Contradiction: Was There a Sojourn in Egypt or Not?

Peter, one of the regular readers here, pointed my attention to a post that shows a discrepancy in what the Bible claims about Jacob’s descendants spending 400+ years in Egypt. I won’t try to summarize it here — I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Just check it out for yourself:

PolitiFact Misses the Mark on Jesus

I love PolitiFact. I follow them on Facebook, and I always appreciate the fact-checking they do every time a politician makes a claim. Last week, they had an article that caught my eye, titled “Jesus was an ‘undocumented immigrant,’ ordained minister says.” The minister, Ryan Eller, is the executive director of a group that works to promote awareness about immigration issues, and he was trying to point out that people shouldn’t be so judgmental toward undocumented immigrants — that even Jesus would have been considered an undocumented immigrant when he and his family fled to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod.

PolitiFact decided to investigate this claim, and they quickly pointed out that during Jesus’s life, Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Therefore, the comparison doesn’t really hold up — Jesus and his family were still traveling within the boundaries of the same empire, which was allowable under Roman law.

All of that is fine. But where I have a bit of a problem is that PolitiFact didn’t deal with this as thoroughly as they could have. Consider this paragraph, for instance:

Even though many scholars don’t agree on the exact years Jesus was born or moved to Nazareth as a youth, we know the family left Egypt after Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E. The region known as Judaea (where Bethlehem was) became a Roman province in 6 C.E., after Rome removed Herod’s son Archelaus, who had become king of that portion of Herod’s kingdom. Nazareth, meanwhile, was in Galilee, an area later ruled by Herod’s son Antipas, known as the king who eventually beheaded John the Baptist.

“We know”?! No, we really don’t know. Yes, if Matthew’s story (his is the only gospel that tells us about this flight to Egypt) is to be believed, then Jesus’s family left Egypt after the death of Herod. But we don’t really know that Jesus’s family went there in the first place. Earlier in the article, we read this:

Luke 2:1-5 says Joseph lived in Nazareth with Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, when the Roman emperor called for all the residents of the empire to be counted and taxed. Joseph left for Bethlehem, where King David had been born, because Joseph had roots there.

Anyone who celebrates Christmas is pretty aware what happened in Bethlehem, but Eller is referring to what happened after that.

Matthew 2:12-16 describes how the Magi visited Jesus, then were warned by God in a dream not to tell King Herod, who wanted to kill the child. Joseph then took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. According to Matthew, Herod then had every male child in Bethlehem younger than 2 killed. Verses 17-23 say Joseph moved the family back to Nazareth after Herod died.

But here’s the thing, as many of you who read this blog know, it’s pretty apparent that Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of Jesus’s birth can’t be reconciled with one another. One or both of them is a fabrication. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and are only in Bethlehem temporarily; therefore, it’s only in their version that we have the manger scene. Shepherds come to witness his birth, but no wise men are mentioned. According to Luke, around 6 weeks after Jesus’s birth, the family goes to Jerusalem to present him at the temple, do the sacrifices, etc. And once they finish that, they go straight home to Nazareth.

Matthew, on the other hand, starts his account with Mary and Joseph already in Bethlehem. There’s no mention of a trip to Jerusalem, and there’s no mention of the shepherds who witness his birth. However, we’re told that when he was born, some “wise men from the east” traveled to Jerusalem to find him. We have no idea how much time has passed since his birth. But after the wise men tell Herod why they’re there, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two in an effort to eradicate this threat to his throne. Joseph is warned of this by an angel, and he and the family flee to Egypt. Matthew also tells us this was done in accordance with some prophecies, but when you look at those “prophecies” in their original context, you see that they aren’t prophecies at all. It’s also important to note that no historians of the time talk about this slaughter of children that supposedly took place, even those who had no love for Herod. Finally, Matthew tells us that after Herod’s death, the family decides to go back to Judea (the province in which Bethlehem is situated). However, Joseph worries that Herod’s son, who has now taken the throne, might still be a threat. So instead of going back to Judea, they go to Galilee and settle “in a city called Nazareth,” which seems like an odd way to refer to their hometown.

In Matthew’s version, instead of a journey to Jerusalem, it becomes the most dangerous place they could travel to. And in Luke’s version, there’s no mention of a trip to Egypt. Instead, they go to Jerusalem shortly after Jesus’s birth and then go home to Nazareth. Traveling to Egypt is simply unnecessary. Even if Herod had actually decided to kill all the children in Bethlehem, there was still no reason to go to Egypt. They could simply have gone back home to Nazareth. The city wasn’t under Herod’s control, and he didn’t actually know who they were, anyway.

