Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Syria in Bible Prophecy

Syria has once again hit the news headlines across the world, and no doubt Christadelphians will capitalise on this and make all sorts of claims about it being a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. I'm just guessing. I don't really follow any Christadelphian sources these days.

So I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a look at what the Bible actually says about Syria, and try to cut through the hyperbole and hysteria that tends to surround topics like this.

First, some perspective

If, like me, you were raised in a Christadelphian home, you may have grown up thinking it was quite natural to believe that an ancient book could contain cryptic clues about modern and future events. However, it seems to me that such a belief only seems reasonable due to the repeated conditioning we had as kids. Even Christadelphians would be quite skeptical of any claim that the Quran or the writings of Nostradamus contain accurate predictions of modern events (and indeed both have followers every bit as certain as Christadelphians are). They just fail to apply this same skepticism to their own claims. But we all have blind spots, and I realise how difficult it is sometimes to overcome them, or even to want to.

Syria in the Bible

The Bible mentions Syria quite a lot actually, although 99% of the references to Syria are related to various battles that the kings of Israel and Judah had against Syria. You can find these littered throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles. I'm no expert on how historically accurate these are, and I won't go into that here. I just want to point out that of all the Bible's references to Syria, very few are prophetic.

Prophecies about Syria

The most well-known prophecy against Syria is in Isaiah 17:3, but I'll get to that in a moment. First, I want to talk about Isaiah 7, which contains a prophecy given to King Ahaz saying that Syria would not invade Israel.

During the reign of Ahaz son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel marched up to Jerusalem to do battle, but they were unable to prevail against it.
Tell him (Ahaz), ‘Make sure you stay calm! Don’t be afraid! Don’t be intimidated by these two stubs of smoking logs, or by the raging anger of Rezin, Syria, and the son of Remaliah. Syria has plotted with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah to bring about your demise. It will not take place; it will not happen.'
Isaiah 7:1-7 NET

However, the author was wise enough to put a "get out of jail free" clause on this one, as we read in verse 9:
"If your faith does not remain firm, then you will not remain secure.”

And just as well, too. According to 2 Chronicles 28, things did not go so well for King Ahaz.

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for sixteen years in Jerusalem.
The Lord his God handed him over to the king of Syria. The Syrians defeated him and deported many captives to Damascus.
2 Chronicles 28:1, 5-6 NET

What should we make of this? Not a lot, I suggest. If it weren't for the "insufficient faith" clause at the end of the prophecy in Isaiah 7, it would look a lot like a failed prophecy. Isaiah 7 didn't actually predict that Ahaz would lose faith in relation to an attack from Syria, so there is no prediction in Isaiah 7 that was actually fulfilled. At best it's a nullified prophecy, which basically just means it never had any predictive power in the first place. Effectively it was just "heads I win, tails you lose".

Isaiah 9:12 also refers to Syria having "gobbled up Israelite territory". I don't know if this is a reference to the same occasion or some other event. I looked up some commentaries but found nothing definitive.

In all of these cases, it is clear that the passages are referring to some battle that occurred in the past. Scholars date the writing of the books of Chronicles to around 400-250 BCE, well after the recorded events. So in the context of 2 Chronicles, there is no prophecy relating to our times, or even any time after 250 BCE (to put a definitive end date on it).

Modern Syria in Bible Prophecy

So why do Christadelphians (and others) claim that modern events in Syria are somehow fulfilling Bible Prophecy? Well, there are two main sources as far as I can tell.

The first is a reference to Damascus in Isaiah 17, and the second is the reference to the "king of the north" mentioned in Daniel 11. If you know of more, please let me know.

Here is a message about Damascus: “Look, Damascus is no longer a city, it is a heap of ruins! The cities of Aroer are abandoned. They will be used for herds, which will lie down there in peace. Fortified cities will disappear from Ephraim, and Damascus will lose its kingdom. The survivors in Syria will end up like the splendor of the Israelites,” says the Lord who commands armies.
Isaiah 17:1-3 NET

There is not a lot of context here but we can piece together some details from commentaries and from (other) historical sources and fill in some vital information.

Chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah are believed by scholars to have been written in the late 8th century BCE, which just happens to be around the same time that Assyria attacked, and conquered, Syria, including the city of Damascus. While it may be tempting to read Isaiah 17:1-3 as entirely a future prediction, it seems rather more likely that verse 1 is referring to the current state of Damascus at the time of writing. It had been defeated by Tiglath Pileser III around 732 BCE, and the kingdom of Aram-Damascus did actually fall to the Assyrians about this time. The Assyrian conquest was also well under way throughout Syria long before this, so it's not entirely clear whether there is any actual prediction here, or whether Isaiah is simply recording events that had already occurred.

