Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Theme of Flooding in the Old Testament

In considering the theme of flooding in the Old Testament, it is best to view the initial period that the earth was covered by water after God created the world as being the first instance of flooding recorded in the Bible (Gen 1:2). God dealt with the “problem” of the formlessness and emptiness of the intial creation by creating form and filling the domains so delineated. God did this through the power of his word. As part of this, God spoke such that the waters upon the earth might be gathered to one place, in order that dry land might appear (Gen 1:9). In this way, God divided the land from the seas (Gen 1:10). The original flooded state of the world could not continue on if animal and human forms of life were to exist and flourish.

The work of God separating the dry land from the seas at the time of creation established a dichotomy between the dry land and the sea, a dichotomy that is reflected in a number of places in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 14:16, 22, 29; Neh 9:11; Ps 66:6; 95:5; Jon 1:9, 13; Hag 2:6). Proverbs 8:29 describes this work of separation as involving a divine command, reflecting divine wisdom, by means of which God assigned a limit to the sea, a command that the sea could not ordinarily “transgress.” Just as Gen 1 implies, it is God who controls the boundary between the land and the waters of the rivers and the seas. Thus, the psalmist could say that God “puts the deeps in storehouses” (Ps 33:7).

Yet ever since this first separation, the waters have always threatened to overcome the land; nevertheless the word of God has maintained the boundary between the land and the sea, preventing the flooding of the land by the waters on a worldwide scale, apart from the time of the great flood of Noah (see “The Theme of Flooding in the Bible: Noah’s Flood”). The role of the word of God in this matter is important. If it was the word of God that brought order out of chaos in the beginning, then without the word of God the world would revert to its default state with the waters overcoming the land. This is what happened at the time of Noah: “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Gen 7:11). Through that event, God showed the human race the consequences of disobedience. Human disobedience results in a reversion to the default state, which is chaos.

The theme of flooding also occurs in the account of the exodus. The water of the Reed Sea stood as a symbol of the impending death of Israel at the hands of the pursuing army. But God “divided the sea, and let [Israel] pass through it … he made the waters stand like a heap” (Ps 78:13). Or as the Song of Moses puts it: “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exod 15:8). Conversely, the destruction of the Egyptian army was as a result of flooding. As the Song of Moses celebrated: “The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod 15:5). See also Ps 106:9–11.

The relationship between water, chaos, and death on the one side, and dry land, salvation, and life on the other, as developed in Gen 1, the Noah narrative, and the incident of the Reed Sea, provides the conceptual framework for the biblical metaphor of being overcome by water as an image of death, and also for the related metaphor of being rescued through or from water as an image of salvation from death.

In Psalm 18, for example, David pictures the threat of death from the opposition of enemies as being like a torrential flood dragging him down to Sheol (Ps 18:4–5). But in response to the psalmist’s cry for salvation, God acted to “lay bare” “the channels of the sea” through his word of rebuke (Ps 18:15). “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters … He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (Ps 18:16, 19).

Psalm 69 is another example:
Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me … Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me (Ps 69:1–2, 14–15).
Flood imagery also appears in Ps 88:
You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves … Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together (Ps 88:6–7, 16–17).
Similarly Ps 124:
If it had not been Yahweh who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters (Ps 124:2–5).
Flood imagery also occurs in Ps 32:6; 42:7; and Jonah describes his experience in the stormy sea in terms of flooding (Jon 2:3, 5–6).

Finally, it should be noted that the power of floodwaters is also used as an image of the power of God. The floodwaters surge and roar, but “mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, Yahweh on high is mighty!” (Ps 93:3–4). “Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood; Yahweh sits enthroned as king forever!” (Ps 29:10).

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Theme of Flooding in the Bible: Noah's Flood

The tragedy of the widescale flooding in Queensland and other parts of Australia recently has prompted me to consider the theme of flooding in the Bible.

The most famous flood in the Bible is, of course, Noah’s flood. As a response to the growing wickedness of humanity (Gen 6:5–7), God “brought a flood of water upon the earth” with the intention of “destroying all flesh” with the exception of Noah and his family and a remnant of the land animals and birds (Gen 6:17–19). This was achieved by the unleashing of torrential rain over a period of forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:11–12). The floodwaters were so great that “all the high mountains that were under all of heaven” were covered by up to seven meters of water (Gen 7:20).

