Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Passover

April 14, 2014
The Israelites Eat the Passover (illustration ...

The Israelites Eat the Passover (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

At sundown yesterday, the Jews began the celebration of Pesach or Passover, to commemorate what is perhaps the most significant event of Jewish history, the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. This year, Passover lasts until the evening of  April 21.

 

Exodus 12

The Passover

1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb[a] for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat—that is all you may do.

17 “Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. 18 In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. 19 For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native-born. 20 Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.”

21 Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning. 23 When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

24 “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. 25 When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ 27 then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. 28 The Israelites did just what the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron.

29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. 30 Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.

The Exodus

31 During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD as you have requested. 32Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.”

33 The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. “For otherwise,” they said, “we will all die!” 34 So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing. 35 The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. 36 The LORD had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.

37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. 39 With the dough they had brought from Egypt, they baked cakes of unleavened bread. The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves.

40 Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt[b] was 430 years. 41 At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the LORD’s divisions left Egypt. 42 Because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the LORD for the generations to come.

Passover Restrictions

43The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover:

“No foreigner is to eat of it. 44 Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, 45 but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it.

46 “It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. 47 The whole community of Israel must celebrate it.

48 “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. 49 The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.”

50 All the Israelites did just what the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 And on that very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.

 

Although Christians do not generally celebrate Passover, it does have great significance for Christianity. The Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples was a Passover seder.

 

Luke 22

Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus

1 Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, 2 and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. 3 Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5 They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

The Last Supper

7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

9 “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.

10 He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

13 They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22 The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.” 23 They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.

 

Jesus’s crucifixion is regarded as a sacrifice like the passover lamb and Christians regard the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt as a foreshadowing of Christ’s deliverance of the whole human race from the slavery of sin.

 

26 Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.  (Hebrews 7:26-28)

28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.  (Hebrews 9:28)

 

So, Chag Sameach to any Jewish readers.

 

 

 

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Palm Sunday

April 13, 2014

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the climax of his earthly ministry.

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:1-11)

Palm Sunday is often celebrated by palm leaves to worshippers in churches. If palm leaves are not available locally, than other tree branches may be substituted. In many churches the priest or other clergy blesses the palms and they are saved to be burned at Ash Wednesday the following year.

The actual date of Palm Sunday, like Easter varies from year to year because the date is based on a lunisolar cycle like the Hebrew calendar. The date differs between Western and Eastern Christianity because most Eastern churches still use the Julian calendar for their liturgical year, even though the Gregorian calendar is universally used for civil purposes.

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, or the last week of Lent.

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Out of the Silent Planet

April 7, 2014

Sometime in the 1930s, C. S. Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien were complaining about the state of contemporary English fiction. “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories”, Lewis said to Tolkien, “I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves”. After some discussion on the subject, the two writers agreed that Tolkien would write a time travel story while Lewis would try his hand at a space travel story.

The results were typical of the very different styles and personalities of the two men. Tolkien was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with anything he wrote and his proposed story was never finished. Lewis was more energetic and managed to write the three novels that make up his “Space Trilogy” in less than a decade.
Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in the trilogy. The story begins when Elwin Ransom, a philologist who is spending his vacation walking around the English countryside, comes across two men, Weston and Devine, trying to force a retarded young man into some structure. Ransom rescues the young man, only to be taken himself on what turns out to be a space ship traveling to a planet called Malacandra, or Mars. Along the way, Ransom discovers that Weston and Devine intend to deliver him as a sort of human sacrifice to the Malacandrans and as soon as they land, he escapes.

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ransom quickly encounters the Malacandrans and learns that they are not the savage, primitive monsters he had been led to believe they were. There are three species of Malacandrans; the seal like Hrossa, the tall, wise Sorns, and the handy Pfifltriggi. A fourth race, the invisible Eldili live in space and are more like spirits or angels. All three races are unfallen and thus lack the inclination to evil that the inhabitants of our Earth or Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. The only word in the Malacandran language that Ransom can find to express the concept of evil is “bent”, perhaps the most apt word to describe the problems or humanity that I have ever heard.

