Barry Newman's Blog

November 28, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 9:58 pm

Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 and Biological Evolutionary Theory

The evidence claimed for biological evolutionary theory is substantial, whether or not one is committed to it.  Appeal is made to the fossil record in combination with various types of radio – isotropic and bio – chemical data.  Certain changes in species and the distribution of species throughout the world, readily observed in modern times, are matters also considered relevant, along with a mechanism considered plausible as to how evolutionary changes might occur.  This is not to say that there are not many aspects of the theory still being worked on or that there are not numerous “puzzles” still to be solved.  The theory is such that it is difficult to see how it could be conclusively “falsified” but that is also true of “well adhered to” scientific theories in general.  Some scientific theories simply “fade away” as the puzzles remaining to be solved become too numerous, or simply remain unsloved for too long a time, when alternative theories become available that seem more attractive or as adherents to the original theory reduce in number!

One of the objections that some Christians have to biological evolutionary theory is the role that chance or randomness seems to play in that theory.  Another is that it seems improper that man is a descendant of earlier non-human life forms.  Again another is that it would seem improbable that God would set something in motion that would operate for such a long time before mankind appeared. Yet another is that the theory envisages evolutionary development to be ongoing today.

According to biological evolutionary theory variation in the genetic species is due in part to seemingly random processes including, mutations (changes to the chemical makeup of genes), genes being repositioned within the chromosomes, genes of one species being taken over by another species, and all of the DNA or RNA of one species being incorporated into the genetic makeup of another.  (The evolutionary relationship between species is in part determined by the extent and nature of the similarity in genetic makeup.) Other seemingly random events affecting the evolution of species include changes to the environment with which the species is interacting.  Such changes can be subtle, gradual whether subtle or not, or dramatic. Much of the mechanism of evolutionary development is put down to “natural selection” by which survival and reproduction of an organism, generally considered as part of a population, is either assisted or hindered, given the nature of the environment.  Speciation can also be assisted by a process termed “genetic drift”, often important in small isolated populations, in which the frequency of traits passed on from one generation to another changes, seemingly randomly.  In reality it needs to be noted, that there is not one simple absolutely cohesive biological evolutionary theory agreed by all evolutionary biologists.  There are a number of competing theories that deal with various aspects of the main theory though in the course of time their number might diminish considerably.

I refer to “seemingly random” partly because a strict determinist, relying on something like the immutability of natural laws, would probably claim that all such changes conform to a rigid cause and effect regime.  Events are referred to as “random” when the processes are too complicated to tease out all the relevant cause and effect relationships involved or when for other reasons the relevant information required to make judgements on what exactly caused what and when is simply not available and in some cases, perhaps cannot ever be available.  None the less, there is a deep down commitment by scientists to strict cause and effect associations that are in conformity to what may be described as “natural law”.  Furthermore, given that “law” is involved, it is assumed that these cause and effect relationships are always inevitable.  While such a commitment seems a necessary one for the scientific enterprise to proceed there are some difficulties associated with this assumption.  

First of all we cannot ever be absolutely sure that what we have decided is a law actually holds up in all instances or in fact is even a reasonably good description of what the universe is like and that indeed it will not be replaced by a “better” law.  Furthermore at the level of the very small, our observations cannot but affect what we hope to observe so that it is no longer what we intended to observe.  This problem is encapsulated in what is known as “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle”.   (It could even be that there is “uncertainty”, seen as such from our perspective, built into the very fabric of the universe.)  Furthermore in our consideration of the very small we come across odd phenomena that are very difficult to conceptualise, for example, the phenomenon of “entanglement” in which measuring the property of one “object” seems to “immediately” bring about the determination of another “object” some distance away.  It is indeed, from our point of view, a strange universe.  None the less, given a commitment to the idea of scientific law, and while recognising the limitations we have in observing the phenomena of our world one might question whether random processes really are random.

Whether one wants to view biological evolutionary theory as a theory entailing randomness or of strict but unobservable causality, the question remains, “What is the relevance of this theory for the notion of God as creator?”  If Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 is correct and if biological evolutionary theory is a really good theory then the theory could be a reasonably good description of how God brought living forms, including plant life, into existence.  That he used chance, deterministic means or any other processes to bring about his intended end, is not inconceivable though ultimately what might be chance to us might not be considered chance to him.  Or at least it would not in any way be considered by him to be outside of his sovereign control.

In recent times, a theory referred to as “Intelligent Design” has been proposed by some who point to, what they claim to be significant, the difficulties in adequately explaining the origins of various biological systems, for example, the human eye.  The theory appeals to what is known as “Information Theory” and the idea of “irreducible complexity”.  Without elaboration and perhaps without due respect for the theory, my own view is that the theory is not likely to be very productive, that it probably relies too heavily and inappropriately on “Information Theory” and that the existence of these types of complex systems referred to is in principle capable of an explanation – different explanations for different systems – without recourse to the Intelligent Design approach.

A final word about scientific law.  The laws are manmade.  We create them.  We modify them or even abandon them as we try to better understand our world.  They are based on the assumption that the world is characterised by regularity.  The biblical picture of the world and God who made it, is that God has created it to be such – a world that has a stable regularity about it and hence in principle predictable.  The extraordinary events, sometimes referred to as “miracles”, of the Bible, no matter how they might be explained, are exceedingly rare.  They are mainly found associated with the exodus of Israel from Egypt and her settling into the land of Canaan, the lives of two prophets, Elijah and Elisha and the last few years of the life of Jesus and the era of the Apostles immediately following.  There is little point in appealing to Scientific Law to exclaim that such extraordinary events cannot occur.  We are not entitled to tell the world what can or cannot happen.  We assume that certain things will not happen but that is just an assumption, as justifiable in ordinary circumstances as that might be.  The claim that Jesus rose again from the dead, appearing in our world in a genuine “physical form” but never to die again is a claim that on a scientific basis one might object to but one is not entitled to claim that it could not have happened.  If this is indeed God’s world, he can do with it whatever he chooses and whenever he chooses.  If at any time he chooses to do something extraordinary it will be for a purpose determined by him and it will be its extraordinary nature that will bring attention to itself and ultimately, in principle, to him.  Ordinary events do not attract such attention.

