Barry Newman's Blog

October 29, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part VII)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 1:22 am

I have decided to change the title to this series to: “Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3”.  Consequently I have altered the titles to the previous parts. It was becoming a much longer series than I had anticipated.  When this series ends I intend to take a break and then begin a new series following on from Genesis 2: 3 at a later date.  I hope I am forgiven!

Genesis 1: 6-8 – Day 2 (again)

“And God said let a firmament be in the midst of the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters.  And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.  And it was so and he called the firmament, ‘Heavens’ or ‘Sky’.  And there was evening and there was morning the second day.”

Mention has already been made of what was very likely understood by “raqia” – firmament – a solid vault.  The waters of course were not made during this Day.  They were in existence before the creative Days are mentioned.  The waters are simply divided into two portions.  A separation is made between some of the waters now beneath and some of the waters now above the firmament.  Day 2 shares with Day 1 a process of differentiation.  In Day 1, light, having been made, was differentiated from the darkness.  In Day 2, the firmament having been made, the waters were separated into those above and those below.  In both Days 1 and 2 God introduced “form” where previously there had been “formlessness”.  As in Day 1, what God made he also named. The “raqia” he named, “Heavens” or “Sky”.

Genesis 1: 9-13 – Day 3

Twice in Day 3 God speaks – He acts. This will be paralleled in Day 6 where again God speaks – He acts, twice. 

In Day 3, as in Days 1 and 2, God brings about differentiation.  In his first act, by drawing the waters under the vault into a specific location and causing dry land to appear he differentiates between these waters and the land.  The dry land he names “Earth” and the now more localised waters, he names, “Seas”.  In Days 1, 2 and 3 God has been concerned with creating basic structures.  What was without form to begin with now has quite distinctive features, separate from one another.

In his second act God says, “Let the land produce vegetation” – two types: “the plant bearing seed according to its kind and on the land the tree yielding fruit with seed in it according to its kind”.

In the first act, God determines that it should be so and it is. Likewise in the second act He determines that the Earth should yield these things upon the earth and it does.  This is the God of awesome but uncomplicated power. And with respect to both those situations that he brings about on Day 3 He, as it were, stands back from his creation and sees that it is good.  In effect he proclaims that it is good.

But what is meant by, the terms, “Earth”, “Seas”, “the plant bearing seed”, “the tree yielding fruit with seed in it” and “according to its kind”?  

The question of what is meant by the first two terms is addressed in some detail by Seely, P.H. in an article entitled, “The Geographical Meaning of ‘Earth’ and ‘Seas’ in Genesis 1: 10” (Westminster Theological Journal, 59, 1997, 231-255).  The temptation for many has been to see these terms in the light of the modern understanding of the earth as a spherical globe with isolated continents affixed to a solid crust upon which exist a number of oceans that surround these continents.

Seely provides evidence for the claim that prior to the 5th century B.C. the earth was considered by peoples throughout the world, to be basically a flat single “continent”, usually considered to be disc-like and thereby described as “circular”. He maintains that this was still a view held by most people up until New Testament times. He is convinced that Genesis 1: 1; 1: 2 and 1: 10 refer to the entire earth and that the reference to the firmament in Day 2 indicates that the earth of Day 3 is conceived of as flat disc-like with the firmament coming down over it like a hemispherical upside down bowl – a belief, he claims, that was held by all other peoples. 

To further support his understanding of how the ancient Hebrew conceived of the earth, he cites Isaiah 40: 22 which speaks of “the circle of the earth”. It has been common by some to refer to the Isaiah text as supporting the notion of a globe but Seely points out that “circle” does not imply “globe” whereas the Hebrew for “ball” would have conveyed that idea.  For additional support he refers to Daniel 4: 10, 11 and 4: 20 where reference is made to a tree of enormous height with its top touching the sky and it being visible to all the earth. Job 37: 3 is cited as implying that God’s lightening can be seen at the very extremities of the earth – the earth being flat. Appeal is also made to the statement, made in a cosmological context, that the dawn grasps the earth by its edges (Job 38: 13).

Seely also provides evidence for the view that in the ancient Far East it was commonly held that the earth was one entity floating on an ocean and that in the ancient Near East it was the belief that a sea surrounded and supported the disc-like earth.  Arguing from its use in scripture (citing e.g. Ezekiel 27: 4 and 28: 2 where a reference is made to Tyre being located in the heart of the seas) he also concludes that the Hebrew for “Seas” has the meaning “Sea”.  Reference is made to Job 26: 10 and Proverbs 8: 27 to support the idea that in the mind of the writers, when God gathered the Sea into one place, that one place was “circular” in shape. He cites Psalm 72: 9 and Zechariah 9: 10b in support of the idea that the phrase, “from sea to sea” is a reference to two oceans on either side of the earth as though it were an island.  He believes that Genesis 49: 25, Deuteronomy 33: 13, Proverbs 3: 20 and Psalm 24: 1,2 and  136: 6 as well as Genesis 2: 5, 6; 7: 11 and 8: 2 support the idea that the Hebrew believed that water lay beneath the earth.  

