Saturday, February 17, 2007

Faith founded on solid ephemeral rock

While reading the customer reviews on Amazon for the book God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger, I came across this comment by DB Wilson of Alberta, Canada: "Where is the Inquisition when you need it? Their work is obviously far from done. There are many souls that are still in need of corporeal correction." Whoa, dude. DB wants to see me burned at the stake?? Burned at the stake because I'm questioning the validity of religion?? Okay, now I'm scared.

I'm baffled and demoralized every time I come across the comments of the faithful regarding those who question their faith. What is it? Why is it like this? The Keepers of the Faith have the most ephemeral of foundations for their beliefs, and they become uncompromisingly militant when someone points this out. Why is an ephemeral foundation—simply tradition and religious writings—sufficient for them? Why aren't they looking for a more solid foundation for the beliefs that affect almost every aspect of their lives? And take a good chunk of their incomes? When I think about the money people spend on religion, I'm mystified. Would they deposit their paychecks in a bank that has no more foundation than literature consisting of the history of the bank, some poetry, and letters to account holders and a centuries-old tradition of everyone unquestioningly depositing their paychecks there because everyone else does even though no one has ever been able to make a withdrawal? I don't know. Wouldn't a bank with no more foundation than that seem a little dubious?

I'm currently reading The Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman. Amazing. It's possible that everything we know from the Bible up through the middle of the 7th century BC was fabricated by Josiah, the King of Judah (639-609 BC), in an attempt to unify Judah and Israel and relocate the center of power to Jerusalem. Archaeology has turned up no evidence of a grand Solomonic kingdom or temple in the 10th century BC, and archaeologists are now concluding that David and Solomon were simply tribal chieftains. The excavated layers that do reveal grand architecture were originally attributed to the time of Solomon, but those layers are more accurately attributed to the time of Ahab and Jezebel and the Omride Dynasty in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BC, a time when Jerusalem was still not much more than a small town.

Finkelstein and Silberman explain that, in 720 BC, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V captured the capital of the more powerful northern kingdom and relocated the Israelites of the northern kingdom to Assyria. A century later, with the withdrawal of Assyrian control in the north, Josiah, the king of the less-powerful, agriculturally based southern kingdom of Judah, saw the power vacuum as an opportunity for the southern kingdom finally to emerge from the shadow of the northern kingdom. He vilified the Omride Dynasty of the northern kingdom—especially Ahab and Jezebel—as completely corrupt and elevated David and Solomon of the southern kingdom to mythical stature. Since the people didn't have archival news footage or public libraries to check the facts, they accepted the new history and we have the current perception of the founding of Israel.

The vehicle Josiah used to present his new history to the people was a "book of the law" that was "found" in the temple during renovations.

And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. (2 Kings 22:8)

One wonders how a book of such importance could have been lost in the temple in the first place, but I suppose that, in order to protect it from being destroyed by an invading army, the book could have been hidden in a wall or under a floor and its location subsequently forgotten. It's plausible. But it's just as plausible that the book, which has been identified as an early version of Deuteronomy, could have been created so that it could be "found." Finkelstein and Silberman note Deuteronomy's uniqueness from the other books of the Pentateuch:

Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch that asserts it contains the "words of the covenant" that all Israel must follow (29:9). It is the only book that prohibits sacrifice outside "the place which the Lord your God will choose" (12:5), while the other books of the Pentateuch repeatedly refer, without objection, to worship at altars set up throughout the land. Deuteronomy is the only book to describe the national Passover sacrifice in a national shrine (16:1-8). [p. 280]
Finkelstein and Silberan also state:

It is important to note that the book of Deuteronomy contains ethical laws and provisions for social welfare that have no parallel anywhere else in the Bible. Deuteronomy calls for the protection of the individual, for the defense of what we would call today human rights and human dignity. [p. 285]

The result of the appearance of the book was the methodical destruction of sites of polytheistic worship and the establishment of monotheism, the development of a unified statehood, and the segregation of Israelites from Canaanites. The real polytheistic, Canaanitic Israel was replaced with a fabricated monotheistic Israel whose origins were said to be in Ur on the Euphrates.

Amazing. If that isn't an ephemeral foundation for all the People of the Book—Jews, Christians and Muslims—then what is? As a result of how Finkelstein and Silberman read the archaeological data, there was no Abraham. No Isaac, no Jacob. At least as they are described in the Pentateuch. F & S theorize that the stories of the Patriarchs were woven together from the legends and folk histories of different communities throughout Israel and Judah in order to merge their separate identities into a single national identity. So "Abraham" (the person or persons out of whom the community legends grew) may never have even met "Isaac," much less been his father. "Isaac" and "Jacob" may have lived in widely separated eras and locations.

If you are a thinking person, this will shift the tectonic plates of your world. Every part of Scripture is built on what came before it. Islam and Christianity are both outgrowths of Judaism. Each era of Jewish history is a result of the preceding era, back to the founding of the Jewish nation with God's covenant to Abraham. But there is a conspicuous absence of evidence for a powerful, united kingdom of David and Solomon. There is also an absence of evidence that, on entering Canaan, Joshua led the people on a clean sweep of the cities of Canaan in order to take possession of the land. Archaeologists have been trying for a century to find evidence of the Israelites' desert encampment at Kadesh-Barnea in eastern Sinai, but they've found no evidence at all of any encampments dating to the time of Ramesses II (during which the Israelites would have labored on the construction of the city of Raamses [Exodus 1:11]), much less evidence of 600,000 people encamped there for thirty-eight years. So it's not unreasonable to wonder if there actually was a covenant between God and Abraham, promising the land to his innumerable descendants.

What this means is that there's a very tall office tower that is now missing its ground floor. We can expect the office tower to continue floating a floor above the sidewalk indefinitely?

Maybe. Faith can move mountains.