Just What Do You Mean, “Blessings of Abraham”?

Sarai had even tried luring him with promises of raunchy sex, but it was no use: Abram was definitely addicted to sky porn.

Sarai had even tried luring him with promises of raunchy sex with a real woman (her handmaid, Hagar), but it was no use: Abram was addicted to the sky porn.

For anyone who has been paying attention, it is now a trivial matter to appreciate that British-Israelism is a failed hypothesis. Some contend, however, that there is still some explaining to do with regard to the supposed “blessings of Abraham”. How did Britain and America become so great, they ask, if it weren’t for the “promise of race” given to Abraham by old Yahweh? It should go without saying that such reasoning is completely backwards (the required genetic connection between Europeans and this apocryphal patriarch of the Hebrews–or, more to the point, to the Hebrews themselves–has been shown to be thoroughly, exactly, and precisely nonexistent–and yet they want to know how we could have such shiny toys if the connection doesn’t exist–boggles the mind, really). In any event, whether the fortunes of modern nations can be explained by recourse to an ancient prophesy (uttered by an invisible man in the sky to a bronze age sheepherder who probably himself never existed) is considered to be a separate question (and the real proof of British-Israelism) for some, and always was a mainstay of Armstrongism. And that latter fact means we have some scrutiny to spare for the claim.

To proceed, we simply must set aside the obvious fact that this idea is nonsensical on its face (to say nothing again of the aforementioned catastrophic failure of British-Israelism in the court of scientific inquiry). It invites one to believe that the only explanation for the success of (certain) nations is a mythological blessing recorded, after probably thousands of years of oral tradition, in the text of a particular holy book seemingly chosen for nothing more notable than its agreement with the chooser’s faith tradition. Thankfully, there are other, more rational explanations for why the U.S. and Britain have been historically so wildly successful. But we will get to those explanations later. First, we must set out to describe the parameters of the nonsense we’re about to lay low for your amusement.

The gist of it is that, before the Hebrews became a tribal confederacy and then a kingdom, there was just Abram, a sheepherder who heard voices in his head. The voices allegedly came from none other than Yahweh (a warrior god typical of the ancient Near East and identified by scholars with El of the Canaanite pantheon). According to tradition (i.e., scripture), Abram was told by Yahweh that his descendents would become both “a great nation” and “a company of nations”. That’s it, essentially. No mention of Westminster Abbey or the Rockies, nor even any vague references to lands across a great sea. Thin stuff, it seems.

All the Land of Canaan–Plus Some Other Stuff that I Didn’t Mention for Some Reason

In actual fact, there is no reason to see anything in these passages of inventive poetry that exceeds local significance. The relevant scriptures even state unequivocally that the land to be inherited is limited to a specific region of the Near East (“all the land of Canaan” and “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates”). Armstrong’s only defense of his hypothesis that this divine land grant included the U.S. and Britain (a direct contradiction of scripture, mind you) is a vague reference to the cardinal directions. Notice (from United States and Britain in Prophecy, p. 28):

But all of this objector’s arguments are refuted and made ridiculous by the very next verse… “And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south.”

Lame. Anything and everything on Earth lies in the four directions from the given point of reference. It could have been speaking of Antarctica, for example. More than likely, though, the bit about the cardinal directions refers to the very areas just mentioned a few lines back (since, you know, that’s what it was talking about). And if it was meant to refer to unnamed and vast tracts of land (for example, the British Isles and North America–itself an entire continent), why bother delineating, with such helpful specificity, the comparatively tiny land of Canaan as the future property of Abraham’s descendants? Seems like an awfully strange waste of good papyrus to me (on the other hand…oh, never mind). Whatever happened to checking the context, Herbert? Apparently that heuristic only applies when it is convenient to one’s prophetic thesis.