Thus, he concludes that like their contemporaries, the Hebrews considered that the earth was surrounded by the Sea (with arm-like appendages extending into the rivers and connected seas) and floating on the Sea, from whence came the water of springs, wells and all land locked waters.  In summary Seely believes that the understanding of Earth and Seas in Genesis 1, textual material that belongs to the 2nd millennium B.C., is in line with the understanding of ancient peoples of that time.  I think Seely is correct but I have not done him justice in this brief survey of his article.  We may appeal to the notion that in many if not all of the texts of Scripture that Seely cites, the writer is writing with poetic flair.  It would be a little odd however if the language that the writer uses, being simply poetic and not to be taken literally, happens to coincide with language used by other cultures, around about the same time and even in nearby localities, language that was meant to be understood literally.

But now, to the terms used of the vegetation.  To begin with, I again refer to an article by Seely: “The Meaning of Min, ‘Kind’”, Science and Christian Belief, 9 (1), 1997, 47-56.  The article mainly deals with “min” (kind) as it applies to non-plant life and will be considered again when reflecting on Days 5 and 6.  Suffice it to say here, that Seely mounts an argument that “kind” cannot neatly be aligned with any one of our modern classificatory terms, such as, “phylum”, “class”, “order”, “family”, “genus” or “species”.  It belongs to a world where plants and animals are classified differently to the way we moderns might classify them.  Our taxonomic systems have been created only relatively recently and the way the modern biologist determines how different species relate to one another and how the term “species” should be understood has been changing even more recently!

It is difficult to tell exactly what is intended by “the plant bearing seed” and “the tree yielding fruit with seed in it”. “Esev”, “plant” is sometimes translated by the word, “herb”, and it can be found in the phrase, translated, “plant of the field”. Given that in Genesis 1: 29 the “plants bearing seed” and the “trees yielding fruit with seed in it” are described as food for man, the reference in 1: 11,12 might be meant to be so restricted.  “Plants bearing seed” might include, grains of various types and “trees yielding fruit with seed in it” might refer to what we commonly understand by fruit trees as well as plants with berries etc. Does this mean that other types of “plant life” are not referred to?  Not necessarily so. In Genesis 1: 30, “green ‘esev’”, perhaps a reference to grasses and other leafy vegetation, not explicitly mentioned in 1: 11, 12 is designated as food for creatures other than man.  Perhaps “the plant bearing seed” and “the tree yielding fruit with seed in it”, while being primarily understood as “plant life” suitable for food for man is also used as a general way of referring to “plant life” although even then the “plant life” might be understood as restricted to that which is edible by either man or other creatures.

However what is the significance of the reference to “seed” and “after its kind”?  “Light”, the “Heavens” or “Sky”, “Sea” and “Earth” are permanent.  Substantially they do not change.  Plants, on the other hand, come from the Earth but later they wither and die.  I know the text does not say that, but certainly, later, they are eaten. They are impermanent. Yet God has so made them that after a fashion they also are permanent.  They can be depended upon. They reproduce. The plants bearing seed will by their seed produce new plants that will have the same character as the plants that they came from.  The trees yielding fruit with seed in it will by their seed produce fruit trees that will have the same character as the fruit trees that they came from.  That is, perhaps what is being implied is faithful reproduction of type leading to permanence rather than simple type immutability.

By producing this plant life God has brought about more “form”, more structure, to what was originally the “formless” world. And in all of Days 1 to 3 there are no mythological elements so common in the creation accounts of others. There is God and the creation that he brings about.  The creation is not him but it is his handiwork. And now, just before Day 4 begins the world is ready to be filled with entities which “make use of” the form that God has created in those first three days.


October 26, 2010

A brief interlude – a comment about “baptism”

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 10:19 pm

Some time ago I produced two blog series on Baptism.  In those I argued that in the Classical/Hellenistic world, the verb “baptizo” had very little to do with any ceremony and that it was sometimes used metaphorically both within and beyond the N.T. On the basis of this evidence and by appealing to other textual matters of the N.T., I concluded that “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in Matthew 28: 19 could be understood metaphorically.  If so understood, the instruction Jesus gave would have the sense of “immersing, engulfing” those to be made disciples in all that pertains to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – that is, being thoroughly taught about them and being brought under that one name, that one authority.  In the context of Matthew 28: 19, 20, that is what being made a disciple would fundamentally appear to mean anyway.

Recently a counter argument was brought to my attention. It went something like this: before Matthew’s Gospel was written, the idea that baptism was understood as a water ceremony was well established.  When his Gospel was written, Matthew must have used the word with this sense in mind. 

It is true, and well recognised, as indicated in the earlier blog series, that from the time of John the Baptiser, the word “to baptise” did come to be associated with a water ceremony, but not exclusively so.  It is also true that the early believers would have become very familiar with the use of the water ceremony. However, the word “baptizo” was also still being used metaphorically in the Greek speaking world at large. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel would have realised this and would have recognised that it would still be possible to understand his words metaphorically.  We don’t know how much the writer was aware of any other N.T. writings that were circulating at the time he wrote his Gospel but anyone familiar with some of Paul’s letters would have been aware of his metaphorical usage of “baptizo” and its related nouns (see 1 Cor. 10: 2 and arguably a number of other texts including 1 Cor. 15: 29). Furthermore it was also being used metaphorically by other Gospel writers in recording the words of Jesus (see Mark 10: 38, 39 and Luke 12: 50). Both Paul’s letters and Mark’s Gospel (upon which Matthew’s appears to be partly dependent) and perhaps Luke’s Gospel were probably around before Matthew’s Gospel.  Additionally, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel would surely have been aware that when people were baptised in the very early days they were baptised in the name of Jesus Christ or the Lord Jesus (see Acts 2: 38, 8: 16, 10: 48, 19: 5) not in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Consequently he surely would have realised that his use of the name of the triune God was not consonant with the practice of the water ceremony in those early days.  Finally, Matthew’s Gospel itself uses the verb metaphorically when John the Baptiser refers to Jesus who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.  

