The Harbinger: Ode to Biblical Illiteracy

Posted By on October 12, 2012

I’ve been asked by a couple of readers if I’d read the best-selling book by Jonathan Cahn, The Harbinger. It reminded me of a day back in an apologetics class that I took with Norm Geisler. An enthused student asked Geisler when he came into the room whether he’d read Tim LaHaye’s latest book (not sure of the title). The answer? “I haven’t finished Aquinas yet, why would I bother reading LaHaye?” Thanks for the memory, Norm!

I feel the same way about reading The Harbinger.1 No, I haven’t read it, nor do I plan to. My sentiments would be like those expressed in other reviews (by academics, people with some real training), though less courteous. Why won’t I waste the time when I read crazy stuff about the occult, ufos, and ancient astronaut silliness? Because those are more thoughtful, for one.2 But the primary reason is that the author’s thesis is so transparently wrong that only someone with a low level of interpretive literacy would find it persuasive. (I can already hear you now: “that’s most of the church, Mike”; I know and I’m not budging).

How can I be so cold? Here’s a summary of the book’s content from one review:

Isaiah 9:10-11 is the specific text of Scripture that frames The Harbinger. In context Isaiah 9:1-7 is one of the clearest prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the coming of the Messiah, both His first and second comings. This is followed by a warning of coming judgment on Israel because of its arrogance and rebelliousness (9:8-21). We know from subsequent revelation and from history that God s judgment did fall on Israel just as the prophecy promised.

So far so good. But then Cahn determines that Isaiah 9:10-11 contains a hidden second prophecy directed not to ancient Israel but to modern America. At this point the author massages Scripture and current events in an attempt to prove that God s judgment on the United States has been hiding in these verses from the day they were given by Isaiah, but have now been unlocked by the careful investigation of Cahn.

Got it? There’s a hidden prophecy about the United States in Isaiah 9:10-11. Let’s see if anything stands out to you in the passage:

8 The Lord has sent a word against Jacob,
and it will fall on Israel;
9 and all the people will know,
Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria,
who say in pride and in arrogance of heart:
10 The bricks have fallen,
but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycamores have been cut down,
but we will put cedars in their place.
11 But the Lord raises the adversaries of Rezin against him,
and stirs up his enemies.
12 The Syrians on the east and the Philistines on the west
devour Israel with open mouth.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
and his hand is stretched out still.

Did you find it? How about the first verse: “The Lord has sent a word against Jacob, and it will fall on Israel.” Is it really that hard to tell from that who the prophecy in this passage might be about? (Hint: The United States isn’t in there, but another country tied to biblical history is).

How about the next verse?

and all the people will know,
Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria,
who say in pride and in arrogance of heart:

So, who is it that utters the “key verse” for the entire Harbinger thesis — the prophecy of verse 10? Hmmm. Hard to tell. We need Jonathan Cahn and his publisher for that one. Without them I couldn’t tell it was the United States! I’d have thought it was Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria, the people in whose mouths verse 10 is placed. Silly me.

We need Cahn as well to show us that the dressed stones and sycamore trees are really cryptic ways of referring to the building of the new monument in place of the twin towers, and that the “enemies of Rezin” — listed as the Syrians and Philistines in verse 12, who come against Israel (sorry, I mean, the United States) are really the forces of al-Qaeda. What a blessing that Cahn can chase the plain words of the text from our eyes and replace them with hidden truths. Bless you Obi-cahn; you’re our only hope.

Honestly — the fact that this book is a best-seller in the Christian world is a tragic embarrassment. Cahn basically imposes an idea onto the passage and calls it interpretation. The idea of Bible study is to see what the text says, not to tell it what to say despite the clarity of the words in front of our faces. The popularity of The Harbinger demonstrates for all to see the vast number of Christians who can’t even read an English Bible closely, much less do anything that resembles exegesis or analysis. How many Christian adults could name half of Christian music’s top ten, or name ten celebrities that profess Christ, and at the same time be completely inept at thinking through a passage on even this surface level?

A Christian enthralled by this twaddle deserves the label of biblical illiterate.

 

 

  1. It deserves nomination for this year’s Harold Camping Bunkagesis Award.
  2. I’m actually not kidding. The book I just finished reading a week ago on this material was a University of Chicago Press title: Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal by Jeffrey J. Kripal.

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44 Responses to “The Harbinger: Ode to Biblical Illiteracy”

  1. Jason says:

    I don’t know if this is worse or just as bad as the recent rash of mass bird deaths that some nuts claimed was a fulfillment of prophecy in Hosea 4. The need for sound exegesis and hermeneutics has never been more desperately needed and never more absent from so many whose opinions are passed off as fact.