(To be continued)


November 25, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 9:33 pm

How did the author know what to write? & Christians and non-christians in disagreement

How did the author know about these things?   It might be helpful in answering this question, if we knew for sure who the author was.  We don’t.  But Moses wouldn’t be a bad guess even if he were only responsible for collecting earlier material, written or oral and had then acted as the final editor.  How would the author have acquired this information or how could he have known how to correctly edit any earlier material he worked from?   One possibility is that he could have received some direct revelation as Moses did on Mount Sinai.

Alternatively having learnt from God, by whatever means, what God was really like, working under the hand of God, he could have taken from the cultures, even his own culture, certain cosmological, geographical, biological and other understandings and moulded them into a correct account of God and his creation of the world.  Those “other understandings” might have included ideas concerning six or seven day events associated with the enthronement of the pagan gods, including the idea of the “rest” with which such matters were concluded.  This is not to deny that he would have been careful to dissociate himself from beliefs about those gods.  Another of his perspectives could have been the idea that the world was basically a functional entity.  Consequently functional characteristics, rather than causal explanations could have dominated his thinking on the issue of creation. His cosmological concepts could have included the view that in the beginning there was nothing of any consequence, simply a watery mass enshrouded in darkness and that the sky when it was created was solid with some water having been removed to the other side.   His geographical considerations could have entailed a view that the land formed a single continent and that all water ways were connected by some means or another.  His biological perspectives could have been shaped by those ones dominant in his world and perhaps in other creation accounts.  Furthermore he may have thought it helpful to idealise the account so that at the beginning of things death appeared to be absent or he may have simply believed this to be the case. The suggestion here is that the original author, making himself  available of whatever cosmological, geographical, biological etc. material he had at hand, shaped it, added to it and purified it with  a correct understanding of  the nature of God, his relationship with the world and mankind in particular.

It is not possible to prove this hypothesis beyond doubt but I think it is a likely one given how much of the Genesis account seems to reflect what can be found in nearby cultures, perhaps particularly the Babylonian culture.  What is not to be found in the literature of these other cultures is what the writer seems most intent upon portraying, matters such as: that the one and only God has created all things; that he has done so simply but with awesome power; that he has not created any other gods; that he has not had to overcome any gods or do battle with any powerful creatures; that he is completely distinct from creation though it is his creation; that of all of his creation, mankind is the most significant having been made in his image; that  creation has been set up in accordance with his kindness in a way that cares for mankind but ultimately in order for God to work out his purposes through mankind.

What is being suggested here is that by the power of God, in a manner that was disciplined by the author’s/editor’s correct understanding of God and God’s relationship with his world and mankind in particular, the author/editor working with raw material distilled from other cultures, constructed the creation account and connected it temporally with what he understood as the beginnings of mankind. Furthermore, the position assumed here is that he knew what he was doing and that others at the time knew what he was doing.  No one was deceived.  And everyone who read or heard and understood it was beneficially informed.  Furthermore, at the time, the account was understood as a completely acceptable account. The work having been inspired by God, it is proper to conclude that any ramifications or implications, for example, of the significance of the Sabbath day and the notion of “the word of God” flowing from the account into later theology, would be valid.  It could be argued that only later, with a loss of understanding of how the text came to be, and with a move that drifted from the importance of function and functionaries to an assumed importance of more relatively abstract notions, readers/hearers of the account assumed that explicit “how long”, “when”, and “how” matters were the main matters being affirmed.

Well then: How long did God really take to create the world? How did he really create it? When did he really create it?  These are questions which now fascinate us but the answers given to them at any time are not crucial for our salvation, our being forgiven and our justification. Nor does having incorrect answers to these questions prevent one’s redemption, being made God’s children and being sealed with the Holy Spirit.  However, my own view is that if we are interested in such questions, and the spirit of our age probably makes this a necessity, we are in a better position today to answer these questions than we have ever been in the past.  But you the reader will need to make up your own mind on such as various modern portrayals of biological evolutionary theory and cosmological claims and postulates.  For myself, I don’t think the Genesis account has anything to do with these types of theories. In my view it doesn’t endorse them (how could it?) or deny them.  However, many Christians today, not only recognise that the Genesis account does not endorse, for example, biological evolutionary theory; they will not ally themselves with it in any way. Walton, for example, strongly asserts that the Bible is opposed to biological evolutionary theory, claiming that, “the theology of the Bible leaves no room at all for such belief” (Genesis, p. 156).  Christians and even non-Christians disagree and often strongly disagree over such matters.

Let us now briefly examine some of the issues that underlie these disagreements. Undoubtedly, there are different viewpoints among Christians on notions such as “inerrancy”, “infallibility”, “inspiration” and what is understood by the phrase, “the word of God”.  Unfortunately, as pertinent as they are these matters are, they are too weighty to be dealt with in this blog series.  Matters such as “peer pressure” or the tendency we sometimes have to “oppose those who oppose us”, as significant as they can be in determining what Christians and non-Christians believe, will also be ignored.  Attention will simply be focussed upon two areas of modern scientific thought over which there is much contention especially between Christians and non-Christians: biological evolutionary theory and cosmological theory.

