The “Problem” of Cain

Who did Cain marry? And who exactly was he afraid of?

In an article published on the Logos Bible Software blog in March 2014, Tremper Longman (Biblical studies professor at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA), lists several views on how Adam and Eve are to be understood. One of the views he cites is that of the British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. Longman writes:

“Now Wright’s view, as I understand it from conversations with him, is that… Adam and Eve are a kind of a representative couple within that breeding population. They’re not alone. And actually, that helps explain certain features of Genesis 1-11, like who Cain married, who Cain was afraid of, and those kind of things. So that’s his view: they were an actual representative couple, like the queen and the king. Or we could conceive of them as the priest and the priestess, since Genesis 1 and 2 also talk about the cosmos using a kind of temple language.”

Longman goes on to state that he would “allow for the possibility” that Adam and Eve weren’t that original couple (one pair of many), but that they were “representative of that original couple.”

There are many things that could be said about Longman’s view on the subject of the historicity of Adam and Eve, but I want to focus on only one aspect of what he says in this article. Namely, his statement that N.T. Wright’s view of Adam and Eve “helps explain certain features of Genesis 1-11, like who Cain married, who Cain was afraid of, and those kind of things.” He has in view Wright’s ideas that Adam and Eve were representatives of a larger population of human beings, and not the only two human beings alive in the beginning.

My question about this statement is this: Why is it necessary to go in search of another explanation for these features of the text, when the answer is actually clear, simply working with the account of Genesis itself?

First of all, who was Cain afraid of? Cain and Abel are the first two sons of Adam and Eve mentioned in Scripture. In Genesis 4:25, we’re told that Eve bore a son and named him Seth, “for she said, ‘God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.’” In Genesis 5:3, we’re told that Seth was born “when Adam had lived 130 years,” and that birth, presumably, occurred relatively soon after Abel’s death, not too long after the time when Cain said, “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me shall kill me” (Gen. 4:14), and within the same period in which “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Gen. 4:17).

Cain and Abel were Seth’s older brothers. They may have been the first two sons born to Adam and Eve, but that is not necessarily the case. But even if we assume that they were, it is entirely possible that Eve could have given birth to sixty-five children before Seth was born (and that’s a conservative guess on my part, assuming single births happening every two years – the numbers could have been much higher). I’m not a mathematician nor the son of a mathematician, and I never took statistics. Therefore, my personal attempt at making some calculations on the population growth possibilities “in the beginning” ended up being, to say the very least, a little rough. But assuming the same rate of reproduction (one child every two years born to adult women), the population of the world by the time Seth was born would have already been in the thousands.

So that answers one question – of whom was Cain afraid? He was afraid of his siblings and their children, his nephews and nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces, and so on. Remember the long lifespans that Scripture records about the people who lived before the flood – many generations of one family would have been alive at the same time, and population would grow exponentially. If we take the information given to us in Scripture seriously, and work with that information, it all seems fairly straightforward.

But what about the second question – whom did Cain marry? And again, the answer to that question is straightforward, and, dare I say, obvious. He married his sister. Or perhaps he married his niece, in which case, one of his brothers must have married his sister. Remember, the proscriptions against incest were not given until the time of Moses (Leviticus 20:17, etc). In fact, we’re told that Abraham and Sarah were half-siblings (Genesis 20:12). Given the fact that the population began with a perfect, error-free genetic stock, this needn’t have been a problem until generations had passed, with the resultant genetic deterioration. For these first generations of the human population, consanguinity would have been a complete non-issue.

So, there’s no need, on the basis of these supposedly problematic questions, to go in search of explanations elsewhere. There’s no need to posit the existence of another branch of humanity apart from Adam and Eve and those descended from Adam and Eve. There’s no need to imagine that Adam and Eve were merely the representative leaders of a much larger population group, whether they were their king and queen, or their priest and priestess. And there’s no need to imagine that they stand even further removed from actual history, as representatives of those representatives (whatever that might mean). Adam and Eve had children, and they probably had a whole lot of them. Those children married each other and had (a whole lot of) children, who married each other, and so on.

It seems to me that bringing these issues into the discussion, as Tremper Longman does, only serves to muddy the waters. I’m far from the first person to have addressed these issues, and there are many others who have addressed them in far greater detail than I have in this short blog post. I’m certain that Longman, as an Old Testament scholar, is well aware of those explanations. Tremper Longman and others who deny the actual historical existence of Adam and Eve must admit that their denial is, in reality, not based in any “problem” in the Biblical account.

