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There’s a Chance–Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

You’re probably not going to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In fact, it is almost certain that you won’t win. Think about it. These people have been using all manner of advertisements to sell magazines and, more recently, gather information for big data for years. Do you know anyone who has won even a dollar? Do you know anyone who knows anyone? Right. You’re probably not going to win.

But there is, like Jim Carrey had at the end of Dumb and Dumber, still a chance.

You could win. And he could wind up with Lauren Holly by his side. You’d hate to miss out on winning if you were destined to do so, right? But you’re not going to win.

That seems to be the message that Solomon brings today. He suggests that since we can’t know that we have a better after-death fate than the animals, we should just live for today.

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust. Who knows if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth? I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?

Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

Solomon’s advice in this passage sounds almost identical to what Epicurus taught several hundred years later. Since we can’t tell whether there’s any reward for right living after we die, then we should just focus on today.

Don’t pursue what you can’t see

Is Solomon on the level with these claims? Or is he making provocative statements that we’re supposed to knock down? Let’s do a little thought experiment. My daughter bought some chickens, as I shared recently. These birds are perhaps half grown now. To date, they have not laid any eggs. Soon, Emily will start checking the nest box for eggs, hoping to see some little protein orbs lying there. But why should she check? Since no one can enable her to see what will be in the nest box, why should she look? Isn’t that the sort of logic that Solomon employs?

Let’s consider some of the people who rejected this sort of thinking:

  • Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.–Genesis 15:6
  • By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.–Hebrews 11:7
  • Jesus said [to Thomas], “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” –John 20:29

Getting in Tune

The paradox of Christian life is that we should live joyfully in the present with full confidence that the future, which we cannot see, will be better. Maybe, on second thought, that isn’t really a paradox. Maybe we are to live joyfully today because of our hope, our confidence, in eternity. It’s not a “chance.” It’s a certainty. Without that hope, I’d have a hard time enjoying my activities and accepting them as my reward. With that hope, I can face today and tomorrow.

Frosties or Sugar Puffs?

I only got a couple of minutes into Bandersnatch, the dark Black Mirror-related interactive movie on Netflix, before I had to pause it and sit, paralyzed, staring at the screen.

You see, when the main character–I haven’t gotten far enough in to even learn his name yet–is sitting at the breakfast table and offered a choice of cereal, Frosties or Sugar Puffs, by his father, I’m convinced that everything hangs on that decision. I chose Sugar Puffs. Then, a few seconds later, I had second thoughts. I backed up and chose Frosties. In the aftermath of both, the neighbor’s dog was barking and digging in the garden. Dad was yelling out the door. So far, there’s no difference, but who knows what cosmic chain of events was set in motion by the choice of cereals? That’s why I hit pause.

Decisions are important. They have consequences. One thing leads to another. If I hadn’t made an offhand comment about needing to get a job, maybe my high-school friend Dan wouldn’t have suggested that I work with him at Taco John’s. Then I wouldn’t have met Penny. Then we wouldn’t have gotten married and had four kids.

Ready for the topper? In the minutes since I started writing this entry, I learned that my youngest child’s first kid has made her entry into the world. And if it hadn’t been for saying something about needing a job back in 1980, then maybe she’d be a gerbil instead. (Don’t try to make sense of that. I’ve always thought the whole parallel universe thing was kind of ridiculous.)

Of course we want to think about the consequences of our actions, but much of the time, like in Bandersnatch, we have to simply make a choice without knowing where that choice will lead. As the great theologians of Rush sang, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” That’s deep, eh?

Where would my life be if I had decided to seek a job at Burger King instead of Taco John’s? Or was I always fated to make tacos and marry Penny? I just don’t know.

As I cast my mind over the Bible, I note how many stories seem to revolve around snap decisions, determined choices, that lead to a very good or a very bad outcome. Let’s think of a few in Bandersnatch fashion.

  • Eve: Eat the fruit the serpent is offering / Barbecue the serpent
  • Cain: Clobber your brother / Go fishing with your brother
  • Noah: Build a big boat in the backyard / Use the gopher wood to host a big pig roast for the neighbors.
  • Abraham: Sacrifice Isaac / Go out for falafel with Isaac
  • Joseph: Get revenge on your brothers / Forgive your brothers

You see how this is going, and I’m not even out of Genesis. Of course other choices, in the Bible and in our lives, are not so clearly ones that involve obedience and loyalty. They don’t come with a clearly defined “right choice.” Some of them are as apparently random as working at Taco John’s or what breakfast cereal to eat. Or are they?

 

What’s Your Isaac?

This morning, Bo the Poodle and I did our customary routine, riding in my car to QuikTrip for a large refill of Diet Dr. Pepper. To those who want to tell me that diet soda is worse for your health than regular soda, I would like to say, “Shut up!” I don’t really care. I don’t drink coffee, and I like my Diet Doc.

Yesterday, in preaching on Genesis 22, my pastor asked us, “What is your Isaac?” In other words, what is the thing that you would find it difficult or impossible to give up if God required it. In Genesis 22:2, we hear God establishing this category:

“Take your son,” he [God] said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

In this verse, God piles on the pain. He starts off telling Abraham to take his son. Then he emphasizes that Isaac is Abraham’s only son. Then God calls Isaac by name before emphasizing that Abraham loves the young man. The sarcastic side of me wants to hear Abraham responding, “Oh, that Isaac!”

