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.