Friday, January 30, 2009

God Playing God, Part 2

The assessment of having a God Complex is not applied to a surgeon or doctor that tries to save all patients, rather it is applied to one that is selective, and choses which patients will die from his or her neglect. Interesting association with God's behavior, no?

In Part 1 of the story, Joseph goes from prisoner to second-in-command under Pharaoh, with a mission to gather and distribute provisions for a seven-year-long famine that God had in His plans. At the conclusion of Part 1, the severe, worldwide famine had begun.

Did God have a plan for the famine besides the famine itself? Was this famine for a reason? There have been no reasons revealed so far. We continue our study to find out.

God Playing God, Part 2
We are jumping to Genesis 45 as we continue this story. To catch you up to speed, what followed Part 1 in Genesis 42 to 44 was a strange tale of Joseph's brothers going back and forth to Egypt to buy grain to survive the famine. Joseph's brothers don't recognize him on their visits. By the end of Genesis 44, Joseph has thoroughly intimidated his brothers and has threatened to keep his youngest brother as a slave.

Now, up to Genesis 45, we find that Joseph can't continue deceiving his brothers any more. Joseph, in confirming his identity to his brothers, provides some of the most intriguing and condemning words about God. Genesis 45:4-11
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come close to me." When they had done so, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

"So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, 'This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don't delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.' NIV
Concise God-related summary: God manipulated Joseph's brothers to conspire against him and to sell him into slavery, which provided opportunity to have him end up in Pharaoh's jail, and, with God's support, to have him become an instrument to preserve a number of people through the severe famine that God brought into fruition.

God used wicked motivation in Joseph's brothers to enact His plan. Given that we are expected to believe everything God does is good, that means that God used evil methods to achieve a good result. God is apparently of Machiavellian persuasion, believing that the ends justify the means. It seems irreconcilable for the primary example of Holiness, God, would employ such evil tactics. Yet this dissonant theme is demonstrated elsewhere as well, such as with God's relationship to Satan, but that's another study for another time.

The final point of interest in this part of the study is an affirmation of the scope of the famine. In Part 1, we saw the famine severely affected the entire earth. Lest you believe that this was just poetic hyperbole, we see that the purpose of Joseph's role was to “preserve for you a remnant on earth”. This famine was set to wipe out most of the population on earth, excepting Egypt and the closely surrounding areas due to the advanced storing of grain under Joseph's command. The famine was so severe that anyone without access to a grain supply would become destitute.

It's worth saying again that this bears a degree of similarity in scope as the Flood, where Joseph is like Noah and Egypt is like the Ark, while the rest of the world is decimated. God's promise after the Flood was that He wouldn't flood the earth again, not that He wouldn't commit worldwide devastation of mankind again. So, God is keeping His promise here. :-) However, in contrast to the Flood story, no justification has been given for this event, for making an untold number of people starve to death.

This far into our study we still have not identified a reason for God to bring this horrible famine on the whole world. The question still remains of what was God's plan for the famine? In the third and final part of this study, we will discover the answer to that question.

Friday, January 23, 2009

God Playing God, Part 1

Is there a reason for everything that happens? Is it all part of God's plan? These are interesting questions to ponder as a believer. There are four primary schools of Christian thought on this matter: 1) everything is controlled by God, 2) God orchestrates natural events (i.e. earthquakes, tornadoes, etc.) and human interactions as necessary, 3) God orchestrates human interactions as necessary, but lets nature take its course for the most part, 4) God used to interact, now He just watches the show. In this study, we see a natural event which, reportedly, God did orchestrate.

The setting is Egypt. The major characters are the Pharaoh, Joseph, and, of course, God. Joseph is one of Jacob's/Israel's sons. Joseph's brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. He did so well in his slave duties to Potiphar that he was quickly promoted. But Potiphar's wife took an unrequited lustful interest in Joseph. Angry that her affection is not returned, Potiphar's wife accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, so he is put in prison. Thanks to God, Joseph accurately interprets dreams for his fellow prisoners, one of which was the Pharoah's cup bearer. The cup bearer gets restored to his former position as per his dream. That's where we enter this heart-chilling tale.

