An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 4

In this study so far, I’ve argued that Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre fails on the surface, since he claimed Tyre would be utterly destroyed and never rebuilt and that didn’t happen. We’ve also covered a brief history of Tyre, and we’ve examined the first 6 verses of the prophecy and determined that the prophecy is directed at the island city of Tyre, not its mainland suburbs. In this post, we’ll continue our detailed look at Ezekiel’s pronouncements against Tyre.

“He will…”

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers. 8 He will kill with the sword your daughters on the mainland. He will set up a siege wall against you and throw up a mound against you, and raise a roof of shields against you. 9 He will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 His horses will be so many that their dust will cover you. Your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen and wagons and chariots, when he enters your gates as men enter a city that has been breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your mighty pillars will fall to the ground.
— Ezek 26:7-11

In the last post, we mentioned that verses 3-6 spoke about “many nations” destroying Tyre’s walls and towers, making her a “bare rock,” and killing her “daughters on the mainland.” Now, the same basic statements are made about Nebuchadnezzar. Verse 8 says he will kill “your daughters on the mainland.” As we said in the last post, this refers to Tyre’s mainland settlements, like Ushu. According to history, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in doing this. That means that verses 9-11 refer to the island city, since “you” is directed at Tyre, and “your daughters” refers to the mainland settlements. But these predictions didn’t come true.

Nebuchadnezzar was not able to assault Tyre’s walls, since they were about half a mile off the coast. It’s possible that Ezekiel thought Nebuchadnezzar could build something to reach them, since he talks about building a mound in verse 8, but Nebuchadnezzar didn’t do this. Even Ezekiel later admits that Nebuchadnezzar had to abandon his siege and got nothing for it:

In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her.”
— Ezek 29:17-18

To me, this problem seems insurmountable. Ezekiel says that Nebuchadnezzar would break down Tyre’s walls and towers, trample Tyre’s streets, kill its people with the sword, and tear down its mighty towers. None of that happened.

But why did Ezekiel include this prophecy against Tyre at all if he had to come back later and say it didn’t come true? Why not just remove it? We might be tempted to think that Ezekiel must have meant something else in chapter 26 — something that didn’t fail so completely — since the prophecy remained in place. However, this assumes that none of Ezekiel’s writings were distributed until they were all completed, and I think that’s a faulty assumption. Instead, if Ezekiel’s pronouncements were being passed around as he made them, then it makes sense that he would need to address the failures of chapter 26 once they didn’t come to pass. Consider this table:

dates of Ezekiel's writings
Image credit: Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 1990, p. 4

According to this chart, the prophecy of Tyre (chapter 26) was written in 586 BCE, while Ezekiel’s admission that Nebuchadnezzar failed (29:17) was written 15 years later. And these dates aren’t just arbitrary, because Ezekiel dates them himself. In 26:1, he says “in the eleventh year…”, and in 29:17, he says “in the twenty-seventh year…”. I can think of no reason why his predictions against Tyre would not have been disseminated in the 15 or 16 years between when he first predicted them and when he felt the need to retcon them. As Blenkinsopp says concerning these dates:

Of the thirteen dates, seven are appended to oracles against foreign nations which, with one exception, are confined to the period of about twelve months following the fall of Jerusalem. The exception is the oracle occasioned by the failure of the predicted conquest of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar, which was added at a late date — the latest in the book — to mitigate somewhat the nonfulfillment of an earlier prophecy.
— p. 4

Ezekiel had given this prediction about Tyre and lived to see it fail. Naturally, he needed to say something about why it didn’t come to pass, so he says that God has now spoken to him and said that even though Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t able to take Tyre, he would now receive Egypt as payment for all his hard work. Ezekiel still doesn’t say why Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t take Tyre when he had God’s help, but I suppose the reader is left to assume that God changed his mind.

