Contents

“Gotcha” Proofs by Young Earth Creationists

The following photo of the substructure of the Lincoln Memorial was posted on January 16, 2023, by an Admin on the Facebook page, Biblical Creation:

Fig. 1: The substructure of the Lincoln Memorial, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. As posted by Biblical Creation.


Here is the text they posted with it:

Anyone who has ever visited a cave has heard the evolutionist claim that stalactites and stalagmites growing in the cave take, on the average, a full century to grow only one inch and grow to be 40 feet or so only after several thousand years. Or so evolutionists once thought. For those who believe this along with millions of cave visitors each year, hundreds of thousands of years of Earth’s history begin to become a reality before their eyes. But the question is, does it really take a century to grow one inch of stalactite?

When the Lincoln Memorial was built during the 1930s, the engineers sank steel cylinders into the bedrock to anchor the monument. The base of the memorial is set high above ground, leaving a cavernous basement beneath the floor. Rainwater seeping through the marble floor has formed stalactites up to five feet long on the basement ceiling! This growth is an inch per year, not per century! The Earth is not millions of years old or even hundreds of thousands of years. We know from Biblical history and geneaologies [sic] that God created the Earth just thousands of years ago. Biblical truth always trumps man’s scientific theories. 

As an old earth creationist, I believe that Genesis 1:1 happened much earlier than 4004 BC, but that God Almighty did, literally, through His awesome and limitless power, create the universe in its entirety. But, according to these people, whether I believe in evolution or not (and I don’t!) I am an “evolutionist”.

According to the above, evolutionists evidently no longer believe that it takes thousands of years, on average, for a stalactite to form, because the Lincoln Memorial proves otherwise. But what does the picture actually show?

To begin with, most of the Memorial, including all of the structure seen here, is concrete. The statue of Lincoln and the surfaces in the chamber surrounding it are in fact marble. Marble is calcium carbonate rock, just like caves with speleothems—stalactites and stalagmites. But the caves and the speleothems are native limestone. Marble is limestone that has been modified (metamorphosed) by the temperatures and pressures caused by thick overburden sediments. Both are water soluble, but the solubility is measurable, and yes, it normally takes a long time. Fig. 2, below, is a photo that I took of a marble and limestone structure that has been standing out in the open for around 2400 years. It has been damaged by human wear and tear, by earthquakes, and even by a 17th Century Venetian bomb, but for the most part, rainwater has had minimal effect on the stone itself.

Fig. 2: The Parthenon, in Athens, Greece. ©Ron Thompson, 1970.

At any rate, seepage between quarried and assembled blocks of marble or limestone can’t in any way be compared to seepage through the pores of native limestone! I can show you buildups of calcium carbonate in the water pipes in my house, too, but that has no bearing on the age of the earth. As usual with young earth creationists, there is no actual scientific analysis presented to back up the claims associated with their photo. My assumption is that the so-called “stalactites” are leeched salt, not calcite at all!

Atheists who attempt to use theology they don’t understand to disprove the Bible are fools. Christian apologists who try to use scientific principles or findings they don’t understand to shame science are also fools, and this “gotcha” post is very foolish.

As a devout Christian engineer retired from a geological field, I have a foot in both camps. I agree that “Biblical truth” always trumps scientific theory, but when there is a real conflict between the two, one must at least consider the possibility that traditional interpretations of Scripture might be flawed. It has happened before.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. ©Ron Thompson

For more about my views on Creationism in general, please read https://gpront.blog/2022/08/04/the-hijacking-of-creationism/

Is There a Photo of Jesus?

Maybe.

Of course, I’m talking about the Shroud of Turin here—this “Catholic relic” appears to some to be the burial shroud of Jesus, and as such it seems made to order for Protestant scorn, and it is so startling that even the Vatican has been reluctant to display it over the centuries. But frankly, it’s been subjected to every kind of scientific test you can imagine over the last 45 years or so, and, despite occasional claims to the contrary, nobody has yet proved it a hoax. Personally, I am not a dogmatic supporter of the Shroud’s authenticity, but I find it intriguing, and I don’t believe that the Bible rules it out.

Enhanced photo of the Shroud of Turin.

There are a number of good (and quite a few bad) books on the subject, so I haven’t been tempted to take it up myself before now. I finally decided to write about it in response to a negative article on creation.com that I just ran across. I will describe the Shroud and its history below, discuss the forensic evidence in its favor, then propose a scenario for its authenticity that I think accurately accounts for the culture of Jesus’ day without breaking Scripture.

Description of the Shroud

The Shroud of Turin is a single, fire-damaged sheet of linen about 14 feet long and 3.5 feet wide (more precisely, 8 x 2 Royal Cubits, where the Royal, or Long, Cubit is 20.67 inches). On one face of the sheet is a faint image of the ventral and dorsal (front and back) sides of a dead, naked, adult male, lying flat and with hands covering groin. It appears that the cloth was laid flat, and a body laid on it with the feet close to one end. Then the other end of the cloth was folded in half lengthwise over the top of the head and down to cover the feet, staining the cloth with blood. The image, apparently that of a crucifixion victim, appeared on, or was applied to, the cloth at some time after the blood staining.

Contrary to this paining, the image is on the inside of the fold. Illustration from history.com, “The Shroud of Turin: 7 Intriguing Facts”.

To the naked eye, the Shroud is a faint yellow monochrome, with the image appearing as a photographic negative. Enhanced photos of the Shroud are printed as photo negatives of the negative image that is on the cloth itself.

On top, the Shroud as photographed. On the bottom, a photonegative of the top image. From pensarte-asanchezgil.blogspot.com, UNA NAVE ESPACIAL LLAMADA TIERRA Capitulo XXXVIII Sindone 5

The intensity range of the image, rather than representing color as in a black and white photograph, records the varying distance between the draped cloth and the surface of the body.

3-dimensional cardboard carving of the head imaged on the Shroud, using relief data generated by a BK VP-8 Image Analyzer™. From National Geographic Magazine, June 1980.
The wounds, bloodstains and other marks on the Shroud of Turin, theshroudofturin.blogspot.com, “The Shroud of Turin: 2.4. The wounds”

In contrast to the human image, which is confined to an extremely thin layer on one side of the cloth, blood residue deposited on and within the weave of the cloth formed a fluid stain penetrating into the fibers. These stains are consistent with contact between the wounded body and the cloth, and between corresponding locations on the two lengthwise halves of the cloth.

I first learned about the Shroud when National Geographic published an article about it in their June 1980 issue. The thrust of that article was that a large team of American Scientists of various specialties, with lots of expensive equipment, had travelled to Turin, Italy, where the Shroud is kept, and done a lot of very intricate testing. They found a great deal of evidence supporting its validity, and none proving it a hoax. Nobody has ever been able to figure out how in the world it was made. The one hope of the research team was that a carbon 14 (C14) test would either prove it genuine or show that it is a recent forgery, but since the test sample is always destroyed during carbon dating, the church at that time would not let them damage the cloth to test it. By 1988, the Vatican did give permission to test a small sample, and the carbon test was finally done. With a big sigh of relief by doubters, the date obtained was 14th Century, AD. Case closed, right?

A murky provenance

Not so fast! The indisputable chain of custody only goes back to the 1350’s, more or less matching the carbon date, but there is also anecdotal evidence that it might have been around much longer.

Supposed travels of the Shroud. This is from a PowerPoint slide presented by The Shroud Center of Southern California. Dates edited by me for clarity.

Earlier provenance is based on sketchy data from sources that cannot be verified with certainty. Purportedly, a disciple of Jesus’ (not one of the 12) named Thaddaeus salvaged the cloth and took it to Edessa (the site now known as Urfa, Turkey). Edessa was Seleucid originally but became a Roman vassal city in the early 3rd Century. In the early 7th Century, it passed to Persian (Sassanian), and shortly thereafter, Muslim control.

Medieval legend holds that the Shroud remained in that city and was secreted behind a tile inside a city gate during parts of those years of conquest. The image on the cloth was mentioned in several apocryphal documents, and the cloth itself came to be called the Mandylion. That term is from a Greek word meaning a towel or tablecloth, and it referred to a loose military garment, open at the sides, that was draped over Medieval armor, more or less resembling a serape). In AD 943, the Byzantine Emperor (presumably Constantine VII) ransomed the Mandylion from the emir of Edessa and took it to Constantinople, where it was kept in the Blachernae Church. In AD 1204, it disappeared after Constantinople was sacked by Christian crusaders during the 4th Crusade. Legend holds that it was thereafter in the custody of the Knights Templar until the 1350’s, when it is known to have been exhibited a number of times in Lirey, France.

Pilgrim badge commemorating the so-called “Shroud of Lirey”. Drawn by Arthur Forgeais, 1865, from an original artifact. The heads of the two pilgrims are missing from the artifact.

Archaeological evidence is scant. The coin shown below is from the 7th Century and seems to me to tie the Mandylion to the Shroud of Turin fairly convincingly.

Byzantine coin, minted AD 692. The image stamped on this coin seems to me to be indisputably based on the Shroud image, unless somehow the Shroud was based on the coin!
The Sudarium of Oviedo

There is a funerary face cloth called the Sudarium of Oviedo that is believed by many to be the cloth mentioned in John 20:7 “also the cloth that had been around his head, lying not with the sheets but in a separate place and still folded up.” This is an ancient linen cloth with bloodstains, but no mysterious image. Documentation for this cloth goes back to at least the 7th Century, since it has remained in one place for all that time. According to photoofjesus.com,

A 1999 study by the Spanish Center for Sindonology, investigated the relationship between the two cloths. Based on history, forensic pathology, blood chemistry (both the Shroud and the Sudarium have type AB blood stains), and the blood stain patterns being exactly similar and congruent on both cloths, they concluded that the two cloths covered the same head at two distinct, but close moments of time.

If the Shroud is genuine, then I think it probable that the Sudarium is, as well, but that isn’t my subject here. What is germane to this discussion will be mentioned below.

The Sudarium should not be confused with another legendary cloth allegedly connected with the crucifixion, the Veil of Saint Veronica (Berenike).

The Sudarium of Oviedo, from mysticsofthechurch.com, “THE SUDARIUM OF OVIEDO AND THE SHROUD OF TURIN

Forensics—findings and objections

Carbon 14 dating is known to be very accurate, to within a predictable range, so the stories from before the 14th Century can’t be true, can they? Well, unfortunately, in this case there are a couple serious problems with the dating. One is that the Shroud has allegedly been exposed to centuries of contamination by extraneous carbon from multiple surroundings, making it virtually impossible to accurately calibrate the test. Another is that repairs have been made to the Shroud on at least two occasions. One was after it was damaged by molten silver during a fire in 1532, but the patches sewn on in that case were sufficiently clumsy that it was easy to avoid them. An earlier repair, though, was so skillfully patched, by expert interweaving of threads, that the newer linen of the patch was undetected until years after the 1988 carbon testing—and of course it turned out that it was apparently the fabric of that patch that was tested, not the original fabric which theoretically still could date to the 1st Century. Subsequent non-radiometric dating methods have reportedly raised the probability of an early origin.

The image on the cloth is not painted, nor is it dyed, or inked or otherwise applied. It has the appearance of the cloth itself being scorched, but not at high temperatures. Modern science cannot say with certainty how this scorching occurred, though some sort of radiation is probably the cause. Neutron radiation has been proposed, but since the image penetrates the cloth only to a very small percentage of its thickness, then anything more energetic than an alpha particle beam (Helium-4 nuclei) makes no sense to me.

From kennedy-science.weebly.com


The effects of various electromagnetic radiation types (light wavelengths less energetic than those on the chart) on textiles have been studied. From a layman’s point of view, I think that what makes the most sense is a pulse in the ultraviolet range, which is known to cause cellular damage to the surface layers in fabric. Shroud researcher John P. Jackson proposed that vertical exposure to UV as the Shroud collapsed into a vacuum after Jesus “dematerialized” beneath it, could account for the image, in all respects. I’m not qualified to critique his work other than to say, “It makes sense to me”, in a general fashion. To be clear, if He dematerialized, then He immediately rematerialized at some other location. Biblical precedent for this is seen in Philip’s departure from the Ethiopian road and materialization in Azotus , on the way to Antioch, and in Jesus’ appearance before “Doubting Thomas” after His resurrection.

The blood stains on the cloth have an unnatural appearance, particularly on the enhanced views, because they penetrate the weave and are not part of the “scorched” image. Furthermore, they fluoresce in views like the right pane of the following photo. Creation.com is confused by these views, thinking that the blood is floating above the skin and hair, where it should be a crust or pool on the skin and should be beneath the outer layers of hair. In reality, what we see here is a contact transfer of blood to the cloth. Forensics show that the blood was on the cloth before the image was deposited. If this is Jesus’ authentic funeral shroud, then the blood on the cloth is from shortly after His death, when it was only partly coagulated. The image, on the other hand, is from a later time, presumably at the instant of His resurrection.

Positive (left) and negative of the face on the Shroud. Free image from metapicture.blogspot.com

Creation.com also questions the drooping hair on the image, thinking that it should be collapsed to the surface Jesus was lying on, not hanging as if He were standing up. I don’t agree. Scripture says that He was beat over the head with a stick while wearing the crown of thorns:

17 They dressed him in purple and wove thorn branches into a crown, which they put on him.
18 Then they began to salute him, “Hail to the King of the Jews!”
19 They hit him on the head with a stick, spat on him and kneeled in mock worship of him.
—Mark 15:17–19 CJB

As I can personally attest, head wounds bleed profusely. Jesus was savagely beaten over the head while wearing a crown of thorns, so he bled heavily through His hair before even going to the cross. By the time He came down from the cross, some 9 hours later, most of that blood would have hardened like hair spray.

Bloodstained forehead. Cropped photograph of the Shroud, from Stephen E. Jones, “My position on the Shroud: The Shroud of Turin: The Burial Sheet of Jesus! #7”

The cloth of the Shroud is not the cheap material used for menstrual rags, burial wrappings, or even middle-class clothing, but rather a high-grade cloth used for upper-class clothing and tapestries, very rare and expensive at the time. The weave was a herringbone twill, with threads composed of 70 to 120 fibrils of flax. Expert examination indicates that it was hand-spun, bleached, woven by hand, then washed with soapweed. These were characteristics of 1st Century linen weaving (in Medieval times, bleaching was commonly done after weaving of the cloth). This weaving technique was practiced by Syrian weavers, and remnants of such cloth were found at Masada, dating from no later than AD 70. Some folks object that this cloth isn’t really a luxury product because better fabrics from the time were composed of linen/wool blends. That was not an option in Judea, because:

¶ “‘Observe my regulations.
“‘Don’t let your livestock mate with those of another kind, don’t sow your field with two different kinds of grain, and don’t wear a garment of cloth made with two different kinds of thread.
—Leviticus 19:19 CJB

The blood-like deposits on the Shroud have been verified to be aged blood. It is red, more like fresh blood, because it contains high concentrations of bilirubin, along with creatinine, ferritin and myoglobulin, all of which, in the concentrations found, are proteins characteristic of blood shed under tremendous physical trauma, like that of torture. Washing with soapweed also helps to preserve the hemoglobin color.

Blood-stained cloth from the Shroud., from Stephen E. Jones, “The Shroud of Turin: 2.5. The bloodstains”.
Fossilized heel bone of a crucifixion victim, with spike. The heels were nailed into the sides of the upright.

A Roman flagrum from Herculaneum (modern Ercolano) near Pompeii, from Stephen E. Jones, “The Shroud of Turin: 2.4. The wounds”.

Blood staining of the cloth and bruising on the image is consistent in all respects with the testimony of Scripture. There is blood on the wrists and feet, from the nails. The Greek allows for extension of “hand” to include the wrists, as would be anatomically required to hold a grown man to a cross with nails. There is blood on the side, from the Roman spear. UV studies reveal a halo of fluorescence around this blood. Serum separated from the blood accounts for that and matches scripture describing “blood and water” from the wound. There is blood on the head from the crown of thorns and the beatings. There are bloody, dumbbell-shaped marks all over the body due to 130 lashes with a Roman flagrum. There are swollen cheeks and a broken nose from beatings. There are abrasions on knees and shoulders from stumbling from the Praetorium to Golgotha (Gulgolta).

Creation.com criticized what they considered to be blood flow patterns inconsistent with gravity, but my own examination of photo evidence doesn’t bear that out.

Various types of pollen were found on the Shroud. Concentrated around the head region, in particular, there is a large amount of pollen from the thistle Gundelia tournefortii, a spiny plant common in the Jerusalem area that blooms (and pollinates) in the spring. The “crown of thorns?”

Crown of Thorns exhibit, “Helmet” of thorns in the permanent exhibition of the Shroud of Turin in the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. Contrary to popular images, a “helmet” style of crown was more appropriate for a Middle Eastern king than a Greek “wreath”. Blood patterns on the Shroud suggest a helmet.

Creation.com also criticizes the proportions of the body on the Shroud. First, they are concerned that the image shows a man about 5 ft. 10 in. in height, which they think, probably correctly, is taller than most 1st Century Jews. Yet, people of all ethnicities vary in height, and that would not make Him a freak among His own people. Perhaps they were obliquely referring to Isaiah’s prophecy:

He was not well-formed or especially handsome;
we saw him, but his appearance did not attract us.
—Isaiah 53:2 CJB

I think that is saying that Messiah will not be a heartthrob who attracts people by His physical charisma. Other detractors have claimed that it also implies that He will not stand out in a crowd because of His height. I am not convinced. Being a bit taller than average would help Him speak to crowds.

Creation.com also sees distortions in the lengths of the image’s limbs, the thickness of one leg and the size of the head. Once again, I’m not convinced. The image appears to be a vertical projection onto a cloth that is draped over a real three-dimensional person, and thus not perpendicular to the cloth at all locations. This would be expected to cause apparent foreshortening of perspective in places.

Is the head disproportionately small for the body? Perhaps. That has been explained by some as rigor mortis freezing (but see my next paragraph) the head in a downward tilt, from hanging on the cross. I think it is more likely that His Head was resting on something in the tomb; perhaps he was still wearing the crown of thorns.

Creation.com thinks it is ridiculous to believe that Jesus’ hands could be over His groin, because they believe He would have gone into rigor mortis on the cross, with His arms frozen at an upwards slant. But that is a ridiculous suggestion, and they should know better—rigor mortis is part of the decay process, and Jesus didn’t decay! Acts 13:37 (ESV) ” but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.”

Many detractors are convinced that the image should not show a beard, because:

I offered my back to those who struck me,
my cheeks to those who plucked out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
—Isaiah 50:6 CJB

I wear a beard. I don’t think it could be plucked out aside from small amounts at a time. They tried. This is Hebrew poetic hyperbole. It emphasizes a point using exaggeration. Not uncommon in the Psalms and Prophets. Looking at the Shroud image, it appears that the beard is forked, and in fact, that was noticed and incorporated into the commemorative coin shown above. That was either His style, or the plucking was partially successful.

Others don’t think that there is enough damage to Jesus, per:

Just as many were appalled at him,
because he was so disfigured
that he didn’t even seem human
and simply no longer looked like a man,
—Isaiah 52:14 CJB

Again, this is poetic hyperbole. I’ll bet that if you were to find a severed and mangled human hand on the ground, you would recognize it as human remains!

Biblical Considerations

Okay, here’s where I start the fun part.


The writers on creation.com are, I’m sure, good Christian folks, but I often disagree with their interpretations of Scripture, and more often with their analyses of science and history. Regarding their treatment of the Shroud of Turin, I certainly do agree, unequivocally, that the Shroud is completely unnecessary as proof of Jesus’ existence, His crucifixion, His resurrection, or His deity. However, I don’t think they have a good understanding of 1st Century Jewish burial practices. Here I will challenge their perceptions of how the Shroud appears to contradict Scripture.

The primary objection of creation.com was that the person in the Shroud evidently was not given the entire customary treatment. They suggest, in part, that Jesus could not have been entombed in a one-piece linen shroud because Lazarus was not—his body was washed, then slathered with aloe and wrapped with aloe-impregnated linen strips (plural) before entombment:

44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
—John 11:44 ESV

The truth is that even in Judea, with all its customs, there wasn’t just one way to be buried, because the legal precepts of Torah didn’t speak about it all that much. If you were rich or a king, you got the plush treatment, coffin and all. The indigent sometimes got tossed out the Dung Gate and put in a pauper’s grave. That’s evidently how landowners Chananyah and Shappira (Ananias and Sapphira) ended up.

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,
2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 ¶ After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.

10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
—Acts 5:1–10 ESV

I submit here that Jesus and Lazarus were handled in different manners because the circumstances of their deaths were different. Jesus was as a convicted felon. Lazarus died at his home at a time more suitable for “standard practice.” Because Lazarus was in good legal standing, there was not a hard and fast requirement for him to be buried the same day, though that was the ideal. He would have been taken to his family tomb as soon as practical, dressed in normal clothes. Then, at some time during the days of mourning, probably soon after rigor mortis broke some 36 hours after death, he would be prepped for his long sleep. This included wrapping him in multiple strips of linen that were smeared in spices (usually myrrh and sticky aloe) in order both to bind the cloths to each other and to the body, and to mask odor. A separate small piece of linen (a facecloth) was also provided to cover or wrap the head.

When Jesus was brought down from the cross, burial on the same day as death was required from:

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree,
23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.
—Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV

But clearly there was simply no time for the normal burial customs to take place before the sun set. I think that Joseph or one of the others climbed up and wrapped the facecloth around His face and the crown of thorns. Jesus was then taken down and laid on a bier, most likely on top of the shroud brought by Joseph, so that His shame could be covered. His clothes had been plundered by the Roman soldiers, so he was naked.

The evidence of the Shroud shows Jesus’ torture and death just as described in Scripture, when understood in its cultural context. The events surrounding His final words and His death are described plainly in Matthew 27:45–56 and the parallels. His crucifixion began at around 9:00 am (e.g., Mark 15:25 “It was nine in the morning when they nailed him to the stake.”), and the darkness began around noon. He died at “about the ninth hour” which, by Jewish counting, was somewhere around 3:00 pm. Evidently His dead body remained on the cross for most of the rest of the afternoon because, while Luke is silent on the timing, the other three Gospels are united in placing the approach of Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate at “around evening.”

Nisan 14–17 timeline, simplified, ©Ron Thompson. The Gregorian dates presented here are my own calculations, from NOAA lunar phase charts.

