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Bible Prophesy

We recently received the following e-mail from a listender:

I’m 26 years old and spent my entire life as a “christian” until recently thanks to folks like you, Penn & Teller and of course Randi. I just got into my first discussion with a christian and they dumped something on me that I haven’t been able to find a lot of info on the web from the skeptic community. It’s about a supposedly “fulfilled” prophecy regarding the lost tribe of Israel called Zebulun. Whenever I hear about prophecies being fulfilled my skeptic goggles immediately go on. Here’s an excerpt of what he emailed me.

“Genesis 49:13
Zebulun will dwell at the seashore;
And he shall be a haven for ships,
And his flank shall be toward Sidon.

The first two lines are blatant and they’re what I’ll address here. That prophecy was NOT fulfilled in Canaan: Zebulun was landlocked, touching neither the Mediterranean nor the Galilee.
In those westward migrations, a people called Sabalingoi settled Holland. Sabalin means Zebulun (if you are familiar with linguistics) and goi is the Hebrew word for people: the people of Zebulun.
Holland is something like 80% seashore and they possess the Europort at Rotterdam, which is the largest seaport in the world.

With a fulfilled prophecy, the divine authorship of the Bible has credence. With more study, you will find plethoras of facts like that upon which you can build a strong foundation of faith.”

I apologize for this being so long but I just don’t have the information to continue a dialogue with this fellow and any and all help would be greatly appreciated.

thank you very much.


Thanks for the question, Clint. First some observations about prophesy in general, then I will delve into Genesis 49:13.


As I said recently on the SGU – prophesy is easy.  It is easy to make stuff up. Typically, stuff made up as prophesy is poetic and vague in form. The advantage of this is twofold – it sounds more profound, and it places the burden on the receiver of the prophesy to do all the hard work. The one receiving the prophesy has to scour world events to find a fit for one possible interpretation of the poetic vagaries.

Nostradamus, of course, perfected this style. His quatrains are literal poetry. He was deliberately vague, mostly so that he could trash talk his contemporaries and have plausible deniability. It is important to recognize that many of his prophesies were meant for his patrons, and so they dealt with subjects his patrons cared about – namely their own time and place. They did not care about distant lands and times.

However, proponents of Nostradamus as a legitimate prophet increase the probability of finding a “hit” by removing his prediction from all context. They allow themselves all of human history to scour for pattern recognition.

It is important to think of it this way – if Nostradamus were just making up random crap, would we be able to find apparent matches between that random crap and the subsequent centuries of world history? The answer is clearly yes – and therefore the fact that apparent matches exist does not mean the prophesies have any reality to them.

The broader concept is that the use of vague or open-ended criteria allow for finding correlations even where they do not exist. Humans are great at pattern recognition. Vague patterns therefore have no predictive value, because you can find them anyway. Only specific hits (for example when an actual date and place are unambiguously mentioned) are of any value – and it turns out that every time Nostradamus gave us a date his prophesy was wrong.

Bible  Code

In Western culture the Bible is a popular source of prophesy. This is partly because some parts of the Bible were meant as prophesy. However, even books that are not actual prophesy are dredged by believers for any out-of-context snippets that can be presented as such. The extreme version of this is the Bible Code – taking the words and letters even out of linguistic context and dredging them for random patterns.

Perhaps the most popular book of the Christian Bible for prophesy seekers in the Book of Revelation. Believers have fun interpreting every passage and trying to link it to the modern world so that it seems as if it is predicting the end times to come (and very soon).

However, scholars understand that the Book of Revelation is a commentary on the corrupt Roman Empire. Again – trash talk was disguised as poetic prophesy. For example, this reference explains:

The infamous seven-headed Beast that rises from the sea demanding to be worshipped symbolises Rome. By John’s time seven emperors had ruled over Rome and Rome was known as the city of seven hills.

Now, detach the imagery from the known historical context, and the seven-headed Beast can be anything that has the number 7 attached to it in any way. Of course, when this is applied to something specific it can seem very compelling – our brains are simply hard-wired to find such patterns very compelling.