The mention of Aroer is particularly telling, because that city is now located in modern day Jordan, whereas when Isaiah 17 was written it was part of the kingdom of Aram-Damascus. See 2 Kings 10:33, which lists the cities conquered by Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus. Details like this are typically glossed over when people try to claim a modern day fulfilment. Why is that?

The defeat of Damascus by Tiglath Pileser is actually recorded in 2 Kings 16:
At that time King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel attacked Jerusalem. They besieged Ahaz, but were unable to conquer him. (At that time King Rezin of Syria recovered Elat for Syria; he drove the Judahites from there. Syrians arrived in Elat and live there to this very day.) Ahaz sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your dependent. March up and rescue me from the power of the king of Syria and the king of Israel, who have attacked me.” Then Ahaz took the silver and gold that were in the Lord’s temple and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as tribute to the king of Assyria. The king of Assyria responded favorably to his request; he attacked Damascus and captured it. He deported the people to Kir and executed Rezin.
2 Kings 16:5-9 NET

Back in Isaiah 17, the mention of Ephraim and Damascus together is actually a reference to the treaty between them from back in Isaiah 7. Also note that here we are not talking about two individual cities. "Ephraim" is actually referring to the northern 10 tribes of Israel, and the "kingdom" that Damascus is said to lose was known as Aram-Damascus. The fact that Isaiah talks about fortified cities disappearing from northern Israel suggests that the Assyrian captivity had already begun, which is consistent with history. That would also make sense of the comparison between survivors in Syria and the "splendor of the Israelites". Isaiah is saying that those who survive the invasion in Syria will end up like those who survived the invasion in northern Israel, which again strongly suggests that the latter invasion had already begun.

By now it's looking very difficult to squeeze any future prediction from this passage (since it's all pretty firmly anchored on events during the 8th century BCE), but Isaiah does switch to future tense part way through, and then starts listing off a series of related predictions of other events he thinks will happen "at that time".

"At that time Jacob’s splendor will be greatly diminished, and he will become skin and bones.
At that time men will trust in their Creator; they will depend on the Holy One of Israel. They will no longer trust in the altars their hands made, or depend on the Asherah poles and incense altars their fingers made.
At that time their fortified cities will be like the abandoned summits of the Amorites, which they abandoned because of the Israelites; there will be desolation."
Isaiah 17:4-9 NET

The prediction of abandoned cities and the diminishing of Israel's "splendor" (other translations use the word "glory") sounds close enough to what we know from history, but as I mentioned before it's not at all clear whether there was any genuine prediction here. This destruction was already well under way by the time these words were written down, and the success of the Assyrian conquest up to that point probably made it a pretty sure bet. Perhaps this was history for Isaiah too. It's not at all uncommon for biblical authors to write so-called "prophecies" after the fact, in order to bolster the claim that their writings had some divine authority.

Meanwhile, Asherah continued to be worshipped in Judah after the Assyrian captivity (and thus after the fall of Damascus), so that prediction seems a little bit off. Even the Bible tells us that idolatry in Judah did not cease at that time.

But what about our times? After all, these verses are cited by Christadelphians as somehow relating to our day. Well, all I can say is that the repeated references to Jacob, Israelites, Ephraim, and Damascus in connection with desolation that is quite obviously referring to the Assyrian invasion of the 8th century BCE, suggests that these verses could not possibly be talking about modern events. To claim otherwise is to blatantly ignore the historical context of the chapter, which is just bad exegesis.

If you disagree with anything I've said here, feel free to compare it with the various Bible commentaries on Isaiah 17:1-3.

Dual Fulfilment?

Of course, many Christadelphians will suggest a "dual fulfilment", which is a fiction invented to avoid the conclusions I have laid out above (that the author was obviously referring to events in his own day). There is nothing in Isaiah 17 that suggests any such dual application was intended, and it seems that any attempts to apply these prophecies to modern times rely on fairly selective interpretations of both the text and the events.

The King of the North

The view of most critical scholars is that Daniel 11's "king of the north" refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and not the modern nation of Syria. The whole chapter is talking about a battle, or a series of battles, between the Seleucid empire and Egypt. The "time of the end" in Daniel 11:40 is most likely a reference to the end of the predicted battle, rather than the end of the world or era as Christadelphians seem to infer. The fact that the author of Daniel predicted that God would intervene immediately after this battle just adds to the failures of this alleged "prophecy".