I will propose a likely scenario for what followed, harmonized with John 19:38–42, since that is the version stressed by creation.com and others:

38 ¶ After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body.
39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.
40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.
42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
—John 19:38–42 ESV emphasis added; see below for discussion

The crucifixion was on Friday, Nisan 15. Jesus had celebrated His last Passover Seder the night before, and it was now the 1st day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was, in Jewish law, a Sabbath (Heb. Shabbat). The next day was to be the 7th day weekly Shabbat. Restrictions for the two days were similar, except that the mid-Passover weekly Shabbat was always considered to be particularly important. In the case of consecutive Shabbatot, it was permissible to prepare for the second one on the day of the first one.

So, when Joseph spoke to Pilate, dusk and the start of the Saturday Shabbat were rapidly approaching, as emphasized in Mark, using a Jewish English translation:

42 Since it was Preparation Day (that is, the day before a Shabbat), as evening approached,
43 Yosef of Ramatayim, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who himself was also looking forward to the Kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Yeshua’s body.
—Mark 15:42–43 CJB emphasis added

There was a delay, because Pilate needed to check precedent, then once Joseph had permission, he barely had time to do what absolutely had to be done before the Temple shofarim (ram’s horn trumpets) signaled that the sun had sunk below the horizon and Shabbat had begun. First, he must walk quickly from the Praetorium (probably Herod the Great’s palace) to the nearby crucifixion site at Gulgolta (I believe that to be the site under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, just outside the city wall of that day). Then with the help of Nicodemus and the Disciples, he had to lower Jesus to the ground, remove the nails from His wrists and heels, place Him on the bier, and carry Him the short distance to the tomb.

“Linen wrappings”, or a shroud?

John 19:40 says “wrappings”, plural othonion (Gr. ὀθονίοις), which may refer to the customary saturated linen strips, but I think it meant, simply, the Shroud and the headcloth. Since Biblical Greek has no punctuation, I suggest that for comparison with the synoptics, vs 40b should be translated “bound it in linen cloths, with the spices”. In other words, the binding strips and the spices were stored in the tomb for later processing, as soon as ritually permitted. There simply could not have been enough time that day!

The three synoptic Gospels all refer to “a linen sheet”, singular sindoni (Gr. σινδόνι a different Greek term probably referring to the fineness of the cloth).

Mark 15:46 says “Yosef purchased a linen sheet; and after taking Yeshua down, he wrapped him in the linen sheet (σινδόνι), laid him in a tomb which had been cut out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb.

Matthew 27:59 uses the same singular, sindoni, as Mark, “Yosef took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen sheet, (σινδόνι) 60 and laid it in his own tomb, which he had recently had cut out of the rock.”

Likewise, Luke 23:53 “He took it down, wrapped it in a linen sheet (σινδόνι), and placed it in a tomb cut into the rock, that had never been used.”

Is there any other Scripture that might verify my interpretation?

Yes!

The Jewish custom was to seal a tomb, then come back in a year to pick up the dry bones and put them in an ossuary or a family niche. I can think of no reason why it would be necessary to open up a tomb two days later to renew spices already applied, yet that is what creation.com suggests was going on early that Sunday morning:

1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
—Mark 16:1–3 ESV

Joseph was not able to complete the customary preparation of the body because it was the Sabbath, and an even more important Sabbath was about to start. He did what could be done quickly, then he left Jesus wrapped in the shroud he had brought, rolled the stone into place, and notified Jesus’ mother that she would need to complete the process—which was really the family’s job in the first place. Washing the body, then applying the cloth strips and spices was a job that it would have probably taken them at least two or three hours to complete.

In conclusion

Creation.com approached this subject much as they do in their creation articles. They started out their story the way I do, by reading key books and articles on the subject. But they were looking for talking points, not for real issues. Their minds were made up going in. This shows up in several places. For one, they were quick to comment on the “floating blood” on the image’s head. Yes, that’s what it looks like, but “looks like” isn’t always enough. If they had read in depth, they would have learned that those big blobs were contact stains in the cloth, not part of the image on the cloth. In the picture, those stains fluoresced, like white teeth under black light at a party.

Another very major fault with the creation.com approach is that most Hermeneutics don’t allow you to make theological decisions based on a single passage. The creation.com article shows why. Their case was built on John’s account of the burial, but John contradicts all three of the synoptic gospels. By “contradictions”, I’m not implying error. The four Gospel writers viewed events from four different directions, and each had a point he was trying to make. Think about the old saw about the blind men and the elephant. The exegete’s responsibility is to study the Scriptures together to find the harmony that is there!

A third fault in the post is that they were so sure of the end result they were going to get that they rushed into the fight with wild punches. Rigor mortis is part of the decay process. Do they really think that Jesus began to decay? I don’t think so!

A fourth, and the last I will mention, is that they wrote from a shallow understanding of culture. The Bible is God’s autobiography. It touches on other things, but it’s not a self-help book, it’s not a science text, it’s not a history, and it’s not a civics book. To fully understand the cultural context of Judea, you have to go beyond Scripture and examine extra-Biblical sources. Their understanding of 1st Century burial practices is superficial.

Nobody will ever be able to prove that the Shroud is authentic. Some folks think that an artistic genius like Leonardo DaVinci could have pulled off a hoax like this, but why would he? Besides, yes, he did conceive of helicopters back in his day, but he didn’t build one! To successfully produce what the technology of his day could not allow him even to see boggles my mind.

Frankly, I would like for this to be genuine. Prior to the incarnation, God in all three persons was spirit. Whenever he materialized to a physical form, it was transient. Until Jesus took on flesh. I’d like to think that there is a commemoration of that flesh, here on earth!

Geology and the Saudi Sinai

Fig. 1: Jabal Maqla (Jabal al-Lawz range, from livingpassages.com web site)

A topic that comes up over and over again on social media archaeology groups is the contention that the real Biblical Mount Sanai is the mountain Jabal al-Lawz in northwest Saudi Arabia.

This is one of around a hundred astounding finds claimed by the late Ron Wyatt, who left his job as a medical technologist in Tennessee to chase his dreams as an amateur archaeologist. I don’t think that even a single one of his claims is valid. What he did was travel around the Middle East searching for things that superficially looked like something described in the Bible. A real archaeologist would produce tangible evidence for the find. Wyatt usually claimed to have found such evidence, but if so, only his own eyes ever saw it.

I previously disputed the contention by Wyatt’s many supporters that the traditional site of Mt. Horeb/Sinai, Jebel Musa, on the Sinai Peninsula, cannot be correct because that area was part of Egypt, not Arabia as Galatians 4:25 seems to require (see Moses, Paul, Sinai, Midian and Arabia). I thought I would spend a little time and space here discussing some of the other evidence alleged in support of Jabal al-Lawz.

I should state at this point that it is difficult to disprove something that cannot be proved in the first place. My purpose here is to offer a more sensible explanation of two of the main talking points used to justify the Saudi Sinai claims—the black mountaintop and the split rock. I offer no proof of my own contentions. I’ve never been on that site, so all I can provide is sound principles and other folks’ photographs and research.

The “Burnt Mountain”

The most striking feature of the Saudi Mountain is the black summit, which is claimed, based on a superficial visual impression only, to have resulted from God’s appearance over the mountain:

16 ¶ On the morning of the third day, there was thunder, lightning and a thick cloud on the mountain. Then a shofar [ram’s horn] blast sounded so loudly that all the people in the camp trembled.
17 Moshe brought the people out of the camp to meet God; they stood near the base of the mountain.
18 Mount Sinai was enveloped in smoke, because ADONAI descended onto it in fire — its smoke went up like the smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently.
19 As the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moshe spoke; and God answered him with a voice.
—Exodus 19:16–19 CJB (emphasis added)

Fig. 2: Peak of Jabal Maqla, the “Burnt Mountain”, doubtingthomasresearch.com.

There is some confusion as to the proper name of the mountain in question. Ron Wyatt, Bob Cornuke and others Applied the name Jabal al-Lawz to the mountain pictured above, but al-Lawz is a somewhat higher peak to the north of that pictured, which is correctly called Jabal Maqla, meaning “Burnt Mountain”. That’s a minor point. The major question is, why is the peak blackened? Is that, as claimed by Wyatt and his followers, a remnant of scorching by God’s presence in the lightning, fire and smoke recorded in Exodus?

My interpretation of the passage above is that the lightning may have been literal, or perhaps static electricity, but that the fire and smoke were simply God’s sh’kinah glory, the same things as the pillar of fire and smoke that led the Israelites for 40 years and that is never recorded to have damaged anything.

Furthermore, the contention that the mountainside was burned and that the burned area would still be visible after 3500 years, is beyond implausible. Compare the fire on Mt. Carmel when Elija confronted the priests of Ba’al some 600 years later; no trace of that remains, and Mt. Carmel is a known location.

Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
—1 Kings 18:38 ESV

I have not been to the site of al-Lawz, but I have seen many photos, and I have read formal geological descriptions of the area, which is strikingly similar to portions of the Rio Grande Rift Valley in New Mexico, which I am personally well acquainted with, having grown up in Albuquerque.

Biblical Midian lies within the northwestern extremity of the Arabian-Nubian Shield, which is a granitic batholith, shown in gray below, that spans the Red Sea. Granite magmas solidify deep within the earth’s crust and are exposed by succeeding uplift and erosion. The Red Sea itself is a more recent rift zone, where plate tectonics (continental drift) is pulling northeast Africa and southwest Asia apart. Rift zones are always associated with volcanic activity, and this case is not different, as is also shown on the map, fig. 3.

Fig. 3: Distribution of northeast Africa and Arabia Cenozoic volcanism (researchgate.net, William Bosworth)

In reality, the blackened peak of Jabal Maqla is not due to scorching, but rather to lava flows, which are common along the rifting Red Sea and Jordan Valley. The geological literature describes the Jabal Maqla itself to be composed of a light-colored granite capped with volcanic rhyolite and andesite. The andesite is what makes the peak seem “burnt” (fig. 4). Rhyolite is a brown-colored lava which shows up on some aerial photos as volcanic dikes in older andesite flows.

Fig. 4: Andesite example, Photo ©Siim Sepp, 2005

The volcanic nature of the peak is particularly obvious from satellite imagery. The photos below (fig. 5 and the added fig. 5a) show the mountain and its surrounding drainage pattern. Note that the wadi on the north side is fed primarily from farther north, outside the blackened area. The tributary wadis that flow from the Jabal Maqla peak are paved with silt weathered from the darker andesite lavas.

Fig. 5: Jabal Maqla, Google Earth
Fig 5a (added): Clear view from southwest of obvious lava flows at Jabal Maqla. Google Earth.

Next (fig. 6) is a view cropped from a visitor’s photo, shot on the summit of Jabal Maqla. The partially weathered rocks they are sitting on are clearly volcanic in origin. To my eye they are primarily black andesite, with lighter colored rhyolite inclusions.

Fig. 6: Crop of 3rd-party photo taken on the summit. Source unknown.

For comparison, I am including as fig. 7 a photo of a typical New Mexico lava flow, from the region close to Carrizozo, south of my childhood home in Albuquerque.

Fig. 7: Carrizozo Little Black Peak, New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

The “Split Rock”

Unnumbered (added): Article from unknown source.

The second geological feature in the area that I want to discuss is the “split rock of Rephidim“, which Wyatt followers claim to have found to the northwest of Jabal al-Lawz.

1 ¶ All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.
2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”
3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
4 So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.
6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
—Exodus 17:1–7 ESV

The claim is that this (fig. 8ff) is the rock that Moses struck with his rod, causing water to gush out to satisfy the thirst of the Israelites. As proof, they offer that the rock is close to Horeb; it is huge; it is split roughly in two, top to bottom; and it shows “obvious signs of water erosion.” Scripture says nothing about the appearance of the rock. Nearness to Horeb (Mt. Sinai) is only proof if Jabal al-Lawz really is Horeb.

I will discuss the question of erosion, below, but first I want to mention the probable origin of the rock and the rubble base on which it rests. This will have some bearing.

Glacial origin?

My initial reaction when I first saw photos of this granite behemoth and its associated elongated mound of rubble was surprise at what appeared to me to be glacial deposits in the Arabian desert! It would take a geological survey to establish the truth of my conjecture, but after research, I determined that there is indeed evidence of Mid-Cryogenian (Neoproterozoan) glaciation in the northern Arabian–Nubian (A-N) Shield region. This was a “snowball earth” period, one of two periods when virtually the entire planet was covered by continental ice sheets. The surface geology of the A-N Shield at this time is represented in gray on fig. 3, labeled as the Proterozoic basement complex.

Factors that led me to my conclusion were (a) the gigantic boulder that I thought surely must be a “glacial erratic“, an out-of-context rock too big to have been deposited by almost any other means; (b) the ridge on which it rests, appearing to possibly be “glacial till“, which is a deposit of rubble “usually described as massive (not layered), poorly sorted, and composed of multiple types of angular to sub-rounded rocks”; and (c) horizontal surfaces polished by fine grit and striated by larger fragments carried along at the base of the glacier.

Fig. 8: Split Rock, from 3rd party drone clip. The surface of the rock beneath the boulder shows apparent striations and polishing.
Fig. 9: Split rock, from 3rd party drone clip. Seen on edge and showing part of an apparent till ridge, or “moraine”.
Fig. 10: Rubble underlying the split rock, from alvarolima.com
Is the split miraculous?

Probably not. Such splitting is a normal characteristic of “frost wedging”, where moisture penetrates a small hole or crack in a rock, freezes, and wedges the opening larger. The ice melts, more water enters, and the cycle repeats. Over time, even huge boulders (and this one is said to be as large as 60 feet in diameter) will split. I have seen literally thousands of split rocks in New Mexico alone. The splits are almost always vertical, like this, because the water flows under gravity in the rock. I’ll provide two examples here.

Fig. 11 is a granite boulder, no doubt another glacial erratic, in the arid Joshua Tree National Park, in California. Fig. 12 is a photo of what is now a popular climbing spot near Albuquerque. Frost wedging accounts for probably all of the fracturing seen here. I did not take this picture, nor am I a rock climber, but some 50 years ago I stood either on that spot or on one very much like it close by, after hiking up along the axis of the ridge with a friend. Imagine my terror…

Fig. 11: Frost wedging in Joshua Tree National Park, ©Randall Nyhoff
Fig. 12: Knife Edge granite shield outcrop, Sandia Mountains, New Mexico. ©Steven VanSickle.
Erosion in and around the split rock

Descriptions of this rock always say there is “obvious water erosion” associated with it. Doubting Thomas Research Foundation (DTRF) is one organization that was apparently established by an individual to promote Jabal al-Lawz and its features. In one article they state about the split rock, “The erosion is within this split, along several paths descending from the base of the rock, and in the front and back of the hill at the bottom.” I will respond to this by commenting on photographic evidence I have seen.

Weathering of the megalith

Transportation of glacial till is slow and involves pushing, rather than rolling or tumbling. Rocks embedded in the till might become fragmented, or partially fractured, or chipped at the corners, but only roughly rounded. If sandwiched between ice and the underlying rock surface, polishing and scoring may result. I am assuming that the split rock is a glacial erratic that ended up at the top of the pile when the glacier melted. Sitting there, in that environment, it would have been subjected to three major weathering agents: frost wedging, exfoliation, and wind abrasion. The latter of these is mostly ineffective against hard igneous rocks.

However, both frost wedging and exfoliation are evident here. First, the frost wedging that I discussed above is undoubtedly responsible for the big split, and also for the oblong rock fragments littering the floor of the split, as well as the angular fissures in the walls of the split, as shown in fig. 13, below. I have also seen video footage of thin flakes of rock on the split’s floor. This was obvious debris from exfoliation—the eggshell layers that can be clearly seen in fig. 13.

Fig. 13: Floor of the Saudi “Split Rock”, showing exfoliation of the rock face. ©JohnTrifBrent.

Fig. 14 exhibits exfoliation on the external surfaces of the megalith, and on the rocks in the photo’s foreground. Exfoliation is due to heating and cooling of the rock itself, as opposed to thermal cycling of water in rock fractures. Temperature changes within the rock will be felt more quickly at the surface than under it, causing differential expansion and contraction. Since the granite is crystalline and brittle, an outer “skin” will eventually separate from its substrate. Such flakes, still clinging to the surface, can be seen in both photos, fig. 13 and fig. 14. Weathering by exfoliation typically rounds the surface of boulders. A great example of this is the Half Dome pluton, in Yosemite National Park.

Fig. 14: Exfoliation of the rocks
A supporting structure?

DTRF (see above) also makes the following observation: “At the top of the hill, on one side of the split rock, is a large rectangular rock that may be holding the split rock upwards. In theory, this rectangular rock may serve a logistical (sic) purpose if the Exodus story is accurate. It would hold the split rock up for the scene to take place, as well as provide a safe spot for Moses to stand after striking the rock.

Referring back to fig. 8, I assume that the author is referring to the vertical block immediately in front of the split rock, on the right or more probably the horizontal block on the left. From the photos I’ve seen, I would presume these to both be merely additional segments of the same boulder. Both are effectively separated from the main “lobes” of the boulder by wedging surfaces. To clarify, I have very roughly sketched what I see as the edges of major wedging planes in fig. 15.

Fig. 15: Wedging boundaries in split rock megalith. The shaky hand is mine.
A plinth for the split rock?

Of more interest to me, shown in fig. 16 (a crop of fig. 8), is the more or less flat surface that the megalith is sitting on. The regularity of the apparent cross-hatching on top of this rock surface suggests a striated and polished surface caused by dragging at the base of the glacier.

Fig. 16: Striated rock beneath the split rock.
Fig 17: Example of glacial striations and scouring, in high mountain terrain.
Erosion of the rock piled beneath the split rock

DTRF also noted erosional channels on “several paths descending from the base of the rock“. Other visitors to the site frequently mention such paths, or troughs, running from the split rock, down the face of the rubble, to the wadi below. The more astute acknowledge that this could be due to millennia of natural runoff. Others insist that there is not enough rain in the region to account for the erosion they see on the slope. Some visitors evidently account for the rubble-strewn mound itself by appealing to a strong flow of water from the rock after it was split by Moses’ rod.

I have seen one such erosional channel on video, but as a former desert-dweller, I have to say that it is not very impressive, and not visible on any of the photos presented here. Nor would I expect it to be. Clear, potable water simply does not erode solid granite blocks. Even if this rock had gushed water for the year that the Israelites stayed on Mt. Sinai, the only effect it would have on this mound would be to wash away small particles, from clay-sized through perhaps some cobbles. In the geologic ages since this mound was deposited, I would expect no more than the amount of erosion that is actually seen here.

DTRF seems to suggest that the rock might be limestone. if so, it might be dissolved by low pH water flow. It is not limestone. It is granite with other hard silicates mixed in, not carbonates.

Erosion in the surrounding wadi

DTRF on the wadi: “The ground level on both sides of the hill is smooth and uneven, giving the visual appearance of former water flows being there. It appears distinct from the rougher terrain that surrounds the site.” That is a good description of what can clearly be seen in photos and videos of the area.

He also states, primarily with respect to the rubble mound: “Yet, there is a lack of rainfall in this area of the world and there aren’t significant flash floods that could explain the apparent water erosion.” I totally disagree with this statement.

I suspect that the Hijaz area of northwest Saudi Arabia gets no more than a few inches of rain in a year, but the complex dendritic drainage system visible on satellite images (see next three figures) shows that there is plenty of flash flooding to move loose sediments for long distances, over time. Fig. 18 shows that the split rock lies central to a catch basin collecting runoff from the mountains to the east and south. In other words, erosion around the rock is from drainage upstream of the rock, not from the rock itself.

Above the split rock, in the east, there is another terrace and a larger catch basin. Water from that terrace cascades downwards, downstream of the rock, as is seen more clearly in fig. 19, an oblique view from the west. Referring back to fig. 18, water from these two basins flows downstream to the northwest, to an intersection with a main-channel wadi that flows south-southwest and ultimately empties into the Red Sea.

Fig. 20 is a wider-angle 3D view, from the southwest. This is the best view to see the scope of erosion in the area, and reveals that the area east of fig. 18 is a broad, flat, plateau.

Fig 18: Drainage system for the area around Jabal al-Lawz, Jabal Maqla, and the split rock. Google Earth. North at top.
Fig. 19: Oblique view of split rock area, looking down from the west. Google Earth.
Fig. 20: wider view, from the southwest. Google Earth.

I decided to add fig. 21 to emphasize the elevation changes in the region. Jabal Maqla is not marked here but is near the top edge of the photo in the blackened region. If the Israelites were camped near their water source at the split rock, then none of the highland areas marked here, and especially not Jabal Maqla, were easily accessible.

Light Yes, But Why Salt?

[Scriptural quotations from ESV unless otherwise noted]

13 “You are salt for the Land. But if salt becomes tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except being thrown out for people to trample on.
14 ¶ “You are light for the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
15 Likewise, when people light a lamp, they don’t cover it with a bowl, but put it on a lampstand, so that it shines for everyone in the house.
16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they may see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.
—Matthew 5:13–16 CJB

Christian theology often tends to forget that the Church did not yet exist when Jesus spoke these words. In fact, it did not exist until believing Jews and non-Jews had both been given the indwelling Holy Spirit, and that did not happen until after Jesus’ Ascension. His earthly ministry throughout His First Advent was specifically to Jews, not to the unborn Church, and not to non-Jews in general. In Matthew 10:5b–6, He told his 12 apostles-in-training, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In Matthew 15:24, when he was asked by a Canaanite woman to rid her daughter of a demon, He responded by telling her that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

That is certainly not to say that He rejected overtures of faith by non-Jews. He ultimately granted the request of the Canaanite woman, and in Matthew 8:10b, He granted the petition of a Roman centurion and told His followers, “With no one [else] in Israel have I found such faith.”

But the fact remains that Jesus’ ministry, and in fact the whole of the four written Gospels, were directed to Israel. When we fail to recognize that fact, we open ourselves to the heresy of misappropriating Scripture. In this post, I am addressing one example of such error in discussing the concepts (plural) of “salt and light“, which Christians almost always discuss as if it were a “Church thing”, and just one thing. I do believe there is an important Church application, and I’ll address that near the end.

Please read this post as an academic exercise for improving our understanding of Scripture, not as criticism of any well-meaning individual or organization.

The context of the message

Matthew 5–7 is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount. “Sermon” may be too strong a term, because it is unclear which group Jesus was speaking to.