November 23, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 7:48 am

The questions we want to ask & How to read Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3

But what of the questions we want to ask, in spite of the document’s significance that it has in its own right and regardless of its being a document set within the culture of another age? The questions that we are readily tempted to ask can assume such importance as often to minimise, dwarf and almost totally obscure the otherwise extremely instructive material presented to us in Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 concerning God, his nature and his creation.

In spite of what has just been written we will now turn to the questions we still like to ask. Perhaps we have to do this, given the age in which we live. How long were the days really?  How did God create the world?  How long did he take? When did he create the world? How did the author know about these things? How long did he really take? How did he really create the world? When did God really create the world?  And what are we to make of modern evolutionary theories, both cosmological and biological?

We might argue that the duration of the days in the Genesis account is undefined or that they represent long periods of time or that at least the first three days were of long duration, because the sun didn’t make its appearance until the fourth day.  I think the reference on the first day to darkness being called “night” and the light being called “day” (meaning something like daylight) makes it fairly clear that each day represented either what we would call a 12 hour day with its following or previous night making up 24 hours, or what we refer to as a 24 hour day.  Over hundreds of years, if not thousands, if one went to the Genesis record to establish one’s cosmology it would be natural to say that the world was made in six ordinary days, unless one decided to interpret the text allegorically or in some other way symbolically.  For me the meaning is reasonably plain.  Days 1 to 6 and probably Day 7 as well, were six or seven ordinary days.  Basically, this is the view that Walton (Genesis, p. 156) takes.

How did God create the world?  The text simply says he spoke and it was so.  How long did he take? Certainly he took no longer than six days.  The text seems to imply that he worked during the daylight hours (if that makes sense for Days 1 to 3 as well as for Days 4 to 6), though there is little to prevent one from concluding that each creative act was but a moment long.  When did he create the world?  If we follow the rest of Genesis and among other things, take into account the ages given for certain people referred to there, and allow for incomplete but continuously successive genealogical material, we could conclude that the world was created about 6 to 10, 000 years ago. 

It may be judged that in coming to these conclusions I have simply adopted a literalistic understanding of the text.  However, I have attempted to understand the literary nature of the text by teasing out what it said and how it said it along with viewing both of these matters in the light of other related literature of its day. Indeed if, as I have outlined it, that is the way one is meant to read the text then it can be maintained that the understanding is a literal one rather than literalistic. The understanding is a literal one, not only in the sense that what it seems to say on the surface is the way that it should be understood, but also in the sense that understanding the nature of the literature has been paramount, from my point of view, in determining how the text should be understood.  However, I acknowledge that my understanding of the text is likely to be judged literalistic by the person who believes that the text should be understood differently to how I have outlined.  I suspect an appeal to “literal” and “literalistic” in this case is not helpful.

But please read on.

November 20, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 8:42 pm

What aspects of the world do Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 cover?

This is a difficult question to answer.  One of the problems is being able to correctly identify what was intended by the use of certain words. Furthermore, we will be tempted to approach the question with our modern understandings of the nature of the world in mind but the author, given the language used, works with concepts that belong to his world.  None the less in spite of these difficulties some attempt to answer the question will be given. 

As argued earlier, the preamble to Day 1 seems like an introductory summary with the creation account working from a “watery mass” already in existence.  If this view is correct, then from a modern perspective some aspects of the “stuff” of the cosmos are not taken account of in Days 1 to 6. Is the reference to light in Day 1 meant to cover all frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, dark energy (whatever that might be), and light produced from fire and luminescent objects?  Not likely!  In Day 2 reference is made to the “raqia” and water on the other side of it, neither of which we now believe exists.  In Day 3, it appears that we have a different understanding of how land is distributed around the earth to that of the author but certainly dry land makes its appearance.  It is also probable that his understanding of the nature of sea and its association with rivers, lakes and springs is quite different to ours. The reference to vegetation seems to focus on two types of plant life and presumably mosses and liverworts, for example, and not caught up in their description.  Day 4 refers to the stars and such a term may have included planets and even comets and meteors. However do we believe that the writer had in mind that the stars could also refer to galactic systems?  There is some evidence that in the ancient world, the stars were considered to be very tiny objects.  Is there any reference in Day 4 to “dark matter” (whatever that may be) or that the universe appears to be expanding and currently at an increasing rate?  Day 5 mentions water dwellers, some of which are described as “great sea animals” and others as “moving living creatures that swarm”.  Are sponges, molluscs, echinoderms, jelly fish, amphibians, and water dwelling flatworms, roundworms and arthropods meant to be included?  It is difficult to believe so. Reference is also made to winged birds.  The Israelites knew about grasshoppers, flies and bees but they along with other flying insects don’t seem to be included here. On Day 6 reference is made to living creatures according to their kind with focus placed upon, what Walton describes (see Genesis, p. 127) as, “domesticated animals …, wild herd animals that often serve as prey …, and wild, predatory animals”.  These are respectively, “behemah”, “remes” and “chay”, terms difficult to tie down too explicitly.  They may take different connotations depending upon their context both in terms of the language and the subject matter.  The “remes” is often mentioned in connection with the earth or the ground and carrying with it the basic notion of a “mover” it may sometimes refer to small animals, slithering animals etc.  The reference to “all the movers of the ground” and “all the ‘movers’ ‘moving’ on the earth” in 1: 25, 26 may be a reference to more than “wild herd animals” or “roaming herds”. In Leviticus 11: 44, the “swarming ‘mover’ on the earth” probably includes a reference to the locust.  Are we meant to see a reference to, for example, spiders and centipedes included in the term, “the movers” in Genesis 1: 25, 26? Whatever the range of living creatures these terms are meant to embrace, it is difficult to believe that the author had in mind the kangaroo, the echidna or the aardvark. And where in the Genesis account are we meant to find the microscopic land based or water borne animals and plants, and the viruses etc.?  This catalogue of questions is not meant to poke fun at the Genesis account.  One is simply giving recognition to its cultural and temporal context.  It could be argued that God had all these things in mind, though the author might not have. But would we want to argue that God was restricted in his understanding to any taxonomic system or that he had a belief in a solid sky?

