Sunday, August 30, 2009


God Can Take Care of His Own Ark

In the comments to this post, "Magnat" reminded me of an episode in the Bible where my initial reaction was ridiculous. In I Samuel 4:1-11 we see that the Israelites have a setback against the Philistines, and so try to raise morale by bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the front lines of the battle. (The Ark housed the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, as well as other extremely significant items. It was incredibly holy and powerful. You may remember that the Nazis all melted when they opened it up in the first Indiana Jones movie.)

But this petulant move by the Israelites--in effect trying to force victory not by seeking God's counsel, but by bringing in the Ark--led to disaster:

 1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.   
Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines, and encamped beside Ebenezer; and the Philistines encamped in Aphek. 2 Then the Philistines put themselves in battle array against Israel. And when they joined battle, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men of the army in the field. 3 And when the people had come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5 And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook. 6 Now when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What does the sound of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” Then they understood that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp. 7 So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp!” And they said, “Woe to us! For such a thing has never happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. 9 Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!”
10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. (1 Samuel 4:1-11, New King James Version)

Now the first time I read that, I had a ridiculous reaction. I was really worried, thinking "Oh no! How will the Israelites get it back? What if the Philistines desecrate it?"

But as it turns out, the Creator of the universe doesn't need a bunch of human bodies to protect His sacred objects. Here's what happened to the Philistines:

 1 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon. 3 And when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again. 4 And when they arose early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. The head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it. 5 Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
6 But the hand of the LORD was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors,both Ashdod and its territory. 7 And when the men of Ashdod saw how it was, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is harsh toward us and Dagon our god.” 8 Therefore they sent and gathered to themselves all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?”
And they answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried away to Gath.” So they carried the ark of the God of Israel away. 9 So it was, after they had carried it away, that the hand of the LORD was against the city with a very great destruction; and He struck the men of the city, both small and great, and tumors broke out on them.
10 Therefore they sent the ark of God to Ekron. So it was, as the ark of God came to Ekron, that the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” 11 So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go back to its own place, so that it does not kill us and our people.” For there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. 12 And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven. 1 Now the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we should send it to its place.”
3 So they said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but by all means return it to Him with a trespass offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.”
4 Then they said, “What is the trespass offering which we shall return to Him?”
They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden rats, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines. For the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5 Therefore you shall make images of your tumors and images of your rats that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will lighten His hand from you, from your gods, and from your land. 6 Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He did mighty things among them, did they not let the people go, that they might depart? 7 Now therefore, make a new cart, take two milk cows which have never been yoked, and hitch the cows to the cart; and take their calves home, away from them. 8 Then take the ark of the LORD and set it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you are returning to Him as a trespass offering in a chest by its side. Then send it away, and let it go. 9 And watch: if it goes up the road to its own territory, to Beth Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us—it happened to us by chance.”
10 Then the men did so; they took two milk cows and hitched them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they set the ark of the LORD on the cart, and the chest with the gold rats and the images of their tumors. 12 Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right hand or the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beth Shemesh.
13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. 14 Then the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there. So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the LORD and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone. Then the men of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices the same day to the LORD. 16 So when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day.
17 These are the golden tumors which the Philistines returned as a trespass offering to the LORD: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron; 18 and the golden rats, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and country villages, even as far as the large stone of Abel on which they set the ark of the LORD, which stone remains to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.
(1 Samuel 5-6, New King James Version)

Now for my own take on these things, I actually don't think the Ark was covered in germs, which is how one might explain these events (if he believed the stories). I think that if a modern doctor had taken the proper measurements and so forth back then, the various forces (such as a growing rat population etc.) would have been in motion in the Philistine population centers to yield such devastation, even before their warriors brought the Ark back from battle. (It's also possible that the slaughter of thousands of Israelites introduced some new germs on the Philistine fighters who then brought them back to camp.) So to an atheist epidemiologist who had access to all the facts, he would say, "No no, there wasn't some being in the sky zapping people. I can explain everything with our normal methods. It was just a coincidence that when the Philistines captured this box that had superstitious meaning attached to it, that that was also when the outbreak occurred. It's not as if all these people just suddenly dropped dead for no reason."

