedule given by Ezekiel (with some principles from Leviticus) is frame-shifted so that the city of Jerusalem also fits the prophetic timetable of exile for the nation proper.  The pivotal dates of 586 BC (destruction of Jerusalem) -> 516 BC (restoration of temple) -> 1967 AD (return of Jerusalem to Israel) matches the predictions of Ezekiel exactly as the pivotal dates of 606/05 BC (first deportation of Israelites) -> 537 BC (first return from exile) -> 1948 AD (re-birth of modern nation).  Both sets of events follow the same intervals and thus both are fulfilled with Ezekiel’s drama of lying on his side.  As the saying goes, Ezekiel “killed two birds with one stone”.

Coincidence or Prophecy?

So what are we to make of this?  Cautious skepticism is certainly warranted – and here is why.  The reality is that if you look long and hard enough you can match some sequence of numbers with different historical events.  For example, the interval of 2300 days (and thus the number 2300) features prominently in Daniel 8.  World War II was awfully close to being 2300 days long.  Could it then be said that this event is a ‘fulfillment’ of Daniel’s 2300 days because of the close match?  We would probably all see this as a coincidence especially since Daniel 8 is talking about something else.  If so, what makes Ezekiel’s foretelling different?

The Persistent Theme of Dispersal and Re-gathering

This World War II and 2300 day example illustrates how Ezekiel’s ‘lying on his sides’ prophecies are quite different since they not being matched with any event that ‘fits’ but are fitted with what he is predicting as he lies on his side and this prediction is part of a specific theme that runs through the Bible – this theme of a dispersion and a re-gathering of the Jews.  It starts with the books of Moses and continues through many books of the Old Testament in addition to Ezekiel and goes even into the New Testament when Jesus himself predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and its restoration.  Sam Harris thought the prediction too vague because he did not follow this theme as it was developed in subsequent books.

The theme established with Moses ensures that we are not just grabbing any set of numbers presented in Ezekiel and looking for any set of events that matches these numbers.  Moses and Ezekiel (along with Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and a few others) work in tandem to flesh out a consistent theme with some remarkably precise elements within that theme.  In some future articles I hope to look at some other aspects of this theme presented in these other books.  All have a degree of specificity that is startling and matches what we see today.  Ezekiel matches with respect to a precise and measurable chronology.  The others match with other criteria.  I know of no other writings, modern or ancient, that does this in a remotely comparable way.

Foretelling: Biblical Prophets vs. the Fed

We can in fact compare the prophetic team of Moses, Ezekiel et al. with that of the very brightest and best that work for us today.  Last week Ben Bernanke stepped down as the chairman of the US central bank – the US Federal Reserve or the ‘Fed’.  His predecessor, chair of the Fed from 1987-2006, was Alan Greenspan, probably the most well-known and respected economist in the world.  He became famous for having a midas touch in guiding the US (and global) economy through persistent growth during his tenure.  Greenspan was chair of the Fed until just before the great economic crash in 2008.  He published his memoirs late last fall and thus gave a series of high-profile interviews in the global media.  In his words, here is how well the crash of 2008 was anticipated by the best and brightest that lead our planet in economic forecasting.

“One thing that shocked me is that not only did the Federal Reserve’s very sophisticated model completely miss (the crash on) September 15th, 2008, but so did the IMF, so did JP Morgan, which was forecasting American economic growth three days before the crisis hit, going up all through 2009 and 2010.”  BBC interview on Oct 20, 2013 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24602273)

All the Kings Horses and All the King’s Men did not foresee the fall of the economic Humpty Dumpty even three days before it happened!  They had access to all the computer models running on super computers with the best and latest economic research and data but not one of the agencies setup for the very purpose of guiding economies around the world saw the 2008 economic crash even just days before it hit!  This gives us a benchmark to make a comparison:  the very best of human predictive capability vs. the Biblical prophets.  When I do that I am astounded that this theme of dispersal and re-gathering that was declared thousands of years ago has come to pass, is continuing before our eyes, and with a level of detail and precision that the best human forecasters can only dream about.  Events certainly could have played out differently.  By sheer probability the Jews should have ceased being a distinct ethnic group along with the “Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Girgashites” that are specifically mentioned in the books of Moses as being the peoples surrounding the Israelites in his day – and who have long ago disappeared as distinct groups.  But Moses predicted the Israelites would persist though they would be scattered and then re-gathered.  Ezekiel then added the timing to this theme.  To use the words of Harris, against those odds an accurate set of predictions spanning millennia is like a ‘product of omniscience’.

We Trust in …?