One of the many intriguing aspects of the creation account is the absence of any reference to carnivores.  There are a number of possible explanations.  Some argue that some animals only became carnivores after the disastrous events portrayed in Genesis 3.  There is no direct evidence in Genesis that such a situation developed although one might argue that it is implied.  As another possibility, the author may have been ignorant of the existence of carnivores though that is highly unlikely.  Another alternative is that the author simply chose to exclude any reference to carnivores in his account of what happened on Day 6 though he knew they had been created on that Day.  A fourth possibility is one that partly involves the first and third alternatives.  The author could have decided to purposefully idealise the situation so that death didn’t make its appearance in any form in the creation account.  (Plants, not being considered to be living creatures didn’t die either as part of their natural existence or upon being consumed by the animals and mankind.)  My own view is that the last suggestion is the most likely.

If we ask the question did the author cover all that he thought was necessary, we probably should reply, “Of course”.  He used his categories, his understanding, his language and what he considered important to the reader to convey the general idea that beginning where he began, God made the world and everything in it.  Were we to confront our ancient author with, to him imponderables like, “phytoplankton”, “rotifer”, “bacteria”, trilobites, brachiopods, dinosaurs, “neutron stars”, black holes and quasars, provided we could give him some understanding of such, he would undoubtedly say, yes, they are of God’s creation. 

The Genesis account contains a number of extremely important truths.  For starters it denies much of the belief about the world, mankind and the gods held by others in surrounding cultures, perhaps especially that culture of the Babylonian world, though it may never have been used as a tract to attack those beliefs head on.  If it is to be regarded as a polemical document, it is probably more polemical by implication than in more direct ways.  It would have served the people of Israel directly in teaching them what was correct about God, the world and mankind, rather than having as its chief focus the teaching of what was false about the beliefs of their neighbours.  All up however it would have informed, corrected and warned.  In broad terms, the document teaches that whatever one conceives of as being this world and of this world, God has made it all.  And all that God has made has its role, its place its function as God has determined.  Of all that he has created, mankind, created in his image, is of extreme significance and in God’s kindeness the world has the character that it does in order for mankind to live in it in an appropriate way With the creation of mankind God has brought his creation to completion.  And now the scene is set for God’s interactions with mankind and for his purposes involving mankind to unfold.

(To be continued)

November 17, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 10:19 pm

Final Questions

What is the Literature of Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 like?

Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 has a simple straight forward aspect to it.  It has an introduction.  It then tells the reader how in six days God made the world, what the world is like and what various aspects of the world are for. It then has a conclusion.  Yet it doesn’t read like a simple novel with a plot that unwinds, meandering through various descriptions until one gets to the conclusion followed by a short epilogue.  It has fairly well defined structure that becomes clearer as day follows upon day.  Thus:

Day 1                                                                           Day 4

God acts:                                                                    God acts:

Light                                                                             Lights

Day 2                                                                          Day 5

God acts:                                                                    God acts:

The Sky that separates the waters                   Creatures who live in the Sea below the Sky and creatures who fly beneath the Sky

Day 3:                                                                         Day 6:

God acts (2x):                                                           God acts (2x):

Land and                                                                    Animals and                                                          

Land Plants                                                               Mankind who live on the land and eat the plants                                                               

As impressive as this symmetry appears we should not forget that the division between Days 1 to 3 on the one hand and Days 4 to 6 on the other, together with their parallelism would seem to be largely dictated by the author’s concern with, “formlessness” and “emptiness”.  This “formlessness” and “emptiness” are progressively confronted as “structure” and “functionaries” that make use of this structure, are made.  It should be noted that the works of separation that occur in Days 1 to 3 are not paralleled in Days 4 to 6, which are characterised as simply making use of the separation brought about on those earlier days.

Of course, “symmetry” is not all pervasive throughout the document.  Consider the use of the word, “tov” (good).

Day 1:                                                                Day 4:

God saw that it was good                           God saw that it was good

Day 2:                                                               Day 5:

                                                                              God saw that it was good

Day 3:                                                               Day 6:

God saw that it was good                            God saw that it was good

God saw that it was good                            God saw that all that he had made was very good

There is something close to symmetry here but it is not a strict application of symmetry.

In addition to symmetry, superimposed upon the structure is the mentioning of various matters a certain number of times – three times for example. There is the reference to God creating the heavens and the earth in the introduction in 1: 1, God creating the water dwellers and the birds in 1: 21 and God created mankind in 1: 27.  However “bara”, (create) in connection with mankind, occurs twice more in 1: 27 and again in 2: 3 in a concluding summary phrase.  Again, the notion of “time” seems to be dealt with in a special way on three occasions – in Days 1, 4 and 7 although that may be reading into the text, too much, the importance we tend to give to time understood in an abstract sense. God blesses on three different occasions – Days 5, 6 and 7. The writer may have considered that the number seven was a “special” number.  There are indeed seven days but the phrase, “and there was evening and there was morning” occurs only six times. The word, “tov” (good) occurs seven times, although one instance, as indicated above, is amplified by the use of the word, “very”.  The two words translated, “and God saw” occur seven times.  It may be true that the use of numbers regarded as special may have a certain attraction for the writer but as with symmetry such an attraction is not always strictly applied.

