On Friday, I posted about Ancient Near East culture and how understanding it can help us understand the context for Exodus and Leviticus. In the comments section of that post, Rachael raised a question about the origin of animal sacrifice, which naturally leads to questions about the origin of “clean” and “unclean” animals.
Serendipitously, the very next day Alistair Roberts posted a video about clean and unclean animals and what exact criteria seem to be used to distinguish them. He also touches on one possible reason the Israelites were forbidden to eat meat with the blood still in it. Don’t miss the discussion near the end about how the way that we eat helps make us human.
A few days later, I discovered another Alistair Roberts video that relates to my ANE post. In it, he discusses the differences between ritual, natural, and civic law. (Some are arbitrary, and others are not; some are universal, others are particular to culture.) It is just as sensible and insightful as we’ve come to expect from Alistair Roberts. There’s a reason I link to him from my blog.
If you have time, check out one or both of these videos.
Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31
Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.
On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East. It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.
Description Is Not Prescription
First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding
that nevertheless seems to be widespread.
Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history. The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors. In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape. In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism. And so on. It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.
God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy
But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff. It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force. Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad. If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.
I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What
kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves
in at the time that God gave them all these laws?
Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence. Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them. They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices. They had no war, no rape, no slavery. They did not even eat meat. They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.
No, no, no. Come on. That picture is the exact opposite of the truth. There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.
The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East
When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the
historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:
In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.
If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or
were a farmer attached to, a city-state. At the center of your city would be the temple
of that city’s god. Typically the king
was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her
representative on earth. So, the god was
ruling you through the king. Every
citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service
and sacrifice. And how was that religion
practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures
in which livestock represent wealth. But
actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.
prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of
fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of
and in some places it was common.
In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy. All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites. The power of the ruling class was considered absolute. Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king. There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law. Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.
For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.
It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World
Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East. The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical. The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture. In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.
But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are
accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and
secular, with lots of social mobility (and no
animal sacrifices whatsoever). For many
people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized
theocracy comes when they open the Bible.
They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had
commanded all of this. But no, He was
not instituting theocracy, animal
sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it. Those things were already universal. He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the
norm. He spoke to them in their terms,
but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His
Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?
You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?” This would, of course, have made no sense to them. They would have been completely unable to understand the message. If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies. You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it. But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.
Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in
a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where
instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not
allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated
animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by
the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again,
limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their
own land … where, for many years, there
was no king.
If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the
Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)
Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.
Some time ago, Rachael requested in the Comments section of my Dinosaurs post that I post a picture of the Leviathan. At the time, I thought that I didn’t have time to do one. (I’ve gotten away from drawing and painting in favor of home schooling, knitting, and a writing career.) But then I realized I had on hand a watercolor that I had done years ago which includes the Leviathan.
The image below is from a version of the Book of Job that I did for my kids when they were little. I made it because there simply were no children’s books that accurately summarized the Book of Job. It’s not a popular topic in the first place, and even when it is dealt with, it tends to be handled very moralistically as being all about Job’s patience and righteousness. But that’s a rant for another day.
The reason the animals are portrayed as being in a tornado is that God “spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.” My son, at the time, was equal parts fascinated and terrified by the idea of tornadoes. The animals shown are unicorn, eagle, behemoth (the sauropod) and, in the lower left corner, Leviathan. (I include a unicorn because the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, mentions “monoceros” or “unicorn” where some English translations render “wild donkey” or “wild ox.”)
I must admit this Leviathan owes more to C.S. Lewis’s description of the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I’ve portrayed it as a deep-sea creature. There is no hint of fire breathing or scales bumpy enough to leave an impression in the mud. Sorry, folks.
Do you feel uncomfortable with Romans at your back? Are you thinking this is not exactly what you’d planned? Are you thinking, This looks bad, but someday soon He’ll see I was right to use my knowledge of Gethsemane.
Possible you don’t recall what, months ago, He said: that the Christ must first be killed and then rise from the dead. In the sacred city He’d be turned in to the priests, then to the Gentiles to be killed – do you not feel unease?
Just hours ago He broke the news that He would be betrayed. You’re certain He did not mean you … but why are you afraid? If you would only think it through! But you’re set on your track, although you look uncomfortable with Romans at your back.
