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Rational interpretations of 'God' destroying cities and Biblical prophecies

Douglas focuses on Spiritual Counselling. He has degrees in Psychology, Science and Humanities (and perhaps will add a PhD in the future).

The event

Nearly 4000 years ago in the Jordan Valley, fire and rocks reigned down from the sky, a city was pulverized (the human inhabitants [numbering about 8000] were blown to pieces) and hurricane-like winds, airborne shock waves and earth tremors devastated neighboring communities (including Jericho) with the surrounding land dusted by salt in a manner that prevented crops being grown for centuries (Bunch, et al 2021).

The Bible's take on circumstances

Read about it in the Bible and it is a story of a wrathful deity bringing divine justice (Neev & Emery 1995) to "blah ... blah ... blah" (thanks, by the way, Greta Thunberg [Kraemer 2021] for reinvigorating that classic rhetorical device).

Two points are readily made about the original Biblical tale:

  • if such deities existed, they would be - in and of themselves - absolutely and manifestly wicked; and
  • if the tale is based on genuine events, it is likely an understandable blundering of a catastrophically extreme infrequent occurrence into a myth by a superstitious and barely literate society under the influence of religious gate-keepers keen to exploit any event for their personal gain.

Without descending into manipulative rhetoric with framing like, "Any reasonable person would think," or, "Only the foolish would believe," those two points are pretty close to simply being commonsense. After all, in the third decade of the 21st Century, there is enough basic education around - concerning 'what is good and virtuous', 'scientific knowledge' and 'the track record of Abrahamic faiths when it comes to truth'- to elevate those points to a level at or near 'accept-at-face-value'.

In my case, as I am undertaking research towards a potential PhD on related matters, I see the indications of the web of deceits promoted by many religious faiths on a daily basis (and it is by no means restricted to those of the Judeo-Christian variety). In respect of Buddhism, for example, the term 'nirvana' (from the Sanskrit, निर्वाण) can - figuratively - mean "perfect calm, repose or happiness", but it literally means "death". Similarly, 'reincarnation' is a euphemism for the process of meeting every emerging moment afresh (or even the process of 'clocking off as a worker' and going home to adopt the life of 'a parent' ... it is an explanation of the change of psychological states).

The preceding paragraph will likely seems sensible to some readers (and the definitions of the words can easily be checked), but it certainly stands at odds with what - at least in the West - is thought of Buddhist philosophies ... or many New Age approaches that glom on to material from the East. It is telling, however, that Buddhist commentators will be heard to say things like, "Karma is not what people think it is" or, "Buddha and other Bodhisattvas have not reincarnated, so it is obviously not that important". So, perhaps, many in the West are not particularly good at reading, accept falsehoods too readily or just are not competent listeners.

I invite you to keep reading and see what scientific research and applied linguistics say about some Biblical prophecies and sayings.

"The Fall of Jericho" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) - it is from a series of works he produced known as "Scenes from Biblical History".

"The Fall of Jericho" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) - it is from a series of works he produced known as "Scenes from Biblical History".

What scientific research has found

As it happens, modern science seems to point at the second of those options - having identified that a potential cause in the form of a relatively infrequent and wholly natural airborne blast of a meteor (as occurred over Tunguska in the early 20th Century) to the south-east of Jericho around 1650 BCE.

The details of the recently published research on this incident follow:

Bunch, TE, et al (2021), 'A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea'. Scientific Reports vol. 11, article no. 18632.

Science undoubtedly has much more to discover and explain, but what it does discover and explain is always natural. As for the concept of a personal or personified 'God', it is just as likely now as it ever was or will be that nature is always behind 'the curtain'.

Believe it or not, that is also the message that appears in many ancient texts. It may not be reflected in dogma and translations that claim to be based on that material, but experienced linguists can spot it without too much problem. The same likely applies to many representations of the "Jesus" of the New Testament. Roman historians from Antiquity were known - on occasions - to point out the true identity of the "Jesus" of the New Testament. Similarly, with requisite expertise, the earliest texts of the New Testament can even be taken in a manner that identifies the name "Jesus" was a pseudonym (in addition to the individual who used it - on and off - throughout their lives [which went for 70 years or so beyond the claimed "crucifixion"]).

Again, it is not reflected in the dogma, but that respect it is worth asking, "Does the Church have a particularly strong track-record when it comes to the truth?"

The role of translator-bias in misinterpreting Biblical prophecies

Taking a cue from the example noted above, reading things into emerging experience (including written messages) when they are not present is a classic error of human cognition. Many will be familiar with the process when it comes to misreading an email or a text - including the potential consequences (such as flying off the handle or clarifying intentions during a potentially awkward face-to-face conversation). Similar processes apply to interpretations of ancient texts - and those that form the basis of religious beliefs are notorious for the influence of 'eisegesis' (the process of interpreting text in such a way as to introduce one's own presuppositions, agendas or biases) in establishing dogma (McKay 2008).

