Further wild speculation

After I wrote the blog post from two weeks ago, speculating that the “Ararat” of Genesis 8 might refer to Arrata in southwestern Iran, rather than Urartu in Anatolia, I stumbled over a very interesting article from 2014. The article is by Mohammed El Bastawesy, and it’s titled, “The Geomorphological and Hydrogeological Evidences for a Holocene Deluge in Arabia.”*

According to this article, during the late Pleistocene there was a massive lake occupying most of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. At some point between 13,000 and 8,500 radiocarbon years ago the lake suddenly broke out of its basin – the article doesn’t explain why, but the entire region is geologically active. The water flowed north and east into what is now the Persian Gulf, which at the time, if you recall my earlier post about the Gulf Oasis, was dry and very likely habitable.

That makes three separate sources of flooding for the oasis: 1) Sea level rise, which is known to have happened but would not have happened suddenly without other conditions (such as breaking through a natural levee) that are not known to have been present. 2) River floods, which have not, to my knowledge, been conclusively shown to have occurred, but can nevertheless reasonably be assumed to have happened from time to time. 3) The emptying of this megalake, which is known to have happened and to have been sudden.

Before getting too excited, however, we need to remember that the very latest time period that all this could have happened is still a couple of millennia before anybody could possibly have written the story down. An oral narrative would only be passed down over that distance of time if each succeeding generation found it relevant to their own concerns. If not, after a few centuries the story would almost certainly be changed beyond recognition, if it survived at all. So, as I said earlier, this is wild speculation. But I think it’s interesting nonetheless.

*Published in Arabian Journal of Geosciences 8 (5): 2577-2586.


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Inequality in Ancient Israel

I read an interesting 2018 monograph* this morning by Avraham Faust about the archaeological evidence for social stratification in the Levant during the Iron Age. Faust looked at architecture, specifically houses, at dozens of archaeological sites. He divided the houses into four classes based on size, construction quality, and shared walls, and used the resulting categorization to create Lorenz curves for each site.

Interestingly, graphing the curves revealed significant social stratification for urban location – cities and large towns – but essentially none in rural villages. Faust attributes the difference to the presence of hired labor in urban areas. He also notes that this result implies that when the Biblical prophets denounced the exploitation of the poor, they were looking at what was happening in urban areas, not rural villages.

I would add in addition that this finding implies that in that society it was effectively impossible for individual households to accumulate large amounts of land. Archaeology obviously can’t reveal how closely Iron Age villages followed the laws about land and inheritance in the Torah, but we can use it to infer that whatever rules actually were followed led to farm land being distributed among a large number of households instead of just a few, and that the distribution at the level of the village was roughly equal. There were no large estates or landlords.

In contrast to my rant back in April about the misuse of Biblical archaeology, Faust’s monograph is an example of its proper application. He used archaeological methods to address an archaeological question about a culture in the past, not to try and prove or disprove anything in the Bible. The results do provide some insight into the way certain Biblical texts would have been understood by their original intended audience, however, and also give us a more precise picture of who the original intended audience of those particular passages was; that this message was aimed specifically at wealthy urban dwellers.

*Social Stratification in the Iron Age Levant. In Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber and John H. Walton, pp. 482-491. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

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A Wild Speculation

It has occurred to me to wonder whether it’s possible that the Hebrew word ‘rrt given in Genesis as the resting place of the Ark should be read as “Arrata” instead of “Ararat.” Although the location of the legendary land of Aratta is uncertain, the road there from Sumeria, according to an account from the 21st century BC, went through Susa and Anshan. That would probably put it somewhere in the southern part of modern Iran. If that were the case, then the Mountains of ‘rrt, where the Ark was supposed to have landed, would be best understood as the mountains that separate Arrata from Sumeria. That is, the Zagros range.

I’ve been thinking about this in connection with a previous post here about the Persian Gulf Oasis. A major flood there, in the era when it was exposed above sea level, would easily cover a vast area. (The word ‘eres, translated as “earth” in Genesis 6 is also used i many other places in Genesis, and in the rest of the Bible. In most cases, it clearly does not refer to the entire planet. That’s something that should be kept in mind, since geology has definitively ruled out a planetary flood at any point during which humans, or anything that can be recognized as a human ancestor, existed.)

The hypothetical oasis and the region around it are now beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf. However, the rising sea could not have occurred fast enough to produced a catastrophic flood. But a river flood there could be just as devastating as a river flood in any other mostly flat region. And if the rising sea had, hypothetically, been held back by a natural levee of some sort, a sudden breakthrough would likely have utterly destroyed the entire area. Either way, debris and any boats could easily have wound up at the base of the Zagros Mountains. Thus my speculation about the name ‘rrt.