  2. Dawn says:

    This question isn’t about the Harbinger stuff, but it’s kind of similar as far as interesting interpretations of prophecy. I’m kind of embarrassed to ask this question, but I really would like your take on Ezekiel 29 for my own learning. Ok. Here it goes.

    Mike, there’s some talk going around about Ezekiel 29 that I ran across the other day. People are equating Ezekiel 29 with the bursting of the Answan Dam?

    I thought that Ezekiel 29 had already been fulfilled but from what I’m reading it’s possible that it hasn’t because Egypt has always been inhabited?? Yet, I look at Egypt and don’t see the Empire that it once was. Some are thinking it will be filled in the “millennial” kingdom…others by the end of November and some think it will lead to the Gog/Magog invasion. Folks are using the 3rd Secret of Fatima and the Muslim Mahdi stuff to back up the idea that Ezekiel 29 speaks about the Answan Dam. I don’t put any stock in Muslim prophecy or the Fatima stuff and as far as eschatology is concerned, I guess I would call myself amillennial if I had to pick a side. At first I thought it was just a few people who were spreading this rumor, but then I noticed it’s on some kinda mainstream sites and the first person I thought to ask was Heiser. It’s being called the Dragon Flood prophecy and I assume they are using Revelation 12 somehow to come to the conclusion. I thought that was a prophecy that has been continuously filled since the the beginnging of the “church”. Am I confused?

    Here’s one of those sites: http://www.prophecyinthenews.com/egypt-aswan-and-the-coming-flood/ and here’s another (one that uses Fatima and Islam texts)

    http://burrodriver.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/egypts-flood-dragon-prophecy/

    Have you heard this stuff and if so…of if not…can you tell me your thoughts on Ezekiel 29?

    • MSH says:

      I hear smatterings. The prophecy is clearly directed at Pharaoh (v. 2), which clearly situates it in Ezekiel’s own time period. The dragon imagery is that of Leviathan — the use of the chaos dragon motifs that have to do with subduing the forces of chaos (if you have read my Myth that is True draft, this should be very familiar). The images are used in Psa 74, Gen 1 (somewhat obliquely), Psa 89 (there the beast is Rahab) and other places. The point is that Yahweh controls the water source of life in Egypt, not the gods of Egypt, and he’ll use that power to make Egypt a ruin so that (v. 15) “it will never again rule other nations.’ The reference is clearly to the Egyptian empire — pharaonic Egypt. Then Egypt will know who really is God (he uses the same phrase as found in conjunction with the plagues in the days of Moses — it doesn’t speak of mass conversion of Egyptians).

      I have to wonder why the clear words of the text aren’t sufficient for its understanding. Probably because that doesn’t titillate sufficiently. No buzz, no Bible.

  3. Richard Brown says:

    oooooo… Can I quote you on this? “No buzz, no Bible.”. Wish I had thunk of it.
    there’s a lot packed into that one.

    The contrarian in me just wants to offer one contrasting view: yes it is very sad that christians in the West especially treat their Bible like an ornament, but I so recall being a “2 year old” Christian full of Zeal, and having zero disciplers in my life [which means, in my church at that time] and going to see a “Hal Lindsay” film with a couple of my zealot friends. I don’t recall whether I really examined the FILM, per se, but it did provoke my appetite all the more. I read the OT and NT prophecies with Berean Diligence afterward.

    and just to twist your well-educated heads even further [the donkey Speaks!]: “Jesus Christ Superstar” actually played a role in my own conversion…… figger that one out

    • MSH says:

      yes, you can quote me. I have a friend that was led to Christ through the Late Great Planet Earth, so it served that good purpose at the very least.

      • Biynah Kli says:

        “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

        My personal favorite. I stole it 30 years ago and have used it gazillions of times since. It’s from the terrific movie, “The Right Stuff”, and seems especially appropriate when I think of certain individuals in certain very public Christian ministries…and a bunch of other folks. ‘Nuff said.

        Dr. Heiser, I’ve been very interested in your work for a long time but with the constant, pesky interferences of daily life haven’t been able to sit down and properly spend time on your websites. That all changed last night after hearing you on Art Bell’s Dark Matter. What a great show! After seeing your name as guest last week, I waited impatiently for Monday night to roll around and managed to listen to nearly every word while devouring your sites. I read till after 4AM and tonight will probably be the same – and well worth it.