The Gates of Their Enemies

Some considerable importance is attached to the promise of Abram’s descendants’ possessing the “gates of their enemies”, and Armstrong made much of the fact that, across the globe, the U.S. and the British Empire control or controlled many passes and canals of strategic interest in terms of trade and/or military concerns. The first thing that is striking about this dubious connection is the fundamental problem with much of the thinking behind Armstrongism: it assumes what it purports to demonstrate–namely, that possession of enemies’ “gates” qualifies as proof that the nation in question was prophesied in the Bible to possess said “gates”–and, of course, the U.S. and the British Empire have possessed such “gates”, therefore, ipso facto, they are the prophesied ones! But, since all other attempts at connecting ancient Israel with the U.S. and Britain have failed, it makes little sense to assume the scripture about “gates” refers to them. After all, any moderately successful nation throughout history could make just as likely a candidate, since capturing and holding strategic geographic positions has a long and storied history and is not a practice exclusive to putative “modern Israel”.

Furthermore, the scripture in question does not clearly specify what it means by “gate”. Armstrong merely assumes it means something relevant to modern strategic thinking in a globalized world. And this may be. However, we must keep in mind the failure of this hypothesis to demonstrate that the promises involved were anything but local in significance, and thus the “gates” in question could not very well refer to the Strait of Gibraltar or the Panama Canal. Such specificity certainly isn’t clear from the scriptures themselves. Even granted such a generous concession as global significance, though, we still have no compelling reason to connect the strategic “gates” of these passages with those of the U.S. and Britain, except by way of an Armstrongian leap of logic (or faith, if you prefer).

A Number Game

Armstrong devotes much energy to a convoluted and recursive numerical scheme in order to imbue his prophetic delusion with the presumed respectability of a timetable. This is discussed at inordinate length in US&BiP, but we will dispense with Armstrong’s stylistic reticence and just get right to the point. He essentially utilizes a biblical numerological tradition to arrive at a length of time that is suitable for his purpose, which is to place in modern times the actual granting of the material blessings promised to Abraham. He writes (US&BiP, pp. 152-4; original emphasis/random font changes ignored for sanity’s sake):

In prophecy, a “time” is a prophetic 360-day year. And, during Israel’s punishment, each day represented a year being fulfilled… Now when we come to the expression “then I will punish you seven times more for your sins” in Leviticus 26, it is evident…that it was speaking of a duration of seven prophetic “times”, or years. And on this “year-for-a-day principle”, it becomes seven 360-day years–a total of 2520 days. And when each day is a year of punishment–in this case…a withholding of a promised blessing–the punishment becomes the withdrawing of and withholding the promised blessings for 2520 years!

Awesome. A “time” is a year, but a year is 360 days (i.e., on the Jewish calendar), and a day is a year, so seven “times” is (360 times seven equals 2520) 2520 days–I mean years! See? Makes so much sense–if you’re insane (or just looking for something to make your crazy hypothesis work out).

So what does Armstrong do now with this arbitrary span of 2520 years he just manufactured? Well, he just picks some date in the history of ancient Israel, adds 2520 years, and then declares the new date significant. Easy as pie.

For this to work, of course, the ancient date must have two important qualities. It must be late enough so that adding 2520 years to it yields a more or less modern date that is appropriate to the hypothesis, and it must not be completely arbitrary: it must be related somehow to the loss of material prosperity for the nation of Israel. Armstrong settles on the Assyrian captivity, circa 720 BCE. Fair enough. But notice what he does with the outcome of adding 2520 years, which happens to result in the year 1800 CE.

Not because of any British or American goodness, superiority, or worthiness, but because of God’s faithfulness to His promise, beginning in 1800 these two birthright peoples suddenly burst forth as the greatest world powers in all history (US&BiP, p. 158)!

Yes. Suddenly. Before 1800, the U.S. and Britain were practically nothing and then, after 1800, they were the “greatest world powers in all history”. This was all accomplished, presumably, within the year.

But we must realize the trick here. Armstrong doesn’t cite any statistics or quote any historians that point specifically to 1800 as the year when the target nations suddenly became “great”. All the parameters involved are subject to interpretation and generalities, and no one but Armstrongists consider 1800 to be a significant turning point in the fortunes of the United States and Britain. Armstrong just asserts, without support, that 1800 is the magical breakout year because that is how the number game shakes out. Pinpointing a specific year is, in fact, only useful for the purpose of winning the proposed number game–a game that would have turned out equally well (in terms of lining up with the development of material prosperity in the nations in question) if it had resulted in the year 1827, say, or 1792. A more definitive (and therefore impressive) result would have been 1945 with the beginning of the so-called Golden Age of Capitalism. But that hadn’t occurred yet at the time Armstrong typed these paragraphs, so he should be forgiven for fatally missing the chance to claim it for his thesis.

