Christians and Urban Legends
It never ceases to amaze me how gullible some people are when something they hear fits with a set of prejudices or deeply held opinions. Unfortunately, this seems to apply even more so to Christians especially when it comes to certain theological ideas such as end times speculation, religion and politics, science and religion, or some specific ethical issues such as the role of women in society or the church, abortion, or homosexuality. Sadly, most of these ideas fall into the realm of “folk theology.” That is, there is very little sound theology about them and are mostly a concoction of beliefs drawn from popular imagination, writings, fears, prejudices, and simply what people want to believe for various reasons.
Then, when they hear something that supports any of those ideas, they accept it uncritically. In fact, there are many Christians who either cruise the internet seeking for such material to support their ideas (and there is plenty available on a myriad of agenda websites!) or they are part of a personal communication network whereby they receive such material from friends and acquaintances. And as part of the phenomenon of modern preoccupation with instant communication, they themselves feel compelled to pass it on to others as proof of their ideas. So, folk theology and sometimes outlandish claims about most everything from biblical prophecy to rumors about presidential candidates get passed around by well-meaning Christians as if it were the truth of the matter.
And all of this is done without ever checking any of the facts as to their accuracy, or the origin of the material, or without asking critical questions about whether it is reasonable or even if sound theology lies behind it. In many cases, it would take very little effort at all to do a little fact checking to debunk such material. There are a lot of websites that debunk such rumors and claims that circulate in this manner, collectively called “urban legends” (for example, Snopes). And yet these urban legends and folk theology keep getting passed around among Christians, often with pronouncements of the judgment of God on unbelievers. Such rumor mongering and fear mongering does nothing but make Christians look foolish and undermines the credibility of the church. On a personal level, such implausible reinforcement of sometimes outlandish opinions prevents individual Christians from growing spiritually and actually learning new perspectives beyond their own ideas. These “proofs” of their beliefs only become a way to inoculate them from any other truth.
Of course, as human beings we are all susceptible to filtering things we hear through our own perceptions. No one is totally immune to the phenomenon of selective hearing or reading. But we all have a responsibility, especially as Christians, to strive earnestly to get all the facts, to process all the evidence, and not jump too hastily to conclusions with which we already agree. That means at the very least developing a habit of deferring conclusions until we have had a chance to check facts and think through different aspects of an issue. Most certainly that means refraining from spreading rumors or "information" that we are not sure about simply because it fits with what we already think.
With the war in Iraq and the obsessive, almost rabid, preoccupation with certain aspects of that war in blending politics with theology, the urban legends, especially those that connect current events with biblical prophecy, are growing exponentially. We seem to have forgotten that the same thing happened during the First Gulf War. TV preachers like Jack van Impe, and many others who published a plethora of books, working from spurious facts and flawed biblical interpretation declared almost with glee the beginning of the end times. And yet none, none of what they predicted as unfolding biblical prophecy worked out as they said.
Still, the urban legends persist. They continue to be repeated as proof of the Bible, God, certain theological views, or the righteousness of certain political opinions, without much concern for good biblical interpretation, sound theology, and a little plain old ordinary truthfulness of facts.
For example, the following began as a chain letter and is now circulating via the internet and e-mail. I have seen it quoted on numerous Christian web sites, and repeated in various forms by word of mouth as if everything in it were the truth. Besides some of it being outright false, there are a great many assumptions about God and the Bible at work here that are not sound Christian theology.
I find it sad and a little disheartening that people so easily believe stuff like this, let alone that they think it is something about which to be excited or concerned. I am continually amazed that some people take this kind of thing seriously. As the concluding warnings and “promises” indicate, this is nothing more than magical thinking that borders on the pagan. It is certainly not Christian. That renders any truth in the rest of it of no value to Christians. And there is very little truth to any of it. Like The Omega Code and The DaVinci Code, anyone can find “hidden” correspondences between anything if they know where they want to end up before they start. And this does not even deal with the fact that this approach rather badly misunderstands Scripture.
First, we might note that Iraq did not exist as a country before 1932. It was one of the countries created from the breakup of the Ottoman Turkish Empire following WWI. The area that includes much of the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt went under French and British mandate following the war, and was gradually carved into modern countries and sheikdoms largely for administrative and political purposes, and to serve the interests of Western countries.