1 ¶ Seeing the crowds, Yeshua walked up the hill. After he sat down, his talmidim came to him,
2 and he began to speak. This is what he taught them:
—Matthew 5:1–2 CJB

The fact that Jesus was sitting, which limits voice projection, and that only the talmidim are mentioned as following Him up the hill, raises the question: was it an oration to all the people milling around, or just those gathered around closest to Him?

View from the possible location of the Mt of Beatitudes. The hillside is now, of course, the home of an ornate monastery, with immaculate gardens overlooking Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Photo © Ron Thompson, 2008.

The term ὄχλουςα (ochlousa) is translated crowds, above, or multitudes in the KJV. This is an odd plural, sort of like “infinities”. Two infinities are still just infinity. Two crowds are still a crowd. I suppose it could be like “the crowd on His left and the crowd on His right”, but the term is always used for the group of people following Him, so that is unlikely. Roy Blizzard and David Bivin, in their book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, suggest that ὄχλουςα is a technical term referring to “the inhabitants of the surrounding area”, which might be an actual “multitude”, or might be just a few people.

Drones like the religious leaders that the Sanhedrin sent to follow Him from place to place would be a separate group mingled in and on the fringes of the gathered locals. Thir function was much like the Soviet trawler back in my Navy days that always trailed along behind my ship, an aircraft carrier, in the Mediterranean. When they had opportunity, they steamed in among the destroyers and frigates of our task force, spying and occasionally harassing.

There were probably at least some underemployed “seekers” in the mix, as well, following from place to place hoping for some sort of healing or salvation. Many probably finding what they sought.

The folks gathered more closely around Jesus and probably sitting near Him on the hill were His talmidim, or disciples, and verse 13, about salt would have applied more to them than to the larger group (see below). Whichever it is, Matthew 5:11–16 was clearly applicable only to Godly Jews when it was spoken.

Salt and Light to whom?

Before addressing the meanings of “salt” and “light” in Matthew 5, I think it important also to answer the question, who were to be the recipients of the salt and the light? I used the Complete Jewish Bible to quote Jesus’ words, above, because I think it correctly differentiates the two Greek words that the English Standard Version renders as “world”.

St. Augustine Lighthouse, © Ron Thompson 2001

In verse 14, “world” is a translation of the Greek κόσμος (Kosmos). In the modern world, the term “cosmos” refers to the universe as a whole, but in ancient times, the heavens above were thought to be merely a dome, or a sheet draped above the earth we inhabit. So, in effect, κόσμος referred to the world as a whole, consisting of all nations. Israel was, indeed, understood to be commissioned as God’s evangelist nation to the rest of humanity.

In verse 13, a different word, γῆ, or Ge, is used. In general, γῆ can, in fact, be translated as “world”, but I think that when connecting the word to Israel, it is almost always proper to default the translation to “land“, meaning specifically, Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Jesus’ listeners here were being told to be “salt for the Land”, i.e., a preservative for the people, or Covenants, of Israel. Not for the greater earth. Similarly, in verse 5, we are told that the meek will “inherit the land”. This is certainly true. It is a direct quotation from Psalm 37:11, which taken in context is clearly referring to Israel’s eventual peaceful habitation in the Land of Israel.

Light for the world

I will discuss the question of light before salt, because Christian usage of this term is more straightforward than that of salt.

As is expressed many times in the Tanakh, or “Old Testament”, particularly in the poetic Psalms and Prophets, the concept of “light“, where physical light is obviously not meant, primarily pertains to knowledge of truth. To shine a light, in this respect, is to bring the knowledge of salvation. It is clearly this idea that Jesus had in mind in the Matthew 5 text. This, I think (and most would agree), is borne out by his quotation of Isaiah 8:23–9:1 in the preceding chapter, Matthew 4:

12 ¶ Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.
13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,
14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 ¶ “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
—Matthew 4:12–16 ESV, emphasis added

However, there are a number of other symbolic usages of the term in the Tanakh, and I think that in some sense, all of these can be read into Jesus’ words. I will list some of these, with examples from the ESV:

To lead people forward—as God’s sh’kinah leading the Israelites through the darkness of the Wilderness:

Neh. 9:19 You in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go.

To lift the hearts of people—as God’s protection of the people menaced by Haman:

Esth. 8:15–17 Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16 The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor. 17 And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday.

To expose sin—as God’s exposure of evil nations and rulers:

Job 12:21–25 He pours contempt on princes
and loosens the belt of the strong.
22 He uncovers the deeps out of darkness
and brings deep darkness to light.
23 He makes nations great, and he destroys them;
he enlarges nations, and leads them away.
24 He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth
and makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in the dark without light,
and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.

To bring health and life from illness and death—as suggested by Elihu’s reproof of Job:

Job 33:28–29 He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit,
and my life shall look upon the light.’
29 “Behold, God does all these things,
twice, three times, with a man,
30 to bring back his soul from the pit,
that he may be lighted with the light of life.

To bring confidence—as expressed by David after his deliverance from Saul:

Psa. 27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?

Salt for the Land
Sea Salt. Photo from myactivenutrition.com

While the Jewish concept of spreading “light to the world” represents God’s entire reason for Israel’s election as His chosen people—the total evangelization of all peoples on earth—

the “salt” concept has nothing to do with evangelization and is much more limited in scope.

From the example references to “salt”, below; from the record of history; and from a correct translation of γῆ (see above), it is clear to me that by exhorting His listeners to be “salt“, He was commanding them to function as His Covenant people, and by their words and actions, to be a preservative for the Godly remnant in Israel. Only such a Godly remnant could possibly function as evangelists to the world at large.

In the Ancient Near East (ANE) before written records were as ubiquitous as they later became, contracts and treaties were often “sealed” by ceremony. Salt, because of its preservative qualities and its flavor, was often part of such ceremonies. That practice was so prevalent that it was incorporated into Biblical covenants and covenant-related practice without explanation. The first mention in scripture is the instruction for preparation of incense to be burned in the Tabernacle:

34 ¶ The LORD said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part),
35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.
—Exodus 30:34–35 ESV

Grain offerings were also to be seasoned with salt:

You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
—Leviticus 2:13 ESV

Contributions to the priesthood from consecrated meat offerings were to be salted:

All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the LORD I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and for your offspring with you.”
—Numbers 18:19 ESV

The public water supply of the city of Jericho was miraculously purified through application of salt by the prophet Elisha:

19 ¶ Now the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.”
20 He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.
21 Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the LORD, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.”
22 So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.
—2 Kings 2:19–22 ESV

When confronting Jeroboam’s army, Judah’s King Abijah invoked the eternality of the Davidic Covenant by pointing out that it was regarded as a covenant of salt:

Ought you not to know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?
—2 Chronicles 13:5 ESV

Application to the Church

The Church consists of two groups which, together, Scripture refers to as “the Commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12-13): (a) a Godly remnant of physical Israel; and (b) Godly non-Jews grafted into the first group. A full discussion of this doctrine (see Romans 9–11, for example) is beyond my scope here, but both of these peoples, in unity, clearly bear the responsibility to bring light to the world. It is less clear but probably equally valid to assert that both peoples share a responsibility to bring preservatory ministry to each other and to the converts attracted to the light.

I am not pronouncing anything earthshaking in this post. I am pointing out a technical inconsistency in Christian teaching, but not suggesting that we are grossly misdirecting our efforts. I simply think that it is better to correctly understand the Jewish foundations of the Church.

Implications of God’s Omnipresence and Eternity in Space-Time

I have had trouble writing this because God’s Creation is so astoundingly complex that it has taken me over three months to settle on a narrative that avoids rabbit trails that are vitally interesting to me, but probably boringly obtuse to many of my readers.

My intention here is to explore two of God’s divine attributes that I think are very closely related, and to speculate, in the simplest terms I can come up with, how they might have additional implications in the light of modern physics.

“Theology Proper”

Any formal study of God and His creation is going to start with a textbook categorized as a “systematic theology.” The section of that book concerned with the nature and characteristics of God Himself is called a “theology proper.”

Intelligently discussing God’s Attributes is a tough task, because God Himself told us only what He determined we need to know, and the Bible was written in an age when both the inspired human writers and the intended readers couldn’t begin to understand all of what was written, or the vast majority of the topic that remained unwritten. In some cases, it seems to us as if some really important explanation is omitted that we would very much like to know. For instance, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit can only be inferred from “hints” scattered throughout Scripture. Even the term “Godhead,” which at least sounds somewhat Trinitarian, is merely an infrequent translation of the Greek qeoteß, (theotes), which actually means simply “deity.” Paul used the term as a polemic against Colossian, gnostic pantheism, not as a theological description of the Trinity.

Why is there no specific Biblical mention of the Trinity? Well, perhaps it is because the ancient writers (and to a lesser extent, even today’s highly educated theologians) had no scientific or linguistic tools sufficient for the task. Explaining the Trinity is beyond the ability of even 21st Century Theologians. There is no known analog to make it clear to us. I suppose, personally, that it has something to do with the nature of sentience (consciousness—having senses and perceptions) without physical substance. “Spirit,” in the Biblical sense, is something that our best modern science can’t detect or explain. It isn’t matter. It isn’t energy. It is independent of either and in God’s case, it is superior to both.

Author and educator John C. Lennox suggests that man’s spirit, which is, in life, associated with his body, is what God means by His “image.” Dictionary definitions of “image” include terms like “reproduction”, “imitation”, “likeness”, etc., most of which imply that an image is in some way inferior to the original. God is spirit, whereas man’s spirit is confined to a physical body now, and even when that body is glorified, will still be constrained to locality.

Many Christians, if asked, would say that only Scripture is valid truth. I believe that the perceptions of man’s imperfect spirit are capable of much understanding, even of issues that aren’t fully addressed in Scripture. To this end, I am going to blend in a little human science.

Scientists do two things, for the most part really well: they collect data; and they propose explanations. In either order; in fact, frequently in iterations. Sometimes the explanations have a devious political or theological aim, but more often than not, it’s just enquiring minds wanting to know. Honest data collection can’t possibly hurt us, because it is our God who provides the data!

I am going to combine the concepts of God’s omnipresence and eternity in following sections, but classically they were considered to be entirely separate Divine Attributes.

Omnipresence

Classical views

God’s omnipresence means that He is present, everywhere in the cosmos, simultaneously and fully. He is here and aware of His surroundings, at this moment, in my home office where I am typing this post. At the exact same instant, He is present and aware of plasma currents in the heart of a star billions of light-years from my office. Not just one star—all of them, everywhere. And then, there are also the falling sparrows…

At the same time, He is present on a throne at a location we call “heaven,” where the Bible pictures Him communicating with angels, prophets and sundry other beings. Where His throne and its setting are described in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation, I think that the prophetic visions are not to be interpreted as a specific place, but rather as an interface between God and others, depicted in such a way as to convey glory and holiness to limited ancient understandings.

Of course, the Bible also depicts God as from time to time present at specific localities, for example: in a burning bush; outside a cave on Mt. Horeb; in a pillar of cloud and fire; above the Ark of the Covenant; and in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. These “theophanies” were instances where God chose to show a localized physical manifestation of his presence to reassure His people that He is more than just a disembodied concept.

Defining the cosmos
Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF). This is a 2008 long exposure photograph of a very tiny area of the sky, and each item shown is a separate galaxy. From Wikipedia.

The astronomical term “cosmos” is defined by Merriam Webster as “an orderly harmonious systematic universe.” After millennia of honest science by many Christians and non-Christians, the current most popular view is that our universe (in my view, the only universe there is) is about 93 billion lightyears (550,000 billion-billion miles) in diameter—and that’s just the part we can see! A rough estimate that has been cited for years is that there are at least a hundred billion galaxies in the universe, with an average of a hundred billion stars per galaxy. That is probably conservative. It appears that most stars are associated with planetary systems like our Solar System. Most planets probably have one or more moons. But there is so much more out there than stars, planets and moons!

That’s the big stuff. Looking at the small stuff, most of you are somewhat familiar with the concept of atoms and molecules. You know that atoms consist of protons, neutrons and electrons. Actually, there is a whole “zoo” of other particles around us that are less familiar. Stars mostly burn Hydrogen. Our own sun burns around 200 million tons of hydrogen, the lightest of all elements, every second, and has enough left to keep burning for 4.5 billion more years.

God in the cosmos

God’s omnipresence means that He is present throughout the universe, as well as enfolding its entirety within the envelope of His presence. His omniscience (all-knowingness) assures that He is aware of every last particle within that volume, and His omnipotence (all-powerfulness) assures that His control extends to even the smallest sub-atomic particle within the volume. Does this mean that He is constantly propping everything up, or “micro-managing”? Clearly, He can fiddle wherever He wants to, and clearly (from Scripture), He occasionally does, but He is the author of the laws of physics, and I’m quite sure He is more than capable of having designed it to be self-sustaining! An automotive engineer can design and build a car, but he can also drive it without manually spooning gasoline to each cylinder. I trust my God, and I also trust what He has built and what He is continuously supervising.

The late Henry Morris rejected the “uniformitarian” concept that geological processes worked the same way in the past that they do today. But throughout his book, he mischaracterized the concept, as he did the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Both of those principles are valid only in a closed system, meaning no external interference. Both principles would say that an acorn dropping from the oak tree outside my office window will fall to the ground. But if I reach out and catch it, I haven’t violated the principle, I’ve simply violated the explicit assumption that the tree, the acorn and the ground was a closed system. My hand invalidated the assumption by making the system “open“. Was a world-wide flood possible without God’s intervention? Actually, yes, the physical laws make it highly unlikely, but don’t prohibit it. But we know that God intervened, so the laws didn’t apply in that case. (See Fountains of the Deep.)

Parenthetic: Is God’s omnipotence limited?

I think that most conservative theologians would say that it is! For example, Wayne Grudem states:

…it is not entirely accurate to say that God can do anything. Even [Scripture passages] must be understood in their contexts to mean that God can do anything he wills to do or anything that is consistent with his character. Although God’s power is infinite, his use of that power is qualified by his other attributes (just as all God’s attributes qualify all his actions). This is therefore another instance where misunderstanding would result if one attribute were isolated from the rest of God’s character and emphasized in a disproportionate way.

Grudem’s Systematic Theology (2nd ed.)

Many have added what I think should be self-evident, that God can’t violate simple logic. No, He can’t make a rock so heavy that He can’t lift if. That is a paradoxical absurdity. And no, He can’t make 2 plus 2 equal 6 (need I add, “in base 10”?). It is what it is.

Eternity (Timelessness)

Classical views

God’s attribute of eternity is comparable to His omnipresence, in that it defines His all-encompassing span of existence in time, rather than space. He is not only everywhere, but also everywhen. He is Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End. His temporal span is from eternity past through eternity future. When, at the burning bush, Moses asked Him His name, God replied in two ways. First,

God said to Moshe, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh [I am/will be what I am/will be],” and added, “Here is what to say to the people of Isra’el: ‘Ehyeh [אֶהְיֶה, I Am or I Will Be] has sent me to you.’”
—Exodus 3:14 CJB

The above is commonly taken to be an expression of God’s timeless existence; effectively, “I am now what I always have been and always will be.” This, however, is not so much a name of God as a statement of His nature. His “covenant name” delivered in the following verse, is a wordplay on the Hebrew ehyeh:

God said further to Moshe, “Say this to the people of Isra’el: ‘Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh [ADONAI], the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitz’chak and the God of Ya‘akov, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how I am to be remembered generation after generation.
—Exodus 3:15 CJB

The 4-letter Hebrew name given here, יהוה, known as the “Tetragrammaton,” is commonly transliterated and pronounced as Yahweh (or, Jehovah), but the vowels, and thus the pronunciation, are inferred rather than known. Strong’s defines it as “(the) self-Existent or Eternal“, but again, I think that this is an inferred, not a known, meaning, and based on the wordplay, I prefer to regard it as a proper name.

Defining time
Sorry, but illustrating timelessness isn’t easy. Some of you will recognize this as the BBC version of a time machine. Dr. Who’s disguised TARDIS.

Time, of course, is the concept that you perceive the present, remember (or not) the past, and anticipate (or not) the future. Physicists relate this to entropy, which some define as randomness, but that definition is deceptive. More accurately, a quantity called “degrees of freedom” increases. Newton’s Second Law says that, in a closed system (see above), entropy increases. At the risk of depressing you, an organism eats and assimilates its food, and grows. It may appear to be getting less “random” and more like an “organized” entity, but the fact is that each cell and biochemical molecule is simply part of a cycle of maturation and eventual death and decay. More cells mean more degrees of freedom. More stuff to go wrong. Scattered raw materials can be gathered and processed, and a useful machine can be manufactured, but all such constructs eventually wear out and fail, becoming scrap. “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

Space and Time: Spacetime

Both spacial and temporal location can be specified either relatively (here, there, now, then) or absolutely, using coordinates (for example, with rulers and clocks). But—think about this—are space and time merely abstract concepts, or are they real, tangible, things?

Space is most definitely real. It is not, as once thought, just the vacuum through which the “stuff” of the universe floats and moves. Now, observation and theoretical research suggest that space itself has properties that differentiate it from whatever is outside the universe. Time is evidently one of those properties, so also must be a real thing. Hold on to this concept: In the “old days”, the universe was thought to be an area in space; now we consider the universe to be space, time, and everything else that we know exists. Except, in my Christian “worldview”, for God and His realm, which are both outside the universe and permeating it to the smallest subatomic particle.

In 1905, Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity provided a theoretical framework for unifying the concepts of space and time. It turns out that there is a physical and geometrical relationship between the two seemingly unrelated concepts. To greatly oversimplify, if an accelerating object passes you at a high velocity, it will appear to you that it is foreshortened in the direction of motion, and that time is passing more slowly on it than on your own platform. The important thing in the present context (this post) is that both space and time appear to be—and in fact are—distorted, and their distortions are mathematically related. These effects are not easily seen except at velocities that are a significant proportion of the speed of light. It certainly does sound counterintuitive, but by now, the physics has long since been proved and integrated into modern technology.

God in time

Apologist author William Lane Craig, in his book Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time, examines the question of whether God’s Eternality implies that He exists within the framework of time or outside of time, looking in. In rather tedious detail, he approaches the question from the standpoints of theology, physics, and philosophy, and reaches the conclusion that God must exist within time in order to keep His bearings, since there would evidently be no temporal landmarks to go by.

Hmm… Lane is a very smart man who clearly embraces God in all His majesty, and he has obviously devoted a lot of thought and research into the subject. But his logic here, frankly, escapes me. God’s omnipresence means that He both envelopes and inhabits everything outside and inside the universe. His attribute of eternity implies the same with respect to time. The relativistic connection of space and time reinforces that implication. I see no reason that He should ever be disoriented, in any fashion. An expanded definition of “omnipresence”, then would state that

God simultaneously and instantaneously sees and remembers everything that exists and occurs at all locations in both space and time.

Note that I threw in the word “instantaneously” because, while nothing in the universe can travel faster than the constant speed of light, that is a limitation of space itself. Space with its enclosed stuff is expanding faster than the speed of light. There is no speed limit outside the universe.

What does Quantum Physics add to the picture?

A lot, and I only recently began probing the theological implications.

Newton’s First Law of motion states that, An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force. We call that tendency “inertia.”

It turns out that this law doesn’t hold for extremely small objects. We’ve known for about a hundred years that small objects like electrons and photons move in ways that are fundamentally unpredictable. The best you can ever do is calculate a probability distribution. Which was hard for many physicists, including Einstein, to accept, because they believed in a “deterministic universe“—if you know where everything is now, and the forces on it all, then theoretically you can predict the future. Einstein famously said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Make no mistake, he wasn’t a theist. What he meant was that he didn’t believe in a future determined by chance.

What does this randomness in nature mean, theologically? Warning: from here on, this is just my own speculation, not something from either science or theology. Take it or leave it. If there is randomness in the universe, then that can only be because God wanted it that way and designed it that way. If the future is truly random, then presumably even He can’t predict the future. <shock!!!> But God needn’t predict the future when He can see it! Remember, He lives in all times simultaneously. God fore-knows because He fore-sees.

Why would God have designed it this way? Perhaps it’s because He wanted to give the denizens of the universe freewill! That does not mean He’s lost control of the universe. Three reasons:

  1. Large objects, like stars, planets and even baseballs and marbles, have enough inertia to obey the First Law.
  2. If you flip a coin once, you’re equally as likely to achieve one result as the other, but if you flip it a thousand times, it’s virtually 100% sure that the total number of heads and tails will be very close to equal.
  3. And, of course, God not only sees the future, but He can nudge it in any way that He sees fit. His sovereignty means He can, not that he necessarily does!

Summary of Judgement Seat and Crowns in Heaven

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.
—Revelation 22:12 ESV

This past Sunday, late in Bible class, someone raised the subject of “The Judgement Seat of Christ“, “crowns“, the “Bema” and so on. There was no time for me to put in my own two cents, but it is a subject that touches me personally. I was raised in a very legalistic fundamentalist church, and the whole question troubled me at the time more deeply than any other doctrinal issue. If “Jesus paid it all“, “not of works, lest any should boast“, and heaven is the carefree paradise we’ve been led to believe, then how is it that the first thing that happens after the Rapture is that we face judgement, possible humiliation in front of our peers, and maybe worse still, potential forfeiture of a fancy, jeweled crown to wear in our new mansion over the hilltop? And what’s the point of working hard for a crown if we have to give it right back, by “casting it at Jesus’ feet“?

This is a diversion from what I’ve been working on, a discourse on God’s omnipresence in space and time, and what that implies about creation, so I’m not going to do an exhaustive study of this subject. I’d be reinventing the wheel anyhow, because the late J. Hampton Keathley III, Th.M., did an excellent job of nailing it down in an article, The Doctrine of Rewards: The Judgment Seat (Bema) of Christ. Below is a short summary of aspects that I have pondered over the last few days:

The Judgement Seat of Christ

The term “judgements” is used many times in Scripture, mostly regarding punishment. I am limiting this discussion to the major formal judicial reviews of the End Times recognized by many conservative theologians. There are variations in terminology, and some count three or five but for this purpose, I’m going with the diagram below, which lists four. In general, I think that the source book shown in the caption is pretty good, though I question LaHaye’s own previous judgement, in view of the terrible theology in his Left Behind series.

One view of the end-time major judgements, from Charting the End Times, by Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, ®2001.

The “Judgement Seat of Christ” is the most common name used by Christian theologians for the evaluation of Christians that occurs after the Rapture. The diagram shows the Rapture occurring simultaneously with the beginning of the seven-year Tribulation period. I strongly believe in a “Pre-Trib” Rapture, but I don’t think that Scripture requires the Tribulation to happen immediately after the Rapture. I personally think that there will be a time of major geopolitical developments on earth between the removal of the Holy Spirit and all Christian influence, on the one hand, and the beginning of Tribulation on the other. The war of Ezekiel 38 and 39 may be one of them (see The Coming World War: Gog and Magog).