The text is also characterised by omissions which are probably not always to be understood as either accidental or deliberate omissions.  On Day 2, the “raqia” separating the waters, by implication only, creates “space” underneath it.  It is this space which is inhabited by the birds that fly under the face of the “raqia”.  The waters above the “raqia” receive some prominence on Day 2 but are altogether, even though understandably, ignored on Day 5. The birds of Day 5 are not referred to as living creatures, though all the water dwellers are, yet these together with the birds are created. It is possible that the birds were not considered as living creatures but this is unlikely.  The animals are “made”, though the water dwellers and birds are “created”.  The water dwellers and birds are blessed but the animals are not.  There may be special reasons for these apparent oddities and it could be argued that the author’s attraction for certain words being used a special number of times lies behind some of these reasons. 

In summary, my own position is that while the author writes with a certain framework in mind, mainly dictated by the making of structure where there was none and then the use of that structure, he writes with a certain liberty that avoids a slavish conformity to a rigid style.

(To be continued)

November 14, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 10:14 pm

Genesis 2: 1-3 – Day 7 (continued)

What of the fact that there is no reference to “so there was evening and there was morning the seventh day”?  It has been argued that because there is no such clause the seventh day has no end.  God’s seventh day is ongoing.  Alternatively, while not dispatching with this idea altogether it could be that it would be very odd to conclude with such a clause since in so doing it might beg the question of what happened on the eight day.  Our question with which we began this discussion could be regarded as odd in that what has been depicted in Days 1 to 6 has been God’s creative activity with Day 7 being introduced primarily to indicate that that creativity activity has now been completed and hence God has now ceased from such activity.  That creative activity is not ongoing.  There is no need to herald a Day 8 by introducing “and there was an evening and a morning …”.  This is not to deny that after a fashion Day 7 is ongoing but it is in the sense that no creative active of the like of that referred to in Days 1 to 6 occurs again.  It is also not to deny that much is made theologically of the seventh day in later Biblical material. 

Indeed 2: 3 already anticipates some of this theology by stating that “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy”.  That something is blessed by God indicates that it is of considerable value. In 1: 22 God blesses the water dwellers and the birds and in 1: 28 God blesses mankind and in both cases this blessing relates to the objects of the blessing being fruitful and multiplying.  In the case of the seventh day, God’s blessing would indicate how highly valued it is and in its case the blessing is to be understood in terms of its being made holy. The reason why it is blessed however is clearly stated to be because on the seventh day God ceased from “all the work of creating which he had done”.  It is not within the purpose of this work to further elaborate upon the theological significance of the seventh day and its being made holy as that unfolds in later Biblical material.

Is there anything special about the notion of “seven” in the surrounding cultures? Walton (Genesis, pp. 151 – 155) refers to a Sumerian account where the dedication ceremonies associated with the construction of a temple lasted seven days, Ugaritic literature in which it is stated that “Baal takes seven days to construct his sanctuary” and Babylonian literature where reference is made to an annual ceremony in which on the seventh day a god takes his place in his temple.  While it may well be that there are overtones of such mythology in the Genesis account, there are substantial differences.  In comparison with the first two mythological accounts, God creates in six days.  His creative activity is all over by the end of the sixth day.  The seventh day is not a day of construction.  The Babylonian account is similar to the Genesis account in that it is on the seventh day that the god takes his place in his temple, just as it could be argued that a later understanding of the Genesis account has God settling down in his creation.  However even here the significant difference is that God does not reside (in Genesis) in an earthly temple nor does he reside repeatedly.  He needs no such temple and if settling down in the cosmos is the appropriate imagery that should come to mind he has taken his place in the cosmos once and for all time or at least until he folds up the cosmos.

Walton argues strongly for the notion that somewhat similarly to her neighbours, Israel has the notion of God inhabiting and being “enthroned” within the cosmos, later the tabernacle and later still Solomon’s temple, as his “temple”, thereby coming into his rest at the same time as taking charge of his world (see Genesis, 147-154).  The Biblical material he refers to includes, Psalm 78: 69; 104: 2-4; 132: 13, 14, Isaiah 66: 1, Ezekiel 47: 1 and texts from Genesis 2 and Exodus 39 and 40.  However he admits that with respect to the Genesis passage under discussion “the contextual and lexical data offer no explicit information concerning the concept of God taking up his repose in his cosmic temple.”  He builds his case on later Biblical material.  My view is that Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 is relatively free but not entirely free from such overtones, probably intentionally so.

Walton does make an interesting observation in terms of what the seven day account does for Israel’s life. Towards the end of his discussion on cultural similarities he states, “We can therefore conclude that the seven day cycle gave Israel a foundation for their calendar that operated independently of all the objects and functions of the created world (i.e. the cycles of the moon or sun; seasons) and linked them to a recognition of God and his role” (Genesis, p. 157).

So there we have Days 1 to 7.  What are we to make of this Genesis account as a piece of literature albeit that it is found in the Bible?  What is it essentially attempting to say? What do we make of it in the light of modern scientific understandings?

November 12, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 10:11 pm

Genesis 2: 1-3 – Day 7

“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.  And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

That the seventh day focuses on God alone and his creative work, reminds us that for all of mankind’s importance God always holds centre stage.  God clearly indicates that his creation has mankind as the focus of his attention but mankind is God’s creation and God has brought all of creation into existence for his purposes and not for any designs that mankind might consider or desire.

