Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where the Fault Lies

The popular expression “Looking at things from 30,000 feet” implies the handicaps of missing the broad perspective. Another way to express the same thought would be “Looking at the big picture…” In the matter of Israel’s geologic features, we must back away from earth even more than 30,000 feet, perhaps by a factor of ten, to see what has transpired over the ages in the area of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea.

One of the most extraordinary geological features on Planet Earth runs the length of Israel’s eastern borders. This feature is the northern extension of the Great African Rift Valley. It is also called the Syrian-African rift. The northern section in Israel is called the Dead Sea Transform fault. On satellite photos this feature can be seen running the length of Israel. Over vast geologic time, our earth’s long-term crustal plate movements have resulted in changes barely noticeable over several decades, but enormously significant over the geologic long term. The changes result from slow convection currents in the upper mantle which have moved and reassembled the plates. We might regard this phenomenon as a divine recycling and reformation project.

In Africa and the mid-east, movements of the African plate and the Arabian plate have resulted in a variety of surface manifestations. In the Jordan Valley the plates are grinding past one another. Both are moving northward, but the Arabian plate is moving faster. These plate movements began in the Miocene epoch, several million years ago, and continue today. When the sudden release of enormous stresses in rocks at the plate boundaries causes an infrequent large movement, major earthquakes occur, such as one that struck in 749 AD. In the United States a similar boundary occurs at California’s San Andreas fault. Displacement there ranges from 160 to 350 miles along the horizontal plane. Over extended time frames (millions of years), the yearly movement averages 0.5 cm or less along both faults. At very widely spaced time intervals, great stress-relieving earthquakes have been known to displace plates horizontally up to 10 meters. Scientists fear both fault zones may be due for “the big one.”

In the case of the Dead Sea transform fault, there has been a displacement of 66 miles along the plate boundary. This can be seen clearly in satellite photographs along the boundary. Geologists have used their skills to detail events and time frames along this fault and describe the land’s resulting morphology. The subsidence of the Jordan Valley/Dead Sea area to far below sea level is also related to events along the rift. Displacements along the transform fault can only be explained in terms of time frames of millions of years.

What do we say, then, about the insistence of many people who claim the earth and its features are explained only in terms of a recent creation six to ten thousand years ago? Did God plant hundreds of “appearance of age” features on the earth just to make the earth look very old when it is really very young? Such a proposal does not seem reasonable. Many people in our congregations say it is a matter of doctrinal purity. I must emphatically object and state that truth is at stake, but doctrinal orthodoxy is not. There are many fine Christian theologians and Christian science scholars whose studies reveal the shortcomings of holding our Bible and our beliefs hostage to a young earth way of thinking.

The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, a distinguished group of evangelical theologians, met in three summit conferences from 1977 to 1986. Their statements on this matter provide an important perspective for those wrestling with these issues:

It is sometimes argued that our exegesis should not be influenced by scientific observations. We believe this view is mistaken. While the Bible clearly gives more specific information about our relationship to God than one can possibly deduce from natural revelation, it does not necessarily follow that our understanding of the physical world, its origin, etc., will also be more clearly deduced from God’s revelation in His word than his revelation in His world. Since both are revelations from God, and therefore, give a unified story, it seems quite permissible to consider all of the evidence (scientific as well as biblical) to be significant to the degree that each revelation can be clearly interpreted.

We affirm that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extra-biblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extra-biblical data have value for clarifying what scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations. We deny that extra-biblical views ever disprove the teaching of scripture or hold priority over it.

My personal prayer for the readers of this blog, and for all who have a vision of the triune God as Creator and the source of TRUTH, is that our personal beliefs will be congruent with what is TRUE.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Red-Dead Tunnel

As a pre-teen in central New York State, I frequently observed a scientific principle at work without being aware that it was, indeed, a scientific principle. The Seneca River flowed through our town, draining water from the beautiful Finger Lakes region farther west. An impressive dam structure deepened and widened the river. At one side of the dam there was a small power plant whose turbines produced electric power. The lock and dam in Baldwinsville provided reliable river navigation and a deeper pool of stored water to supply the power plant. But most important to me at age 12 was the excellent carp fishing below the dam rather than the science lesson it provided: the production of electricity from moving water.

A sidebar discussion during our recent travel through Israel focused on the Red Sea to Dead Sea water tunnel under consideration for many years. Most people are aware of hydroelectric power--the generation of electric power by moving water driving a turbine. It takes advantage of water’s potential energy, its “energy of position.” The elevated water possesses “potential energy.” If we permit the elevated water to flow downhill, its potential energy can be converted to other forms of energy, such as kinetic (motion) energy and finally, to electrical energy. But this is only one of many ways we are able to harness the potential of water to do useful work.