The effect of the flood was catastrophic:
“all flesh that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all of humanity, died. Everything in whose nostrils was the breath of life from all that was on the dry ground died. [God] exterminated every living thing that was on the face of the ground: human beings, and animals, and creeping things, and the birds of the sky. They were exterminated from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark” (Gen 7:21–23).
The floodwaters “prevailed upon the earth” for five months (Gen 7:24)! On the seventeenth day of the seventh month (around seven days after what would later on become the Day of Atonement, during the period of the Feast of Tabernacles) the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, and the floodwaters began to abate (Gen 8:3–4). It was not until some two and a half months later that the tops of the mountains were seen (Gen 8:5), and another three months until the floodwaters had dried up completely! In the meantime, the olive leaf in the mouth of the dove was a sign to Noah that the waters had begun to abate, a sign that new life had emerged out of the destructive waters of the flood. The day that the floodwater had dried up completely was the first day of the first month (Gen 8:13), a new beginning for the human race. Even then, Noah had to wait another 57 days until the ground was dry (Gen 8:14). Altogether, the floodwaters ravaged the earth for around 315 days, while Noah was in the ark for around 378 days. This was an enormous flood.

Yet God’s purposes for the world would continue. The repetition of the creation mandate of Gen 1:28 to Noah in Gen 9:1–2, 7 signaled that the work of extending the kingdom of God on earth (a privileged task that God had assigned to the human race back in the beginning) was to continue.

The theme of flooding in the rest of the Old Testament will be explored in my next post; but it should be noted that, because Noah’s flood is the paradigmatic flood in the Bible, it provides the referential point for the metaphor of being encompassed by floodwater and the related metaphor of being rescued from floodwater, which occur at various points thoughout the Old Testament.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

An SIL Biblical Hebrew Keyboard for Linux Operating Systems

One of the advantages of Linux is the ability to customize your computer’s operating system. In this regard, Linux seems to be a lot more flexible than Microsoft Windows. Like when it comes to designing your own Hebrew keyboard; all it basically requires is the editing of a single file! Vern Poythress has some helpful information on the “Keyboard Entry of Polytonic Greek and Biblical Hebrew in GNU/Linux” on his website. Poythress shows you how to edit the xkb keymap so that you can customize your Hebrew keyboard according to the way you like it. For Poythress (and me), this is a keyboard that is similar to the SIL Biblical Hebrew keyboard that was designed by SIL International and built by John Hudson (who also designed the SBL Hebrew font).

But there is another way of mapping your own Hebrew keyboard using IBus, the Intelligent Input Bus, which is now the default input method for Ubuntu and some other Linux systems. This involves editing the he-kbd.mim file in the ibus-m17n software package. I have edited this file to develop a Hebrew input method that substantially simulates the SIL Biblical Hebrew keyboard. The result is an input method that replicates the keystrokes of the SIL Biblical Hebrew keyboard for all numbers and English punctuation marks, all Hebrew consonants, all common Hebrew vowel points, plus the maqef, dagesh, meteg, atnakh, rafe, and sof pasuq. The accent ole is also included as it can be used as a general marker of syllabic stress in non-accented texts. Departing a little from the SIL Biblical Hebrew keyboard, the backslash key inputs a backslash rather than the paseq. The layout also uses CTRL+ALT for the third and fourth keyboard levels rather than ALTGR.

For anyone interested in typing Hebrew on a Linux system using a keymap similar to the SIL Biblical Hebrew keyboard using IBus, the necessary steps are as follows (in Ubuntu 10.04; 10.10; and 11.04):

1) Make sure you have the ibus software package installed, and download and install the ibus-m17n package;

2) Backup the original /usr/share/m17n/he-kbd.mim file somewhere safe;

3) Download my version of the file he-kbd.mim—if the link is down, a copy of the content of the file can be found at Vos Linux—and copy it into your /usr/share/m17n/ folder; or

4) If you prefer to design your own Hebrew keyboard, then edit the he-kbd.mim file—you need to edit the file yourself particularly if you want the full range of Hebrew accents to be available;

5) Configure General IBus Preferences (in Keyboard Input Methods in the System Preferences Menu in GNOME 2.32) by defining the keyboard shortcuts and language bar behavior;

6) Configure Input Method IBus Preferences by clicking on Select an input method to select your desired language and input method, then press add for it to be listed;

7) Reboot;

8) Run the ibus-daemon (if this is not automatically run by the system), and use your IBus Preferences keyboard shortcut in a text editor, word processor, or input window, to enable the IBus language bar;

9) Toggle to select א kbd on the language bar by using the appropriate keyboard shortcut (if necessary);

10) Start typing Hebrew SIL style!