As with the introduction prior Day 1, the concluding statement made after Day 6 refers to the heavens and the earth.  While “heavens and earth” is probably a short hand way of referring to all of creation, in 2: 1, the phrase, “in all their vast array” or “and all their host” could have been added to draw attention to the many aspects of that creation.  Alternatively the phrase could be a reference to the functionaries of Days 4 to 6 that make use of the basic forms brought into existence on Days 1 to 3.

The word “create” (bara) makes its appearance again in the phrase, “the work of creating” but clearly it is used to apply to all of God’s work accomplished in Days 1 to 6.  At the same time the writer links it to the word, “asah”, translated, “make” or do”, that occurs in vv. 1: 7, 16 (2x), 25, 31 and 2: 2 (2x) as well as 2: 3.  This should caution us not to make too sharp a distinction between “create” and “make” as they occur in Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3.

What of the idea of God resting? Walton (Genesis, pp. 146, 147) argues that “shabath” (rest) is better understood as: “cease”. That is, the emphasis should be placed in 2: 2, 3 on God finishing his work (as 2: 1 makes clear) rather than the notion of God being somewhat wearied and needing time to recover.  However Walton also points out that in Exodus 20: 11, in which a recital of the Genesis passage occurs, the word, “nuwach” rather than “shabath” occurs (though “shabath” is found in Exodus 20: 10).  “Nuwach” carries with it the idea of “settling down” just as the locusts of Exodus 10: 14 “settled down” (nuwach) in every area of the country.  He also points out that in Exodus 31: 17, where there is again a reference to the Genesis text, the word, “naphash”, understood as “refreshed” is used in close association with “shabath”.  While Genesis 2:  2, 3 only make a reference to God ceasing from his work, later literature understood God as also “settling down” in some sense and additionally as one who was “refreshed” in one way or another.  Walton concludes, “the lexical information suggests that the seventh day is marked by God’s ceasing the work of the previous six days and by his settling into the stability of the cosmos he created, perhaps experiencing refreshment as he did so.” 

Walton also points out that in the ancient Near East, the creative activity of the gods was associated with the major objective of obtaining rest (Genesis, pp. 150, 151).  In Enuma Elish Apsu complains to Tiamat about his lack of rest and after Tiamat’s defeat by Marduk Babylon is to be built as a shrine in order to provide rest for the gods. Walton concludes, “In the ancient Near East … temples are for divine ‘rest’ and divine rest is found in sanctuaries or sacred space”.

(To be continued)

November 9, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 11:35 pm

Genesis 1: 24-31 – Day 6 (continued)

Walton claims that “in the ancient world, an image was believed in some ways to carry the essence of what it represented” though an image of a deity could not do what the deity could do. The deity accomplished his work through the image.  Walton quotes from the Egyptian, “The Instruction of Merikare” (a Pharaoh) in which reference is made to the deity making mankind as his images who came from his body, to whom he gave breath and for whom he made plants and cattle and claims that, “Generally Egyptian usage refers to the king as being in the image of deity, not as a physical likeness but related to power and prerogative.”  In Mesopotamia, apart from reference to kings setting up images of themselves in places where they wished to assert their authority, it is gods who are made in the image of other gods.  Walton appeals to Genesis 5: 1-3 where the image of God in Adam is likened to the image of Adam in Seth.  That is, there is some likeness between God and Adam on the one hand, as there is some likeness between Adam and Seth on the other hand, though having the likeness does not mean being the same.   In an attempt to take into account ancient Near Eastern thought and Biblical evidence, Walton defines the term, “the image”, as generally used, to be, “a physical manifestation of divine (or royal) essence that bears the function of that which it represents; this gives the image-bearer the capacity to reflect the attributes of the one represented and act on his behalf.” 

The idea of man representing God and acting on his behalf is probably reflected in the role given to man in 1: 26 where he is to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all roaming herds”.  As God is the one who rules over all, so he gives to mankind that kind of function.  Mankind is to rule as well, though in quite a diminished way.  His rule is probably to be conceived of as his being able to assert control.  Note, he is not explicitly given the role of ruling over the wild animals probably because they are wild and beyond his control.

Finally, with reference to the notion, “man being created in the image of God”, the writer states, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”.  Some, holding to the idea that the plurals “us” and “our” refer to multiple persons within the trinity, believe that the reference to male and female is a reflection of this multiplicity of persons and so part of the characteristic of being made in God’s image. Indeed it can be argued that it is only as male and female together that mankind is in God’s image.  One of the difficulties with this position is that whereas the trinity refers to three persons, male and female refers to only two types of person. It could be argued however that only two persons of the trinity are being referred to – God and his Spirit (see 1: 2).  As argued earlier, the reference to “ruach” in 1: 2 is either a reference to the “wind” of God or his Spirit or both.  However throughout Days 1 to 6, no reference is made to the work of the Spirit unless one infers, in a circuitous way, that references to the Spirit of God are implied whenever it is said of God that he spoke – using breath (spirit) as it were in order to speak.  Another difficulty is that, although it is only of mankind that there is a reference to male and femaleness, the early reader/hearer would be well aware, that there was just as distinctive a type of maleness and femaleness in at least larger animals.  This raises the issue of why “male’ and “female” is mentioned specifically in relation to mankind but not the animal world.  Certainly “male” and “female” is going to feature largely in chapters 2 and 3 that follow.  However, independently of that, the very statement that man (not animals) is created in God’s image together with the recognition that mankind is both male and female, each very different from the other, probably necessitates the clear statement that each is in the image of God.  One is not allowed to claim that either one or the other has some greater prominence with respect to this characteristic.