God Playing God, Part 1
There was a popular video game in 1989 called SimCity. In it, you tried to construct an efficiently running city that kept its residents safe and happy. One really neat feature of the game was the ability to use god powers. You could unleash a tornado or erupt a volcano, at will, to destroy part of the city and revel in the destruction. It was a bit of harmless, capricious wickedness that made the game that much more fun. It gave you the chance to exercise your kid-instincts; the digital equivalent to taking a magnifying glass to an ant hill. The great thing was that no living creature actually got hurt for no reason by SimCity. You can't say the same thing about God.

Today we study Genesis 41, where God displays more of His awesome, destructive power. Is it for a reason? Is it a pointed and precise punishment? Is it all part of God's plan? Let's find out.

This is somewhat of a popular Old Testament tale, though some details are too often downplayed or glossed over. Pharaoh has a dream where seven gaunt cows eat seven fat cows, followed by another dream where seven plump wheat grains are eaten by shriveled wheat grains. None of the Pharaoh's people can interpret his dream.

Pharaoh's cup bearer remembers how Joseph had interpreted his dream, so he tells Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons Joseph and tells the dreams to him. Joseph said God had revealed to Pharaoh what was about to happen; that there would be seven years of great abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advised Pharaoh to stock one fifth of the produce for each of the next seven years in order to have provisions for the famine years.

Pharaoh liked the suggestion and put Joseph in charge of the preparations. For the seven years of abundance, Joseph stores local grain according to plan. Then the famine came on all lands, but Egypt still had food. Joseph began selling the stored grain to the Egyptians. All of the other nations came to buy grain from Joseph too, because they also were experiencing famine. That's the end of Part 1.

There are a few very important details to highlight in Part 1. The first answers the question of the origin of the famine. Consulting Genesis 41:32, we find:
The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon. NIV
God had firmly decided to make this famine occur. It was not a matter of forecasting the weather. God chose to bring the famine to the land. Note that there is no enlightenment about the cause for this action. No reason. No motive. No way to avoid it. No call to repent. God's just going to make it happen. God played God the way a teenager would play SimCity. Throw a famine out there and watch the denizens react.

Moving on, we close out the chapter with the next two highlights. In Genesis 41:56-57, we see:
When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout Egypt. And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world. NIV
Note how Joseph sold the grain, to Egyptians and the other countries alike. This will play a significant role in a later part of this study.

The final highlight of for this part of the story is that “all the countries” “in all the world” were both affected by the famine and sent people to Egypt to buy grain. That would have been quite a feat for the Inca's and the Native Americans, don't you think? This is a blatant contradiction with historical reality.

Per the story, God chose to apply the famine to everyone in the world, showing no favoritism or specific focus, just like the Flood. Unlike the Flood, there was no reason, no purpose given for this famine. And with such a widespread famine, what are the chances that everyone was able to get enough food to survive from Egypt? How is it possible that a loving, Heavenly Father would starve His beloved children to death? It makes God a hypocrite when you read what Jesus said in Luke 12:24:
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! NIV
So, was it all part of God's plan? If so, what was that plan? Turn to the next part of this thrilling study!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Massacre of the Innocent Prophesies

When rebuking the claims of the Bible, critics often the quote the Bible itself. In my experience, a Christian apologist's defense of the quote of a skeptic is most often slotted into one of three categories; guilt by intent, counter-quotes, or context.

Some apologists will claim that even the Devil can quote scripture, which perhaps implies that the critic is quoting with evil intent even though the Word of the Bible is Holy. Of course, that doesn't actually debunk the critic's claim. Instead, it shows that the apologist will not reply with an adequate defense.