 

There is not much action in Out of the Silent Planet, and there are slow places, but the plot is far from dull. I think the depictions of the extraterrestrials are among the best I have read in science fiction. The science is badly dated, though Lewis made the best use of contemporary theories and knowledge about Mars available at the time. In the climax, Ransom is brought before the ruling eldil of Malacandra, the Oyarsa. He discovers that the Oyarsa of Earth is bent and confined to Earth’s immediate region in space. As a result, Earth is inaccessible to the Eldil and is named Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. Ransom answers the Oyarsa’s questions about life on Thulcandra and affirms things are very bent indeed. Weston and Devine are brought forward, but they insist on treating the Malacandrans like ignorant savages, even speaking in a ridiculous pidgin. This scene is a send up of modern man’s pretensions of superiority over “primitives”, and Ransom’s translation of Weston’s speech asserting Human superiority over the Malacandrans is priceless.

 
Out of the Silent Planet seems to be a promising beginning to the Space Trilogy and can stand on its own. I am not sure if it can really be classed as properly science fiction so much as a theological fantasy, or an up to date medieval romance, but however you might classify it, it is worth the effort of reading.

 

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Ararat

April 1, 2014

Maybe it is because of the recent movie on the subject, but I seem to be writing a lot about Noah and his ark. I wrote about a possible shape of Noah’s ark about a week ago, and now I would like to write a little about where his ark ended up.

Mount Ararat is a mountain in the easternmost region of Turkey, close to Turkey’s border with Iran and Armenia. It is a dormant volcano with two peaks, Greater Ararat and Lesser Ararat with elevations of 16,854 and 12,782 feet respectively. Mount Ararat is the highest mountain of the Armenian plateau and the ancient Armenians revered the mountain as the home of their gods, much as  the ancient Greeks revered Mount Olympus. More recently, many Christians have believed that Mount Ararat is the place where Noah’s ark landed. There have even been expeditions over the years to try to find some remains of the ark. Despite urban legends to the contrary, the ark has never been found.Of course, you really couldn’t expect that a vessel made of wood would survive for thousands of years, but perhaps they are looking in the wrong place.

Ararat_3d_version_1

The actual account in Genesis reads:

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible. (Gen 8:1-5)

Notice that it says the mountains of Ararat. This does not seem to be a reference to a single mountain, nor is it likely that the ark would be large enough to extend across several mountains. If I were to say that the plane landed in the Rocky Mountains, I wouldn’t mean that the plane landed on a mountain called Rocky nor that the plane was perched atop several mountains. I would mean that the plane landed somewhere in the mountain ranges known as the Rockies. Similarly, the “mountains of Ararat” must refer to a mountainous region that the ark came to rest in.

So, where are the mountains of Ararat? In the Armenian plateau, between the River Tigris and the Caucasus Mountains, there was a kingdom, centered around Lake Van, known as Urartu. This kingdom began as a collection of tribes and kingdoms around 1200 BC. They were conquered by the Assyrians but reemerged as a united kingdom around 850, during a period of Assyrian weakness. They managed to resist the Assyrians until 745 when they were conquered again by Tiglath Pileser II. Urartu regained some independence, as a vasssl of Assyrian but they were subjected to invasions by the  Cimmerians, Scythians, and later the Medes. When the Assyrian Empire was overthrown, Urartu recovered its power somewhat until it was finally conquered and destroyed by the Persians around 590. The Phrygians and the ancestors of the Armenians settled in the region and Urartu ceased to exist. Modern Armenians trace their heritage back to Urartu, and it has come to play a role in Armenian nationalism.

13-Urartu-9-6mta

 

The story of Noah and the ark originated in the flat plain of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians realized that an ark or ship in a receding flood would more likely come to rest at a higher altitude than their own lowlands and the highlands that later came to be known as Urartu seemed a logical place. The Hebrews were, of course, familiar with the region of Urartu which was rendered Ararat in the Hebrew language.  Mount Ararat is, of course, to be found in the mountains or Ararat, but any searchers for the remains of Noah’s ark are going to have to look over an entire region rather than a single mountain.

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The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled

March 28, 2014

After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, many of our political leaders took pains to assure us that Islam is a religion of peace. The nineteen men who committed the atrocities on that date were said to have followed an extreme version of Islam, a version not shared by the vast majority of peace loving Muslims. Many people, however, cannot help but wonder whether a religion whose adherents are responsible for most of the terrorism in the world today might not promote violence in its teachings. Being a religion with more than one and a half billion followers, contemporary Islam is of course very diverse. There are many, many Muslims who are indeed peaceful, and many who are not. How, then, can we determine whether the doctrines of Islam promote peace or violence?

One way, might be to go back and look at the founder of the religion. After all, a tree is known by its fruits. The Prophet Mohammed in Arabia founded Islam more than fourteen centuries ago. To this day, Muslims look upon him as a perfect man to be emulated. Stories of his sayings and deeds, known as the Hadiths, are second only to the Koran as a guide to Muslim behavior. So then, learning whether Mohammed was a man of peace or of war should go a long way in determining whether Islam is a religion of peace or of war.