In other words, there’s very little reason to think that Jesus ever went to Egypt at all. I know PolitiFact isn’t in the business of fact-checking religion. But since they took the time to examine this preacher’s claim, why not address it fully? Their entire shtick is fact-checking. I don’t expect them to flat-out say that Jesus never went to Egypt. But they could have at least mentioned that there’s no scholarly consensus about whether or not this even happened.

It reminds me of an article that Lawrence Krauss wrote for the New Yorker a couple of days ago that describes why scientists should stop being so PC with religion. We can still be respectful of individuals without compromising our standards of truth when it comes to their belief systems. And I feel that PolitiFact got it wrong this time.

“Times of Ignorance”

There’s a passage in the Bible that has long stood out to me. When I was a Christian, I found it comforting; now, I just find it perplexing. In Acts 17 (beginning in verse 16), Paul is visiting Athens. Since it was a hub of philosophy and culture, it had temples and altars to a multitude of different gods, including an altar “to the unknown god.” Paul uses this opportunity to preach to them about the Jewish god — the god that (according to Paul) created everything. Then, in verses 30-31, Paul says this:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

When Paul talks about “the times of ignorance,” he’s obviously talking about all the time before that moment — a time when God “allowed” people to serve “false” gods. But what does he mean when he says that God overlooked that time? I’d be curious to know how other denominations view this passage. When I was a Christian, my view of it tied in with the first three chapters of Romans. Those chapters lay out a case for why both Jews and Gentiles needed Christ. Romans 2:12-16 says this:

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The Old Law was given to the Jews. While the OT didn’t teach the concepts of Heaven and Hell, many Christians believe that keeping the Law is what let Jews go to Heaven, before Christ came. But what provision was there for Gentiles? Romans 2 seems to say that even though Gentiles didn’t have the law, those who lived righteously anyway were a “law to themselves,” which could “excuse them” on that day of judgement. This is still vague… did it mean that the Gentiles had to somehow anticipate the actual Mosaic laws? Or is this just talking about basic morality? I tend to think it’s the latter, since the former would be virtually impossible.

So let’s go back to Acts 17:30. When Paul says that God overlooked these “times of ignorance,” I took that to mean that he judged Gentiles merely on their morality. It seems like this would be a more forgiving scale, since it wouldn’t include any ritualistic precepts that only apply to specific doctrines. In other words, it seems to fit pretty well with Romans 2.

When I was a Christian, this gave me great comfort. After all, it meant that before the time of Christ, salvation was still awarded to many people, even if they weren’t Jewish. The alternative, that all Gentiles were automatically consigned to Hell, is just too horrible to contemplate.

But this also brings up some uncomfortable questions. First of all, Acts 17:30 goes on to say “but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” This would indicate that Gentiles could no longer simply be judged on a general moral law. Instead, they would be required to become Christians. But how much sense does that make? If Paul really made this speech in Athens, most sources I’ve seen estimate it to have taken place around 50 CE. This is before any books of the New Testament had been written, which means Christianity was solely spreading by word of mouth. How could all Gentiles have been expected to respond to the gospel at this point in time? Even decades later, once some of the writings were circulating, there were also “non-canonical” writings in the mix. How could people have known which were accurate? For centuries, Christians simply didn’t have access to all the canonical books of the Bible, and even if they had, the majority couldn’t have read them. So they would have relied on the testimony of clergy. When disagreements arose surrounding doctrine, how could they have known what to believe? This doesn’t even deal with the very big problem that Christianity, for most of its history, barely spread outside of Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. Most of the world knew nothing of it.

If God no longer excused ignorance after Paul’s speech, then millions upon millions of people were consigned to Hell through no fault of their own. If God did still excuse people’s ignorance, then Paul’s speech doesn’t make a lot of sense here.

But there’s another problem as well. If God was able to save people simply based on their morality, then why did he ever do anything different? Let’s say God still overlooked ignorance even after Paul’s speech. If you had been a Gentile living at that time, you would have had a greater chance at salvation if you never heard the gospel. Because if you heard it, but rejected it, you would be accountable to it. If you never heard it, then simply living a moral life would be enough for salvation. This means that those who preached the gospel were actually doing a disservice. Ignorance truly would have been bliss. Why would God have implemented such a flawed and unfair plan?

When I was a Christian, I took it for granted that Christianity was true, so I when I read this passage, I really just focused on the comfort I got from thinking that Gentiles still had an avenue for salvation before Christ came. But I now see this as another red flag about the truth of Christianity. So I’m curious as to how other groups view this. Are there ways of looking at it that aren’t so problematic? Or is this a minor enough passage that most of you never paid much attention to it?

Skeptical Bible Study: Tower of Babel

I was listening to a recent speech that Matt Dillahunty gave in Australia (listen here if you’re interested), and in part of it he brought up the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11. It’s a story I’ve thought about several times since leaving Christianity. I don’t recall everything Matt said about it, though I know I’ll be making some of the same points he did. I haven’t been a Christian for about 5 years now, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine that I ever believed stories like this one, though I definitely did. And a number of other conservative Christians do as well.