“They will…”

They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. 13 And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets. You shall never be rebuilt, for I am the Lord; I have spoken, declares the Lord God.
— Ezek 26:12-14

There are some interesting things in this section. First of all, the pronoun switches from “he” to “they”. Verses 7-11 were all talking about Nebuchadnezzar. Now that it switches to “they,” what is the antecedent? Christians say that “they” refers back to the “many nations” of verse 3, and maybe they’re right. But the most recent plural noun that it could refer to is Nebuchadnezzar’s army. As we discussed in the last post, there’s always the possibility that the two groups are synonymous. Nebuchadnezzar’s army would have been multi-national since he was the head of an empire. So “many nations” could easily have referred to his army.

There’s really no way to know for sure, as the writing’s ambiguous enough to work both ways. It’s a shame Ezekiel wasn’t clearer. Seems strange to imagine that God would inspire someone to be so vague. Regardless, we’ve already seen that the portion of the prophecy that unquestionably deals with Nebuchadnezzar fails, so whether “many nations” refers to Nebuchadnezzar or to later conquests of Tyre isn’t a question we necessarily have to answer for the purposes of this series.

“Never be rebuilt…”

This passage repeats the “bare rock” reference that was also made in verse 4, but the island of Tyre has never been a “bare rock” since its foundation almost 5000 years ago. And finally, there’s the problematic prediction that Tyre will never be rebuilt.

As we discussed in the second post, Alexander the Great besieged and defeated Tyre in 332 BCE. This is the destruction that most Christians point to as fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. But Tyre wasn’t utterly destroyed, nor did it remain that way. It was quickly rebuilt and repopulated, and came right back to its former glory. Tyre’s longest period of ruin came after its destruction in 1291. But that army didn’t have to break down Tyre’s walls or perform a siege against it, as the people of the city opened their gates to the enemy, hoping for mercy. So that incident doesn’t match Ezekiel’s prophecy either. And even then, despite remaining in ruins for centuries, Tyre eventually came back to some level of prominence. Today, it has a substantial population, an important port, and enjoys a healthy tourism industry.

The remainder of chapter 26 talks about how amazed the surrounding nations will be at Tyre’s fall. And verse 21 reiterates the same prediction made in verse 14:

“I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more. Though you be sought for, you will never be found again, declares the Lord God.”

It’s spoken with such finality, but it simply doesn’t match Tyre’s history.

In the next (and final) post, I’ll make a few closing observations.

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21 thoughts on “An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 4”

  1. “But why did Ezekiel include this prophecy against Tyre at all if he had to come back later and say it didn’t come true? Why not just remove it?”

    This is a good question Nate, and one I think is a key to all this. Dennis Bratcher (who I know nothing much about, but whose article I found helpful) wrote about this:

    “Ezekiel could change his prediction, and even admit that he got it wrong, because, finally, the historical prediction was not his message!

    What is even more amazing is that the community of faith, perceptive enough to know that this failure was in the Ezekiel tradition, did not attempt to gloss it over or change it to fit some modern ideas of inerrancy and the absolute infallibility of prophetic prediction to fit within a certain view of how God orders the world. In other words, the community of faith who collected together Ezekiel’s writings and oracles saw no problem in preserving this failure, even though they most likely knew about the criteria in Deuteronomy (18:22). They saw no problem because, I suggest, they understood that “prediction of the future” is not primarily what a prophet does, is not the final or only or most important test of a prophet of God, and because they had no need to establish or maintain any dimension of inerrancy.”

    If he is right, you are applying criteria to this prophecy that those who wrote, compiled, edited, transmitted and preserved Ezekiel’s prophecies apparently didn’t apply. I can understand that you want to address the claims of inerrantists, but I suggest your analysis won’t be complete until you consider more thoroughly your own question. Thanks.

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  2. Thanks, unkleE. That’s a good point, and you’re right, it’s not really one I had considered.

    As you said, my target audience is mostly those with an inerrantist background or position. As you know, a number if apologists use this passage as evidence for inspiration, and I just don’t think that case can be made objectively.

    However, as you point out, this doesn’t necessarily cause a problem for those with a nuanced view. There are plenty of Christians who believe the bible’s authors could make mistakes but still be inspired. It’s not a position that resonates with me, but it does with plenty of others.

