Mike the Geologist: Science and the Bible (Lesson 4)

The Hexagon Pool, Israel
The Hexagon Pool, Israel

Science and the Bible Lesson 4
By Mike McCann

Having laid a foundation of how to think about doing science and the relation of the natural world to the supernatural; at this point in my teaching series I turn attention to the Bible.  I begin with a basic lesson in hermeneutics and exegesis that I am not going to reproduce here.  I go on to talk about the nature of the Bible, what type of book is it, and what we mean when we say it is “God’s Word”.

For example, I make these series of points:

  1. The Bible is both natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal, human and divine.
  2. The Bible is divine because it is the Word of God.
  3. It is God’s message for all human beings for all times.  Through the Bible, God speaks to all people of all ages in all cultures.
  4. The message of the Bible is eternal.  It transcends time and cultures.  It is relevant and speaks during the time of Moses, the time of Paul and to all of us today.
  5. The Bible is human because God chose to speak through human beings who lived in a certain time and culture in history with an specific language
  6. It is temporal because some of its elements such as the original language used in its original writing is not being used today.
  7. So God’s eternal Word and message is conditioned and contained in a specific time in history with its own culture and language, and is recorded by means of ‘human style’ of literature.

I adapted these points from an evangelical teaching source that I should have referenced, because I can no longer recall it.  It is a very evangelical and conservative viewpoint.  I am still basically on board with it, although if I teach this course again I will have to update it.  I think it is better to say that Jesus is the Word of God and that the message of the Bible is eternal because it reveals Jesus and it is Jesus who transcends time and culture.  But quibbles aside, I want to engage my evangelical readers to think about it means to say “all scripture is God-breathed”.  How is scripture inspired?

  • Does it mean that a human work is without flaw because God superintended it? – or…
  • Does it mean that the human flaws do not distract from its TRUTH?

I usually let my class debate and discuss this for a while, and then I’ll go through the laundry list of Bible “errors” and “contradictions” like copyist errors (e.g. 2 Kings 24:8 vs. 2 Chron. 36:9 or 2 Samuel 8:4 vs. 1 Chron. 18:4), New Testament misquotes (Matt. 27:9-10 vs. Zechariah 11:12-13 and Mark 2:25-26 vs. 1 Samuel 21:1,6), NT reporting discrepancies (Mark 16:4-6 vs. Luke 24:4-6) and technically factual mistakes like cud-chewing (Lev. 11:6 says; And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.) and mustard-seed size:

Mark 4:31   It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth:



Then we go back to the two statements on inspiration and I ask them; “Does it really change the meaning or the truth of Jesus’ parable of the Kingdom that there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed?  Do you really care how many angels were at the tomb?  Or is it that the main point is the tomb was EMPTY!  Usually, this will be the first time they’ve thought through these issues, but they appreciate a defense of the Bible that doesn’t “charge God with error” or attempt to arm-wave through the obvious discrepancies.

I then spend the next two lessons on the meaning and interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:4.  I begin with the following questions:

  • What is the genre of Genesis 1-2?
  • Who was the author?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What was the intended purpose for the writing?
  • What was the vehicle (type of writing) that was the means of accomplishing the intended purpose?

I like to use the following illustration to indicate the importance of context (I think I cribbed this from Gordon Glover, but I can’t remember for sure.)

What would you think would be the reason a motel/restaurant owner would post the following sign:


I let them call out various speculations and then tell them:

  • What if I then told you that the sign is in England where:
  • “Football” means “Soccer”
  • “Coaches” means “Buses”
  • And large busloads of soccer fans are often unruly and destructive.

It is a good exercise in the difference that cultural context can make even when both cultures speak English.  It is also a good introduction to the fact that even though you are reading a Bible translation in English, the plain meaning of the English words may not be conveying the cultural context clearly.

I then try to give an interpretation of what Genesis 1 means that is faithful to the original author(s) intent to the original audience and how they would have heard it.  My model for this interpretation is freely borrowed from Conrad Hyers and John Walton.  My interpretation is that Genesis 1 is at the same time a polemic against the polytheism of the surrounding cultures and a cosmogony cast in the form of a temple/palace inauguration.

I point out that to Moses and Israel exiting Egypt and the Jews returning from exile (the initial author/compiler and the initial audience and the final-form authors and their audience) the main issue to be addressed was not material creation but idolatry.  What did exist – what very much existed – and what pressed on Jewish faith from all sides, and even from within, were the religious problems of idolatry and syncretism. The critical question in the creation account of Genesis was polytheism versus monotheism.  That was the burning issue of the day, not some issue which certain Americans 2,500 years later in the midst of the scientific age might imagine that it was.