The second defensive strategy has the apologist presenting other quotes which seem to contradict the flaw which the critic is trying to reveal. While this is sometimes a valid approach, often it simply highlights the fact that the Bible is self-contradicting.

The third strategy, the strongest and yet most condemning path, is when the apologist sites the context of the quote. Examining the surrounding text and considering the historical and cultural factors of the time best reveals the text's meaning. This context can keep a critic in check at times. However, this context can reveal the blatant errancy of the Bible if it is honestly considered.

In a previous post, we examined the context surrounding the Annunciation, when Mary got impregnated by the Holy Ghost. The context wasn't kind to that Biblical story. Following on its heels is another story which takes a contextual beating and it is the story we study here; the Massacre of the Innocents.

Massacre of the Innocent Prophesies
Herod I, a.k.a. Herod the Great, was a bit of a mixed bag; being a ruler backed by Rome, builder of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, but known for his brutality. His rule as king of the Jews was appointed by Rome and was fully realized in 37 BC. He ruled until his death in 4 BC. According to the Gospels, Jesus was born under Herod's rule.

Sometime after the three Magi had departed from Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, Matthew 2:13-23 records an event known today as the Massacre of the Innocents. An angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Jesus to Egypt to prevent Herod from murdering Him. Herod gives an order to kill all two-year-old or younger boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Herod soon dies. An angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to return to Israel. After being warned in another dream to stay away from Judah, Joseph settled down with his family in Nazareth.

These events reportedly fulfilled three different Old Testament prophesies. Let's take a contextual look.

In historical context, Herod may have been the type of guy that could have ordered the slaughter of innocent children in the hope of protecting his rule. After all, he did have one of his ten wives (Mariamne I in 29 BC) and her two sons (Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 BC) executed, and the son (Antipater III in 4 BC) of another wife (Doris) executed as well. Those sons were executed on the suspicion of having plots to murder Herod. So perhaps he was a little paranoid about maintaining his rule. On the other hand, these unfortunate souls were living around and intermingling with Herod, doing actions in his site that could arouse suspicion, as opposed to being in some small town well outside the normal dwelling of royalty. Out of sight is (typically) out of mind.

It is strange that no secular or Jewish historian contemporary with those times recorded the massacre. Surely this would have been an event that spread wide through word of mouth, and would have made an impact on people's minds.

It is also strange that Matthew stands conspicuously alone as the only Gospel to record these events, events that fulfilled prophesy about Jesus. Fulfillment of prophesy would seem like pretty important to thing to record, would it not? Yet the other Gospels are silent on the matter.

Speaking of prophesy, let's examine the first prophesy of this story, recorded by Matthew 2:14-15 as:
So [Joseph] got up, took the child and His mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called My son." NIV
This prophesy is from Hosea 11, which does not appear to be a prophesy if Jesus, but rather a prophesy that Israel would be resettled by the Jews, pertaining to the time in their Babylonian captivity. In fact, Hosea 11:1, where Matthew gets the “prophesy”, is actually recounting the history of the Exodus:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.” NIV
The context of Hosea 11 destroys any hope of reconciling Matthew's slant on this prophesy.

Now we turn to the second prophesy. This one refers to the massacre itself, recorded by Matthew 2:17-18 as:
Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." NIV
This text hails from Jeremiah 31, and once again we find that the context does not suggest a prophesy of Jesus, but rather a resettling of Israel. Jeremiah 31:15 is the verse quoted by Matthew. Jeremiah 31:16 and beyond give context to that verse, suggesting that it means that God has heard the cries of the Israelites, and will bring them into the Promised Land once again. It does not mean that Herod will murder babies in Bethlehem.

The appearance of Jesus had nothing to do with a resettling of Israel by the Israelites. In fact, Jerusalem would be sacked by the Romans in 70 AD, thereby dispersing many of the Jews from the Promised Land. This is an insurmountable contrast to Matthew's take on the prophesy.