        Many years ago, after becoming frustrated when pastors and teachers in mainstream Christian churches I attended couldn’t give satisfying answers to questions I had, God led me to study on my own and discover what His word *really* says. Those kind people did their best, I’m sure, but in my heart I knew something was missing – probably a lot. I quickly realized, with His guidance, that what I’d suspected all along was correct: that the original languages, contexts and cultures were extremely important to grasp. Amazingly to me now, I can’t recall anyone ever even suggesting that I dig into those aspects of study. Keeping all this in mind, I use every good resource possible, and your work is simply invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

        One more comment concerning this thread: you remind me here of the late Dr. Walter Martin. He just “put it out there” and so have you.

        Thank you again, and may God richly bless you and yours!

        • MSH says:

          Thanks for the comparison! Your quote is really telling:

          “… the original languages, contexts and cultures were extremely important to grasp. Amazingly to me now, I can’t recall anyone ever even suggesting that I dig into those aspects of study.”

          I can almost say the same – I say almost because I did have people early on tell me about the importance of context, but what they meant was “the verses that come before and after the ones you’re looking at.”

          Thanks for encouraging me that people care enough to dig, rather than just quit.

  4. DMM says:

    Where did you take an apologetics class?

  5. Sunny says:

    Dr. Hesler, first, let me say I will be perusing your blogs and learning from them. I especially like your statement at the top of your page. That being said, let me simply say, after reading your take on the book and some of your comments and other’s comments, I am saddened by the obvious lack of compassion for believers, both coming from you and your readers. I assure you this condescending over-tone will assuredly cause many to stumble in their faith…..it will cause them to feel stupid, for lack of a better word, and likely will send them back to the place of just listening and believing everything their denominational pastor tells them. These are believers who are attempting to learn and study about God’s Word, instead of watching the latest episode of the soul-numbing Dancing With the Stars, or other such garbage. Most people do not have the time to take classes at a seminary, nor the finances…..indeed, most are too busy trying to provide for their family. I urge you to teach with compassion…..most do not have your obvious educational base regarding scripture, and would soak up what you say and have it spur them on to seek greater truth. Instead of condemning those who’ve read the book, explain concisely what its errors are, and if possible, a list of books that a non-seminary trained believer would understand. Thank you tremendously for sharing your knowledge, and I pray I didn’t offend, as that was not my intention at all. Sadly, our world has become cold-hearted, even the elect, and we really must guard against this tool of satan. Again, thank you.

    • MSH says:

      Bad interpretation doesn’t need compassion; it needs correction. I think it’s compassionate to point out misleading material and to do so clearly. I see no point in writing a critique that leaves the impression that “there may be something to that” when it’s nonsense. And in this case, it takes so little critical reading skills (just read the passage) that I think a jolt is a good thing. The evangelical church has been lulled to an intellectual stupor precisely because no one gives it straight medicine when needed. Paul didn’t hesitate to call the Galatians fools for believing false ideas (Gal 3:1), but that’s not all he did. I don’t do only that, either, but I do it when I think it’s needed.

      • Sunny says:

        Dr. Heiser, I apologize for misspelling your name. I was operating off of memory and my phone where I couldn’t see your info.

        Thank you for your response. Forgive me for being unclear. I agree that there should be no subdued teaching or interpretation of God’s Word. I only meant wording such as I’ve listed below, goes beyond trying to instruct and seems to reach the line of demarcation between Paul’s use of the word fools, i.e. not wise(as he was attempting to draw the people’s eyes back to salvation by grace rather than where the false teachers had lead them, keeping of the law) and condescension.
        “only someone with a low level of interpretive literacy would find it persuasive”, “be completely inept at thinking through a passage on even this surface level”, “A Christian enthralled by this twaddle deserves the label of biblical illiterate”

        Two passages that I have learned greatly from are: Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,” and Hebrews 5:2 “Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.”

        C. H. Spurgeon explains it much better than I do, for I am one of the ignorant, but trying to learn and draw ever closer to Jesus. I hope you will read it and know that this is a struggle of mine at times, as well. “COMPASSION AND FORBEARANCE ARE TWO THINGS WHICH ANY MAN WHO WOULD DO GOOD TO HIS FELLOW MEN OUGHT TO POSSESS TO A VERY LARGE DEGREE. You will have plenty of use for all the compassion and all the tenderness that you can possibly command, for this will help to draw around you those who are ignorant and out of the way.”

        http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols22-24/chs1407.pdf

        Your sister in Christ,
        Sunny

        • MSH says:

          Have you read much Spurgeon? He could be pretty sarcastic. So could Paul -speaking to Judaizers who insisted on circumcision with the “why don’t you just cut the whole thing off?” line. My point is that there’s a time for tough love. I’ve had it with the stupidity that passes for Bible teaching within the believing community.

