Friday, December 26, 2008

Sin and Death

Much of the modern world just celebrated the birth of a man born to die. I even joined in the festivities! For me, Christmas has been and will continue to be a time to cherish friends and family. But that also means that it is a very busy time, so this week's study will be a short study.

One mantra familiar in almost every branch of Christianity is that we die because of sins, we die physically because we live in a world of sin, and Jesus died paying the price for our sins. Is the price really paid? Let us think about this...

Sin and Death
Way back in the Garden of Eden, God said to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17:
"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." NIV
I think it is important to note that God does not mention anything about the afterlife here. It is plain and simple. God didn't say “for when you eat of it, after you die, you will go to Hell,” nor did He say “for when you eat of it, after you die, you will not go to Heaven.” God told Adam and Eve that they would die, as in physically cease to live, if they sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. The punishment, the price, for their sin is physical death.

So, if we can extrapolate this, it is because we sin that we die today. Think I overreach? Consider these verses:

Romans 5:12
"Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" NIV

Romans 6:23
"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." NIV

So then, sin = death. The punishment, the wages, the price of sin is physical death.

Now then, Jesus died for our sins. For all of our sins. For all time.

1 Peter 3:18
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. NIV
Sinless Jesus received the punishment, paid the wage, paid the price for sin to make everything right between the Saved and God.

With that said, this is my question: If Jesus paid the price for sin, why do the Saved still die?

God did not mention anything about an afterlife to Adam and Eve. Death was it. Death was final. And death was due to sin.

You could claim that the Saved die because they live in the Fallen World that is permeated with sin. Scientifically, you could describe the deficiencies of our bodies or nourishment. However, this discounts the power of God. God could keep the Saved alive if He wanted to do so. I will leave you with His words:

Matthew 4:4
Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' " NIV

Friday, December 19, 2008

Biological Semblance

Without question, science has made some blundering errors due to inappropriate assumptions, erroneous interpretation of results, and inadequate tools. However scientific knowledge has evolved, and continues to evolve, ever revealing better functioning models and more accurate depictions of the truth.

Just like scientific knowledge, Biblical knowledge has evolved too. Like the constant laws of the universe, the Bible's text is constant (at least at this time). It is only man's interpretation that is changing and evolving.

However, unlike science, new interpretation of the Bible never seems to reveal any new, practical universal concept. Instead, we find that science leads the way, like in disproving a geocentric solar system, while Bible scholars lag behind until a new interpretation can be found which reconciles itself with the scientific truth.

Points in the Bible that can't be reconciled by semantics are quite often dismissed as being poetic metaphors or hyperbole, or in other cases they are said to be miracles. In this post, we examine one of these irreconcilable differences.

In a previous post, we studied Jacob's polygamist marriage to two of his cousins at his uncle Laban's estate. After that, a tale of bawdry involving Jacob, his two wives, their maidservants, and some mandrakes, yields Jacob a large family to support. Jacob is then anxious to leave his uncle Laban's estate and begin to establish his own household, but Laban doesn't want Jacob to leave just yet...

Biological Semblance
In Genesis 30:25-43, Laban pleads with Jacob to stay at his estate, because Laban has discovered by divination that he is being blessed by Jacob's presence. Jacob decides to stay for awhile, building his wealth in a manner that would make Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics, turn over in his grave.

As pay for tending the flocks, Laban agrees that Jacob will now own “every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat”, both those in his flock now and those that will be born in the future. In that way, Jacob's “honesty will testify” for him, because his own flock will be easily identified.

Well, Jacob's honesty isn't worth much, as he sets out to actively change the odds of producing a motley flock. How? I'll let the Bible explain in Genesis 30:37-39:
Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. NIV
In other words, what parents see at the time of conception directly influences the genetics of the offspring. Clearly this is what Jacob believed. This is a prime example of where the Bible portrays the cultural beliefs at the time as a truth, as opposed to the actual truth.