As with the water dwellers and the birds, mankind is blessed. The blessing is similar and is in terms of their being fruitful, multiplying and filling.  All living creatures are special.   Mankind is also given a specific function, probably to be thought of as part of the blessing.   He is to subdue the earth, bringing it under his domain.  This subduing of the earth is probably then being specifically spoken of as a ruling over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the livestock and over all the roaming herds.  The absence of a reference to the various categories of animals being blessed is not to be taken as a reference to their being inferior to the water dwellers and birds.  Similarly mankind’s rule not referring to his rule over the livestock is not to be taken that he does not have control over them.  They are domesticated animals.  Of course he has control over them.  The writer does not have to cover every possibility.

Finally God decrees what he provides for birds, animals and mankind in order for them to survive.  The two types of plant life described in Day 3, is, without restriction, for mankind for food.  Green plants, a term probably differentiation them from the vegetation to be eaten by man, is for every wild animal of the earth, for all the birds of the air, and for all roaming herds for food.  Again it is probably of little importance that the writer fails to mention domesticated animals, although the inference might be that domesticated animals are cared for in their own way by mankind.  It is noteworthy that these three categories are finally referred to as, fundamentally living creatures (NIV: that which has the breath of life).  Plants are not living beings, animals and birds are.  The picture we are left with is that of living creatures that feed off the “non-living” plant world alone and not off other living creatures. It is a vegetarian existence for all. 

So God completes the creation of the world.  However, it is a world fundamentally set up for mankind and mankind is “the cream on God’s creation cake”.  He is the one and only creature created in God’s image.  God alone determines the character of the world including the makeup of mankind.  Mankind does not determine what God is like or what he does.   Furthermore he does not have to placate God in order to receive God’s blessing.  God makes mankind in his own image and provides a world for his blessed existence, all according to his own free determination.  This is not the world view of the surrounding cultures.  This however is the state of things that the one and only God, the God who revealed himself to Israel, decided upon.

God spoke twice and it was so.  In the first instance, God saw that it was good.  In the second instance, in a type of summary, even though it is written within the matters of Day 6, God saw that all that he had made was very good.

And there was evening and there was morning – the sixth day.

November 7, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 10:03 pm

Genesis 1: 24-31 – Day 6

On Day 6 God acts, he speaks, twice just as on Day 3.   On Day 3, In God’s first act, the waters were drawn together in one place and the dry land appeared.  In his second act on that day vegetation was brought into existence.  Now on Day 6, in his first act God makes animals of various kinds.  In his second act he makes mankind.  These animals and mankind live on the land, and the vegetation of the land is for both animals and mankind to eat.  The “structure” of Day 3 is utilised by the “substance” of Day 6 and what was originally empty is now full.

The animals are described as “living creatures” and although the living creatures of Day 5 are “created”, the animals are simply “made”.  However, like the water dwellers and the birds of Day 5 they are clearly “living” and so fundamentally to be distinguished from the plants of Day 3 which are not so described. The use of “create” in Day 5 may herald the idea that the animals and mankind of Day 6 are also created (with mankind specifically being referred to as being created in 1: 27).

That the land produces the animals may indicate that they originate from the land but Walton believes that the word “produce” is basically functional in purpose rather than reflective of a biological process (Genesis, p. 127) – the animals live on the land.  The animals are of three fundamental types.  The NIV describes them as, “livestock”, “creatures that move along the ground”, and “wild animals”.  Walton understands the second group to be “wild herd animals that often serve as prey” (p. 127), and hereafter they will be referred to as “roaming herds”.

The animals are made each according to its kind.  They will reproduce. They will be ongoing.  They will be characterised by a type of “permanence”.  Seely in “The Meaning of Min, ‘Kind’”, with respect to what he refers to as “mammals” argues that “(except in the case of very small or nocturnal animals), min may have reference at times to genera, but usually it is to species”.

On Day 6 considerable focus is given to mankind – his creation, his importance, his nature, his function and his sustenance.  He is created in “the image of God”.  He is also said to be made in “our image” a term within the clause, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” 

Walton refers to three different types of explanation for the use of the plurals, “us” and “our” (Genesis, p. 128-130) – theological, grammatical and cultural.  He argues that a theological explanation which appeals to notions such as persons of the trinity, falters in that not only would the original hearers/readers not have had such an understanding (see also below) but nowhere in the N.T. is there any claim that the text must be understood in that way. The grammatical explanation, which appeals to something like the use of a royal plural or a rhetorical convention, is dismissed on the grounds that there is no clear evidence elsewhere in Hebrew that such plurals are used in that way.  A cultural explanation which rests on the notion that the plurals are a vestige of polytheistic belief is also dismissed partly on the grounds that it is difficult to believe that any writer/editor would have allowed such a vestige to remain in such a monotheistic document. 

Walton argues for a cultural perspective in which God is portrayed as having a heavenly court.  While recognising that such an idea was current as part of an ancient world view, Walton bases his argument mainly on perspectives to be found within the O.T. itself. In support of his claim he refers to 1 Kings 22: 19-22, Isaiah 14: 13 and Job 1.  Whereas in the ancient Near East, the divine assembly was made up of greater gods, the heavenly court of God consisted of “angels, or more specifically, the ‘sons of God’”.  Our understanding of God as portrayed throughout the O.T. would mean that unlike in the surrounding cultures where the assembly as a body made decisions, in God’s court, God alone makes the decision.