That is just what Harry Richardson has done with his book The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled. Mr. Richardson tells the story of the life of Mohammed using Islamic sources including the Koran. Along the way, he shows how Mohammed’s example is used by terrorists to justify their actions. For, Mohammed was not a man of peace. He and his religion were peaceful enough when they were a small sect in Mecca. After the move to Medina, where Mohammed took power, the new religion quickly became very violent and intolerant. Under Mohammed’s rule, any atrocity or betrayal was justified if it furthered the cause of Islam. As Mr. Richardson shows, this same ends justify the means mentality is still used by all too many people in the Islamic world.

islam

Harry Richardson covers most of the same ground as Robert Spencer does in his books about Islam. I think though, that Richardson’s approach is more accessible than Spencer’s. He begins with the assumption that the reader knows little or nothing about Islam and explains the results of his own research referring to his sources. Although Mr. Richard may have begun his studies knowing little about Islam, he was clearly spent a lot of time and effort educating himself. He is also less confrontational than Robert Spencer often has been.

I can strongly recommend that anyone interested in what is going on in the world of Islam read this book and then go on to read the Koran and other Islamic scriptures. If we are to prevent more attacks, we need accurate information about those who regard us as the enemies of Allah. Our leaders are not interested in telling us the truth about Islam, so we must educate ourselves. Harry Richardson’s book is a good place to begin.

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The Shape of Noah’s Ark

March 23, 2014

If I mention Noah’s ark, you probably imagine a structure that looks something like this.

noahs-ark-afloat

This image of the ark owes more to popular imagination than the actual instructions in Genesis. Although God gave Noah guidelines to the size and composition of the ark, He didn’t really specify the shape of the ark.

14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.16 Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. (Gen 6:14-16)

The NIV and many other modern translations use cypress to translate the Hebrew word gopher. It is not certain what kind of wood gopher actually refers to and older translations often simply transliterated the word. I would prefer they use the term gopher. A cubit is a translation of the Hebrew word ammah. Both the Latin cubitus and the Hebrew ammah are a measurement based on the length of the fore arm, from the elbow to the finger or wrist. Ancient measurements were seldom standardized but a we may think of a cubit as about eighteen inches. This would make the dimensions of the ark about 450 feet long, 50 feet wide and 30 feet high, or in metric terms about 137 x 23 x 14 meters.

It is not clear whether a wooden vessel with such dimensions would actually be seaworthy. There are, of course, many modern ships which dwarf Noah’s ark, including aircraft carriers, cruise ships and super tankers, but they are made of steel, which is stronger than wood. Another problem with large wooden ships is that  longer timbers flex allowing water to leak in. According to Wikipedia, one of  the longest purely wooden ship that actually sailed was the Wyoming with a length of 329 feet. The planks in this ship twisted in heavy weather so the crew had to continually pump out the leaking sea water. It sank in 1924 with all hands lost. In the nineteenth century, there were  the HMS Orlando and the HMS Mersey at 335 feet. Their length made them all but useless and they were eventually decommissioned and sold for scrap. There have been other wooden ships of similar size or larger, but for the most part they used some iron or steel in their constructions or they did not actually sail in the open sea. There are historical records of even larger vessels in ancient times, but these accounts cannot be confirmed and were likely exaggerated.

It would seem, then, that Noah’s Ark as it is usually imagined isn’t likely to have survived the great flood and to have stayed afloat the the year or so it took for the waters to recede, unless the ark was miraculous or gopher wood had properties not found in any contemporary type of lumber. So, must we regard the story of Noah’s ark as purely legendary? Perhaps. Or, perhaps Noah’s ark was not built in quite the way it is usually pictured. This leads me at last to this report at Fox News about the possible appearance of the ark.

In Darren Aronofksy’s forthcoming epic “Noah,” the vessel by which the biblical hero saves himself, his family, and pairs of animals from the apocalyptic flood appears like a huge shipping container standing some 50 feet tall and 500 feet long.

The design was inspired by “going back to what God tells Noah in the Bible,” Aronofksy said in a behind-the-scenes featurette recently released by Paramount.

The problem is, Russell Crowe’s Noah might have gotten the wrong instruction manual.

The original Noah’s Ark was a giant round vessel, says a script on an 3,700-old clay tablet now on display at the British Museum in London.