To be fair, Jacob does sort of get some concepts of genetics correct a little bit later down, with regard to creating strong progeny in Genesis 30:41-42:
Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. NIV
At best, this represents only a primitive understanding of genetics. It suggests that certain traits are inherent from the parents physique, while other traits are relative to the environment at the time of conception. This is about the limit of what man could discern at that time due to a lack of scientific methodology. It would have been obvious that strong animals tend to have strong offspring, but what exactly controls the finer traits, such as fur color, would have remained elusive largely due to the presence of recessive genes that appear only when homogeneously paired, or produce some blended result or become completely obscured when they are heterogeneously paired. Thus, factors of superstition, such as influence based on what parents saw during copulation, would have been suspected as having influence over those fine traits.

The only possible recourse for the modern believer is to say that Jacob's motley flocks were produced from the divine hand of God, not by Jacob's actions. There is no explicit reference to God's involvement to support this belief. God neither explicitly provided instructions for Jacob to increase his pay disproportionately nor explicitly involved Himself in the production of the offspring at this point in the story.

However, when you continue the story into Genesis 31:1-21, God does stick His hand into the motley flock equation. Then does this explain everything? Not exactly. In Genesis 31:6-7, Jacob says:
"You know that I've worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, 'The speckled ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, 'The streaked ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks bore streaked young." NIV
On the surface, we see God's hand in all of this. But remember that according to Genesis 30:43, Jacob seems to have gotten rich by his own efforts. We can deduce that Laban was angered and/or frustrated by Jacob's ever-growing wealth compared to his own ever-dwindling wealth, and that provided the impetus to change Jacob's wages. Prior to the change in wages, it seems God was not involved. God stepped in when the wages changed. This becomes evident when we study a divine dream that Jacob had, relayed in Genesis 31:10-13. God reveals the timing of His actions in Genesis 31:12:
"And [God] said, 'Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you.'" NIV
God got involved because of all that Laban was doing to Jacob. This reads with a negative connotation referring to how Laban has been changing Jacob's wages. After all, this is the only mentioned specific gripe that Jacob had against Laban. Indeed, it would seem that Jacob would need divine help to match the prescribed changing wages. The account in Genesis 30:37-39 suggests that Jacob could only make streaked or speckled or spotted offspring, but could not particularly make only streaked, or only speckled, or only spotted offspring. That would require God's help, and that's where we see God step in.

In summary, I believe that this story, with particular emphasis on Chapter 30, has fossilized an ancient misconception of how genetics worked. And with that nugget of bad scientific knowledge encapsulated in a body of text that claims to be the Truth, one must wonder if the Bible really does contain the Truth.

In fairness, it is possible that all of the motley offspring may have come about due to God's divine hand, despite a lack of explicit text, due to an implicit execution of God's promised blessing of Jacob back at Bethel in Genesis 28:10-22. However, note that God Himself does not provide that reason when He appears in Jacob's dream.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Annunciation of a Myth

This time of year, the trappings of Christmas permeate the landscape. Although many best-loved facets of the Christmas season are more secular, commercial, or pagan in origin than they are Christian, it can not be denied that all of this holly-jolliness is set upon the underlying fabric of a story that began 2000 years ago.

In this study, we are going back to the very beginning, when Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and the news of this holy child is announced by angels to Mary and Joseph. The verity of the virgin birth has been questioned by critics for as long as the story has existed. We'll examine some of the contextual evidence that suggests the fabric of this story is woven with man made yarn.

Annunciation of a Myth
It is dangerous to take words out of context when trying to discern their true meaning. Words can change meanings when considered against the nuances and inferences of the surrounding text. In the same way, multiple accounts encompassing the same story should not be read independently. Rather, each account should be compared and contrasted with the other accounts to arrive at the most complete vision of the truth.

With that in mind, we investigate the story of the impregnation of Mary, mother of Jesus, as relayed by the Gospels. Mark and John do not mention the birth of Jesus at all. So we'll look at Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35 plus 2:1-6.