If for some reason the ibus-daemon does not run automatically at startup, you can create an ibus-daemon.desktop file in the /etc/xdg/autostart/ folder with content as follows:

[Desktop Entry]
Name=IBus Daemon
Comment=The IBus input method daemon
Exec=ibus-daemon -d

Recommended fonts to use for typing Hebrew are the stylish SBL Hebrew font, and the more traditional Ezra SIL font. If you intend to use the SBL Hebrew font exclusively, then the entries for the key sequences "f=", "f+", "j=", and "j+" can be removed from the he-kbd.mim file. These key sequences allow the dagesh to be entered with the letters sin and shin when using the Ezra SIL font (and others).

Please note that SBL Hebrew is a trademark of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Using Linux Operating Systems for Bible Research

I have had fun experimenting over the last year or so with Linux computer operating systems. Many of these operating systems are available for free download. I am particularly impressed with the Ubuntu distribution;

Ubuntu 10.04 Gnome Desktop

and the lightweight derivative Lubuntu has extended the life of my favorite 2005 year model laptop, probably for several years into the future.

The Linux operating systems are an amazing resource, and I can’t help to think of the potential for the use of Linux systems to promote biblical research in less developed parts of the world. There are also Bible software programs freely available for use on Linux systems. My favorite among these is Xiphos.

Xiphos 3.1.3 Showing the Open Scriptures Morphological Hebrew Bible

I will be a very happy man when the Open Scriptures Morphological Hebrew Bible finally has Hebrew morphology attached. At the moment it has been tagged with Strong’s numbers, but it is still a great resource.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Worth of a Child according to Scientific Atheism Compared to Christianity

How valuable is the life of a child? What value would you place of the life of a child?

What value would you place on the life of this child?

Is she precious? I may be biased, but I reckon she looks rather cute.

Well, how about this one? What value do you place on the life of this little boy?

As you look at the two of these children, can you honestly say that one is more precious than the other? Yet according to the majority opinion in many societies in the world, one of these children—the little boy—should have been destroyed in the womb. One of these children, to quote the obstetrician, “has so many problems it won’t last long.” This particular doctor said three times that the normal thing to do in this situation is to terminate the pregnancy. Because the child was not “normal” or “perfect,” it no longer had the right to live.

Suffering from the effects of spina bifida (such as being unable to walk), this child may have more difficulties to face than others, and even though I cannot say that he is more precious than the little girl, perhaps the child that your heart goes out to more is the child who through no fault on his own will have more challenges to face in life than many of us able-bodied types.

But why should you pity him? In fact, why should we pity any child? Do you pity the child destroyed in the womb? Do you pity the newborn child abandoned by its mother, left to die in a shoe box, or left to drown in a toilet? If the existence of this universe and life on our planet is merely the product of chance, if we human beings are merely the result of a random process of evolution, then why pity anyone? If there is no God, if we exist here as a result of some random fluke, then life is merely the survival of the fittest.

Western civilisation is currently in the middle of a battle between two philosophical systems: a battle between Christianity and so-called scientific atheism. Some of us might think that we do not need to make a choice between these two systems, but to sit on the fence is not an option. Either God exists, or he doesn’t.

According to the latest theories of scientific atheism, our universe somehow—without any cause but simply by chance—began with the big bang some 13.75 billion years ago. They say that life on this planet is simply the result of 3.5 billion year process of random mutation and natural selection.

But what do you think? The universe is actually so big that the scientists say that it is effectively infinite. The observable universe has a diameter of 93 billion light years. In terms of kilometers, that’s virtually a 9 followed by 26 zeros. And they reckon that this observable universe is filled 100 billion galaxies, and contains at least sextillion stars (that’s 10 to the power of 21 stars), although a recent study has suggested that this figure is out by a factor of 300 (that makes it 3 times 10 to the power of 23). The maximum possible number of stars the average person can see on a dark night in the countryside is about 45,000, but typically it’s only about 5,000 or so. The figures are simply mind-blowing. If this is just random, we have to conclude that it is amazingly productive randomness.