Found in the Middle East in the late 1940s by Leonard Simmons, who then passed it to his son Douglas, the cracked, smartphone-sized tablet consists of 60 lines in cuneiform. It was translated by Irving Finkel, curator of the British Museum’s 130,000 Mesopotamian clay tablet collection.

The tablet turned out to be a detailed construction manual for building an ark with palm-fiber ropes, wooden ribs and coated in hot bitumen to make it waterproof.

The vessel, however, was round.

“The Babylonians of around 1750 believed the ark in the flood story was a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers,” Finkel told Discovery News.

The coracle described in the tablet was “the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 square meters, and 6-meter high walls,” Finkel said.

“A round boat makes perfect sense in Mesopotamia where round boats are likely to have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It would not have made much sense in the Levant where you don’t have rivers like that,” Elizabeth Stone, an anthropology professor at New York’s Stony Brook University, told Discovery News.

Indeed, a waterproofed coracle would never sink.

“Being round isn’t a problem — it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat,” Finkel wrote in his British Museum blog.

This makes a lot of sense. I would guess, without knowing much about ship building, that a round vessel would be better able to withstand rough seas and flooding. It might be more difficult to steer, but Noah wasn’t trying to get anywhere. This is even some Biblical reason for believing the ark was not shaped like a sea going ship. The Hebrew word that is translated into ark is teba, which is used in only one other place in the Bible, to describe the basket that Moses’s mother placed the infant Moses in to save him from Pharaoh.

 Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. (Ex 2:1-6)

This basket was, perhaps, a small coracle, such as was used for river travel. The ark, then, could have been a very large coracle. The idea behind Noah’s ark was not so much a ship for traveling by sea as a refuge against a disaster.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word for the Ark of the Covenant, the one Indiana Jones was looking for is aron. If Strong’s Hebrew dictionary of the Bible is correct than the Biblical Hebrew word for ship was oniy.

This, does not, of course mean that the story of Noah’s ark and a global flood is literally true, though perhaps it adds a bit of credibility to the story. Irving Finkel  doesn’t believe it, though.

“I do not believe the ark really existed,” Finkel said.

“I think that the flood story echoes the memory of a real devastation but that the ark is a component of the mythology that developed to avert the fear of its happening again,” he concluded.

I think there is a lot more to the story than a vague memory of a disaster and a myth developed to reassure people, but that is a topic for another time.

 

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How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

March 17, 2014

This is a question that is supposed to have been hotly debated throughout the Middle Ages. The idea is that instead studying questions that might be of some use to people, the scholastic philosophers and theologians of the High Middle Ages debated abstruse questions that could not be decided by any evidence and made no difference to anyone living in the real world. This question has become a byword for any intellectual endeavor that is abstract and meaningless.

In fact, the Scholastics specialized in using logic and reason to discuss all sorts of philosophical issues and to reconcile contradictions in philosophy and theology. They were particularly concerned to resolve the differences between ancient Greek philosophy, especially the newly discovered teachings of Aristotle, and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Their method was usually to ask a question concerning some philosophical point. Arguments contrary to official dogma would first be given, then the official or generally accepted position would be stated, with arguments in its favor, and finally the opponents arguments would be rebutted. These arguments often took the form of citations from the Bible or writings of the Church fathers, but a rigorous system of logic was used to explain and expound on the citations and logic was used to reconcile or reject positions. The doctrines of the Catholic Church were not upheld by faith alone or the authority of the Church. Since the Scholastics held that reason and faith both pointed to the same Truth, reason could and should be used to defend the faith. Perhaps the best example of the Scholastic method would be Thomas Aquinas‘s Summa Theologica. In his masterpiece, he examines point after point of Catholic doctrine in the way I explained.

This Scholastic method could be used with other subjects, including the natural sciences. The work that the Scholastics did was not quite what we call science. They were more interested in abstract reasoning about observations than in performing experiments. While the Scholastics made many contributions to mathematics, including introducing Arabic numerals to the West, the extensive use of mathematics to describe and explain  the natural world generally had to wait until the time of Galileo.  Modern science is only possible if you believe that the universe is an orderly, reasonable place that can be studied using reason and observation. By emphasizing rather than rejecting the use of reason, the Scholastics laid the foundation for the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

To get back to the subject, although medieval theologians were much concerned about angelology, including the question of whether angels take up physical space and whether an angel traveling from point A to point B travels through the points between, there is no evidence that the questions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin or the point of a needle was ever seriously debated. It is most likely that the question was made up by later critics of Scholastic philosophy to demonstrate the supposed stupidity and triviality of Medieval thinking. It might also have been a joke among the Scholastics or the type of riddle that students might ask to trip up their professors, perhaps something like the question, “what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object”.

So, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I had always thought that the number must be infinite since angels   are not composed of mass or energy and do not take up any physical space. I may be wrong, however, since I have not taken quantum effects into account. Recent research in quantum angelology, a field of theological physics, indicates that the number is, in fact, finite. The Pauli exclusion principle prevents any two angels from occupying the same quantum states. Angels may not have any mass, but they do contain information and any individual angel cannot be smaller than the Planck length of 1.616 X 10 -34  meters. According to the  article I linked to, the maximum number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is 8.6766 X 10 49 angels.

angels-on-pin

8.6766X10 49 angels are dancing on this pin.

 

 

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Saint Patrick’s Day

March 17, 2014

Today is St. Patrick‘s day and I thought it might be appropriate to write about St. Patrick. So, who is St. Patrick and why does he get a day? Not very much is known for certain about his life. It is possible that his story has been confused with one Palladius, a missionary who became the first bishop of Ireland. Still, Patrick wrote a short autobiography called “The Declaration” or “The Confession” as part of a letter which seems to be genuine.

Get out snakes!

Patrick, or Patricius was a Roman who lived in Britain. He may have been born around 387 and lived until 460 or possibly 493, so he lived during the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. At the age of 16 he was captured by raiders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd in Ireland for about six years. He managed to escape and return to his home, but then he became a priest and returned to the land where he was a slave and worked to convert the pagans to Christianity. He seems to have been very successful during his lifetime, though there were many other missionaries in Ireland. He helped to organize the Church in Ireland and is supposed to have traveled to Rome to seek the Pope’s assistance in this endeavor.

According to legend, Patrick died on March 17, so that date has become his feast day. He has never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He became known as a saint long before the modern procedure for canonization was developed. He is, obviously, the patron saint of Ireland, and also Nigeria, Montserrat, engineers, paralegals, and the dioceses of New York, Boston, and Melbourne.

There are many legends about St. Patrick. The most widely known is that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, thus ruining the local ecology. Another is that he used the example of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the trinity.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Irish, and Irish at heart, out there!

Sorry about the green text. I couldn’t resist.

 

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No Muslims on Mars

February 20, 2014
Marvin the Martian

Probably not a Muslim

 

 

As humanity spreads out into space and begins to colonize other planets, it is possible that Muslims will not be among the first wave of space explorers, at least not if they obey a fatwa reportedly issued recently. I read the story in the Telegraph.

 

Muslims have been warned in a Fatwa not to go and live on Mars because it would pose “a real risk to life”, according to a Dubai news organisation.

The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE) in the United Arab Emirates said that anyone making such a “hazardous trip” is likely to die for “no righteous reason”.

They would therefore be liable to a “punishment similar to that of suicide in the Hereafter”, the Khaleej Times reported.

The Fatwa was apparently issued in response to the proposal from the Dutch company Mars One last year to send four people on a one-way journey to the red planet in 2022.

“Such a one-way journey poses a real risk to life, and that can never be justified in Islam,” the committee said. “There is a possibility that an individual who travels to planet Mars may not be able to remain alive there, and is more vulnerable to death.”

“Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Koran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful,” the committee, chaired by Professor Dr Farooq Hamada, said.

Over 200,000 people have applied to be civilian-astronauts on the Mars One mission. Experts have questioned both the financial and practical viability of the mission.

The Mars One website states: “It is Mars One’s goal to establish a human settlement on Mars. Human settlement of Mars is the next giant leap for humankind.

“Exploring the solar system as a united humanity will bring us all closer together. Mars is the stepping stone of the human race on its voyage into the universe.”

 

I wonder what Dr. Farooq Hamada thinks about suicide bombers. I don’t think that risking death to explore space is the same thing as suicide. Space is a dangerous place, but we all have to die sometime and I don’t think I would mind dying while exploring strange new worlds, not that I would ever have that opportunity. I am not sure I would want to live on Mars as part of a four person colony, especially if there were no possibility of returning to Earth. When Mars One first announced their proposal to settle Mars, I thought the first colony would involve hundreds, or at least tens of colonists. I think having just three other people on a whole planet might get old after a time.