    Thanks again for bringing out that perspective!

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  3. That IS a very interesting view point, unkleE. And I’m trying…but I just cannot understand what the man is talking about. I read the link (yay, good job!). Read the whole article. I simply cannot understand how he can proclaim that Eze was right. “But he was right in that the message he proclaimed about the nation of Israel, its responsibilities to God, and the consequences of their failure to respond to God in faithfulness was proven true in the flow of history”.

    I’ll grant that perhaps a prophet’s main job isn’t the prediction of the future, but when he says “thus sayeth the Lord, This and That will happen”, and then NONE of it happens…his main job may not be the prediction of the future, but when he Does stray into that area, he needs to be right, otherwise logic AND Deut. 18:20-22 tell us “I (the god of the bible) did not send him and you need not fear him”.

    What? Are we claiming that his job is to “lie for Jesus”? How can we possibly know that anything that befell Israel was the consequence of the failure in their responsibility to God? When nothing that Eze says, that can be verified, is right, he loses credibility. What about Tyre? Is God so petty that he says “you said ‘haw haw’ when Jerusalem fell so now I’ll wail on you for a while”? Or was Jerusalem taken b/c of the sins of the people and Tyre was just collateral damage?

    I’m willing to be generous and not expect 100% inerrancy (95% is sufficient 😉 ). But 0%?

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  4. Hi eSell, nice to ‘meet’ you. I think you and Nate have made an assumption that is unwarranted, so I will try to address both of you.

    If we are going to approach this question reasonably, we need to start with the historical and literary evidence as developed by the experts, and only after that form conclusions. So what did the people of Ezekiel’s day think about prophecy and what did they expect of it?

    My reading of the experts is that it wasn’t much like what you and Nate seem to assume. The experts say the book of Ezekiel is probably a literary whole, not just a bunch of separate oracles. It apparently draws on a well-established ancient near eastern (ANE) literary from of “covenant and treaty curses”. LIke the experts say about other parts of the OT, this book may have exaggerated some outcomes, somewhat like a boxer will ‘predict’: “I’ll murder the bum!”

    Ezekiel used allegory, acted parable, imagery, vision, symbols, etc, to make his points, so it is difficult to work out how literal most of it is. We who don’t understand the ANE milieu can easily misunderstand.

    Experts also point out that prophecy was more about warning than prediction – the prophet told of God’s intentions subject to certain conditions rather than predicting what would actually happen. In this case, the experts say the warnings were probably to Jerusalem and Judah, and Tyre may never had heard them.

    So it is far to simplistic to say that Ezekiel make mistakes or lied. He was not writing history or accurate predictive prophecy, he was doing something much more imaginative and (if you believe him) much deeper.

    That is the point of Bratcher’s article (and others have made the same point). That Ezekiel (or his compiler) allowed the partially failed prophecy to stand alongside a revised prophecy shows that he wasn’t too worried about literal accuracy. The general message was important, but while he got some details right he wasn’t worried about the details (apparently).

    (BTW, I’m a little bemused by your statement: “But 0%?” Are you seriously suggesting Ezekiel got nothing literally right? My assessment is he got about 75% ‘right’. This review suggests something similar.)

    It is only after we understand all this background (which I don’t claim to understand – I’ve barely scratched the surface) that we should draw our conclusions. The inerrantists can still believe it was all true, the critics can believe varying amounts are true and untrue.

    But what seems clear to me is this ANE understanding cuts the ground from under those who wish to use this prophecy to “prove” the inspiration of scripture – but also cuts the ground from under those who (like Nate) use this to disprove the same thing. Both misunderstand inspiration, especially how it might apply in ANE OT texts.

    Two helpful references: Ezekiel in Context: Ezekiels Message Understood in Its Historical Setting of Covenant Curses and Ancient Near Eastern Mythological Motifs and PREDICTION AND FOREKNOWLEDGE IN EZEKIEL’S PROPHECY AGAINST TYRE.

