DIGGING FOR THE TRUTH

Open your ears to my teachings, my people. Turn your ears to the words from my mouth. I will open my mouth to illustrate points. I will explain what has been hidden long ago, things that we have heard and known about, things that our parents have told us. We will not hide them from our children. We will tell the next generation about the Lord’s power and great deeds and the miraculous things he has done. [Psalm 78:1-4 (GW)]

limpkinYesterday, I wrote about archeological support for the story of Balaam; his is but one of many Old Testament stories with evidence provided by archeology. When reading about King Belshazzar giving a feast for 1,000 in his Babylonian palace, it’s easy to think there must have been exaggeration as to the size of his party. Archaeologists, however, have excavated a large hall in Babylon that was 55 feet wide and 165 feet long, a room sufficient to host a gathering of that size. The Bible mentions writing that appeared on the room’s plaster walls and archeologists found that this ancient room had plaster walls!

In 2 Chronicles 12, we read of Judah’s invasion by Egypt’s Pharaoh Shishak during Rehoboam’s fifth year as king. Archeologists have found evidence of their devastating invasion at settlements in both Israel and Judah. Hieroglyphics on the wall of the temple at Karnak describe Egypt’s 926 BC campaign and list 183 conquered cities, 43 of which are known Bible cities. Notably missing from the list of destroyed towns is Jerusalem, the city that Shemaiah prophesized God would not allow to be destroyed. Instead, Rehoboam surrendered and the Egyptians robbed Solomon’s temple of its treasures. When we wonder where all of that plunder went, a pillar in a temple at Bubastis tells of Osorkon I (Shishak’s son) giving away 383 tons of gold and silver to all the gods of Egypt just five year later.

When King Uzziah (who was struck with leprosy) died in 740 BC, 2 Chronicles 26 tells us he was buried in a field that belonged to the kings. His stone burial plaque was discovered on the Mt. of Olives with these words: “Here, the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah, were brought. Do not open.”

The Old Testament tells us of the Babylonians’ defeat of Judah but so do a collection of clay tablets known as the Babylonian Chronicles. These annals record Babylon’s history from 750 to 280 BC and tell of such things as the battle of Carchemish (recorded in Jeremiah 46), Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (found in 2 Kings 24), and removing King Jehoiachin and replacing him with Zedekiah (recorded in 2 Kings 24). They even include receipts for goods that were issued to the deposed Jehoiachin when he was in Babylonian captivity (mentioned in 2 Chronicles 36).

The cornerstone of our faith is the Bible and archeology should never be the litmus test for its truth. Archeology can’t prove Scripture’s divine inspiration or the exactness of its every word. Because it’s based on what’s been left behind, discovered and deciphered, many pieces are missing in the puzzle. Moreover, since the Bible tells just a portion of the story, some ancient pieces will be found that don’t fit. Although we will never have undisputed historic proof of its truth, archeology can confirm the historicity of many Biblical events, people, civilizations, and places. For me, it is comforting to find that external evidence points to the trustworthiness of the Bible. Of course, since it is God-breathed, we shouldn’t be surprised that secular history dovetails so well with Biblical truth.

Every Scripture passage is inspired by God. All of them are useful for teaching, pointing out errors, correcting people, and training them for a life that has God’s approval.  They equip God’s servants so that they are completely prepared to do good things. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (GW)]

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PROOF POSITIVE

So Balak…sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me.” [Numbers 22:4b-6a (ESV)]