As Hyers puts it:

Genesis 1 is, thus, a cosmogony to end all (polytheistic) cosmogonies. It has entered, as it were, the playing field of these venerable systems, engaging them on their own turf, with the result that they are soundly defeated. And that victory has prevailed, first in Israel, then in Christianity, and also Islam. And thence through most of subsequent Western civilization, including the development of Western science.  Despite the awesome splendor and power of the great empires that successively dominated Israel and the Near East–Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome– and despite the immediate influence of the divinities in whose names they conquered, these gods and goddesses have long since faded into oblivion, except for archeological, antiquarian or romantic interests. This victory belongs, in large part, to the sweeping and decisive manner with which the Genesis account applied prophetic monotheism to the cosmogonic question.

In his essay on “Dinosaur Religion”, Hyers says:

For most peoples in the ancient world the various regions of nature were divine. Sun, moon, and stars were gods.  There were sky gods and earth gods and water gods. There were gods of light and darkness, rivers and vegetation, animals and fertility.  Though for us, nature has been “demythologized” and “naturalized” – in large part because of this very passage of scripture – for ancient Jewish faith a divinized nature posed a fundamental religious problem.

In addition, pharaohs, kings, and heroes were often seen as sons of gods, or at least as special mediators between the divine and human spheres. The greatness and vaunted power and glory of the successive waves of empires that impinged on or conquered Israel (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia) posed an analogous problem of idolatry in the human sphere.  In the light of this historical context it becomes clearer what Genesis is undertaking and accomplishing: a radical and sweeping affirmation of monotheism vis-à-vis polytheism, syncretism and idolatry.

Each day of creation takes on two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day, and declares that these are not gods at all, but creatures – creations of the one true God who is the only one, without a second or third. Each day dismisses an additional cluster of deities, arranged in a cosmological and symmetrical order.  And finally human existence, too, is emptied of any intrinsic divinity – while at the same time all human beings, from the greatest to the least, and not just pharaohs, kings and heroes, are granted a divine likeness and mediation.  On each day of creation another set of idols is smashed.  These, O Israel, are no gods at all – even the great gods and rulers of conquering superpowers. They are the creations of that transcendent One who is not to be confused with any piece of the furniture of the universe of creaturely habitation.  The creation is good, it is very good, but it is not divine.

We are then given a final further clue concerning the polemical design of the passage when the final verse (2:4a) concludes: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”  So the final clue is a “slap-in-the-face” to the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite priests and rulers…  Why the word “generations,” especially if what is being offered is a chronology of days of creation?  Now to polytheist and monotheist alike the word “generation” at this point would immediately call one thing to mind.  If we should ask how these various divinities were related to one another the most common answer would be that they were related as members of a family tree.

We would be given a genealogy, as in Hesiod’s Theogony , where the great tangle of Greek gods and goddesses were sorted out by generations. Ouranos begat Kronos; Kronos begat Zeus; Zeus begat Prometheus…  Likewise, the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians all had their “generations of the gods.”  Thus the Genesis account, which had begun with the majestic words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” now concludes – over against all the impressive and colorful pantheons with their divine pedigrees – “These are the generations of the heavens and the Earth when they were created .”  It was a final pun or sarcasm on the concept of the divine family tree.

I then discuss what was the vehicle (type of writing) that was the means of accomplishing the intended purpose.  The key to understanding the type of writing that Genesis represents is given in Genesis 2:2:  And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.

A reader from the ancient world would know immediately what was going on and would recognize the role of day 7, and would conclude this is a text of a temple inauguration.  For example consider:

1 Kings 8:65  And at that time Solomon held a feast, and all Israel with him, a great congregation, from the entering in of Hamath unto the river of Egypt, before the Lord our God, seven days and seven days, even fourteen days.  And…

2 Chron 7:9  And in the eighth day they made a solemn assembly: for they kept the dedication of the altar seven days, and the feast seven days.

In the ANE when a palace or temple was dedicated the king or god was said to sit on his throne and “take his rest”.  It means he has completed his tasks, set everything in order, and now begins his normal rule and reign…  For example:

Psalm 132:7   We will go into his tabernacles: we will worship at his footstool.  8 Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy strength.  13 For the Lord hath chosen Zion; he hath desired it for his habitation.  14 This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it.

Hebrews 4:10  For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.

Isaiah 66:1  Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?

The 7 days relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration.  Man is installed in the temple as God’s Image i.e. His likeness, representative, priest, caretaker…  The most respectful reading we can give to the text, and the most “literal” understanding, is the one that comes from their world, not ours.

