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’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 years. 12 “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.
18 ” ‘If 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.
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.
 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
This post is really quite interesting. I think you’ve explained this argument to me before in person, but seeing it written down like this makes it that much more striking. Looking forward to Part 2.