Don’t think about it, Judas. You’ve begun – now see it through. There’ll be time for thinking later when you’re swinging from a noose.
Again He took the twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to Him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” He said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.” Mark 10:32-34
As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30
When I thought about this question,
I realized that such coincidences happen to me regularly. This is especially strange because I don’t believe in them.
In fiction, I expect thematic
unity. If coincidences happen, I expect
there to be a good narrative reason for them and I expect them to move the
story forward. But this is not fiction,
this is real life. Coincidences don’t
happen, and events don’t organize themselves according to theme.
Except that they do, and … they do.
I have come up with the following handy taxonomy of weird coincidences for your enjoyment. Afterward, we’ll talk about possible causes.
1. Striking But Trivial
Often, like BlackSheep’s example
with the pizza, coincidences might be striking but they seem trivial and they
lead nowhere in particular.
For example, once I was passing
through Yellowstone and I knew I’d be seeing
my sister soon. On a whim, I bought her
a stuffed raccoon. There was absolutely
no history involving raccoons between her and me; I just thought it was cute.
When I saw my sister, I said to
her, “I have a gift for you in the car.”
And she said, “Is it a raccoon?”
You can’t tell me that wasn’t
Nor could you convince me that it
means anything. (Other than that maybe my sister is a mind reader. But why did she read my mind about that, and
not about much bigger things that I’d rather have had her instantly understand?
2. Foreshadowing Life Events
Perhaps, while reading above, you
objected to the phrase “trivial.” “How
can we know which events are trivial?”
you ask. Well, good point. Sometimes a seemingly minor coincidence looks
more significant (though still kind of baffling) in retrospect because of how
things turn out.
When I was young and eligible, I
met this guy. He heard I was from Idaho (a relatively
rural state with a relatively low population).
He said, “Oh, you’re from Idaho? Do you know ____________?”
And just as I was preparing to say,
“Not all Idahoans know one another, you know,” he said the name.
And it was of a writer I admired and had actually met.
Furthermore, I ended up marrying
the guy who asked the question.
And his first name is the same as
Now, the tricky thing about these
foreshadowing coincidences is this. They
don’t tell you as much as you’d think.
They don’t serve very well as
guidance from God, at least not if they are your sole source of it, because
they don’t happen often enough to guide you through every important decision in
They are not a substitute for
wisdom. You still have to take into
account Reasons. I’d’ve been a fool to
have married the guy on the spot.
Sometimes these coincidences do,
along with a host of other factors, seem to confirm you are taking the right
path. But even then, it is possible to start down the right path and at the
same time be making serious mistakes that will come back to bite you
later. And the stupid coincidences don’t
give you any warning about your blind spots.
At least not in any form that you can use.
So what are these foreshadowings
for? I don’t know. Perhaps their occurrence is not intended but
is more of a natural law analogous to the laws of physics … “Future events cast
backward shadows” or something like that.
But that’s getting into causes, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
3. When a Theme Emerges (over a short period of time)
This is when your attention keeps
getting drawn to a particular theme, but it’s coming from different sources
that are unrelated to each other. For
example, you are reading (or writing) a novel that has a particular theme, and
then you also hear a radio broadcast on the same topic, and a friend also
brings up the theme over lunch.
Granted, you are the missing link between all of these. Maybe the reason the theme keeps coming up is
that you keep bringing it up, or seeking it out. But I think we’ve all had experiences where
the theme keeps pursuing us, as it were, from the outside.
Christians will tell you that this
happens a lot with Scripture. The Bible
has a lot of verses and a lot of themes, as anyone who studies it
knows. So it does seem striking when,
say, you have been memorizing a passage with your kids one week, and then on that
Sunday, the sermon includes a quote from that
very verse. But this happens often.
The Psalms, by the way, are great for this. There are 150 Psalms, most of them short. This means that if you read five a day, you can read through all of them in a 30-day month (skipping most of Psalm 119, the really long one). And I can tell you that if you do this, on about 25 days of that month (or possibly all 30), one of the Psalms you read will have a direct bearing on a situation you are in. And this is not because the Psalms are filled with a lot of vague language that could be applied to anything. I mean, some of them are worship, some are laments, some are imprecatory (calling down vengeance on one’s enemies), some are historical or prophetic. Many are cries for help. But these different types are not evenly distributed throughout the book in such a way that you’d be sure every day to get one of each.