The “problem” of Cain, when it comes right down to it, turns out not to be a problem at all.

Creation Chronology in 1 Corinthians 11

Over the past week, a large percentage of my time was spent poring over the first sixteen verses of 1 Corinthians 11, and writing what wound up being two sermons on this passage. It’s a tough passage – “one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible,” according to Thomas Schreiner, and a passage which “continues to vex modern interpreters,” as David Garland writes. The passage deals with the issue of head-coverings for women, and over the centuries, even interpreters who work within the same theological framework have argued strongly in favour of contradictory conclusions.

Given the focus of our website, the topic of this post will not be whether or not the Apostle Paul’s instruction concerning head-coverings is still applicable today, or, if so, how it is to be applied. I’ll save that stuff for the sermons. Instead, I’m going to focus on one aspect of Paul’s argument in support of his teaching, found in verses 7 through 12:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (ESV).

Richard Hays, in his commentary on this passage, writes that Paul’s “reasoning is notoriously obscure – partly because we don’t know precisely how to interpret some of the key terms in the argument, and partly because the line of argument is – by any standard – laboured and convoluted.” I beg to differ (strongly) with Hays’ conclusion, but regardless of the difficulties we may have with Paul’s argument as modern interpreters, one thing is absolutely clear: Paul grounds his argument in the Genesis creation account.

It has been argued that the Genesis account of creation was not meant to be a chronological account of God’s work of creating the universe. Rather, some will argue, we are not to read into the text an insistence on a specific chronology – a definite order of events that must be understood as historical narrative, in the way that we generally understand historical narrative to work. Instead, it is argued, we should accept that the Genesis creation account is poetic in nature, and that it was meant to teach us important lessons about who God is, about his power, majesty and glory, about our humble origins, without insisting that the account’s chronology must be taken at face value.

So when we do insist that there is a specific order to creation, a certain chronology of events, with light being created before the light-bearers, with the birds and sea creatures being created one day prior to the land animals and human beings, we’re told by some that we are imposing a modern view of history on the account. This, it is said, is something that earlier interpreters of the text, working within a different cultural and intellectual framework, would not have done.

But my question is this: is that really an accurate assessment? How does Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but within his own historical, cultural, and intellectual context, understand the story of creation recorded in Genesis 1 and 2? As people who believe in the unity of Scripture, and that the ultimate source of Scripture is God himself, we should strive to interpret Scripture with Scripture. So, if we want to learn how to rightly interpret Genesis 1 and 2, one of the most important tasks at hand is to see what it says about these chapters elsewhere in Scripture.

And Paul makes several statements that rely on the chronological accuracy of the Genesis account:

1. Man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
2. Man was not created for woman, but woman for man.
3. As woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.

Because of these facts, Paul writes, “woman is the glory of man.” Why? Because woman was made from man, and created for man. His argument rests on the order of events as outlined in the creation account in Genesis 2, which focuses on the creation of human beings:

Genesis 2:7 – “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

Genesis 2:18 – “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”

Genesis 2:21-23 – “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’”

It seems clear that Paul accepted the historical reality of all of these events. Adam was created first. Adam was charged with the job of naming the animals, but in the course of that activity, it became apparent that none of these creatures was a suitable helper for him. So God subsequently created a helper who was suited to him: the woman. He caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep, removed one of his ribs, and from that rib he formed the woman.

Now, it could be claimed (as some do) that Paul was a product of his times. He came to his patriarchal and misogynistic conclusion because he was a man firmly rooted in First Century Judaism, living in the Roman Empire. He believed this account of creation, and took it literally, because his understanding on these matters was limited. We have more information available to us, so we must read the creation story, as well as Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth, in a way that takes that new information into account.

But as people who believe in the inspiration, authority, and perfection of Holy Scripture, these options are simply not open to us. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is God’s Word, a part of that Scripture. There are indeed, as Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:16, “some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures,” but that only means we may have to work harder to understand them, because they are Scripture. Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 is not an interpretation that we can reject if we want to continue to submit ourselves to all of God’s Word. It is, simply put, absolutely authoritative.

And that leads us to these conclusions:

1. If Paul reads the Genesis creation account as an actual chronology of events, so should we.
2. If Paul says that the first woman was created out of the first man, we should accept that fact.
3. If Paul says that the woman was created for the man, that must be true.