The Wealth of Nations

So, if the secret to the great wealth and power of the U.S. and Britain wasn’t the fulfillment of prophecy, wherein a god finally relented on his withholding of an ancient national blessing, what then was it? Why were the U.S. and Britain so successful when other nations were not? Are rational explanations available, or must we abandon this question to the superstitious delusions of British Israelists?

It just so happens that, as with so many of these questions, scientific inquiry and historical fact already have some pretty good answers on offer. Unfortunately for the thesis under consideration, though–and this is hardly a surprise–they are not kind to the Armstrong delusion.

Some of these explanations deal in proximate causes. Adam Smith’s seminal work on the subject covers comparative economics, for example. Other institutional hypotheses abound as well–and some rather unsavory racially-based arguments have historically held sway (all more rational than Armstrong’s own racially-based hypothesis). But perhaps the most interesting, probative, and compelling theory for an ultimate cause of the asymmetry in wealth and power among nations comes from a relatively recent (1997) work by American scientist Jared Diamond, entitled Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

Diamond posits that geography, not race, is the ultimate predictor of the success of societies in terms of economic prosperity, geopolitical superiority, and technological advancement. The geographical origin of a given society largely determines what sort of developmental “head start” it gets over competing societies originating in much different environments. To summarize his conclusions, there are several geographic and ecological factors, dependent on the continent of origin, that contribute to the ability of a society to come out looking as though it has been “blessed” by a god:

  • An abundance of indigenous flora and fauna suitable for domestication.
  • A major continental axis that runs east-west (i.e., with the grain, as it were, of climate zones), rather than north-south, and a lack of major geographic and ecological barriers, facilitating a relatively easy diffusion of crops, livestock, and other innovations among societies.
  • A relatively large landmass and/or population, increasing both the potential incidence of innovation and the pressure to adopt and retain innovations through the medium of competition among societies (this includes the unconscious innovation of germs and herd immunity to specific microbes to which outsiders are profoundly susceptible).

Looking at a map, it is easy to discern that Eurasia (including both Europe and the Near East) is a very large, continuous landmass with its major axis lying east-west. It has only modest geographic and ecological barriers, and its superior abundance of indigenous domesticates is hardly controversial. These factors gave the societies developing on this conjoined pair of continents a major “head start” in the game of cultural advancement. Agriculture was born in its “fertile crescent” around 12,000 BCE, and the first centers (or “cradles”, if you will) of civilization arose soon after within its felicitous confines, first in Mesopotamia (6500 BCE–that’s before humans existed, according to Armstrongism) and later in Egypt, Greece, and China. Contrast this with the Americas, whose first civilization sprung up independently–without writing or intensive agriculture–in Peru around 3500 BCE. To put that in perspective, the Sumerians had already been plugging along for three millennia by that point.

The innovations birthed independently in the Near East, China, and the Indian subcontinent were easily and quickly dispersed across all of Eurasia, giving the peoples of, for example, western Europe a distinct advantage over counterparts abroad, by virtue of nothing more uncanny than their finding themselves in an environment especially conducive to the requisite innovations. But keep in mind the same is true of the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Indians, etc. We are not, in fact, talking about a “peculiar people” here.

Nevertheless, the Europeans were able to invade and easily conquer the Americas, rather than vice versa, due to their possession of the guns, germs, and steel that their developmental “head start” afforded them. Diamond’s thesis is an actual explanation, whereas Armstrong’s is merely a convenient prop for a delusion.

About these ads

14 thoughts on “Just What Do You Mean, “Blessings of Abraham”?

  1. Alexander Hislop did a lot more damage than he is credited for having done. His flawed methodology was thought to be legitimate by HWA, and was used as a blueprint for WCG “research”. That blueprint permeates all of their booklets. And, in this case, numerology only compounds the error.


