Moses sent twelve men to explore the land of Canaan, which God had promised to give to the Israelites, to see what the land and the people there were like. The men found that the land was very good, but it was inhabited by Anakites. To show how good the land was, they brought back a cluster of grapes too big for one person to carry.
The men reported that the land was very good, but it was inhabited by big, strong Anakites in big, strong cities.1 Two of the explorers, Joshua and Caleb, thought the Israelites should go and take that good land for themselves. But the rest of the explorers said they couldn’t do that, because the people there were too big and strong.
When the Israelites heard this, they said it would be better to die in the wilderness than to try to take over that land. They decided to try to kill Moses and go back to Egypt. When the untemptable God heard their plans, he was tempted to kill all the Israelites except Moses and his descendants.
But Moses reminded God, again, that killing all his people would be bad for his reputation. Everyone would think God was incapable of bringing his people to the promised land. When the all-knowing, never-changing, all-good God heard this, he changed his mind and decided not to kill everybody, again.Continue reading The Story of the Twelve Explorers—
You Didn't Tell Us There Would Be Giants
One time, when David was trying to get God to stop killing thousands of innocent people to punish David for obeying God, David decided he had to make God a sacrifice. When someone offered to give David some free oxen to sacrifice, David said that wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be right to offer God something that cost him nothing. That wouldn’t be a real sacrifice at all! So he paid for the oxen and then sacrificed them, and God accepted his offering and stopped killing innocent people.
But what about that other time, when Abraham had just passed God’s test by showing how easily he could be convinced to murder his own children? In that story, God provided Abraham with a free ram, just so he could offer it right back to God. Here God certainly doesn’t seem to have a problem with people giving him things that cost them nothing. Instead, he’s actively encouraging it.
And when Joshua had the Israelites destroy the city of Jericho, he said God wanted them to plunder all its people’s valuables and put them in God’s treasury. The Israelites certainly didn’t pay for those stolen goods, but apparently God wanted to have them anyway. As long as you’re giving him valuable stuff, God doesn’t seem to care how you got it.Continue reading Should people offer God things they got for free?
A miracle is a supposed event that is contrary to the laws of nature.1 The idea is that an event like that can only be explained as the work of a supernatural being like God. But what if it turns out that an apparently miraculous event can actually be explained in terms of ordinary natural phenomena? It may still be amazing, and it may be useful… But there’s no reason to think it’s a true miracle in that case, and it’s not very strong evidence of anything supernatural.
How many of the miracles reported in the Bible (supposing the stories aren’t entirely made up) have possible natural explanations?2
There are a lot of prophecies in the Bible. A lot of them have turned out to be false. A lot of them fail to specify a deadline for fulfillment, making it impossible to tell whether they’re false. Some of them seem suspiciously like they were written after the fact. Some of them predict events that are nothing out of the ordinary. Some of them are so vague that it’s no surprise that something happened that could be considered to fit the description. Some of them have only been fulfilled because people who knew about the predictions fulfilled them on purpose. And a lot of the passages that are considered prophecies weren’t even meant to be predictions at all. That doesn’t leave very many actual impressive predictions, if any.
Jesus and other prophets in the Bible are said to have been able to read minds and demonstrate inexplicable knowledge of other people’s pasts. It’s surprisingly easy to give the impression that you have abilities like that. When people want to believe that you’re psychic, they will perceive your readings as amazingly accurate no matter what you say. They’ll do most of the work for you, interpreting whatever you say as something meaningful and accurate. And they’ll ignore everything you get wrong.
Creation, destruction, and transformation
So, what’s up with that burning bush Moses found that wouldn’t burn up, before he started hearing God talking to him? Maybe it was some kind of Acacia. They can be easily flammable and slow to burn up, and they can even trigger religious experiences.
Moses and Aaron tried to prove that God had sent them by turning a staff into a snake. But the Egyptian magicians were able to do the same thing. So either they were prophets of God too, or that trick doesn’t prove anything. I’ve heard it’s possible to do the stick-to-snake trick by holding an Egyptian Cobra and applying pressure near its head. That makes it go stiff and motionless so it looks like an inanimate stick, until you put it down.
The Bible says during the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, the water turned into undrinkable blood and killed everything in it. That sounds a lot like a phenomenon known as a red tide, where a certain kind of algae causes water to turn red and toxic. That could explain some of the other plagues, as well. Frogs flee from the unhealthy water and die, bugs get out of control because of the lack of frogs, bugs spread disease among the people and livestock, etc. And the remaining plagues could be explained by food poisoning and a volcano.
The collapse of Jericho could have been the result of a convenient earthquake that the Israelites later took credit for causing.
Why did the Philistines keep finding the idol of Dagon fallen over in the morning, bowing down toward the ark of the covenant, and eventually broken to pieces? Might one of the Israelites have snuck in and vandalized the idol during the night? It wouldn’t be the first time.
How could a crowd of over 5000 people eat and be satisfied if Jesus’s disciples only had five loaves of bread and two fish to offer them? Well, it never says nobody brought their own food. And why wouldn’t they?
Some branches of Christianity consider the Eucharist ritual to be a miracle. They believe the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus… which just happen to be completely indistinguishable from ordinary bread and wine for some reason. Least impressive miracle ever! No explanation needed.Continue reading Mundane miracles