Friday, December 28, 2007

Salvation is of the Jews (I Kings 13)

In my last post on I Kings 11-14, I skipped one of the stranger and more troubling stories I have come across in the Bible so far. For days it baffled me, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had the mark of something important. I couldn’t leave the story behind.

It begins with a “man of God” leaving his home in Judah to confront king Jeroboam in Bethel for his idolatry. He offers a dismal prophecy of a king of David’s line burning the dead bodies of the priests there on their own alter. After pacifying the initially furious Jeroboam with a demonstration of God’s power, the king begs the man to dine with him. The man of God refuses, saying:
If you give me half your house, I will not go in with you. And I will not eat bread or drink water in this place, for so was it commanded me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water nor return by the way that you came.’
So the man of God departs. However, on his way, he is intercepted by a local prophet who also asks him to stay for dinner. The man of God refuses, but the deceitful prophet insists that the Lord himself commanded him to issue the invitation. So the man of God stays the night.

As they sit together, the same prophet who lied to him is suddenly overcome by the Spirit of the Lord, and pronounces a message of judgment against the man of God for disobeying his explicit orders. After he leaves, the man of God is killed by a lion on the road who leaves his body uneaten.
And the prophet took up the body of the man of God and laid it on the donkey and brought it back to the city to mourn and to bury him. And he laid the body in his own grave. And they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” And after he had buried him, he said to his sons, “When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. For the saying that he called out by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria shall surely come to pass.”
The story concludes with a statement that Jeroboam would continue with his idolatry, leading to the total annihilation of his house.

I honestly had the hardest time making heads or tails of this incident. On the face of it, it seems horribly harsh for the Lord to kill the man of God from Judah for what appears to be an honest mistake. And the behavior of the prophet in Bethel just doesn’t make sense. Most commentaries I turned to weren’t terribly helpful. I was assured that obeying God is good, that lying to people about God is bad, that falling for lies about God is bad, and that repenting of lying to people about God is good.

Yet the whole thing has the subtle feel of national allegory: prophets acting out the fate of the people before the Lord. Finally, I stumbled across a treatment by Karl Barth that helped get me on the right track. Barth saw the two men as representing the two kingdoms – Judah and Israel – with their interactions foreshadowing the rest of the story of the book of Kings (and ultimately the story of Jesus).

In this light, we see Judah as the faithful bearer of the word of the Lord. The hammer of God’s judgment is to fall most heavy and decisively against Israel for the sin of Jeroboam. It is the role of Judah to stand as a witness against the house of Israel and demand harsh unconditional repentance. Israel, on the other hand, will continually tempt Judah toward the more friendly and congenial way of compromise.

In the end, Israel will drag Judah down into his sin, for which Judah will face the judgment of God. Judah will lie desolate and be cut off from his ancestral homeland. But compare the unmolested body of the man of God with the burned bones of the idolatrous prophets (or the promise that Jeroboam’s offspring will be eaten by dogs and birds). Burial symbolizes hope – hope that though a man die in exile, his bones may once again be taken back to the land of promise.

If Israel is to be saved, despite his multitude of sins, it will be by clinging to this lifeless but somehow preserved corpse of Judah. It is in being buried with the son of David, who brought Israel’s sin upon himself after pronouncing God’s judgment, that Israel will ultimately find redemption. Salvation is of the Jews, and from the king of the Jews it will come.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Design Matrix

Mike Gene, of Telic Thoughts, has just finished a fascinating new book on Intelligent Design called The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues (the promotional animation was done by yours truly). After becoming a little disillusioned with the ID movement a couple of years ago, I stumbled across Mike’s site and found his unique approach refreshing and constructive. So, without further ado, here is Wonders for Oyarsa’s first book review!

A New Look

The ID debate is one of the most polarized and ugly fights you’ll ever come across, and Mike is well aware of the difficulty he faces even being heard. He makes it clear from the beginning that he does not believe Intelligent Design is science, does not think it should be taught in the public schools, and does not deny evolution. He simply has no interest in the political side of ID. Rather, he is interested in the insights that telic thinking may bring to looking at the origin of life. He is interested in the beginnings of an investigation.