    Sorry this was so long Nate. 🙂

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  5. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    unkleE, I think I agreed more with your first comment than this one! 😉

    In some ways, I think you’re right. To truly understand exactly what Ezekiel was getting at here, we’d need much more expertise in ANE (“ancient near east” for those playing at home) literature.

    But let’s face it, Ezekiel isn’t viewed as just another piece of ANE literature by the majority of Christians. They believe that Ezekiel, at least in some respect, was divinely inspired. And to get to the truth of that, I don’t think we need to have such an extensive background in ANE lit.

    If we take away the notion that Ezekiel and his contemporaries were very concerned about prophetic accuracy, then we’re really left with writings that don’t need any kind of divine uplink. Ezekiel makes pronouncements against various nations that he has a grudge against. We’re to take these as rants, more or less, and not prophecy. That’s fine, but it’s not much different than what Rush Limbaugh does on a daily basis.

    Maybe Ezekiel really was inspired by God to write all of this, but my point is that there’s no evidence to suggest it. And when ultra-conservative apologists point to this passage as evidence of such inspiration, they’re simply wrong. Or worse, they’re being intentionally misleading.

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  6. UnkleE,

    yeah, it looks like we all agree that it fails at face value.

    But i think that if it fails at face value, like nate and Esell have also suggested, what is there to make anyone think this had anything to do with god’s direct inspiration?

    I believe we could find ways to soften the fail, but isnt it all conjecture? all the, “maybe it meant this or that,” or “perhaps the point was this or that…,” or “those people at that time and in that part of world viewed things differently from us…”

    but aren’t these made up and imagined resolutions only created in order to explain why Ezekiel got it wrong?

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  7. Hi Nate, thanks for your response. But I feel you are still only thinking of two possible responses (fundamentalist christianity or atheism) and not really grappling with a more nuanced and historical approach. So let me try again to express this in a form that doesn’t presuppose God belief.

    Firstly, inspiration. You seem to use it in the way inerrantists do, to mean something close to dictation by God, of concepts at least, if not words. But “inspire” normally doesn’t have this meaning, but more like encouraging, motivating, animating, impelling, giving ideas to. So let’s apply this definition to Ezekiel, and let’s look for a moment at the big picture (from a neutral historical viewpoint).

    There was once a small Semitic tribe. They were much the same as other tribes around them – they had their tribal god, they had a creation myth and a flood story and other aetiological myths. They used similar motifs like covenant and treaty curses.

    But an unusual thing happened. They came to believe some things that developed more or in different directions than other tribes. They believed their god was greater than other gods, of course, but eventually they came to believe that God was the only God, that he was communicating with them and that he had a special destiny for them. They developed their myths in response, telling stories about people and events that likely were based on history, but much embellished and interpreted. They believed that this God was teaching them things, like monotheism, their future destiny and the ethics (personal, social and national) that were required to fulfil this destiny.

    But they were now a small nation right in the middle of powerful neighbours, and so they were at their mercy. Occasionally they won out, and they believed their God had given them victory, but more often they were victims. Eventually many of the family groups were wiped out, their capital city captured, the centre of their God worship destroyed (a real calamity!) and the remainder were carried off into captivity.

    This was a real dilemma – how could the one true God allow this? But this small nation was very creative, and a number of very inspirational and creative people started to address this issue – notable among them were Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Their religion inspired them, and they were people of great insight.

    So Ezekiel, in captivity, addressed the question. He wasn’t interested in talking to other nations and cities like Tyre (they were not going to hear what he had to say – he was in captivity!). And he wasn’t interested in making detailed predictions about random events – he was addressing far more fundamental questions of the nation’s very existence and destiny. So, believing God had given him insight, he warned people that God was judging them for unfaithfulness, but reassured his people that one day, all this would pass. Nations which seemed powerful today would soon fade. God would see them through to their glorious heritage. And he did this using many different creative approaches – acted parable, oracle, vision, etc – few of them literal.

    So he foresaw a day when the new would come. His fellow seers, Jeremiah and Isaiah, had similar messages – legalistic fear-based religion would be replaced by heart religion, new life would replace old, peace would come, and it would come through a child who would be called “mighty God, Prince of peace”.