So for those readers who have grasped my view of God's design of the universe, the above is just a particular illustration. In the broadest sense, everything that occurs at any time in the universe, is "caused by" events that were set into motion beforehand, and ultimately can be traced back to the very beginning of time. (Even if you think quantum effects make the future indeterminate, it's still the case that the state of the universe at time t has a huge influence on what the universe can look like at t+1.)

So for me, it's a meaningless distinction to say, "Oh, did God actually punish the Philistines with His intervention, or was it just a natural outbreak?" (Notice that the Philistines wondered that too, and how much of a non sequitur their "test" was--after all, why couldn't the cows' decision of which way to take the cart also just be a coincidence?) Everything in the natural world is in direct accordance with God's will. Before our sun even existed, God knew precisely when the Philistines would capture the Ark and bring it to their camp. So He had that episode (as well as everything else that would occur in all of human history) in mind, when He designed the physical universe and its laws, and when He designed how cells work, how disease is transmitted, and so forth.

And His design was so incredibly complex and perfect, that it "just so happened" that the Philistine population was decimated when the Ark was in their possession.

Do you believe the earth is thousands of years old or billions? As far as I've seen if you look at the dates in the bible it would suggest the earth is between 6 thousand or 10 thousand years old depending on who you ask.

I am not a religious person but this is a question I have always had for my friends who were. I don't have problems with religion and think they are a good way to live your life, but that has always been an aspect of it that I have never understood how people could believe. I was curious if you had an opinion of this matter.
You know that no atheist would say "It was just a coincidence that when the Philistines captured this box that had superstitious meaning attached to it, that that was also when the outbreak occurred."

No atheist would consider this as anything but a cute little story in the bible with no basis in fact.

For arguments sake, of course, he would respond: "where's the evidence the event took place?"

And, no, referring to the bible is NOT evidence.
"No atheist would consider this as anything but a cute little story in the bible with no basis in fact.
For arguments sake, of course, he would respond: 'where's the evidence the event took place?'" - Rothfeld

The funny thing about history is you can never prove an event in human history happened, we can only assume that it happened based on evidence. No event in recorded history is falsifiable because all written accounts are normative, and even positive recordings such as video and audio can be doctored or fake.

My point is, Bob could either show you all the "evidence" of the event, or none of it. In either case you still ultimately make a faith based decision, you either believe the event happened, or you do not. Your decision might be helped by "evidence" which can increase the probability that one answer is right over the other (a good example of this is the moon landing. many crazies believe it was fake, and we can point all day to the evidence that it actually happened. but all of the evidence is contestable and debatable, so even if there is a 99.999% chance that the event transpired, it is still possible that it did not.)

No amount of evidence will EVER take away the final step: you make a personal and subjective decision to believe A over B (Buzz Aldrin, for example, is dead certain we landed on the moon, and should be if he was there, but why should we believe his subjective account? it boils down to faith)

Example: I had a party last night. I could go into great detail explaining the party, showing pictures, giving eye witness testimonies, taking fingerprints and CSI-esque documentation of people in my house, etc. In the end, all of this evidence could have been fake, doctored, lies to get you to believe in my party, or it could have been true. If you believe i had a party last night you are still making a faith based conclusion; atheist or not. to say that X% probability of the even is "good enough" to conclude it happened is arbitrary.

Either the events in the Bible happened, or they didn't, but no amount of archeological and anthropological evidence can falsifiably conclude that they did. You either believe the evidence is trustworthy, or you don't. Atheists seeking extrabiblical documentation of an event to prove it transpired is an example of subjective value. I don't think its "bad" to seek extrabiblical evidence to make a personal,subjective conclusion, but to place faith in only the biblical account is no less scholarly or conclusive. The Aethist who believes Napoleon was emperor of France because of X amount of documentation and evidence is no more or less believing in a "cute little story" than the Christian or Jew who believes The Philistines got riddled with tumors due to Y amount of evidence and documentation.
Yes, God protected the Ark. Some Christians today (who believe that story, as I do) think that without the US to protect Israel it would be wiped out counter to God's will. Strange.

I should have made it clearer, but I always mean, "If you assume for the sake of the argument that the events unfolded as the Bible describes." I thought I did that explicitly here, but I just checked and this is all I said:

Now for my own take on these things, I actually don't think the Ark was covered in germs, which is how one might explain these events (if he believed the stories).