The third prophesy is the charm. Matthew 2:23 states about Joseph and family settling in Nazareth:
and [Joseph] went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." NIV
Matthew was quoting here, as though the prophesy was either a well known verbal tradition or it was in some written form. Interestingly enough, nowhere in the Old Testament does this quote exist. Nor does it exist in any other extant source.

Unfortunately, we can't study the context of that prophesy. However, we can cross-reference the prophesy in another way to prove its errancy. It is said within the Bible that God's Word is eternal, like in Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever.” NIV However, this entire prophesy that Matthew quotes is no longer in existence. So, either Matthew's use of this prophesy is wrong or God's Word does not stand forever. In either case, Biblical infallibility goes right out the window.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Capricious Killings

In the Old Testament times, particularly early on in the time described from Genesis to Deuteronomy, there is no evidence of God promoting the concept of an afterlife. God would often kill people that transgressed His moral code, even if the code had not previously or officially been made known.

In our justice system, we consider it necessary to have a law written in the books before someone can be convicted. It does create some unfortunate loopholes, but it also prevents abusive and capricious executions of the law.

Should you have to worry about abusive and capricious executions of God's Law? Is God's justice perfect? Those are a couple questions we examine in this post.

Capricious Killings
Imagine that you could just use the might of your willpower to kill someone, like a psycho-kinetic super sniper. Would you do it? If so, to whom? Osama bin Laden? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The jerk down the road that regularly treats his wife like a punching bag?

In Genesis 38:1-10, we find two cases where God plays the role of Super Sniper. These guys had to be pretty bad, right? Let's take a look. The first precision death is Er. According to Genesis 38:7:
But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death. NIV
Hmmm. He was wicked. That's it. Not much to go on. It's unfortunate that there are no details. You can't learn from Er, other than to try to avoid being wicked.

Moving on. Er had been married to Tamar before his untimely (or was it timely?) death. At the time of his death, Er hadn't had any children to grant his inheritance. So the responsibility of making an heir for Er would then fall to Onan, Er's brother. According to Genesis 38:8-10:
Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so He put him to death also. NIV
(As an aside to the main discussion, these verses are often used by some Christians to support the believe that birth control is a sin. However, when put in context, it seems to me the sin here is Onan's deceptive intent; to just have sex with Tamar without producing a child for his fun and ultimate financial gain, as Er's inheritance would likely pass to his lineage by default without an heir for Er.)

I can't deny that Onan was guilty of wrong doing. While there was no God-given law at that time stating that what Onan did was prohibited, or worthy of death for that matter, I think that it is safe to say that Onan was dishonest, and that his intent was to promote his selfish interests unscrupulously.

God killed Onan. God killed Onan for being selfish. Why?

When you read through history's list of the most infamous people; sadistic serial killers, notorious criminals, villainous dictators, etc., you have to wonder why God wouldn't have stepped in and snuffed these people out personally before they went on to negatively impact the lives of tens, or thousands, or even millions of people. Instead, God choses to kill someone that spilled semen on the ground.

It has been said that it is a matter of free will. God wants us to be able to chose good, but that also permits the choice of evil. Because of this free will, evil may be very evil indeed.

Well then, what about Onan's free will? And did the removing of Onan from humanity make the world a much better place in the end? Not really. Instead, it created the misguided doctrines of birth control being a sin and sex being only for procreation. Does God consistently kill people that have sex for selfish reasons? No.

Selective executions could be used for good without tampering with free will. If God had snuffed out Hitler with a heart attack shortly after he came to power, His chosen people, the Jews, would not have suffered an attempted genocide. And I guarantee that the free will of the general public would not have been altered in one bit. There would still be people choosing evil or choosing good, or more probably a little of both. The net result, however, would be that tens of millions of people would have been saved from untimely deaths, not to mention all of those that were wounded or lost their loved ones.