Rather than concluding that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel had to use “baptizo” in 28: 19 in the sense of a water ceremony, the evidence indicates that he may have used it metaphorically.

Justin Martyr in his Apologia 1, written about 150- 155 AD, well after Matthew’s Gospel was circulating, in his reference to water baptism being in the name of the Father … and in the name of Jesus Christ … and in the name of the Holy Spirit, outlines a practice that would seem to be based on an understanding that the text in Matthew is a reference to water baptism. The Didache (possibly written much earlier than the Apologia 1, though much later dates are also postulated), probably supports a similar understanding. On the other hand, the apocryphal “Acts of Peter”, and Hermas’ the “Shepherd”, written about the same time as the Apologia 1 or earlier, given their reference to ceremonial baptisms being conducted simply in the name of the Lord (similar to the references in the Acts of the Apostles), may indicate that a different understanding was held in their case.

However, whatever we think the text of Matthew means, our primary arguments surely should be rooted in the language of the textual material itself and not in the writings of those who wrote about practices which may have had the text in mind.

October 25, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part VI)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 10:57 pm

Genesis 1: 3-5 – Day 1

“Then God said, ‘Let light be’ and light was. And God saw the light that (it was) good and God made a separation between the light and the darkness and God called the light, “Day”; and he called the darkness, “Night”; and there was evening and there was morning the first day.”

With a majestic command, God brings light into existence where to begin with there was only darkness.  With a modern understanding of things in mind we might be tempted to think that the text refers to God bringing into existence photons having frequencies in the region of visible light or even electromagnetic radiation of all frequencies.  But this would be a misunderstanding of the text. God is certainly portrayed as bringing “light” into existence but it is light which is marked off from darkness and called “Day”.  Darkness, having a contrast with this light that God created is now called “Night”.   Whereas, before the act of creating “light”, there was only darkness, now with the light existing and light being separated from the darkness, there is now “Day” and “Night”.  One might also be tempted to say that in Day 1, God has created “time”.  From our point of view that would seem to be correct.  Day progresses to night and so on, indicating that there has been a passage of time.  But again, “time” is what we might like to focus on when handling this passage but that does not appear to be the concern of the writer when referring to Day 1.  We will deal with something like our notion of  time when we get to Day 4.

At this point, the modern reader is tempted to believe that there is, at least on the surface, a problem.  It is not until Day 4 that God says, “Let light bearers be … to make a separation between the day and the night.” To deal with this problem some have suggested that in Day 1 the sun and the moon etc. were created but the earth was enshrouded in a vapour which prevented a theoretical observer from observing them.  (That is, the description is in terms of what would appear to be the situation if there had have been an observer.) Then, on Day 4, the vapour was dissipated.  However, the Hebrew text of 1: 14 that speaks of the separation between the day and the night is very similar to the Hebrew text of 1: 4 that refers to the separation between the light called “Day” and the darkness called “Night”.  I think the best approach is to leave the text to say what it seems to say without producing a “scientific” explanation and without appealing to an observer’s point of view in order to solve a perceived problem.

Prior to Day 1, the reader has been informed that the earth (referring to something more comprehensive than our geographical earth) was “without form and void”.  This formlessness and void are regarded as fundamental characteristics of the “earth”. The terms describe what is not there.  The “darkness” and the “watery deep” are in a different category being descriptors of what is there. In Days 1 to 6 that formlessness and void on the one hand and darkness and watery mass on the other hand are confronted.  The “earth” changes dramatically.  In Day 1, a certain aspect of form comes into existence – light is created and separated from the darkness and darkness is now confined.  Differentiation has occurred, where there was only formlessness before.  In Day 4, with respect to light, the void is partly dealt with.  Light bearers come into existence.  This idea that formlessness and void are dealt with throughout Days 1 to 6 will be appealed to from time to time, when Days 2 to 6 are discussed later.

That is, in Day 1, light is introduced to bring about some “form” – differentiation between day and night.  In Day 4, light bearers are introduced to bring about some “non-void”.  We might like some neat description of creation that satisfies our interest in cause and effect (e.g. that the sun produces light) but the writer of Genesis has a different interest.  He wants to tell us how God dealt with “formlessness” and “void”.  Others of surrounding cultures had a similar type of problem to address – how “function” and “role” came into existence where they had had no previous existence.  However, the way that Genesis deals with this type of issue has no parallel in the ancient world.

It can be argued that the light that God brought into existence on Day 1 is not only that light that is associated with the sun, moon and “stars” but is a reference to “light” whatever its source.  This argument could be based on the belief that surely the Hebrew would know that light also came from flames and that he might also be aware of the existence of luminescent objects.  However we need to remember that there does appear to be a close connection between Day 4 and Day 1 and that in Day 1 the light is named, “Day”.  Perhaps the reference to “light” in Day 1 is simply a reference to “daylight”.

