An Afternoon in the Bible

This afternoon I was reading through the Book of Nehemiah and I was struck by a number of things.  I decided that I would add a new section onto this site and share my thoughts.  This may not seem appropriate because this site is a site devoted to trying to share the faith with those who are skeptical, but the purpose is to demonstrate the value of studying the Bible.

Ask a Christian about the book of Nehemiah and they will summarize it as, “Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem by faith”.   While this is an accurate summary, it does not at all capture the anguish and the difficulty that was experienced by these people.  In order to truly understand the Bible, I think we have to do what the teacher played by Robin Williams in the Movie “Dead Poet’s Society” recommends when he tells us to try and live through the experiences that are recorded on the page.  When we do that, we find that the simple summary is entirely inaccurate and that the true lessons of Nehemiah are much deeper.

The Hard Work Required to Perform a Miracle

The first thing that struck me about the account of the miraculous restoration of Jerusalem performed by Nehemiah is the amount of back-breaking labor that was required to perform it.  Consider the lament of those who are doing the work that is recorded in chapter 4:

Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.” (Nehemiah 4:10)

They are surrounded by rubbish, surrounded by enemies, they are praying, they are working but the enormity of the task is getting them down.  Don’t you think that if you were in the process of what you will later claim is a miracle that things wouldn’t be so bleak?  There is a tendency to think that when God is working, everything should be easy.  This lament demonstrates that sometimes miracles require hard work.  This lament also demonstrates their reliance on God.  “We cannot rebuild the wall”.  The unspoken part of this prayer is, “but God is with us and with his help we will succeed.”  After a long and painful ordeal, their faith is finally vindicated.

When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. (Nehemiah 6:16)

God Remembers Our Work

The second thing that struck me as I was going through Nehemiah was the fact that God remembers our work.  As I was reading through the book, part of me complained, “Come on already!  It has taken almost two pages just to summarize the different people who are working on different parts of the wall.  What is the point of including all of this in the word of God?”  As I continued to study, one point became clearer.  While I don’t know or care about the people in the story, God knew and loved all of those who were involved.  The detailed account of who did what is a reminder to us that God sees and will remember everything that we do.

The Analogy of the Gates

Another thing that struck me as I was reading through the book of Jeremiah was the gates.  As the chronicler describes the various sections of the wall being rebuilt, he describes a number of gates into the city.  Evidently, Jerusalem had a Sheep Gate, a Fish Gate, a Refuse Gate, a Fountain Gate,  an Old Gate, a Valley Gate, a Water Gate, a Horse Gate, an East Gate and an Inspection Gate.  Each of these gates was an entrance to the city of Jerusalem and faced in a different direction and was repaired by different groups of people.  For some reason, this struck me as a picture of the unity of the church.

As I shared in my essay, “Jesus Christ the One and Only“, one of the edifying things about the church to me is the unity of belief that is demonstrated amid tremendous diversity.   If there is a God who created human beings in his image and wishes to have a relationship with us, then he must appeal to people in a cross-cultural way that spans different types of people.  This picture of the city of God with different gates facing different directions maintained by different people struck me as a beautiful picture of the church at work on its great commission.  God appealing to all kinds of people, and all kinds of people responding in faith.

We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.  (Matthew 11:17)

Many skeptics reject the faith of Jesus Christ because they claim it is too exclusive.  “All roads lead to God”, they say, “and Christianity excludes too many people to be true.”  I would argue that while all roads might lead to God, all roads also go in two opposite directions.  The relevant question is not, “Which road are you on?”, or even “How far along on the road are you?”, but rather, “Which direction you are heading?”.  If you head towards God’s love, then you will eventually come to the city of God and be met by people who were on the same road as you.  As the church converges on the city of God from all different directions, we are united by our love for our savior and each other.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  (John 13:35)

A Nation in Peril

The final aspect of the book of Nehemiah that struck me is that it demonstrates the truth of the words of Solomon :

That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

I challenge anyone familiar with current events to read the account of the famine given in Nehemiah and not think of our current problems in the United States.  In that account, a rich class of money lenders is taking advantage of a famine by charging outrageous usury on those who have to buy imported food and thereby forcing families to sell their farms and vineyards and even their daughters.  Nehemiah becomes angry and rebukes these men for their greed.  Truly the United States needs a Nehemiah to stand up against rampant greed and corruption.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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5 Responses to An Afternoon in the Bible

  1. In the terms you set here, how can you know that non-believers are not going in the right direction? This is one of the things that truly bothers me about faith and religion – absolute knowledge of what cannot be known. Paul and Jesus can’t seem much to agree on how to get to heaven so I view those who KNOW how and who is or is not going the right direction with a great deal of suspicion. Even in the confines of the texts of Christianity, there is much to be suspicious of.

    If god tested Adam in the garden with the satan, how are you to know that this religion stuff isn’t just another satan trick to test humans further?

    As for miracles? If they take a lot of hard work I don’t think they qualify as miracles, though I readily admit that some of the efforts of humankind seem miraculous. Consider the ‘miracles’ of Jesus and then look at their similars in modern times… you might find some of them hokey, but pretty much everything but the virgin birth is covered, and if you count ferilization, even that is covered. The point is that humans, taken as a whole, are some pretty inventive and creative beings. I would not call their hard work a miracle… I call it hard work that paid off. Organ transplants, cloned animals, growing flesh in a lab, the LHC, cure for diseases, and on and on. We daily create things that would have been miraculous 2000 years ago. I know you will say that when Jesus did it, it was different. The point is that the hard work of humans should not be credited to a god.

