"Blood Moons" and the Failure to Read the Bible Biblically7
There are countless reasons why the hysteria regarding so-called “blood moons” amounted to nothing. Perhaps in another post I’ll address them. But here I want to focus on only one factor: the failure of all the prognosticators and self-appointed prophets to read the Bible biblically. Here is what I mean. Continue reading . . .
There are countless reasons why the hysteria regarding so-called “blood moons” amounted to nothing. Perhaps in another post I’ll address them. But here I want to focus on only one factor: the failure of all the prognosticators and self-appointed prophets to read the Bible biblically. Here is what I mean.
Much was made of the fact that in both the OT and NT the biblical authors describe cosmic or astronomical phenomena such as the sun turning to darkness and the stars falling from the skies and the moon turning to blood. What are we to make of this?
[By the way, and as something of an aside, isn’t it interesting that nothing was said of the sun turning to darkness and the stars falling from the skies. I wonder why. Instead, the focus was entirely on the phenomenon of the moon giving off a reddish tint. It’s amazing how some people can so conveniently read the Bible so selectively!]
For example, we encounter this language in Matthew 24:29-31. The first thing we must remember Jesus was speaking to a people saturated by Old Testament language, concepts, and imagery. From the earliest days of their lives they memorized and were taught the OT. Thus, when Jesus spoke to them of things to come he used the prophetic vocabulary of the OT which they would instantly recognize. Consequently, if we are to understand the meaning of Matthew 24:29-31 and its parallel in Mark 13:24-27 and Luke 21:25-26, we must read and interpret them through a biblical (i.e., OT) lens.
Luke refers to "signs" in sun, moon, and stars. Matthew says "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven." Are these literal, physical, astronomical events that one might see with the naked eye? I don't think so.
In the OT, such language was used to portray not what is going on in the heavens but what is happening on the earth. Natural disasters, political upheaval, and turmoil among the nations are often described figuratively through the terminology of cosmic disturbances. The ongoing and unsettled, turbulent state of affairs among earthly world powers is portrayed symbolically by reference to incredible events in the heavens.
In other words, astronomical phenomena are used to describe the upheaval of earthly dynasties as well as great moral and spiritual changes. Once we learn to read this language in the light of the OT we discover that great upheavals upon earth are often represented with the imagery of commotions and changes in the heavens. Simply put, when the sun and moon are darkened or the stars fall from heaven, the reference is to the disasters and distresses befalling nations on the earth.
Let’s look at three examples.
In Isaiah 13:9-10 we read of the impending judgment of God on Babylon, which he describes in this way:
“For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (v. 10).
Clearly, these statements about celestial bodies no longer providing light is figurative for the convulsive transformation of political affairs in the Ancient Near East, on earth. The destruction of earthly kingdoms is portrayed in terms of a heavenly shaking. No one argues that the stars of the heavens or the constellations we see each night literally or physically ceased to give forth light. No one argues that the sun and moon turned dark and ceased to shine. So what is going on? As noted, cosmic or heavenly upheaval is used figuratively to alert people to the devastation of judgment and political turmoil among nations on earth.
We find much the same thing in Ezekiel as he describes the impending destruction of Egypt:
“When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD. . . . When I make the land of Egypt desolate, and when the land is desolate of all that fills it, when I strike down all who dwell in it, then they will know that I am the LORD” (Ezek. 32:7-9,15).
Did these heavenly phenomena literally and physically occur in the way portrayed by the prophet? No. God never intended them to do so. This sort of apocalyptic language is typically employed to draw attention to earthly upheaval. No one in the OT (and I wish that no one today) would ever have argued that the prophet was speaking literally.
The destruction of Idumea (Edom) is described in this way:
“All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction” (Isa. 34:4-5).
Thus, as William Kimball points out, "when Israel was judged, or when Babylon was subdued by the Medes, or when Idumea and Egypt were destroyed, it was not the literal sun, moon, and stars that were darkened. The literal stars of heaven did not fall from the skies, and the literal constellations were not dissolved or rolled up as a scroll. These figurative expressions were clearly presented in a purely symbolic manner to characterize the destruction befalling nations and earthly powers” (The Great Tribulation, 166).
Language that describes the collapse of cosmic bodies, therefore, was often used by “OT prophets to symbolize God’s acts of judgment within history, with the emphasis on catastrophic political reversals” (R. T. France, Matthew, 922). Therefore, France concludes that “if such language was appropriate to describe the end of Babylon or Edom under the judgment of God, why should it not equally describe God’s judgment on Jerusalem’s temple [in 70 a.d.] and the power structure which it symbolized?” (ibid.).
In summary, “it is crass literalism,” notes N. T. Wright, “in view of the many prophetic passages in which this language denotes socio-political and military catastrophe, to insist that this time the words must refer to the physical collapse of the space-time world. This is simply the way regular Jewish imagery is able to refer to major socio-political events and bring out their full significance” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 361). Again, “the dramatic and (to us) bizarre language of much ‘apocalyptic’ writing is evidence, not of paranoia or a dualistic worldview, as is sometimes anachronistically suggested, but of a creative reuse of Israel’s scriptural, and particularly prophetic, heritage” (ibid., 513). Such bizarre terminology is stock-in-trade OT prophetic language for national disaster.
If we could only learn to read the Bible biblically, that is to say, on its own terms and in conformity with how apocalyptic language was used in ancient times, we could perhaps avoid the embarrassing and misguided speculations of so many contemporary pundits.