In this and subsequent posts, my plan is to critically examine the assumptions made in a video that has been made available on the “Test of Faith” channel on YouTube. Before reading these responses, take a few minutes to watch this video:
In this presentation, Dr. Deborah Haarsma, president of the BioLogos Foundation, and former professor and chair of the physics and astronomy department at Calvin College, makes a number of claims that we must examine critically before either accepting or rejecting them.
The first statement that I would like to examine is this one:
“God didn’t bother to teach the ancient Hebrews that the world was actually round. He didn’t bother to teach them that it was actually atmosphere in the sky instead of a solid sky dome. He let them keep believing that. He accommodated the message to where they were at.”
There are a number of unproven claims in Dr. Haarsma’s discussion of the relation of science and Scripture in this video, several of which are heard in this statement alone. Here they are:
- The ancient Hebrews did not believe that the world was round.
- The ancient Hebrews believed that there was a solid sky dome over the earth (the “firmament”).
- God accommodated the message of Scripture to “where they were at,” in their lack of precise scientific knowledge, and their beliefs about the form of the heavens and the earth.
But before we even begin examining these claims, we need to deal with an assumption that goes unmentioned, an assumption that must necessarily be true if Dr. Haarsma’s claims actually have a bearing on how we interpret the Genesis account of creation. And that assumption is a simple one: that the original audience of the creation account was “the ancient Hebrews.”
I’d like to begin by questioning the assumption that the creation account was originally written by Hebrews for Hebrews – that Moses (or a later author) tailored his message to his audience, speaking to them specifically on a level that they could understand. Many modern scholars have actually concluded that Genesis was written much later than the time of Moses, in which case the author or editor would have been addressing a different culture with different concerns.
Why question those assumptions? Isn’t Genesis one of the “five books of Moses”?
Yes, it is, and there’s no reason to conclude that Genesis was written by someone else, much later than the time of Moses, as many critical scholars now assert. But rather than assuming that Moses wrote Genesis “from scratch,” wouldn’t it make sense that he used previously existing documents, perhaps even documents passed down from ancient times, and used them as his source material?
The book of Genesis is divided into eleven sections, which are marked off by the words, “These are the generations of…”. They’re often referred to as the “toledoths,” because of the Hebrew word for generations. The first toledoth is found in Genesis 2:4, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth,” and the last in Genesis 37:2, “These are the generations of Jacob.”
Many scholars believe that these statements are headings – that they introduce the chapters that follow. Some, however, believe that they are colophons – that they conclude the sections that precede them. So, in the case of Genesis 2:4, we can read, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth” as referring to the preceding passage – Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3. In the same way, Genesis 5:1, “This is the book of the generations of Adam,” would refer back to Genesis 2:5 to Genesis 4:26.
Why does this make any difference at all? Because especially if they are colophons, they may serve to indicate previously existing written works that Moses used as his source material in putting the book of Genesis together into its final form. Who knew the story of creation better than any other human? Of course Adam did. Adam lived 930 years. Could he have developed a system of writing during those ninety-three decades of life? I think it highly likely that he would have. Could he have written down what the LORD revealed to him, and what he had experienced during his life, to preserve that message for future generations? He certainly could have.
Whenever God wanted to preserve his message, he had it written down. It is often assumed that oral transmission over generations was central to bringing God’s message from generation to generation. But since written transmission of information is far less subject to error and amendment than oral tradition, it makes sense that these things would have been written down, to preserve the message for generations yet to come.
A number of examples in Scripture reveal that literacy rates were higher, even among common people, than is often assumed (Deut. 24:1-3; Num. 21:14; Deut. 6:8,9; 11:18-20). The terms used in Genesis 26:5, for example, provide evidence that God had his word written down long before the time of Moses; the LORD says about Abraham in this verse that he “obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws.” The Hebrew word for “statutes” in this verse has a root meaning “to mark for oneself; from the base meaning of carving or engraving is by extension the act of writing; the communication itself, regulation.” Those statutes were very likely written statutes!
In the end, my point is this: we cannot simply assume that the ancient Hebrews were the original “target audience” for the creation account. This account had been extant for centuries before the first ancient Hebrew appeared on the scene, and that knowledge was not limited to the descendants of Abraham. Now consider the fact that the earliest humans enjoyed incredibly long lives in comparison to our own, and that they had not suffered from generations of genetic mutations which would surely impede intellectual growth and development. These ancient humans were likely very intelligent individuals, with centuries of life experience, learning, and experimentation to draw on.
Our way of thinking about ancient humanity has been highly influenced by the evolutionary paradigm. When we think about Adam, and Cain and Abel, and Enoch and Methuselah, we may think of “cavemen” type humans – struggling to understand how to make a fire, working with simple tools, assuming that the world was flat, not knowing anything about the world outside of the very limited area in which they lived.
We need to discard that assumption; Adam was an intelligent man, the first scientist, who named and classified the animal kingdom, who probably travelled widely. Even after the fall into sin, he must have retained his original intelligence, and with the years of life that were allotted to him, he would have developed an astounding array of knowledge, which he had opportunity to pass down to his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, and so on.
So I call this first assumption into question, and that means I also call the conclusions that follow from that assumption into question. In short, we cannot assume that the original audience of the creation account as we have it in Genesis 1 and 2 was in fact the “ancient Hebrews.”
And following from that, we cannot assume that this original audience was ignorant about the physical nature of the heavens and the earth, and that God accommodated his account to their ignorance. There is no doubt that many people fell into ignorance, unbelief, and disobedience after the fall; this is what led to the destruction of humanity in the flood. And after the flood, sin and rebellion against God also led to widespread idolatry, ignorance, and rejection of God’s Word.
But throughout it all, God preserved his Word from generation to generation. We have this Word in Genesis and the other 65 books of the Bible. We must examine critically our own assumptions, and the assumptions of others, as we seek to understand its message.