In Matthew's account, Mary was pledged to Joseph to be married. Joseph found out that she was pregnant, and because he “was a righteous man”, he was going to marry her and then divorce her quietly. (This is interesting because Jesus will later condemn divorce. So how righteous was Joseph?) An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary's baby comes from the Holy Spirit, that he should name the baby Jesus, and that He will save His people from their sins. This happened to fulfill the prophesy that a virgin will give birth, and the child will be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us”. Joseph takes Mary to be his wife, but does not have sex with her until Jesus is born.

In Luke's account, Mary was pledged to Joseph, a descendant of king David, to be married. An angel appears to Mary and tells her that she has found favor with God, that she will give birth to a boy that she is to name Jesus, that Jesus will take the throne of David forever, that it is the Holy Spirit that will impregnate her, so Jesus will be the Son of God, and that her old relative Elizabeth is with child too. Joseph took his pledged-wife-to-be, Mary, from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census because he was related to king David. Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem. (Note that the references to the Davidic lineage are additional strikes against the thought that the lineage of Jesus given in Luke is actually that of Mary's, not of Joseph's.)

Individually, each account appears to be a plausible tale, if God exists. Superficially, when spliced together, there are no apparent contradictions between the stories, aside from the argument of semantics involving when Joseph actually married Mary. So far, so good. But let's dig deeper.

One minor issue that pops up upon closer inspection involves Joseph's reluctance to stay married to Mary. Why is Joseph initially reluctant? Are we to believe Mary didn't tell Joseph about her night with the Holy Spirit, or is it just that Joseph didn't believe her, or is it that, in Matthew's version, no angel ever told Mary why she was suddenly with child, and that is evidence that the story is fiction? We are left to eternally ponder.

Another minor issue is Jesus' name. According to the prophesy, Jesus shouldn't be called Jesus. He should be called Immanuel. In the entire New Testament, Jesus is never called Immanuel, nor is the phrase ever uttered in Jesus' presence, which would seem to break the prophesy. I guess we are supposed to go just by the name's meaning; “God with us”.

A much larger issue is revealed when you consider the source of this information recorded in the accounts. Most scholars believe Matthew not to be written by the Apostle Matthew, and the author Luke was definitely not an Apostle, and thought widely to be Paul's physician friend named Luke. In other words, not only are they not eye-witness accounts of the original events, but they may not have even been eye witnesses of Jesus.

If you are writing a record of history, who do you go to in order to get the story of Jesus' birth? Jesus' parents, obviously. At some point in time, I would think that Mary would have told Joseph about here angelic encounter, and visa versa. Think about it. How often do you get a direct message from God? Wouldn't you tell your spouse, especially if what was revealed involve both of you? Most probably, both parents knew of each other's angelic annunciation.

When Matthew and Luke, or whoever, asked for the details from Joseph and Mary, it is most logical to presume that either Joseph or Mary spoke of both annunciations at the same time, unless they were just a bit egocentric. So then, are we to believe that Matthew and Luke simply disregarded the other spousal-side of the stories as not being important enough to include? It's unlikely, especially when you consider the amount of detail that Luke adds in particular.

The omissions of Mary's annunciation in Matthew and Joseph's annunciation in Luke just don't make sense if the events actually took place as described. However, these omissions make perfect sense if the two stories are fictional and were developed independently.

The final condemnation of these tales as myth involves the prophesy of the virgin birth. (Although, explicitly this only applies to Matthew's account.) Many scholars debate about whether or not “virgin” is the proper interpretation. That's actually a minor issue when you put this prophesy in its proper context. The prophesy comes from Isaiah 7, and specifically Matthew quotes verse 14. I'll leave you with the contextual lines adjacent to that verse, and I'll leave you to ask yourself if this it is supposed to be about Jesus. I don't think so, because Jesus, being God, would know right from wrong; not to mention that the entire remainder of the prophesy doesn't seem to apply. Here is Isaiah 7:13-17:

Then Isaiah said, "Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria." NIV

Friday, December 5, 2008

Jacob's Two-Timing Marriage

Having just stolen Esau's blessing, Jacob flees so that his brother, Esau, will not kill him. His mom tells him to go live with her brother, Laban. His father, Isaac, tells Jacob that he should marry one of Laban's daughters. In other words, Jacob is told to marry one of his cousins.