Purpose of the Judgement Seat

This is emphatically not a judgement for sin, because Jesus’ crucifixion paid that cost, but rather an evaluation of the quality of our service. I think for a twofold purpose: (1) for recognition and kudos; and (2) for handing out of assignments. As discussed in Keathley’s article, the Scriptures imply that the Raptured Church will function administratively during the Millennial Kingdom. I don’t know that I can definitively back this up from Scripture, but my personal impression is that our individual responsibilities in the Kingdom will be based on our aptitudes and attitudes shown during our mortal lives. Although without sin, our glorified selves will still be recognizable, both physically and by non-physical personal traits.

Timing of the Judgement Seat

Many scholars (e.g., Keathley) show it at the beginning of Tribulation, others (e.g., LaHaye and Ice) show it as taking place during the entire seven-year span. I would say the beginning, and not the entire span. Why? First, because of its connection with Rosh Ha-Shanna, coming up in late October this year (see below), and also because I think that the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will be the focus in heaven during the period. Christian scholars tend to ignore Jewish cultural analogs when interpreting Jewish Scripture. Even though all Scripture is Jewish! Jesus (Yeshua ben Yosef) and most of the Gospel protagonists were thoroughly Jewish, and all but one of the canonical writers was Jewish. The exception being Luke, who I think was a Jewish convert. Jewish wedding customs in the 1st Century clearly pictured Jesus’ relationship with the Church, His bride (see Jesus and Hebrew Wedding Imagery). The Jewish wedding supper was a seven-day feast, so I think there is ample reason to think that the heavenly marriage supper might span seven prophetic days.

How could all of that “evaluation”, of all the Church saints from two Millenia of Church history, be accomplished virtually instantaneously? That is something I’m already working on for my next post: In God’s “native” realm, there is no such thing as “time”, or even “space”. He is independent of both and unbound by both. He exists simultaneously everywhere and everywhen. In 2 Peter 3:8, the apostle is paraphrasing Psalm 90:4 when he says that, to God, a day is as a thousand years. That is poetic language, not literal. The truth is, he could have said a million, or a billion, or trillions and trillions. Or conversely, a femtosecond (10-15 seconds), for example, is no more obscure to Him as a day.

The Bimah—Jewish, too, not just a Greek concept!

Here is where I depart from Keathley and other Christian scholars.

The Greek term béma (βεμα, pronounced BAY-muh) is defined by Strong’s as “a platform to which someone [ascended] to receive judgment; (figuratively) the administration of justice – literally, given from “a tribunal-chair” (throne) where rewards and punishments are meted out.”

The Hebrew term bimah (מִמַּה, pronounced BEE-muh) is no doubt related, and has a similar meaning in general, but, for our purposes here, there is a much more specific meaning, attested as early as Neamiah’s time, in the Persian era. According to Encyclopaedia Judaica, the word means an “elevated place“, more specifically a “platform in the synagogue on which stands the desk from which the Torah is read. Occasionally the rabbi delivers his sermon from the bimah, and on Rosh Ha-Shanah the shofar [ram’s horn] is blown there.” The reading desk is also often referred to as a bimah. Significantly, I believe that the Rapture will occur on a Rosh Ha-Shanah (also known as Yom Teruah, The Day of Trumpets; see The Jewish Feasts: Part 11, Trumpets)!

Reading at the bimah, Bialystoker Synagogue, New York, N.Y., U.S.
©Juda S. Engelmayer
Parenthetic notes on the photos...

Above: The photo above shows three men standing at the bimah table in a small synagogue in Lower East-Side Manhattan. The synagogue is never called a "temple" by orthodox Jews, but it nevertheless serves many of the Temple's functions in the post-Temple world. The bimah stands near the center of the room, just as the altar stood in the center of the Court of Priests. The man seen in this photo in his woolen tallit (prayer shawl) is standing at the table with his face to the aron HaKodesh (the Holy Ark, a cabinet in which one or more Torah scrolls is stored. In this synagogue, the Ark is behind the red tapestry. Most likely the reader is not the rabbi, but rather a congregant who has been invited to "make aliya", or "go up" onto the bimah to read assigned passages from the Torah. Typically, when the Torah is taken out to be read before the community, one person reads the Torah, and that person is surrounded on either side with two gabbaim (as here) who ensure that the Torah is being read and treated respectfully and accurately.

Below: The photo below shows another feature of early synagogues, associated with the bimah, that I think is germane to this discussion—the "Seat of Moses". 
The restored “Moses Seat” in the synagogue of Korazin, in Galilee.

The Bimah Seat

Also associated with the bimah platform was “the seat of Moses”. This seat was used by a scribe or other authoritative interpreter of scripture. Today it would be the rabbi. In Matthew 23, Jesus validated the authority of the interpretations made from the seat of Moses, even though, in the same breath, He said, effectively, “Do as they say, not as they do.”

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,
so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.
—Matthew 23:1–3 ESV

I think that, to understand the concept of the Judgement Seat of Messiah, you have to consider the Jewish concept and not just the Greek. We will be evaluated in the heavenly realm, not for sin, but for our performance in light of God’s expectations for His people as expressed in Scripture. Jesus will be the one, sitting on a heavenly bimah seat of Moses, who will be evaluating us and handing out crowns.

Crowns

Sad to say, even as a young adult, my vision of kingdoms and crowns was informed mostly by Walt Disney. So, I pictured literal golden streets and pearly gates in heaven, my home a palace, and on my head a jewel-encrusted crown. I think now that the glitz and bling is meant to convey a sense of beauty and purity, not to arouse materialistic jealousy and greed. The crowns may not be literal headwear but are certainly meant to convey the Greek and oriental picture of the victor’s laurel wreath.

In every case, the Greek word for these “crowns” is stephanos, for which the proper translation is “wreath”, i.e., a chaplet worn as a badge of royalty, honor or victory. The royal crown is always a diadem. Jesus’ crown of thorns was a stephanos, so it was most likely an ironic insult from the Roman soldiers, not something ordered up by Pilate as a complement to his sign of indictment nailed on the cross.

Depiction of Jesus’ crown of thorns, photographed in the back garden of the Bible Times Center, Ein Kerem, Israel. ©Ron Thompson, 2008.

A common Christian tradition says that at some point after receiving crowns at the bimah, we will cast them back at Jesus’ feet in adoration. This appears to be a corruption of Revelation 4:10–11, where 24 elders sitting in a circle of thrones stand and cast their own stephanos in front of the central throne, occupied, apparently, by Yahveh, the Father, not the Son:

10 the 24 elders fall down before the One sitting on the throne, who lives forever and ever, and worship him. They throw their crowns in front of the throne and say,

11 “You are worthy, ADONAI Eloheinu, to have glory, honor and power, because you created all things — yes, because of your will they were created and came into being!”
—Revelation 4:10–11 CJB

The Hijacking of Creationism

Over the last several months, I have adopted a new favorite author. His name is John C. Lennox. Among other things, he is a Cambridge-educated Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and he has written a number of books on subjects that have interested me for many years.

Author, Educator, Mathematician and Philosopher, John C Lennox. BBC Photo.

Most of his opinions on the intersection of theology and science seem to match my own very closely. In particular, a point from his book, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, particularly resonates with me.

Conservative Christian scholars have mostly agreed that God miraculously created the universe, that humans descended from a real Adam and Eve, that the Genesis Flood was real, and that science does not trump Scripture!

But not all of those are “Young Earth” Creationists, and not all believe the theory, stated nowhere in Scripture, that the universe’s appearance of vast age is due to the Genesis Flood. Now, unfortunately, according to Professor Lennox (and my own observation), you are no longer free to reject those views.

Today, if you say you are not specifically a “young earth” creationist, then you will automatically be viewed by most of your Christian peers as a denier of Scriptural inerrancy and an “Evolutionist“. A large percentage of conservative Christianity, including major influencers like John MacArthur Jr, who I greatly admire, accept Henry Morris’ flood theory more or less uncritically.

The so-called “flood theory” was popularized by Morris in 1961 in a book that he co-authored with theologian John Whitcomb, titled The Genesis Flood. I recall first reading the book in the late 70’s or early 80’s. It was formatted into two sections, the first being a theological treatment by Whitcomb, and the second a mechanistic approach by Morris, laying out his theory that the apparent age of the earth was caused by rapid erosion and redeposition of silt caused by earth-rending, catastrophic flooding, accompanied by massive earthquakes and tsunami surges. After reading Whitcomb’s exposition on the Biblical evidence for a worldwide flood, I was an enthusiastic fan of the book. That enthusiasm faded when I read Morris’ section. I found his grasp of fundamental geology and physics to be highly flawed, and his argumentative style (e.g., “any fool can plainly see…”) to be insulting.

1976 edition of The Genesis Flood

The believability of The Genesis Flood was greatly enhanced by a Foreword (not included in the latest edition) written by an eminent geologist, John C. McCampell, PhD, of the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Unfortunately, book Forewords don’t always get read with the same concentration as the body. Dr. McCampbell did not endorse the theory! What he endorsed was Morris’ Christian worldview, fairness and independent thinking! The appliable paragraph read:

"From the [Foreword] writer's viewpoint, as a professional geologist, these explanations and contentions are difficult to accept. For the present at least, although quite ready to recognize the inadequacies of Lyellian uniformitarianism, I would prefer to hope that some other means of harmonization of religion and geology, which retains the essential structure of modern historical geology, could be found."

Morris billed himself as a “hydrologist“. He was educated as a civil engineer. Part of that degree would have trained him to understand the forces on and within dams and conduits (including riverbeds) subjected to hydrostatic pressure and hydrodynamic fluid impingement stresses. As a government employee working for a joint US/Mexico commission tasked with monitoring the Rio Grande boundary waters, he may have done some of that, but I suspect that his job was mostly administrative, recording flood data and channel-shifting. Aside from that position, I believe that the rest of his career, before and after, was spent teaching civil engineering. I see nothing in this background that would obviously quality him to draw the conclusions he did in The Genesis Flood!

To me, the term “hydrology” implies much more than what Morris apparently did in his professional life. The US Geological Survey discusses the field broadly here. Wiktionary provides a more succinct definition, which I think works well:

Hydrology: Noun
1. The science of the properties, distribution, and effects of water on a planet's surface, in the soil and underlying rocks, and in the atmosphere.
2. The properties, distribution, and flows of water in a specific locale; the hydrological characteristics of a particular place or region.
I must now establish my own credentials for entering into this critique of Young Earth Creationism in general, and the Flood Theory in particular.

My undergraduate studies at the University of Texas were in math and physics. My intention was to do my postgraduate studies in astronomy, but after a 2-year Naval tour, practical considerations induced me to accept a graduate fellowship in Petroleum Engineering, instead.

Part of the apparatus for my Rock Mechanics thesis, 1975

My professional field, petroleum engineering, particularly my main specialty of reservoir engineering, was in many ways related to subsurface hydrology. Oil and natural gas are always found in association with water. Below the water table, earth’s crust is almost always entirely saturated with one or more of these three liquid components or something less common, like carbon dioxide or helium. Because of capillary forces, water will usually share the pore space to some extent with other fluids. Water has to be dealt with in all phases of exploring for and then exploiting hydrocarbons.

Typical well log suite, downloaded from USGS

I had some of the same hydraulic engineering training as Morris (dams, weirs and channels), although on a more basic level, but most of my education and years of professional experience were more geological in scope. I dealt with almost anything relating to sedimentary rocks and stratigraphy: where the constituent particles originated; how they were weathered, transported by erosion, deposited, cemented, chemically modified, saturated and disrupted by viscous fluid flow within their pore space or fractures; and how they were subsequently modified by folding, fracturing, compressing, uplifting, and sometimes being exposed at the surface or under the sea, and beginning the cycle all over again. I collected and analyzed cores, drill cuttings, fluid samples, pressure profiles, and electrical resistivity and radiation data. From all that, I had to make reasonable estimates of how much, if any, and what types of hydrocarbons were deep underground, who owned the mineral rights in the drainage area, whether it could be profitably retrieved, by what means and how fast, and ultimately, how much profit is to be expected. I was answerable to my employers, clients, government agencies, royalty owners and/or financial lenders. Sometimes I worked closely with geologists and legal folks, but mostly I worked for small companies and had to do pretty much all of it myself.

Alternate Christian theories to account for the apparent vast age of the universe.

I will have more to say on Morris, the Genesis Flood, and my own views on creation (both the science and the theology) in future posts. Some I wrote years ago, but I plan to rework and repost them. The rest of this post will be a discussion of the Conservative traditions that current “creation culture” now considers to be unacceptable.

In his book, No Final Conflict, Francis Schaeffer lists several areas where, in his judgment, there is room for disagreement among Christians who believe in Creationism and the total truthfulness of Scripture:

1. There is a possibility that God created a “grown-up” universe.
2. There is a possibility of a break between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 or between 1:2 and 1:3.
3. There is a possibility of a long day in Genesis 1.
4. There is a possibility that the flood affected the geological data.
5. The use of the word “kinds” in Genesis 1 may be quite broad.
6. There is a possibility of the death of animals before the fall.
7. Where the Hebrew word bārāʾ is not used, there is the possibility of sequence from previously existing things.

Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology (the text used at Calvary Bible College when I was there) lists the following Conservative theories, which mostly fit into the scope of Schaeffer’s comments, above:

  1. The gap theory holds that there was an original, quite complete creation of the earth perhaps billions of years ago (the creation mentioned in Gen. 1:1). Some sort of catastrophe occurred, however, so that the creation became empty and unformed (1:2). God then re-created the earth a few thousand years ago in a period of six days, populating it with all the species. This creation is described in Genesis 1:3–27. The apparent age of the earth and the fossil records showing development over long periods of time are to be attributed to the first creation. The catastrophe is often linked to the fall of Satan (Lucifer). Creation then lay in ruins for a long period of time before God rehabilitated or restored it.16
  2. The flood theory views the earth as only a few thousand years old. At the time of Noah, the earth was covered by a tremendous flood, with huge waves with a velocity of a thousand miles an hour. These waves picked up various forms of life; the mud in which these forms were eventually deposited was solidified into rock under the tremendous pressure of the waves. The various rock strata represent various waves of the flood. These unusual forces accomplished in a short period what geologists believe would ordinarily require three billion years to accomplish.17
  3. The ideal-time theory says that God created the world in a six-day period a relatively short time ago, but that he made it as if it were billions of years old. This is a genuinely novel and ingenious view. Adam, of course, did not begin his life as a newborn baby. At any point in his life he must have had an apparent (or ideal) age many years older than his actual age (i.e., the number of years since his creation). The ideal-time theory extends this principle. If God created trees, rather than merely tree seeds, they presumably had rings indicating an ideal age rather than their real age. Thus, each element of creation must have begun somewhere in the life cycle.18
  4. The age-day theory is based upon the fact that the Hebrew word יוֹם (yom), while it most frequently means a twenty-four-hour period, is not limited to that meaning. It can also mean epochs or long periods of time, and that is how it should be understood in this context. This view holds that God created in a series of acts over long periods of time. The geological and fossil records correspond to the days of his creative acts.19
  5. The pictorial-day (or literary-framework) theory regards the days of creation as more a matter of logical structuring than of chronological order. The author arranged the material in a logical grouping that took the form of six periods. While there may be some chronological dimension to the ordering, it is to be thought of as primarily logical. The account is arranged in two groups of three—days one through three and days four through six. Parallels can be seen between the first and fourth, the second and fifth, and the third and sixth days of creation.20
  6. The revelatory-day theory. The days were not successive days on which God did the creation, but days on which the story of creation was revealed. So the truth of the account took place in six twenty-four-hour periods, but the actual creation may have taken much longer than that.21

Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, lists more or less the same group of theories, and goes into much more detail on all questions of creation.

Ryrie’s Basic Theology, Charles Ryrie, presents a subset of the above, but without specific names. He is far more concerned about the creation of Man, specifically, than the Universe in general. That’s not a bad approach!

Erickson himself favors the ideal-time theory, as you might guess from the wording of paragraph 3 above. He states that it is “in many ways irrefutable both scientifically and exegetically but presents the theological problem that it makes God an apparent deceiver.” I would agree that any theory that does not incorporate an assumption of vast actual age would have to include this form of apparent age in order to account for function via the known physical laws. In fact, I would compare it to a movie started in the middle. Virtually everything about the universe appears very much to be aged, and in fact would have to do so. I am more concerned with the suggestion of deception than Erickson is, in view of the following, which tells me I should be able to trust my senses:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
—Romans 1:20 ESV

Erickson’s second choice seems to be the age-day theory, but to my mind that idea conflicts with the use of “yom” as it appears in Genesis 1, where I am pretty much wedded to solar days.

Grudem sums up his opinion as follows: “My strong encouragement to the entire Christian community is that both old earth and young earth viewpoints should be acceptable for leaders in evangelical churches and evangelical parachurch organizations.”

Ryrie is somewhat non-committal regarding the Universe but does seem to favor a young earth. He is staunchly against biological evolution, as am I.

Some combination of the pictorial-day and revelatory-day theories seem to be favored by another contrarian, John Walton. I like Walton very much, but I’m not convinced of his arguments in this respect.

Like many Christians of my age, I grew up with a Schofield Reference Bible, and I liked Schofield’s favorite, the gap theory. I no longer use that term and have a different slant on it than I used to, but I’ll discuss my views on that in a later post. For now, call me “a two-flood, old earth creationist with all mankind descended from a recent, literal Adam and Eve.”

A Perspective on Biblical Covenants and Dispensations

Evangelical Protestant theologians for the most part fall into one of two categories: Covenentalists or Dispensationalists. Both groups talk about “Biblical Covenants”, but they differ sharply on the definitions and theological implications of these covenants, and how Salvation History (Soteriology) should be understood.

Most Christians that run in my circles have at least a passing knowledge of the Biblical “Covenants.” I am not going to go into detail here on the form and function of Ancient Near East (ANE) covenants and treaties. Rather, my limited goal in this post is to briefly discuss Covenant Theology, which I firmly reject, and then list the well-known Covenants between God and Israel and point out their loose relationships with the Dispensations that most of my Evangelical friends hold dear. I must point out that I am closer to the Dispensational Theology camp than to Covenentalists, but I don’t share their tent either. Allow me to simply beg off of accepting either of those labels.

Typical outline of an Ancient Near East Covenant or Law Code, from the Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps and Reconstructions, © Copyright 1993 Broadman & Holman Publishers
Covenant Theology is named for three particular Covenants that they embrace:
  • A “Covenant of Works“, aka, the Edenic Covenant. God said to Adam (paraphrased), “I’m giving you all this stuff, but if you do this sin, then I’m taking it away again.”
  • A “Covenant of Redemption“. When Adam sinned and relinquished the benefits of the Edenic Covenant, the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, established this Covenant among Themselves wherein the Son would come to earth, live a totally sinless life, and then die a substitutionary death. Thus, it was a covenant of Jesus’ works, not of man’s.
  • A “Covenant of Grace“. All of subsequent human history falls under this Covenant.

So far, that all sounds pretty reasonable, but the devil is in the details, so to speak…

The Covenant of Redemption is a problem for me because Jesus always gave His Father executive credit. Nowhere in Scripture do I see Son or Spirit questioning, disagreeing with, or asking for a say in the Father’s decisions.

I fundamentally agree that all of humanity since the Fall has been dependent on God’s grace, but Covenant Theology goes on to erase the distinction between Israel and the Church, which I will dispute to my dying breath. They claim that the Israel of promise was not the physical “seed of Abraham”, but rather consisted only of elect individuals. They say that this “Spiritual Israel” of the Old Testament Jews and the Church of the New Testament are one and the same entity. The promises of God “to Israel” applied only and always to this entity. Through a process way beyond the scope of this brief study, many Old Testament “laws” and “customs” have been replaced and subsumed by New Testament upgrades (e.g., male circumcision has now become, thanks to interpretive magic, infant baptism), and things that were important to Physical Israel alone have now been abandoned (e.g., a Promised Land in the Lavant, which they insist is no longer relevant). Another consequence, which I will not explain here, is that Covenant Theology is in general amillennial, and rejects the possibility of a future Rapture of the Church, as well as a Millennial Kingdom.

Dispensational Theology rejects the above and originally believed that history is divided into seven periods during which God dispensed salvation according to different sets of standards:
  1. innocence (Gen 1:1–3:7),
  2. conscience (Gen 3:8–8:22),
  3. human government (Gen 9:1–11:32),
  4. promise (Gen 12:1–Ex 19:25),
  5. law (Ex 20:1–Acts 2:4),
  6. grace (Acts 2:4–Rev 20:3), and
  7. the millennial kingdom (Rev 20:4-6)

I don’t think that most Dispensationalists today take those seven Dispensations to outline different requirements for salvation, because most now recognize that salvation is and always has been by grace, through faith. Rather, they view the Dispensations as progressive revelation of God’s will for man’s behavior and for right fellowship with God. Most Dispensationalists believe that Israel and the Church are entirely separate institutions, and most recognize that Israel will once again take center stage after a literal end-times Rapture of the Church—points with which I am in complete agreement.

The Biblical Covenants, and how some think they relate to Dispensations

If one feels the need to categorize history into Dispensations, have at it. Personally, I think that such lists are somewhat contrived and artificial. History is already pretty well categorized by Covenants that God made with mankind in general, and then with Israel in particular. I’m going to show below that the list of Dispensations above roughly corresponds to periods punctuated by the Covenants.

Most of these Covenants are clearly defined by one or more passages of Scripture. Bear in mind that any promise made by God has the force of a covenant, because what God promises, He delivers. I’m restricting the conversation below to major Covenants recognized by most theologians.

That said, some are a little less clearcut than others. For example, Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, in their book Charting the End Times, ©2001 and 2021, list the first two Covenants as (a) Edenic, Gen 1:28-30, 2:15-17; and (b) Adamic, Gen 3:14-19. The Dispensational online source CompellingTruth.org (CEO S. Michael Houdmann), on the other hand, lists Gen 1:26-30, 2:16-17 and 3:15 under the single umbrella of the Adamic Covenant. My own approach to these Scriptural references, as shown below, differs from both these approaches.

