Essay / Theology

Cuneiform tablets, big fish and God's Word

I ran across an article today from the on-line edition of the London Times from July 11 entitled “Museum’s tablet lends new weight to Biblical truth.” For obvious reasons, this article caught my attention so I began to read. The verdict is this: from the 100,000 or so cuneiform tablets located in the British Library, one has recently been discovered, dating from 595 BC that mentions a Babylonian officer called Nebo-Sarsekim. Unimpressed? Well, what if you just so happened to recall that Jeremiah 39:1-3 reads, “This is how Jerusalem was taken: In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city wall was broken through. Then all the officials of the king of Babylon came and took seats in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar, Nebo-Sarsekim a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officials of the king of Babylon.” That’s right! Both the cuneiform tablet and Jeremiah mention the same obscure Babylonian official. Therefore, the Bible (or at least this part) must be true! So says such imminent scholars as Michael Jursa, who translated the tablet, and Geza Vermes of Oxford University. In fact, Dalya Alberge, the author of the piece, writes that this is “dramatic proof of the accuracy of the Old Testament.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am as excited as the next Christian when such a great find is made but not so much because I need cuneiform tablets to help cement my faith in God’s word but because it makes the skeptics work so much harder to debunk such delightful archaeological proofs for the Bible’s accuracy. What concerns me, however, is what this find means for those in the evangelical church who already need to be assured of the truthfulness and accuracy of God’s Word. You know, those people who spend hours pouring over the latest pamphlets from some Christian creation society, reading obtuse explanations from the field of geology about how it is, in fact, possible for canyons as large as the Grand Canyon to be formed in a number of days, perhaps even hours, offering further “proof” that Noah’s flood was universal. Then, having digested such delightful fare, they return to their Bibles with greater confidence in its accuracy and a greater appreciation for a God who can do all things. Or those who read articles like this one from the London Times and take greater comfort from a cuneiform tablet about God’s providence than they take from innumerable answered prayers.

So, what’s at stake? Well, I believe that there is a fine line between believing in God’s inerrant and infallible word simply because God says that it is his word and the need to have multiple external proofs. Further, I have met those who seem to put their faith more in the evidences that God’s word is true (i.e., geological studies affirming a universal flood or ancient tablets) than seeing the accuracy and power of the Scriptures as something that comes from the nature of God himself and not historical and/or scientific artifacts. I have seen such extreme cases of people needing external proofs to verify the Scriptures that I started referring to them (among friends) as Bibliolaters — those who worship the Bible as opposed to the God who gave us the Bible. Uncharitable? Perhaps, but I once heard a pastor say something like this: “If everything in the Bible did not happen as it is described in the Bible, then our faith is in vain.”

Really! Let’s pretend for just a minute that it is highly unusual that fish of any stripe swallow grown adult men, much less reluctant prophets of Yahweh. Let’s further pretend that the book of Jonah’s purpose is not to teach us that fish sometimes swallow men, but rather that God sometimes has to go to great lengths to get our attention. Imagine if Jonah told us the “fish story” because he knew it was an attention grabber that would illustrate his main point well and that he wasn’t really telling us that on Wednesday of last week he was literally swallowed by a big fish. For some Christians that I have met, this would cause them a crisis of faith because they need the Jonah and the fish account to be a historical fact as opposed to some type of allegory to make a point. For others, whose confidence in the inerrancy and infallibility of God’s word is rooted in the very nature of God himself, as opposed to historical or marine biological proofs, then such an assumption concerning the book of Jonah is just that: an assumption. My point is this, it is time to move beyond the excitement caused by such finds like that in the British Library. Instead, let us have confidence that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Cuneiform tablets are cool, but nothing trumps the nature of God himself!

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