God’s Apocalyptic Bluff

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by Neil Godfrey

The Book of Enoch, The Watchers, 1:3-7

_end-of-the-world_2433119bThe Holy Great One will come forth from His dwelling,
And the eternal God will tread upon the earth, (even) on Mount Sinai,
[And appear from His camp]
And appear in the strength of His might from the heaven of heavens.

And all shall be smitten with fear
And the Watchers shall quake,
And great fear and trembling shall seize them unto the ends of the earth.

And the high mountains shall be shaken,
And the high hills shall be made low,
And shall melt like wax before the flame

And the earth shall be wholly rent in sunder,
And all that is upon the earth shall perish,
And there shall be a judgement upon all (men).

Matthew 24:29

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken

Revelation 6:12-17

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;

And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:

For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

What does all this mean? Such apocalyptic had a long heritage, as passages from Enoch (above) and Micah, Jeremiah and Isaiah (below) testify. How did the authors expect readers/hearers to interpret such language?

Again from Richard Horsley, this time from Scribes, Visionaries and the Politics of Second Temple Judea . . . 

In earlier interpretation of “apocalyptic” literature, this hyperbolic language of theophany was taken in a literal sense as predicting “cosmic catastrophe,” the destruction of the created order. But that was a misunderstanding of such “apocalyptic” language, which stands in continuity with the traditional register of language dedicated to theophany. Far from cosmic dissolution, the Book of Watchers is concerned with the restoration of the heavenly order.

The point of the earthshaking pyrotechnics of God’s appearance, in heightened metaphoric and hyperbolic language, was to symbolize how terrible and terrifying the appearance of God in judgment will be. The whole tradition of such oracles (including Mic. 1:2-7; Jer. 25:30-38) was sharply political, pronouncing condemnation of oppressive domestic or foreign rulers and their defeat by God acting as divine Warrior with heavenly armies — and/or the people’s deliverance from such rulers. The prophetic oracle in Isa. 24:17-23 even includes the “host of heaven” along with “the kings of the earth” in the divine punishment . . . . (p. 158, my bolding for all quotations)

This has been well understood among scholars for some time now and Horsley does in another work take Bart Ehrman to task for not keeping up to date with his own field.

Bart Ehrman basically reverted to Schweitzer’s century-old picture of Jesus as a “Jewish apocalyptist.” He was convinced that history was coming to an end, that God was about to intervene in “a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human and religious institutions. . . . Jesus expected this cataclysmic end of history could come in his own generation.” (From Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pp. 17-19) . . . Ehrman either ignored or dismissed much of the recent critical scholarship (p. 26, Kindle version, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel)

The argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who foretold of a cosmic end of all things in a great fiery judgment is an anachronism, a careless retrojection of an idea from our own day back into the time of Jesus.

Many today, through the same misunderstanding of the nature of apocalyptic literature, are still waiting for the literal shaking of the earth and heavens.

Micah 1:2-7

Hear, O peoples, all of you,
  listen, O earth and all who are in it,
that the Sovereign LORD may witness against you,
  the Lord from his holy temple.

Look! The LORD is coming from his dwelling place;
  he comes down and treads the high places of the earth.
The mountains melt beneath him
  and the valleys split apart,
like wax before the fire,
  like water rushing down a slope.
All this is because of Jacob’s transgression,
  because of the sins of the house of Israel.
What is Jacob’s transgression?
  Is it not Samaria?
What is Judah’s high place?
  Is it not Jerusalem?

“Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble,
  a place for planting vineyards.
I will pour her stones into the valley
  and lay bare her foundations.
All her idols will be broken to pieces;
  all her temple gifts will be burned with fire;
 I will destroy all her images.
Since she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes,
  as the wages of prostitutes they will again be used.”

Jeremiah 25:30-38

“Now prophesy all these words against them and say to them:

“‘The Lord will roar from on high;
he will thunder from his holy dwelling
and roar mightily against his land.

He will shout like those who tread the grapes,
shout against all who live on the earth.

The tumult will resound to the ends of the earth,
for the Lord will bring charges against the nations;
he will bring judgment on all mankind
and put the wicked to the sword,’”
declares the Lord.

This is what the Lord Almighty says:

“Look! Disaster is spreading
from nation to nation;
a mighty storm is rising
from the ends of the earth.”

At that time those slain by the Lord will be everywhere—from one end of the earth to the other. They will not be mourned or gathered up or buried, but will be like dung lying on the ground.

Weep and wail, you shepherds;
roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock.
For your time to be slaughtered has come;
you will fall like the best of the rams.

The shepherds will have nowhere to flee,
the leaders of the flock no place to escape.

Hear the cry of the shepherds,
the wailing of the leaders of the flock,
for the Lord is destroying their pasture.

The peaceful meadows will be laid waste
because of the fierce anger of the Lord.

Like a lion he will leave his lair,
and their land will become desolate
because of the sword of the oppressor
and because of the Lord’s fierce anger.

Isaiah 24:17-23

Terror and pit and snare await you,
people of the earth.

Whoever flees at the sound of terror
will fall into a pit;
whoever climbs out of the pit
will be caught in a snare.

The floodgates of the heavens are opened,
the foundations of the earth shake.

The earth is broken up,
the earth is split asunder,
the earth is violently shaken.

The earth reels like a drunkard,
it sways like a hut in the wind;
so heavy upon it is the guilt of its rebellion
that it falls—never to rise again.