But perhaps even more surprising is that you and I are still trusting the economic predictions of the Fed, the IMF, JP Morgan etc.  If you have a pension plan, RRSPs or equivalent, or your company is investing in new production or technologies you are trusting in these same people and agencies that could not foresee the worst economic crash since the 1930’s.  But I am not arguing that we should cease to trust them.  In fact I have RRSPs and fund managers that invest based on the economic predictions of these agencies.  I do so not because I do not have trepidation and doubt, not because all my questions are answered, nor because I understand all their models.  I do so because on the balance they offer reasonable hope.  And even more so because there are no real alternatives.

If you and I will practically-speaking place our trust in these institutions that have so obviously failed at critical moments it is ironic that we struggle so in placing our trust in the gospel.  Yet this is what the gospel calls us to.  The call of the gospel is not to understand every point, not to have no further questions or uncertainties, nor even to dispel all our doubts.  The call of the gospel is to trust our lives with the person and work of Jesus – nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.  He is made known to us through historical writings that have been reliably preserved.  Hundreds of years before his life he was preceded by men who claimed Divine Inspiration in their writings and then predicted details of his life in uncanny ways.  These same men also predicted events such as the dispersion and re-gathering of the Jews which we have been looking at, so their predictions are testable.  A strong case can be made for the bodily resurrection of this Jesus.  In fact, when we look at other alternatives out there to place our trust in, this assessment given by his disciple Peter is fairly bang-on still these two thousand years later.  When he was asked if he was going to quit trusting Jesus he replied

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

All of us extend trust.  The question is to whom and to what. We trust our money to those, as we saw, who have failed us.  Given the track record of the gospel and the dearth of alternatives that offer hope in the face of our approaching death, give meaning and purpose in a seemingly purposeless world, and a relationship with our Creator that is promised to continue into eternity, one is no fool for deciding to trust Jesus and, perhaps with some fear and trepidation and not having all the answers to ones questions, accept his gospel offer of life.  Maybe we should look again at that sought after ‘note’ printed by the Fed and take its advice to heart about where to place our trust.


[1] As in the previous timetable there were 430 years of exile, 70 of which were paid in the initial exile but the remainder being multiplied by 7 as per Leviticus.  This is the ‘[70 + (360 * 7)]’ part of the calculation.  We, like before and like in Daniel, convert to 360 day years (the ‘360/365.24’ factor).  The ‘+1’ because there is no year 0 in going from BC -> AD.  These factors are exactly the same as used in the previous calculation of the exile of Israel.  What is different now is that we start with 586 BC rather than 606 BC since we are starting from the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.  586 BC is like -586 so the whole equation become -586 + [70 + (360 * 7)]* 360/365.24 = 1967, which corresponds to 1967 AD

The Prophet, The Skeptic, & the Fulfilled Event (Pt. 1)

Understanding our Times by considering Sam Harris’s Challenge

In my last post I commented on how Ariel Sharon’s funeral making global headlines is eerie when considered from the perspective of the Blessings and Curses on the Jews in the Torah – the Law of Moses.  And prior to that I looked at Ezekiel’s (ca. 580 BC) Valley of Dry Bones vision of zombies coming to life as another thread in this theme of the Jewish dispersion and return that cuts continuously through both the Old and New Testaments.  The dispersion has happened and the return is happening – the global media is reporting facets of it daily now.  Hearing Canadian news coverage this week about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s state visit to Israel is another example of this playing out on the modern-day global stage.

Well-known skeptic Sam Harris takes issue with this claim of predictive ability of the Biblical writers.  Here is his take on the curses/blessings on the Jews given in the Torah:

Christians regularly assert that the bible predicts future historical events, For instance Deuteronomy 28:64 says “And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other” …  We are meant to believe that these utterances predict the subsequent history of the Jews with such uncanny specificity so as to admit of only a supernatural explanation.

He minimizes the Blessings&Curses by referring to only one phrase in that long discourse and then points out that this one phrase is so vague and unspecific that it hardly merits a supernatural explanation.  He then throws out what he thinks is an impossible challenge.:

“But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy would be, if it were actually the product of omniscience.  If the Bible were such a book, it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events.  You would expect it to contain a passage such as ‘In the latter half of the 20th century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the internet”  The Bible contains nothing like this.  In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.  This should trouble you.”  Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation.  p.60

Let’s consider this challenge from Harris by unpacking a rather bizarre prophetic foretelling given by Ezekiel around 587 BC.  Perhaps also we can understand a little better the times we are living in.  Some background in the history of that period may be helpful (link here).