I take a contrarian position that all of the Covenants listed below are unilateral, unconditional and unending:
  • Unilateral, in the sense that God set the terms and laid out the requirements. He didn’t say, “if you want”, He said, “I will”.
  • Unconditional, in the sense that God knew that His creation is morally incapable of meeting His standards. He set standards and consequences, but no possible failure on the part of His people could permanently cancel the ultimate promises.
  • Unending, in the sense that early Covenants are not replaced by later ones. Each and every one builds on the previous.

Although salvation has always been by Grace, through Faith, the details of the relationship between saved humanity and God has been governed by the Covenants I will discuss below.

The First Covenant. (Gen 1:26-30) Most would call this the Edenic, or perhaps the Adamic, Covenant, but at this point, Day 6 in Genesis 1, both Eden and Adam have yet to be mentioned. By His one-sided pronouncements, God here gave to man dominion over the earth and its life; and to men and animals, He gave the right to a vegetable diet. He also here gives to man the first commandment mentioned in Scripture, to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”. Because it was first, many orthodox rabbis consider this to be the most important of all commandments. Note that God’s pronouncements here are unilateral (no response asked for or given). Some would say they are conditional because Adam was banished from the garden, but what is expressed in Genisis 1 evidently pertains to the earth in general, not to the Garden in particular. Again, neither Adam nor the Garden are mentioned in Gen 1.

Dispensationalists associate the “Dispensation of Innocence” with the period from Adam’s creation on “the sixth day” to his Fall. Some place the Fall on the 33rd year of Adam’s life, in parallel with the start of Jesus’ ministry on the 33rd year of His life. This is possible, but wholly without Biblical evidence. My view is that Adam, with no knowledge of good and evil until the Fall, had no propensity to willfully sin, i.e., he had no “sin nature”; nevertheless, he was “suggestible” because he also had no propensity to take God at His word. Therefore, I conclude that he was not truly an “innocent”!

The Adamic Covenant. (Gen 2:15-17) Here God put Adam in the Garden, gave him permission to eat freely from vegetation specifically in the Garden, but listed one exception and a curse for violation of that one prohibition. This is, again, a unilateral Covenant (no response asked for or given).

Many would insist that the Adamic Covenant is conditional and came to an end with the expulsion from Eden. Not so! In this Covenant, God promised blessings and a provisional curse. Eden is lost, but mankind is still under the curse, and will be until we enter The Eternal State. Paradise lost; Paradise regained. Since God’s plan for earth flowed from Adam, through Noah and the patriarchs to Jesus, I consider the Adamic Covenant to be an essential and unconditional early paragraph in all of God’s Covenant history.

Some scholars include Gen 3:14-19 in the Adamic Covenant, but I would say that these verses simply describe the effects that came from imposition of the curse of 2:17. Specifically, the passage contains curses directed at Satan (14-15), Eve (16), and Adam (17-19), respectively.

On the other hand, the curse on Satan found in 3:15 “he will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel”, is also a promise of blessing for God’s elect. I would perhaps regard this as a third, and separate Covenant, but I don’t have a name for it.

The period between the Fall and the Flood are considered by some to be “The Dispensation of Conscience“, but again I find fault with this idea. Human conscience is informed by so-called “natural law“, common-sense principles of morality and interpersonal ethics endowed by our Creator. Since the non-Jewish Church is not bound by Mosaic Law (see below), and since salvation has always been by God’s grace, we are essentially under the same system now as then, though with more knowledge at our disposal.

Peak of Mt. Ararat, iStock, from The ESV Archaeology Study Bible, ESV® Bible
Copyright © 2017 by Crossway.

The Noahic Covenant. (Gen 9:8-17); some would include with this Gen 8:20-9:17). The first use of the Hebrew term for “covenant” (b’riyt) is in Gen 6:18, where God promises to establish His Covenant with Noah after the flood. In Gen 9:1ff, God blesses Noah’s family and repeats the commandment to “be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth”. He then expands their food supply to include animals, so long as their blood is not consumed, and he cursed those who shed human blood—this is not, in my view, a commandment regarding capital punishment, but merely a promise that God will judge and avenge. Finally, He promised to never again destroy the earth with a flood and designated the rainbow as a reminder of that pledge. This is, again, a unilateral Covenant. Noah was given no choice in the matter. It was also clearly unconditional.

The rules established in verses 1-7 are known to Judaism as the “Noachide Laws“, which govern all of mankind. They have been expressed in slightly different terms over the millennia and were interpreted by James in Acts 15:28-29 as the minimum requirements that Jews in the Church would expect of non-Jews in order for the two groups to have mutual fellowship.

By the way, the sign of this Covenant was not a color pattern; it was a specific class of physical phenomena related to light refraction through mists, so there is really no reason to waste time on anger against “misappropriation of the rainbow sign.” Condemn the sin, but just ignore the flags.

The period from the flood to Abraham is said by some to be “The Dispensation of Human Government“, because they believe that the command to execute killers implies a call to self-government; but as mentioned above, I think that Gen 9:5-6 is a curse, not a command. The scattering from Babel, Gen 11:1-9, is in one sense, an indictment on human government, as is God’s warning to Israel in 1 Sam 8 that they would not be happy if they were ruled by a king. The fact that human government always ends up repressing Godly worship should be a warning against enthusiasm for any human government.

Patriarchal Canaan, from Bible Knowledge Commentary

The Abrahamic Covenant. (Gen 12:1-3 and numerous other references: 17:4-8; 22:15-18; 26:3-4; 28:13-15) With this Covenant, God established Israel as His Holy People. The “contract” was described to Abram (later called Abraham) by God and then was formalized by Him in the manner of ancient treaties (Gen 15). Years later, the terms of the Covenant were repeated and expanded, and Abraham responded by circumcising himself and the male members of his household (Gen 17). Still later, it was ratified with Isaac (Gen 26) and Jacob (Gen 28). One more restatement and clarification of the Abrahamic Covenant was delivered through Moses (Deut 30). In this important passage, God ties the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants together and states that Israel’s enjoyment of the Abrahamic promises will ebb and flow insofar as they incur the blessings and curses of the previous chapters of Deuteronomy.

It is important to note that the Abrahamic Covenant did not apply to Isaac’s siblings, nor to Jacob’s, but it did apply to Jacob’s 12 sons and all their physical descendants. There is pretty much unanimous agreement outside of Covenant Theology that this is an unconditional and unilateral Covenant between God and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s descendants.

The period from Abraham to the Exodus is said by some to be “The Dispensation of Promise“, in which man’s relationship with God was supposedly governed by man’s faithfulness in living up to God’s behavioral expectations in light of the promises made to the Patriarchs. This is perhaps expressed in Gen 18:19 (CJB) “For I have made myself known to him [Abraham], so that he will give orders to his children and to his household after him to keep the way of ADONAI* and to do what is right and just, so that ADONAI* may bring about for Avraham* what he has promised him.” Yet, I think that this brief parenthetical passage is meant merely to explain God’s rationale for giving Abraham the opportunity to intercede for Lot and his family.

Jebel Musa, the traditional site of Mt. Sinai. ©2017 Oak Tree Software

The Mosaic/Sinaitic Covenant. (Ex 20 and, by extension, most of Exodus through Deuteronomy) This is the most widely known of the Old Testament Covenants, but at the same time it is one of the most misunderstood, for several reasons. In brief:

  • The Covenant was not set up to enslave the Israelites or make their lives difficult, but rather to give them a sense of purpose and unity and to set them apart from other peoples, in a special relationship with God.
  • Christians tend to think of this as a works-based Covenant, and over the ages there have indeed been many Jews who have followed its precepts legalistically, but Scripture does not support that view. Salvation has always been by God’s grace.
  • The Hebrew word Torah means “teachings“. The Greek nomos indicates “that which is assigned or parceled out” What the Covenant dispenses is a fuller understanding of the nature and will of God, and the conduct that He demands from His elect people, Israel to set them apart from other peoples.
  • Orthodox rabbis count 613 commandments in Torah. Observance of these mitzvoth is a response of faith, never a means of salvation.
  • Deuteronomy” is from a Greek term meaning “Second Law”, but that is not what it is. The Hebrew name of the book is D’varim, meaning “words”, or “matters”. As with other books of the Torah, it is derived from the first sentence, in this case, “These are the words that Moses Spoke…Exodus through Numbers provided history about and guidance for the Israelites as pastoral nomads in the period between the Exodus and the Conquest. Deuteronomy is reinforcement, and adjustments for a settled, agrarian lifestyle in the Promised Land.
  • Christian statements like “we were once under Law but are now under Grace” and “we are bound by the moral law, but not the civil or ceremonial” are meaningless, because non-Jews were never bound by the Mosaic Covenant. When Paul said, “you are not under Law but under Grace”, he was speaking to non-Jewish Believers who were never bound by the legalism of Torah observance.
  • Like each of the other Covenants, it is unilateral.
  • Also, like each of the others, it is unconditional. Disobedience forfeits blessings and brings on curses, but it doesn’t cancel promises (see Deut 20 and nearly all of the Prophetic Books)! Like every other Biblical Covenant, the Mosaic is still effective for the people to whom it was addressed.

The period from Moses to Jesus is said by many to be “The Dispensation of Law“. Both classical and modern Dispensationalists—in fact I think most Christian theologians—believe that the Mosaic Covenant was conditional, and that it was cancelled by God because “the Jews refused to recognize their Messiah.” Many Dispensationalists localize this nullification to Mt 12, especially vs 24, where some Pharisees accused Jesus of being Satan, thus committing the “unpardonable sin.” Others place it at Jn 19:30, when Jesus, on the Cross, said, “It is finished.”

The Davidic Covenant (2Sam 7:11-16) Though at first glance this is a Covenant with the House of David alone, God told David, “Your house and your kingdom will be made secure forever before you” in verse 16. My conclusion is that it therefore falls into line with all the other Covenants I am covering here in being unilateral, unconditional, and unending.

Dispensationalists, in general, don’t see a new dispensation here.

The New Covenant (Jer 31:31-34 and elsewhere). As stated very clearly in vs 31, this Covenant is with the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel. It is not a Church Covenant, though the Church also benefits.

Note well: The Mosaic Covenant was never a failure! It did no less—and no more—than God intended. Without the internalization of the Holy Spirit there was never a chance that God’s people could live up to His demands and standards, but it taught them His nature, and what those demands and standards look like.

What the New Covenant added for Israel includes an internalized Holy Spirit; national regeneration; universal Jewish salvation ate the end of Tribulation; regathering to the Land; restoration of the Kingdom; and a return of God’s Sh’kinah to a glorious Millennial temple. Plus, a breaking down of barriers between Messianic Jews and non-Jews in the Church.

For Israel, the New Covenant is, like the others, unilateral, unconditional, and unending. For believing non-Jews, the benefit is a grafting into Israel, as part of God’s New Testament Church.

The period between the Acts 2 Pentecost and the Rapture is considered by Dispensationalists to be the Dispensation of Grace. This term is an obsolete holdover from the days when most Christian theologians considered the Church to be “under grace” and pre-Christian believers to be “under law”. Paul did frequently mention being “under law”, but he was most surely not talking about people being saved by keeping “the Law”. Rather, the precepts, or commandments, of the Mosaic Covenant were to be a response of obedience by a righteous Jew. Keeping the Law to appear righteous was, and is, hypocrisy. Some Dispensationalists are now calling the present age the Dispensation of the Church.

The Millennial Reign of Messiah is not defined by another Covenant but is instead the culmination and combination of all the Covenants. Since there will be a new Temple, as described by Ezekiel, and since there will be sacrifices in that Temple, some theologians assume that the Mosaic Covenant will be reinstated during this thousand-year period. My own belief is that the Mosaic Covenant never came to an end and is still in effect today. I believe that ethnic Jews, even as members of Christian churches or Messianic Congregations, should be “observant”, or “keeping the Law.” Few are, and since this doctrine is basically unknown today, I’m not critical of righteous Jews who ignore it.

To Dispensationalists, the seventh and final dispensation is appropriately called, the Kingdom Dispensation, or alternatively, the Messianic Dispensation.

Moses, Paul, Sinai, Midian and Arabia

Many amateur archaeology enthusiasts now believe that the “true” Mt. Sinai is the volcanic peak Jebel al Lawz, in northwest Saudi Arabia. This view was popularized by another amateur, Ron Wyatt, who left his day job as a nurse anesthetist in Tennessee, traveled to the Middle East, and fraudulently proclaimed himself to be an “archaeologist”. Most of the “proofs” for this location are in the nature of superficial visual appearance, not scientific investigation and analysis. But that’s a story for another day.

Sinai in Arabia?

In this post, I want to concentrate on Biblical statements regarding Arabia and Midian that Wyatt enthusiasts, and even some doubters, regard as indisputable proof. The most common that I’ve heard, one that is supposed to quash all dissent, is

Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.
—Galatians 4:25 ESV (emphasis added)

The theological context of this verse is beyond my scope here, but we have to ask what Paul meant by “Arabia” in that verse, and in Gal 1:17, where he speaks of going away to Arabia. If you think he meant “Saudi Arabia” then think again, because that country was not born until the 20th Century. Nor do I think that the concepts of “Arabian Peninsula” or “Arabian sub-continent” were known until much, much later. Mentions of Arabia and Arabian Kings in the Old Testament and contemporary writings refer to scattered independent petty sheikdoms and bands of nomads inhabiting the desert areas shown in brown on the map below. No borders are shown on the map because neither Arabia nor Midian, which I’ll discuss below, were unified political entities.

Arabia in the Ancient Near East. ©Accordance Software

What originally made the region Arabia was not a political, or even a geographical connection, but rather the fact that it was populated predominantly by Arabs. The Arabs are a genealogically diverse mixture of largely Ishmaelite tribes. Some historians tie the term “Ishmaelite” specifically to Arabs that lived around the Hijaz, or western coast of the subcontinent, but I use it here to refer to all descendants of Abraham’s son, Ishmael. The term, “Arab“, is derived from a Hebrew root ערב (‘arab), meaning “to crisscross or traverse”, referring probably to their nomadic movement from place to place. As herdsmen and traders, they ranged throughout regions encompassing today’s western Arabia, certainly, and up into modern Jordan, Syria, eastern and southern Sinai and the Negev in Israel.

in the context of the New Testament, the most likely meaning of “Arabia”, is the area then known as the Nabataean Kingdom, shown below roughly outlined in orange, consisting of the modern northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, most of modern Jordan, and all of the Sinai Peninsula east of the present Suez Canal. Note that this area contains both Jebel Musa (the traditional site in Sinai) and Jebel al Lawz (Wyatt’s site east of the Gulf of Aqaba).

The Nabatean Kingdom circa AD 85, ©Villeneuve Nehme.

Nabataea became a formal kingdom at around the middle of the 3rd Century BC. In general, it was friendly to Hasmonean Judea. Nabataean independence ended when they were finally conquered by Rome, under Trajan, in AD 106. Under Roman administration, they were split into two districts, Arabia Petraea in the west And Arabes Nabataei in the East (see next map, below). Both Jebel Musa and Jebel al Laws are located in Arabia Petraea.

Detail from Wikipedia map of the Roman Empire, circa 125 AD, ©Andrein
Paul in Arabia?

After Paul’s “road to Damascus” encounter, he went to Arabia for some unstated reason and duration. Perhaps he “camped out” in the Wilderness to pray and commune with God. Perhaps he lived for a while with Bedouins to learn the tent-making skills that provided his financial support during his missionary journeys.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,
was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;
nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
—Galatians 1:15–17 ESV (emphasis added)

The wording of the passage quoted above implies to me that he purposely avoided the apostles for the time being. My assumption is that he wanted his instructions to come directly from God, since God had chosen him to reveal the mysteries of the new Church. Some commentators suggest that he traveled to Petra for some type of religious or geographic training, but I think his knowledge in those areas needed no further enhancement. If he spent time in any city during this period, I think that Philadelphia (ancient Rabbath Ammon and modern Amman, Jordan) was more likely.

Philadelphia in the time of the Apostle, Paul. By Nichalp – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
Moses in Midian?

The Midianites were a nomadic tribe descended from Midian, a son of Abraham by his wife Keturah. They were a warlike people who engaged in herding, trade, and banditry. Like Arabia, Midian is a region, not a formal geographic or political entity. Most maps of Midian will show it as in the map below—east of the Gulf of Aqaba, but with no borders. Archaeology has little to say about the location. There is some sparse artifactual evidence, mainly pottery, in the area shown and north of that region, in the southern Lavant. Some literary evidence indicates a Midianite presence also in eastern and southern Sinai. This “rural spread” makes perfect sense. The entire region was arid. Nomadic herders tended to establish temporary homes that could be moved from place to place as pastures become depleted by overgrazing. There were also caravan routes connecting the furthest extents of the region (see the first map, above), an obvious enhancement to both trade and banditry.

Sinai and Midian, per Atlas of the Bible Lands

Many of Wyatt’s supporters will say that the Sinai Peninsula could not have been used by Midianite herdsmen because it was part of Egypt. Once again, borders were fluid in ancient times, where they existed at all. Egypt’s interests were primarily along the Nile. Their interest in the Sinai was limited. The roads in and out, especially the Way of the Sea, were fortified and patrolled for defensive purposes. Otherwise, only the mining areas along the Gulf of Suez coast were of significant value to them.

Roads to Salvation?

What is the best way to lead people to salvation in this modern age? I don’t want to offend folks in the churches I attended for years, but my opinion has changed as I’ve aged. I have come to agree with those who say that a scripted approach, using a recipe of verses pulled out of context and a magic, “follow after me” prayer, is not the most effective solution.

When I was in college, some of my Christian friends were handing out “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts and using those as talking points during personal evangelism.

Before that, as a teen, and for many years thereafter, I was taught to “witness” using the “Romans Road to Salvation“.

There is nothing wrong with these tracts or using them for talking points. They are certainly well-intentioned, and they present legitimate Scripture. But I’m an old guy now, and looking back on my life, I don’t know for sure if I ever won a single convert with these methods. I heard professions of faith, certainly, but my efforts to disciple these people were always rebuffed. I don’t think I can name or even picture a single one who demonstrated Biblical salvation afterwards.

What did show positive results was driving busloads of kids to church every week and simply chatting with them about Jesus. That makes sense in light of my own experience as a child. I was taught all the “Bible stories” by Godly parents and teachers, and I have never doubted them. By the time I was eight I belonged to God.

Even as a youth, though, I often wondered why God, in His infinite wisdom, would hide the recipe for salvation by scattering it around Romans like that. Why not just come out and say it? Well, He did, actually! For example, from the “faith” chapter:

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
(Hebrews 11:6 ESV)

I didn’t need a cookbook to find Jesus. God drew me to Himself and put me in an environment where I would learn about right and wrong, repentance, and Jesus.

The Jordan River in Galilee. ©Ron Thompson

Opening the Golden Gate

In the various Facebook Archaeological groups that I frequent, there are often discussions about the Eastern, or “Golden Gate”, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Most tourists are probably introduced to the Mount by way of the overlook on the Mount of Olives. From that viewpoint, you get a wonderful, panoramic view of the eastern wall. The first three features of that wall that you notice are the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque on top and the grand gate in the wall—The Golden Gate. Oddly, it turns out that almost everybody is hugely impressed by the gate, but almost nobody comes away from Jerusalem understanding its history or its prophesied future.

Golden Gate, eastern wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem. ©Ron Thompson 2008

The mythology of the Golden Gate has several common features that I think are confusing to some people:

  • Some equate the Golden Gate with the Beautiful Gate of the Gospels.
  • It is said that Muslims sealed the gate and established the cemetery in front of it in order to prevent the Jewish Messiah from entering through it.
  • Many people believe that Jesus entered Jerusalem through this gate on the first Palm Sunday.
  • It is commonly believed that this is the “Eastern Gate” through which the Divine Presence left the Temple before the Exile
  • It is further believed that Jesus will one day triumphantly enter the Temple through this same Eastern Gate.

A brief overview of the Temple, past and future

By one way of thinking, there have been four Jewish Temples on Mt. Moriah, with two more coming in the future. Two of the historical Temples have simply been extensive upgrades due to declining physical condition, so they aren’t considered to be separate new Temples.

Although there are important variations in the construction from one Temple to the next, many important details are the same for all, because the specifications for those are either Biblical or were unalterably decided by the rabbis and codified in Jewish law.

The “First Temple”

Solomon’s original Temple complex, shown below, was ornate, but relatively small. The Temple itself was built on a small platform erected on the threshing floor purchased by King David from Araunah the Jebusite. Solomon built a large palace for himself adjacent to the Temple platform and connected to it by a stairway.

First Temple, and Palace of King Solomon, Jerusalem. ©Leen Ritmeyer

Over the following 400 years, both edifices crumbled from age. Various kings made repairs and upgrades. Hezekiah in particular, demolished much of what remained and built a new Temple on the site, much as Herod did in Second Temple days. Hezekiah’s Temple, shown in the next diagram, was built on a much larger platform, a square, 500 cubits (around 875′) on each side. As with all renditions of the Temple, the doors leading to the Temple porch and antechambers faced east towards the Mount of Olives. A separate eastern gate named, appropriately, the East Gate was set into the eastern retaining wall, near the northeast corner and recessed below the level of the platform.

First Temple as Rebuilt by King Hezekiah, Jerusalem. ©Leen Ritmeyer
The “Second Temple”

In 586 BC, Hezekiah’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian army, and the 3rd and final deportation of Judeans into captivity began. The retaining walls were damaged, but not totally destroyed. When Jews returned decades later to rebuild the temple, the East Gate was repaired. It was renamed the Shushan Gate, because a memorial picture of the Palace of Shushan was portrayed on it.

As for Zerubbabel’s “Second Temple” itself, it was built along similar lines as before, but it was a pale imitation of what Solomon’s craftsmen had produced. In Intertestamental Times, under Hasmonean rule, it was upgraded, and the platform extended to the south. Then after the Romans conquered Judea, their appointed puppet ruler, King Herod, gutted the entire edifice, rebuilt the structures (but again based on the same general plan), and again extended the platform, this time to the north, south and west. The Shushan Gate remained in its previous location.

Herod’s Temple, in Jesus’ time. ©Leen Ritmeyer. Mr. Ritmeyer is widely regarded as the ultimate authority on the architecture of everything associated with the Temple Mount, and I believe that he has definitively established that the Dome of the Rock is sitting where the Holy of Holies should be.
The “Tribulation Temple”?