    The remarkable thing is that something like this actually happened. The nation is still distinct today when so many other of the small nations (Edom, Midian, Moab, etc) have disappeared as separate entities, swallowed up by larger nations. The Jewish nation has produced more than its fair share of creative and innovative people in every sphere of life. Ezekiel didn’t accurately predict every detail, but he was giving them a big picture and he got even many details right.

    All that more or less conforms with what historians say (which I don’t believe your assumptions about inspiration and prophecy do) and it can all be believed by an atheist, for I didn’t anywhere say their belief was true, just that it was what they believed.

    Of course I go on to believe that the child was born, and he was “mighty God” and he did establish his kingdom in what I think is a remarkable fulfilment of prophecy, but you don’t have to believe that.

    So I am saying that the dichotomy you present (either God works through inerrant type inspiration and literal factual prediction of random future events or else it’s all false and there’s no God) is not a fair reflection of historical understanding and omits this more plausible middle way.

    I’m wondering why you don’t include this in your thinking and writing.

    So we should not reject or accept God because of Ezekiel’s prophecy, rather we should accept the historical understanding of his prophecy, and accept or reject whether God spoke through him based on our belief or otherwise in God.

    Does that explain things any better? (Again, sorry this was so long.)

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  8. Hi unkleE,

    Thanks for the comment, and stop apologizing for lengthy posts! 😉 They truly don’t bother me at all!

    So I am saying that the dichotomy you present (either God works through inerrant type inspiration and literal factual prediction of random future events or else it’s all false and there’s no God) is not a fair reflection of historical understanding and omits this more plausible middle way.

    Which part are you saying is more plausible? If you’re just referring to the explanation you laid out for Ezekiel’s motivations and method, then I agree with you. I actually wasn’t trying to argue against that kind of understanding. It’s the same way that I view Ezekiel. On the other hand, if you’re suggesting it’s more plausible that a god really was inspiring Ezekiel in some way, then I would disagree.

    So we should not reject or accept God because of Ezekiel’s prophecy, rather we should accept the historical understanding of his prophecy, and accept or reject whether God spoke through him based on our belief or otherwise in God.

    I actually agree with you in this, though I do personally think Ezekiel’s prophecy is pretty good evidence that he was just a regular guy like all of us.

    I do think it’s possible that God could inspire someone more subtly, in the way you’re suggesting. But since I don’t personally see enough evidence to make me think that, it’s hard for me to argue for it. So I see it as possible, just extremely unlikely.

    Anyway, I may have more to add later, but I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and my brain just isn’t focusing as much as I’d like it to! :/

    Thanks again for the comment, and I’ll talk to you soon…

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  9. No, unkleE, I don’t pin my acceptance or rejection of the god of the bible on such things as this bit of writing in Ezekiel, though it obviously casts grave doubts on the Authority of the Bible as the Divinely Inspired Word of God. True, I may be using these scriptures to say there is doubt about something you never believed in, but I think it is important.

    The only problem I find with the Third Way of interpretation is that it basically makes it all literature that somehow got a few general outlines of the future correct. I have no argument with that b/c it renders it meaningless. The only reason this topic concerns me at all is, as Nate has said, the more Fundamentalist Evangelical types (who are actively trying to get Religion into Government) say “the Bible is right and that’s why it needs to be the National Religion”, whereas failed prophecies, or the clear fact that the earth wasn’t created 6,000 years ago in 6 days, the absence of evidence of a worldwide flood, etc, etc. proves that this book isn’t a good source of Policy.

    So this book written by bronze-age people says that their concept of god finds homosexuality to be an abomination? OK, that’s not surprising. How is that relevant to the Marriage Equality debate today? Well, b/c people advancing such policies say “the bible is TRUE, you can prove it is the Word of GOD”…and so here we are, seeing clearly that according to generally accepted standards of what “true” means, then the whole thing falls flat.