Ezekiel in Old Testament historical timeline

Ezekiel in Old Testament historical timeline (contemporaneous with Jeremiah)

Ezekiel’s Bizarre Drama of the Siege

We have seen how some prophecies, like the Passover and the Sacrifice of Abraham, are riddles that are acted out rather than spoken.  Those two point to the death of Jesus by remarkably foretelling both the location and the time of year of that pivotal event.  Ezekiel likewise acts a bizarre drama while giving the explanation for it.  Here is what he is commanded to do as a prophetic utterance:

4 “Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. 5 I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the house of Israel.

6 “After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. 7 Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her. 8 I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege.  (Ezekiel 4: 4-8)

Ezekiel was commanded to remain bound on one side and then on the other for over a year!  To give a little background, Ezekiel is writing from Babylon just before the Babylonians besiege Jerusalem (thus the reference to a siege).  This siege lasted many months but finally Jerusalem was conquered in 586 BC by the Babylonians, the city was burned, the temple destroyed and the Jewish people sent to exile in Babylon.  Ezekiel was destined to soon meet the captives brought from the siege of Jerusalem after he had acted out this prophecy.

But why were the Babylonians besieging Jerusalem?  They had defeated the Jewish nation in a war in 606 BC and so the Jewish people had, in effect lost their independence that year.  Most were permitted to remain in Judah, but some, like Daniel, were sent to Babylon in this first wave of deportation that occurred in 606 BC.  The Jews in Jerusalem grudgingly swore allegiance and paid tribute to the Babylonians but then revolted against them.  So the Babylonians came and laid siege to Jerusalem, mercilessly crushing it in 586 BC.  The kings of David have never reigned again since that day!

Note how Ezekiel referred to the ‘House of Israel’ and the ‘House of Judah’.  The Jews after Solomon, around 900 BC, had split into two political countries – Judah and Israel.  This was a similar situation to Korea of today, which is one people group that is divided politically into the two countries of North and South Korea.  The ‘House of Israel’ had already been conquered as a political entity around 722 BC by the Assyrians.

Unpacking Ezekiel’s Prophecy

In this acted drama, Ezekiel specified that there would be a period of 390 days + 40 days = 430 days, with each day representing a year (v. 5 & 6).  So this is explicitly talking about 430 years to pay ‘for sin’.  But where does that idea that such a payment for sin is required?  The parting Blessings and Curses of Moses had said that if they sinned they would pay for their sin in being exiled from their land.  This was the one sentence that Harris quoted.  So Ezekiel was now prophesying from this principle rooted in Deuteronomy that they were to enter 430 years of exile.

The 360 day year

While we commonly use the 365.244 day solar year (the Gregorian calendar) there are other ways to denominate a year.  Today the Muslim calendar is based on 12 lunar cycles resulting in a 354-day year.  In ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Greek civilizations a 360-day calendar was common, and it was the year length that Ezekiel’s contemporary, Daniel, used and is the basis of the prophetic year used through the books of the Bible. We will need to convert Ezekiel’s years to our solar years to understand his prophecy with respect to our calendar.  But there is another twist to consider first.

Jeremiah’s 70 year prophecy

While Ezekiel was in Babylon prophesying 430 years his contemporary living through the siege in far-away Jerusalem, Jeremiah, had said:

8 Therefore the LORD Almighty says this: “… 11 This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years12 “But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the LORD,  (Jeremiah 25:8-12)

Jeremiah said 70 years … not 430.  So which was it – 70 or 430?  It turns out that in 539 BC the Babylonians were conquered by a Medo-Persian alliance.  This was headed up by King Cyrus of Persia who founded the Persian Empire.

So the exiles of Jerusalem were allowed to return by a famous 538 BC edict of Cyrus, arriving back in 537 BC.  From the initial deportation in 606 BC to 537 BC – Jeremiah’s prophecy of destruction of the Babylonians and return to Jerusalem in 70 years was fulfilled.  Now this is precise, but not impressive.  It would have been easy for editors of Jeremiah after the return from exile, to insert the ‘prophecy’ in his book to make sure a ‘fulfillment’ occurred.  Since the earliest existing copies of these books are from the Dead Sea Scrolls from 200-100 BC we can never be sure that it did not happen this way.  If this were all we had we would have to concur with Harris that it would be poor evidence of omniscient foretelling.

The Leviticus Principle

But do we not now also have a contradiction between Jeremiah and Ezekiel?  They seem to be predicting mutually exclusive things – one an exile of 70 years and the other an exile of 430 years.  It would be impossible for both to be right.  Or is it?  Because if you go to the ‘principles in Leviticus’ that Harris had asked for you will see the following:

if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: … 17 I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.

18If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. 19 I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze…

21 ” ‘If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve…

23 ” ‘If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me, 24 I myself will be hostile toward you and will afflict you for your sins seven times over….