The reference to the heavenly court could serve at least two functions.  First of all it could indicate to the reader the immense importance of man, the creature yet to be made.  God allows the beings of the heavenly assembly to be privy to his intentions.  To show the reader/listener how much importance is to be attached to this particular creative act he portrays God as musing upon it but openly, and he can do this very satisfactorily, if other beings are allowed to witness and be caught up in his reflections. 

Secondly, perhaps our understanding of what is meant by, “in the image of God” is meant to be partly assisted by the reference to, “in our image, according to our likeness”.  Although Walton in his discussion of “the image of God” (Genesis, pp. 130,131) does not think it necessary to understand that angels have also been created in the image of God, it could be that they are. However this would not mean that we are obliged to consider that the image of God amounts to the same thing for both angels and men.  Much has been written about what could be meant by “the image of God” but being in his image could at least contain the notion of the possibility  of a two way “personal” relationship between God and angels on the one hand and God and men on the other.   If members of the heavenly court are considered to have such a relationship, so could those made in the image of both them and God.  Perhaps the additional phrase, “according to our likeness”, a phrase not repeated in 1: 27, where the reference is solely to God himself, puts some emphasis on a similarity between angels and men.

(To be continued)

November 4, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 10:09 pm

Genesis 1: 20-23 – Day 5

As Day 1 was “fulfilled” in Day 4 so Day 2 is “fulfilled” in Day 5.  In Day 2, the firmament was made to move the water above it away from the water below it. One of the results of this movement was to bring about “space” between the firmament (the raqia) and the water below.  The space itself is not given a description but arguably its existence is implied.  It is that “space” and the water below that is now addressed in Day 4.  Birds fly above the earth and across the face of the “raqia” (that is within the “space”) and the waters teem with living creatures.  The “structures”, the form, brought about by the “raqia”, is now utilised and the original void is further diminished as both “structures” are filled.

With respect to Day 5, the word “bara” (create) appears for only the second time in Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3, its first occurrence being in 1: 1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”) and we might well ask why it appears here.  It is to be found again in 1: 27, for the third and last time in this opening segment of Genesis, in connection with the coming into being of mankind.  It might be that from a literary point of view, the writer has an interest in certain numbers and in this instance displays an interest in the number “three”.  While this may be so, perhaps it is more likely that he chooses to use the word, only ever used in the O.T. of the activity of God, in the passages under discussion because of the great significance of the events to which it is attached.  As argued previously, 1: 1 is a type of introductory summary.  Its use there is understandable. The coming into being of mankind is unquestionably of great significance so its use there is also understandable. But what makes the events of Day 4 so significant?  Could it be because of what is signified by the term “living creatures”, that first makes its appearance in Day 5?  The term will again appear in Day 6 of animals and later will be used of man in 2: 7.  The plants of Day 4 are not termed “living creatures”.  It is a term only applied to what we would describe in general terms as the animal world.  Compared to plants, animals are “mobile” (the term “moving” is applied to the creatures of the waters in 1: 21) and perhaps it is something of that idea that underlies the difference between “living creatures” and the plant world.  It is true that in 1: 20 the term does not appear to be directly associated with the bird life but only the life of the waters.  However in 1: 21 it is used to cover both.  Living creatures because of their so obvious “life” stand out as being of great significance and so understandably, “bara” is to be used of them to highlight that significance.  This matter of the distinction in Genesis between the plant world and the animal world, as we term them, should remind us of the difference between the way the Genesis document classifies these “worlds’ and the way modern man does, ascribing “life” to both animals and plants

What description over and above “living” is given to the creatures of the waters? They are intended to be prolific – the waters are to swarm with them and some of them are especially designated, “the great ‘tannin’”.  Walton (Genesis, p. 127) argues that “tannin” is to be understood as referring to “the chaos monsters that were believed to inhabit the cosmic waters” but in Genesis, contrary to how they were commonly thought of, they are not creatures that are “antagonists that need to be defeated”.  They simply fulfil the purposes of their creator.   It is quite possible that the term “the great ‘tannin’”, while having a reference to such was also intended to include creatures such as whales, sharks etc.

Both birds and water dwelling creatures are referred to in terms of being created “according to its kind”.  As mentioned previously, “kind” (min) is not to be associated with any one of the taxons of a modern taxonomic system.  Seely in “The Meaning of Min, ‘Kind’” (see above) argues that an examination of the use of “min” throughout the O.T. and a consideration of certain anthropological data indicates that its application varies greatly depending upon what particular animals or plants (to use our nomenclature) are being referred to.  With regards to fish and appealing to modern classificatory terms, he believes that “as a general rule min would land sometimes on the family level and at other times on the genus and even the species level.”  In his discussion on birds, he maintains that in their case, “min” may refer “on a rare occasion to the family level and at times to the genus level but the reference will usually be to the species level.” 

Seely also believes that underlying “min”, a word never used of inanimate objects, is the notion of reproduction.  On this basis, though of course there is no mention of seeds in relation to the creatures of Day 5 as there was to the plants of Day 4, the creatures of Day 5 are to be conceived of as able to reproduce.  In fact 1: 22 makes it clear that God’s blessing upon them was for them to reproduce, in fact, in large numbers.   The waters in the seas are to be filled with the water dwellers and the birds are to multiply on the earth.  As with the plants the creatures of Day 5 have a type of permanence. Indeed in their case they not only reproduce, they increase in numbers.

The reference to “earth” in the case of the birds might entail an understanding that birds are in general associated with the earth (they land on the earth, they nest in trees etc.) though they fly across the “raqia”, whereas, the water dwellers are associated with the “seas” and not the earth.  That God blesses them but not the plants is a further indication of how special these “living creatures” are that God “created”.

And God said, “Let …” And it came to be.  And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning – the fifth day.

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