A few days ago, I asked my wife if she remembered what God was angry about in this story, and she gave the same reason that I thought: God was angry because people were being prideful. In case you’ve forgotten, the crux of the story is that several generations after the flood, mankind was growing numerous, and they all had one common language. They decided to build a tower that would reach Heaven (see how prideful?), so God put a stop to it by confusing their language. This caused the various groups to split up, each person going along with whomever could understand him or her.

However, after looking at the details a bit more, it turns out that my recollection was a bit off. First, the people weren’t actually being prideful at all. Instead of trying to build a tower to Heaven — God’s abode — they were just trying to build a tall one to make it easier to stay in one geographic area:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
— Genesis 11:1-4

The phrase “in the heavens” is just talking about the sky, not the realm of God. For just a moment though, let’s pretend that they really had been trying to reach God with their tower. Why would that be such a bad thing? Doesn’t the Bible repeatedly tell us to seek after God? Furthermore, would they have succeeded? On September 12, 2013, Voyager 1 actually left our solar system. In all those miles, it didn’t bump into Heaven. No earth-based tower would ever run the risk of reaching God’s home. So not only were the people not attempting that, even if they had been it wouldn’t have succeeded, and it actually would have been flattering toward God.

So if God wasn’t angry at them for being prideful, why did he confuse their language and force them apart? The next few verses give us the answer:

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
— Genesis 11:5-9

Essentially, God was just being a jerk. He was like a kid stirring up an anthill. I mean, God forbid (literally) that people advance technologically, right? Wouldn’t want them discovering things like the germ theory of disease, after all. And why prevent wars by keeping people within the same culture? Much better, I guess, to create different cultures so mistrust and bigotry can form. Furthermore, if this was such a problem at the time, why hasn’t he stopped us again? We’ve figured out ways to overcome language and culture barriers now. We’ve done so much more than just “build a tall tower.” God’s motivation in this story simply makes no sense at all.

However, if you step back for a moment and stop trying to view this as literal history with an actual god, things become clearer. Imagine living thousands of years ago and trying to make sense of the world around you. You think the world is flat and that the sun revolves around it. You don’t understand the cause of thunder storms, earthquakes, or volcanoes. You can’t imagine how animals and humans got here without some kind of creator. And if there’s a creator, why didn’t he make life easier? Why does he allow disease and starvation? There are so many difficult questions that just have no answer. And so people began to formulate answers as best they could. It’s easy to see that one of those questions may have been “why didn’t God (the gods) give us all the same language?” And so they came up with an answer.

Looking at it from that perspective, it’s much easier to understand how a story like this came to be. These people were dealing with the world as they saw it — and to them, the only reason they could think of for God not wanting everyone to have the same language, is that they would accomplish too much. They had no idea that humanity would one day find a way around that problem, rendering their explanation invalid.

Speaking as someone who grew up believing that stories like this were actual history, I know how easy it is to just go along under that assumption without question, especially if those around us believe as we do. It’s not stupidity; it’s either isolation and ignorance, or it’s stubbornness. We can help the isolated and ignorant by just being available to discuss these things when they come up. And with the Bible, there are plenty of examples to be found.

An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 5

Now that we’ve actually covered Ezekiel’s prophecy of Tyre in detail, I’d like to make some closing observations.

The Track Record

For a moment, let’s consider the way the Old Testament god operates. He does nothing halfway. One of the examples that really stands out to me is the story of Elijah versus the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Elijah offers them a challenge. Let Baal’s prophets prepare a sacrifice on an altar, but instead of lighting it, they can call on Baal to light it for them. Elijah will do the same thing, but call on Yahweh. The Israelites can then follow whichever god delivers. The prophets of Baal accept.

Elijah lets Baal’s prophets go first. They prepare their altar that morning and spend most of the day calling on Baal to light the sacrifice. Of course, nothing happens, even when they begin to cut themselves. Elijah mocks them: “Call louder, maybe your god is on a trip. Maybe he’s sleeping.” Finally, Elijah says they’ve had long enough. So he then prepares his own altar and the sacrifice, and he digs a trench around the altar. Before he calls on Yahweh, he has pitchers of water poured over the sacrifice until it soaks everything and fills the trench around the altar. He calls on his god, and fire immediately shoots down from the sky. Not only does it light the sacrifice, it completely consumes it. But it doesn’t stop there — it consumes the wood, the stones of the altar, and even all the water in the trench.

