Sunday, October 07, 2018

Specific Enough for You?

Yahoo Answers fields a tough one:

“Were all bible prophesies [sic] written years after the events took place?”

Best Answer: Yes, the ‘prophecies’ in the bible are nothing that go beyond what a kid with knowledge about the world can’t predict. [I’m pretty sure he means “can” there — Ed.] Not to mention things that have always happened.”

That “best answer” is the sort of handwaving you often get from people who haven’t actually read and studied the later books of the Old Testament. The prophets of Israel and Judah frequently made predictions that go well beyond “things have have always happened”.

Predicting the Predictable

Let’s concede at the outset that more than a few of the events predicted by the prophets are indeed, well … predictable. If you are, like Jeremiah, stuck for two years in a citadel besieged by Chaldean soldiers, running out of bread, and with no relief in sight, and you predict the city will shortly be taken by the armies outside the wall, you have a pretty high percentage chance of being correct — though, as you also discover when you read the book of Jeremiah, people will not like you much. It might well have been that a savvy, realistic Hebrew kid standing beside the prophet would have predicted much the same outcome for the great city of Jerusalem, however patriotic his heart.

But to call Jeremiah’s predictions about the fall of Jerusalem “predictable” (or Ezekiel’s, for that matter, which are even more extensive) is to miss the point almost completely. Those prophecies were intended first and foremost as God’s calls to repentance to the Judeans of their day, not as demonstrations of the incredible predictive powers of God’s prophets. Jeremiah was not the least bit concerned about proving his own legitimacy to wiseacres on Yahoo Answers a full 2,600 years down the road; he was much more concerned about persuading King Zedekiah to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar right then, for his own good and that of his fellow Judeans.

Digging a Bit Deeper

Thus, if you want to see examples of real, specific predictive prophecy that have since been fulfilled, you need to go a bit deeper into Jeremiah. Don’t look at what he said about his own city only days and weeks before it fell: look at what he said during the same time period about its Babylonian conquerors when they were on top of the heap, the dominant political force in the known world. Those prophecies were not fulfilled until well after Jeremiah had passed from the scene, and no “kid with knowledge of the world” could have come close to making them.

In the fourth year of King Zedekiah’s reign over Judah, Jeremiah claims to have written down a lengthy prophecy against the Chaldean empire and handed it to the king’s quartermaster, a man named Seraiah, to take with him to Babylon and read out loud. He did this well before Jerusalem was ever taken by the Chaldeans. This would have been approximately 600 B.C. The relevant prophecy is detailed for us in Jeremiah 50 and 51.

That prophecy was not the least bit general in nature, and it was thoroughly falsifiable. That is to say, if it hadn’t happened, no Jews would have taken Jeremiah seriously, not only today but even back in the time of Christ. He would have lost all credibility, and it is highly unlikely his people would have bothered to preserve his embarrassingly inaccurate predictions in their sacred literature. What Jeremiah predicted was that the great Chaldean empire would fall just as Jerusalem would fall, and that God would be its judge.

Dates, Names and Numbers

Now, agreed, all empires eventually fall, even if it takes centuries. That part we know. But Jeremiah pinned himself down to some serious specifics about the tail end of Babylonian world dominance: names, dates and numbers.

The incoming empire that would make Babylon a desolation was said to be “out of the north”. It would be a gathering of “great nations, from the north country”. This coalition would include the Medes, whom Jeremiah specifically named, along with Ararat, Minni and Ashkenaz. Jeremiah identified by name three Chaldean cities in addition to Babylon that would be attacked and destroyed. The great wall of Babylon, he promised, would be razed to the ground.

Both secular history and the Bible tell us that roughly sixty years later, a coalition of nations led by Cyrus the Great, primarily Medes, conquered Babylon and made it a colony of Achaemenid Persia.

Over the Target

Now, secular historical records being what they are (which is to say few, far between and often contradictory), we do not know all the details of the Medo-Persian conquest of Babylon and the Chaldean empire, nor can we say with certainty that the present views of scholarship agree with Jeremiah’s predictions in every respect, but it appears Jeremiah was sufficiently over the target with his predictive bombs that modern higher critics of the Bible have concluded someone else using Jeremiah’s name must have written them after the events had already occurred and when Jeremiah was long dead. This is the sort of thing the original questioner implies when he asks if all Bible prophecies were really written years after the events took place.

Hey, if those predictions were accurate enough that unbelievers still feel compelled to have to explain them away, they are accurate enough for me.

Further, Jeremiah predicted that the destruction of Babylon would be pivotal in changing the hearts of the Israelites dispersed throughout the Chaldean empire, turning them away from their former idolatry and motivating them to return from captivity to their former homes. Jeremiah predicted this attempted return would be successful.

Catalyst for Exodus II

This part about Babylon’s fall becoming the catalyst for a second Hebrew exodus is especially important, because in another chapter of Jeremiah, he tells us exactly to the year how long it would be before the people of Judah returned from their lengthy exile. The prophet Daniel relied on these dates, and it turns out Jeremiah was right. The Judeans dispersed throughout the Medo-Persian empire were permitted to return home just as he predicted.

Both secular history and the Bible tell us that Cyrus, as also predicted, allowed a significant number of Jews to return to Israel, and that this continued throughout the reigns of his successors.

Jeremiah, who had begun his ministry in approximately 626 B.C., is said to have prophesied for forty to fifty years. He probably finished his life in Egypt, was almost surely sleeping with his fathers when Babylon fell, or at very least in no shape to pen, post-date and successfully circulate a pseudo-prophecy about Babylon’s demise written after the events had occurred. If somebody wrote these predictions after the fact, it was not Jeremiah.

Have Cake, Eat Cake

But the important thing here is that the critics cannot have it both ways. Either the prophecies of scripture are simplistic and general, and anyone might have made them, or they are so very specific and falsifiable that they must be explained away by late-dating them.

They cannot be both, and the fact that critics of the Bible feel compelled to make both arguments at the same time suggests one or both are very weak indeed.

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