From the Prophet Isaiah:
Therefore the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts,
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire.
The light of Israel will become a fire,
and his Holy One a flame;
and it will burn and devour
his thorns and briers in one day.
The glory of his forest and his fruitful land
the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
and it will be as when an invalid wastes away.
The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
that a child can write them down.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 10:16-19 (NRSV) – December 21, 2012.)
The world was supposed to end today. I slept in in hopes it would be gone before I got out of bed . . . but alas, it is still here and there are still laundry to be done and a dog who needs a bath and Christmas meals to be shopped for and sermons to be written.
I jest, of course. I didn’t really think the world would end. I had no faith in doomsday predictions based on a misunderstanding of the Mayan long calendar, any more than I believe the world will be destroyed by a collision with the invisible planet Nibiru. But having said that, I’m left open to this big, gaping question: Why, then, do I believe Isaiah? It’s a legitimate question – why believe one prophecy and not another?
The answer really boils down to what we mean by “prophecy”. The Mayan “prophecy” really wasn’t a prophecy at all, just the end of a calendar. The Mayans divided time into eras called “baktuns”. Based solely on mathematics and observation of the movement of celestial bodies, the so-called “long calendar” laid out the calculations for the length of the 13th Baktun, which ended today. The long calendar doesn’t say, in any way, that creation would also end; the rational implication of the long calendar is that the 14th Baktun would begin, but that’s not the way the nuttier folk among us took it.
The Nibiru “prophecy” is based on even less observable reality than the Mayan long calendar. It comes from the tortured and demonstrably inaccurate translations of ancient Babylonian and Sumerian texts by one Zecharia Sitchin, a proponent of the idea of “ancient astronauts”. The idea is that there is an invisible planet called “Nibiru” which circles through our solar system every 3,600 years and will eventually collide with Earth. The date of the collision has been recalculated and changed on several occasions.
This is what differentiates the Hebrew prophecies like Isaiah’s from the Mayan, Nibiru, and similar prophecies. The former are not based on mathematical calculations; the latter are. The former give voice to a moral sense of history; the latter give voice to a mechanistic model of the universe.
Isaiah and the other Hebrew prophets were not simply, nor even primarily, predicters of the future; they were historians, moralists, social critics, spokesmen for God. In general, one can outline a Hebrew prophet’s pronouncement sort of like this:
(a) In the past the People of God or their leaders or their enemies behaved in this manner.
(b) God responded to this behavior in this way. From this we know that . . .
(c) if the People of God or their leaders or their enemies continue to act as they currently are . . .
(d) then God will respond to this behavior in a similar way. On the other hand . . .
(e) if the People of God or their leaders or their enemies change their behavior . . .
(f) then God will change God’s mind and respond differently.
In other words, the prophecies of the Hebrew seers are conditional upon the moral behavior of human beings and a belief that the Creator of the universe also behaves in a moral way. I’ve heard it said that the role of a Hebrew prophet is not “foretelling” (predicting the future) but “forth telling” (speaking the word of God to God’s People in their time and place).
The Mayan calendar and the Nibiru prophecy are amoral; they simply assert that heavenly bodies (real or imagined) behave in certain ways and will continue to do so without regard to human or divine behavior. If they predict disaster (and it is by no means clear that they do – obviously the Mayan calendar did not), there is nothing anybody can do about it. And knowing about it offers us no moral guidance.The prophecies of Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets, on the other hand, are of a different sort. They provide us the same guidance they provided their original audiences: “God has dealt thusly with God’s People in the past; we can expect God to deal similarly with us; how, then, should we act?” Our specific reading today, a part of a pronouncement against the king of Assyria and in consolation to the People of Israel, is a reminder of the corrupting influence of political power and the dangers of political arrogance, a lesson we and our own leaders should often remember.
From the Mayan long calender we learn nothing of moral guidance; from the Nibiru prophecy we learn nothing except that poor scholarship produces ridiculous nonsense; from the prophecy of Isaiah, however, we learn that human political authority has its limits. This is why I trust in the prophecies of the Hebrew prophets, but not predictions of “the Mayan apocalypse.”
On the First Sunday of Advent this year, the Gospel lesson at the Holy Eucharist (Luke 21:25-36) included Jesus’ warning that before the end of time there would be “distress among nations” and that “people will faint from fear and foreboding.” These are much more important than “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” though there may be those, as well. As Advent ends, let us pray for less distress, less fear, less foreboding, less political arrogance, less corruption . . . and let us give thanks that the world didn’t end today, even though we didn’t really think it would.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.