4. When People Become Magnets for Certain Events
This can be a really tragic
one. We’ve all heard anecdotally that
once someone is struck by lightning and survives, they are more likely to get
struck again – and again. I don’t know
whether that’s been verified, but I do
know of two families each of whom experienced two or more horrible,
life-changing car crashes within a few years.
And it wasn’t because they were drunk driving or anything like that. And
they lived in rural, non-high-traffic areas.
You often hear about this
phenomenon in cases where someone repeatedly runs into abusive situations –
say, at home, then in another home, then at church, then at work. Or at job after job. The temptation is to seek the reason for this
recurrence in the behavior of the victim: to say “She keeps marrying the same
kind of guy” or “He has problems with authority.” And there might be something to that,
sometimes, sure. But after looking at
the families with the car crashes, I think there might be more going on. It’s as if there is such a thing as a luck
switch, and God help you if yours gets flipped in the wrong direction.
Unfortunately, all the examples I
could think of for people being “event magnets” were bad ones. Does anyone know of a case where a particular
person seemed to attract a particular kind of event that was either good,
neutral, or just funny?
Causes for Weird Coincidences
Ok, now back to the question asked
“Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”
Mathematical Odds plus Pattern Recognition
We all know that the human mind is
predisposed to detect patterns. This is
useful, as patterns occur in the actual world and we couldn’t act if we
couldn’t detect them. In fact, experts on culture crossing will tell you that
it is difficult to really see an object unless you know what you are looking
at, and it is difficult to repeat back a string of sounds unless you know what
they mean. Our very perception is tied
up with patterns. We literally can’t
function without them.
But equally, we all know that this urge to detect patterns is so strong that it sometimes leads us astray. Every pattern that we perceive also forces us to ignore data that don’t fit it. Everyone has heard of Confirmation Bias. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that even scientists, supposedly very data-driven, will not give up on a previous theory unless they have been presented with a compelling alternative. In other words, we’re not willing to say “there’s no pattern here” once we have seen one. Instead, we will refuse to abandon a previous pattern unless there is a new one for us to hang our data on.
In some cases, our expectation of a
pattern will actually cause us to perceive data that isn’t there, simply
because it fits the pattern. This is
especially true when interpreting our spouse’s tone of voice.
I think pattern recognition plus mathematical odds might account for some of the weird coincidences we’ve discussed, particularly the thematic ones. Once our minds have been awakened to a topic, we start to notice it more often, or even read it into things that are only tangentially related to it. Perhaps such “coincidences” were happening around us before, but we didn’t perceive them.
Pattern Recognition Ain’t the Villain, Though
However, let’s not go crazy with
assuming that pattern recognition can only
serve to deceive us as to the nature of the world. It can start to sound like this whenever
people get talking about Confirmation Bias.
It’s as if this weird quirk of the human mind keeps us from seeing the
world “as it really is.” But actually,
pattern recognition often helps us to
perceive things, as when we notice that our kid is always grumpier when he’s
hungry or that the sun always rises in the East. Just because the drive to perceive patterns
sometimes deceives us, does not mean that the world does not operate according
to regular rules. It is not a completely
random world we live in. So, our
pattern-recognizing minds are not alien to this world, but are designed to
operate well within it.
Also, despite our strong predisposition to see only what we expect and understand, we also have minds that are designed to meet and grapple with the unknown. (Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about this. According to him, the left brain basically handles the known, and the right brain the unknown.) We know that we are capable of learning surprising new facts, and sometimes we even seek out this experience. In fact, that is almost the definition of the “weird” in “weird coincidences.”
The Universe is Mind, Not Matter
Let’s review two facts: our minds are capable of moving out into the unknown, and our minds are predisposed to seek patterns. This opens up the possibility that our experiences, including weird coincidences, might represent previously unknown patterns. That is, patterns not coming from our own minds but from somewhere else.
Now, this will be hard to swallow
if you believe that the only real thing is matter. On this view, all of matter is controlled by
random movements at the quantum level. On
this view, the universe really is a random place and patterns are not real
EXCEPT in the human mind.