lantanaWhen reading the narratives of the Old Testament, it’s easy to think that some of the stories are more legend than history. Take the story of Balaam: the pagan prophet hired to curse the Israelites who, instead, blessed the Israelites and pronounced disaster on their enemies. Since this took place around 1406 BC, it’s easy to question the story’s accuracy. Balaam’s existence, however, has extra-Biblical non-Israelite back-up. The story of Balaam, “a divine seer,” who pronounced doom to his own people, was written in red and black ink on the plaster wall of a building in the ancient city of Deir Alla in present day Jordan (about 25 miles from where the incident recorded in Numbers 21 took place). Although the building collapsed as the result of an earthquake around 706 BC (an event mentioned in the books of Amos and Zechariah), in 1967, 119 fragments of Balaam’s story were found in the rubble. Probably written about 800 BC, the text begins with the title, “Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods.”  Two more times in the first four lines, the prophet is referred to as “the son of Beor” just as he is in the Hebrew Bible. Referencing “the Book of Balaam” indicates that the text was copied from an earlier text and that the original material was older than the writing on the wall. While the Deir Alla story mentions pagan gods, the God whose visit caused the prophet to weep bitterly is referred to as “el Shaddai,” which is how the God of Israel was referenced during this time. With much of the text given to the prophet’s curses, it‘s easy to see why Balak would hire Balaam to curse the Israelites. Although the story on the wall, with its mention of other gods and goddesses, doesn’t exactly match the Numbers’ version, one would expect a pagan people to put their slant on it and, with only a portion of the wall existing, we have only part of the story.

When archeologists wondered why Balaam’s book would be written on the wall of a building in Deir Alla, their answer was found in eleven clay tablets found in the same area. Dating from Balaam’s time, they identify Deir Alla as Pethor (Balaam’s home) and speak of the “smiters of Pethor.” If this “divine seer” lived in what is now Deir Alla, it is not surprising that his story would be preserved in his hometown. Scholars speculate that these tablets were written by Balaam himself.

These archeology findings pose a problem for skeptics who’d prefer to think of the exodus, Israel’s wilderness wanderings, and the conquest of Canaan as things of legend. While archeology doesn’t prove Balaam’s story, it certainly backs it up. Balaam was a real prophet, known for cursing, who lived on the east side of the Jordan, and was revered for centuries after his death. There is no doubt that Balaam existed, which leads us to ask skeptics, “If Balaam was real, what about Balak, Moses, Joshua and the Israelites?”

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. [Proverbs 30:5 (ESV)]

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UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV)]

violetsIt was the first night of a new small group study and, as we gathered our books to leave, one woman said she’d have to read more about the author since he sounded like a Calvinist. Believing that everyone has the God-given ability to choose God’s grace, she didn’t want to participate in the class if the book’s author believed that, in the past, God chose some among mankind for His own and that that Christ died only for those elect.

There is much in church doctrine that is disputed between denominations and the differences are often subtle, complicated, and confusing. Regarding Calvinism, there is five-point Calvinism, Amyraldism which holds to only four of Calvin’s points, Arminianism (the rejection of predestination and an affirmation of free will), and a host of other isms in between. There are differing views of Communion, as well: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, sacramental union, receptionism, and memorialism. Does the bread actually transform into the actual flesh and blood of Christ, is it spiritually the flesh and blood of Jesus, the spiritual presence of Christ, or a remembrance of Christ’s suffering? What about baptism? Is it a requirement for salvation or merely symbolic of the salvation process? All of these questions (and many more) arise out of several hard to reconcile passages in the Bible. Unable to clearly define many of these issues, I know I will never fully understand them.

Some things in Christianity are essential and non-negotiable: the deity of Christ, His substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, the resurrection, salvation by grace though faith, the Holy Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and life everlasting. Agreement on many other issues, however, is not necessary and those issues will remain unresolved this side of heaven. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis opined that many of our great theological and metaphysical questions are probably as nonsensical and unanswerable as asking how many hours are in a mile or whether the color yellow is square or round. He wrote that when he laid his unanswered questions at God’s door, he got no answer. Lewis added that the silence was not a locked door/no one’s home kind of silence but more like that of a compassionate God, shaking his head and thinking, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

When the woman from class said, “I can’t believe in a God who would sacrifice His son for only a select group rather than all of mankind,” I said she didn’t have to. She and I may be wrong in our beliefs, but our salvation doesn’t depend on our knowing the right answer. Actually, our salvation doesn’t depend on having the right answer to most of the doctrinal controversies and isms that separate Christ’s Church. More important than understanding various theological or doctrinal issues is having the mind of Christ. Sooner or later, all the rest will make perfect sense.

Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never really was any problem. [C.S. Lewis, from “A Grief Observed”]

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. [1 Corinthians 13:11-13 (ESV)]

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THE ALPHA

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. [Revelation 22:13 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneHaving forgotten the Greek alphabet he learned as a fraternity pledge, my husband asked the meaning of the symbols on the lecterns in the church sanctuary. On the left was A for alpha and, on the right, was Ω for omega: the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In Hebrew, those letters would have been aleph and tau. Among Jewish rabbis, using the first and last letters of the alphabet was a common way to express the whole of something, from its beginning to its end. Today’s equivalent expression would be “from A to Z” or “from soup to nuts.” Those Greek letters refer to three verses in Revelation in which Jesus claims to be the Alpha and Omega. They tell us that that, as part of our Triune God, Jesus was there at the beginning and He will be there at the end.

As for alpha: only God could exist before time even existed! Although Genesis starts with, “In the beginning,” God was already there! Since time, space, and matter are co-relative and God created space and matter, we know it was God who also created time. God never had a beginning because He is the beginning! He didn’t emerge from something; everything emerged from Him!

One of the basic laws of science is that neither mass nor energy can be created. Simply put, it can only be converted or broken apart and put together in a new way. Strictly speaking, mankind can’t create; we can only synthesize or transform by taking existing materials to make something new. We can’t create ice or steam but we can convert water into those things by freezing or boiling it. We can take that water (H2O) and combine it with carbon dioxide (CO2) and end up with carbonic acid (H2CO3) but we couldn’t create carbonic acid without the building blocks of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. God, however, started from scratch; with no time, space or matter before Him, he created mass and energy. Making something from nothing boggles the mind but it’s the only answer that makes any sense—even to scientists!

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan. … The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole. [Arno Penzias]

Arno Penzias was the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. He and Robert Wilson discovered cosmic microwave background radiation. Their discovery supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Universe and showed that the Big Bang was not a chaotic random explosion. A highly fine-tuned explosion, it appears that some being guided it along.

The Apostle Paul said, “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command.” [Hebrews 11:3] I don’t think we need faith to know that anymore; it appears that science tells us the same thing. The writers of the Bible, however, didn’t know the theory of relativity, didn’t have telescopes telling them the universe is expanding, and had never heard of the Big Bang, thermodynamics, radiation afterglow, or variations in the temperature of the “great galaxy seeds” – they just knew the truth. Our great God is the Alpha!

I alone am God, the First and the Last. It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order. [Isaiah 48:12-13 (NLT)]

All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen. [Jude 25 (NLT)]

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DON’T DO IT!

Again and again the Lord had sent his prophets and seers to warn both Israel and Judah: “Turn from all your evil ways. Obey my commands and decrees—the entire law that I commanded your ancestors to obey, and that I gave you through my servants the prophets.” But the Israelites would not listen. They were as stubborn as their ancestors who had refused to believe in the Lord their God. [2 Kings 17:13-14 (NLT)]

wrong wayWe were at the symphony watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho while the orchestra played Bernard Herrman’s chilling soundtrack. When Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, stepped into the shower, a man in the audience yelled, ”Don’t do it!” Since most of us saw the movie decades ago, we didn’t want her to take that fatal shower either. In spite of the warning, however, she did. Since Marion was at the Bates Motel because she’d embezzled $40,000 from her boss, perhaps that man should have yelled, “Don’t do it!” much sooner.

That’s sort of what it was like when rereading the books of Kings and Chronicles recently. I knew they would end badly for both Israel and Judah but there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t want to read their sad history again any more than I wanted to see Marion Crane die in the shower a second time. But, just as I made it through the gruesome movie murder, I made it through the disheartening saga of God’s chosen people.

No one warned Marion about Norman Bates but the people of Judah and Israel got plenty of warnings from God. The prophets Amos and Hosea told the northern kingdom they’d be taken captive by the Assyrians and both kingdoms were warned of their tragic ends by Micah. Joel and Isaiah warned Judah to turn from their idolatry and sins. Habakkuk warned them that the Babylonians would be used as an instrument of judgment and Zephaniah and Jeremiah predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. God’s chosen people couldn’t claim they weren’t warned. In fact, the warnings are found as far back as Deuteronomy when God made clear the cost of disobedience.