The proposal to build a tunnel between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea would solve several serious problems, such as the ongoing excess evaporation of Dead Sea water. It would utilize the “energy of position” of Red Sea water--420 meters above Dead Sea elevation. In earlier years the project was seen primarily as a possible power-generating scheme. Currently, scientists see desalination of sea water as an even more desirable outcome. Most people do not realize that ordinary water has great potential for accomplishing useful tasks such as desalination of seawater and energy production in a more environmentally-friendly way. How would it work? In osmosis, a term we may remember from high school biology, water tends to flow naturally across a semi-permeable membrane into a solution with a higher concentration of dissolved substances. “Reverse osmosis,” making use of pressure applied to the high concentration solution (seawater), reverses the direction of flow through the membrane and produces fresh water for agricultural and other uses. Under various controlled circumstances, “salinity gradient power” could also produce renewable energy without harmful emissions. Research continues to show promising potential for such processes in the future.

One might ask if knowledge of such details connects in any way with our faith. God is the author of natural laws and orderly physical processes which suffuse our everyday experience. I submit that knowledge of these laws and processes, together with discovery of the means to apply them, are vibrant faith strengtheners. Ponder Isaiah 41:18 (NIV) in the light of the Red-Dead Tunnel: “I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.” The events described could illustrate a transcendent miracle, events beyond the laws of physics. Or, we could exult in the many wonderful and startling manifestations of natural laws which govern our activities on even the most ordinary days of our lives.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Climate Chronicle

What are the benefits of visiting or living at the lowest spot on earth? The arid Dead Sea, 420 meters below sea level, is predictably warmer and much drier than regions just a few dozen miles to the north or west. The extremely low humidity helped preserve the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in near perfect condition for almost 2000 years. They were discovered accidentally in 1947 by Bedouin goatherds. While in Jerusalem we examined, at arm’s length, the Great Isaiah Scroll. Our hearts filled with wonder and reverence. Twenty-four Isaiah manuscripts have been found. This is a complete copy of the startling 66-chapter messianic prophecy, housed at the Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book museum.

The Dead Sea area has undergone substantial climatic fluctuations throughout ancient geologic history. However, it appears that the consistent dry conditions prevalent since the Dead Sea Scrolls were written and stored, have provided 21st century man with proof that our current English-language Bibles preserve inspired scripture virtually unchanged from close to the time they were written. Qumran copies of Dead Sea scriptures contain at least parts of every Old Testament book except Esther. They date from two centuries before Christ. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BC.

Let’s leap from the authenticity of scripture to some of the health benefits of the Dead Sea environment in the 21st century. Earth’s air blanket at sea level presses on each square inch of surface with 14.7 lb. of pressure. This pressure acts in every direction--downward, sideways, and upward. At 420 meters below sea level the air is 5% more dense than just a few miles away in the Judean hills. This means there is 5% more oxygen present, along with other gases in air. The additional oxygen has proved helpful for certain skin ailments such as psoriasis. These increased oxygen concentrations are also beneficial in filtering out sunburn-causing medium-wavelength ultraviolet (UVB) while permitting passage of beneficial long wave-length ultraviolet (UVA). Resort visitors, therefore, need not concern themselves so much with sunburn. Instead, they may focus on how to procure the best therapeutic Dead Sea mineral mud.

Even Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from 40 BC to about the time of Christ’s birth, used Dead Sea springs late in his life in an attempt to alleviate his serious health problems. The Roman Senate installed Herod, an Idumean descendent of Esau, as "King of the Jews" in 40 BC. He built the magnificent fortress of Masada on a flat-topped mesa located on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea. It served as a luxurious vacation getaway and military stronghold for Herod. After Herod’s death it became a refuge for Jews who rebelled against the oppression of the Romans. This World Heritage Site has been preserved by the same dry climate responsible for the preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. A scroll containing the “dry bones” passage in Ezekiel 37 was found in its ruins, probably hidden away by Jewish refugees in one of their synagogues after they recaptured Masada.

The Ezekiel passage states the dry bones will be restored with tendons, flesh, and skin (Ezekiel 37:6). Prophecy scholars think this portion of scripture prophecy is being fulfilled in modern times with the restoration of Israel as a nation. The history of Israel and Bible prophecies dealing with unfolding world events centered on this small country spring to life with a real-time visit as surely as Ezekiel's dry bones.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mineral and Energy Riches

Those who search for mineral and energy wealth in Israel sometimes quote Bible passages such as Genesis 49:25, where Jacob, at the end of his life, prophetically envisioned “blessings of the deep that lies below,” or Deuteronomy 33:19, where Moses, also approaching his death, pronounced that the Chosen would “feast on the abundance of the seas, on treasures hidden in the sand.” Are these references metaphorical? Or are they literal?