At the same time, we must also categorically reject the belief that Adam and Eve were descended from other hominids, and may have been the first creatures endowed with the “image of God,” but were not immediately created by God, using, in the first place, the dust of the earth, and in the second place, a rib from the man. If the first man were born of a woman, either human or hominid, and if the first woman were physically born as the result of human or hominid procreation, Paul’s argument is invalid. It simply does not hold water. If Paul’s argument is invalid, Scripture does not stand. If Scripture does not stand, our faith collapses with it. That is how serious this discussion is.

Note well: this line of reasoning does not depend on an individual’s understanding of the actual genre of the Genesis creation account. It may be argued (incorrectly, I believe) that Genesis 1-3 are poetic in nature, and thus should not be understood as an account of consecutively occurring events. But it simply cannot be argued that Paul’s use of the Genesis creation account (along with several other passages in Scripture) is meant to be taken in that way.

In subsequent posts, I hope to examine other passages, in the Old and New Testaments, that use the Genesis creation account in similar ways. My goal is that we take the complete message of Scripture as a unity. It is the Word of truth, God’s perfect revelation. That’s where our starting point must be.

Concerning the Genetic Fallacy

Logical fallacies abound in public discourse. Spend a bit of time watching or listening to political discussions. If you have some knowledge of logic, and logical fallacies, you may near the point of doing violence to yourself or others due to your frustration at the lack of simple logic that is often evidenced in such conversations. And due to a widespread ignorance of the basics of logic, these fallacies often go completely unnoticed.

The same holds true for the issue of origins, and the ongoing discussion about creation and evolution, the relationship between Scripture’s account and the findings of science. One logical fallacy continues to rear its ugly head, being raised again and again, as if repeating the argument will make it less fallacious. This fallacy is known as the genetic fallacy.

What is the genetic fallacy? When someone points to the origin of an argument or arguer, and draws the conclusion that the argument must be right, or wrong, based on its origin, the genetic fallacy is being committed. For example, we could argue in this way:

  • That man told me that the sun is shining.
  • That man was once committed to a psychiatric institution because of delusional thinking.
  • Therefore, that man must be wrong, and the sun is not in fact shining.

The genetic fallacy has become evident in a couple of ways in the current discussion. First of all, the claim is made that the modern “creationist” movement has its roots in Seventh-Day Adventism. Of course, this is not the sole argument that is employed to encourage suspicion of “creationists” among people who are not Seventh-Day Adventists. But it is an argument that is used to buttress the idea that “creationism” is not “Reformed.” Obviously, this argument only makes sense when it’s being addressed to people who are members of Reformed churches; it would make no sense to use this argument when speaking with, say, a Seventh-Day Adventist! Here’s the argument:

  • The “creationist” movement was begun by Seventh-Day Adventists.
  • Seventh-Day Adventists are not a reliable source of theological truth.
  • Therefore, as Reformed Christians, we must reject anything that smacks of “creationism.”

The second way in which the genetic fallacy has been employed in the discussion has happened when well-known and respected Reformed theologians have been cited as allowing for varying interpretations of the Genesis account of creation, and granting room for people to believe that God used an evolutionary process to form the universe. Again, this is one of several arguments that are often used in tandem. But the intended impact of this combination of arguments is to cast doubt on the “Reformed-ness” of a denial of evolution (be it theistic evolution, Darwinian evolution, or “progressive creation”). Therefore, the argument goes like this:

  • Dr. Johannes VanHolland, the famous Reformed theologian (or, Dr. Angus McDuncan, the famous Presbyterian theologian) allowed that belief in evolution is not incompatible with belief in Scripture, and that the correct interpretation of the Genesis account does not necessarily mean we must reject the idea that the universe came into existence through a long process of gradual change.
  • Dr. Johannes VanHolland (like his eminent and renowned Scottish counterpart) is a respected Reformed theologian, whose work has greatly impacted the Reformed Church until this very day.
  • Therefore, arguing that evolution is absolutely incompatible with Scripture and should be wholeheartedly rejected is not Reformed.

What’s wrong with these arguments? First of all, they are not necessarily true. Long before there was even such a thing as a Seventh-Day Adventist, Reformed and Presbyterian theologians strongly upheld the understanding that the correct understanding of Scripture requires us to hold to a literal creation week and a historical Adam and Eve. While Seventh-Day Adventists may have been active in the Twentieth-Century “creationist” movement, they are far from being the originators of the movement. Furthermore, it has been shown repeatedly that the Reformed theologians whose arguments are often used by those who wish to allow for evolution have often been misunderstood and misrepresented.