God executes Er and Onan, but God does not consistently execute all wicked people. In fact, God has chosen not to execute some of the most infamously wicked people throughout history; people that make Onan's sin look like an act of charitable goodwill. This is capricious justice at best, and capricious justice is not justice at all.

Personally, my take on this is that it's a record of superstition, not some act of God. Back in those times, people had little-to-no idea what caused death if there was no blatant reason, like old age or being gored by an ox. If Er and Onan were real people, they probably just died from heart attacks, or aneurysms, or some other physical reasons which would have been undetectable at that time. But because these deaths could not be explained, they were instead deemed as being deaths from God.

Friday, January 2, 2009

He Struggles With God

How can you tell if God really likes you? He renames you. Sometimes, the names that God would give to people would foretell something about that person's life. For example, Abram was renamed by God to Abraham, literally “father of many”, because he would be the father of many nations. Sometimes, the names just marked a significant event or accomplishment in that person's life.

On a different note, there is some debate over whether or not God has a physical form that can be seen. In several accounts in the OT, God, or in some cases the angel of God, dwells on earth with man and physically interacts with him. The majority of modern believers do not consider God, the Father, to have a physical form. To reconcile this belief, these OT accounts of physical interaction are often dismissed as being only angels with physical forms that represent God. Some even theorize that these physical apparitions of God in the OT were actually God, the Son, Jesus.

In this study, we examine the curious case of when God physically appears to Jacob and renames him Israel. Before this moment, Jacob and family are traveling and are about to cross a river on their way to meet his brother, Edom/Esau. Jacob had prayed to God that He would keep His promise and not let his brother kill him, and he had sent a bunch of gifts to his brother to pacify any lingering hard feelings due to Jacob's past dishonesty.

He Struggles With God
In Genesis 32:22-31, we find the interesting tale of when the patriarch Jacob gets renamed to a name that is today practically synonymous with the Holy Land. Jacob is renamed Israel. It starts out when Jacob is all alone one night, having sent all of his possessions, including his family and servants, across a river which was en route to Edom/Esau, his brother.

The text in the short story is rich with important details that lose their effect when dissected piece by piece without a complete read. So here is the critical text; Genesis 32:24-30:
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that He could not overpower him, He touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."

But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

The man asked him, "What is your name?"

"Jacob," he answered.

Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."

But He replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then He blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." NIV
In this text, it is plain to see that God has a face. God has a physical form, and that form is of a man. Whether this is supposed to be the Father or the Son, we can not say. It is “a man” that wrestles with Jacob, and Jacob claims to have seen God face to face.

Note that this is not to limit God, to say that He could not take on any form He wanted to take. However, this does draw a close parallel with the various gods of ancient days that typically had a humanoid form. Man created gods in his own image.

One thing I find particularly interesting: God, omnipotent God, in man-form could not overpower Jacob. It would seem as though God gave up super powers in man-form. Almost...

The next curious event is that God, when He saw He could not win, fought dirty! He used His super powers to “touch” Jacob's hip socket joint to wound him. Is that the kind of God you can respect out of love and dignity, or the kind you respect out of fear?

Though not stated explicitly, one may ascertain that the reason for this dirty move was to somehow try to gain a physical advantage. Clearly as the story plays out, this seems not to have worked. And so, this would seem to be a failure of God's omniscience.

Jacob is renamed Israel, which literally means “he struggles with God”. God sites the reason for this renaming as being “because [Jacob had] struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Past tense. Although one could say that Israel, the nation, has struggled with and continues to struggle with God. From that perspective, that name seems like a prophesy. But in truth, nearly all nations and nearly all peoples struggle with the concept of god. We are all Israel.

I'll leave you with some study questions to ponder: What did God hope to gain by wrestling with Jacob? Was it His intension to lose the match all along? If this was just an opportunity for God to meet with Jacob personally and bless him, why did God choose to wrestle with him?