Theologian, historian and Christian apologist Dr. John P. Dickson, dealing with the history and interpretation of Genesis 1, notes the following:

” It is well known that in Hebrew thought the number seven symbolizes ‘wholeness’ as a characteristic of God’s perfection. A well-known example is the seven-candle lamp stand, or Menorah, which has long been a symbol of the Jewish faith and is the emblem of the modern State of Israel.  In Genesis 1, multiples of seven appear in extraordinary ways. For ancient readers, who were accustomed to taking notice of such things, these multiples of seven conveyed a powerful message. Seven was the divine number, the number of goodness and perfection. Its omnipresence in the opening chapter of the Bible makes an unmistakable point about the origin and nature of the universe itself. Consider the following:

  1. The first sentence of Genesis 1 consists of seven Hebrew words. Instantly, the ancient reader’s attention is focused.
  2. The second sentence contains exactly fourteen words. A pattern is developing.
  3. The word ‘earth’—one half of the created sphere—appears in the chapter 21 times.
  4. The word ‘heaven’—the other half of the created sphere—also appears 21 times.
  5. ‘God’, the lead actor, is mentioned exactly 35 times (7 x 5)
  6. The refrain ‘and it was so’, which concludes each creative act, occurs exactly seven times.
  7. The summary statement ‘God saw that it was good’ also occurs seven times.
  8. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the whole account is structured around seven scenes or seven days of the week.

The artistry of the chapter is stunning and, to ancient readers, unmistakable. It casts the creation as a work of art, sharing in the perfection of God and deriving from him. My point is obvious: short of including a prescript for the benefit of modern readers the original author could hardly have made it clearer that his message is being conveyed through literary rather than prosaic means.”

What we find in Genesis 1 is not exactly poetry of the type we find in the biblical book of Psalms but nor is it recognizable as simple prose. It is a rhythmic, symbolically- charged inventory of divine commands.  None of this should trouble modern Christians, as if truths expressed by literary device were somehow less true than those expressed in simple prose.  In fact the above is the “face-value” or “literal” reading of the passage.

This face-value reading does the following:

  1. Recognizes Genesis for the ancient document that it is.
  2. Finds no reason to impose a materialistic meaning on the text.
  3. Finds no reason to require the finding of scientific information “between the lines”.
  4. Avoids reducing Genesis to merely literary, metaphorical, or theological expressions.
  5. Poses no conflict with scientific thinking to the extent that it recognizes that the text does not offer scientific explanations.

68 thoughts on “Mike the Geologist: Science and the Bible (Lesson 4)

  1. I don’t suppose you have any recollection of sources you’ve read (2T, that is) where that was stated pretty much as Walton says? Honestly, I’m still looking and so far, coming up zeroes. All of the stuff I’ve run across simply assumes thst God was already enthroned. And then the writers go on to mske other points, or to speculate over some fairly convoluted and esotetic ideas. (Did God create two kinds of light? is one of them. ) If you start from the premise that God is King of the Universe (as he is called in many Jewish prayers), is it really necessary to delve into enthronement ceremonies and such? Those are earthbound and limited, but God is neither.

    A nearby university now has a Judaica program, and I’m thinking i need to plan for some library time…


  2. Unfortunately, i can’t get to more thsn a precis of the material, and it’s not for sale as an e-book. Oh well.


  3. Definitely not critical! I really appreciate your work here, Mike; keep up the good work.


  4. A bit late to the party, but hope this gets to you, Mike. Very good post.

    It might interest you to know that the Ps 132 & Heb 4 scriptures are some of the featured Holy Saturday readings in the Orthodox Church. The Greek Fathers would probably have no argument with the ANE understanding, but they looked at those OT/Psalm scriptures as ultimately referencing Christ as God entering into his rest in the tomb, after having completed the creation of The First Human Being on the Cross on the 6th day, Good Friday. The filter those G. Fathers used for interpreting everything in the OT, including Genesis, was the Cross & Resurrection of Christ, with the Incarnation always hanging as the backdrop. They would not have quibbled about the words on the page, or tried to understand the meaning of Genesis in terms of the science of their day. (In fact, St Basil the Great was one of the most brilliant and highly educated men of C4, his studies including every known scientific field.) They were concerned with the Meaning of scripture, not proving its facticity. This sort of interpretive application, not familiar to (or ridiculed by) post-Enlightenment folks, was a feature of Jewish interpretation of scripture in C1 and accounts for the – to us sometimes confusing – way St Paul handles OT texts.



  5. Robert, my point about Native Americans is that, quite simply, they didn’t get genocidal over religion per se, unlike many of our European ancestors (very much including the people who settled certsin colonies that are now part of the US). That Native Americans were no better and no worse than us is a given, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with Native equivalents of heresy and witch trials plus burnings, the mad ideology that drove the Crusades and many crusaders, etc.

    As for Burma, yes, it’s complicated, but there are Buddhist monks who were in the forefront of the “kill them!” crew. One in particular whose name escapes me, but not only was he a chief mover and shaker, he incited violence against the Rohynga again and again.

    A not-so-secondary point: i think most of us tend to assume that Buddhism and Buddhists = peace, love, and light, even complete pacifism. Which is a problem, in more ways than one, not least for Buddhists who abhor violence and violent “solutions” to conflicts.


  6. The church has often lied; this is true. But the lies are different depending on where you are. And the lies that once hurt you are now seen as silly, who could ever believe this, from your new group. But they have lies as well. And the next group will say the same thing.

    Where does it end? I don’t think it does.

    Hence…done. Get off the merry go round.


  7. I’m in the same boat, Dr. Fundystan. At this point…I just really. Do. Not. Care.

    And maybe that’s a good thing. Casting off that old nerdy mind I had that had to always learn and be right and these things were soooo important. I’m a lot less obsessive now.


  8. numo, The Burmese Buddhist persecution of Muslims that you cite can be subsumed under the category of persecution motivated primarily by differences in ethnicity, with religion as one of the components of that differing ethnicity, rather than primarily by religion (it’s hard to disentangle religion from ethnicity in this case, as in many other cases around the world).

    And while it’s true that Native American tribes did not carry out religious crusades in the sense that we have come to define them, tribal life was so entangled with religion that when one tribe warred (and they did war) against another, religion was always involved. Tribal life was pervaded by religion, and war-making was no different. When they went to war, they brought their gods and spirits with them, and invoked them for victory.


  9. England is one of them. There are even groups of Hasidic Jews in England now, which surprised me, but… ?

    Denmark and France are teo others. Granted, many people in these countries aren’t observsnt, but that doesn’t make thrm any less Jewish. There are Hasidim in France and in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, too. Some Hasidic Jews in this country made a concerted effort to support (finsncially and otherwise) other Hasidim in the former Soviet Bloc snd USSR. And there sre folks all over Europe descended from Holocaust survivors who stayed, either by choice or because their countries became part of the Soviet Bloc.

    I think there is somd confusion here, as… why else would far-right and neo-Naxi parties in places like Hungary, Poland and Greece come on so strong about hatred of Jews? Most Greek Jews did leave after the War, but there are more thsn a few who stayed put. It’s their country, too. (Am blanking on the tiyle of the book, but there’s a fine historical study about the Jewish community in Thessalonica, both pre- and post-war.)

    I’m kind of surprised by your reply to me, and am not sure how to understand it, really. Could you elaborate a bit? I honestly feel like I’m missing something.


  10. Btw, i get the cosmology and all of that – no argument there. It’s yhe cosmos as a temple and the whole “temple inaugurational ceremony” thing that Walton is insistent about that seems not to be there in the sources I’ve been reading. Especially the ceremony + all the rest. It seems like sn insistently literal reading of a particular analogy that’s been stretched a lot snd made to fit the text. I do not think that ancient Israelites literally saw the earth and sky and sll as God’s heavenly temple, though some might have. Derms a bridge too far, though.


  11. numo, please define, with examples, of what you mean by “large Jewish communities” in “Manu European countries”. That’s a rather sweeping, highly uninformed statement imo.


  12. Mike – Doc F has had his own battles. I think that’s what his comment is hinting at. I don’t believe it’s anything critical of what you’re doing here, but more that some former members of the audience are finding out that they really *have* left the building, so to speak.

    Obvy, i can’t speak for anyone rlse, but that’s my take on his comment.


  13. Doc: previous lesson commenter Ken:

    Ken says:
    May 5, 2016 at 6:33 pm
    For about 8 years I threw faith out.
    I had come out of a fundamentalist background, strong young earth crowd. Then I did a science degree. That caused me to throw most of my faith out. Not the science, mind you, but the fact that my faith had been so tied to what was then called Scientific Creationism. My logic was if the church lied about science what else did they lie about?

    That’s why I’m writing these.


  14. Hah, Maimonides snd other medieval Jewish scholars talked about science and these texts, too. It’s not “modern” science, but it’s definitely science all the same. But that was more advanced in Arab-ruled countries than it was in the xtisn West for a goodly number of centuries.


  15. I don’t quite see what sources you are using for 2TJ, Doc – can you help me out?

    Asking seriously here. But i am coming from more of a historian’s-type perspective, as well as literary. I am no theologian, nor will i ever be!

    Besides… there’s a plurality of voices, often saying very different kinds of things, from early on in 1st c. CE Judaism.


  16. Hey Erp – thanks so much! I’ll dig up what i can; those excerpts confirm some of my suspicions, though i wouldn’t exactly know from Ugaritic! 😉

    I guess the “conceptual framework” is one of the things the makes me uneasy, but i do see the value in Walton’s work being a springboard for further study and discussion. Nobody can ever get it *all* right, after all.


  17. quite a few. I’ll use DOI numbers for those that exist

    Journal of Hebrew Scriptures – Volume 12 (2012) – Review
    I think this is generally available

    John McGrath over Exploring Our Matrix on Patheos
    He also blogged his way through Walton’s earlier and less academic work, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

    The following might not be generally accessible
    J Theol Studies (2015) 66 (1): 283-287. doi: 10.1093/jts/flu169
    review by Nathan Mastnjak and Dennis Pardee, University of Chicago
    though the review is one of the more negative “(It must be said in passing that the author’s knowledge of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources surpasses his control of the Ugaritic sources, which are never cited directly, only from other authors, some not particularly reliable.)” It eventually concludes “The critical comments offered above should be taken as suggestions for how a work that makes some valid points might serve as a stepping-stone to a more nuanced, coherent, and philologically rigorous one.”

    Another that might be restricted
    Review by: David T. Tsumura
    Journal of the American Oriental Society
    Vol. 135, No. 2 (April–June 2015), pp. 353-355
    DOI: 10.7817/jameroriesoci.135.2.353
    “Certainly Walton is right when he says that “we can no longer ignore the vast literature of the ancient Near East and the possibilities of insight into the Israelite literature preserved in the Hebrew Bible that they offer” (p. 16). However, he seems to go farther than necessary and see poetic expressions replete with metaphors as a “conceptual framework.”
    … However, this monograph will certainly engender much fruitful discussion concerning the nature of creation in the Bible and the ANE. No serious scholar should ignore it.”


  18. In a recent Sunday School class I attended (small, rural, Southern Baptist), the teacher actually said that all of Jesus’ parables were referring to specific factual events and people. For example, he said the story of the Good Samaritan actually happened — in the sense that if someone had a smartphone handy way back then, they could have taken a video of the whole episode and posted it on youtube — and Jesus was just using a factual occurance to convey a message. As he put it, telling a figurative story is too close to lying for his comfort — therefore Jesus’ parables are not really parables at all, but rather they are bits of factual trivia used for theological purposes.
    I wanted to argue with him, but I knew better.


  19. I really appreciate this article, Mike. It is well written and engaging. The interesting thing to me is that after i got to the end I realized…I don’t care. I just don’t care about how science and the Bible might be reconciled any more than I care about how Huckleberry Finn might be reconciled with oil field engineering. This brought up a lot of thoughts too long for a blog post, but there you go.


  20. Yeah, the Hyers quote really strikes me as a post hoc ergo propter hoc sort of argument.


  21. Dunno what you’re talking about Numo. This was a very common 2TJ understanding. However, in modern Christian theology it more a result of realizing that entire segments are essentially lifted from other ANE myth. It just seems odd to use the exact same language and imagery to mean something significantly different. This is not a controversial interpretation, it is just about the only one that scholars take seriously as far as I can tell (obviously I’m talking about language scholars, not evangelical scholars).


  22. One thought I’ve had stirring around in my head for a while. If we look at the Gospels, we see that the words of Jesus that were worth recording and preserving in scripture for our benefit are primarily parables. Parables aren’t meant to be interpreted literally. If that is what God choose to have preserved from his time with us, why would we assume that the default approach to any other part of the scripture is literal unless proven otherwise? Yet with the creation stories, we have to prove that literal interpretation is wrong.


  23. Unesco on Chauvet – see brief description/artistic analysis of the paintings:


    They really are remarkable. Apparently the main horse panel was fitted expressly to a wavy rock formation so that in certain lighting conditions, it would appear that the horses were moving.

    Yes, made by early humans. But maybe those people were more “developed” than we often assume. Based on this site and others like it, I’m thinking that we have missed the boat.


  24. Is it about proving anything, really? Belief in the spiritual realm, however you define that, is belief in things that by their nature can’t be proved by logic or lab tests or exhaustive scientific study. I don’t think that’s what science is for; ditto for faith/belief. I don’t see any reason for science and faith to be at loggerheads, either.

    But that’s just me. I’m a skeptic, but that’s partly because i have inclinations toward mysticism that would go too far if i didn’t question things. It’s also just due to life, very much including loss, grief, facing my own mortality and that of the people i love. Hits at a certain point in everyone’s life, provided they live long enough to experience it.

    And honestly, i don’t see why or how belief in nature spirits is any less valid than belief in one transcendent God. Do i believe there are spirits in the drains? Nope. But if i meet someone who does, it is only fair that i respect their belief in such. Trying to argue them out of it is fruitless and more than a litle, um…. condescending.


  25. A lot of them *do* have all that Stuart, but they continue to believe in the unseen in a way that most of us white Westerners don’t. This is true the world over, and in this country, too – Native Americans’ beliefs, Native Hawaiians’ beliefs, to name 2 big cateories.

    A lot of highly educated people from the Caribbean, South and Central America, Africa, Asia… they exist in both worlds, and it is *their norm.* A Japanese chem engineer mght be very devoted to certain Shinto kami (spirits), and every famiy member who dies becomes a personal kami, so to speak. Even the most Europeanized folks kind of hedge their bets, no matter where they’re from.

    Seems like one thing we will never leave behind is a sense of awe, and a desire to see what is beyond physical sight. Personally, i think that has a lot to do with being human. Take that away and… no soul.


  26. Stuart, it’s also, to a certain degree, a lack of critical thinking. Seems that’s not really taught much in public schools, what with the emphasis on passing standardized tests.

    I got in a lot of trouble for espousing an anti-Vietnam line, back when in was in school. Because it was viewed as anti-Americanism. We all are fed the narrative of American exceptionalism; i don’t think anyone who grew up here is immune. Learning to question those ideas, and to think things through, is a whole other subject, and it has grown increasingly uncommon (in public) since 9/11.


  27. Yeah, we always make those kinds of comparisons, and ad people are going to do their damndest to make certain neurons fire in a way that leads to sales.

    I think the rabid sports fans – like, say, diehard Cleveland Browns partisans – are in a different category altogether. 😉 Nothing against sports or fandom in moderation, but the more intense a lot of fans get, the closer to pre-Stone Age they seem to be. Again, I’m referring to folks like that crew of Browns fans that sat in the end zone and were all kinds of crazy.


  28. As for Barfield, sorry, but imo he is anything but a reliable source. Like Steiner, whom you reference pretty frequently. They both seem like precursors to the New Age stuff that started in the late 70s.


  29. A lot of the paintings in Chauvet and ther caves are anything but “primitive” – they are highly sophisticated and quite realistic. Yes, they’re flat, and the painters didn’t know how to handle perspective when they were painting herds of animals, but still…. Also, they even attempted to suggest/portray motion, in a way that actually didn’t turn up again until early 20th c. artists took cues of the “in motion” photos of Eadward Muybridge (of horses, multiple exposures in a filmstrip-type way) and Thomas Eakins (same deal, but he was after the human figure in motion).

    The Chauvet paintings look like a product of the 20th c., in terms of art movements – which makes them all the more startling and fresh.


  30. I know. But I wanna think that with modern education and perspective, they’d lean here too. Idk, tho. It IS a different way of viewing things. Where I see freedom, they’d see chaos, perhaps.

    I imagine if I’d ask them how they know there are spirits down the drain, they’d just say they know because they’ve always known. There is no way to prove their existence. Or non-existence. Of course there are spirits in the drain, how could you deny what you really know to be true?


  31. See my comment to numo, I’ve got a comment in moderation where I corrected myself and agreed.


  32. numo, I have a comment in moderation where I corrected myself and better explained what I meant.

    But I agree.


  33. Maybe our ancestors had kinda childish minds back in the Bronze Age. Not to put them down or anything, because there is something beautiful about the way a child’s mind functions. Every night we revert to that same mythopoetic way of seeing things that came naturally to our Bronze Age forebears, but which we seem to lose upon wakening and can only recover with great effort and some creative loss-of-forgetfulness (anamnesis).

    The oldest parts of the Bible, the parts that predate the Axial Age (appr 600 BC – 200 AD), are a product of that consciousness. They affect me like a child’s drawing, or the Chauvet cave paintings, being at once both a technically crude but emotionally accurate depiction of the world. b’reshit’ bara’ Yahweh et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz v’ha’aretz haytah tohu v’bohu sounds much more like an incantation to me than a story.

    It’s hard being something of a primitive, believing in the Neolithic, the Bible, and in the narrative of modern science with equal fervor. You have scolds bearing down on you from every quarter telling you you’re nuts and to get with the accepted program, but the romance of what is opened up is irresistible. Unfortunately, there are few guides through this territory. Julian Jaynes is provocative, but the consensus is that he is barking mad and you are too if you give him too much credence. Owen Barfield has a lot of things to say about the difference in consciousness between Archaic and Modern man but Fr. Stephen says there are lots of places where is he is downright dangerous. Fr. de Chardin has kind of lost his luster even in progressive Catholic circles, and I’m not all that certain he got much right anyway.


  34. But… a lot of animists view things this wsy today.

    Not challenging you; just an observation. Your understanding (and mine) wouldn’t make much sense in Morocco, where people are Muslim but retain animist beliefs to the point that when someone pours hot water down the drain in the kitchen sink, they apologize ahead of time to the spirits who live in the drains. This is an actual contemporary example, fwiw…..


  35. I think there are some great books on the subject ny Jewish suthors, across a vety broad spectrum of beliefs and opinions. (Often at odds.) You might want to look into that a bit…


  36. What you describe is childish, and I’m sure the attitude was there, in those eras, but… I’m guessing that was limited. I wonder if you are seeing this more through the lens of abuses/bad churches/cults you’ve been around, as opposed to being able to see the text per se?

    As an aside, Native American tribes each have their own religions – same for Native Hawaiians. Afaik, none of them carried out crusades or other kinds of religious wars… otoh, there are things going on now, as in Burma, with militant Buddhists having persecuted the Rohynga Muslim minority, to the point that very few are still in the country (those who didn’t die have fled, for the most part). I don’t know much about Burmese Buddhism, as to whether local, animist deities havr bern absorbed/adapted by practitioners or not, but Budfhism itself is non-theistic at its core. So… it’s not just monotheists who start religious wars/vendettas against religious minorities, etc.