So what I meant here was if "one" were an atheist trying to explain these things, if he believed the story.

You're right James, I personally don't know whether a secular historian has evidence that a group of people called the Philistines waged battles with the Israelites and that at one point they captured this thing called "the ark."

But certainly some things from the Old Testament happened. E.g. at some people people who called themselves "Jews" really did start believing in "the Ten Commandments." Now we don't have as much evidence that these things were dictated by an omniscient being on a mountaintop, but clearly some aspects of the story are historically true. Just like someone named Jesus probably did exist, though you could understandably doubt that he did all the things mentioned in the gospels.

So my point is, suppose for the sake of argument that this story is true; maybe you go back in a time machine and witness it. I think that even at that point, you (James) wouldn't suddenly believe in God; you would say, "Ohhh, it's not a miracle, it's just a coincidence. Look at all these rats moving into the city right before the plague breaks out. Duh, it has nothing to do with this symbolic box."
Michael: I love it when the religious go pomo. I call it going full circle. :)

Bob: it is hard to imagine an atheist who believes the bible. We could just as well try to wonder what a Christian who does not believe in the bible would think.
James, there are probably hundreds of millions of self-identified Christians who do not subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible. So I can very easily imagine how they might interpret, say, the origin of life, despite what Genesis would say. I don't have to imagine; I could call up my parents and ask them.
And going the other way, James, there are atheists who explain large-scale religious fervor not simply by invoking the irrationality of the nutjob believers.

For example, I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I am pretty sure that in his Treatise on the Gods Mencken said that Jesus probably did "come back" from the dead, because that was the best explanation for the subsequent behavior of his followers. (I was an atheist when I read the book and I remember being disappointed at what a sell-out Mencken was on this point.)

Don't quote me on that, because it was a long time ago when I read it, but I'm pretty sure Mencken thought something fairy amazing happened. Of course, he didn't think it was because Jesus really was the Messiah. He was just saying, why would all of this guy's followers have gone to the stake etc., if they knew he had been totally wrong in his predictions and that he had been silenced with a crucifix.

(1) "fairly amazing"

(2) "silenced through the crucifixion"
cotterdan321: "Do you believe the earth is thousands of years old or billions?"

I do. But not because the Bible says so. Because science says so. For a good look at the science behind the young earth movement, check out
This man's book has been critiqued pretty thoroughly.

I hate to get into religious debates because I think religion does a lot of good for some people. I just think the idea that the earth is thousands of years old is absurd. Man wasn't walking around at the same time as the T-Rex and there is no real evidence that would suggest otherwise.
Bob, it's probably my turn to apologize for lack of precision: what I meant to say is that it is hard to imagine a Christian who does NOT take the Bible as God's word, one way or the other. I have yet to meet a Christian who says "Bible? Well, that's all just fiddlesticks cooked up by some folks a long time ago."

I also never argued that Christians are irrational. I may argue they are ill-informed, or that their beliefs do not stand up to critical analysis, but that's a very different kettle of fish.

No familiar with that particular thought of Mencken, but if he wrote that I'm happy to declare him wrong on that account.

People believe all kinds of crazy stuff - or do you think the Book of Mormon is anything but a concoction of a pretty clever huckster?
cotterdan321: "This man's book has been critiqued pretty thoroughly."

But are they good critiques. If you have any that you think are particularly good, I would love to read them. I take pride in knowing evolutionary science better than most evolutionists so I need to know if evolutionists have any good ideas.

I have read many critiques of creation science and they are all pretty much like the mainstream economists critiques of Austrian econ: they battle with straw men. I often wonder if the critiques actually read what they are criticizing. So the fact that someone offers a critique doesn't mean it's a good one.

cotterdan321: "Man wasn't walking around at the same time as the T-Rex and there is no real evidence that would suggest otherwise."

There is actually quite a bit of evidence for just that. Clearly, you don't want to even consider alternative evidence. A refusal to consider the evidence for an opposing position is a sign of a lack of confidence in your own.
My favorite part of this passage is that they had to make golden statues of their genital warts (if you look at the footnote in the NIV, "tumors" is noted to be in the groin). Can you imagine a sculptor hammering out a hunk of gold to look like a genital tumor?
Evidence that God has a good sense of humor.
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