Friday, August 30, 2013

The Syrian Crisis and the Bible

As the west, led by the US and prodded by France, rattles its saber at Bashar al-Assad, some in the Christian community are looking to the Bible to see what it might say about these events. They are turning to Isaiah 17:1-2 which is an oracle against Damascus.
See, Damascus will cease to be a city, and will become a heap of ruins.Her towns will be deserted forever; they will be places for flocks, which will lie down, and no one will make them afraid. 
Some Christians, and apparently some Muslims too, see this as sign of the second coming of Jesus Christ.  But there are a couple of problems with this interpretation.
  1. The Damascus referred to in Isaiah 17 is the one from 732 BC. It is the one that was mostly destroyed by the Assyrians for rebelling against their Assyrian overlords.
  2. If we are going to read 17:1-2 as a prophecy about the 21st century, then we need to do the same with Isaiah 17:3-14, which has some rather negative things to say about Israel. In fact, if you read those verses you see the destruction of Israel is described in far more detail than that of Damascus. Some have looked at these verses and conclude that it is describing a chemical attack by Syria on Israel. But in reality, it is about God judging Israel because they have forgotten God. The events described there seem to reflect the way the Assyrian army moved into Israel in 720 BC.

A major problem with this sort of interpretation is that it completely ignores the context of the oracle. This oracle was written at a specific time for a specific people. It doesn’t have on going predictive powers. This type of interpretation is the result of a very egocentric reading of the Bible. It happens when we think that everything written therein is about us and for us. All that we need to do is solve the code, connect the dots and we have the secret road map to how the world will end. But as I said, this ignores the fact that what is described here has already happened.

Over at the Time Blog Walter Bruggemann has what is probably a more responsible way to understand this passage, 2800 years after it happened. He says

 “You cannot read the Bible that way. It is an ancient poem about an ancient context,” he said. “If we are going to contemporize it with such an easy connection then we have to learn to read the text against the United States as well because the United States now plays the role of Babylon and all those ancient superpowers. We have to tread very gently about making such silly connections.”
A better interpretation of the passage, Bruggemann explains, would be that all nations are answerable to the God of justice, even  nations like Syria and Babylon. “No nation has high moral ground,” he says. “That is a bite against every exceptionalism, including American exceptionalism.”

Bruggemann’s point is one for Christian Americans to consider seriously. Our egocentric way of reading the Bible often neglects to ponder the possibility that perhaps we are playing the role of a modern day Assyria, Babylon or Rome. And while the Bible suggests that God used those nations at various points in history, it wasn't because God thought they were “his people.” In fact, they are the nations that eventually met their own destruction. We should remember that God's justice has no favorites. Even ancient Israel found that out. 


  1. Thank you for posting this. It brings much needed clarity about how to interpret these passages of Scripture.

  2. If you take this view, then you're basically calling this prophecy untrue. Damascus has ALWAYS been a city. It's never ceased to be a city, and it was never "deserted forever". It's actually ridiculous to even suggest that this has even remotely happened before.

  3. Well, Anonymous, I suppose it depend on how you understand poetic literature. Since authors often make statements that are intended to have more rhetorical impact than actual fulfillment, then there is nothing wrong with my interpretation. The events described in Isaiah are those that happened in 732 and 720 BC. Another example of this would be Jesus' words in Mark 13:2 where he says of the temple "no stone will be left on another." But we know from archaeology that is not true since the Western Wall where Jews now pray was part of the temple complex and still has stones in place.

  4. I got to tell you I can not stand how in the United States we think we have all the answers and that our perceptions or interpretations are correct. This has been the downfall of every superpower that has ruled. Spend ten minutes outside pur bubble and you will see the world is a much larger place.

  5. Mark,

    Feel the same here. We have to be among the most arrogant people groups in human history.


    I agree with your reply about the temple insofar as biblical parlance goes, the ANE folks used hyperbolic lingo for sure. However, new archaeological evidence and old Josephus info suggest what we think are temple remains probably are not. I'm not sure why we've ignored the Josephus data, but, this new archaeological stuff is compelling: