Time Travel in the Greek and Hebrew worldviews

Much has been made of the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, but it has seldom been noted that these two worldviews represent significantly different approaches to time travel. Now obviously they do not include time travel in the full sci-fi sense, but both do include messages from the future in the form of prophecies, and these messages from the future do affect people’s actions in the present. (The closest Star Trek analogy may be the infamous “Future Guy” from Enterprise, who can relay messages without personally intervening in the past.)

From this perspective, Oedipus is fundamentally a time-travel story, and it results in a predestination paradox insofar as his very attempt to “change the timeline” by avoiding the horrible prophecy directly results in the fulfillment of the prophecy. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, we might look to the story of Jonah, where the prophetic message from the future actually causes a change in the timeline insofar as Ninevah repents.

While prophecy doesn’t always result in an alternate timeline, one gets the sense that within the Hebrew model of time travel, the possibility of changing the future is always “on the table” in a way that it definitely is not within Greek temporal mechanics. That might help us to understand why Jonah flees from his prophetic task — he likes the current trajectory that leads to Ninevah’s destruction and doesn’t want to divert it. And when he’s moping in the end, it may be because he finds it objectionable that God would bring about a happy ending using an unwieldy plot device like time travel.

5 thoughts on “Time Travel in the Greek and Hebrew worldviews

  1. Of course, there is actually time travel in the Talmud–I have a couple students writing their essays on BT Menachot 29b, in which Moses visits Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash to learn the significance of the extra twiddly bits that God is instructing him to add to the letters of the Torah as he’s copying it down at Sinai.

    That said, that particular text does support your point–God has to show Moses what the point of the calligraphy is to convince him to do it, which suggests there was a possibility of refusal.

  2. I’m not sure you’re right about the Greek attitude to prophesy. The dramatic irony of the Oedipus play is all the more dramatic by being ironic; but in day-to-day life and business, people paid a lot of money from eg the Sybil at Delphi to get glimpses of the future, and sort their plans accordingly. They’d hardly do that if they were culturally inclined to view the future as in some sense fixed, such that no matter how they changed their behaviour things were doomed to shake down a certain way.

  3. Auerbach, when writting on the representation in the Bible and the Odyssey, pointed that the Hebrew universe is all about moral. Isn’t Jonah’s decision a moral one? (Excuse My English. I translated your post and uploaded it at My blog).

  4. Concerning the time travel aspect…

    Now they told David, “Behold, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are robbing the threshing floors.” Therefore David inquired of the LORD, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” And the LORD said to David, “Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah.” But David’s men said to him, “Behold, we are afraid here in Judah; how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” Then David inquired of the LORD again. And the LORD answered him, “Arise, go down to Keilah, for I will give the Philistines into your hand.” And David and his men went to Keilah and fought with the Philistines and brought away their livestock and struck them with a great blow. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah.

    When Abiathar the son of Ahimelech had fled to David to Keilah, he had come down with an ephod in his hand. Now it was told Saul that David had come to Keilah. And Saul said, “God has given him into my hand, for he has shut himself in by entering a town that has gates and bars.” And Saul summoned all the people to war, to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men. David knew that Saul was plotting harm against him. And he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” Then David said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O LORD, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.” Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition. And David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not give him into his hand.

    … in some sense, it’s exactly because David doesn’t believe the LORD speaks about an inescapable future, but one he can change. In another sense, the parallelism in the narration show that the LORD is more acting to show Saul’s presumptuousness than David’s courage to disbelieve the LORD speaks the one and only truth of the future. It’s Saul who thinks the future is certain, but David whose doubt encourages him to wander in the wilderness, trusting the LORD’s prophecies are warnings, not conclusions. The LORD here acts to disabuse people of their certainty, showing them the caprice of the wild is, and always has been, the LORD’s domain. “The lot is cast into the lap, but …”

    It’s this sense that fits your interpretation of Jonah’s unwillingness. He wants a certain future, including all the senses of the word ‘certain’. The LORD, however, approves people wanting whatever it is the LORD wants, a kind of openness to uncertainty for themselves. Punishment and vengeance are certain; forgiveness and turning back from going down one’s path, very uncertain. You can see it when people confidently and zealously demand compensation, their consideration, the fair market value, the wages of others’ sins. But the fear is there when they ask Jesus how often should we forgive—fear that maybe it won’t work out, this whole letting-it-rest thing. Maybe they’ll do it again. Maybe they’ll see we’re weak and hurt us again.

    But between vengeance and forgiveness, there’s also an outside, the wilderness. Maybe not letting things rest at all, but wandering away and trusting in something other than the cycles of justice, violence, or forgiveness as absolutes. A people can do a lot of thinking out there walking, especially if you’re with a herd, especially a herd of goats. Rather than sit and wait for Saul and his law enforcement officers to come, and then give an impassioned plea of reason and human rights and ideological critique, trust in the god who walks in the wilderness and get away, out there, out in the scrub or the brush or the hills or the valleys or the crags or the creeks, where there’s still a lot of gods, goddesses, and wild, untamed things, where the future is not just open, but governed by the same chaos governing the seasons and the animals and the earth. A predictable chaos, if we just listen to it and not seek to govern it towards certain outcomes.

    But that’s as slight an interpretation as taking prophecy to be messages from future guys, right? I mean, if the future is variable but encroaching into our present as their own past, whose future was it they came from, if not ours? When messages in bottles sail on oceantime currents we thought only flowed one way, we have to wonder a little bit more about the shipwrecks, the ruins of past hubris, and where those came from… since it’s no longer the past that’s passed.

Comments are closed.