Mike deftly reframes the debate away from the traditional template, which focuses on either disproving evolution (thus establishing design) or showing evolution to be possible (thus removing the need for design). The origin of life, after all, is not a matter of absolute certainty or mathematical law, but of history. We are not ultimately interested in what could have happened, but what we think actually did happen. Thus Mike suggests we eschew dogmatic absolutes for the attitude of a private investigator. It is certainly possible that life was designed, but what sort of clues might make us think it plausible? What sort of evidence and confirmation would convince us that it is not only plausible, but probable?

It’s interesting how far meekness can go in a polarized debate – be it over science, politics, philosophy, or religion. There’s no shortage of bombastic apologists for both sides, railing about how only a total fool could fail to see the rightness of their position. When one person confidently boasts that the evidence for design is overwhelming and another loudly screams that it is nonexistent, most folks are inclined to avoid the whole discussion. But when Mike says the idea is interesting and invites us to take a closer look, we want to join him.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Having established a tone of curiosity, Mike considers the clues. At the most basic level of the cell, life looks like sophisticated nanotechnology. Though we once considered it little more than a sac of chemicals, it turns out that biology at this scale has a great deal in common with engineering, to the point where biology journals sound more like engineering publications than those of other physical sciences. Calling multiple-protein complexes “molecular machines” is more than mere metaphor. To get a faint glimpse of what he’s talking about, take a look at this computer animated journey into the cell created by the Harvard Biovisions group. The core architecture of life has the complexity and organization of a modern city, all easily resting on the point of a pin.

The grandeur and majesty of life on this scale never ceases to amaze me. To think of it as a bunch of chemical reactions is as misleading as considering Mont St. Michel a stack of stones, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel a series of brush strokes, or Google’s search database a series of ones and zeroes. When biologists fail to develop the discipline and intuition of engineers who actually build things, I suspect they risk giving hostages to fortune. The stuff has to work, after all, and that's a pretty harsh requirement for any system – be it constructed out of molecules or metal.

Mike, of course, finds this all very suggestive. William Paley once argued that one may reasonably infer life to be designed in the same way you assume a watch on the beach is not a natural phenomenon. David Hume countered that, though life might appear to be in the same category as the watch, the similarities are superficial and the analogy weak. But, while Hume may have been right about human organs like the eye, the recently discovered and unexpected echoes of technology in the most basic unit of life are another matter entirely. Mike then turns to Darwin’s theory of Evolution – which has some much more challenging observations for any design inference.

Front Loading Evolution

Darwin showed how systems which may appear designed from the outset may nevertheless have evolved over time through purely natural processes. Natural selection is a fact of life. It is what happens to any flexible self-replicating system over time or in a changing environment. Mike recognizes the power of natural selection to act as a designer-mimic, but he doesn’t abandon his suspicion of design in the face of evolution. Instead, he suggests a way where Darwinian evolution might actually be employed in the service of intelligent design.

And so he offers his front-loading hypothesis. Since the basic architecture of life seems to be the most difficult thing to explain by modern origin of life theories – the characteristics of the genetic code, the modularity of proteins, and the interdependency of DNA, RNA, and molecular machines – he suggests we envision a human-like intelligence designing a single cell as a seed for life on Earth. Would it be possible to employ Darwinian evolution to unfold a carefully-packaged design?

Mike looks at the clues that make such an idea seem plausible. Every life form on earth shares a huge proportion of the same DNA. Evolution, on the genetic level, seems to operate mostly by tinkering with copies of genes. Mike goes into great technical detail to show how key templates for advanced organisms could be encoded into the core functions of the cell, ready to pop into use as soon as there is a need. It is the very blindness and short-sightedness of Natural Selection that would make it exploitable by careful foresight. According to Mike’s hypothesis, if we were to obliterate all life on Earth and replace it with the same seed cell it started with, we would see it unfold in much the same way as it did billions of years ago, and eventually find creatures not all that different from the ones we have today.

Those who create computer programs, which eventually crash due to unforeseen bugs, will appreciate front-loading as a huge challenge, one which is solvable only by the most brilliant of minds. For those who believe on different grounds that there is a mind ultimately responsible for the creation of the world, the picture Mike paints evokes wonder and awe at the glory and wisdom of God. If this is the mode of creation, it also raises some fascinating philosophical and theological questions, which I may explore elsewhere.