Of course, there has been no Jewish Temple in Jerusalem since Herod’s Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. I believe that some time before the Tribulation period, the Gog and Magog war prophesied in Ezek 38 and 39 will result in the complete incapacitation of the Israeli and Arab militaries, setting the stage for a peace agreement to be administered by the Antichrist. I believe that part of the agreement will enable Israel to hastily build a very short-lived Temple that will function during the first half of the Tribulation; but this is only my opinion, and beyond the scope of this post.

Ezekiel’s “Millennial Temple”

In 573 BC, Ezekiel was given a vision of a new Temple to be built in Jerusalem. He records that vision in great detail in chapters 40 and following of his prophetic book. In an excellent book entitled Messiah’s Coming Temple, John W. Schmitt and J. Carl Laney, analyze both the design of this temple and the use to which it will be put. It bears a superficial resemblance to previous Temples, but is by far the largest, and in even some of the “essential characteristics”, it differs from them in ways that do not correspond to Jewish law. This is because its purpose will be different in many respects, as outlined in the Schmitt/Laney book. The three outer gates on the model pictured below are, from the right, the north, east and south gates. By the time this Temple is built, I believe there will be no trace left of the present Temple platform or the Golden Gate.

Model of the Millennial Temple, ©John W. Schmitt
The “Golden Gate”

All versions of the Temple faced east, with an eastern door, or gate. All were surrounded by one or more courtyards, and each of those had an east-facing gate. The preexilic East Gate, the postexilic Shushan Gate, and the present Golden Gate are all apparently at the same location. The “monolithic gate posts” shown in Ritmeyer’s diagram, below, were most likely the lentils of the Shushan Gate so, though somewhat elevated, the Golden Gate, probably built in the 7th Century under Umayyad rule, incorporates the earlier gates. An arch covering a mass grave was discovered below the gate in 1969, and for a time it was thought to be the actual Shushan Gate arch. Instead, it appears that it was part of a staircase connecting the elevated gate with the ground level below.

The Golden Gate, architectural drawing. ©Leen Ritmeyer
The back side of the Golden Gate, from the Temple Mount platform. The doors lead into a quadruple-domed chamber. ©Ron Thompson 2008

Questions and answers about the Golden Gate

To the best of my ability, I will now respond to the list of questions mentioned at the top of this post.

Is the Eastern Gate the same as the Beautiful Gate of the Gospels?

And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple.
—Acts 3:2 ESV

It is not credible that beggars would seek alms at a gate that was used only by priests, and that only rarely. Nor is it likely that the Beautiful Gate was the ornate, nearby Gate of the Pure and Just, the eastern gate of the Court of Women; that gate was only for VIPs, and we know that they tended to be stingy. I believe, along with many, that it is the Double Gate on the south side of the Mount, with its beautiful domed passage through to the interior Hulda Gate. That gate would see not only the largest crowd, but probably the most generous.

Is it true that Muslims sealed the gate and established the cemetery in front of it in order to prevent the Jewish Messiah from entering through it?

More or less. When the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman I, learned that Jews and Christians expected the Jewish Messiah to be led onto the Temple Mount by the Prophet Elijah, he ordered that it be permanently sealed, in AD 1541. Knowing that Elijah would not defile himself by passing through a cemetery, he ordered that one be established outside the Gate. Later, plague victims were buried in a mass grave at the foot of the Gate.

Is it true that Jesus entered Jerusalem through this gate on the first Palm Sunday?

The answer is, no, in part because the Shushan (Susa) Gate was never open to the general public. The sages of the Mishnah pretty much ignored Herod’s extensions to the Temple Mount, so when they wrote about the gates, they were referring only to the gates giving access to the 500-cubit square platform. According to them, the Temple Mount gates were used as follows:

A. Five gates were in the [wall of the] Temple mount:
B. two Hulda gates at the south, serving for entry and exit;
C. Qiponos [Kiponus] gate on the west, serving for entry and exit;
D. Tadi gate on the north, serving no purpose at all;
E. the Eastern Gate—
F. on it is a picture of the Walled City of Shushan—
G. through which the high priest who burns the red cow, and the cow, and all who assist in its rite, go forth to the Mount of Olives
[M. Par. 4:11.]
—Middot 1:3 MISH-N

Another Mishnah tractate indicates that the scapegoat, Azazel, was also led through this gate each year on Yom Kippur.

Most Internet maps showing Jerusalem in Jesus’ day indicate a switchback road from the Kidron Wadi, ascending to the eastern gate. If that road existed at all, I think it would have been for ceremonial use only. Yet another tractate indicates that an arched causeway crossed the Kidron from the gate to the Mount of Olives where the red heifer ceremony was conducted. In any case, the Shushan Gate would have been inappropriate for access to the city, because pack animals would have to be led up the stairway to the gate, and once on the Temple Mount, they would have to pass through the outer courts and exit through another Temple gate to get to the city.

How, then, did Jesus enter the city? There were probably two routes in from Bethany. The map below shows the dubious switchback road, and a road to Jericho that may or may not be correct. Other maps say that Jericho travelers came in through Bethany on the road shown here. The exact location of Bethphage is unknown, but it was probably somewhere on the east slope of the Mount of Olives, roughly east of Gethsemane. I believe that another, more tortuous road, probably came around the south slope of the Mount of Offense, at the southeast corner of the map (not shown), and divided, with a branch going up the Kidron Valley to connect with the other road, and other branches leading to the southern gates to the city. If Jesus came in past Gethsemane, He would have most likely entered through the gate north of the Temple mount and passed the Pool of Bethesda and the Antonia Fortress. City streets are not shown on this map, so He would have had multiple choices once in the city. When He entered the Temple, He could have gone through the Sheep Gate on the north side or used the more traditional route of the Double Gate on the south side of the Mount.

First Century roads and gates around Jerusalem. I don’t know the source of this map, but I have little confidence in the accuracy of the roads on any similar map that I have. However, other features on this map correspond well with my understanding of the city at that time.

Whichever road He took from Bethany to Jerusalem, I think He was expected by the populace, and the crowd was alerted and waiting for Him on the west slope of the Olivet chain of hills.

Many prophecy enthusiasts point to the sealed Golden Gate as proof that Jesus entered the city by that route:

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east. And it was shut.
And the LORD said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it.
—Ezekiel 44:1–2 ESV

But this prophesy refers to the eastern gate of Ezekiel’s Temple, described in Ezek 40 and following. That Temple has not been built yet and will not be built until the Millennium. More to the point, that prophecy does not point to Jesus (see below). Also, the Shushan Gate was destroyed or at least damaged in 586 BC, and the Golden Gate not built on top of it until hundreds of years later. Once built, it was later sealed, then opened, then sealed permanently, but not until 1541 BC!

Is it true that this is the “Eastern Gate” through which the Divine Presence left the Temple, as prophesied in Ezekiel chapters 10 and 11?

Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim.
And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went out, with the wheels beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the LORD, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.
—Ezekiel 10:18–19 ESV

Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.
And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city.
—Ezekiel 11:22–23 ESV

God is omnipresent, both in space and in time. As our infinite, Almighty God, He can’t be contained in a tent or a building. But because He chose to deal with humanity, as represented by the primitive Israelites, He picked a form in which to appear to them. In the desert, it was “a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” In the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, His “Divine Presence” was in the Holy of Holies, above the Mercy Seat of the Ark.

Chapters 8 through 11 of Ezekiel record a vision that came to him while he was sitting in his house with “the leaders of Judah”. In the vision, he was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem and shown men in leadership positions performing “disgusting” idolatrous religious rites in the Temple precincts. God then ordered a scribe to pass through the city and put a seal on the foreheads of innocents, while six other presumably angelic beings followed him and executed anyone not so sealed. The six beings were then told to set fire to the city. After the return of the scribe, God’s Sh’kinah Presence left the Temple, rose above its threshold, paused for a bit over the “east gate of the Lord’s house” (this could be the gate of an interior courtyard, or it could be the Shushan Gate), and then “stood” over the mountain on the east side of the city (no doubt the Mount of Olives).

It doesn’t matter what gate, or what mountain, because it was a vision. It was not real, and the Divine Presence left by air, not through any gate. Yet it was prophecy of something that was real, which came very soon thereafter. God withdrew His protection from the city and the Temple, and both were sacked and burned by Nebuchadrezzar’s army.

Is it true that Jesus will one day enter the Temple through this same Eastern Gate, per Ezekiel chapters 43 and 44?

Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing east.
And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory.
And the vision I saw was just like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and just like the vision that I had seen by the Chebar canal. And I fell on my face.
As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east,
the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple.
—Ezekiel 43:1–5 ESV

Beginning in chapter 40, Ezekiel has been once again taken to Jerusalem in a vision, but this was to show him events far in the future, at the start of the Millennial Reign. The vision shows him a new Temple, to be built presumably at the start of the Reign. In chapter 43, suddenly God’s Glory returns to the Temple, but this time through the gate facing east, not above it. The assumption that many people make is that “God’s Glory” here refers to Jesus. That is possible, but the parallels between this and the earlier vision indicate it is God’s Sh’kinah returning. The Father, not the son.

The sequence in chapter 43 is as follows: God’s Glory returns, through the “gate facing east.” God goes into the Temple itself and fills it with His Glory. Ezekiel is standing outside the Temple with the angel who has been showing him around. God calls out from inside, saying that He will now dwell with His people forever, and never again will they defile His house.

So, if it wasn’t Messiah entering through the eastern gate, was Jesus “the prince“, who is mentioned several times in the prophecy. Clearly it is not! The prince, whoever he is and whatever his function, has sins to atone for, and evidently, he has children.

We know from other prophecies that Jesus will reign from Zion. But nowhere does scripture seem to say he entered through the eastern gate. And incidentally, there does not seem to be a throne room in Ezekiel’s Temple.

God with the Wind

Recall that in 1Kings 19, the Prophet Elijah has fled from the irate Queen Jezebel and is hiding in a cave near Mt. Horeb (Sinai). He is moaning about his fate, and God drops in to confront him:

And he [God] said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.
—1 Kings 19:11–12 ESV

Two interpretive issues stand out here for me. The first is God’s demonstration for Elijah’s benefit of His power to control events, including even the forces of nature. That will be the subject of most of this post.

The second is an interesting side issue: how does God normally communicate with humans? Over the years I have heard many pastors and teachers refer to the inward prodding and conviction of the Holy Spirit as “God’s still, small voice.” That is a distortion of theology going back, I think, to the early church fathers. The ancient Jewish Rabbis taught that God most often spoke to His people in post-prophetic (but pre-Scriptural) times audibly but quietly, in a low, soothing whisper. This has been termed, in Aramaic, the bat kol, or “daughter voice”, and you can read one description of that here.

Some background before I proceed…

Book cover.

Some time back I read a book titled Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science, by Carl Drews. Drews is, like me, a self-taught amateur theologian with a technological background. He is also, again like me, passionately interested in the Egyptian sojourn, the Red Sea Crossing, the years of wandering, and the conquest of Canaan. The main difference between us is that I am a Conservative Evangelical who believes in the Divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, while Drews takes a “Higher Critical” approach to Scripture.

The central reason for Drews’ book is to provide an engineering analysis of the following verse in order to discover the most likely site of the Red Sea (Sea of Suf) crossing:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
—Exodus 14:21 ESV

Drews is an expert on mathematical modeling, i.e., using computers to simulate real-world conditions. For example, meteorologists use mathematical models to provide fairly accurate weather forecasts and to predict storm movements. Astrophysicists use them to study how stars and galaxies form and interact. In my own field of petroleum engineering, I have used (and even designed) them to predict reservoir responses, such as oil and gas flow in rocks and pipelines, and depletion of reservoir pressure.

Drews used computer modeling to study “wind setdown” at various supposed locations of the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea. Setdown is a form of storm surge. Where high winds blow across an expanse of open water, shear forces can move the surface waters, piling them up on beaches and exposing shallow beds that are normally flooded. Drews proved, conclusively I think (but see below), that wind blowing across any body of water in the Egypt/Sinai/Arabia area, with one exception, would have to blow so hard to achieve the necessary setdown effect that no human could survive the crossing. Not the currently favored Bitter Lakes area on the present-day Suez Canal; not the current fad choices, at Nuweiba Beach in the Gulf of Aqaba or the Timor Straits area at the southwest extremity of Aqaba; and not the traditional (my own preferred) area in the northern Gulf of Suez, south of Suez City.

The one exception found by Drews is the shallow Lake of Tanis in the Nile Delta. He states that a strong easterly wind has been historically known to drive the water off the shallows from time to time, and that at those times the lake can be traversed by foot. His premise is that the Exodus miracle is in the timing, not in the actual moving of the water.

But consider that the crossing of the Red Sea, wherever that may have occurred, was the definitive, miraculous demonstration of God’s awesome power, whereby He showed His people, for all time to come, that He is worthy of all praise, glory and undying worship!

We know that God transcends time and place. He sees everything, everywhere and everywhen! So, Drews is asking us to see God checking His Weather Channel listing for the next hundred years or so, finding a convenient windstorm predicted for the time period, and deciding, “Yeah that would be a good time to send Moses to get my folks out of Dodge.”

I don’t buy it! What God came up with was something way, way more spectacular!

So, here’s where I’m going with this…

If you have heard many sermons on the Ten Plagues of Egypt, then you have probably heard that each plague was a challenge to one or more of Egypt’s pagan gods. In each case, the True God bested the pagan deity at his or her own specialty. Time and time again throughout Scripture, you see God delivering judgement, warnings or promises through or while accompanied by natural forces. This is partly a demonstration of His awesome power, and partly a polemic against the pagan deities that His people tended to fear or follow. Sometimes the accompaniment is a small thing, like a bush that burned without being consumed, or a gourd that withered and died in a hot wind. Sometimes much more, like fire and smoke over Mt. Sinai.

Read again the passage I quoted to start this post. Elijah was waiting to hear from God. When he felt a mighty wind, he thought it was the arrival of God. When he felt an earthquake, he thought, “Surely this is God…”. When he saw a fire, he probably remembered that it was right there on Mt. Sinai where God had appeared to the Israelites in fire and smoke. Surely God brought all of those things along to remind Elijah what He could do, but in this case, Elijah needed also to hear a tender voice.

Egyptian God of Wind and Air, Amun. ©Richard Maschmeyer—Design Pics/Getty Images

I’m going to concentrate the rest of this discussion on the wind, because there is a particular idea that I have been exploring. Pagan wind deities tended to be particularly important in the ancient world because wind is almost always with us, and some of the most powerful natural phenomena are related to wind. In particular, this was true in Egypt, and therefore front and center in Israelite memory and lore. By the time of Moses, Egyptian mythology had merged the Sun God, Ra, with the God of Wind and Air, Amun, to produce the chief deity of that age, Amun-Ra.

Hebrew is a language that is rich in homonyms, or words with multiple meanings. The word רוּחַ, or ruach, is one of these. Depending on the context, ruach can mean “breath”, “spirit”, or “wind”. Sometimes there are specific clues in the context, like in Gen 1:2, where it appears as “the Spirit (Ruach) of God”, evidently referring to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is not as clear to me as it apparently was to the Bible translators. Very often, God’s miraculous works are accompanied by ruach. In some of those cases I have begun to wonder, “Is this interpretation cast in stone, or was it an assumption that has become ingrained as an unquestioned tradition?” Is it Spirit, is it literally wind, or is it perhaps both? I think that, perhaps, the idea of “both” has been underappreciated!

Take, for example, the following:

The festival of Shavu‘ot (Pentecost) arrived, and the believers all gathered together in one place.
Suddenly there came a sound from the sky like the roar of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire, which separated and came to rest on each one of them.
—Acts 2:1–3 CJB (emphasis added)

Here we see a great spiritual miracle, the imparting of the indwelling Holy Spirit, accompanied by two physical phenomena: the sound of wind in the sky above them, probably indicating that wind was in fact blowing; and “tongues of fire” over the individual recipients.

What about “the strong east wind” that we observed in Ex 14:21? The verb in the phrase translated as “drove the sea back” (ESV, NIV, et al) or “caused the sea to go back” (CJB, KJV, et al) has the Hebrew root הָלַךְ (halakh, to walk, or go). It is described by Strong’s as having, “a great variety of applications, literal and figurative”. The specific form of the verb appearing here, וַיּ֣וֹלֶךְ, is syntactically a Hiphil, which I’m told makes the passage read more like “caused the sea to go [back]”. What is clear to me is that it was God who moved the waters. I don’t believe that you can say definitively from the Text whether the wind was His agency or was simply an accompanying phenomenon as seen elsewhere in Scripture. Since I am theologically convinced that the event required more than a minor “miracle of timing”, then I believe it is fair to say that Drews’ research proves scientifically that wind could not have been the agency. God miraculously parted the waters, while announcing His presence with a strong but less than lethal wind. For me, that’s a satisfying answer that makes any of the candidate crossing sites tenable!

Though he may flourish among his brothers, the east wind, the wind of the LORD, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and his fountain shall dry up; his spring shall be parched; it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing.
—Hosea 13:15 ESV

Is there any significance to the easterly wind direction? Absolutely! The prevailing wind direction in the northern temperate regions is westerly. In the Eastern Mediterranean region around Anatolia, the Lavant and Egypt, these winds bring ashore relatively cool, moist sea air. But during certain seasons there is sometimes a dry, hot wind blowing out of the deserts to the east and southeast, raising temperatures and withering crops. This is the beruakh qadim (“east wind”), or sometimes for brevity, just the qadim (“easterlies”), of Scripture. A more modern term for these winds is the Hebrew, sharav, or in Arabic hamsin winds. If the rain is God’s blessing on the Land, then the east winds are surely His curse. It is easy to see why the east wind appears over and over in Scripture, especially in prophecy, to symbolize and accompany God’s judgement.

Passages where wind accompanies miracles. “Whirlwind” includes dust devils through tornadoes and typhoons. ©Ron Thompson 2022

Many creationists believe that Earth’s present topology is mostly the result of upheavals caused by the Flood itself. At the time represented by this verse (after the flood itself, when things had calmed down), one would thus expect that the peak of Mt. Ararat was close to its current height of over 16,000 feet above sea level. Wind alone could not have dropped the water level over 3 miles! Only the power of God could have caused the flood, and only the power of God could have ended it! My conclusion is that either the wind was there as God’s signature, or ruach should have been translated as “Spirit” here, as it was in the similar scenario of Gen 1:2.

God remembered Noach, every living thing and all the livestock with him in the ark; so God caused a wind [ruach] to pass over the earth, and the water began to go down … It was after 150 days that the water went down.
—Genesis 8:1–3 CJB

I opened with Elijah in a cave, expecting God to appear to him in wind, an earthquake, or fire. I’ll close with a parallel text, with another prophet looking to the end times.

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust, and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff. And in an instant, suddenly,
you will be visited by the LORD of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel [possibly meaning “altar hearth”, but referring here to Zion], all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her, shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
—Isaiah 29:5–7 ESV (emphasis added)

A Theology of Baptism

Baptists, unlike many other denominations, believe in baptism by immersion rather than by “sprinkling” or “pouring.” Three reasons that I know of are commonly cited:

  • The Greek word baptizo literally means to “immerse” or “submerge.”
  • The symbology of baptism as generally recognized is burial and resurrection, which is not adequately pictured by sprinkling or pouring.
  • The oldest known paintings of baptisms seem to depict immersions.

For me, personally, I must go by what I know from many years of studying the rich Jewish background of Christianity. If Scripture isn’t explicit about how to do something it commands us to do, then that is usually because when the Scripture was written, there was no ambiguity. The church started out 100% Jewish, and in fact “The Way”, as we were often called in the 1st Century, was regarded within and without as a Jewish sect. Another common name was “The Sect of the Nazarene”. Ritual purification by total immersion in “living waters” (a natural stream or one of thousands of constructed Jewish mikvot, or baptisteries), was required as a personal response to sin, and to prepare for almost any ritual event. I believe that Christian baptism following salvation and prior to admission to membership in a local assembly mirrors the Jewish practice of requiring a person to be ritually submerged prior to recognition of his or her conversion to Judaism.

Several years ago, one of my granddaughters was dating a boy who was a member of a Reformed congregation. She wanted to attend catechism classes with him. I agreed, with the stipulation that I would read a copy of the text for myself and review it with her. On at least two occasions I had lunch with the pastor of that church. He was teaching the classes, and we had some very friendly, but of course inconclusive, conversations about the doctrine he was teaching.

The text was Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine. Here are my responses to specific statements made in the chapter on Christian Baptism:

  1. Berkhof said, “We maintain that the mode is quite immaterial, as long as the fundamental idea of purification finds expression in the rite…It is perfectly evident from several passages that baptism symbolizes spiritual cleansing or purification” as opposed to death, burial and resurrection. We’ll start this list with a point of agreement. Berkhof lists a number of Scriptural references, but I will stick with just one of those here:

    1Pet 3:20-21. (CJB) [20] to those who were disobedient long ago, in the days of Noach, when God waited patiently during the building of the ark, in which a few people—to be specific, eight—were delivered by means of water. [21] This also prefigures what delivers us now, the water of immersion, which is not the removal of dirt from the body, but one’s pledge to keep a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah.

    The concept that Christian baptism represents Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection came into use early, and was supported by Paul, himself in Col 2:12, but that was not the original intent of the rite.
  2. “Jesus did not prescribe a certain mode of baptism, and the Bible never stresses any particular mode.” That is true precisely because it was not a new concept that needed to be explained. Christian baptism is patterned on the Jewish rites for ritual purification of new converts. The original writers of the Bible and their audiences, both in Israel and the Diaspora, were all intimately familiar with the Jewish purification rites, and there could have been no ambiguity on the forms required.
  3. “The word employed by [Greek translations of Jesus’ words] does not necessarily mean ‘to immerse,’ but may also mean ‘to purify by washing’.” To purify by washing is one application of the term. So is the process of dying a cloth. But both practically and linguistically, the method of doing either was by dipping something completely. Strong defines the root, bapto, as a verb meaning “to overwhelm, i.e., cover wholly with a fluid”, “to moisten” or “to dip”, and baptizo as “to make overwhelmed, or fully wet.” Thayer adds, “submerge” and “immerge” (immerse) and Vine illustrates all of these meanings. Linguistically, it is possible to derive a translation that includes something less than total submergence, but to do so in this instance ignores the cultural context under which the word was written and how it would have been understood by the two imminent Jewish theologians, Jesus and Paul.
  4. “From earliest times it was customary to baptize by sprinkling and pouring as well as by immersion. Purification was frequently, if not generally, effected by sprinkling during Old Testament times” (emphasis added). This is a true statement about ritual cleansing, but inapplicable to the subject of Christian baptism or the Jewish customs at its root. Berkhof is referring here to the purification of objects, and rituals like the washing of hands. There were many different types of purification rite specified in the Old Testament. Each type of purification had its own specified mode. Berkhof gives numerous scriptural examples, but in each case, the mode demonstrated was as commanded by God for the specific situation. Purification for the purpose of human conversion and for many types of personal defilement required complete submersion, down to the last hair on the head. In particular, purification by complete submersion was required for conversion to Judaism, so I’m very sure that for “conversion” to Christianity, that is what they, too, did.
  5. “The baptism with the Spirit certainly did not take place by immersion…” That’s a weak argument for the question of water baptism, and I don’t even think it’s true for spiritual! I’m very sure that Holy Spirit baptism requires metaphorically complete immersion in the Holy Spirit. If sprinkling with “tongues of fire” on the head (“sprinkling of the Holy Spirit”?) is what Berkhof had in mind, then where is my tongue of fire? I think I really have been “immersed” in the Spirit!
  6. “…nor did other baptisms mentioned in Scripture.” He gave three examples here that I think are instructive:

    (a) Lk 11:37-38, (CJB) [37] As Yeshua* spoke, a Parush* [Pharisee] asked him to eat dinner with him; so he went in and took his place at the table; [38] and the Parush* was surprised that he didn’t begin by doing n’tilat yadayim [ritual handwashing] before the meal.