Genesis 49:13

Now let’s take a look at the verse in question.

Zebulun will dwell at the seashore;
And he shall be a haven for ships,
And his flank shall be toward Sidon.

First, let’s put this into context. Chapter 49 of genesis is entirely composed of Jacob calling his sons before him and giving each a blessing/prophesy for their future. At the end of the chapter he breathes his last and dies. The chapter, as is typical, is very poetic, and therefore difficult to interpret in places.

Also for context, keep in mind that the text was written after the events allegedly took place. While some elements of Genesis are historical, the literary form is not straight history. Genesis reflects the later beliefs of the Jewish people and their interpretation of their own faith, history, and relationship with God. Prophesies were often retrodicted. Or they were simply added to make a moral point, not as literal prophesy.

But let us take this passage as prophesy, which it seems it was meant to be. The prophesy is clearly about each of the sons of Jacob, who went on to head each of the 10 tribes of Israel. The simplest interpretation of the passage, therefore, is that Jacob’s son, Zebulun, would later reside by the seashore and his tribe’s lands would extend toward Sidon. How does that prophesy check out:

The tribe of Zebulun settled in the north, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea (see the map on the following page). The prophecy is challenging, because Zebulun was actually landlocked; in Joshua’s days it did not border either of these seas. There are a few suggestions on how to view this prophecy. One, it might have referred more to Zebulun’s trading partnerships with the Phoenicians. Two, it might have referred to its size later in history; during the reign of Solomon, Zebulun’s borders extended to the Med.

Hmmm…not so good. Zebulun’s lands were landlocked. In order to rescue the prophesy we have to project further into the future when the tribe of Zebulun extended to the Mediterranean. Of course, the author of this passage (or later revisions of it) would have known this at the time of the “prediction.”

This is therefore not really a prediction (although it is a story of a prophesy) – it is just a literary device. This is similar to me writing a story today about the founding of America and including in that story a made-up conversation between Washington and Jefferson in which Washington says some prophetic things about modern America.

Even worse, some of the modern claims for this passage, such as those referenced by Clint, remove the passage from all context. Even though the entire chapter in Genesis is Jacob giving his final blessings to his sons, and he specifically refers to Zebulun, one of his sons,  by name, we are now meant to believe that Jacob, in that one verse, was not talking about his son but was making an irrelevant pun. He was using his son’s name to refer obtusely to some of the people of Israel who would later settle in Holland.

Further, this is supposed to be an impressive hit because Holland has coastline and ports. Most of human civilization concentrates around shorelines and ports. That some of the people of Zebulun found their way to a country with ports is of no great surprise.

Again we see the pattern of so-called prophesies – the actual text is removed from its historical and literary context, the statements are interpreted in a vague and extremely loose fashion, and then all of human history is scoured for an apparent match.



11 comments to Bible Prophesy

  • clint

    Prophecy as a noun is actually spelled with a “c”. You only write it with an s if it’s a verb.

  • JudithVictorious

    There’s a really cool example of that kind of retrodiction in the Aeneid. Virgil writes about a prophecy that Aeneas’s descendants would become a great nation, eventually culminating in the birth of a really, really awesome guy called Caesar. For Virgil this was just good politics, since he was writing the Aeneid for Augustus Caesar.

    Later on, Christian readers decided that Virgil was actually secretly talking about Jesus. Because that makes sense.

  • irishjazz

    The reinterpretation of Biblical prophesy to fit modern events is apparently a pastime for the ages. The use of Genesis to place Jews in Holland is a particularly slim straw to grasp.

    Most of the stories in Genesis are interpreted as being etiological- for example the story of Cain has been linked to the Kenites, a warlike people to the south. The same is likely true for the legendary lost tribes.

    Unless, of course, they came to America and burying their secret history on golden tablets in an Indian mound in upstate NY for the angel Moroni to reveal to the nearest treasure dowser.

  • Brian

    Very nice job Steve.

    While I don’t think it is of any significance with regard to this specific “prophesy”, and I think your assessment gets right to the heart of the matter, I am curious how big a role determinism might play in the outcome of some biblical “prophesies”.