In the last several months two huge natural gas discoveries off the coast of Israel are being enthusiastically heralded. Noble Energy, Inc. has drilled two wells thirty miles off Israel’s coast which have resources estimated at five trillion cubic feet. Energy-dependent Israel may even become an energy exporter when production begins, perhaps as early as 2012. Oil exploration in northern Israel and in the Dead Sea area has so far been a disappointment, but the oil geologists are not giving up the search.

The wealth extracted from the Dead Sea is already a reality. Potash, from potassium compounds dissolved in the water, is a vital component of fertilizer for plant nutrition. Dissolved compounds in the water also yield commercial bromine and magnesium metal, as well as other products. This body of water is an endorheic basin. That means water drainage enters the basin, but does not flow out of the basin at any point. Water can only leave by evaporation. This is easy to grasp when we remember that it is 1377 feet below sea level. Fresh water from the Jordan River is the main water supply, but since the 1930s, loss by evaporation has exceeded the inflow. In recent decades the Dead Sea has apparently been evaporating faster because Jordan River water flow at its mouth is a mere fraction of former times. It is used for irrigation long before it flows into the Dead Sea.

To understand why the Dead Sea contains ten times the dissolved material of the ocean, we might remember that even “pure” water from our tap will leave a small residue of minerals if we evaporate all the water out of a pan. In the case of Jordan River water draining from the mountainous areas of northern Israel, many chemical substances become dissolved in it as groundwater seeps through the soil and rocks. Chemically speaking, there is hardly such a thing as “pure” water. Small amounts of dissolved minerals entering the Dead Sea remain behind while only the water evaporates in future months or years. The mineral content of the Dead Sea has accumulated in this way and increased over many thousands of years.

In recent years a booming market in cosmetic Dead Sea minerals substances has become the fascination of beauty- and health-conscious people. I became fascinated by the scientific evidence for the benefits of Dead Sea mineral products. The mineral mud is particularly famous. My web search turned up primarily commercial websites touting their products and the benefits claimed. There are 50 modern cosmetic plants offering attractively-presented, authentic Dead Sea mineral products. Any one of them will cheerfully accept your order.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Science by the Seas

Two major water bodies in Israel, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, have the lowest elevations of any water bodies on earth. Lake Tiberias, another name for the Sea of Galilee, is 685 feet below sea level, while the Dead Sea doubles that negative elevation at -1377 feet. Galilee is a vibrant fresh water body, teeming with tilapia, sometimes called “St. Peter’s fish” by local residents. Dining on this treat for lunch overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and later sailing on an enlarged version of a “Jesus boat” while viewing Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes, ranks as uniquely memorable. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, many of the members of our tour group danced on the deck to the tune of the Hebrew folk song "Hava Nagila," a song of celebration meaning “Let us rejoice.”

On the last full day in the Holy Land, our group members experienced the picturesque Dead Sea. Its warm, crystal clear waters are entirely lifeless, owing to its tremendous quantities of dissolved potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium salts. The sea is 8.6 times saltier than the oceans. As a result, its density is 1.24 times higher than fresh water. Therefore, bathing in the Dead Sea is entirely different from bathing in Galilee. This results from a scientific principle described thousands of years ago by Archimedes, a brilliant Greek scientist and mathematician from Syracuse, Sicily: When a body is immersed in water, the buoyant force equals the weight of the displaced liquid. That means if we were to gradually walk deeper into a fresh water lake such as the Sea of Galilee, we would notice a gradual increase in buoyant force acting in an upward direction. That gradual increase is related to the greater amount of water being displaced by our body. As soon as our body displaces one cubic foot of water, we would feel “lighter” by 62.4 pounds--the weight of one cubic foot of water: Downward-acting gravity is opposed by upward-acting buoyant force. Fast forward to our Dead Sea bathing experience: one cubic foot of Dead Sea water weighs about 77.3 pounds. Therefore, we noticed more upward-acting buoyant force. We floated easily with about one-fourth of our bodies out of the water.

