The Struggle for the Soul of Science, pt5: Bible – Exhibit A
It is perfectly possible, however, to reject metaphysical naturalism as philosophically and scientifically illogical, and recognise much evidence for multiple common ancestors in biology and catastrophism in earth history, while still rejecting the Bible’s particular account. The Bible may preserve important ancient records, but accepting the personal moral implications of its authority is often too costly for people. The Bible is a complex mixture of empirical evidence about historical events, and theological interpretation about those events, just as scientists are expected both to record the findings of their experiments and to assess their significance in light of broader theories. The assessment by the Biblical authors, though, directly contradicts the basic Enlightenment principles of human self-sufficiency, self-improvement, and self-confident rationality. This is because they conclude that the particular non-natural being who chose to reveal Himself repeatedly in recorded history as the god of Israel, is in fact the almighty Creator and rightful God of all humanity and the cosmos itself.
Many professional scientists wonder what makes believers so concerned to fit the scientific evidence together with the Biblical story. Why can’t they just ignore Genesis altogether, as they would Aboriginal or American Indian origin myths, and get on with their science? What they don’t realise perhaps is that the Bible contains the evidence so often demanded by atheists for proving the existence of God. Individual believers may appeal to their own personal experience as sufficient justification for their rational belief in God [whichever ‘god’ that might be]. However, the Bible claims to be a detailed and reliable record of the actions and character of the Creator of the universe, throughout human history. Not only that, but it offers specific hypotheses about His future actions which can be tested by any individual or nation.
Why care about the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of many different ancient documents written in various genres by many people over more than a millennium. Despite this, it displays a remarkable coherence and consistency of worldview and message, throughout its history. Its authors are drawn almost entirely from one small but resilient people group of the Ancient Near East, who are unusually, perhaps even uniquely, honest about the flaws and mistakes of their ancestors, heroes and nation as a whole – a case of history being written by the losers. The impression of trustworthiness in their accounts and their resonance with shared human experience is partly what has made this collection of writings the greatest bestseller of all time, and in the greatest number of languages. What is more, the Jewish people have always lived their national life in full view of the greatest civilisations of the world, from the beginning and even to the present day, which allows their experiences of their national God to be verified by all other nations.
For past history of humanity, therefore, the Bible is unparalleled in its importance. It is no surprise that it is Biblical Genesis, rather than that of any other religion or people group, that continues to be the most influential alternative to Secular Genesis. As mentioned in the first post, the Bible has come under intense academic scrutiny particularly since the Enlightenment, and study of the Old Testament is a well-established scholarly discipline in secular universities around the world. Like any other ancient text, the book of Genesis can be compared with contemporary writings from nearby regions, in order to determine its original genre and purpose. This specialist field of ancient history is just as professional as that of genetics or geology, and it is therefore important to invest years of study in the ancient context and coherent theological systems of Israelite texts, in order to be able to contribute to the scholarly discussion. I have personally chosen to specialise in this academic field rather than in philosophy or the sciences, and can therefore appreciate the hard work done by creationist academics in those areas. That said, academics are never immune from challenge, whatever their field, and you are always encouraged to investigate the evidence for yourself and make up your own mind.
I have written two articles for non-specialists on “The Genre and Goals of Genesis 1–11”, forthcoming in the Origins journal, so rather than repeating that detailed information I will here summarise a few of its main points, building a case for the original intention of these chapters. But if it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that the author of Genesis did consider his first few chapters to be factual history, who would actually care? On the one hand, those who accept the divine authority of the Bible traditionally connect this to the author’s original intention in writing. In my experience, it is usually only scholars who have a personal commitment to the ‘truth’ of Genesis who are concerned to try to explain away its evident desire to give a (theologically meaningful) account of actual world history – a plain reading which is at odds with mainstream science. Others have no problem just disagreeing with the author of Genesis. On the other hand, the Bible has profoundly shaped Western culture and hence global civilisation, so if its foundational teachings in the first few chapters are redefined, the implications are considerable, not only for the theology of the entire Bible but also for the self-understanding of all humanity – this will be discussed in the next post.
Genesis 1–11 is a surprising way to begin the religious scriptures of Israel. Comparable origin myths from both Mesopotamia and Egypt usually conclude with the establishment of a certain city as a religious centre of worship for the particular god credited with bringing order to the world. Genesis does not mention either the nation of Israel or their capital city of Jerusalem; in fact, the book finishes with the ancestors of the Israelite tribes down in Egypt as refugees. Genesis 1–11 is a world history, rather than a national history, and as such is meant to show how the Jewish nation has a unique responsibility to serve and bless the rest of mankind and the world. Noah was the biological ancestor and thus the federal head of all humans, so when he gave his blessing of authority in Genesis 9 to his son Shem, and hence to Shem’s appointed heirs (i.e. eventually Israel), this had permanent and worldwide legal validity for all subsequent generations. It is therefore only as ‘King of the Jews’ that the Messiah of Israel is legally qualified to represent not only His own nation but all the Gentiles also, and as the supreme representative of all mankind pay our debts before God.
As for the preceding story of the Flood in Genesis 6–9, those who try to argue that this was probably only a localised flood in the Mesopotamian river valley are not concluding this from the text, but rather speculating about how this story might be squeezed into modern ideas of human history. The ‘land’ mentioned throughout has no implied borders, and therefore ought to be translated ‘earth’. Furthermore, if God blotted out ‘every living thing that I have made’, and if the flood rose fifteen cubits higher than ‘all the high mountains’ (such as Ararat) which remained covered for over three months, there is absolutely no way this could be understood as a localised flood. After all, if it was, God has repeatedly broken His covenant promise never again to flood the land. The Biblical report is unique among ancient Flood stories (of which there are numerous all across the earth) in that it gives precise dates (and measurements) for each stage of the Flood. It also stands out clearly from the comparative literature of its day for its lack of self-serving agenda; in fact, read with chapters 10 and 11 it even appears to support Babylon’s claim to the title of Most Ancient Civilisation, against Egypt and Assyria, and certainly against Israel.
Regardless of how one wants to interpret Genesis 1–3, then, it is indisputable that Genesis 6–9 portrays the Flood as factual and global, which carries considerable implications for modern geology. If Genesis turns out to have preserved a basically reliable ancient tradition about an actual event in global human history, modern science would have to give serious consideration to an alternative model for explaining sedimentary layers and the fossils they contain. Down-dating these layers into the period of recorded history would then drastically reduce the vast time spans currently given to biological evolution and to the formation of the earth itself – the same ‘evidence’, but interpreted in a completely new way.
Genealogies before and after the Flood story (chapters 5 and 11) were clearly designed to provide a tightly interlocking and unbroken chain of generations from Abraham as far back as Adam himself, allowing later Israelites to calculate precisely how many years had elapsed since Adam’s creation. Any hypothesised intermediate generations must therefore fit within the fixed corresponding ages of the individuals already named, so there is no justification for adding the four thousand year ‘margin of error’ commonly allowed for the Biblical date of Adam’s creation (i.e. “6–10,000 years ago”). What is more, the numbers in the best Hebrew manuscripts (i.e. our present Hebrew Bible) provide an important but little noticed underlying chronology for the various stories recounted, which appears to be essential for understanding their significance (e.g. religious activity in the days of Enosh [4:26]; Noah’s naming [5:29]; the Flood prophecy [6:3]; Nimrod’s migration to Assyria [10:11]; etc.). This clear interest in coherent chronology reinforces the conclusion that the author believed himself to be writing history, despite the considerably longer lifespans of early humans compared to those in his own time.
Some try to suggest that later chapters may have been understood as historical, but Genesis 1–3 was recognisably ‘myth’ even in ancient times. However, the evidence would suggest otherwise. Lamech’s name for Noah in 5:29 clearly refers back to the curse God brought upon the earth in 3:17, just as Eve’s name for Seth in 4:25 refers back to God’s promise of a ‘seed’ for her in 3:15. Similarly, the way Enoch and Noah ‘walked with God’ (5:22; 6:9) echoes God’s intention in the Garden of Eden in 3:8, and Cain’s place of settlement ‘east of Eden’ locates his city relative to the Garden from which Adam and Eve were expelled (3:24). Even within the stories of Genesis 2–3, the precise names and geographical descriptions of the rivers flowing out of the Garden (2:10-14) give every impression of sober reporting of history. In that case, even though walking, talking serpents and divine surgery to create a woman from a rib are not common or repeatable events, the author evidently did not treat these stories as non-historical. The absence of multiple squabbling deities involved in Creation and Flood give the Biblical account a thoroughly ‘demythologised’ and sober feel, when compared to equivalent stories from the Ancient Near East.
Some have tried to argue that Genesis implies other humans already in existence when Adam was created, though the author was not particularly interested in describing them. These might then correspond to the ‘Neolithic farmers’ around on earth in approximately 4,000 BC according to modern secular history. It must be noted, though, that if there was indeed a recent global Flood as Genesis 6–9 records, standard dates for the Neolithic period must be in need of extensive calibration, so there is no need to try to explain these stories within such a context. If the Flood was not historical, though, then neither is there any point in trying to rescue the Garden of Eden from the category of ‘pious fiction’. Be that as it may, it is quite incorrect that Genesis 1–4 implies other humans apart from the offspring of Adam and Eve, for a number of reasons.
(1) The ‘dust of the ground’ from which Adam was made is undoubtedly ‘soil’ [not Neolithic farmer ‘matter’], precisely the same substance into which Adam’s body will decay after death (3:19). The animals are said to have been formed after Adam in the same way from the same material (2:19).
(2) The name ‘Adam’ means ‘humanity’, just as ‘Eve’ is defined as ‘mother of all living’ (3:20), and before their creation “there was no man to cultivate the ground” (2:5). Nothing in the text contradicts the plain meaning that Adam and Eve were the first humans, progenitors of all mankind.
(3) If Abel’s death happened about 130 years after leaving Eden (4:25; 5:3), and the child-bearing age lasted for hundreds of years in those days (5:32), even if sexual maturity was not until the age of sixty-five (5:15, 21), Cain could have had dozens of siblings by the time he killed Abel – Adam’s other “sons and daughters” (5:4) – not to speak of Abel’s own descendants, who would all seek revenge.
(4) Marrying sisters and other close relatives was only forbidden hundreds of years later in the Law of Moses (Lev. 18:9), when genetic mutations had started to accumulate, to set apart Israelite society. Before this, Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister Sarah (Gen 20:12), which would have been illegal after Moses, was not just acceptable but theologically important (cf. 24:2-4; 28:1-4; also 6:2-3). What is more, if Cain’s wife was too close a relative, what of his father Adam’s wife Eve!
The next post will move on to the historical nature of Genesis 1:1–2:3, and then trace some of the theological and practical implications of such an understanding of the first chapters of Genesis.