    It seems to me that, given the power the Bible seems to have over some people, it could in some cases either consciously or sub-consciously influence decisions or courses of action. When viewed in hind-sight at some later date, with limited data (much of which is sparse prosaic text), it could then appear that there was a prophesy made that later came true; when in reality something/someone influential simply made statements that in the minds of listeners/readers amounted to directions which were simply followed to the final outcome.

    I’m not sure there is an validity to this, just a rambling thought. 🙂

  • Rienk


    In those westward migrations, a people called Sabalingoi settled Holland. Sabalin means Zebulun (if you are familiar with linguistics) and goi is the Hebrew word for people: the people of Zebulun. Holland is something like 80% seashore and they possess the Europort at Rotterdam, which is the largest seaport in the world.

    Besides a few little factual errors concerning the Netherlands (Holland refers only to two provinces of the country), historically, the Netherlands was populated by Batavians from the Alps, Saxons from Germany, and some Scandinavians in the North. Not some jewish tribe, as one could prove using population genetics. The first jews settling in the Netherlands were those in early medieval days, and the greatest surge of jewish populations took place later, when they fled the persecution of the Catholic empire (Spinoza being a great example).

  • Nice writing, Steve. Nice reasoning, too.

    irishjazz, there were never any lost tribes, just bad scholarship. The northern tribes were conquered and assimilated when the original kingdom of Israel ended. No mystery, any more than the absence of the Kenites is mysterious.

  • irishjazz

    My friend, you should learn to pick your nits a bit more carefully, or I need to use more quotation marks.

    I said that the origins of the “lost tribes” was etiological- i.e. created to “explain a name or create a mythic history for a place or family.” In other words, the Bible story was a manufactured history to account for a distinct region in Canaan. This is, to pick a rather large nit, different from saying they were actually “lost.” (I hope you recognize the reference to the Book of Mormon as snarky sarcasm,)

    The Kenites are not absent (an odd bit of conflation with the “lost tribes”) but the Biblical name for a southern tribe whose god, later adopted by the Israelites, was YWYH. The etiological bit is that their name sounds like “Cain”, they were nomads, and perhaps they were not to be messed with.

  • GHcool

    Dr. Novella is right when it comes to modern biblical scholarship, which places authorship of the Genesis during the time of the United Monarchy. At this time, the tribes’ boundaries were more or less established and the kings came from the tribe of Judah.

    I don’t know what the business about Holland is, but Zebulun was not landlocked during the United Monarchy and that’s what a traditional reading of Genesis is meant to refer to. Clint’s friend writes, “With a fulfilled prophecy, the divine authorship of the Bible has credence.” I would argue that with a fulfilled prophecy, the human authorship of the Bible is given credence, but the human author lived at the time when the prophecy was fulfilled.

  • DLC

    Perhaps some may have noticed my reply to
    in which I made some short “predictions”.

    They were standard cold-reading tricks based largely on probability. The other side of prophecy is as Steve wrote — making deliberately vague statements which can have multiple interpretations, or using such things outside of their context. One famous example of such is Nostradamus’ quip about “Hister”.
    you have to play things pretty fast and loose with the quatrains to get Hitler out of that, but many do so.

  • VerlorenesMetallgeld

    It still amazes me how people interpret these vague predictions as some kind of proof.

    Is this the best your god can do? Instead of telling people that there is a whole CONTINENT in the west, he tells them some cryptic story about Holland.

  • QuestionEverything

    Not only that… I had a Jehovah’s Witness come to my door and try to tell me that the bible, though not a scientific book, has some science in it well ahead of it’s time (and hence the bible is true of course). The passage she cited said “the Earth hangs in the heavens as a circle”. This is presumably proof that while everyone at the time thought the Earth was flat, Moses had a direct line to God saying it was a circle. Well, technically it’s not a circle, but I politely pointed out that the Ancient Greeks knew the Earth wasn’t flat (Atlas and all that…)

    If the bible were really divinely inspired, why not the germ theory of disease or electricity and the electric light. What more could a loving caring God do than inform people of the time about penicillin?

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