It is very common for Christadelphians to insist there is a large time gap (2000+ years!) between verse 39 and 40 of Daniel 11. But where is the justification for this? The text mentions no such thing. There is no indication that either the kings or the nations referred to are any different in verse 40 than in previous verses. What I suspect is going on is that Christadelphians see "time of the end" and immediately assume this is talking about a time in their own future (rather than the author's future), because obviously we're still here and the world hasn't ended yet. And because they start with the assumption that the prophecy is true and work backwards to make everything fit, they insist that a "time of the end" must still be future. The problem is that the text says no such thing. If you have to massage the interpretation of the prophecy to make it fit modern events, you're just deceiving yourself.

What is also strange is the tendency of Christadelphians to just randomly switch nations in verse 40, when again the text offers no such hint. Even though Syria and Egypt still exist, for some reason Christadelphians insist that the "king of the south" is now the US/UK (and allies), while the "king of the north" is either Russia or Syria depending on which one is more prominent in the news this week. Perhaps this is because there is currently no war between Syria and Egypt, and Christadelphians don't want to let a good conflict go to waste. Or perhaps once again they are adjusting the interpretation of the prophecy to fit the events (and vice versa).

One Christadelphian website suggested that the US was the "king of the south" because they had a "military presence" south of Israel. I found this amusing because the US also has a military presence north of Israel as well (not to mention actually in Israel), and most probably east and west too for what it's worth. Isn't it nice when you get to pick and choose the details you find most appealing? The UK is also to the north of Israel, although the fun thing about a spherical earth is that it can also be to the south too. Or perhaps it's because Egypt is allied with the US? Well, so is Turkey.

The closer you look at it, the Christadelphian methodology for interpreting prophecy starts to look like an elaborate dance deliberately intended to "make the prophecy fit", which to me demonstrates an obvious bias and a lack of objectivity. If you start with the assumption that the prophecy must be true, you will surely find plenty of things that "fit". When a prophecy's interpretation is limited only by your imagination, it lacks any predictive capability. You're just deceiving yourself.

Christadelphians also disagree with the vast majority of scholars regarding the date when the book of Daniel was written. Knowing when it was written is critical to understanding the context, and understanding the context is critical to understanding the book.

Traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, modern scholarly consensus considers the book pseudonymous, the stories of the first half legendary in origin, and the visions of the second the product of anonymous authors in the Maccabean period (2nd century BC).

The Book of Daniel was written during the persecutions of Israel by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes.
Jewish Encyclopedia

What's really going on here?

I think what is actually going on is that Christadelphians react to every significant conflict in the middle east by attempting to tie it to something in the Bible. After all, if God put cryptic messages in there to tell us about modern events, he surely wouldn't have missed something as huge as the current conflict in Syria, would he?

Russia is always a hot favourite for Christadelphians too (despite the connection being extremely dubious and in some cases based on a mistranslation), and any conflict in Syria is likely to involve Russia as well. So every time Christadelphians see Syria or Russia in the news (or perhaps even major events in the US or the UK), they immediately interpret it as a "sign". Their next task is to identify what that "sign" is telling them, and usually the first answer they invent find will do.

Any conflict in the world reinforces the Christadelphian belief that the world is getting worse and heading towards a major meltdown that will supposedly herald the return of Jesus. Meanwhile, any prosperity in the world also reinforces their simultaneous belief that Jesus will return during a time like "the days of Noah/Lot" when everyone is so busy having a good time that they're not ready for Jesus. It cannot be both.


Are modern events a fulfilment of Isaiah 17? No, they are not. Why do Christadelphians only talk about Damascus and not Aroer, when both are mentioned in those verses? Why do they ignore the historical context of the chapter? Why do they only focus on the things that seem to match and not the things that don't match? The answer is "confirmation bias". Perhaps the more interesting phenomenon here is the believer's will to believe, despite conflicting information. Isaiah wasn't writing about our times. End of story.

Are modern events a fulfilment of Daniel 11? No, they are not. Why do people insist on arbitrarily changing the meaning of terms in the text deliberately to make the prophecy fit modern events? How is it that they don't realise the obviously contrived nature of this? They are just cutting the jigsaw pieces and painting over them to create the picture they want to see. The author of the book of Daniel wasn't writing about our times either. It's just that he made predictions that didn't happen, and Christadelphians start with the assumption that the prophecy is true, and conclude that therefore the predictions must still be future (despite that requiring a ridiculous ad-hoc gap of over 2000 years, when the rest of the "prophecy" spans only a few decades at most).

There is no reason to think there is a second application of these prophecies any more than a third application, or even a one-hundred-and-third application. It's just more ad-hoc attempts to avoid the "failed prophecy" conclusion that is staring them in the face. I think this obsession with prophecy fulfilment is a symptom of a much deeper problem, and I will cover this in my next article.

The king of the north and the king of the south are both dead. It's time to move on.