In that day the Lord will punish
the powers in the heavens above
and the kings on the earth below.

They will be herded together
like prisoners bound in a dungeon;
they will be shut up in prison
and be punished after many days.

The moon will be dismayed,
the sun ashamed;
for the Lord Almighty will reign
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and before its elders—with great glory.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “God’s Apocalyptic Bluff”

  1. What is the evidence historians now have for thinking that the literal understanding of apocalyptic language (as predicting the destruction of the world) is a misunderstanding?

    1. I will do a more detailed post. But the short answer is “context”. The idea that the end of the world is being depicted does not fit the context. It is read into the passages. The authors are looking forward to a restoration of a happy peaceful order where the righteous rule and the bad guys are gone. David himself at a critical moment said he saw God coming down in clouds on his chariot to overcome his enemies. No-one takes that literally. The Son of Man image in Daniel is a symbol set in contrast to the beasts. A careful reading shows this human image represents the saints who at last are free from their persecutors and living without the imperial yoke taking them off to the slaughter anymore — as per the history of the Maccabees.

  2. Note the recent paradigm shift in Enoch “son of man” scholarship which backs up Schweitzer’s and Ehrman’s idea of Jesus as an apocalyptist: http://www.amazon.com/Parables-Enoch-Paradigm-Jewish-Christian/dp/0567624064/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396588852&sr=1-1&keywords=charlesworth+enoch

    Also, you ignore the shift that many scholars point out occurred, the shift from prophecy to apocalyptic, from Amos to books like Daniel and Enoch when the hopelessness of the Jewish situation was realized by many and a divine final judgment and general resurrection come into vogue.

    The context of first century apocalyptic can be seen in the Dead Sea Scroll of The Community Rule, and the War Scroll, Melchizadek scroll, and the Habakkuk commentary. That context is of a community waiting in celibacy for the soon judgment of the world, the final battle between the sons of light and darkness, centering round Jerusalem where all the armies of the world will meet within a “generation.”

    Echoes of such expectations appear in the NT from John the Baptist to Jesus to the early NT writers themselves, all of them.

    Read the Dead Sea Scrolls, also google, the Lowdown on God’s Showdown.

    1. Indeed Paul does often talk about the forthcoming arrival of Jesus , and how Christians were waiting for Jesus to appear.

      But Paul doesn’t speak of it as a return visit.

      1. I think there are two types of “apocalyptic” in Paul’s letters. Roger Parvus’s articles probably have a bit to say on that.

        The apocalyptic lit I’m thinking of is what’s found in Enoch, Isaiah, Daniel, Mark . . . and their this-worldly political expectations vis a vis the Persian, Seleucid/Ptolemaic and Roman forces.

        I should add that I think Paul’s primary apocalypticism was derived from Stoicism and did envisage a fiery cosmic end-time judgment. (I think.)

    2. I’m not denying apocalyptic literature but am raising questions about how we interpret it. The model that you speak of, from Amos to Daniel, is the traditional interpretation. But Daniel does surely speak of the victory of the Maccabees rather than a literal cosmic judgment upon the entire earth.

      (I also think it’s the only way to make sense of Mark’s and Matthew’s “little apocalypse” and, I’m embarrassed to say, I find myself in agreement with N.T. Wright on this one.)

      What chapters do you recommend in the Parables of Enoch book?

  3. The Apocalypse is largely a metaphor for a change in our mind or spirit (or here, “politics”). In my own writings it is specifically the moment we begin to see that there were many bad or false things in traditional Christianity. In that moment even our conservative Christian, mental idea of “heaven” begins to “dissolve.” In our mind’s eye.

    Particularly interesting in my theology, is the moment that God destroys Heaven itself (Isa. 34.4, 51.6; 2 Peter 3.7-12; Rev. 21). One would think that our traditional “heaven” is eternal. But that is wrong. God himself they said was eternal. But as for his various attributes, like heaven itself? “It will perish.”

    In particular I suggest that “heaven” stands for our traditional conservative religious values. So the apocalyptic destruction of Heaven by God himself is a very significant moment.

    For me, learning a little theology, Religious Studies, the scientific and historical study of religion, is the beginning of that apocalyptic moment. When God begins to show us huge sins even in the very things we thought were absolutely good and perfect. Even “all the host of heaven” itself.

  4. On a slightly different topic, Tim Callahan’s latest article on the Jesus historicity debate seems to show considerable growth from his previous offering a few years ago. The evidence, for Callahan, boils down to Josephus and Tacitus. Have you seen it? It might be interesting to compare the development. This article showed a much more sophisticated understanding of the mythicist position (or maybe I am just remembering the previous one incorrectly).

    1. Thanks for this. I see the article is at The Greatest Story Ever Garbled [… http://www.timcallahan.info/ Link no longer active, 14th August 2015 — Neil]. I don’t know Tim’s track record on this, but it sounds from this article as though he has not studied the question in any depth or had occasion to reflect upon the fallacious nature of his criterion of embarrassment. Just floating with the current conversation moving through the air. (I must be getting old with too little to do — I keep noticing how people just repeat phrases and thoughts that are the currency of the times — as if we are on auto-pilot. Too little time for most of us to stop and really think about the memes making our minds up.)

      But I do like his patience with addressing the points of Zeitgeist. Wonder what the astrotheology crowd will say in response.

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