Technology in the Bible

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Technology in the Bible
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SERMONS, ESSAYS AND OPINIONS
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On the page Biblical references to technology, we have tried to catalogue and comment on specific verses that mention technology of any kind. That catalogue provides the raw data for the more thematic comments on this current page.

There are no passages in the Bible that explicitly prescribe a Christian response to technology. Nevertheless, a close reading of the Bible can inform Christian attitudes in several ways:

  • We can correlate the Biblical text to other sources of history to understand the prevalence, cultural assumptions and economic importance of technology.
  • We can infer what attitudes and assumptions the Biblical writers held with regard to their experiences of technology in their own age, and use those as case studies to inform our own attitudes and assumptions.
  • We can learn about how people have employed technology for both godly and ungodly purposes and derive principles for our own decisions about the value of technology.

In the end, there is no fundamental difference between how Christians should decide about the use of technology and how they should decide about most of life's questions. When there is no definitive Biblical statement on the topic, we apply core principles of Christian discipleship such as the call to stewardship over creation, the Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37 - Matthew 22:40), a desire for holiness, a total reliance on God, a commitment to the community of faith, and an expectation that God will give us wisdom (James 1:5).

Metaphoric applications of technology

Many verses in the Bible uses some type of technology as a metaphor for something more spiritual. Examples include:

Jesus makes powerful metaphoric use of technology to draw his audience from something that they know well towards some new spiritual concept. This is both great communication and tacit approval for the use of technology. Some examples are:

The frequency of metaphoric references indicates a broad acceptance among the Biblical writers of the technologies of their time. If the writers were in any way opposed to technology, we could expect them to avoid these types of metaphors, or to use technological metaphors dismissively or scornfully. But none of that is evident.

God's use of technology

God needs no technology to accomplish any of God's purposes. Although God uses various techniques, no tools are required. God achieves the desired ends by simply speaking things into being. God's word caused the whole universe to be created (Genesis 1, John 1). God's word is sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12) -- by implication, God's word is more effective than any technology.

There are times, however, when God chooses to use technology (normally metaphorically) to interact with humans. For instance:

Jesus used various technologies: as a carpenter he would have used wood-working tools; he travelled in boats; wore clothes; lived in houses; made a whip. But he didn't need any technology: he could turn water into wine rather than rely on the traditional technique (John 2:1 - John 2:10); he could walk on water rather than rely on a boat (John 6:19); no doubt he used doors and yet he could pass through a locked door (John 20:19, John 20:26).

God is often said to use weapons:

Technology in relation to Redemption

In Four Questions for Technology from the Biblical Story and From the Garden to the City: Technology in the Story of Redemption, John Dyer suggests that:

  • When a person creates a new tool, the display of creativity and ingenuity glorifies God by displaying the imago dei even if the inventor was not attempting to do so. (Reflection)
  • All technology has the potential to be used for sin. Technology is inseparably tied to humanity’s rejection of God and God’s grace toward humanity in allowing us to continue. (Rebellion)
  • Technology is almost always designed to overcome an effect of the Fall. It, therefore, can function redemptively and yet simultaneously represent the inadequacy of our attempts to live without God. (Redemption)
  • When technology fails, rather than causing us sadness and grief, they offer us a chance to reorient our hope away from our technology and toward Christ’s return. So when you get a blue screen of death or an iPhone lockup, rather than curse in disgust, it should be an opportunity to say, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” (Restoration)

Musical instruments

To the extent that music requires a manufactured instrument, it involves technology. We may think that "technology" only implies modern electronic devices, but at various times in history all musical instruments must have seemed like new-fangled technology. The instruments themselves are tools for achieving some human purpose and hence are a form of technology. The ability to manufacture musical instruments also implies the use of other tools.

The Bible is extremely positive in the way it describes musical instruments, especially in the context of those instruments being used to praise God. Psalm 150 is the prime example of this.

Numerous types of instruments are mentioned in the Bible, including:

See the book "Musical Instruments Of The Bible" by Jeremy Montagu.

Metal refining

The first mention of metalwork in the Bible is quite early: Genesis 4:22 describes Tubal-Cain as a forger of bronze and iron tools. Silver money is first mentioned in Genesis 20:16 and gold jewellery in Genesis 24:22. Similar references to refined metal and metallic objects are spread throughout the Bible. Such references imply the existence and acceptance of mining, refining, furnaces, and weighing.