God went above and beyond anything that was expected. He didn’t simply light a sacrifice. He obliterated it in an inferno under the most unfavorable conditions imaginable, and he did it in such a way that was unquestionable. Not a single person present could have denied what just happened. And this isn’t the only time God operated in this way.

In Genesis 41, God gives Pharaoh two dreams. In the first, he dreams of 7 fat, healthy cows coming up out of the Nile, followed by 7 emaciated cows. The 7 emaciated cows eat the 7 fat cows. In the second dream, 7 fat ears of corn (or wheat) are consumed by 7 thin and blighted ears of corn (or wheat). Pharaoh can’t make sense of these dreams. But God doesn’t leave him confused — he provides someone who can decipher the dreams. Joseph tells Pharaoh that the two dreams mean the same thing. The region will soon experience 7 years of plentiful harvests, followed by 7 years of extreme famine. This interpretation gives Pharaoh time to prepare for the famine, propels Joseph to prominence, and brings Joseph and his family back together again.

While the dreams themselves were vague and symbolic, God provided a very specific interpretation complete with timelines. He didn’t leave anything up to uncertainty. While Pharaoh was presumably free to react to this news however he wanted, the message itself was crystal clear.

We could look at countless other examples and see that God had no problem being clear and specific. So why not be specific here? In the first post of this series, I pointed out that this prophecy fails on the surface, since Tyre wasn’t scraped clean and it’s still a city today. And in the last post, we saw that the prophecy even fails in the details. But even if it hadn’t failed in the details and only appeared to at the surface, why would God have allowed it to be so ambivalent? If Alexander was supposed to be part of the fulfillment, why not mention him specifically just as Nebuchadnezzar was mentioned? Isn’t it a little suspect that the only king specifically mentioned was the one already in power at the time of the writing? If “bare rock” really just meant momentarily brought low, why be so misleading? If “never be rebuilt” and “no more forever” really just meant that it would never be quite as awesome as it used to be, why not just say that?

As it stands, this prophecy can never be used to convince a skeptic, because it seems to fail on so many levels. And Christians who consider it a success have to overlook a number of issues, which means no one can use it as evidence. Christians and Jews will believe Ezekiel was inspired whether he was right about this or not, and skeptics can’t be convinced by it because of its many problems. So why was it recorded, if Ezekiel was truly inspired? The faithful don’t need it, and it only causes more doubts for everyone else.

To Sum Up

If God wants everyone to believe that the Bible is his divine message, it’s hard to see what motive he would have for including this prophecy. I hope it’s evident after considering all the specifics that this prophecy is simply a failure. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives us the litmus test for a prophet:

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

By this standard, Ezekiel was not a true prophet. He was simply a Jew living in a difficult time trying to make sense of why God would allow his people to be so devastated. Perhaps a little jealousy and resentment caused him to make this pronouncement against Tyre — I don’t know. But whatever motivated him, it wasn’t divine revelation.

For the person who believes in the Bible’s inerrancy, it can be difficult to accept this conclusion. If Ezekiel is false, what other books of the Bible might be bogus? It takes a truly open-minded person to not close themselves off when faced with this, but to forge ahead with rigorous study and put their beliefs to the test, considering all possibilities. It’s difficult, but so worthwhile. And it’s the only honest way to live, really.

For anyone who’s still interested in this prophecy, I ran across a great article about it — and don’t worry, it’s much shorter than mine! You can find it here.

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.

An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 3

In the first post, I argued that this prophecy simply fails at face value. Ezekiel predicted that Tyre would be completely destroyed and never rebuilt, yet that didn’t happen. Tyre experienced a long history of both prosperity and calamity, and today, it’s the 4th largest city in Lebanon. In the second post, I briefly recounted Tyre’s history to give us a good foundation. In this post, we’ll examine the prophecy in more detail and examine some of the arguments that apologists make when they claim that this prophecy came true.

Why is the prophecy given?

In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, ‘Aha, the gate of the peoples is broken; it has swung open to me. I shall be replenished, now that she is laid waste,’ 3 therefore thus says the Lord God:
— Ezek 26:1-3a

This gives us our context. Nebuchadnezzar has just decimated Jerusalem, and Ezekiel says that Tyre looked at this destruction and thought it would benefit them economically. According to Ezekiel, this attitude angers God, so he will now start laying out their coming consequences.