    (b) Lk 12:49-51, (CJB) [49] “I have come to set fire to the earth! And how I wish it were already kindled! [50] I have an immersion to undergo—how pressured I feel till it’s over! [51] Do you think that I have come to bring peace in the Land? Not peace, I tell you, but division! Jesus is speaking here of His coming ordeal, His crucifixion and the ultimate division that that will cause in the final judgement. His “baptism of fire”, so to speak.

    And (c) 1Cor 10:1-2 (CJB) [1] For, brothers, I don’t want you to miss the significance of what happened to our fathers. All of them were guided by the pillar of cloud, and they all passed through the sea, [2] and in connection with the cloud and with the sea they all immersed themselves into Moshe* [Moses]. Jesus is speaking metaphorically about the Reed Sea crossing by the Israelites. Of course, they, unlike the Egyptians behind them, were not literally immersed.
  7. “Neither does it seem that this mode was followed in the cases mentioned in Acts.” Berkhof here provides several references: Saul’s immersion after his road to Damascus encounter; the Gentile conversions at the house of Cornelius; and the Philippian jailer and his family. Nowhere do these verses mention the mode followed. They just say, in effect, “they were baptized.” I think that Berkhof is here assuming that there simply was no place handy for a complete immersion. He’s wrong. Every synagogue in every town with 10 or more male Jews had its own mikvah. Where there was no mikvah, there was a river or stream that could be used as it was or dredged or dammed to form a deep enough pool.


    A Jewish mikvah at Qumran, ©2008, Ron Thompson
  8. “Spiritual renewal is sometimes said to have been effected by sprinkling.” Where sprinkling is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is usually blood or oil, sprinkled in specific places for specific reasons. Water is sprinkled, literally, in only two contexts, where the vast amounts of water that would be required for full immersion were impractical: (a) The initial consecration of the Levites—all of them—at the “commissioning” of the tabernacle. And (b) at red heifer ceremonies, when many objects and people were to be cleansed more or less simultaneously. The one Old Testament example given by Berkhof was

    Ez 36:24-26 (CJB)
    [24] For I will take you from among the nations,
    gather you from all the countries,
    and return you to your own soil.
    [25] Then I will sprinkle clean water on you,
    and you will be clean;
    I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness
    and from all your idols.
    [26] I will give you a new heart
    and put a new spirit inside you;
    I will take the stony heart out of your flesh
    and give you a heart of flesh.


    This was, of course, poetic language referring to the New Covenant and to the Olam HaBa (the end-time world to come), and not at all meant to be taken literally. God was speaking, through Ezekiel, about what He will do, not to an individual, but to the entire Nation of Israel. If it was meant to be taken literally, God is also promising to rip out their old hearts and spirits and replace them with new!

    Berkhof also inserts a New Testament example here:

    Heb 10:22 (CJB)
    [22] Therefore, let us approach the Holiest Place with a sincere heart, in the full assurance that comes from [faith]—with our hearts sprinkled clean from a bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.


    In this event, hearts are metaphorically sprinkled (since you can’t do that literally, let alone completely immerse it), but bodies are literally immersed.

Note the important point that salvation was never a result of ritual. Even in Temple days, Jewish salvation was by God’s grace, as a result of the individual’s faith in God. All ritual was an obedient response by a believing heart. Inevitably, many Church customs have evolved over the millennia. God’s grace will not condemn a “sprinkler”, but I prefer to do it right.

Ships, Boats, Floats and Arks

I know, this is far from the most important theological question most of us will face in our lives, but I’ll bet that most of us are at least a little bit interested. What Exactly is an “ark”? Answers in Genesis (AiG), parent ministry of the Ark Encounter theme park, who I frequently agree with and frequently disagree with, says, “Noah’s Ark was a ship; therefore, it likely had features that ships would commonly have.”

My purpose here is not to question their motives or their overall theological purity, but rather to point out where my opinions and theirs differ on some textual interpretations and scientific principles.

Artist’s conception: Noah’s Ark, somewhat as I envision it.

Linguistics

Nowhere does Scripture say the Ark was a ship! All that floats is not a ship. I did a search in several English translations to get a sense of the Biblical usage, concentrating mostly on KJV, NKJV, ESV, NIV and CJB. I found that the Hebrew “Oniy or the related “Oniyah” is translated as “ship(s)”, “boat(s)”, “sailing vessel(s)”, or “watercraft” in the Old Testament. The word can also refer to a fleet (of ships), a Navy, or seamen. Another Hebrew term, Tsiy is translated variously as “ships“, “boats” or “vessels (of papyrus reeds)”.

There are three contexts in which the term “ark” occurs in English translations of the OT. When referring to Noah’s Ark and the basket that Moses was placed in to escape Pharaoh’s attack on Israelite children, the Hebrew is “tebah“, which literally means “a box or chest“. When referring to the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew is, “aron“, meaning “a box, chest or coffin“. What is the difference in meaning between these words? AiG suggests that tebah is related to the Egyptian word for “coffin”, and comments that being sealed in the Ark would be like being sealed in a coffin. Their post that I am here referring to1 says nothing more about aron.

Based on my own survey of Jewish sources, I believe that tebah refers to containers for the “common“, while aron refers to boxes, chests, and cabinets dedicated to sacred objects. Noah had a sacred purpose, but he was not personally sanctified, as demonstrated after the Great Flood, in Gen 9:20-27. Moses was unable to enter the Promised Land because of his own sin.

On the other hand,

  • The Ark of the Testimony (Aron HaEdut) was “home” to God’s Sh’kinah, and contained, for a time, a jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. All of those are Jewish sacred objects.
  • For most of their history, the most sacred object associated with any Jewish synagogue has been their Torah scroll, and the second most sacred has been their Holy ark (aron HaKodesh) in which the scrolls are stored. These arks are cabinets, usually ornate, that stand against the synagogue wall most nearly facing Jerusalem and the Holy Mount.
  • When the Israelites left Egypt with Moses, they took with them, in an aron, the revered body of Joseph:

Genesis 50:26 (CJB)
[26] So Yosef* died at the age of 110, and they embalmed him and put him in a coffin [aron] in Egypt.

Ships, boats and barges, in all their myriads of varieties, generally have one thing in common: they are designed to transport people or other objects from one location to another, on or under the water. By “transport”, I mean to actively move it, using some form of energy, be it wind, machine, or muscle. The term “ships” generally refers to relatively large vessels designed to withstand the rigors of navigating the open sea or large rivers and lakes. The term “boats” can include “ships” as a subset, but more commonly it refers to relatively smaller watercraft. A “barge” is usually a box-like vessel designed to be pulled or pushed by a ship or boat.

By contrast, a vessel or platform, or even an air-filled vest, of any kind that is designed, not to navigate under any kind of propulsion, but simply to float on water and go wherever the force of nature takes it, is called—well—a “float“! Noah’s Ark was not a ship; it was a float. God said, “Build this, get in it with a herd of critters, and let it float you to wherever I send it by means of the winds and waves at my command.” If it was a float and not a ship or boat, then it doesn’t need to have “had features that ships would commonly have.”

Wind and waves

The design on AiG’s Ark Encounter, in fact the basis of much of their flood theology, depends on assumption that The Great Flood would have included catastrophic winds, waves and consequent destruction.

However, I think the argument is faulty. I see nothing in scripture to indicate that wind factored into the Genesis Flood in any significant way, so neither wind nor wave would have been an issue. According to Gen 7:11, “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of the sky were opened.” I don’t believe that this event can be compared in any way to a modern storm. I have discussed a likely mechanism for the flood in Fountains of the Deep. In that post I suggest that the vast majority of the flood water was miraculously brought up from earth’s mantle transition layer, primarily through volcanic eruptions in the mid-oceanic ridges. This would have perhaps generated tsunamis on shore regions until they were inundated, but tsunamis cause very little disturbance in deep water. Widespread volcanism generates huge amounts of ash, as well as CO2 and water vapor that would spawn torrential rain but could quell pressure gradients and dampen the normal winds.

The only mention of wind in the Flood text is in Gen 8:1b,”God caused a wind [ruach] to pass over the earth, and the water began to go down.” The Hebrew ruach can mean wind, breath, or any of a number of related English terms, but most often in the Bible, it means “spirit“, as in Gen 1:2b, “and the Spirit [Ruach] of God hovered over the surface of the water.” No amount of physical and literal wind could dry up that much water in the time allowed by Scripture; the waters of the deep were miraculously returned to their home in earth’s mantle through the power of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit). I suggest that “wind” is a mistranslation in Gen 8:1.

Architecture

As an ex Naval Officer, I put in a lot of both formal and informal time studying subjects related to my job. Not that I could ever build a ship from the keel up, but I do have training in naval architecture, both technical and historic. The small “n” in “naval” means both military and civilian watercraft.

AiG has tried to justify their design of a ship-like Ark at Ark Encounter, as opposed to a parallelepiped, box-like float of the same overall dimensions, by appealing to model studies in wave pools. I can tell you from personal experience that because of their inertial characteristics, a massive ship won’t perform anything like a small model in either wind or waves. Not even close.

I have been at sea on a minesweeper, a destroyer, a battleship, and, for long periods, an aircraft carrier. On all but the battleship, I have served on the “bridge” (a ship’s navigational control center) while under way, and experienced “heavy seas” (storm conditions). On the minesweeper and the carrier, I periodically “had the con“, meaning I had command over the vessels’ engines and rudders, as well as lookouts and other underway personnel. In Navy parlance, a minesweeper is a boat, and designed for operations in littoral, i.e., coastal, waters, though able to transit oceans if necessary. My other “rides” were smallish, large and very large ships, respectively.

My destroyer, the USS O’Brien, DD-725, was about 80% the size of the Ark, so it gives me a good basis for comparison. We definitely felt the waves, but when under power, it was easy to control our direction of advance. If we cut our speed to “all stop“, or “zero turns on the ship’s screw“, we would fairly quickly lose our forward motion, and eventually the weight of the ship would drag us around until we were parallel to the swells (that’s the proper term for deep-water waves). Once so “broached“, there is a tendency for any vessel to roll side to side. This isn’t comfortable, but sailors are used to it and prepared for it. Even in rough seas, very few ships will capsize from it, though, because buoyancy and inertia limit the magnitude of the roll. A box with the same dimensions as the ship would have less tendency to roll than a ship with a bowed hull, given proper weight distribution aboard the two.

Water wave physics

Elsewhere in the AiG documentation, they either state or imply that waves would have driven the Ark forward. But that could happen only in near-shore wave action where wind shear pushes surface water onto the shallows. In deep waters, waves are propagated in a horizontal direction, but the only water movement is near the surface where molecules simply bob up and down in tight oval movements. It is the bobbing action that moves along the surface, not the water itself. Rather than delve into the physics of water waves more deeply, I will simply present this diagram, with the movement of individual water molecules depicted in red:

Features of the AiG design

In several blog posts, AiG explains why, from a sea-worthiness perspective, they think that the Ark needed to be a ship-like vessel, rather than a box. They use this diagram to illustrate:

Noah’s Ark, per Anwers in Genesis™

“Noah could have added a fixed ‘sail’ on the upper bow of the Ark so the wind could turn the ship into the rough waves.” The idea here is that the raised bow fin would act like a weathervane, causing the Ark to pivot and turn end-on to the wind. But the description makes no sense from a mariner’s perspective. Swells propagate in the direction the wind is blowing; that is, a wind blowing towards the east would cause waves that also “move” toward the east. “Into the rough waves” therefore implies that the fin would turn the Ark in such a way that the wind would be blowing bow to stern, but if the fin worked at all, it would cause the bow to turn away from the oncoming waves.

Functionally, the object is to keep the Ark from broaching, or turning broadside to the wind and waves. Facing either bow or stern into the waves is very much preferable, but unlike a light model, I very seriously doubt that this fin design would be workable with a massive ship. It would take a very large force against the fin to overcome the angular momentum of the Ark and its contents. Also, enough wind to push on the fin would push even more on the windward hull of the ship, resisting any pivot. If there even were any significant wind.

“Noah could have added a fixed ‘rudder’ at the lower stern of the Ark to keep the ship turned into the rough waves.” This is another statement that makes no sense to me. A fixed rudder, more commonly known as a “skeg“, is an underwater fin or projection that can be used to stabilize the motion of a powered watercraft. There is no reason to suppose that Noah, or God, provided the Ark with a propulsion mechanism, so the most that a skeg would have accomplished was a slight reduction of rocking. It would have no effect at all on the orientation of the Ark with respect to waves, since ocean swells involve no sideways water motion (see above).

“A ship’s keel is a structure built along the bottom of the ship’s hull to support the main body of the ship. In some cases, the keel is extended downward to function as a stabilizer for the ship. Noah’s Ark, as described in Genesis 6, may have had a keel since it seems to have been an essential piece for the ship to survive the wind and waves.” If the Ark was a ship, then given its size, a keel might have been necessary to anchor ribs and strakes. If the Ark was a box, then no such structure would have been necessary, since structural stability would be adequate using only rails, stiles and cross-braces.

“Jesus Boat”, ©2008, Ron Thompson
“Jesus Boat”, ©2008, Ron Thompson

There is no evidence from literature or archaeological findings that keels ever existed before they were invented by the Vikings around the 8th Century AD. Early ships and boats, including those built by the Egyptians and the Phoenician “Sea People” were built by lashing or pegging planking to bent or shaped ribs that ran perpendicular to the length of the craft. The 2,000-year-old “Jesus Boat” on display at Kibbutz Ginosar, Israel, was modeled on Phoenician boats from earlier centuries.

Earlier structures related to keels did exist in ancient times. Egyptian boats, for instance, featured what is now called a “plank-keel.” This was not a true keel, but rather a wide strake (hull plank) at the very bottom of the hull where keels would later be located. The function was primarily to give the boat a stable base while beached. Another device that occurred frequently in ancient ships (and is still often used) is a “keelson“, which was a structural beam or cleat in the bilge area, but not extending outside the hull. It was used mainly to help support masts in sail-powered boats, but often did add strength to the hull. Neither of these features would function on an Ark.

“The box-like Ark is not entirely disqualified as a safe option, but sharp edges are more vulnerable to damage during launch and landing.” Among many avocations, I have been a cabinet maker during my lifetime, and I still have a completely furnished cabinet and general woodworking shop in my basement. My opinion is that square corners (“sharp edges”) are vulnerable to dings and dents but are sturdier and more puncture-proof than a rounded wooden hull.

“Blunt ends would also produce a rougher ride and allow the vessel to be more easily thrown around” Most ships and small boats have a “sharp” bow for “cutting through” the water, but a large percentage of them have a “blunt” stern, and many larger ships have “blunt” vertical sides, as well. How much a vessel is “thrown around” is more a function of its mass and how deep it sits in the water. And, of course, a flat bottom is much less prone to rolling than a ship’s hull.

“While many designs could work, the possibility shown here reflects the high stems which were a hallmark of ancient ships.” Though I couldn’t find more explanation of what precisely this statement means, I assume it is referencing raised prows and sterns on many ancient ships. In the case of Egyptian vessels, these were stylized papyrus umbels (flat-topped or rounded flower clusters). The Egyptians used the stem of papyrus plants to make sails, cloth, mats, cords, and paper, so these plants were appropriate decorations. Other civilizations decorated their ships in the same manner with religious totems.

“Noah was 500–600 years old and knew better than to make a simple box that would have had significant issues in a global Flood (e.g., forces on the sharp corners would be too destructive, it could capsize if it is not facing into the wind and waves, and so on).” If Noah had any training in shipbuilding or hydrodynamics, it isn’t mentioned in Scripture. God may have coached him or given him engineering drawings or advanced physics training, but this is also unmentioned.

John 5 and the Bethesda Pool

The Pools of Bethesda were dual Roman baths (Figures 1 and 2) that are mentioned prominently in John 5. There is some confusion of place names there. Bezetha (Heb. Beitzata, probably meaning “house of olives”) is a mountain ridge trending southeast from above the top center of the map to just northeast of the Pools. The valley stream that feeds water to the Pools is also named Bezetha. That name was later applied to a broader area that became a suburban community also known as “the New City“, north of Biblical Jerusalem. The name Bethesda (Heb. BeitHisda, meaning “house of mercy”) appears in some manuscripts, and applies only to the Pools. Archaeologists, including Dan Bahat, author of this map, for long equated the Bethesda Pools with the “Sheep Pool“, where animals were washed prior to sacrifice, but I was skeptical of that from the day I first laid eyes on it, and in fact scholarship now equates the Sheep Pool with the Pool of Israel, just outside the Sheep Gate in the Northern wall of the Temple Mount. Why my skepticism? First, I couldn’t conceive of a possibility that the Romans would share their healing pool with Jewish livestock. Just as obvious to me was an observation that the Bethesda pools looked way too deep and steep-sided to dip and extract thousands of animals quickly enough, or even at all, on feast days (Figure 3). At the same time, the Pool of Israel, right outside the gate used for sacrificial animals, was ideally shaped for the purpose, with a shallow end and sloped bottom, and was clearly not suited for ritual cleansing of humans.

Figure 1: ©2007 Holman Bible Publishers. Problems with this map: Pool of Bethesda incorrectly identified also as Sheep’s Pool; Gordon’s Calvary (the Garden Tomb) incorrectly identified as Golgotha; Struthion Pool mislocated; pinnacle of the Temple mislocated; Upper Room mislocated.
Figure 2: Bethesda Pools, on Jerusalem model, Mt. Hertzl. Photo ©2008 Ron Thompson

Although Bethesda may have originally been a Jewish pool, by the 1st Century AD it was a thoroughly Roman facility. It was a two-pool bath house, either built or upgraded by Herod, for the use of soldiers stationed in the nearby Antonia Fortress (Figure 2). Almost certainly, it was an Asclepeion, a shrine to the Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius (Figure 4). Water flowing down the Bezetha Valley was collected in the upper pool and flowed across a weir into the lower pool, before spilling off into the Kidron Valley. Bathing in the pools would presumably bring healing.

Figure 3: Bethesda Pool excavation. Photo ©2008 Ron Thompson.
Figure 4: Asclepius, James Sands Elliott – Public Domain

John 5:1-9 (ESV)
The Healing at the Pool on the Sabbath
[5:1] After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
[2] Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. [3] In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. [5] One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. [6] When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” [7] The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” [8] Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” [9] And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath.

Most translations do not include the famous verses 3b – 4 because this wording is not present in “the best” manuscripts. Encyclopedia Judaica calls it a later gloss, but states that excavations reveal that “a health rite took place there during the Roman period.”

John 5:3-4 (KJV)
[3] In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
[4] For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

If these words are legitimate, it would help explain vs 7. Though the pools were intended for Roman use, this was during the days right before Passover, and it makes sense that Jews might have been given an annual privilege in its honor. It is inconceivable, though, that devout Jews would have expected a medical miracle at a pagan shrine dedicated to healing by a pagan deity! The story about an angel appearing in a pagan pool would have likewise been pure superstition, possibly explained by roiling of the water when attendants opened a sluice gate to move water from the stream, or from pool to pool.

To answer one more frequent question, based on verse 6, when Jesus asked the paralytic if he wanted to be healed: No, I don’t think He was really asking him if he wanted to have his sins forgiven. Nowhere in the chapter is it indicated that the paralytic had any interest in salvation. Jesus never explicitly offered him forgiveness, He just gave him a warning, after which he ratted Jesus out!

John 5:14-16 (ESV)
[14] Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” [15] The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. [16] And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.

Figure 5: For comparison, a reproduction of a 1st century Roman bath, in Bath, UK. From the column bases down, it is original construction from AD 60 – 70. From an online tourism promotion.

Jesus and Hebrew Wedding Imagery

This is a February 2022 rewrite and expansion of a post I wrote in January 2013, entitled “The Bride of Messiah”.

I grew up in a fundamentalist, “King James only”, Baptist denomination, in churches in New Mexico, Texas and Florida. I love my old pastors and my fellow church members, and I still agree with them on most fundamental issues. Not everything, but I’m not going to mention their name and insult them. These days I rarely use the King James, because I think there are more reliable translations, but that’s not the question here, and I will use it for this post.

I’m going to concentrate here on one particular issue. I consider myself to be a Biblical literalist, but I think that there are many places in scripture that aren’t meant to be read literally. Hebrew writers often used poetic imagery and symbolism to convey truth about God: His attributes, His will, His promises (positive and negative) and yes, His wrath. A consistent and realistic Hermeneutic (principles of Biblical interpretation) must be used to differentiate between the literal and the figurative. Most conservative Biblical scholars and knowledgeable students of Scripture understand this, but few over the last 2,000 years are really equipped to apply the understanding. This is largely due to the way Jews and their writings have been marginalized in the Church.

As a somewhat trivial example of this lack of understanding, many years ago when I was a young associate pastor at a church in Texas, my Senior Pastor and I had an ongoing, friendly argument about Biblical anthropopathism. His view was that, despite the fact that God is a Spirit, “Scripture clearly states that God has hands…

Luke 23:46 (KJV)
[46] And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

…and wings.”

Ruth 2:12 (KJV)
[12] The LORD recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.