Abraham loved Isaac. He’d waited for decades to see a son born from Sarah, and finally he had one. God had promised to make of Abraham a great nation through this boy. And did we mention that Abraham loved his son? Now God wanted Abraham to take this miraculous, sought-for, promised, and beloved son out to a desolate mountain and thrust a dagger into him. We have to assume that, although obedient, Abraham did not rush to this task with joy in his heart. Still, he showed his readiness to obey.

So what’s your Isaac? What would be the impossible or nearly impossible thing for you to give up for God? I’ve determined that right now, my Isaac is my stomach. I enjoy eating way too much. I enjoy that Diet Dr. Pepper.

You might protest that food and drink do not compare with sacrificing Isaac, and you’d be right. Still, I can love them more than I love God. I can give them priority. Eating and drinking–like loving a son–is not sinful, but it can become sinful when it pushes God into second place.

Jesus sets up our priorities pretty clearly.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”–Matthew 22:37

That list does not leave a lot of room for Diet Dr. Pepper. Or maybe it leaves room for however much of that drink God allows. The beauty of our Isaac problem is seen in the conclusion to the Genesis 22 account. When he is willing to give up Isaac in order to obey God, Abraham is given Isaac and so much more along with God.

I’m not sure God will allow me to keep the Diet Dr. Pepper, but I’m hopeful.

Full of Years–A Mathematical Excursion with the Patriarchs

As we learn in Genesis, the patriarchs of the Hebrew nation lived to ripe old ages. Abraham passed on at 175 (Genesis 25:7). Isaac was 180 when he died (Genesis 35:28). The next generation, Jacob, lived to age 147 (Genesis 47:28), while Jacob’s most celebrated son, Joseph made it to 110 (Genesis 50:26).
Aside from the fact that these men would have almost single-handedly bankrupted the Social Security system had they lived in the United States, what can we learn from these numbers?
The bit of mathematical conjuring that follows is certainly not original to me, but its origin is, from my research, obscure. Let’s look.

Within the Ages

Looking at those credibility-stretching ages, we see that each of the first three can be expressed by a formula: Age=X * Y2. In other words, each each age is a multiple of a perfect square. What are the odds of that happening by coincidence? I checked out every age from 1 to 184, dividing each by the numbers 2 through 9. That is 1,472 possible combinations. And of those 1,472 possibilities, only 46 yielded perfect squares. That’s 3.1%. The likelihood of two generations in a row being like this? It’s less than one tenth of 1%, and the chances of three in a row matching are .0031%. That’s just north of 3 chances in 100,000–more likely than a lottery win but still very unlikely.

Not Just Unlikely But Following a Pattern

Looking more closely, not only do all three of those first three patriarchs have such X * Y2. ages, but there’s a pattern to their ages.
Let me demonstrate.
Name
Age
X
Y
Y
Sum
Abraham
175
7
5
5
17
Isaac
180
5
6
6
17
Jacob
147
3
7
7
17
So if you noticed, the value of X decreases by 2 with each generation while the value of Y increases by 1 in the same generation. I’m not sure how to calculate the probability of that progression, but it is clearly far less probable than even the .0031% we saw above.

All that and 17 Also!

A great deal has been made by previous writers of the fact that this pattern also features all of the digits adding up to equal 17. When you think about it, however, that consistency is simply a feature of the progression. If X decreases by 2 and Y increases by 1 but is counted twice, then what else can that “Sum” column do but remain steady. Still, if there’s significance to the number 17, there might be something to it.
It turns out that 17 is a significant number for a couple reasons:
  • It is a prime number.
  • It is the seventh prime number: 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.
  • It is a combination of 7 (the number of the divine) and 10 (which appears several times in Genesis). E.W. Bullinger explains this sum as a combination of “spiritual perfection, plus ordinal perfection, or the perfection of spiritual order.”

Have We Forgotten Joseph?

I know that you’re wondering if Joseph, our fourth patriarch, fits the pattern. If the progression continued, then we would expect Joseph to be 1*(8*8) or 64 years old when he died. Instead, of course, he lived to be 110. So is Joseph the pattern buster?
Perhaps it is nothing but Joseph’s age can be expressed with the expected X (1) and the sums of the three preceding squared Ys (5, 6, and 7). That is, 1*(25+36+49)=110.
Of course, even though I suggested that might signify nothing, I don’t really believe it. What are the chances that happens by accident?
Let’s assume that we’re adding up three numbers hoping to reach 110. We could use dozens of different combinations if we didn’t care about those perfect squares. But if we restrict ourselves to perfect squares, there are only three combinations: 2 (4), 5 (25), and 9 (81) on one hand, and the 5,6, 7-combination noted above. In short, there is very little chance that Joseph’s age just happens to combine the squares that were found in the ages of his three preceding ancestors.

So What Does It All Mean?

Hopefully I have convinced you that the numerical play afoot in the ages of the patriarchs is not just an accidental occurrence. Assuming that it is not an accident leaves us with the sense that some intent lay behind these numbers.
The mere presence of these numbers does not prove anything about the interpretation of these numbers and it does not prove or disprove the hand of God in the creation of the Genesis text.
  • Could a human author have deposited mathematical Easter eggs for readers to discover? It’s possible.
  • Could God have controlled the ages of the patriarchs in order to produce these numbers? That’s possible as well.
Either way, what does it mean? That’s a question for a later post.