Incidentally, there’s something interesting about this that I didn’t realize until I was preparing for this series. Nebuchadnezzar took control of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, or thereabouts. But he didn’t destroy the city — he simply received its submission and instituted a vassal king. Years later, he was forced to come against Jerusalem again in 586 BCE, and that’s when he completely destroyed it. Which of these events does Ezekiel reference as causing Tyre’s smug attitude? I had assumed it was the attack in 586 BCE, considering Ezekiel’s reference to Jerusalem being laid waste. Yet we know that Nebuchadnezzar besieged Tyre for 13 years, and the siege ended in 584 BCE (see Livius). This would mean Nebuchadnezzar began Tyre’s siege in 597 BCE, long before Jerusalem fell. So if Ezekiel made his prophecy after Jerusalem’s destruction, Nebuchadnezzar had already been attacking Tyre for over 10 years. If so, then Ezekiel was guaranteed success to “prophesy” that Nebuchadnezzar would attack Tyre and destroy its mainland settlements, since that had already been done. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, though — maybe Ezekiel was referring to Jerusalem’s subjugation and not destruction. I just find it curious.

Who will come against Tyre?

Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves.
— Ezek 26:3b

This is the first spot where there is some controversy. In just a few more verses, Ezekiel is going to specify that Nebuchadnezzar will be coming up against Tyre. We know from history that he did indeed besiege it, but was ultimately unable to take the city (there’s much more to say about this, and we’ll get to it soon). So this raises the question, what did Ezekiel mean by “many nations”? Does he mean many nations in addition to Nebuchadnezzar, or is Nebuchadnezzar’s army still referring to the same group, just being more specific? Does he mean that many nations will be coming with Nebuchadnezzar (he was the head of an empire, after all), or coming after him? Some have argued that the phrase “as the sea brings up its waves” means that various nations will come up against Tyre at different times, separate from Nebuchadnezzar’s attack. In other words, they’ll be attacked “in waves” that likely have years in between them. That’s a possibility. Of course, even one siege will include many waves of attack, so it’s still hard to know for sure what Ezekiel meant by this. Its significance will factor in as we continue looking at the prophecy, so we’ll come back to it.

Which Tyre?!

They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. 5 She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, 6 and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.
— Ezek 26:4-6

This is what’s in store for Tyre: her walls and towers will be torn down. The city will be scraped bare till only rock is left.

At this point, we need to address another contention about this prophecy. A number of Christians maintain that this portion of the prophecy is talking about the mainland portion of Tyre, because we know that Alexander took the ruins from the mainland and used them to build his causeway. As we discussed in the last post, this mainland portion was called “Paleotyrus” by the Greeks, meaning “old Tyre,” but historical records actually indicate that this was a misnomer. These mainland settlements more commonly went by the name “Ushu.” Even in the time of Hiram, about 400 years before Nebuchadnezzar’s time, when people spoke of Tyre, they were discussing the wealthy, prominent trade hub and political power, which was the island city. Even further back, the Amarna Letters, which were written around 800 years before Ezekiel’s prophecy, clearly refer to the island as “Tyre” and the mainland as “Sazu.” It doesn’t appear that the mainland portion ever went by the name Tyre, while the island is never referred to by any other name.

The context of this passage also indicates that the island city is the focus of the prophecy. Verse 5 says “she shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets.” The mainland is not “in the midst of the sea,” but the island is. Some have argued that “midst of the sea” could still refer to the mainland, since all of its buildings and ruins would have been cast in the sea. But this seems rather unlikely. First of all, would it make sense to refer to the building materials as the city? More importantly, verse 4 says the city will be a bare rock. So the city can’t simultaneously be a bare rock and be the building materials that are at the bottom of the sea.

Furthermore, verse 6 makes separate mention of “her daughters on the mainland,” which would seem to indicate the mainland settlement of Ushu and other suburbs. Some Christians have argued against this as well by pointing out that “killed with the sword” must apply to individuals, not cities. But I think that’s a stretch — cities are made up of individuals, so I simply don’t see an issue here. They make a stronger point by saying that the word translated as “mainland” is usually translated “field,” and several versions translate it that way in this passage. In other words, they’re arguing that the passage is telling Ushu that “your daughters (women? children? people? etc) in the fields will be killed by the sword.”

Most scholars do not hold to that position. Biblehub has an article that lists a number of commentaries’ thoughts on this passage. Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible says it this way:

And her daughters which are in the field shall be slain by the sword,…. That is, the inhabitants of the cities, towns, and villages, on the shore near it, and which were subject to it; as such cities are frequently in Scripture called the daughters of the place to which they belong: or their daughters literally…

And when you consider the geography of Tyre, that its city center was unquestionably on the island, that no other ancient source ever refers to the mainland as Tyre, and you take into consideration verse 5’s “midst of the sea,” then there’s no reason to think that “daughters in the field” should suddenly make the whole prophecy refer to Ushu. After all, even if the passage literally meant “field,” it could still just as easily refer to Tyre.

This passage predicts that Tyre’s towers and walls will be torn down. It’s widely known that the island city of Tyre had massive, impregnable walls, but there’s no indication that the mainland had them at all. In fact, it’s said that the inhabitants of the mainland sought refuge within the island’s walls whenever there was danger, which suggests there were no heavy fortifications for the mainland (wiki: Katzenstein, H.J., The History of Tyre, 1973, p10). There certainly weren’t the kind that could sustain a 13 year siege.