Here is a more detailed analysis of this particular urban legend as it became blended with a lot of folk theology to illustrate how a few facts can be distorted and twisted when mixed with misinformation, assumption, prejudice, and outright falsehood.
False. No one knows where the Garden of Eden was. The Bible nowhere gives a location for it other than “in the East.” Of course, where that is depends on where one starts. From Israel, that could be anywhere from Arabia to China. But since Israel does not yet exist in Genesis 2, there is no guarantee that “east” is from Israel.
Further, this assumes that “east” is a geographical comment. In many cases in the Old Testament, such simple indications of direction or location are far more symbolic than they are geographical. “East” is often a way to speak of threat or failure, and coming "from the East" is a way to talk about hope and possibility. Note that when Adam and Eve are driven from the garden they go to the east. Cain must live in the east as punishment for killing his brother. When Lot separates from Abram, he moves to the east. Abraham sent his other sons (besides Isaac) to the east country. There are other examples that all suggest that “east” is not a geographical location as much as it is a way of talking about failure or promise.
Some have suggested that since Eden is mentioned in Scripture along with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers this clearly locates Eden in Iraq.
Several things need to be noted here.
a) There is only one river in Eden. It is only when it flows out of Eden that it divides and “from there” becomes four rivers. That would suggest, if we are dealing with physical description here, that Eden was described as being located at the head waters of the two rivers, which would place Eden somewhere in the mountains of Armenia or Southern Turkey south or east of the Black Sea.
b) The geographical location for the Tigris is not clear since the Tigris runs through the middle of ancient Assyria, not to its east. It is possible that only the city of Asshur, the 15th century BC capital of ancient Assyria, is meant. But that raises an entirely different problem of chronology since that city would not exist for several thousand years after the setting of the Genesis account.
c) The identity of Pishon is uncertain. Pishon only occurs here in the Old Testament. It is associated with “the land of Havilah” and that area along with Ophir, a near legendary source of gold, is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament as being in Arabia (Gen 10:7, 29, 25:18, 1 Sam 15:7, 1 Ch 1:9, 23). That suggests that Pishon may be located generally in the area of Arabia. It may refer to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea or more narrowly the Gulf of Aqaba or the Gulf of Suez, the River of Egypt (Wadi el-Arish), or some unknown river in Arabia.
d) The identity of Gihon is likewise uncertain. It is mentioned as flowing around the area of Cush. Elsewhere in the Old Testament Cush refers to the area of Northern Africa generally from Ethiopia to eastern Egypt (for example, 2 Chron 16:8, Psa 68:31; in most cases the modern English translation of cush is “Ethiopia”). That suggests that Gihon refers to the Nile. In some genealogies, Cush is the father of Nimrod, who is the ancestral founder of Nineveh, the later Assyrian capital. That suggests connections between north Africa and Mesopotamia, at least on the level of relationships between peoples. However, it gives us no geographical information.
e) Large rivers like these do not usually divide; they usually come together to form larger rivers. Some have suggested that this places Eden near the mouth of the four rivers where they empty into the Persian Gulf. This would place Eden somewhere near Bahrain, or on one of the islands in the Persian Gulf.
f) All of this assumes that the description of Eden is to be taken literally and is accurate in its geographical description. That evokes a certain view of Scripture that raises several questions. Why would Eden be described in terms of general geographic landmarks known to the Israelites in 1200 BC when the time setting of the story is many thousands of years earlier? Would that not suggest that the ancient Hebrews and Israelites were describing Eden in terms of locations with which they were already familiar? Is it at least possible that the ancient Israelites did not know ancient Near Eastern geography precisely, so that they were roughly bounding an area rather than giving precise and literal descriptions? How would they know the precise geography, unless we posit a certain theory of biblical inspiration and then use that theory as a basis for interpreting the material rather than using what we actually have in the biblical text from which to work?
g) The best conclusion that we can reach from the evidence is that we have no idea within a thousand miles and two continents what location is being described in Genesis 2. Maybe that is the point of the description, not to locate Eden at all but rather to place it somewhere within the immediate known world of the Ancient Near East.
h) It seems that the description of Eden is intended to locate it generally within a world with which the ancient Israelites were familiar, yet without precision. Since we have no way to identify precisely the location from the description, it seems that any interpretation of the Bible that depends on such precise location is pointless and driven by other agendas than sound biblical interpretation.
2. Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq, was the cradle of civilization!
False, or at least debatable. This was the consensus of early historians, and was taught as the truth in schools until the past few decades. However, recent archaeological and anthropological research now suggest that the first human civilization originated in central Africa in the rift valleys and in northwest Africa in the area of Nigeria. And even if it were true that Mesopotamia is “the cradle of civilization,” I do not see the significance or the relevance to any interpretation of the Bible in relation to modern Iraq.
3. Noah built the ark in Iraq.
False. Nowhere in the biblical account of the flood does it state where the ark was built.
4. The Tower of Babel was in Iraq.
Partly True. The biblical story only talks about the territory of Babel (along with Erech and Accad, from the later Akkadians, 2400 BC) and locates it in the Plain of Shinar (from the ancient Sumerians, 3500-1900 BC), which is roughly the territory between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Those two rivers run from southeastern Turkey and western Syria to the Persian Gulf bordered by Iran and Kuwait, quite a distance. While there is no direct historical link of Babel in Genesis 11 to Babylonia, the city of Erech and the area of Akkad are thought to be located toward the southern end of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. This would place Babel in what in now southern Iraq. However, it could be further to the north. However, the significance of this in this context likewise eludes me.
In any case this neglects the theological dimension of the narrative in Genesis 11, written long after the events described there after Babylon had already become a symbol for chaos and arrogant rejection of God.
5. Abraham was from Ur, which is in Southern Iraq!
Partially True. The ruins of Ur are located in what is now southern Iraq. However, while this was Abraham’s ancestral home, something important in the ancient world, he is often referenced in the biblical narratives as being from Haran in the region of Aram, far to the north in what is now Turkey. Terah took his family and left Ur very early in the biblical narratives. Abraham received his call from God in Genesis 12:4 at Haran. Note that Deuteronomy 26:5 says that “my father” (referring to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) was “a wandering Aramean.” The city of Ur has only marginal significance in the biblical narratives.
6. Isaac's wife Rebekah is from Nahor, which is in Iraq.
Partially True. First, we need to note that in most of the early patriarchal narratives, people and places are interchangeable. Abraham was from Haran, yet that was also his brother’s name. His other brother was Nahor. This suggests that we cannot make too much of geographical names in the early narratives.
The city itself is not specifically named; it is only given as “the city of Nahor.” The location of this city is unknown. The biblical reference only places it in Aram-naharayim, “Aram of the Two Rivers.” The assumption is that this would be the ancestral home near Ur, but the reference is only to the general area of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Again, I fail to see any significance to this other than the fact that it was the ancient custom to marry within tribes, which would require returning to the ancestral homeland for a wife. Nothing is made in any of these biblical narratives of any particular significance of the geographical location.
7. Jacob met Rachel in Iraq.
False. Jacob went to the territory of Aram, specifically Paddam-aram, which is the area around Haran in southern Turkey and northern Syria. Laban, Rachael’s father, is specifically said to live in Paddam-aram and is described as an Aramean. This is far to the north of present-day Iraq.
8. Jonah preached in Nineveh - which is in Iraq.
Partially True. Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian empire in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, which occupied the upper reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, partially in modern Iraq and partially in southern Turkey. The ruins of the city lie near Mosul in far northern Iraq. However, Assyrian territory extended beyond the border of present-day Iraq.
9. Assyria, which is in Iraq, conquered the ten tribes of Israel.
Partially True. Assyria did conquer the northern ten tribes in 721 BC. But as noted above, the Assyrian Empire lay only partially in what is now Iraq, reaching further north than the present boundaries of Iraq.
10. Amos cried out in Iraq!
False. Amos proclaimed his message in the northern kingdom of Israel. There is no mention of him ever visiting any area outside Judah and Israel. There is not even a record of his pronouncing any prophetic word against either Assyria or Babylon.