Some of my former students were prone to thinking that their science teacher perceived everything in terms of science. I needed to remind them that other concerns occupied my thoughts now and then. So, at the risk of being too scientific, I must confess I had two thoughts related to the Dead Sea and Galilee. Baptism by immersion would have been next to impossible for John the Baptist had he used the “Salt Sea” for a baptismal venue. Its waters are painful and injurious to the eyes, and total immersion would have been difficult. Second, the ride on the “Jesus Boat” may have been dangerously unstable in waters of such elevated density. For many reasons, one hardly ever spots a vessel on the Dead Sea.

Bible references to the “Salt Sea” are found in four Old Testament books. They describe war campaigns or boundary locations. Holy Land travel is of great value, not only to observe the incredible geographical and political diversity and achievements of the modern State of Israel, but also to bring to life the thousands of places, people, and events of Bible times.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Water-wise Israel

Our March Israel visit helped focus our attention on water. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee. We swam in the Dead Sea. But we also became aware of how creatively Israel is managing its scarce water supply to sustain its status as an agricultural giant, even as a country sixty percent arid or semi-arid.

Water rights and water availability dominated many events in the lives of the biblical Hebrew patriarchs. Famines were generally caused by droughts. Abraham experienced a famine shortly after obeying God’s directive to “go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:10 NIV). For relief he journeyed to Egypt for a while. A generation later, (Genesis 26) his son Isaac also went south to the land of the Philistine King Abimelech for the same reason. Even after the famine was over and Isaac had become very wealthy, there were still struggles between Isaac’s servants and the herdsmen of Gerar over vital water wells.

Israel’s current water use practices have made the country virtually self-sustaining in food production. Moreover, it exports a large quantity of its agricultural products. Israel was the originator of water-saving drip irrigation systems decades ago. This technology is over 70% efficient, compared with only 40% efficiency for open irrigation spray systems. Recently they have created ultra-low flow computerized irrigation to deliver water directly to plant root zones with practically no loss of water. The country’s agriculture now produces twelve times the 1948 level when it returned to the status of nationhood for the first time in almost 2000 years.

The water recycling rate is 75%, six times larger than any other country. In spite of a growing population, water use is not increasing. There are 270 water technology companies in Israel. The world looks to this tiny nation for guidance in the area of water usage.

As we traveled the countryside we observed thousands of crop acres covered with plastic, netting, or glass. Conventional covered crops raised in soil have extended growing seasons, lowered ultra-violet ray damage, reduced pest damage, and higher quality. Even more advanced applications are known as CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture). This includes hydroponics--raising vegetables in nutrient-rich water without soil. This method saves water, uses renewable energy, reduces pollution, and increases yields by 10 to 20 times.

Scripture tells us that Israel will “bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:6), and “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:1-2). Perhaps these are prophetic references to a millennial restoration. If so, the current “blossoming” is merely a preliminary warm-up.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Miracle of Israel

Still enjoying the glow of memories from our travels in Israel and Jordan, it is time for retrospection. For many years my brother guided groups of Holy Land travelers as a ministry adjunct. We did not participate in any of those tours. They were offered during my prime early spring classroom teaching time. Looking back, however, perhaps a more diligent effort to gain leave time would have been in order. My brother had told me there was lots of science to blend with the faith-affirming consequences of walking where Jesus walked. He was right.

Let’s talk about three g’s for starters: Israel’s geography, geomorphology, and geology. The progression of g’s takes us from knowledge of locations and physical features of the land and the people living there, to a more detailed description of visible surface features, and finally to the more basic science of geology--what ancient and ongoing forces have birthed and molded complex features such as Israel’s mountains, deserts, valleys, rivers, and seas? There is enough knowledge to be acquired in these areas to necessitate several lifetimes of detailed study.

In technology research and agricultural innovation Israel is a world leader. Discussions of applied science in areas such as the future of the Dead Sea dominated several of our bus tour discussions. Under serious consideration is a plan to transport water from either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. This unique water body is 1377 feet below sea level and is rapidly evaporating. Gravity would accomplish the task. We’ll discuss the many potential benefits of such a plan in another post. Israel’s thriving agriculture was a joy to behold. Innovations and advancements by Israel’s agricultural technologists have also become a model for the world.

Visits to dozens of archaeological sites (archaeologists are scientists), together with the prophetic scriptural expertise of Dr. Jimmy DeYoung made the many locations we visited spring to life in ways we could not have imagined. These sites bespeak biblical events of long ago as well as events yet to come.

Israel has been reconstituted as a nation in only the past sixty years after two millennia. The existence of the city of Jerusalem, having been conquered thirty-six times in the past three millennia, and even the nation of Israel itself, is a divine miracle beyond human explanation. I must report to my readers that both Israel and Jerusalem are alive and well.