My own view is that God and His angels have no bodily form at all, and that such scriptures are illustrations of God’s loving and tender care for His people. When they heard these sayings, ancient Jews, immersed in the cultural milieu of their society, would not misunderstand the symbolic content. For 21st Century Christians, misled by centuries of antipathy towards Judaism, it’s not so simple!

Another example of Biblical symbolism is found in the parables (sing. mashal, Heb. and parabole, Gr.) told by Old Testament prophets, by New Testament-era sages, and by Jesus Himself. These stories were not themselves true but were illustrations of truth told in ways that could not be misunderstood by the hearers—or, in many cases could be understood only by “insiders” in the audience.

A form of implicit (not explained, but obvious to the hearers) symbolism that I want to discuss here was used by Jesus over and over again in His discussions with His Disciples about what we today refer to as the Rapture, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb: Jewish wedding imagery.

The Old Testament often depicts God as the husband of His wife, Israel. Similarly, the New Testament depicts Jesus as a groom, and the Church as His betrothed bride. Betrothal was much different among 1st Century and earlier Jews than it is among American Christians. To us it is a proposal to enter into a contract at a later date. To them, it was the contract itself. What we today call a “wedding ceremony” was to them simply the last stage of a process that often lasted for months. Jesus often referred to steps in this process to symbolically illustrate His mystical relationship with the Church:

Shopping for a bride. Today in The West, we regard an ideal marriage as an emotional union between a mutually attracted couple. In traditional Judaism, and in most of the non-Jewish Eastern world, even today, it was a financial transaction between families, often made when the couple were small children. In some cultures, a dowery was paid by the bride’s family. Sometimes this amounted to, “I’ll pay you to take this useless female off my hands”, but mostly it was a realistic understanding that a healthy adult female was of more practical value to a good husband than to her birth family. In other cultures, including the Jewish tradition, wives were highly valued, and money or goods flowed the other way. A “bride price” was paid by the groom’s family to acquire a coveted prize for their son and to compensate her family for the loss of a valuable and beloved asset. I have read many Christian opinions that Jewish men despise their women, but that is not and never was a true generalization, despite suggestions of “proof” to the contrary. Perhaps a subject for a future post…

A Jewish man’s marriage was usually arranged by his father, in negotiation (called the shidduch) with the prospective bride’s father. Sometimes other family members, including the subject children themselves, were included. In later history, a professional matchmaker (a shadchan) was sometimes employed as a go-between, as illustrated in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Usually, both fathers wanted nothing as much as the happiness of their children. After the exchange of a generous bride price, the families would cooperate, sometimes for years, in preparing the two young people for their eventual life together.

Jesus’ father arranged His marriage in eternity past. He paid a heavy bride price for us—we were bought with the most precious coin on earth, the groom’s own blood. Having been chosen, our entire lives from the time we were formed in our mothers’ wombs has been preparation for our marriage to the Lamb of God.

The betrothal, or erusin. When the time came for betrothal, the two families would gather in the house of the bride’s father. The groom would bring the ketubah, an ornate written marriage contract, and his father would bring a flask of wine. The father would pour a cup and hand it to his son. The son would then hold it out to the bride, saying, “By offering this cup, I vow that I am willing to give my life for you.” Then, it was up to the bride. She could refuse the cup, and if so, the wedding agreement was canceled, and the bride price refunded. If she took the cup and drank, she was signifying that she in turn was willing to give her life for him. The betrothal was thus sealed. Once sealed, the two lived apart for a time, but were considered to be legally married and only a death or legal divorce could dissolve the ketubah. When Mary was “found to be with child”, it was grounds for divorce. Joseph’s thought to “put her away privily” (Mt 1:19, KJV) simply meant that he planned to divorce her privately, rather than to denounce her and shame her in public.

When Yeshua offered the cup of redemption at His final Passover Seder, He was telling us that He was willing to give His life for us. We who have accepted that cup have said in return that we are willing to give our own lives for Him. Our betrothal has been sealed, and God’s Torah is our ketubah.

Building the bridal suite. A Jewish house was often a large compound built around a central courtyard. This housing compound, called in Greek an insula, was home to the patriarchal extended family, often with several generations of sons in residence. The central living area was the quarters of the family patriarch and his wife. As each young man of the household was betrothed, he would simply build another room on to the house for his own new family. Once the betrothal cup was accepted, the groom would recite to his newly betrothed traditional words to the effect that

John 14:2-3 (KJV)
[2] In my Father’s house are many mansions [Gr. mone: more often rooms, abodes, or dwelling places]… I go to prepare a place for you.
[3] And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

Upper class Judean family homes, or insulae, as depicted in a model of First Century Jerusalem, on Mt. Hertzl, Jerusalem. Photo ©2008, Ron Thompson.

It is an interpretive mistake to picture Jesus as honing up His carpentry skills in heaven and building a physical house, let alone a mansion, for each of His followers. He was simply using the poetic beauty of the ritual to stress the surety that He will return for His bride, the Church!

Progress on the new home. Each day between the betrothal and the marriage supper, the groom’s father would inspect his progress on the dwelling, and eventually he, not his son, would set a date for the wedding. If you were to ask the toiling groom when his wedding was scheduled to occur, he could not give you an answer.

Matthew 24:3-4,36 (KJV)
[3] And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? [4] And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you…
[36] But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

Each of Jesus’ hearers, being well-schooled in the important customs of the day, would have recognized the symbolism in verse 36. Once again this is ritual language, and therefore not necessarily a literal warning that it is completely useless to propose a date for the Rapture. I don’t know the year of the Rapture, but I firmly believe it will take place on some not-too-distant Day of Trumpets! (See also The Fall Feasts and the Rapture.)

Waiting for a summons by the groom. Meanwhile, the bride would wait expectantly, always prepared for the groom’s return, but not knowing on what day to expect him. Her attendants would stay with her each night, for weeks or even months. When the groom came with his own attendants to “kidnap” the bride and her attendants and take them from her home to his, he would arrive around midnight, with no advance warning. It would be a major scandal if the bride or any of her attendants were caught unprepared. This is what we see depicted in Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Virgins:

Matthew 25:1-13 (KJV)
[25:1] Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
[2] And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
[3] They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
[4] But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
[5] While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
[6] And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
[7] Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
[8] And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
[9] But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
[10] And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
[11] Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
[12] But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
[13] Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

The bridal procession and the consummation. As soon as the procession reached the groom’s home that night, the bride and groom would retreat immediately to the privacy of their new quarters. The guests would wait expectantly while the groom’s chief attendant stood outside the door and listened for the voice of the groom, announcing consummation of the marriage. This would signal the beginning of the week-long “marriage supper.” Jesus referred to this celebration of great joy in

John 3:29 (KJV)
[29] He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.

The wedding supper, or nissuin. This joyous, but to us uncomfortable, custom of celebrating a consummated marriage by pigging out at a 7-day party—was exemplified in the Gospels by the wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. It also symbolically represents the 7-year Wedding Supper of the Lamb, a celebration to be held in heaven while on earth the Tribulation is in progress.

Revelation 19:7-9 (KJV)
[7] Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.
[8] And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
[9] And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God.

Sometimes traditional Christian interpretations of scripture suffer from an ignorance of the customs that underlie them. Honest theology requires an attempt to understand the Jewish origins of our faith. Many times, those seemingly ambiguous or “strange” references in the Biblical narrative become clear once the culture is understood.

The Transfiguration and “Jewish Law”

Several Sundays ago, my wife and I attended a church in our area that we hadn’t visited in many years. The sermon was delivered by a stand-in—a naïve young associate pastor. He preached on the Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-13. Being a Baptist, his main point was that salvation is by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus. That much was fine, of course, but at least half of his sermon was designed to show that the purpose of the Transfiguration was to demonstrate that Judaism is dead, not only in the soteriological sense, but in its entirety.

I want here to comment on four points he made that I regard as theologically ridiculous. I’ll spend quite a bit of my space on the first two, because they are common misconceptions in Christianity. The last two, I don’t believe to be commonly held interpretations, so I’ll do little more than mention them.

First Fallacy: he repeated a theory I have come across many times since I was a young man—that “Jewish Law” is composed of three categories of commandments: “Moral Law“, “Civil Law“, and “Ceremonial Law“. There are hints of this in Augustine of Hippo, but I think the idea was fleshed out mostly by Thomas Aquinas, so it became a Roman Catholic and Orthodox view. It was later bequeathed to Protestant Reformed theology by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion; and many subsequent non-Reformed Protestant denominations and individual pastors have adopted the idea as well. The impetus for these teachings was probably an effort to justify claims that Christians are not bound by Civil and ceremonial Law, while at the same time holding that the Moral Law is somehow “still in effect”.

I categorically reject this idea! It is a Christian misinterpretation of Jewish concepts that are difficult to understand without a more than cursory acquaintance with Hebrew cultural nuances. For example, a proof text used relies on the differentiation between terms in Deuteronomy 6:1 and similar verses, which do indicate a threefold differentiation—that is, shades of meaning—within the 612 commandments listed in Scripture; however, these categorizations are not between the moral, the civil and the ceremonial, but rather between what we might term enacted laws, regulations, and court rulings:

Chapter 6 (CJB)
[6:1] “Now this is the mitzvah [commandment; law; ordnance; or precept], the choqim [statutes; enactments; or decrees] and mishpatim [rulings; judgements; sentences; or findings] which ADONAI your God ordered me to teach you for you to obey in the land you are crossing over to possess…

With very few exceptions, Jewish scholarship going back to Talmudic days does not differentiate categories of “Law” in the way this young pastor presented them. The sages did not and do not recognize these categories, only a unified whole of written Biblical Law, plus an entirely separate body of oral tradition.

What does the Bible actually say to us, as Christians? Well, first of all, it never told non-Jews to follow Jewish Law or observe Jewish customs! Torah was given to those under the Abrahamic Covenant in order to set a people, the Jews, apart from non-Covenant peoples. It is said that “we used to be under Law, but now we’re under Grace”, but “we”, the non-Jewish, were never under Law, and salvation has always been by God’s grace, through faith. Law-keeping, even the sacrifices, never saved a Jew from God’s judgement—those were, and in fact were recognized by the Jews as, acts of obedience, and contrition for sin.

So, why do we Christians keep some of these “Laws” but not others? Because we are moral, spirit-directed individuals, and the moral principles we follow are common sense, even to most non-religious folks—”Natural Law”, if you please.

The New Testament halachic (legal—see below) requirement for the Church was decided at the First Church Council, at Jerusalem, as recorded in

Acts 15:19-21 (ESV):
[19] Therefore my [James’] judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, [20] but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. [21] For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.

These four prohibitions are similar to, and encompass, the Noachide Laws—six commandments given to Adam in the Garden, plus a seventh added after the flood. The principles given address practices that are abominable to Jews and are regarded by the Rabbis as the minimum prohibitions necessary for Jewish fellowship with non-Jewish believers.

Second Fallacy: he repeated the interpretation that “The Law” was simply a picture of what Jesus would accomplish on the cross, and that by His crucifixion, He “fulfilled the Law”, and thus did away with it, i.e., “The Law”, having been “fulfilled” has “passed away”; but, just the Civil and Ceremonial portions, not the Moral Law, which is “still in effect, because God, after all, obviously still demands morality.” This, he bases on

Matthew 5:17 (ESV):
[17] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

“The Greek term translated “abolish” above is kataluo [to demolish, halt, destroy, dissolve, come to naught, overthrow, or throw down]. But isn’t that what the book of Hebrews says happened? No, what it says is that Jesus is an intrinsically better mediator than the High Priest and a better expiation than the sacrifices. Both of these, it says, are “passing away”, and in fact, that is exactly what happened in AD 70 when Titus destroyed the Temple. But Jewish Law is far more than just the high priesthood and the sacrifices.

So how does that differ from “fulfill” if Jesus replaced the whole system of Judaism by “fulfilling the Law”? But that is not what “fulfill” implies here, in Matthew 5:17! The Greek for that concept is pleroo [to satisfy, execute, finish/complete, verify, accomplish, fulfill, carry out to the full, fill up, fully preach, or perfect]. So evidently Jesus did not replace “The Law or the Prophets”, but rather explained and strengthened them.

Nomos vs. “the Law or the Prophets”: Throughout the New Testament, nomos is understood to be a translation of the Hebrew Torah, and most English translations then render nomos as “law”. Vines defines nomos as that which is “divided out”, “distributed”, or (primarily) “assigned”, which is a bit ambiguous. Strong’s generally defines the term based on its prior translations in Scripture, i.e., “the law of Moses”. but he does include “parceled out”, which is closer to Vine.

To understand it more correctly, let’s go right to “the horse’s mouth”: the Hebrew term “Torah“. English translations of this word in Scripture generally depend heavily on the translators’ Hellenized understanding of nomos, so once again, we get “law”. In a very narrow sense, legal principles can be included, but Jewish speakers and Jewish literature render the term as “teachings“; in other words, “principles” in the sense of imparted knowledge about God, His Creation, His Will, and anything else He wishes us to know. Legal tenets, whether Scriptural or traditional, would be distinguished as “halacha“, which translates literally as a “way of walking” (compare Paul’s discussions of our “Christian Walk”).

Torah, like many Hebrew words, can have many shades of meaning, which can only be distinguished by context and customary usage. Sometimes it refers to all of God’s teachings. Often it specifically means the chumash, or Five Books of Moses; often it includes all books of the Tanach (Old Testament), and Messianic Jews often include the Brit Hadasha (New Testament), as well. Indeed, Jesus Himself is the very embodiment of Torah (John 1:1).

Much of the confusion here arises because a large portion of Christianity has arrogantly decided that Judaism failed God, so God took back his Covenant promises to Israel and conferred them on the Church instead; therefore, if the Old Testament has any meaning to us in the Church, it is only metaphorical, or symbolic. For example, to Reformed Christianity, God’s commandment to circumcise male children becomes a commandment to baptize infants!

Here is what Jesus said would result from any attempt to “throw out the Law”:

Matthew 5:18-19 (CJB)
[18] Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud [jot, yodh] or a stroke [serif, tittle] will pass from the Torah—not until everything that must happen has happened. [19] So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 To me, that’s pretty clear!

 Third Fallacy: Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” referred to the “Ceremonial Law”. Some Dispensationalists believe that these words were spoken by Jesus to pronounce a renunciation of the Mosaic Covenant and the end of the so-called “Dispensation of Law”. What Jesus “finished” (brought to its fullness, not ended!) was His ministry on earth, laying the soteriological foundation for the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God.

Fourth Fallacy: bizarrely, he stated that when the three apostles looked back up and saw Jesus alone, He had literally “absorbed” Moses and Elijah, to show that the OT system of Judaism was no more.

Matthew 17:8 (CJB)
[8] So they opened their eyes, looked up and saw only Yeshua by himself.

No. They simply left!

Paul to Colossae, on Syncretism

In his letter to the Colossian Assembly, Paul addressed three types of “Gnostic” heresy that were evidently being taught there:

  1. Greek Dualism, which cast doubts on Jesus because of claims that he was fully human as well as divine. Plato, whose philosophy was revered in much of the Greek world, held that the spiritual realm was “good”, but anything physical, including any human, was intrinsically evil.
  2. Pagan Pantheism, which held that all physical objects were inhabited by so-called “elemental sprits” that were either good or evil.
  3. Judaistic practices being urged on non-Jews in the Church.

It is the last issue, above, that I wish to address here. I believe that it included two main sub-issues:

  • Either requiring or suggesting conversion to Judaism was viewed by some as a precursor to possession of the “secret things” of Christianity.
  • Urging participation in celebrations of Jewish tradition for possession of that Gnostic “knowledge”.

The first of these sub-issues was dealt with primarily in

Colossians 2:11-14 (ESV)
[11] In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, [12]  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. [13]  And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, [14] by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Prior to AD 70, conversion to Judaism was a threefold process requiring circumcision; ritual cleansing (immersion, i.e., baptism, in either open water or in one of the thousands of mikvot, or baptisteries, in Israel and the Diaspora); and an atoning sacrifice in the Temple.

In verse 11, above, Paul explains that circumcision is not required of non-Jewish believers, because our circumcision is a spiritual “circumcision of the heart“, a “stripping away [of the] old nature’s control over the body” (CJB translation).

In verse 12, he identifies baptism as a symbolic death, burial and resurrection along with Messiah.

And in verse 14, he states that our sin-debt is cancelled by the cross. Without digging too deeply into Old and New Testament theology, Jesus’ death cancelled all our sins, past present and future, whereas the Old Testament sin offerings were merely a symbolic atonement, or “covering over“, for specific infractions over specific time frames.

Regarding the Jewish Traditions, refer to

Colossians 2:16-17 (CJB)
[16] So don’t let anyone pass judgment on you in connection with eating and drinking, or in regard to a Jewish festival or Rosh-Hodesh or Shabbat. [17] These are a shadow of things that are coming, but the body is of the Messiah.

Rosh-Hodesh (“head of the month”) was the lunar new moon celebration held each month to recognize the coming civil, agricultural and religious cycle. Shabbat, of course, is the Jewish “day of rest”, either the weekly Sabbath or a Sabbath associated with another Jewish festival.

Note that Paul is not condemning these traditional celebrations, which have tremendous prophetic and memorial significance to Christians and Jews alike; rather, he is condemning those who shame others in the church who choose to either celebrate them or to not celebrate them.

Constitutional Supremacy

I lived in Oklahoma for a while, and I don’t love the state. My antipathy has nothing to do with politics, though. I don’t know if it will stand, but I fully support this effort:

Oklahoma House Passed Bill to Let State Declare Biden Executive Orders Unconstitutional (newsweek.com)

On the whole I think this Newsweek article is balanced and fair. I do take issue with their wording of one particular paragraph:

“The 10th Amendment says powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states. However, the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause also states that federal law generally takes precedence over state laws and even state constitutions.” What they are saying, is, in effect, “The states reserve all rights that are not granted in Article I, Section 8 (The Enumerated Powers), unless the Federal Government passes a law usurping that right! But the 10th Amendment expressly prohibits such Federal laws!

Contrary to what you may have heard, the Constitution of the United States is clear and simple. You may have to look up a word or phrase here and there (e.g., habeas corpus, or Bill of Attainder), but once you’ve done that, you don’t have to have a Harvard law degree to know what it means! The Constitution is the supreme law of our land. If Congress passes a law that violates the 10th Amendment, then that law is by definition invalid! If the President attempts to enforce that law, then he is in violation of the Constitution, and the states can and should defend their Constitutional rights! If the courts, including the Supreme Court, uphold such a law, it is still unconstitutional, because it is absurd to think that an office created by the Constitution can userp the Constitution!

What Oklahoma is trying to do is yet another of many historical attempts by states to nullify unconstitutional Federal laws and actions. Yes, it has been tried before, with little or no success. The concept goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson. In 1791, as Secretary of State, he wrote an opinion letter to President George Washington regarding proper remedies for an unconstitutional law coming out of the US Congress:

“The … shield provided by the Constitution to protect against the invasions of the legislature: 1. The right of the Executive. 2. Of the Judiciary. 3. Of the States and State legislatures. The present is the case of a right remaining exclusively with the States, and consequently one of those intended by the Constitution to be placed under its protection.”

In other words Jefferson defends nullification by means of: (1) Presidential Veto; (2) Judicial Review; and, if all else fails, (3) Nullification by the states.

The Oklahoma House Minority Leader says, “It’s interesting to me that the States’ Rights Committee only seems to exist when there’s a Democrat in the White House, and that these issues only come up when there’s a Democrat in the White House”. She’s right, of course. Unfortunately, that is the way American politics functions these days. We don’t tend to do what is correct and just, we do what is expedient, and only argue when it suits our particular ends. Sad.

Oklahoma is right in this instance, and yes, it is right no matter which party is in power!

Striker Fun in the Navy

Sailors preparing for an “exercise” on USS O’Brien, DD-725. ©1969, Ron Thompson

Everyone has heard the jokes about an apprentice mechanic being sent to fetch a “left-handed monkey wrench”. I’m sure that has happened many times in the military, in real life. I saw my share of such practical jokes when I was in the Navy. Some were way crueler than the monkey wrench standby. Most were pretty harmless.

One that I personally observed comes to mind from a 1969 Naval cruise. I was a midshipman (an officer recruit) at the time, doing a 2-week cruise on a destroyer, the USS O’Brien, DD-725, which was based in Long Beach at the time.

A typical small Combat Information Center.

Late one night I was in CIC (the Combat Information Center where all the radar and sonar operators worked), and we were just transiting from one place to another, with nothing else going on. That’s when a lot of the housekeeping chores are done. The guys that do most of that are new enlisted recruits—and “strikers“. Strikers are the guys who have started training for a specialty, or “rating“. Some recruits strike right out of boot camp; others go to the fleet for a while as “unrated seamen” (or “airmen” in the flying Navy).

That night a radarman striker was put to work cleaning the faces of radar scopes. Well, there happened to be a Chief Petty Officer on duty, and he says, “Hey, striker, if you’re going to do that, do it right. Tonight, give them a good steam cleaning.”

“Sure, Chief. Where do I get steam?”

The Chief, looking totally disgusted, says “How long have you been in the Navy, striker? Where do you think you get steam on a Navy ship? The boiler room!”

Big, non-nuclear ships burn NSFO (Naval Special Fuel Oil, which is barely refined crude oil) which heats the boilers, to make steam, to turn the turbines, to spin the propellers and the power generators. So, the striker goes down to the boiler room in the depths of the ship. Meanwhile, the Chief calls his counterpart in the boiler room, on the ship’s telephone, and tells him what’s going down. When the striker gets below, the boiler crew gives him a hard time about not bringing a container to put the steam in; then they find an old bucket, open a steam cock and blow steam into the open bucket.

The guy comes back up to CIC carrying this open bucket, which of course is empty, steam being a gas. The Chief puts his hand in, then pulls it out, with nothing in it. He gives the striker a cold stare and says, “It all leaked out, idiot; don’t you know enough to put a lid on it?”

The striker goes back below with the bucket, and a boilerman looks around, can’t find a lid, but comes back with an old pair of dungarees they’ve been using for a rag. He fills the bucket, this time with hot water that hasn’t yet boiled away, as well as steam, and he wraps the dungarees around it to “close the bucket.”

The guy comes back up to CIC, where the Chief takes the bucket, carefully peeks under the wrapping, then peels it off and thrusts the bucket back to the striker. Poking his fingers into the now warm water and rubbing them together under his nose. “That’s DEAD steam! Finish the job the way you were doing it, and we’ll find someone with a brain to do the steam cleaning next time.”

True story, the way things were when I was Navy.