The Matrix

The presence of a front-loaded current running through evolution poses a unique problem for detecting design. How do you distinguish between the core design and the jerry rigged solutions of natural selection? True to his modest methodology, Mike eschews black-and-white certainty for his design matrix: a subjective (but useful) scoring system to gauge our confidence in a design inference.

The matrix score is based on four parameters: analogy, discontinuity, rationality, and foresight. Analogy looks at how closely the solution matches something we ourselves have designed. Discontinuity looks at irreducible complexity, and how difficult it would be for natural selection alone to arrive at the solution by cooption. Rationality looks at the elegance and quality of the design based on its assumed purpose. Finally, foresight judges the design based on any long-term planning present. If a solution only scores high in one area, we wouldn’t have conclusive evidence for design, but if it gets high marks in all four, we may conclude that intelligent design is indeed a probable explanation.

Mike ends the book with an invitation to join him on his quest. Having established his theory and methodology, the next step will be to explore the living world in more detail – and see just how well his hypothesis holds up. If he’s right, this approach may turn out to be a fantastic research guide, yielding bold new insights and discoveries about the living world.

I, for one, am intrigued by the possibilities, and I hope you are as well. My recommendation is that everyone go and buy all their friends a copy of his book so that he’ll have the money to publish volume II!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Unless the Lord Build the House (I Kings 11-14)

Israel is firmly planted in the land. The kingdom is established. God dwells along side them in his glorious holy temple. The nations are flocking to them to receive the blessings of the Lord. And then things all go to Hell.

Solomon arranges the downfall of the kingdom of David by marrying foreign women - one of the cardinal pitfalls warned against in the books of the law. From there his wives turn away his heart and seduce him into building idols to Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech.

The Lord pronounces judgment:
Since… you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.
Gone are the former threats of annihilating the people and starting from scratch. David and his wholehearted faithfulness really has changed things. Even Solomon’s idolatry is not enough to counter the blessings and promises toward the house of that great king – he will die a wealthy old man despite his sin.

The hammer instead falls upon Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. One of the ongoing themes of the Old Testament that I am slowly growing to appreciate is the connection between generations in sharing blessings and curses, righteousness and sin. Rehoboam is being punished for the sin of Solomon, and it’s every bit his own fault. After ignoring the advice of his older officials, he arrogantly insults the other tribes, which then incites a revolt. As in the garden, rebellion against the Lord is soon followed by enmity among brothers.

The Lord then raises up Jeroboam, who unites the ten northern tribes against the house of David in Judah. He is promised blessings from the Lord equal to David, if only he will be faithful in the same way David was. But Jeroboam is far too practical for such idealism. Knowing that constant pilgrimages to Jerusalem for worship might turn the people back toward union with Judah, he decides to create his own religion:
So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. … He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart.
This is bad…really bad. Jeroboam is Aaron, Korah, and Absalom all wrapped into one. He had a chance to be another great stone upon which he would build the kingdom of Israel, and instead he becomes the mother of all stumbling blocks. I don’t know if I recall seeing the Lord so mad at an individual person before. His pronouncement, when Jeroboam’s wife goes to inquire about a sick child, is shocking, even for the Old Testament:
Behold, I will bring harm upon the house of Jeroboam and will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam, as a man burns up dung until it is all gone. Anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat, for the Lord has spoken it… Arise therefore, go to your house. When your feet enter the city, the child shall die. And all Israel shall mourn for him and bury him, for he only of Jeroboam shall come to the grave, because in him there is found something pleasing to the Lord, the God of Israel, in the house of Jeroboam.
In other words, dying of sickness is a blessing for a son of Jeroboam. God sees something worth salvaging in the child, and death and burial is preferable for the utter ruin that he’s about to bring on Jeroboam’s house.

The wrath of God is proportional to the potential of man. I get the impression that Jeroboam really did have the potential to be another David. The promises were all there. David proved it could be done. And though Jeroboam fails, David's house will continue on. God's purposes will be fulfilled no matter what - but it is for man to choose what part he will play in fulfilling them.

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