Finally, there are several other passages in chapters 26-28 that indicate Tyre was an island. 26:17 says the city was “mighty on the sea”. 27:4 says “your borders are in the heart of the seas”. 27:25, 27:26, 28:2, and 28:8 all describe it as being “in the heart of the seas”. And the entirety of chapter 27 compares Tyre to a magnificent ship on the sea, which is a very fitting analogy for an island, but not so much for a mainland settlement that doesn’t even have a harbor.

But Alexander did actually scrape the mainland bare…

Yes, that’s true. He did throw the stones and timber of Ushu into the sea to create his causeway. Does this fact alone show that Ezekiel must have been inspired, since he talked about the city being scraped bare?

Hopefully, I’ve successfully made the case that Ezekiel’s prophecy is definitely directed toward the island city of Tyre, and the only portion that relates to the mainland settlements (like Ushu) is the section dealing with Tyre’s “daughters on the mainland.” Therefore, the “scraped bare” would apply to Tyre, not Ushu, and that’s a pretty big detail for someone inspired by God to get wrong. Additionally, when Ezekiel makes this pronouncement, he’s making it as a judgment — their destruction will be so thorough that nothing will be left. There’s no indication that the materials would be thrown into the sea for any other purpose. And though we haven’t covered verse 12 yet, it shows that the scraping and casting into the sea happens after the walls and towers have been torn down, after the streets have been trampled, after the people have been killed, and after their wealth has been looted. The reference to Tyre’s wealth and its walls and towers is another indication that it’s speaking of the island, not the mainland. In other words, the “scraping bare” is the last thing that happens, not the first. This is further evidence that Ezekiel didn’t foresee the mainland ruins being used to access the city, but was predicting that Tyre (the island) would be so thoroughly devastated that absolutely nothing would be left of it.

Our brains naturally try to find patterns, so it’s no surprise that when Ezekiel says something about Tyre being scraped bare and cast into the sea, and then Alexander the Great takes ruins of a settlement and throws them in the sea, we try to make a connection. But it’s the same pattern recognition that we use when finding shapes in clouds or trying to match our personalities to the zodiac. When we look at the details of the prophecy, it becomes clearer that Ezekiel had something else in mind and doesn’t predict Alexander’s construction of the causeway at all.

In the next post, we’ll dig further into Ezekiel’s prophecy and compare it with what we know of Tyre’s history.

An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 2

In the previous post, I argued that this prophecy simply fails at face value. Ezekiel predicted that Tyre would be completely destroyed and never rebuilt, yet that didn't happen. Tyre experienced a long history of both prosperity and calamity, and today, it's the 4th largest city in Lebanon. In this post, we'll examine that history in more detail so we'll have a good foundation as we study the prophecy.

It's surprisingly hard to find thorough histories that just focus on Tyre. If you stick to the internet, you typically run across links that have a religious slant, arguing for or against Ezekiel's prophecy. However, I did find two that were helpful and seemed to not have a heavy bias. This site is primarily a Middle East travel site, but it provides interesting historical facts about many of the major tourist spots in the Mid East, and Tyre is no exception. Another online resource that was very helpful is this page at Livius is a non-profit site dedicated to ancient history, run by Dutch historian Jona Lendering. The best thing about this site is that it provides references to ancient sources for its major points.

Finally, the other source that was especially helpful to me is The History of Tyre, by Wallace Fleming. Like Livius, it’s chock full of references to ancient historical sources, and it seems to be about as thorough a treatment of the subject as one could hope to find.

A Brief History of Tyre

map of TyreTyre is quite ancient. Its name means “rock,” which is a fitting name as it’s a rocky island that sat just off the Phoenician coast. Herodotus records that the city was founded somewhere around 2800 BCE. There’s been some disagreement over which came first, the island city, or the mainland settlements. This confusion has mostly come from the Greeks calling the mainland settlement “Paleotyrus,” which means “old Tyre.” But more ancient texts refer to this site as “Ushu” or “Sazu.” For instance, “the Tyre of the Amarna letters and of the early Egyptian travelers was clearly the island city. The mainland town was then called Sazu” (Fleming, ch 1). The Amarna letters date to sometime in the 14th century BCE, which is about 800 years before Ezekiel’s prophecy. If Tyre was already known to be the island that far back, then it really leaves no question as to whether his prophecy referred to the island or the mainland. As another scholar put it, “Palaetyrus is now generally admitted to have been merely an outpost of Tyre, and is conjecturally placed by most scholars as near Ras al-Ain” (Maspero, Struggles of the Nations, p. 186). So even if the mainland section is older, there’s no precedent for it going by the name Tyre.

