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:
- The Bible is both natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal, human and divine.
- The Bible is divine because it is the Word of God.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- It is temporal because some of its elements such as the original language used in its original writing is not being used today.
- 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.
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:
- The first sentence of Genesis 1 consists of seven Hebrew words. Instantly, the ancient reader’s attention is focused.
- The second sentence contains exactly fourteen words. A pattern is developing.
- The word ‘earth’—one half of the created sphere—appears in the chapter 21 times.
- The word ‘heaven’—the other half of the created sphere—also appears 21 times.
- ‘God’, the lead actor, is mentioned exactly 35 times (7 x 5)
- The refrain ‘and it was so’, which concludes each creative act, occurs exactly seven times.
- The summary statement ‘God saw that it was good’ also occurs seven times.
- 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:
- Recognizes Genesis for the ancient document that it is.
- Finds no reason to impose a materialistic meaning on the text.
- Finds no reason to require the finding of scientific information “between the lines”.
- Avoids reducing Genesis to merely literary, metaphorical, or theological expressions.
- Poses no conflict with scientific thinking to the extent that it recognizes that the text does not offer scientific explanations.