  37. This reminds me of the episode of the new Cosmos I watched earlier this week. An ancient guy argued that lightning and thunder weren’t divine commandments or shouts from the gods about ill tidings, but rather forces of nature that could be understood and are totally random. He of course was a ‘heretic’ but set off so much.

    I love that. I effing love that. Thunder is not the voice of God, lighting is not his weapons thrown, rain is not his tears…none of it, NONE of it are the product of any god or deity. It’s all nature, science, laws and physics! It’s reality!

    that’s…that’s…AMEN. That’s huge! God that makes me excited. Realizing things like this feels like a weight lifted, chains cast off…it almost makes me giddy if I think too hard about it.


  38. Tangentially off-topic:

    Where did the idea of the Ten Commandments or “rules for life handed down by the gods” come from? Do we have any Waltons or others who’ve looked at ANE literature and figured out where all that originated from?


  39. “Each day of creation takes on two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day, and declares that these are not gods at all, but creatures – creations of the one true God who is the only one, without a second or third.”

    The Jewish people have, since ancient days, affirmed this, in a prayer said on their Sabbath Days:

    “‘The breath of every living being shall bless Thy Name, O Lord our God, and the spirit of all flesh shall ever extol and exalt Thy fame, O our King,’ and continues with the praises of God. . . .
    ‘Were our mouths full of song as the sea,
    and our tongues of exultation as the multitude of its waves,
    and our lips of praise as the wide extended skies;
    were our eyes shining with light like the sun and the moon,
    and our hands were spread forth like the eagles of the air,
    and our feet were swift as the wild deer;
    we should still be unable to thank Thee and to bless Thy Name, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, for one-thousandth or one ten-thousandth part of the bounties which Thou hast bestowed upon our fathers and upon us.’ “

    I look at the prayers of the Jewish people and I can see in them a reverence for sacred Scripture that could never be found in a fundamentalist argument for ‘Eve riding around on a dinosaur’ in Eden . . . the fundamentalists sadly have no link by faith or by tradition to the sublime heart of Genesis as it is celebrated by the Jewish people in their oldest prayers. The fundamentalists are left with viewing an ancient Jewish holy book without understanding its immersion into the Jewish heritage of faith.


  40. This is not chronological snobbery or whatever, either. We see the same thing today. America is the greatest nation on earth. The Patriots are the best team to ever play football. The latest iPhone is the greatest smart computing device since the last iPhone. Verizon Wireless has the best nationwide network.

    It’s just human nature.


  41. I’m on board with the idea that Genesis and a lot of the Bible is just repackaging the same old myths every one else was using in the day. It was all about how we can make OUR God bigger, our God better, etc.

    Oh your god is the sun? Well NUH UHH, MY God created the sun!! etc

    It’s all childish.


  42. Mike (should have specified Chaplain Mike above; my apologies for confusion!), i didn’t think that at all re. how you personally are using this material from Walton. I guess I’m having a kneejerk reaction to Walton fanboys in general, especially those who go overboard in praising his interpretation as thr one and only.

    Btw, i really like your “No football coaches” analogy!


  43. Numo, I’m fine with Midrash. I didn’t think I was asserting that this is “the one and only” way of viewing the text. Apologies if it came off that way. But for the evangelical reader who is struggling with the “plain” meaning I think Walton’s view is very helpful to place the text in it’s ANE context. My friends found it very satisfying that “taking his rest” would mean God, having set his creation/temple/kingdom in order sat down on his throne to begin His lawful reign and rule. It very much began to set them free from the YEC insistence there is only one way to read the passage i.e. their way. I also include Hyer’s view that Genesis 1 is polemic; a view I think Walton doesn’t find that persuasive.


  44. Sorry; was editing and that got a bit mangled. Point: there were vety large Jewish communities in Europe prior to the Holocaust, descended from people who made their way there vety early on. There still are large Jewidh communities in many Europesn countries.


  45. Judaism is very Western, too. The a lot of the diaspora ended up in was… Europe; when Ferdinand and Isabella took back southern Spain from the Moors, Jews had to either flee, convert or suffer the Inquisition (a lot of converts ended up condemned snyway). Many wrnt to Morocco and Algeria, others to the Ottoman Empire. Many of the great post-diaspora scholars were European.


  46. My point is that many, many interpretations are focused in the opposite direction. God being God is *already* enthroned; that’s a given. Why would this particularntext havr yo be about “an enthronement ceremony”? I can see this as a variant reading and/or fovusing on nuances suggested by yhe tect, but as *the* reading? Nope.

    Just saying.