      • Sunny says:

        Hi, I replied a few days ago, but my computer was acting odd…. I’ll resend… :)

        Dr. Heiser, I apologize for misspelling your name. I was operating off of memory and my phone where I couldn’t see your info.
        Thank you for your response. Forgive me for being unclear. I agree that there should be no subdued teaching or interpretation of God’s Word. I only meant wording such as I’ve listed below, goes beyond trying to instruct and seems to reach the line of demarcation between Paul’s use of the word fools, i.e. not wise(as he was attempting to draw the people’s eyes back to salvation by grace rather than where the false teachers had lead them, keeping of the law) and condescension.
        “only someone with a low level of interpretive literacy would find it persuasive”, “be completely inept at thinking through a passage on even this surface level”, “A Christian enthralled by this twaddle deserves the label of biblical illiterate”
        Two passages that I have learned greatly from are: Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,” and Hebrews 5:2 “Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.”
        C. H. Spurgeon explains it much better than I do, for I am one of the ignorant, but trying to learn and draw ever closer to Jesus. I hope you will read it and know that this is a struggle of mine at times, as well. “COMPASSION AND FORBEARANCE ARE TWO THINGS WHICH ANY MAN WHO WOULD DO GOOD TO HIS FELLOW MEN OUGHT TO POSSESS TO A VERY LARGE DEGREE. You will have plenty of use for all the compassion and all the tenderness that you can possibly command, for this will help to draw around you those who are ignorant and out of the way.”
        http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols22-24/chs1407.pdf
        Your sister in Christ,
        Sunny

  6. David E. G. says:

    Well, that was a shock! I was actually expecting a useful review. As someone whose read the book, and agrees with you that the Isaiah text speaks of Israel, the review you used to gain perspective on the author’s premise is horrendous. Nowhere does Jonathan Cahn suggest the prophecy of Isaiah is a hidden prophecy for the United States as if either God or Isaiah were attempting to address the United States. The premise of the book is that an underlying principle of the obviously Israelite prophecy is that a nation which dedicates itself to the God of the Bible from its inception and then turns from Him is going to be chastened by the God of the Bible to draw its citizens and leaders to repent and turn back to Him. He then goes through a series of events which he sees as mirroring the actual text of the Isaiah 9 prophecy. It is not the author’s contention that Isaiah 9 was addressed to the USA, nor, as a Messianic Jewish believer in Yeshua, that the USA has replaced Israel in God’s eyes. He is using a fairly typical Rabbinical exegetical technique to extrapolate underlying meaning from the scriptural text, one I’m sure you’re familiar with, midrash.

    Yesterday I read another person’s critique of you in which they completely mischaracterized your assertions in your divine council work and your work in opposition to Zechariah Sitchin to cast you as either inept or disingenuous. It immediately turned me off to their perspective, but I expected it in light of the fact they are not a follower of Jesus. I am shocked to see the same thing here.

    • MSH says:

      He ties it to the twin towers and their demise and rebuilding; are you going to deny that’s in the book? The reason I think I ought to point out the silliness of it is precisely because I’m a believer. I actually care what people (believers or otherwise) do with the Bible.

      • David E. G. says:

        I do not deny that is in the book. I do deny that he claims Isaiah prophesied it would happen. The problem I see with your review is that you have not read the book, which is perfectly fine, except that you presume to write a review of the book to lambaste Jonathan Cahn and anyone who accepts his premise based upon another persons faulty appraisal of the book’s premise…a premise you do not know, because you’ve never read the book. I think it is intellectually dishonest to offer an opinion of such force in your particular position of ignorance on the matter. No one says you have to read the book if you do not desire to do so. That being the case, don’t offer a review of the book.

        I will reiterate, Cahn does not propose that God has prophesied the events of 9/11 and its aftermath in Isaiah. Cahn is using what is in Jewish biblical exegesis a common means of extrapolating a universal meaning from the text, especially when he sees such strong parallels between the stories. It may not fit with conventional western scholarly modes of biblical hermeneutics, but it is not so uncommon among Jewish authorities going back to the Talmudic era. It is highly possible he poorly utilized that process, but absent your having read the book or even perhaps lack of familiarity with the process he used, I would not be so bold as to offer such a scathing opinion. And, frankly, I was surprised you did.

        • MSH says:

          If it’s in Isaiah, then one would have to say there was intention behind it – otherwise Cahn would be “correcting” Isaiah. I don’t think he’d say that.

      • David E. G. says:

        To be clear, I have no problem with you offering a scathing review of material you find worthy of it. I am surprised you would do so with material you haven’t personally engaged.