True but misleading. All of these references to Babylon as being in Iraq are misleading at best. Iraq covers a much larger or different area than did ancient Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, or Babylon. It is virtually meaningless to try to identify any and every mention of Babylon in the Old Testament as being in Iraq, especially since Iraq has only been in existence for 70 years or so, and in some sense is a totally “artificial” country created by the demands of 20th century politics.
12. Daniel was in the lion's den in Iraq!
13. The three Hebrew children were in the fire in Iraq
(Jesus had been in Iraq also as the fourth person in the fiery furnace!
False. To identify the figure in the furnace as Jesus is anachronistic. There is no Jesus named anywhere in the Old Testament. It is only by interpretation that we get any references to or about Jesus in the Old Testament, and those are always colored by certain theological slants.
Also, the construction of this verse in Daniel 3:25 in Aramaic does not specifically imply “the son of God.” It is an idiomatic phrase that emphasizes resemblance. Note the NRSV translation: “. . . and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” The implication in this context is that the presence of God was with the three Hebrew men, an important point to make to a king who has presented himself as a god to be worshipped.
14. Belshazzar, the King of Babylon saw the "writing on the wall" in Iraq.
15. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, carried the Jews captive into Iraq.
16. Ezekiel preached in Iraq.
See #11. It is not at all clear from the Book of Ezekiel that he is actually in Babylon, although it is likely.
17. The wise men were from Iraq.
False. The biblical text never says where the Magi were from beyond saying that they came “from the East.” See # 1 on the biblical symbolism of "the East."
18. Peter preached in Iraq.
False. There is no mention of Peter visiting this area.
19. The "Empire of Man" described in Revelation is called Babylon, which was a city in Iraq!
And you have probably seen this one. Israel is the nation most often mentioned in the Bible. But do you know which nation is second? It is Iraq! However, that is not the name that is used in the Bible. The names used in the Bible are Babylon, Land of Shinar, and Mesopotamia. The word Mesopotamia means between the two rivers, more exactly between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The name Iraq, means country with deep roots.
False. Egypt is mentioned almost three times as often in the Bible as is Babylon. See #11.
Indeed Iraq is a country with deep roots and is a very significant country in the Bible.
False. Iraq is never mentioned in the Bible, so can have no significance. See #11.
No other nation, except Israel, has more history and prophecy associated it than Iraq.
False. As noted, Egypt is mentioned far more often than Babylon. Israel has a far longer history with Egypt than with Babylon, since Babylon did not emerge until the fall of Assyria in 611 BC. In the NT, Babylon had become a symbol to talk about evil, and is used throughout the NT to refer to Rome, not to any country in the Middle East. “Babylon” throughout the Book of Revelation refers to Rome.
And also... This is something to think about! Since America is typically represented by an eagle. Saddam should have read up on his Muslim passages... The following verse is from the Koran, (the Islamic Bible) (Note the verse number!) Hmmmmmmm?! God Bless you all Amen !
False. This is a total hoax. From Snopes, a web site that debunks hoaxes and urban legends:
This illustrates how strongly held opinions can be mixed with bad biblical interpretation, emotion, and ill-conceived theology to produce something that is essentially fiction. In fact, since it is being presented as a Christian biblical view it is worse than fiction; it is outright propaganda and most of it false at that. What makes that so bad is that too many Christians are not only believing this kind of material but are basing political and ethical responses on it.
All of this calls for much more careful critical evaluation of material that is circulated on the internet or by e-mail as the latest truth about world affairs, political candidates, or ethical issues. At the very least, Christians should approach such material with a large dose of skepticism. A better approach would be to get their basic biblical and theological information from more reputable sources than web sites and e-mail (and that includes this site; it was never intended that this site should provide information apart from the ministry of a church or local congregation).
It might also suggest the need for a great deal of humility in prayer seeking the guidance of God in developing opinions and attitudes, lest we end up doing harm to God and the Kingdom rather than living as a servant of God to others. If we are not careful, we may be spreading more darkness than we are spreading light.
Internet Sites for Hoaxes and Urban Legends: