Don’t Bet on the Preakness?

Don’t Bet on the Preakness?

Perhaps you saw this advertisement in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun? If not, let me read it to you. It says in large black letters, “Judgment Day, May 21, 2011. Then it quotes from the Book of Jonah 3:8, “Cry Mightily Unto God.” Since I had no idea what this paid ad was talking about, I called my cultural advisor, my twenty-something son in New York, who is aware of all the latest cultural trends. He told me, “Sure, it’s the biggest thing in the City. It’s in the New York Times and all over the New York Post. There are lots of people handing out Bibles and telling us to repent. In fact, I haven’t done my laundry in a couple of weeks, just in case I get taken in the Rapture.” I quickly reminded him that Jews and anyone else who does not embrace Jesus Christ will not be taken directly to heaven at six p.m. tonight. “So you mean I have to do my laundry?” he said. Such is the existential meaning for my son on the day that many believe the world will end.

What is this all about? What is going on here? Allow me to take a few minutes to explain. “Thousands of people around the country have spent the last few days taking to the streets and saying final goodbyes before today, Judgment Day, when they expect to be absorbed into heaven in a process known as the rapture. Nonbelievers, they hold, will be left behind to perish along with the world over the next five months.” Those who believe in today’s rapture “subscribe to the prophecy of Harold Camping, a civil engineer turned self-taught biblical scholar whose doomsday scenario-broadcast on his Family Radio network based in Oakland, California, predicts May 21, 2011, Judgment Day. On this day, arrived at through a series of Bible based calculations that assume the world will end exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s flood, believers are to be transported up to heaven as a worldwide earthquake strikes. Nonbelievers will endure five months of plagues, quakes, war, famine and general torment before the Earth’s total destruction in October. In 1992, Mr. Camping said the rapture would probably be in 1994, but now he says that newer evidence makes the prophecy for this year certain.”

I took the time yesterday to do some research on Mr. Camping’s claims. I read all the material posted on his website and want to give you a brief synopsis of what he says. Camping begins his claims with a few important assumptions: The Bible is the revealed word of God. It is infallible and perfect. Every word comes directly from God’s mouth. Jewish and Christian Scriptures are both equally holy. Every word in the Bible should be taken literally and a face value. Through his study of the Bible, Camping says that Noah’s flood occurred in the year 4990 BCE. He never states how he arrives at this date. The flood took place on the 17th day of the second month of the year, assuming a spring beginning to the calendar. Camping then quotes from the Book of Second Peter 3:8 in Christian Scripture. He says this text tells us that the seven days of the Flood actually should be understood as 7,000 years and the world will be destroyed exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s flood which is today, the 17th day of the second month, assuming that Nisan is the first month of the year. Camping goes on to tell us that about 200 million people will be saved in the rapture, about 3% of the world’s population. These true believers are those who repent from their sins and embrace Jesus Christ. In another text, Camping claims that the exact date on which Jesus was crucified was April 1, 33 C.E. Camping says there are 722,500 days between then and now and that number is of great significance. He gets this number from multiplying what he says are significant spiritual numbers: 5x10x17x5x10x17.

Why is Camping and so many others obsessed with Judgment Day? Prof. Courtney Campbell of Oregon State University posits, “End time movements were often tied to significant date changes, like January 1, 2000 or times of acute social stress. Ultimately, we’re looking for some authoritative answers in an era of great social, political, economic, as well as natural upheaval. Right now there are lots of natural disasters occurring that will get people worried, whether it’s tornadoes in the South or earthquakes and tsunamis. The United States in involved in two wars. We’re still in a period of economic uncertainty.” So many people are looking for absolute certainty when there is so little certainty in life.

Let me just say that we do not share Camping’s assumptions or methodology. We do not belief the Bible is the literal word of God. We believe it is a human document inspired by God and written by Jewish human beings over the course of almost eight hundred years. We do not think we should take its words literally or that they are infallible. We do not think that the end of the world can be predicted in a non-scientific manner that comes from dubious methodology in a book that is filled with religious poetry and our collective and individual yearnings for God. So the question before us is “Should we bet on the Preakness?” According to Camping, rapture will take place in every time zone around the world at 6 p.m. The Preakness is supposed to run at 6:20. So everyone here has to make an existential decision, “To bet or not to bet on the Preakness?”

Jews have had our share of messianic pretenders and obviously false messianic predictions. The Talmud tells us that if one is planting a tree and someone comes by and says that the messiah is coming and the world will end, we should finish planting the tree. We have little faith in these predictions. Jews do their best to cleave to God everyday through the performance of mitzvoth, commandments, the very same commandments that Lindsay agreed to observe this morning as a bat mitzvah. We are given a foretaste of heaven as we strive to observe a restful and spiritually meaningful Shabbat. That is as close to God as we can get. While I certainly agree with Camping that everyone should repent from his or her sins, if I was a betting man, I think my bet at the Preakness will be safe at 6:20 this evening.

May we each experience a foretaste of heaven on this, and every Shabbat.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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