1 Kings 7:46 indicates that bronze was fashioned into many ornate shapes by casting it in clay moulds.

The process of metal refining is applied metaphorically to the human condition in several places, including Proverbs 17:3, Proverbs 25:5 - Proverbs 25:6, Proverbs 27:21, Isaiah 48:10, Jeremiah 6:27 - Jeremiah 6:30 and Zechariah 13:9. An important component of that process is the removal of dross (Isaiah 1:25, Jeremiah 6:29), which can only be done when the raw materials are heated to melting point. To achieve our purification, God is a refiner's fire (Malachi 3:2). Virtually the same point is made by another Biblical metaphor: that of winnowing to separate the grain from the chaff (e.g. Proverbs 20:26, Isaiah 41:15, Luke 3:17).

The Bible also points out that gold is less desirable than the law of the Lord (Psalm 19:10) and of less worth than faith (1 Peter 1:7).

Craftsmen

Craftsmen (I don't know if the Biblical terminology includes women or not) are people who use the tools of their trade -- be it pottery, fabric, carpentry, metal work or stone masonry -- to fashion raw materials into something useful or beautiful. What they fashion might be honouring to God or not. In the latter case the Bible is obviously critical -- for instance the condemnation in Deuteronomy 27:15 of craftsmen who make idols, and Paul's response to the opposition of "Alexander the metalworker" in 2 Timothy 4:14.

The skills and the wisdom of craftsmen are bestowed by God (Exodus 28:3, Exodus 35:31). In fact Wisdom herself is referred to as the craftsman at God's side ([Proverbs 8:30]]). One of the outcomes of God's craftsmanship is us -- "we are God's workmanship" according to Ephesians 2:10. God crafts us with the tools of love, grace, relationships with others, suffering and the Spirit of Christ Jesus within us. We have been manufactured for a purpose and to the extent that our creative workmanship honours God, we are functioning as designed.

From Exodus 26 to Exodus 30, God describes his design for the Tabernacle, and a list of the required furnishings, priestly garments etc. Then, in Exodus 31:1 - Exodus 31:11, God appoints Bezalel as the chief craftsman and Oholiab as his assistant. Note the phrases "I have chosen", "I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge", and "I have given skill to all the craftsmen". The role of the craftsman is no less spiritual or dependent on God than those who serve in other ways. This is reminiscent of the selection of deacons in Acts 6, where even the menial task of handing out food required candidates who were "full of the Spirit and wisdom". No less is true of modern technologists, who must still recognise that the abilities with which they serve God were given by God in the first place. To serve God as a computer programmer or engineer or doctor requires us to be filled with the Spirit and wisdom of God.

Bezalel and Oholiab were generalists, who could create artistic designs and undertake work in metal, stone and wood. They also lead and managed other craftsmen. In Exodus 35:30 - Exodus 35:35, Moses extends their mandate to include teaching. We continue to recognise leadership, management and teaching as important roles for technologists. The best technologists not only design and create, but also pass on their knowledge and act as role-models who show how a true craftsman brings glory to God.

Another interesting example of the appointment of a senior craftsman is when Solomon requests assistance to build the Temple from the king of Tyre (2 Chronicles 2:7), who responds by sending Huram-Abi (2 Chronicles 2:13 - 2 Chronicles 2:14, see also 1 Kings 7:13 - 1 Kings 7:14). Lest the reader wonder about a hired foreigner playing such a major role in the building of the Temple, the writer points out that Huram's mother was Jewish. Huram's skills are similar to Bezalel's and Oholiab's, as well as being proficient in textiles and engraving.

In summary, craftsmen are honoured in the Bible to the extent that they apply their skills to God's glory. Their use of technology for that end is repeatedly encouraged.

Design and construction

Altars, the Tabernacle and the Temple

In the Old Testament accounts of Noah's Ark (Genesis 6) and the Tabernacle (Exodus 25 - Exodus 31), God dictates a detailed design but says nothing at all about the construction methods. The design of Solomon's temple was communicated in a slightly different form: in 1 Chronicles 28 we are told that David gave his son Solomon written plans "that the Spirit had put into his mind" (v12). "The hand of the Lord was upon me and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan" (v19).

In each case, it can be assumed that God expected the people to make whatever use of technology was appropriate to achieve the goal. Perhaps this is no surprise, but we should not overlook the fact that there could have been other approaches. God could have made tools unnecessary, or provided all the tools that were necessary. God could have specified exactly what to do rather than leave so much open to Noah, Moses and Solomon's initiative. But God's typical approach when acting in the world is to delegate. God lets us know the goal and an ethical framework, even the wisdom and resources, but then relies on our initiative to work out the details.