27 ” ‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over

40 ” ‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers—their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, 41 which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, 42 I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 43 For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees.  (Leviticus 26: 14-43)

Here the LORD was saying, like in the Curses of Deuteronomy, that if they did not obey the Law they would be defeated by their enemies who would rule over them (v. 17).  These provided the context for Jeremiah’s declaration of a 70 year exile which started with the first Babylonian deportation (606 BC) and ended when a Jewish remnant returned back to their land in 537 BC.

Then v 18 says ‘If after all this…’ (i.e. the chain of events from disobedience, conquest, exile and return) they still remained ‘hostile’ to God and did not ‘listen’ to his commands the punishment for sins would be multiplied seven times over.  It is repeated explicitly in v. 21, 23 and 28.  Events unfolded just that way.  The Jewish people were supposed to return to renew their hearts which they never really did.  Only a small remnant returned … they struggled for years to be motivated to rebuild the Temple which they grudgingly accomplished but few were interested in putting out the effort … Nehemiah brought another group 80 years later when the edict to rebuild Jerusalem was issued (which started the clock ticking to the coming of the Messiah).  But as a people they continued to basically pursue their own interests, and are castigated by Nehemiah for the exploitation of the poor and intermarriage while Malachi (the last Old Testament book) is an impassioned plea for them to remain faithful in their marriage covenants and in their offerings to God, which they did not do.  They remained hostile to Him.

So their punishment, according to the principle in Leviticus, was to be multiplied seven times over.  Only after the full seven-times payment is made would God remember the covenant he had made with Isaac, Abraham and the land (v.42).  What was that covenant?  God had promised Abraham and Isaac that he would give them the land.  In other words, only after the full seven-fold payment was made would they be allowed to claim and rule that land that God had originally promised to the Jewish patriarchs.  When they returned by Cyrus’s Edict they only did so as a small vassal province in the Persian Empire.  The Persians still ruled the land.

Leviticus, Jeremiah & Ezekiel Converge – in Modern Day History

With the insight gained from our ‘principle in Leviticus’ we can understand Ezekiel’s prophecy.  He had predicted 430 years of exile for their sin.  They paid 70 years (as per Jeremiah) which brought the ‘debt’ down to 430 – 70 = 360 years.  This remainder was multiplied by seven (as per Leviticus) to get: 360 * 7 = 2520 years.

Let us now convert these to our solar years and put it on a timeline.

The Babylonian exile lasted from 606 BC -> 537 BC = 69 years.  This was exactly as specified by Jeremiah if we convert his timeframe into solar years (70 years * 360/365.2422 = 69 Gregorian solar years of Jeremiah’s exile).

Ezekiel’s remaining seven-fold years would be:

2520 years * 360/365.2422 = 2484 Gregorian solar years of Ezekiel’s exile

Adding 2484 years to 537 BC (when the exiles returned and this seven-fold period started) we come to 1948 AD.[1]

ezekiels exile to 1948

Historical Timeline of Jews from Moses to Present-Day, showing Ezekiel & his Exile Prophecy

So what happened in 1948?  That was the year Israel was re-born as a modern nation – an independent and self-ruled Jewish country.  For the first time in 2500 years Jews had claim to their own country again.  When Israel declared independence in 1948 it was immediately attacked by five surrounding nations.  I know of no other nation in history surviving such a multi-front war within days of its birth.  Ariel Sharon, whose funeral was marked just last week was one whose brazen military exploits were instrumental ensuring that it did survive.  But even more remarkable, Ezekiel, with some ‘principles from Leviticus’, saw it 2500 years ago!

So let’s reflect. Sam Harris challenged the Bible to predict something for “the latter half of the 20th century”, using “principles from Leviticus”, and doing so would show it to be a “product of omniscience”.  Harris leveled a prophetic challenge because he figured it was so impossible to meet that he never actually did his homework to check it.  He thought that ‘within half a century’ was impossible enough to stymie all attempts.  Ezekiel, with some principles from Leviticus, was bang on to the year starting about 2500 years ago, in predicting the re-birth of Israel in 1948, and in the process, managed to resolve a seemingly intractable contradiction with Jeremiah.  I’d say that is pretty good.  At the very least, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or something else this is something worth being informed about even as we all weigh the implications of this differently.  In my next post I’d like to consider the confessions of Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, as someone worth hearing out as you weigh the implications of Ezekiel’s (with some principles from Leviticus) uncanny abilities.


[1] 537 BC is like -537.  So -537 + 2484 + 1 = 1948 (the +1 is because there is no 0 on this number line, it goes from -1 to +1 (1 BC –> 1 AD) – in an interval of 1