By the time of the Amarna letters, Tyre was already considered quite formidable, not just prosperous (Fleming, ch 1). The Phoenicians were masters of the sea, and Tyre was its most prominent city. Its ships sailed throughout the Mediterranean and even the Atlantic, going as far as the western coast of Africa and even the British Isles. Tyre founded a number of other prominent cities like Citium and Carthage. King Hiram I reigned from 980 to 947 BCE. He undertook a number of projects that enlarged Tyre like filling in the eastern side of the island and connecting the main island of Tyre to the smaller one to the south that was the site of the temple of Melkart.

Tyre continued to grow in prosperity as the centuries unfolded. When the Assyrian Empire came to power in the region, they were unable to take Tyre, but would periodically put pressure on the city to receive submission and tribute.

Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came against Tyre, but was unable to take the city after a 13 year siege. Finally, in 584 BCE, Babylon and Tyre worked out a peace: Tyre gave some hostages and accepted a Babylonian official at court. Following Nebuchadnezzar’s siege, Tyre suffered economic and political turmoil for a while. The long siege had affected its trade, and the city didn’t completely recover until shortly after the Persians took over Babylon in 539 BCE.

The Tyrian navy served Persia in its wars with Greece. Once Alexander defeated the Persian king in 333 BCE, the Phoenician cities submitted to him, including Tyre (Livius). An embassy from the city met him at the coast with a gold crown and various other gifts, proclaiming their submission. Alexander was pleased, but he told the group that the city should make ready for his arrival, for he wished to sacrifice in the temple of Melkart. This put the people of Tyre on guard. They worried that he was looking to occupy the city, and they were used to having a high degree of autonomy under the empires they were subject to.

After deliberation, Tyre sent word to Alexander that they would submit to any request but this one — they would not allow either Persians (their former masters) or Greeks into the city, but that he was welcome to sacrifice to Melkart at the temple in Ushu (Paleotyre), which they said was older (though it probably wasn’t). Alexander was furious. He said if they wouldn’t open their gates to him, he would break them down. But the Tyrians had been besieged before, so they weren’t overly concerned by his threats. Tyre’s walls facing the mainland were 150 feet high and couldn’t be worn down without attack engines. But since it sat half a mile from the coast, there was no firm ground on which to base such siege weapons.

The siege began in January of 332 BCE. Alexander decided to build a causeway across the channel by using the buildings and ruins of Ushu. But the work was difficult, and they were constantly harried by Tyre’s defenders, who would fire arrows and other missiles from the walls and pull pieces of the causeway apart with their ships. After almost 6 months, little progress had been made.

Alexander finally realized that the Tyrian fleet needed to be neutralized if he was to have any hope of success. So he enlisted the other Phoenician navies as well as some ships from Cyprus, and this kept the Tyrian fleet from being able to leave their harbor. Alexander’s troops finally finished the causeway once they were no longer being impeded by Tyre’s fleet, though the siege was by no means a simple feat after this. I won’t go into all the details here, but reading about the ingenious tactics used by both sides is quite amazing. It’s impressive how well the Tyrians were able to hold out.

Alexander's siege
Image credit:

But finally, the city fell in July of 332 BCE.

The city was in the hands of her enemies; her people defeated but not conquered. Some, having barricaded their houses, and gone to the roofs, threw down stones and other missiles upon the heads of the Macedonian soldiers. Many shut themselves up in their homes and died at their own hands. Many died in the streets. Others barricaded themselves within the sacred building called the Agenorium, and made desperate resistance to Alexander and his soldiers until they were overpowered and killed almost to the last man. There was general slaughter in the streets and squares. The Macdeonians were enraged by the stubborn resistance of the city… A large part of the city was burned. Eight thousand were slain in the conflict. The young men of the city to the number of two thousand were crucified on the seashore by order of Alexander, as a reprisal for the death of the Macedonian prisoners. Thirty thousand were sold into slavery. The Sidonians on board of their vessels gave shelter to many refugees. The king, Azemilcus, and the chief magistrates, with the Carthaginian embassy, took refuge in the temple of Heracles (Melkart) and their lives were spared.
— Fleming, ch 7

Greek Rule and Beyond
“The city did not lie in ruins long. Colonists were imported and citizens who had escaped returned. The energy of these with the advantages of the site, in a few years raised the city to wealth and leadership again” (Fleming, ch 7).

The city flourished under Greek rule, as well as Roman, and beyond. Though it changed hands occasionally as various kingdoms came into power, it remained an important trade and political hub for many centuries. We have many references to Tyre, and it continues to be referred to in terms of beauty, wealth, and power. Throughout this time, Alexander’s causeway grew progressively larger from sediment buildup, until the island became a peninsula.