One exception to this pattern is the instructions about building altars. Exodus 20:24 - Exodus 20:25 is very specific in the directive that unhewn stones be used, undefiled by tools. In particular, the use of iron tools is forbidden (Deuteronomy 27:5, Joshua 8:31). The reason for this prohibition is not made explicit. Altars were to be made of natural materials -- earth and stone -- rather than being manufactured. They were to be unadorned, perhaps so that no symbol or image will lead to superstition and detract from the worship of God alone. Such altars are temporary and eventually superseded by the sacrifice of Christ. Jesus is likened to a cut stone, formed not by human hands (Daniel 2:34, Daniel 2:44 - Daniel 2:45) and although he was rejected by the builders he has become the foundation stone of everything that God has built (Psalm 118:22, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7).

The construction of the Tabernacle was a major undertaking, both technically and politically: the Biblical account spans 16 chapters, from Exodus 25 to Exodus 40. Bezalel and Oholiab direct the project, but the work is not just carried out by professionals. Exodus 35:10 - Exodus 35:29 indicates that "all who were willing, men and women alike" brought their gifts and applied their skills to the task.

The temporary nature of the Tabernacle is alluded to by Paul when he describes our bodies as merely a tent that will be replaced by an eternal house in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:1). Even the Temple was temporary. When Jesus' disciples marvelled at the magnificent Temple, Jesus was not impressed (Mark 13:1 - Mark 13:2). Within a generation, the Temple was destroyed. No building (or anything else built by people) is as magnificent or as sturdy as God. From John 2:19 - John 2:21 we understand that it is only the Temple of Jesus' body that can be destroyed and yet remake itself.

Paul goes further by describing us as a Temple, with Christ as the foundation. The wording of Ephesians 2:19 - Ephesians 2:22 applies that concept to the church collectively as well as to Christians individually. 1 Peter 2:4 - 1 Peter 2:5 says much the same thing -- that we, like Jesus, are living stones, being built into a spiritual house.

It is implied by both Paul and Peter that the builder is God. In fact, God is the builder of everything (Hebrews 3:4), the archetype of the very concept.

Building on a solid foundation

Every wise builder understands the need for a solid foundation, just as every software engineer needs a solid development platform, every scientist needs a robust experimental method, every mathematician relies on the axioms of set theory, and every mobile phone carrier needs a reliable infrastructure. Do we build our worldview with the same attention to the foundation?

As discussed above, both the Old and New Testaments point to Jesus as that foundation. Jesus claims the same about himself in Matthew 7:24 - Matthew 7:27 (repeated in Luke 6:46 - Luke 6:49) -- people who put his words into practice are like wise builders who build on rock rather than sand.

Walls

Many cities in Biblical times were encircled by walls. When the Israelites spies returned from Canaan, they reported "walls up to the sky" (Deuteronomy 1:28). The people were daunted, but God empowered them to destroy all 60 walled cities in Bashan alone (Deuteronomy 3:4 - Deuteronomy 3:5). Putting aside the problematic theme of such a violent God, one lesson from this is that God's people need not fear the technology of their enemies. That point is made explicit in Deuteronomy 20:1.

The Israelites themselves spend a lot of time constructing walls, for example when they returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon -- that's one of the main themes of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Other references

Other references to construction include:

God's people appropriate technology from other cultures

Christians should not act as though technology developed by "us" is any better, either technically or morally, than that developed by other cultures. The Bible contains several examples of God's people approving of and appropriating technology from other cultures:

Communication technology

The ability to communicate is a basic requirement of social life and the Bible includes numerous references to humanity's development of tools and techniques for communicating.

The fundamental archetype of all communication, and the first mentioned in the Bible, is the word of God (Genesis 1). God speaks and it happens. In other cases, God uses intermediaries to communicate to humans: through angels, a donkey Numbers 22:28, dreams, prophets, a disembodied hand Daniel 5 and ultimately through Jesus Hebrews 1:1 - Hebrews 1:2. Conversely, as attested throughout the Bible, we can communicate to God through spoken words.

According to the story about the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), God deliberately caused people to have multiple languages so we would not understand each other. Some may say that if God has imposed that restriction on us then we ought not work against it by developing better ways to communicate. But an approach with more Biblical support is one that parallels our response to the curses in Genesis 3. Although God says women will have pain in childbirth and men will have to toil hard to gather food, we do whatever we can to reduce that pain and toil. Correspondingly, it is completely in line with God's process of redemption that we seek to overcome barriers to communication. It's interesting that in the early Christian church, God used the opposite strategy from what he employed at Babel: empowering the apostles to speak multiple languages so that all people would understand the news of the risen Christ (Acts 2).

The first reference in the Bible to writing is in Exodus 17:14, where God instructs Moses to write on a scroll so that the defeat of the Amalekites would be remembered. Moses also writes on stone -- the second copy of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 34:28. About 1400 years later, Zechariah uses a writing table (Luke 1:63) and Paul requests Timothy to bring his scrolls and parchments (2 Timothy 4:13). Job wishes that his words could be written on a scroll or engraved so that they would endure forever (Job 19:23 - [Job 19:24]]).