All of us who have received a modern Western education believe that at some level. That’s why I said above that coincidences happen to me “even though I don’t believe in them.” I got a normal public-school education, so there are some materialist assumptions baked into my thinking.
So that’s one level of our thought.
But on another level, none of us
really believe the materialist/randomness/mathematical odds explanation. We know
that minds are real. This is confirmed
by our daily experience.
If this is a universe in which
human minds exist, then it must be a universe in which mind is a real
thing. Therefore patterns are real. Therefore themes are real. Even if they exist “only” in human minds,
they are still real. They are in the
I would go so far as to say that
the basic unit of reality is not molecules, but mind. (That alliterates, which is why I chose it
rather than “not atoms but mind” or “not quarks but mind.” Or whatever tinier thing down from quarks has
since been discovered.)
In the video below, you can see Stephen Meyer make this case to Ben Shapiro. (It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. If you don’t have the time, he makes his point about mind in the teaser in the first few seconds of the video.) Our genes are, essentially, extensive libraries of information, digitally coded. In all our experience, nothing has ever produced a digitally coded message – let alone a library’s worth of messages – except for a mind.
Now, Christians would say that the ultimate mind – the Mind behind all minds – the medium in which the universe exists – is the Mind of God. I think, for many different reasons, that this is a better explanation than trying to say that “the universe” itself has some kind of emergent mind. But for the purposes of our discussion about coincidences, it’s doesn’t really matter whether you call the Mind God. It’s enough that you accept that mind is a real feature of the universe.
Because if you accept that, then it follows that embedded in the universe itself could be things like: themes, goals, purposes, design, patterns, intent. Stories. Maybe even jokes, which is what some of these weird coincidences resemble more than anything.
I said above, “This is real life, not a novel.” But – surprise! – real life is actually a lot like a novel after all. It has mind and meaning. It might even be one big story, too big for us to perceive. So maybe that’s why things sometimes happen to us that, if you saw them in a movie, you wouldn’t believe them.
Of course you doubt yourself. All grown people do. In fact, I don’t entirely trust you if you don’t.
Here is the latest thing that made me doubt myself. It starts out with Jordan Peterson classroom footage, but ignore that. At 9:30, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson start discussing archetypes in movies. At about 13:15, Peterson says, “The artist shouldn’t be able exactly to say what it is he’s doing.”
That gave me pause. Sure, I’m a pantser, but this isn’t about pantsing versus plotting. It’s about whether you are primarily telling a story, or primarily illustrating an idea. And anyone, plotter or pantser, can do either. This made me ask myself, I am too heavy on theme? Are any of my characters behaving less like people and more like embodiments of an idea that I love or hate? Good questions to ask.
What have you doubted lately and how are you dealing with it?
We will have our regularly scheduled post on Friday as usual, but I wanted to let you know about some cool resources I’ve discovered before I move on to my next book or theology crush and forget about these.
Brian Godawa writes novels that are sort of similar to mine, but sort of … really different. They are based on some of the same research and like mine are speculative, but they are much more cinematic, featuring lots of action scenes and witty banter.
In the link above, you can find a five hour (!) Youtube interview in which Godawa explains preterism. Preterism is an approach to Biblical prophecy that holds that most if not all of the predictions found in Matthew 28 and in the book of Revelation were predictions about Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and were actually fulfilled then. This is an exegesis that many people haven’t heard of, because usually the people who talk the most about prophecy are coming from a Dispensationalist perspective.
You don’t have to listen to the whole five hours, but it is not boring. I have been listening my way through it while I do various chores. Godawa explains how preterism can be true even though Revelation uses terms like “the great tribulation,” “the end of all things,” “coming in the clouds,” etc. The video is especially fun because Godawa has come late to preterism. As he explains, he himself has held just about every other view of biblical prophecy that is out there. The host, Josh Peck, is a futurist not a preterist but he is extremely humble and enthusiastic, which makes the interview fun to listen to.
J.K. Rowling spent a long time planning out the entire Harry Potter series before she wrote it. She used a lot of symbolism and was influenced by some of the Great Books. John Granger’s (no, not that Granger’s!) delightful book Harry Potter’s Bookshelf walks us through the layers of meaning in the Harry Potter series. Would you believe that Harry Potter bears similarities to The Divine Comedy, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels? In addition to many others? If this interests you, go out and get a copy of this book.