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  10. Hi William,

    “yeah, it looks like we all agree that it fails at face value”

    You have an interesting approach to maths! I say he got about 75% right, I reference a source that says he got 6 out of 9 aspects correct, and you say we’re agreed that it “fails”. I’m glad you weren’t marking my exams at school!! 🙂

    Anyway, please see my comment to Nate for my response generally.

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  11. Hi eSell

    It only cast doubts on the Bible as divinely inspired if you assume a certain form of inspiration. If you don’t assume that then the argument fails, as does the argument from prophecy for divine inspiration.

    But it seems very difficult for non-believers to let go of the easy target of inerrancy and take aim at a target better supported by history.

    Likewise, there is a strong argument for christians to agree with you that we shouldn’t be using the Old Testament to form a basis for morality or social policy. So I don’t see how that means we should reject the “middle way”.

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  12. I don’t know that we need to reject the Third Way, but I just don’t see how it helps anything. If we interpret “divine inspiration” and “prophecy” to be untestable and meaningless, then there’s nothing to talk about. There’s a growing, but still small, number of people who are worshipping the old Norse gods–Odin/Wotan, Thor, Freyja, ,etc. They don’t have apologetics they just have faith. If the explanations for Prophecy and Inspiration are such that they become non-falsifiable, then yeah, it is just faith and so there’s nothing to debate.

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  13. No I’m OK with what you say. The only point I’m making is it is not reasonable to argue that Ezekiel shows that God doesn’t exist or isn’t behind the Old Testament if you only address the inerrantist view.

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  14. The only point I’m making is it is not reasonable to argue that Ezekiel shows that God doesn’t exist or isn’t behind the Old Testament if you only address the inerrantist view.

    I disagree. I think it definitely is reasonable to say the OT isn’t inspired when we look at things like this. People are free to continue to believe it, and as you say, maybe it somehow is inspired by God in a less heavy-handed manner. But as eSell says, that’s non-falsifiable. There’s no way to prove or disprove that, so why should we offer it as a viable option? Should I remain agnostic about unicorns?

    And as to the accuracy percentage thing, I decided to run some numbers myself:
    https://findingtruth.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/tyre-by-the-numbers/

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  15. Oh, I meant to say that there is one thing I agree with you on — I wouldn’t use passages like this to argue that God doesn’t exist.

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  16. Hi UnkleE,

    you said,

    “You have an interesting approach to maths! I say he got about 75% right, I reference a source that says he got 6 out of 9 aspects correct, and you say we’re agreed that it “fails”. I’m glad you weren’t marking my exams at school!!” – UnkleE

    what’s really scary is that I am an engineer.

    well, i’m not, but I thought saying that would be funny considering the context…

    Well, i guess I should clarify my point, i suppose it would have been more accurate for me to say “I suppose we all agree that this prophecy appears top fall short of complete fulfillment, at face value.”

    is that better?

    I didnt want to argue over to what percentage it succeeded or failed, to me, if a god who supposedly flooded the earth, and who supposedly created the entire universe, says something, then I’d think it happen 100% of the time – if it does not, then I suspect a supremely powerful being really didnt say it.

    you mentioned earlier that a boxer could say, “I’m gonna kill that guy in the ring” and no one would really think the meant he’d really kill the guy, but just give him a proper whippin.

    Except people would think that the boxer was serious if head killed several people in the ring before, right? And god, who has allegedly killed before and destroyed cities before… if he says he’s gonna do something, why wouldnt people expect him to follow through? why would they assume, “he’s just being figurative…?”

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  17. Hi Nate, I think we are probably about three questers in agreement. I’ll comment further (and hopefully finally!) on your later post.

    William, yeah that’s better, I agree that:”this prophecy appears top fall short of complete fulfillment, at face value”.

    But I want to comment on this: “if a god who supposedly flooded the earth, and who supposedly created the entire universe, says something”.

    I agree that this God (the God of an inerrant literal Old Testament) should be able to do better. But I am saying (1) I, many christians, and most scholars don’t believe Genesis 1-11 is historical, so he’s not that God, and (2) neither do we believe what we have recorded here is literally what he said, tape recorded by Ezekiel, but something a little more nuanced.

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