It occurs to me that Muslims might have another problem with living on another planet, besides the risk traveling there. Muslims are required to pray five times a day while facing toward the holy city of Mecca. Islamic religious authorities have already determined that a Muslim in orbit should pray facing the Earth, but what direction should a Muslim on Mars face? Perhaps they could face the Earth, but what if the Earth is on the other side of the Sun? I suppose they will work out some solution eventually, or just stay behind on Earth.

Whatever happens, I will be looking forward to seeing the colonization of Mars. It is too bad that I am not going to live long enough to see the development of terraforming techniques to make Mars and Venus livable.

 

 

 

 

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God Hates Phil Robertson

January 16, 2014

That’s what the good people at the Westburo Baptist Church believe. He is going to Hell like everyone else in the world outside their church. Here is the story at Tellmenow.com.

You may be familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas, the so-called church that goes around the country with “God Hates Fags” signs that they wave while protesting at the funerals of our fallen soldiers? Well, now they want to protest TV’s Duck Dynasty.

One would think that these gay-hating nuts would be all in favor of Duck Dynasty’s Robertson family due to the recent controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments on homosexuality. But, no, they hate them, too.

Certainly the gay-hating “church” is in agreement with the way that most media types mischaracterize Robertson’s comments about the act of homosexuality, but despite that, church members want to protest the Robertson family. I suppose they imagine that the publicity is better than their so-called principle.

Of course, Phil Robertson noted that the act of homosexuality (but not gays as people) is listed in the Bible as a sin. The Westboro people agree with this–as do most Christians. Still, they have criticism.

Church spokesmen criticized the Duck Dynasty family saying, “the Phil Robertson’s [sic] of this wicked generation are the very reason that fags run this nation” and that the country is “hurtling toward her destruction.”

Apparently the Westboro Church now wants to protest the season premiere of season five by protesting on February 1 outside the New York offices of the A&E network on.

Season five of Duck Dynasty premiers on January 15.

Jael Phelps picketing Trinity Episcopal Church...

Well, I am not too fond of them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t think the writer of this piece understands what the Westburo Baptist Church really believes or is trying to accomplish. Phil Robertson, like most mainstream Christians, seems to believe that homosexuals are sinners in need of God’s love and forgiveness. He has said that he is not in the business of determining who is going to Heaven or Hell. The members of the Westburo Baptist Church are  hyper-Calvinists who believe that God has already decided who is to be saved and who is to be damned. As gotquestions.org explains,

The members of Westboro Baptist Church are quick to assert that those they name are going to burn in hell. The problem with this is that although we are to measure others’ actions by the Word of God and encourage fellow believers toward maturity, we are never to make a judgment about another’s salvation (Matthew 7:1-2). Jesus warns His disciples against proclaiming the guilt of others before God. To be a condemning judge of others is to show that one is still under the condemnation of God. We are not the absolute standard. We are not the final word on the matter. To make such a dogmatic pronouncement is to usurp the place of God.

The vehemence with which Westboro Baptist Church denies God’s compassionate love for all people and declares others’ position of salvation reflects their belief in hyper-Calvinism. Calvinism states that man can do nothing to save himself from judgment; God elects those He will save (Romans 8:29-30). Hyper-Calvinism takes this further, saying since God alone elects those He will save, witnessing is futile. It also denies the concept of common grace—the beneficence God shows toward all His creation by providing good things (Matthew 5:45b) and holding back evil. This is a dangerous misconception about God’s grace that leads to great anxiety and doubt of a person’s own salvation. Westboro Baptist Church’s extreme hyper-Calvinism also explains why they do not care about offending people. They believe if a person is elect, he/she will believe, no matter what. They believe if a person is non-elect, he/she has absolutely no possibility of salvation. Therefore, hateful, angry, and vehement rhetoric does not matter, as it could not possibly change a person’s eternal destiny. Westboro Baptist Church rejects the idea that offending people could turn them away from faith in Jesus Christ.

To put it another way, they do not believe that God hates fags because they are homosexual. They believe that people are homosexual because God hates them and wants to throw them into Hell. Since Phil Robertson presumably does not believe that God hates homosexuals, he is part of the problem.

Westboro Baptist Church Anti-Jewish Picketing

They are branching out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, the tenets of the Westburo Baptist Church are not in the mainstream of Christian doctrine, even within the Calvinist tradition. In fact, I believe their beliefs to be heretical. God hates sin, but He does not hate the sinner and certainly does not wish for anyone to be lost. After all, He gave His only Son to keep people out of Hell. But then, I suspect that it is really all about doing what gets them attention, not what God wants.

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