    Mikr, do you have dources from Sailhammer for this particular interpretation? By no means am i denying the relationship of this text (and all the rest) to other ANE literature. What i am saying is that i haven’t yet found Walton’s interpretation within any Jewish sources, ancient, medieval or modern. As i said above, that is by no means a definitive statement, but reflects my off and in search for correlations. It’s highly likely that it *has* bern said already, but Judaism looks to the midrashic tradition (plurality of interpretations is fine), whereas we tend to want The. Definitive. Statement. , end of story. My problem here is with the focus, not with Walton’s ideas per se. TBH, I’ve seen his views reiterated by far too many people who treat them as THE way to read the text. As A way, fine. But….


  47. I note critiques of Walton’s work, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (which is the scholarly version of his work), in various places. The gist seems to be it contributes to the ongoing academic discussion but not the final word by any means.

    BTW I would say the Greek philosophers were far more responsible for objective critical study of nature.


  48. Well, the first critical, non-mechanistic scientific thinking did not come from that direction at all, but from the “atomists”, the pre-Socratic philosophers like Democritus and Leucippus. There were advances before, but they tended to be either observational or engineering related – i.e. geometry related to architecture etc etc. The atomists started non-magical thinking about the very nature of reality. They were also functionally atheistic.


  49. Numo, Jewish scholars have long recognized the parallels in the creation stories of Gen 1-2 and later descriptions of the Tabernacle/Temple. My OT professor was John Sailhamer, and he noted these repeatedly. One of the big breakthroughs in recognizing the royal imagery only came with seeing parallels in other ancient Near Eastern texts, which have only been available to scholars for the past 150 years or so.


  50. The main gist is that allegorical interpretations of Genesis seem to start with Philo and weren’t seriously developed until the Middle Ages, at least among Rabbinic Judaism. OTOH, Jewish cultural epistemology doesn’t seem to be as hung up on these issues as we westerners are…


  51. Mike, what I find most fascinating in your piece for today is the suggestion from Conrad Hyers (found near the center of the article above…) that Western science was only possible BECAUSE of the de-sacralization of the created universe that was accomplished by the author(s) of Genesis 1.

    Well, of course…! Why had that never really occurred to me before…? Objective, critical study of the celestial bodies, the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, and geological features is only possible if these entities are mere objects of creation rather than gods themselves.

    And the same is true of democracy, isn’t it? Only when the ruler is deprived of any notion of divinity – as occurred with Pharaoh in the Exodus account – can an elected leader even be considered a possibility.

    Genesis 1 can be seen to have unleashed the intellectual forces that created modern critical Western thought. Hmmm…


  52. The article you linked to is quite long. I quickly skimmed it but saw nothing that directly addressed the topic at hand. Did you? I happen to like this particular interpretation of Genesis 1 & 2 (N. T. Wright has expounded on this, as well), but I agree with numo that you would think there would be some evidence that Jewish scholars had at least considered this.


  53. Thanks for the pushback, Numo. I know you have a background in history. For me the point that “In the ANE when a palace or temple was dedicated the king or god was said to sit on his throne and “take his rest”. It means he has completed his tasks, set everything in order, and now begins his normal rule and reign…” seems evident both from the text, other reference texts, and what was known about palace or temple inaugurations. Also the idea that the last thing you set in a temple you just built was the image of the god just seems to me to fit the 1:27 ” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” ANE context so well.


  54. Not to be difficult, but for some time I’ve been trying to find out if this “cosmic temple inauguration” idea is *anywhere* in Jewish thought and interpretation, ancient, modern and in between. So far,I’ve come up zeroes on that. I can’t read Hebrew or Aramaic, and I’m by no means well-versed in Judaica, nor am i saying that some rabbis haven’t come to similar conclusions.

    The thing is: I do not, so far, find any basis for this interpretation within Judaism, and for me personally, that’s a *huge* red flag. My own view is that Walton et. al. have come up with interesting speculations on Gen 1 and 2 ,but that by no means is their interpretation authoritative. It is also definitely not something i have encountered in reading Lutheran and Roman Catholic sources. It seems like a ready-made, single solution, and most evangelicals are fond of those. (I can say this because i lived in a part of that world for a long time.) I don’t think there is a single authoritative intetpretation of Gen. 1 and 2, and that it would be better for Walton et. al. to be among the voices in the Midrash than to claim a “discovery” that has somehow been ignored by bith Judaism and xtianity over the past few thousand years.

    If i ever do find rabbinical sources that back up what Walton says, i will be sure to pass them on. In the meantime, I’ll stick with where i am ATM, which is to say, skeptical of his claims. His ideas are interesting, but i canmot accept thrm as authoritative.

    As a side note, many haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) rabbis and sects are endorsing plain-reading, 6 day creationism that’s pretty well the same thing as it is in the fundagelical world. I think these groups are going to have a lot of young people leave over the dividing lines they draw between the Torah and science – as in the fundagelical world.


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