So, Jacob heads to Laban's place. He meets his cousin, Rachel, at a well, and it was love at first sight. What unfolds is another chapter of Biblical marriage values.

Jacob's Two-Timing Marriage
In Genesis 29:15-30, we find the heartwarming story of Jacob's marriage to his cousin, Rachel. Jacob agrees to work for seven years for his uncle, Laban, in exchange for the hand of Rachel in marriage.

Laban had two daughters, Rachel and Leah. From the description given in Genesis 29:16-18, it seems that Rachel was quite sexy and beautiful, while her older sister Leah was, well, not.

Seven years fly by in the labor of love. The time has come in Genesis 29:21:
Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her." NIV
It's no mystery what goes on in a marriage. Still, most people have more tact than to tell their soon-to-be father-in-law that the time has come to have sex with their daughter. Or perhaps this is evidence of the culture of the time; that women were just possessions to be used.

Moving on, Laban throws a big wedding party. After the party, in the dark of night, Laban brings Leah, instead of Rachel, to Jacob. Jacob has sex with Leah. In the morning, he wakes up shocked and angry that it is Leah in his bed, not Rachel.

What?!? This is a bit hard to swallow. Having recently deceived his father, Jacob should have been sensitive to deceptions. He should have figured out this deception sooner than morning. He knew both Rachel and Leah for seven years. Seven years!!! Surely he could tell their differences.

Jacob wasn't blind, so he could have recognized Leah by lamp light, but we'll give the Bible the benefit of the doubt and say that he had no lamp and that it was pitch black. Jacob could have recognized Leah was not Rachel by scent, but we'll assume Leah had bathed that night so she didn't have much scent.

Jacob should have recognized Leah's voice. His own voice was almost the end of his deception to his father, so he should have been rather sensitive to that. However, it's not uncommon to have siblings sound alike, and it is certainly possible that Leah learned to mimic the sound of Rachel's voice. So even different voices could be dismissed.

There is still one infallible piece of evidence that should have given Leah's deception away. While all women look the same in the dark, all women do not feel the same in the dark. As documented in the text, Leah and Rachel were physically different. Jacob had probably been fantasizing about having sex with Rachel for the whole seven years, studying every detail of her body in anticipation. He definitely should have felt the physical differences of Leah.

This leaves me wondering; did Jacob realize it was Leah, and, in the heat of the moment, just decided to have sex with her and discuss the matter with Laban in the morning?

In the story's conclusion, Jacob confronts Laban. Laban says that the older daughter needed to be married first. After the bridal week with Leah, Laban gives Rachel to Jacob in marriage in exchange for yet another seven years of labor.

But wait, there's more! In Genesis 29:31-35, it seems that Jacob didn't love Leah, but that didn't stop him from having sex with her. God punishes Jacob for not loving Leah, the one he didn't even want to marry to begin with, by granting her children while making Rachel barren.

In psychology, they call this behavior displaced aggression. That's when someone (God) is angry with something or someone (Jacob), but that angry someone takes out the anger on something or someone else that is completely innocent (Rachel). In those times, it was a very shameful thing for a woman to be barren. That disgrace fell only on the wife, not the husband.

Displaced aggression is an all too common flaw in man. One should expect more from a perfect God.

I find it interesting to note also that two of the four children born from this loveless sex with Leah wind up being the fathers of the two most significant tribes of the Jews. Her son Levi spawns the Levites, which are the priestly class of the Jewish nation. Her son Judah breeds the lineage of King David and Jesus. Well, sort of the lineage of Jesus.