    That leads to crediting a god with winning a foootball game or finding your car keys while thousands of people starved to death despite their pleas and prayers. Do you want to stand at the gates and aske to be let inside to spend eternity with a god who answered some of your prayers while children died for lack of manna?

    • Mal,

      Allow me to share a brief story with you. When I first became a Christian, I had a strong disagreement with God. At some point, Jesus says to his disciples, “apart from me you can do nothing” and I took exception to that statement. “That is not true”, I said to myself, “I can do lots of things without your help. For example, I can wipe my butt with toilet paper. Don’t need your help for that.” In ways I am not going to go into right now, this idea became a central part of my understanding of the Bible.

      A few years later, I was in a hospital with what the doctors called viral meningitus, though they never figured out what it was. Lying in bed, I could not move at all. It wasn’t that I was paralyzed, it was that doing even the smallest was extremely tiresome. Moving my pinky a centimeter was like dragging a 200 pound weight would be for me when I am healthy. Possible but something that is to be avoided.

      Now it so happened while I was in that state that I soiled myself. Without the nurse to place the bedpan and unable to move on my own, I was unable to prevent myself and ended up lying in my own crap. At that time, my statement that I did not need God came back to me. I thought it was tremendously funny and though I was too weak to laugh on the outside, in my head I was rolling on the floor.

      If God is our creator and sustainer who makes our existence possible, then everything that we do requires his help. Part of having an appreciation for God is appreciating the gifts and the abilities that God has given you and what they allow you to do. Yes it is tempting to want God to come in and fluff your pillows every morning, but if you think about it, God treating us like that would infantilize us to a level that would be cloying, boring and unbearable. God has given us what C.S. Lewis called “the Gift of Causation” and dignified us by letting us be a part of what he is doing. I have discussed these ideas more fully in my essays “Examining God’s Provision”, “Examining Death from God’s Perspective” and “Faith Healing”.

      The argument you make about suffering children and answered prayer is one I have taken a preliminary and inadequate crack at in my essay “Suffer the Children”. It is something that needs to be addressed further and I have a number of unpublished posts that attempt to explain why this is not a fatal flaw in Christian faith.

      Thanks for your comment,

      rob

      • Some would call that kharma but I prefer to call it ironic confirmation bias. If the creator god can go so far as to interfere with your life to such an extent, it is not going to be difficult for him to actually leave some evidence behind… something he never does.

      • Mal,

        I wish atheists would be more careful when they throw accusations of bias around. I don’t think that “confirmation bias” is a fair interpretation of what I said.

        The sequence of events was this. I wrote an essay where I said that reading through Nehemiah had made me appreciate the part human work plays in some miracles. You commented that “if it requires work, it is not a miracle”. I shared a story which helped me to appreciate the gifts that I believe that have been given to us by God. This was to demonstrate that I believe that even what we do “on our own” is part of what God does for us. You said that my interpretation was confirmation bias. How? I appreciate the ability to move that God has given me because when I did not have it I could not take care of some basic bodily functions and I ended up soiling myself. I have confirmation bias that the ability to move makes me capable of wiping my butt?

        I know what you meant to say. You meant to say, “Just because you used to argue with God about being able to wipe yourself without his help and you ended up in the hospital unable to wipe yourself is not proof that God exists and your interpreting it that way is confirmation bias” But I wasn’t using that story as evidence for God. I was using it to explain why I believe that miracles that require our participation are still miracles.

        In my experience, atheists use allegations of “confirmation bias” altogether too easily. Let us imagine that there was an alien testing cars found in a destroyed city after some virus wipes out humanity. He says to his buddy, “Every time this ‘fuel gauge’ reads ‘E’, the car stops. When I fill the car up from this ‘gasoline pump’ the ‘fuel gauge’ changes. For this reason, I believe that ‘gasoline’ is a fuel and that ‘E’ means that a car is out of fuel and it will not run.” Imagine the arguments that this other alien could make to him to protest this absurd conclusion:

        “That is just confirmation bias.”, his buddy will say, “Think of all the other times when the car has stopped running and the ‘fuel gauge’ did not read ‘E’.”
        “That is just confirmation bias.”, his buddy will say, “Think of that car that had no reading on the gauge in the same spot and we left it in the sun and it started up again.” (solar powered car)
        “That is just confirmation bias.”, his buddy will say, “Think of that other car which wouldn’t start when you put ‘gasoline’ and the fuel gauge did not change.” (diesel)
        “That is just confirmation bias.”, his buddy will say, “Think of that other car where we had to plug it into the ‘electrical socket’ before it would go again.” (electric)
        “That is just confirmation bias.”, his buddy will say, “Think of all those cars where the car stopped and we filled it with ‘gasoline’ and it started working again but the fuel gauge didn’t change.” (broken fuel gauge)

        His buddy concludes, “I know that you want to think that you are some hot shot scientist and everything, but your confirmation bias is clear. You want to confirm your theory so every once in a while you put ‘gasoline’ in a car and it makes it go and you think, ‘Yes I have confirmed my theory that gasoline is the fuel for cars.’ But you don’t really know any of what you think you know and your theory is nonsense.’ What would you say to the alien and his buddy?

        Thanks for the comment,

        rob

    • Mal,

      I did not respond to the first paragraph of your comment primarily because Christianity to me is a proposition that requires faith. I believe it to be true and I believe that I have excellent evidence for its truth, but I am a fallible and imperfect man who has made many errors so decide for yourself and take what I say with the standard grain of salt. I wouldn’t want you to believe because I believe, I want you to believe for yourself and investigate for yourself. If I can help you in any way, then I am at your disposal.

      The statement “Paul and Jesus can’t seem much to agree on how to get to heaven” was intriguing to me. What basis do you have for that statement?

      Thanks for your comment,

      rob

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