A passage in the Book of Isaiah might be one such example (Isaiah 25:8), where the English translation is in accord with the following (King James Bible):

He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it.

The meaning of that seems to be relatively unambiguously prophetic - which is consistent with the general understanding that the Book of Isaiah is full of prophecies - and it has also failed to eventuate in the 3000 years or so since it is said to have been written. Perhaps - like many prophecies - it has failed ... and perhaps, too, it was misinterpreted. If that is the case, it might be worth revisiting the material for a fresh perspective.

In the Septuagint (the first consolidated Old Testament that was, interestingly, written in Koine Greek), the relevant passage is written as follows (Brenton 1972):

... κατέπιεν ο θάνατος ισχύσας και πάλιναφείλε κύριος ο θεός παν δάκρυον απόπαντός προσώπου το όνειδος του λαούαπό πάσης της γης το γαρ στόμα κυρίουελάλησε.

Revisiting that text, it is worth remembering that those members of the Greco-Roman world at the time that were highly literate were typically highly trained in philosophy and other fields that promoted reason (even when involving abstract concepts) and they were also familiar with epic poetry. Unlike a modern undergraduate that saw 'θάνατος' and interpreted it to be 'death', an ancient reader might also consider 'corpse', 'a threatened death', 'the death penalty', 'an execution' or 'a violent death' (Liddell & Scott 1940). Similarly, a highly literate Ancient Greek author (say) might not intend 'κύριος' to be 'lord', but perhaps 'ruling', 'governing', 'having power', 'decisive', 'critical', 'authorized', 'valid', 'legal', 'entitled', 'fixed', 'set', 'appointed', 'literal', 'main', 'major', 'primary', 'principal' or even the Tetragrammaton (יהוה‎ [YHWH {which Philo of Alexandria suggested might be considered to represent the 'ever-emergent reality arising from manifest potential'}]) (Liddell & Scott 1940). So too, 'θεός' need not simply be thought of as 'God', but could also be 'a deity', 'a goddess', 'divine' (with or without religious connotations) and a concept akin to 'fundamental generative good' (as explored by Aristotle [384 - 322 BCE] in his writings known as "Metaphysics") (Liddell & Scott 1940).

Taking a wider range of potential definitions into account provides the scope for generating the interpretation of Isaiah 25:8 that follows:

To voraciously drink of the death penalty for the purposes of 'being strong', 'prevailing' or 'being worthy' and return to deleting the manifest potential of fundamental generative good weeps entirely of appearances. The blame accruing to any that are thus 'removed' is rescinded because all Earth is in favor of being the source of manifest potential that is crying out to be heard".

Compared to the traditional garbled English translation, it seems like the passage may be actually speaking forcefully against the use of the death penalty (something that, even today, has real-world applications). If the latter were the original intention, it is quite interesting that message has effectively been buried by prevailing dogma for millennia. No matter, though, that can all be remedied by paying attention to the truth and abandoning the fiction (no matter how it has formerly been promoted or held fast).

A portion of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) depicting Isaiah.

A portion of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) depicting Isaiah.

References

Brenton, LCL 1972, The Septuagint Version: Greek and English, Regency Reference Library, Grand Rapids.

Bunch, TE, LeCompte, MA, Adedeji, AV, Wittke, JH, Burleigh, DT, Hermes, RE, Mooney, C, Batchelor, D, Wolbach, WS, Kathan, J, Kletetschka, G, Patterson, MCL Swindel, EC, Witwer, T, Howard, GA, Mitra, S, Moore, CR, Langworthy, K, Kennett, JP, West, A & Silvia, PJ 2021, 'A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea'. Scientific Reports, vol. 11, article no. 18632, accessed 20 October 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3.

King James Bible (1769), King James Bible Online, accessed 20 October 2021, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/.

Kraemer D 2021, 'Greta Thunberg: Who is the climate campaigner and what are her aims?'. BBC News, accessed 9 November 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49918719.

Liddell, HG & Scott, RS (1940), A Greek–English Lexicon, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

McKay, BM 2008, ‘(Mis)translating the Hebrew Bible: Sacred Texts as Creative Nonfiction’. 91st Meridian, vol. 6, no. 1, accessed 10 September 2021, https://iwp.uiowa.edu/91st/vol6-num1/mistranslating-the-hebrew-bible-sacred-texts-as-creative-nonfiction.

Neev, D & Emery, KO 1995, The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho: Geological, climatological, and archaeological background, Oxford University Press, Oxford.