And I am yet to mention the abundance of life on the planet that we call Earth. Have a guess how many species of life exist on this planet! I can’t give you a definite number, because the scientists themselves can’t. Their best guess is that the total number of species on earth is anything from 7–100 million. This includes anything from 5–100 million species of bacteria (possibly many more); around 100,000 kinds of fungi (which includes around 14,000 different kinds of mushroom); and around 300,000 plant species. When it comes to animals, there are over a million different species, most of them insects. Altogether there are around 950,000 different species of insect (including 4,500 different species of cockroach); over 30,000 species of fish; over 6,000 different kinds of amphibian (mainly frogs); over 8,000 species of reptile (mainly lizards and snakes); around 10,000 species of bird; and around 5,400 kinds of mammal. Millions of different species, and this all the result of of 3.5 billion years of random mutation?

Honestly, what is easier to believe? That all of this variety—the billion upon billions of stars, and the millions of different species that inhabit our planet—is just a fluke; or that there is some amazingly powerful, creative designer behind the universe? Which view requires the biggest leap of faith? What odds do you give everything coming from absolutely nothing? What odds of a new species randomly developing on earth on average every 35 years (assuming there are 100 million different species)? Yet scientific atheism laughs at Christianity for believing in miracles!

But putting aside the incredulous nature of the kind of faith demanded by scientific atheism, the biggest problem with scientific atheism is the consequences of this worldview for morality. If this is all some big fluke, if the existence of the universe and life on earth is simply the result of chance and the survival of the fittest, then whoever has the biggest gun wins, and you have no right to complain about it when you lose. Scientific atheists have no real right to speak of love, of justice, and what’s fair and what’s not. Why are you fighting for the rights of workers when they are just random blobs of genetic material? Why cry for the poor children of Africa? Why care for the sick, or the aged, or the young? If it’s all just chance, then why not be honest with yourself, and admit that you have no sound philosophical basis for any non-arbitrary moral code in life? Scientific atheism is logically amoral.

Scientific atheism is about the survival of the fittest, the converse of which is the elimination of the weak; and that is why in many societies today it is considered the norm for children diagnosed with spina bifida to be destroyed within the womb. I have been told by a doctor specializing in spina bifida that the rate of termination in Australia is heading toward 75%. This is particularly tragic when you consider that most kids with spina bifida are children of average intelligence with nice personalities and the ability to speak. The one pictured above has a wonderful sense of humor, an infectious laugh, and is a budding cricketer. So what if they can’t walk, or if they need a shunt in their head to deal with hydrocephalus? They don’t deserve to live or to be protected and nurtured like any other child? Eliminating such children before they travel through the birth canal is consistent with the scientific atheistic worldview, which promotes the idea that the history of the world is structured on the principle of natural selection, where the stronger random blobs of genetic material subjugate or terminate the weaker random blobs of genetic material.

But this is not the Christian understanding of reality. Christianity says that this universe was made by a powerful Creator. It also says, as the story of the incarnation of Christ clearly reveals, that the Creator of this universe values his creation so much that he was willing to enter into his creation, to take his place within it. Many religions believe in God, but Christianity is the only religion radical enough to say that the Creator values his creation, and human beings in particular, so much that the powerful Creator himself was willing to become one of us, to come down to our level in order to take us up to his. The story of the incarnation of God is not a story about the survival of the fittest. It is a story about the strongest becoming weak in order that the weak might become strong. The incarnation of God is God affirming the value of human life. The incarnation of God honors the human race, and places great value on every individual human being. And to think that Christianity says that the Creator of this universe became incarnate with a view to dying on the cross for humanity! Surely this is one of the most radical ideas that has ever been proposed in the history of religion and philosophy. The incarnation is the Creator saying that you are so valuable as to be worth the Creator of the universe dying for. In this way Christianity gives a sound moral basis for the ideals of love, justice, and human rights. God the Creator becoming a child means that every child is more than just a random blob of genetic material, and that every child (no matter their ability or disability, whether born or unborn) deserves to live and to grow to his or her full potential.

So which philosophical system affirms the value of humanity, and the precious worth of every child? Scientific atheism or Christianity? Philosophically I think the answer is obvious.