Of course there are questions, other than what is meant by “light” that suggest themselves, when considering Day 1. What does God actually do when he says, “Let light be”? What does it mean that God saw that it was good? What is implied in his naming the light and the darkness? What does the word “day” in the phrase, “the first day” mean? What does “the phrase “the evening and the morning” mean?  These questions or similar could be asked again when dealing with subsequent days.  With perhaps few exceptions such questions will be considered only here.

How did God create the light?  The writer simply says that God said, “Let light be.”  We must not look for any scientific reference.  The impression that is being conveyed however is that God is extraordinarily powerful.  He orders and it is done. No great ruler no matter with what backing he could issue any command, could ever do what God does. No workman no matter how great his skill no matter how powerful his arm could ever create what God creates. We are being introduced to raw untrammelled power and authority. However there is probably more to what is recorded than this perspective.  In the ancient world (and indeed today) some people and certain gods are sometimes portrayed as changing and controlling situations by artful cunning, words of magic and the like whereby they are able to manipulate their world (see Walton, ANETOT, pp. 264-266, 336, 340).  God uses no such means.  He does not have to revert to special words of power.  His words, simply given are powerful because he is powerful.  If additionally we ask what language God spoke, we will have missed the point.  Language does not really come into it.  It is not that the notion of God and his word is not an important notion taken up from time to time in the rest of Scripture, it is simply that we are asking a question that is misguided in its interest.  The words of God express his intention.   We are told of his intention by the phrase, “And God said …”

The word, “good” (Hebrew tov) is somewhat like our English word “good” in that it has a wide range of meanings.  In Days 1 to 6, tov probably conveys the idea that God is very pleased with his work – it is an extraordinary work – it does whatever he intends, exactly what he intends – it is admirably suited for his purposes.  When God, as it were, stands back from the light that he has brought into being and says, “This is good!”  He is also saying there is nothing bad, evil or frustrating in any sense in what He has made.  He says this where peoples in cultures outside of Israel, seeing the work of their gods and the gods themselves could not possibly say that.

It might be significant that in all of Days 1 to 6 where the expression, “And God saw that (it was) good” occurs, it is only in Day 1, where the entity that has been created is explicitly mentioned after the reference to God.  The text reads, “And God saw the light that (it was) good”.  Perhaps being the first thing that God created and being of the great significance that it was leads to the emphasis that seems to be given to “light”.

That God names the light and the darkness could be an indication that he has authority over them dictating for what they in fact have been made.  They can function only in accordance with his will.  He is in charge of them. They have no authority over him.  He has not come from them.  He deals with them for his own purposes.  Walton has a slightly different perspective (ANETOT, p. 188).  He refers to Egyptian and Babylonian literature in which creator gods pronounce the names of entities (even other gods) so bringing them into existence by the actual naming of them.

Having called the light “Day” and the darkness “Night” the reference to the first day that almost immediately follows could simply be a reference to what we might describe as the daylight hours.  In the ancient world, when people worked they generally worked during daylight.  That God brought light into existence on the first day probably carries with it the imagery of God working “during” a day as mankind worked during a day.  Referring to daylight lasting for something like a 12 hour period is a modern way of describing the period of daylight.  The text could be referring to God as though he did what he did within such a time period, without of course making any reference to “hours”.  Walton (Genesis, p. 81) having a different point of view, argues that “day” in the phrase, “there was evening and there was morning, the first day” is probably a reference to what we would consider to be a 24 hour period. Certainly, understanding “day” to refer to a very long period of time is difficult to justify, by referring to the text alone.

But what of the meaning of that part of the phrase, “there was evening and there was morning”?  This matter has generated much debate.  And perhaps few of us are much the wiser! The phrase is not consonant with the later Jewish way of reckoning a day which is understood as commencing with the beginning of an evening and ending with the ending of the daylight that comes after that evening.  Perhaps the writer by first referring to “evening” is trying to convey the idea that God finished his work before the evening, the working day having come to an end.  That he refers to “morning” secondly, however, is a puzzle.  Is he saying something like, “the evening came, (the day having begun with the morning), the end of the first working day”?  At least this seems to fit in with the notion that the “Day” is the name given to the light in opposition to the “Night”, the name given to the darkness in its new confined state.   And of course in order for the writer to refer to the first Day etc. it would be necessary to have some understanding of “day” in the first place.   Walton, (Genesis, p. 80) however, argues that on day 1, God sets up alternating periods of day and light with the first “transition” occurring at evening, daylight having just been created, and so evening has to be mentioned first.   The next morning marks the next transition.  Days 2 to 6 then use the same terminology.

But whatever our explanation, the first day comes and goes yet with lasting effects.

October 23, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part V)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 1:17 am

Genesis 1: 1, 2 – The Introduction to the Six Days

The opening words of Genesis could be understood as an introduction to what is to follow or a summary of what is to follow or even an introduction which amounts to a summary of what follows.  And with respect to the first 3 verses, they could be translated, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being formless and empty, darkness being … God said, ‘Let there be light …’”, or “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty and darkness was … And God said, “Let there be light …’”.  See Walton, J.H., Genesis, The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, pp. 69, 70 for another alternative and some discussion on these alternatives.

Again, the temptation is to write into the text, what one wishes it would say.  If there is a belief that a long period of time is involved somewhere in creation in order to accommodate a modern perspective that the universe is very old, then one might see the first verse as dealing with an initial creation followed by an indeterminate time period before the creation episodes of Days 1 to 6.  If there is a concern for the account to indicate that creation has to begin with God bringing into existence all things when previously there was nothing, perhaps appealing to something akin to Hebrews 11: 3 (the universe being formed so that is seen was not made out of what was visible), then one might claim the following: the opening verses of Genesis state that first of all God made an earth that was formless and empty, but covered with water and it was in darkness.

Adopting either of these positions is understandable but I will adopt a different position here. But first a few words about “the heavens” and “the earth”. Their mention in 1: 1 seems to be a reference to “everything” since 2: 1 again mentions them in a type of concluding statement – “And the heavens and the earth were completed.”  It is a reminder to us of how Hebrew words like “heavens” or “earth” can have a more inclusive or less inclusive reference. It could be a mistake to see “the heavens” and “the earth” of 1: 1 as simply referring to the firmament of 1: 8 and the dry land of 1: 10 respectively.

Some of what follows has been gleaned from the two works of Walton (Genesis, pp. 70-78 and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, pp. 179-199), though what is written here cannot do these writings justice.  In Egypt and Mesopotamia, the fundamental idea behind creation was not bringing into existence something which had not existed beforehand but bringing into existence function and role where that had not had a previous existence.  Walton contends that whereas we moderns are interested in questions such as, where matter came from, the basic concern of the ancient world of our focus was how the world came to have its ordered and functional characteristics.  The cosmologies of these ancients had very little to do with the manufacture of a material cosmos and their creation accounts typically begin with a “precosmic, unordered, nonfunctional world”.

Walton argues that “bara”, translated “create” in the Old Testament and only ever used there (about 50 times) of God as subject, is used throughout the Old Testament with a sense consonant with the idea of creation held by the surrounding cultures –  that is, having the sense of bringing about ordered functionality but not necessarily materiality.  Thus, the suggestion is that God’s creation of the heavens and the earth in 1: 1 is an introductory- summary type of reference to his bringing about primarily, a world that had ordered functionality rather than primarily, materiality.  Consequently, 1: 2 can be understood as a description of the “precosmic, unordered, non-functional world” and that what follows is God creating fundamentally order and function but doing this by bringing into existence things that were not.  That is, God is not being described as bringing into existence this precosmic, unordered, non-functional world, but that he begins with it. His actual acts of creation are to be found in the descriptions of Days 1 to 6.  It is not being implied here that God did not bring all things into existence, surely the rest of Scripture justify the conclusion that he did, but that Genesis 1: 1-2 and following does not fundamentally deal with the creation of something from nothing – it begins with the unordered non-functional.

The writer of Genesis works with a viewpoint and a concern common to his day but with an understanding of God, his relationship with the world and his purposes for his world totally different to those associated with the gods of the surrounding cultures.  Indeed I think either translation given above for Genesis 1: 1 probably conveys the correct basic sense.  And Genesis 1: 2 tells us what this precosmic condition was like.  It had no structure and no well defined elements separate from one another. It was dark – there was no light.  There was a “watery deep” but unlike in other cultures, this “watery deep” was not a personification for a god or goddess.  It was simply a god-free watery deep.

And then there was “the wind of God”.  Or should we translate it, “the Spirit of God” moving over the waters – the word, “ruach” being translated either as “wind” or “spirit”? Or should we consider it to be both the wind and the Spirit of God that is hovering or circling over the waters? Quite possibly, since for the Hebrew, God is behind the existence and the functioning of wind but perhaps more to the point, not only is God not of this material world, but likewise, probably to the Hebrew mind, neither is the wind.  Perhaps the wind is part of the precosmic condition but being termed the wind/the Spirit of God we are alerted to the fact that God is about to work with the precosmic world to bring functional entities into existence.  The formless, the void, the darkness and the deep are about to change.  The one and only great creator, God, never to be confused with his world, is about to bring about that world and for the reasons he will make clear.

October 17, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part IV)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 9:47 pm

My conclusion is that “raqia” should be understood as a reference to something like a solid and strong but sheet-like canopy which the writer of Genesis thought of as real and not a description of how things simply appeared to be; that to perceive it to mean something akin to our understanding of “atmosphere” is to write into the text a modern understanding and so undermine the integrity of the text. From one point of view, it is better to believe that there is a solid sky above than to treat the text in such a way as to meet one’s own wishes. 

In a previous blog series I endeavoured to point out that “leb/lebab”, often translated “heart”, throughout the O.T. is a reference to an entity, one way or another, from which, among other things, our thinking and emotions are thought to emanate; that the ancient Hebrew is generally not thinking metaphorically when referring to “the heart” as we often do; that he displays no understanding that something we call “the brain” is involved in thinking and feeling; that he is simply operating with an idea, that apparently everyone else around him shared, that “the heart” was the thinking and feeling organ which today we regard as a double pump for the circulation of blood.  That he should understand the “raqia” to be a solid sky is no different.

To come to such a conclusion might mean that some of us need to come to a different understanding of what it means when we proclaim that the Bible is the word of God.  Although the Timothy text refers to the O.T. scriptures and although it simply occurs as part of the letter’s reference to Timothy’s upbringing, 2 Timothy 3: 15, 16 is worth pondering on again.  It reads, “… the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV).  The scriptures will do all that God intends without their having to conform to the modern thinking about the natural but God created world.  Rather, the position adopted here is that, in one text or another, there will be indications that Scripture contains understandings of our natural world that were commonly held by others but which we do not agree with today.  At the same time it should be said, with emphasis, that the Scriptures, perhaps especially these early chapters of Genesis, contain understandings of God, his created world and his relationship with that world which have no parallel or likeness in the ancient world.

Back to Day 2.  The “raqia” had an extraordinary beginning and was intended for an extraordinary purpose.  God effortlessly said, “Let there be a ‘raqia’ between the waters in order to separate water from water” and there was. Then he used it to separate water from water with the result that there was water above it and water below it.  With it he pushed some water away and created space between that water and the other water. Where was any of this water to begin with? It was there before the first day.  We shall return to this matter later when discussing Genesis 1: 1, 2. 

Seely in a second paper (See Seely, P.H., “The Firmament and the Water above – Part II: The meaning of ‘The Water above the Firmament’ in Gen 1: 6-8”, Westminster Theological Journal, 54, 1992, 31 – 46) claims that in the ancient world, it is very uncommon to find any notion that there was water on the other side of the sky.  The Babylonians certainly held to such an idea; there is some reference to the notion in some Egyptian literature and occasionally the idea finds expression in some Indian literature, though the claim has been made the Indian material was borrowed from the Babylonians.  The inference from this is that the Hebrews shared a belief in there being water on the other side of “the sky” with the Babylonians.  In the early centuries AD the evidence is that while the Christians did not have to argue that the sky was solid because their Greaco-Roman contemporaries already believed that, they did have to argue that there was water on the other side, because that was not a shared belief.

Watson, (See Watson, J.H., Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006) cites Egyptian and Mesopotamian material that refer to water being held back by the sky (pp. 169, 170). “In Mesopotamia Marduk assigns guards to keep the heavenly waters from flooding the earth.  These waters are the remnants of Tiamat’s body which was split to form the waters above and the waters below.” “Egyptian texts refer to the heavenly ocean … the cool or upper waters of Horus.  The sun god’s barque travels from horizon to horizon across this heavenly ocean.”  We should notice how free the Genesis text is of any reference to any god intimately associated with the “sky” either with respect to its nature, its origin or any part it regularly plays in connection with a god.  The God of Genesis 1: 6 – 8 is not like the gods of the surrounding nations.  He is outside of the sky, bringing it into existence effortlessly for a one-off purpose.  He is not to be confused with it in any way and it has been brought into existence by his will.  What is said about the “raqia” and its purpose and how God determines both, acts as a type of polemic in the Hebrew’s world.  Other peoples have got it wrong.  Their understanding of the gods is in error.  Their understanding of the relationship the gods have with the world is in error.  We shall return to these claims from time to time as we work through the rest of the Days.  Watson also refers to beliefs that people has about things like the origin of rain and holes in “the sky”.  We might comment on such matters later.

What did God do in Day 2?  He began to bring order into the chaotic world described in verse 2.  This is the God who is completely in charge.  It was formless but now he begins to give it form. He sets the scene for Days 3, 4 and 5.  More will be said about Day 2 when we examine Day 5 in particular. 

Before we leave Day 2 let us return to the matter of there being no “And God saw that it was good.” As we shall see when examining the other Days, the entities about which these words are said have a fairly obvious “goodness’ about them.  However in the case of “raqia” its “goodness” is in terms of what it enables and what it enables becomes obvious as the following days unfold.  Perhaps that is the reason for the absence of “And God saw that it was good”.

In the blogs that follow I will continue to look at the text of the six Days in some detail in an attempt to give it the integrity that it deserves.  However, later on, I will ask some more fundamental questions about the text and its overall nature and significance and what to make of it in light of some modern understandings of the origin of the universe, earth and life on the earth.

October 16, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part III)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 12:17 am

Day 2 – Genesis 1: 6 – 8

It may seem a strange place to start but the reason for beginning at Day 2 should soon become clear.  Later we shall return to Day 1 and the verses preceding.

Day 2 is interesting for a number of reasons.  It is the only day with respect to which there is no reference to “And God saw that it was good”.  There is a temptation to believe that one of the two such references in Day 3 has been misplaced and originally was associated with Day 2.  However there is no evidence that that has occurred.  

More importantly is the reference in Day 2 to the “raqia” – the “firmament” or “expanse”.  We are faced with the problem of “What does it actually mean?”  According to Dillow, (See Dillow, J.C., The Waters Above, Moody Press, Chicago, 1981), “the expanse of ‘firmament’ was probably just what it means to people today – the atmospheric heavens.” (p. 11). On the other hand, Seely (see Seely, P.H., “The Firmament and the Water above: Part I: The meaning of raqia in Genesis 1: 6-8”, Westminster Theological Journal, 1991, 227-240) believes that it refers to a solid sky.

It seems to be generally accepted that the verbal cognate of “raqia” – “raqa” means something like, “stamp”, “beat” or “spread out”.  If one places the emphasis on “spread out”, as does Dillow, then you might conclude that “raqia” refers to something like our understanding of atmosphere, something spread out, but diffuse.  One of the problems with this understanding is that it looks like one is reading into the word an understanding of the entity which is associated with what we breathe, what enables flight, what is involved in wind etc. – a modern concept, with little evidence that the ancient Hebrew world had such a concept.  One might want to say that the evidence for such is the word “raqia” itself.  But that is hardly an argument.  The Hebrew of the O.T. in its use of the word “ruach” indicates that concepts of breath and wind were held but there is no clear indication of the concept of “atmosphere” being in existence.  The concept of “space” could have been conveyed by another Hebrew word.  In fact the idea that “raqia” could refer to “atmosphere” seems to be only a few centuries old.  Furthermore, the idea that something is “stamped’, “beaten” or “spread out” implies that what you have is something that is relatively thin but still held together and not ethereally thin.  According to Seely, an examination of Jewish and Christian writings in ancient times clearly indicates that the “sky” was understood to be of a solid nature with no evidence that it was perceived as being something akin to our concept of “atmosphere”.  In fact in Seely’s analysis there is no evidence of anyone anywhere believing in other than a solid sky with the exception of a Chinese work suggesting that the sky might be limitless in depth, a work written around 200 AD.

In Genesis 1: 8 God calls the “raqia” “the heavens” often translated, “sky”.  As a consequence appeal is sometimes made to references to “the heavens” in Scripture for an understanding of “raqia” given that the use of the word “raqia” or its cognates is relatively rare. That Psalm 104: 2 and Isaiah 34: 4, for example, refer to the heavens as being a “curtain” and “scroll” respectively seems to clearly indicate that metaphorical descriptions of the “raqia” or at least “the heavens” are sometimes in mind. While accepting these descriptions as metaphorical, it could be argued that the references to “curtain” and “scroll” in themselves do not refer to something diffuse but something solid, though relatively thin and spread out.  Furthermore, while God calls the “raqia” “the heavens”, “raqia” seems to be something which is subsumed within the notion of “the heavens” as a whole.  For instances Genesis 1: 14, 15 and 17 refer to “the ‘raqia’ of the heavens” and the reference to “the heavens” in Genesis 1: 1 seems to be a reference to an entity not confined to the “raqia”.

There are 16 references to “raqia” or a cognate in the O.T.  Eight are found in Genesis 1, five occur in Ezekiel, two in the Psalms and one in Daniel.  Psalm 19: 1; 150: 1 and Daniel 12: 3 refer to something which could legitimately be translated “the firmament” or “expanse”, depending on your preference. The five references in Ezekiel (1: 22, 23, 25, 26; 10: 1) taken together are arguably references to a precise entity under which and over which things exist, described as “sparkling like ice” in Ezekiel 1:22.

Seely’s arguments for why we should understand “raqia” as something solid are substantial.  For instance, he argues that not only did all people in the ancient world think of the sky as solid, they also did not make a distinction between it having such an appearance and what it was “really” like. There were widespread ideas of the sky having holes and for some peoples, it could be touched, some items could be attached to it and it could move up and down.  He claims that in Genesis 1, the birds fly in the heavens upon the face of the “raqia” not within it, God set the stars and probably the two great lights in the “raqia” (which surely could not be the atmosphere as we understand it) and while God divided the light from the darkness (two intangibles) without making anything to enable it, the “raqia” was made to divide the waters (two tangibles).

What is the problem about concluding that by “raqia” is meant something like a solid sky?  I take it that the difficulty is that we understand that there is no such thing as a solid sky and if “raqia” means a solid sky then there is something in Genesis 1 that is mistaken.  And then the question is asked, “How can the Bible, if it is indeed God’s word contain something which is mistaken?”

October 13, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part II)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 12:28 am

The problem

Let us focus on the creation account of Genesis 1: 1- 2: 3.  At the outset the main problem, the obvious problem, is to work out what it all means.   However, so much has been said and written over the last 2000 years about how to understand this text that it seems both audacious and futile to attempt to say anything more.  The difficulty we all face is to choose which understanding is the correct one or even to decide if is there a correct understanding.

From early days an ongoing question was to determine where in the account is there a mention of the creation of angels.  This might seem like us today to be an absurd problem but it was not so for many who came before, who thought that the record must refer to the creation of all things.  Is their creation caught up simply in the first verse – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” or was the creation of light on the first day a reference to their being brought into existence?  Of course there were many other questions, as there continue to be up to this day.  Here are some of them.

Did God create all things in a six normal day time period or did he create the world instantaneously?  Are the first three days, abnormal days and the last three, ordinary days given that “the greater light to govern the day” is only mentioned on day four?  Are “days” ways of referring to very long periods of time? Is the seventh day the same sort of day as the first six days?  And what about the “day” of 2: 4?  Does it not seem as though the word translated “the day” takes on again a different meaning in 2: 4 where it seems to have the sense of “the occasion”? What does the recurring phrase, “there was evening and there was morning” really mean?

Interpreting the days allegorically was not an uncommon approach from the early centuries AD and onwards, seeing in them, for instances, spiritual truths over and above anything seemingly obvious in the text or references to historical developments in God’s plan of things.  The problem became one of coming up with the correct analogy.  There was a time when it was considered that there were different ways to handle the text and that each way was legitimate, though some ways were considered more valuable than others.

Is 1:1 an introductory statement preparing the reader for what is to follow or is it a reference to what God as a preliminary did – creating the stuff that he then worked on during the six days or is it a summary statement of what he basically did during those six days?  Does a correct understanding of 1:1 allow for the recognition that there was a gap (perhaps a very long gap) in time between what occurred in 1:1 and what follows?  What does “firmament” or “expanse” – two alternative translations of the Hebrew word “raqia” -mentioned in day two actually refer to?  Luther thought it referred to a solid sky whereas Calvin believed it referred to the atmosphere.  A very useful survey of various understandings is Robert Letham’s article, “‘In the Space of Six days’: the days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly”, Westminster Theological Journal, 61, 1999, 149-174.

Presumably many of our alternative understandings arise because we already have an idea of what the text ought to say.  That is we approach the text with a particular hermeneutic.  The text has to be such that everything that God has created is covered by the text (and that includes angels). Or, the text must be in agreement with what we know the world is actually like – the Scriptures cannot contain anything that we know is false, even scientific things – the “raqia” cannot refer to a solid sky because we know the sky is not solid.  Or the days must be long days because we know that the world has evolved over a long period of time.  Or the days must be ordinary days because that is what the text seems to say and evolutionary theories both cosmological and biological are in opposition to the idea that God is the creator.  Or in order to understand the text we need to look at other literature found in cultures nearby to Israel and look at the text in the light of this literature because it would undoubtedly reflect some thought forms and literary conventions of those cultures.

We might think it possible to simply come to the text with a completely open mind and just treat it for what it is, not reading anything into it in any way.  Unfortunately it can’t be done.  Whatever our beliefs that we bring to bear upon the passage, we have to work with a language – an ancient language.  The meaning of this ancient language doesn’t sit upon its surface in some obvious way.  Fundamentally it is imbedded or found in the language and the culture in which the language operated.  And it’s not a language or culture with which anyone can say that he or she is completely familiar.  And to come to an understanding of that language we have to bring to it, to some extent, certain ideas about “what things are like” – that there is land and sea and light and that we have a reasonably correct idea of the concepts involved and further assume that these concepts apply to some extent to aspects of the text itself.  That words which seem to refer to “in the midst of” and “above” and “under” can be conceptualised appropriately. Furthermore, although this is hopefully a minor matter, in the case of the text under discussion, we have to examine what is thought to represent something like the original text. 

Well, where and how should we now begin as we try to tackle afresh Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3? In the light of history, we ought at least to act cautiously and not imagine that we shall get it all right.  It is safe to assume that nobody ever has.

October 10, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part I)

Filed under: Christianity,Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 3:41 am

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3

We live in an age of scepticism concerning things Christian – the gospel and the fundamentals that underpin it. This scepticism has many facets.  Questions arise that are of an historical, moral or philosophical nature.  However perhaps the most common doubts with respect to the claims of the Bible, if not downright denials of the claims, in our society, have as their origin matters of a scientific nature. 

Today, this type of scepticism is undoubtedly fuelled directly by the writings of such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking and many like them or indirectly when their views are given popular expression in the media.  In the year 2003, 149 professional evolutionary scientists who had been elected to membership in 28 honorific national academies around the world were asked a number of questions to elicit among other things their belief or otherwise in a personal God not necessarily the God of the Bible. Only 2 out of 149, could be described simply but fundamentally as theists.  The rest described themselves in terms beyond and way beyond any simple idea of theism. These results are symptomatic of a world-wide ever increasing academic scepticism of religion generally, let alone Christianity.  Of course there has always been some scepticism but the evidence is that such scepticism has been on the rise. In 1914 a survey carried out among those classified as “greater” American scientists found that 32 % believed in a personal God – a God to whom one could pray in the expectation of receiving an answer. The same questionnaire was repeated in 1933.  Now, however, belief in a personal God had dropped to 13 %. In both of these polls a belief in God was less common among biologists than among physical scientists. In 1998 another poll found that only 10% of members of the National Academy of Sciences believed in God. What was discovered in all three surveys was that these scientists’ lack of belief in a personal God was accompanied by a similar disbelief in immortality. The 2003 survey simply indicated that matters have become even more serious.  Of course such unbelief doesn’t confine itself to the academic world. The increasing scepticism of the western and beyond the western academic world is slowly but steadily filtering from that world into the thinking world at large.

Questions such as the following lie at the back of many people’s minds.

Is the God of the Bible real?  Surely Jesus was just a man who was well known as a teacher but could never have performed the miraculous so often attributed to him.  His death was a tragedy but presumably his so-called resurrection a hoax or the creation of the self-deluded.  What about all those other planets we are recently discovering? Doesn’t their existence strongly suggest that there are other life forms in our universe, life forms of which the Bible knows nothing? Haven’t the well established facts of evolution and our knowledge of how the universe came into being put the lie to God being the creator?  We now know that the first humans appeared hundreds of thousands of years ago – that doesn’t seem to fit in with notions of an Adam and Eve just a few thousand years in the past. The universe has been around for a very long time, for 13 or so thousand million years but Christianity is only a recent phenomenon and seems to have only recent events in mind.  We now know that our world will continue to exist for millions of years yet to come. The idea that God in the near future would make a new heaven and a new earth seems preposterous.  The belief that all of humanity would one day rise from the dead and that the behaviour of all humans would be examined by a cosmic judge, seems like something to frighten little children.  Surely the psychologists and sociologists of today give us an understanding of morality and human behaviour that makes the Bible antiquated and positively unhelpful if not dangerous.

One of the most significant areas that we believers need to address is the scepticism that arises because of what is perceived to be the consequences for belief of commitment to certain cosmological, biological evolutionary, anthropological, psychological and sociological theories.  This blog series will attempt to examine afresh the early chapters of Genesis to see what implications there are for such theories.  Its main emphasis however will be the text of Scripture itself rather than the theories themselves.

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