Science i Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Genesis Revisited or Revised?

Paul H. Seely, ASA Member
1544 SE 34th Ave.
Portland, OR 97214

From:PSCF 52 (March 2000):77-78.                                         Response: Held

In their recent paper (PSCF 51 [December 1999]: 231-43), Held and Rst rightly insist that the biblical concept of creation need not exclude natural developmental processes and some of their suggestions for harmonizing the biblical text with developmental processes are felicitous. They wrongly assume, however, that the biblical concept of inspiration must exclude references to the primitive cultural concepts of the natural world held by the inspired writer. This false assumption leads them to make some suggestions that are more in the nature of revising Genesis than merely revisiting it.

With regard to the biblical doctrine of inspiration, Jesus made it clear in Matt. 19:8/Mk. 10:5 that inspired Scripture can and does include accommodation to primitive cultural concepts--and that in the area of faith and morals! Nor is the Old Testament's (OT) allowance of divorce for reasons other than adultery (Deut. 24:1-4) the only inspired OT law which supports the primitive morality of the Israelites rather than the higher standards of Christ. The inequality of both slaves and women to free men, for example, are built into the inspired OT law.

Since the purpose of Scripture is to give divine revelation in the area of faith and morals (1 Tim. 3:16)--yet, even in this area, accommodation to the primitive cultural morality of the times is sometimes allowed into inspired Scripture--it is evident that accommodation in the area of natural knowledge, which is outside the purpose of Scripture, is entirely possible. Also, Scripture strongly suggests that God has delegated the discovery of natural truth to humankind (Gen. 1:26-28). It would only be consistent then if his divine revelation of spiritual truth did not include revelation of natural truth but was given in terms of the scientific understanding of the times.

Held and Rst are to be commended for wanting to be true to Scripture, but Scripture does not support their idea that "conflicts [of the scientific statements in Scripture] with scientific evidence must send theologians and scientists back to their studies, until a consensus is reached." It is entirely possible within a biblical definition of biblical inspiration for the science in the Bible to be simply the science of the times--a science now outmoded and incapable of being harmonized with modern science. Further, there is evidence that the science in Scripture is the science of the times and I have yet to see a case to the contrary.

Faced with ancient scientific ideas, it is not surprising that Held and Rst cannot get past the second verse of the Bible in their attempt to bring it into conformity with modern science. Although they say Gen. 1:2 "strikingly resembles the scientific picture of the early earth" and later in their exposition of Gen. 1:9 marvel that the sequence of dry land arising from water is in accord with modern science, they miss two if not three glaring contrasts between Gen. 1:2/Gen. 1:9 and the findings of modern science.

In the biblical account the earth is first covered with water (Gen. 1:2) and only later does dry land appear (Gen. 1:9). In the modern scientific account the dry land appears first (as crust too hot to have an ocean cover it) and is covered with water only later, millions of years later. The sequence of events in the two accounts is exactly opposite. Secondly, in the biblical account, as Held and Rst properly say, "the entire earth was covered by water." But in the scientific account the entire earth is never covered by water. Finally, if one interprets Gen. 1:9 within its biblical and ancient Near Eastern context, it is speaking of the earth (as a flat unmoving disc) having the sea for its foundation (Ps. 24:4; 136:6); but in the modern scientific account the sea has the earth (as a spherical planet) for its foundation. The two accounts are clearly opposed to each other.

In an earlier paper showing that concordists regularly take the Bible out of context (PSCF 49 [June 1997]: 85-95), I covered a number of the arguments which Held and Rst employ. Therefore, I address here only a few additional points, especially with reference to places where I think their comments are particularly misleading.

In an attempt to avoid the solidity of the raqia' (firmament), Held and Rst not only slide over the fact that both the word raqia' (cf. Ezek. 1:22, 23) and all of its cognate words refer to objects which have solidity, they say of Gen. 1:20: "Flying animals are said to move 'on' the raqia', certainly not a solid dome." Realizing, however, that the preposition used in Gen. 1:20 can mean "in front of" or "before," they attempt in their endnote 35 to avoid this meaning by saying the preposition is the same preposition as is used with regard to the land; and since "in front of" or "before" would make no sense with regard to the land, this translation should not be used with reference to the firmament. So they opt for translating Gen. 1:20 "the flying creatures fly 'on' the air."

There are a number of problems with this "solution." In the first place, their argument can be reversed. That is, since it makes no good sense to say the "flying creatures fly 'on' the land," this translation should not be used with reference to the firmament. Secondly, they avoid the fact that it is not just the simple preposition "on" which is used with reference to the firmament, but the prepositional phrase, "on or upon the face or surface." So, if "on" is the proper translation and the raqia' is "air," then Gen. 1:20 should be translated: "the flying creatures fly on the surface of the air."

This same prepositional phrase is used in Gen. 1:2, "darkness upon the surface of the Deep" and in Gen. 1:29, regarding plants "on the surface of all the earth." But, whereas a reference to a "surface" makes perfect sense with regard to an ocean or to the earth, it makes little or no sense with reference to the air (what surface?)--yet very good sense with reference to a solid firmament. Given the historical context wherein the sky was understood to be a solid dome, it is quite understandable that the writer would refer to birds as flying "in front of" the firmament, and even from a purely phenomenological point of view, birds fly with the sky as a background, that is they fly "in front of" it, as the text says. This makes much better sense than "flying on the surface of the air," a phrase even moderns would not use, much less ancient peoples.

With regard to Day 5 (p. 230), Held and Rst are aware that the creation of birds at the same time as fish (Gen. 1:20) and before reptiles (Gen. 1:24) is contrary to the order of events as indicated in the fossil record. They, therefore, quite rightly state that the Hebrew word used in Gen. 1:20 is not "bird" per se, but "flying creature." But then they quite wrongly imply that the reference is to flying insects, excluding birds. This is quite clearly forcing the text of Genesis to speak against its will.

In the first place, if "flying creatures" in Gen. 1:20-22 is not a reference to birds, then the account has no reference to the creation of birds, and that seems quite unlikely given the skeleton nature of the account and the fact that birds are one of the most highly visible and interesting parts of the creation, certainly not a part of the creation that would be ignored in favor of mentioning flying insects. Along this line, it should be noted that all proto-scientific peoples, such as the Hebrews were, organize the zoological world around them into three to five basic categories. The OT employs four of those five basic categories: Fish, Bird, Snake, and Mammal (Gen. 1:26; 1 Kings 4:23; Ezek. 38:20), missing only Wug (worm + bug).1 Flying insects may well have been included in the "flying creature" or Bird category (bats were included, Lev. 11:19), but birds are the primary and dominant creatures in the category. It is incredible that this basic Bird category does not include birds. I would only add that Gen. 1:21 refers to "every flying creature" and since birds are flying creatures they are necessarily included.

Finally, at the end of their paper and in note 17, Held and Rst reject the idea that the earth in the OT is flat, saying that I have read this idea into Scripture from purely external ethnological data2 and that William Tanner was also mistaken in saying that the earth in the OT is not a spherical planet.3 In opposition to my and Tanner's conclusion that "earth" in the OT is flat, they refer to J. B. Russell's book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, as having demonstrated "the recent origin of the 'three-story-universe' myth." A close reading of my paper will reveal that I rely on historical and biblical data and not just ethnological data; but, the more important objection here is that Russell's book is completely irrelevant to the issue of the OT understanding of the word "earth."

Russell showed that most Western educated people, including most Christian leaders, after the fifth century B.C. believed that the earth was spherical. Russell did not attempt in any way to show that people prior to that time and especially people in the ancient Near East in OT times did not believe in a three-story universe with a flat earth. Russell's book gives no data of any kind that would falsify the conclusion that the Hebrews thought of the earth as flat.

The basic problem with all day-age concordism is the same as the basic problem with creation science: it rests ultimately upon the unbiblical assumption that the divine inspiration of Scripture excludes any accommodation to primitive cultural ideas of the times, and it has no positive coherent objective evidence to offer in place of the overwhelming evidence supporting consensual conclusions. Both concordism and creation science offer little but superficial reinterpretations of the biblical and/or scientific data, reinterpretations which implicitly replace the data with illusions--albeit if one prefers illusions day-age concordism is preferable to creation science because it does not cause the Church to repeat the mistake made with Galileo; and that is the primary saving grace of Held and Rst's paper.

1For further discussion, see my "The Meaning of Min, 'Kind'" in Science & Christian Belief 9:1 (1997): 47-56.

2Paul Seely, "The geographical meaning of 'earth' and 'seas' in Gen. 1:10," Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997): 231-55.

3W. F. Tanner, "'Planet Earth?