Scripture warns us to repent, resist the enemy, be morally alert and obedient, and not to be misled by false teachers. It warns of persecution and the dangers of lust, drifting away, prejudice, hypocrisy, and God’s impending judgment. Romans 6:23 puts it bluntly: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Like the people of Israel and Judah, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! [Hebrews 12:25 (NLT)]

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THE STAR – Epiphany

But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. [Micah 5:2a (RSV)]

star ornamentIn his gospel, Matthew writes of wise men from eastern lands who saw a ”star in the East.” This actually was a Greek term used in astrology at the time, en te Anatole, which meant “at the rising.” Now known as a heliacal rising, it describes a planet that rises above the eastern horizon shortly before dawn. Just moments after its appearance, it disappears in the sun’s glare. Better reflecting this astrological meaning, many Bibles translate the wise men seeing the star “as it rose.” While we’re not exactly sure what happened in the sky that drew the Magi to Judea, today’s astronomers have a pretty good idea.

To begin, we have to clarify a few of our misunderstandings about Christmas. While we think of Jesus’s birth as being in December, it probably occurred between March and October. Winters are cold and rainy in Judea; rather than sheep being in the fields in December, the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks. Moreover, the shepherds would have been keeping watch over their flocks at night only during lambing season (March and April). We also often think of Jesus’s birth as being the dividing line between B.C. and A.D. when, in fact, our calendar is about six years off.

Because there is nothing accidental or random about the universe, the movement patterns of the sun, moon, planets and stars can be observed and predicted. From what they’ve observed of these patterns, astronomers can also work backwards. Using a computer program to do just that, Rutgers University astronomer Michael Molnar found that, at twilight on March 20, 6 B.C., the moon eclipsed Jupiter. Then, on April 17, there was a heliacal rising of Jupiter and, at noon, the moon again eclipsed Jupiter. The heliacal rising continued until December 19 and, during that time, both Jupiter and Mars appeared in Aries, a constellation traditionally associated with Judea.

Picturing the magnificent star we often see depicted on Christmas cards, I’d wondered why the Magi were the only ones to take notice this stellar event. As Molnar explains it, these astronomical happenings were not spectacular because of their appearance but because of their rarity and would have had little significance to most people. The wise men, however, were not “most people.” Most likely astrologers from Babylon, they knew the prophecies that a king would be born to the house of David. Believing this king would be born when the moon eclipsed Jupiter, they probably had been searching the sky for years looking for signs like these.

While Molnar even offers a scientific explanation for the star appearing to stop, there also are other plausible explanations for this “star,” such as a close conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter. Whether it was an unexplainable miracle or an amazing natural phenomenon that miraculously coincided with Jesus’s birth, we know that these men saw something that made them believe a king had been born in Judea. Although we celebrate their visit to the Christ child on January 6 (often called Three Kings Day), they weren’t kings, we don’t know how many there were, and they probably arrived in Jerusalem anywhere from several months to two years after Jesus’s birth.

Although the events in the sky got them close to the new king, they had to stop and ask directions to actually find the child; it was only logical that they’d ask King Herod about this new king’s birth. Astrology was prohibited to the Jews and Herod had no astrologers but he did have priests and scribes. Knowing Micah’s prophecy, they directed the wise men to Bethlehem where they found Jesus.

Throughout Scripture we read that God speaks to us and reveals Himself in nature. It was through God’s amazing celestial creation that God revealed the birth of His son to these Gentile wise men. Yet, to find the king, nature wasn’t enough; they needed Scripture. The star told of His existence and got them close but it was the Word that got them there! Let us learn from these wise men. God reveals His power, majesty, and presence in nature but merely knowing that He exists is not enough. It is through Scripture that we actually will find and meet Him; it is though God’s word that we will come to know the King.

The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. [Psalm 14:2 (RSV)]

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