        • MSH says:

          I did engage it. I read the statements in his book that I criticize (i.e., I read excerpts, not the whole book). If he denies those statements somewhere else, let me know and I’ll post it. Otherwise, asking me to read the entire book won’t change the silliness of what he says at points in the book.

          • David E. G. says:

            I wanted to offer an apology to you, Dr. Heiser, for my conduct in my above comments. They were not constructive, nor called for. It has been nagging at me for sometime and I hadn’t gotten back to the page to deal with it. Thanks for all of your hard work.

  7. Princess says:

    I did manage to read, “The Harbinger,” when a friend lent me a copy, as there was no way I was going to make a purchase and voluntarily contribute to the collective ignorance of humanity, via those who make merchandise of men. (2Pet2:3) I am Jewish, and for those who claim this meshegas is based upon Jewish methods of interpretation, Cahn has no educational credentials, whether Jewish, Christian or otherwise. You can place him right up among the pantheon of LaHaye, Lindsey, Camping and anyone else I missed. I forced myself to complete the book so I could offer my friend a commentary, but the experience was akin to forcing myself to drink foul tasting medicine. “The Harbinger,” is so poorly written,like a script without stage direction rather than a novel, and not even a pleasant, easy read like some of the other wares in the Christian Marketplace.

  8. Michal says:

    On September 1, 2012 book The Harbinger: Fact or Fiction? by David James was published to expose Harbinger. I’m not going to read any of those books, I just thought that readers could be be interested.

  9. Greg says:

    Come on Michael, don’t be so hard on Rabbi Cahn, he is doing the exact same thing that the writer of Matthew did with Isaiah 7:14 to lend credibility to his made up prophesy about Jesus being born of a virgin. Seriously, apply the same criteria you employ in your critique of Cahn to Matthew 1:22-23 and you will be shocked at the similarity. The Hebrew word for virgin is not even used in the verse Matthew draws from. Rabbi Cahn, just like the writer of Matthew, is giving us his “pesher” of an ancient prophesy to make it relevant to our time and to reconfigure it to help reassure us that God is still working in the world. He is ripping scripture (interesting that it is text from Isaiah just like Matthew) out of context, turning it on it’s head and giving it a meaning that is totally foreign to its’ author’s original intent, but so is the writer of Matthew. But you have to admit, he is spinning a very interesting story, encouraging “some” of the faithful and making big bucks in the process.

    • MSH says:

      Matthew’s technique isn’t news to me. And it actually isn’t the same. One difference would be the biblical use of the sonship concept prior to Matthew / Jesus. God had a “son” = Israel (Exod 4) and the Israelite king. The messiah was to be both, so both concepts merge in Jesus. That merging of ideas gave legitimacy to Matthew’s analogy. I don’t see any scriptural precedent for the way Cahn is defining the terms in his “method”. I don’t think deceiving people with bad exegetical method is “interesting” either.

  10. Greg says:

    I assumed you were familiar with Matthew’s technique. I was trying to point out the special pleading required to accept Matthew’s reconfiguration while at the same time excoriating Cahn for his. I have not read Cahn’s book either. My knowledge of it comes from your critique and seeing him on “Name It, Claim It TV”. In my opinion, the only reason to accept Matthew in this instance is a precommittement to the veracity of the scripture. If you take away that controlling committement Matthew’s prophecy falls flat on its face. Just like Cahn’s. Assuming divine oversight in the revelation process, you don’t see any sloppiness in this “telescoping” prophecy?

  11. Greg says:

    But Matthew is not making an analogy. He is saying that a prophecy has been fulfilled. Wouldn’t DTS teach you that Isaiah 7:14 is a telescoping prophecy that applied to Isaiah’s time and then later, without the original author’s knowledge, to Matthew’s time? I guess in some ways one’s acceptance of Matthew and rejection of Cahn comes down to when you believe the process of canonization should end. I don’t see that Cahn’s manipulation of old testament texts is any worse than Matthew’s. He was just born a few thousand years too late to get his reconfiguration heard.

    • MSH says:

      He sees the original prophecy as conveying a set of ideas – the son as corporate coming out of Egypt – which he applies to Jesus. You are interpreting “fulfillment” language of the NT period they way fundamenalists of the 20th century do. That wasn’t its point.

  12. Greg says:

    What was Matthew’s point? Why did he refer to Isaiah 7:14? Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy meant to assure a king regarding a pending battle. It was fulfilled, done. So why does Matthew site it? Also, isn’t betulah the best word to use for a virgin? Even if almah does mean virgin were there two virgin births? One in Isaiah’s time and one in Matthew’s? Isaiah 7 clearly does not speak of a virgin birth. It speaks of a young woman getting pregnant and having a child.

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