  2. Funny enough, I should have been the one to write this article, seeing how I’m such a great fan of history…I was a fan of history even when in the church and yet I did not see this–this plain, simple fact, that Britain, for example, was a great Empire long before 1800. I mean, who did the US gain independence from–the English? No, the British Empire. Yeah, 1800 is a nice, round figure, and very convenient since the Industrial Revolution was happening during that time, though it started (by some calculations) up to 40yrs earlier.

    The point about numerology reminds me of a book I just read–“The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the discovery of the Earth’s antiquity” by Jack Repcheck. The Scotsman, Hutton, a geologist, was about the first to recognize that the earth is almost incalculably old; this idea was expounded upon by Charles Lylle, and his writings influenced the thinking of one Charles Darwin. The point of this is that the first 2 or 3 chapters of the book are about how people used to calculate the age of the earth from scripture, and how every few generations it was a little different…the calculations were convenient for the time period and political atmosphere. Armstrong was simply following a Grand Tradition that none of us knew about…b/c “God calls the weak and the base” (or, those who don’t know better…).

    • Good point about the British Empire, pre-1800. Duh! I should have included that for sure. I meant to go into a lot more depth in general, but I didn’t want to spend forever on this one topic. I’m trying to cut down on the long dissertations in favor of briefer essays that get the point across quickly and can be published in a more timely fashion. Glad to hear you’re reading on the history of geology. It’s a fascinating subject that is dear to my heart as well. At the moment, I’m reading a book of essays by Stephen Jay Gould. He goes into a lot of detail in one of those essays on the Ussher chronology, for example.

  3. Excellent presentation.

    I take the tack that when Armstrongists take the stance that the United States and British Commonwealth are great because they are lost tribes of Israel (“How else can you explain their greatness,” they ask), I point out to them (or try to) that 1) If you use the reasoning that a nation is great because of the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then the Romans must be of lost tribes of Israel, because how can you explain their greatness of the Roman Empire otherwise? 2) The promises are physical for physical nations and have no relevance to Christianity.

    The second answer is a trap.

    “But, Christians are spiritual Israelites,” they say. Damn you, Apostle Paul. “Then,” I query, “are black Africans supposed to inherit the United States?” “What!?” they say. “Well,” I continue, “if you want to mix and match physical with spiritual, do you really want to rely on the physical promises to a nation of people which didn’t have the Holy Spirit?” “Well… uh…” “And if the animal sacrifices were a part of the Feasts, then aren’t they both done away today?” To which they answer…

    “You’ll see! One of these days the Germans will invade this country and take it captive because of its sins!”

    I just shake my head and roll my eyes at the huge non sequitur and move on.

    Next time they will be prepared, but so will I and we will discuss Herbert Armstrong as a dead false prophet who predicted in the middle of World War II that the United States would lose, whereupon the United States government pulled his radio broadcasts from the airwaves for a time until it could all be sorted out. Unfortunate — we’d all be better off if Herbert were convicted of treason and executed back then.

    • I almost gave the Roman Empire a mention, but I decided to abbreviate for sanity’s sake. Speaking of, weren’t the Italians supposed to be Naphtali or something–by some nonexistent logic? As for your final sentence, I disagree. I think we’re better off in an environment that respects freedom of expression. Let the bullshitters bullshit and then expose their bullshit for all to see. That’s far more instructive than lynching them on trumped up charges.

      • Ah, yes, but wouldn’t we be better off?

        Especially those of us who grew up in the crap who didn’t have much in the way of choices until we reached our majority?

        Trumped up? Well, given the climate of the United States in World War II, saying the United States was going to lose to Germany over the radio (which was a powerful tool of influence at that time), the government was well within its mission to stop his nonsense. It was a different world and today the Internet makes it possible to expose people like this with their insane nonsense. People were a lot more vulnerable back then and trusted much more than most of us do today.

      • Ah, yes, but wouldn’t we be better off?

        Yes, I suppose we might be. Then again, who knows what our personal lives might look like sans our cult experiences? I might never have learned how to think properly, for example, and ended up a Republican! *shudder*

Say anything you want. We do.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s