Trumpets are used for communication, especially for signals during battle or to sound an alarm. Moses was specifically instructed to make two silver trumpets to call the community together in Numbers 10:1 - Numbers 10:10. Paul makes reference to this type of signalling in 1 Corinthians 14:8 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

The Bible mentions a library of government archives in Ezra 6:1. This is reported quite positively, because a document retrieved from that library enabled the returned Israeli exiles to continue rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. This was in 5th century BC Babylon and a far cry from today's quick searches on Google! (As a historical aside, the first known example of such a library was the Hittite archives around 1300 BC -- in the time of the book of Judges. The Hittite archives probably even included a catalogue.)

Medicine

An important aspect of Jesus' mission was to heal the sick, and although he tended to do so by supernatural means, the Bible reflects a positive attitude to doctors and medical treatment. For example,

  • Physicians and embalming, concepts that Joseph learnt from his time in Egypt (Genesis 50:2, Genesis 50:26)
  • A poultice of figs is used to heal a boil (2 Kings 20:7, Isaiah 38:21)
  • The use of a splint for a broken arm (Ezekiel 30:21)
  • The Good Samaritan used bandages, oil and wine to treat the victim of a mugging (Luke 10:34)
  • Jesus likens himself to a doctor (Luke 5:31)
  • Paul refers to Luke as the beloved physician (Colossians 4:14)
  • Paul advises Timothy to "use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses" (1 Timothy 5:23)
  • God recommends that the Laodiceans buy salve to put on their eyes (Revelation 3:18)

The Biblical view, however, is that medical technology and techniques are not the whole story.

  • King Asa is criticised for not praying about his illness, but only seeking the advice of doctors (2 Chronicles 16:12)
  • Surely there are doctors and medicine in Gilead, but none of them can heal the spiritual/emotional wounds of Israel (Jeremiah 8:22)

What doctors cannot heal, Jesus can! -- the women who had bleed for 12 years is a good example (Mark 5:26).


Agriculture and biology

Given that the Bible was written over a millenium before the industrial revolution, it is not surprising that agricultural themes abound. But note that whereas people in a hunter-gatherer society take whatever they can find, an agricultural society modifies the natural state of both plants and animals using invented techniques and tools. The following selection of verses imply the use of such technology:

There are also metaphoric allusions based on agricultural technology:

  • God will make Israel into a threshing-sledge to thresh, crush and winnow their enemies (Isaiah 41:15)
  • A winowing fork is used metaphorically for sorting people (Luke 3:17)
  • If you put your hand to the plough, don't look back (Luke 9:62)
  • The rich fool who builds big barns to store his wealth but then dies (Luke 12:16 - Luke 12:21)
  • Christian leaders should be paid, just as the ploughman and thresher ought to share in the produce (1 Corinthians 9:10)
  • Putting bits in horses mouths (James 3:3)

The Old Testament also provides an intersting not about early science. Solomon's wisdom was not only in the fields of politics, leadership, literature, spirituality etc: he was also famed for his scientific work in botany and zoology (1 Kings 4:33)

As with other areas of technology, the Biblical authors portray an acceptance of agricultural technology, and a respect for those who use that technology. In Luke 5 for instance, Jesus honours the work of Simon and other fishermen, and is happy to make use of boats for his own purposes. On the other hand, Jesus calls the fishermen to leave their technology in order to follow him. Nets and boats are not enough for true life: sometimes not even enough to catch fish! You also need knowledge and, by implication, spiritual insight.

In a passage encouraging generosity, Paul notes that it is God who provides both seed to the sower and bread for food (2 Corinthians 9:10). The first is fairly obvious: seeds are part of the natural order whose creator is God, and for that we should give thanks. But what is less obvious is that God is the provider of bread as well. Although people harvest the grain, process it into flour and cook it to make bread, the grain, the wood for the fire, the iron for the baking tray, and our creative ingenuity were all provided by God. Regardless of the role we play as co-creators, and regardless of the control we can impose over nature using our technology, in the final analysis, all things come from God.

Military technology

Swords Spears Siege ramps Bows and arrows Chariots

Idolatry

Measurement

Responsibility

Deuteronomy 22:8

Deuteronomy 19:5

Honest measures: Leviticus 19:35

Luke 13:4

Trust God rather than technology

God is greater than any technology

I guess that is true by definition since God is the creator of all there is, but here are a few specific examples:

  • Hebrews 4:12 God's word is sharper than any double-edged sword

In many ways, technology is inadequate.

Technology before and after The Fall

Prior to The Fall, the Bible does not mention of any tool. God created a world in which technology was not required. Food was readily at hand, natural shelter was provided, and health was assured.





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