Now, granted, I am not a specialist in the Ancient Near East (my master’s thesis was The Archaeological Investigation of Gardening at the Historic Railroad Station of Kearsarge, California). I do know a little, however; enough to have adopted the position of a fairly strong maximalist, as that term is used in Biblical archaeology. In other words, I consider the Biblical text to be reliable history unless and until other evidence rules it out. The opposite, or minimalist, position holds that the Bible is not reliable except when corroborated by external evidence. (These positions should be understood as the ends of a continuum, not a dichotomy.)

And let’s be clear; all I’m offering at the moment is speculation. As far as I know, there is no evidence either for or against this scenario. However, it is likely that evidence to either support or refute this speculation can be found in the geology and archaeology of the Persian Gulf, if political conditions there are ever such that research can safely be done.


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More Trains!

Over this past 4th of July weekend, the Nevada State Railroad Museum had an event they called The Great Western Steam Up 2022. I don’t have a very good camera anymore, but I managed to get some acceptable shots anyway. The first two pictures are of Virginia & Truckee locomotive no. 21, the J.W. Bowker, and the third is Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge no. 18 .(As always, click to embiggen.)

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Quote of the Day

The better the society, the less law there will be. In heaven, there will be no law, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb… The worse the society, the more law there will be. In hell, there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.” – Grant Gilmore

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Explaining the Trinity

For nearly 2,000 years, theologians have tried to come up with an analogy to explain the Trinity in a way that isn’t heretical. So far, no one has succeeded, as two Irish peasants explain to St. Patrick:

It has occurred to me that the concept of particle/wave duality in physics might be used to develop a non-heretical analogy. Unfortunately, even if it can be done, it would fail on the grounds that the basic purpose of an analogy is to make a difficult concept easier to understand, and no part of modern physics makes anything easier for normal people to understand.


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Thoughts on a Sabbath Healing

In Matthew 12:9-14, we find this account of Jesus healing a man’s hand:

9Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

It’s sadly ironic that the Pharisees were angered by a man being healed on the Sabbath, but apparently had no problem with plotting to kill somebody on the Sabbath. Comparing this with other passages in the Gospels, it’s clear that they understood the Sabbath as a duty they performed in service to God, while Jesus, in contrast, understood it as a benefit God had provided for humanity.

The Pharisees were so convinced they had properly interpreted God’s Law that they were unable to recognize when they were in the presence of the one who had authored that Law. And this same attitude that elevates a particular understanding of the Scriptures to the status of Scripture itself, is sadly rampant in evangelical Christianity today. There is a decided lack of acceptance of the possibility of having gotten even the slightest detail wrong. This is, oddly, in contrast with mainstream Protestantism, where there is too often an unwillingness to accept the possibility of having gotten it right! The middle way, trusting that, in the Church, God has preserved the true Gospel, while accepting that any particular individual or group might have misunderstood some of the details, requires both faith and humility; faith without pride and humility without compromise.


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Quote of the Day

“Democracy as a social ideal contravenes all forms of racism and class privilege. When democracy becomes severed from its Christian roots and is made to serve expanding technology, however, new forms of racism and bigotry appear. In the ‘enlightened’ democratic social order, minority groups are discriminated against not because of color or ethnic background but because they deviate from the psychological or cultural norm”-  Donald G. Bloesch.

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Ancient Near Eastern Creation Stories

In his book Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation: A Relevance Theory Approach, Old Testament scholar John W. Hilber offers the interesting observation that:

“First, it is important to keep in mind that there is no ancient Near Eastern creation account per se, whether one considers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, or the Levant. Various traditions that are related to creation were put into the service of texts with other interests. This in itself is instructive, since it shows that the interests of the ancients revolved around questions such as theogony, cultic order, the relationship between gods and humans, magic, participating in creation cycles to overcome death, or the concerns of agriculture – not the age of the earth or how earth’s natural history unfolded. What was important to the ancients was the final order of the universe as it pertains to time, weather, and food production as well as implications for temple service. In terms of relevance theory, it is inherently improbable that Gen 1 addresses chronology of natural history or any question of interest to modern science”

Speaking more broadly, it is to be expected that some of the symbols (and all language, including written language, is a system of symbols) produced by a culture other than our own may well appear to have straight forward, obvious interpretations that are, nevertheless, not correct. It really is the case that some things which are self-evidently true to people raised in one culture are self-evident nonsense to people who grew up in a different culture.

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The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

I’ve been looking at animations of the way galaxies evolve over time. Astronomy is not my specialty, so I’ve been staying with sources that are pretty universally regarded as mainstream and reliable, so as not to wander off into aesthetic but fanciful projections.

First from the people running the James Webb Space Telescope:

And one direct from NASA:

I hear from some people that God does not exist, and yet when you project stellar movements on a time scale of billions of years, they don’t just move, they’re dancing. The stars are dancing.


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