The city finally hit its lowest point in 1291 AD, over 1500 years after Alexander’s attack, when Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil defeated Acre and then sent troops to take Tyre. The governor of Tyre, as well as the knights and wealthy people, abandoned the city leaving only those who had no means of escape. The remaining citizens were too frightened to offer resistance, so they opened the gates to the enemy, thinking that would earn mercy. Instead, they were slaughtered, and the buildings of Tyre were destroyed and burned.

traffic in TyreThe city lay in ruins for centuries after this devastation. There were periods where the population would grow a bit, and even one period where 10,000 soldiers were stationed there, but some other attack or natural disaster would bring it low again. In the 19th century, there were some travelers who passed through and wrote descriptions about its sorry state that were obviously borrowing phrases from Ezekiel’s prophecy. In 1915, there were only about 6500 people living in Tyre, and there were various schools and churches for the residents there (Fleming, ch 11). But throughout the 20th century, the city continued to grow, despite some setbacks caused by conflicts in the area. Today, it is the 4th largest city in Lebanon with over 100,000 inhabitants, it has one of Lebanon’s most vital ports, and it’s become a major tourist attraction (wiki).

In the next post, we’ll look at how Ezekiel’s prophecy matches up against Tyre’s history.

Tyre today
Tyre today

An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 1

In the last few weeks, I’ve had to delve back into a subject that I haven’t spent much time researching since my initial deconversion. Ezekiel’s prophecy of Tyre, which can be found in Ezekiel 26-28, was a major piece of evidence for me in showing that the Bible was not as accurate as I had always thought. I’ve written about it twice before: first in a rather matter-of-fact manner, and later with a touch of sarcasm. The blog Thomistic Bent has recently done a 3-part series on Ezekiel’s prophecy of Tyre (1, 2, and 3), and my own posts on the subject have seen a lot of recent activity as well, so I think it’s time that I do a new series on the prophecy in as thorough a fashion as I know how. This will be a lengthy study, so I’ve decided to break it up into several parts.

At Face Value

I think it’s important to state up front that this prophecy simply fails at face value. To me, that’s significant, since God would be powerful enough to ensure that no matter what the prophecy stated, events would unfold exactly as predicted. In the prophecy, Ezekiel states that Tyre would be destroyed:

3 therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. 4 They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. 5 She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, 6 and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.
— Ezek 26:3-6

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 26:13-14

21 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.”
— Ezek 26:21

And as you can see, in addition to being destroyed, it’s prophesied that Tyre will never be rebuilt or found again. But this is simply not true. We’ll get into the details later, but the simple fact is that once Tyre was finally destroyed, it was immediately rebuilt. Instead of being a bare rock, or even a ruin, it remained an extremely important trade hub in the region for centuries. And it’s the 4th largest city in Lebanon today.

So the events haven’t worked out exactly as the prophecy claimed they would. And for many people, myself included, that’s enough. I view this prophecy as a failure. Nevertheless, there’s much more that can be said by digging into the details of this prophecy, as well as the geography and history of Tyre and its surroundings. A number of people have found ways to claim that this prophecy has been fulfilled by focusing on the minutiae. I don’t find their arguments persuasive, however, and the next several posts will go into my reasons why.

This City Doesn’t Exist

TyreStreetThis might look like your typical city street, but don’t be fooled. This city street doesn’t really exist. Confused? Let me explain.

This city street has the misfortune of being built in a spot that the Bible says would remain desolate forever. Ezekiel 26 and the next two chapters prophesy that the city of Tyre would be destroyed and never be rebuilt. This is why we can’t be misled by pictures like these. Despite their seeming undeniable hold upon reality, Tyre can’t really be there. After all, many Bible apologetics books have stated that Tyre is just a bare rock where fishermen spread their nets. That’s all fine and good, but we probably shouldn’t tell that to the people living there. Imagine how disorienting it would be to find out your city isn’t there!

TyreCondosHow do we explain this anomaly? I can only think of two possibilities. Perhaps we are witnessing a tear in the fabric of reality. This might simply be a glimpse of a reality in which Ezekiel did not prophesy that Tyre would never be rebuilt. Somehow we’re able to see it, but it’s obviously not our reality, because Ezekiel said Tyre shouldn’t be here.

However, there is another possibility. There’s a remote chance that Ezekiel was wrong about Tyre. A ludicrous proposition, I know, but technically, it is a possibility.

TyreSidewalkWe may never come to a true resolution of this ambiguous issue. Is it really there, or isn’t it? It seems that each individual will have to come to his or her own conclusion. One thing is certain, however. The apologists have definitively staked out the position that Tyre doesn’t exist, while the residents of Tyre disagree.

If you’d like to learn more about this issue, you can read this article.