Friday, November 24, 2006

Sacred Cows

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Even though we live in a world deluged by knowledge—after all, our day is known as the "Information Age"—we often rely heavily on our preconceived ideas about many things. On the other hand, if what we believe about a thing is not a preconception, it is often a misconception because we do not take the time or effort to find out the
truth. In other words, some of what we believe is the result of ignorance, rather than true knowledge, while other beliefs are the result of prejudice, rather than true judgment. It is to be hoped that true Christians are whittling away at—or better yet, carving out big chunks of—both of these.

Some of these preconceptions or misconceptions become so dear that they turn into "sacred cows." According to the dictionary, a sacred cow is something "that is often unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition." This term was coined from the Hindu practice of worshipping cows. If any non-Hindu suggested that the cow, as a dumb animal, should not be allowed the run of the country, a Hindu would take great offense. This subject is immune to reason, criticism, or opposition.

A few of our ideas about biblical events or people are sacred cows. To some people, Herbert Armstrong is a sacred cow. They mistakenly venerate him so highly that they brook no criticism of him at all, forgetting that he, like all the rest of us, was human and made mistakes. Too many jump to the other extreme, saying that he did nothing right! Moreover, we have had skewered the sacred cow of an exclusive body of the true church in one corporate organization. Other sacred cows are, for some, church government, a Monday Pentecost, the new moons, postponements, conspiracy theories, etc.

One sacred cow is that the ten northern tribes of Israel were taken into Assyrian captivity, and nearly 150 years later, Judah was taken to Babylon. Generally, this is historically accurate, but it is not the whole story. A few years after Israel's fall to Assyria, a major segment of Judah's population was also taken captive by Assyria! Suddenly, the sacred cow of the Ten Lost Tribes becomes inaccurate. Not only the ten northern tribes were "lost," but even a large portion of Levi, Benjamin, and Judah lost their identities too! Now, in reality, we have thirteen remnant lost tribes! This is one reason why later Bible writers call the Jews "the of Judah."

Most people are ignorant of this because the Bible does not directly mention it. However, the Bible agrees with the historic record: "And in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them" (II Kings 18:13). This occurred only about eight years after Israel fell to Sargon. What did Sennacherib do upon taking all these cities? He boasts in his inscriptions that he took 46 fenced cities of Judah and deported 200,150 captives to the same areas to which Sargon had transported Israel. He says he left Hezekiah confined in Jerusalem "like a bird in a cage." In the end, only Jerusalem escaped intact. In essence, this means that only those few of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi who had taken refuge in Jerusalem were not deported or killed! How is that for skewering a sacred cow?

Another sacred cow is the occupation of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What did they do for a living? How did they become so wealthy? The movies made about the patriarchs usually depict them as nomadic shepherds. Even though the Bible describes Abraham as immensely rich in livestock, silver, and gold (Genesis 13:2), moviemakers usually make him seem just on the verge of poverty, dressing him in dirty brown robes, giving him a hangdog expression, and surrounding him with a few sheep and goats. How much wealth could a landless shepherd amass? Let us notice a few biblical facts:

Genesis 14:13-16 tells the story of an escaped captive coming to Abraham to tell him about the attack upon Sodom and about Lot's capture. Why did the man come to Abraham? Abraham had 318 trained and armed men, which he quickly marshaled and led into battle, successfully routing the forces of the four kings of Mesopotamia. Suddenly, Abraham starts taking on another dimension.

In Genesis 23, the Hittite elders address Abraham as "my lord" and "a mighty prince among us." They then proceed to negotiate ruthlessly with him for Sarah's burial cave, finally agreeing on the price of 400 shekels, a lot of money at the time. The Hittites ruled a vast empire centered in Asia Minor, and they had built it primarily on trade rather than conquest. They haggle with him as a sign of their respect for—not a dirty, poor shepherd—but a successful and incredibly wealthy merchant! It appears that Abraham was a businessman of great skill, intelligence, and power!

If the Egyptians considered shepherds to be an abomination (Genesis 46:34), why did Pharaoh and the princes of Egypt accept Abram and Sarai so readily in Genesis 12:14-16? Simple—Abram was not a shepherd but a wealthy merchant! The patriarchs were shepherds, in a sense, only because vast flocks and herds were necessary to their main occupation: trade! In that society, livestock acted as a form of currency just like silver and gold. Coins had not yet been invented, and some found it easier to trade in livestock rather than in heavy gold and silver. In a way, we carry on this practice by calling our trading centers "stock markets."

We tend to forget Abraham's origins. He was born in Ur, a large, commercial city of Mesopotamia, and he lived there into his seventies. He then moved with Terah, his father, to Haran, a major stop on the caravan route that ran between Babylon and Egypt. Trading seems to have been the patriarchs' business for several generations. Genesis 34:10 shows Jacob and his sons allying with the Hivites to carry on the family trade.

Another proof of their occupation as traders can been seen by mapping the patriarchs' dwelling places in Canaan. The resulting map shows that all of their activities took place at the junctions of major trading routes. The patriarchs lived where their business could profit them the most!

How does skewering this sacred cow benefit us? It is definitely not knowledge necessary for salvation, but it is the truth. It is not a preconception or a misconception. It is a small piece of knowledge that may help us understand more important things. For instance, God certainly has nothing against His children being in business and making money. In addition, we can better relate to some of the problems the patriarchs had to overcome.

It should certainly make us more careful in our Bible study to avoid relying on preconceptions. Proverbs 15:14 tells us, "The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness." We should be seeking the knowledge that will help us to understand the truth and shun the foolishness of sacred cows. This will help to show God that, rather than believing the lie, we have received the love of the truth (II Thessalonians 2:10).