In the second place, when it comes right down to it, while the origin of an argument will have some bearing on our personal inclinations to accept or reject it, it has nothing whatsoever to do with its truth or falsity!

As a minister of the Word, I write sermons. When I write sermons, I use commentaries as part of my research. Those commentaries vary in quality and usefulness, and they also vary widely in terms of their origin. For example, I am currently preaching a series of sermons on 1 Corinthians. For this series, I’m using commentaries by David E. Garland (who received his Ph.D from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), (Richard Hays, an ordained United Methodist minister), Ben Witherington III (also a United Methodist minister), Craig Blomberg, who teaches at Denver Seminary in Colorado, and is involved in something called the “Scum of the Earth Church”(!), and John Calvin, who you may have heard of.

My point is this: if I were to succumb to the genetic fallacy, I would reject what most of these men write out-of-hand. What have I, as a Reformed pastor, to do with Southern Baptists, United Methodists, and non-denominational churches with strange names? But the fact is, to varying degrees, the commentaries written by each of these men are all very helpful in their own way. While I reject a number of these New Testament scholars’ theological views, they offer some very helpful insights into the passage of Scripture. To reject their conclusions outright based upon their point of origin (or, conversely, to accept all of John Calvin’s conclusions uncritically because I am, after all, a Calvinist) is to commit the genetic fallacy.

The key is to read, and listen, critically. Sure, when you’re listening to a friend, you will not be as “on guard” about what they’re telling you as you would if you were listening to a stranger. But when it comes to theological matters, we always have a foundation to go back to – God’s Word. If John Calvin (or any other theologian, for that matter) said something, it may or may not be correct; all theologians are human after all. But God’s Word is true and trustworthy, and what matters most is not the person who made a particular argument, but whether or not it agrees with God’s Word.

Let’s be on guard against logical fallacies. When the genetic fallacy is used, we should be aware of that use, and make our judgments about the arguments we hear using Scripture as our final and ultimate authority.

Test of Faith: Challenging Assumptions (3)

In two previous posts, I examined Dr. Deborah Haarsma’s assumption that the original audience for the Genesis account of creation was the “ancient Hebrews,” and her claims that the ancient Hebrews believed that there was a solid sky dome above the earth. Time constraints have meant a lengthy delay for this third response, so to refresh your memory, here’s the video:

First of all, I’d like to follow up on the point I made in my previous response to this video. When we seek to understand the “ancient Hebrew” descriptions of creation, we are dealing with issues that go much deeper than human understanding of the physical nature of reality. Every human being has a “symbolic” view of the world. It’s not something that we may ever consciously consider, but it is there, nonetheless. Scripture’s symbolic view of the world is that of a three-story house, and because the ancient Hebrew worldview was based in Scripture, this was the “Hebrew” view.

There are the heavens above, the earth below, and the waters under the earth. We can see that symbolic view of the world clearly in passages like Deuteronomy 5:8, the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” In other words, do not make an idol to worship any creature in any part of creation.

Does this mean that the ancient Hebrews actually believed that the universe is literally a three-story house? No, it doesn’t, any more than we actually believe that heaven is somewhere “up there,” and hell is somewhere “down there.” This is a symbolic understanding of the nature of reality. We still speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” and think of the sun as moving through the heavens, even though it is far simpler to describe all planetary motion relative to the Sun, and relative to the Sun, it is the Earth that is doing all the circling.

Consider this related example:

As Christians, we divide the population of the world into two groups, based on the teaching of Scripture. On the one hand we have God’s people – described in Scripture as “wise,” as “righteous,” as “the children of God.” These are the believers. On the other hand, we have people who are described in Scripture as “fools,” and as “the wicked.” These are the unbelievers.

Our concept of humanity is shaped by our understanding of the antithesis – the separation of humanity into two distinct groups – the “seed of the woman,” and the “seed of the serpent” (Genesis 3). This is what we know about these two groups of people, from God’s Word:

Ecclesiastes 2:14 – “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.”

Proverbs 4:18,19 – “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.”

We describe “the wicked” as sightless people, stumbling around in the darkness. They are unable to see, and because of their lack of sight, they are unable to keep from falling. We describe “the righteous” as people who, unlike the wicked, have eyes in their head. The righteous person walks in the light, and so can find his way.

So: do we believe that there are literally two groups of people in the world, one of which is sighted, the other of which is visually impaired? Do we believe that only a specific segment of the population is able to physically see, while the rest of humanity does not have eyes?

Clearly not. But imagine a 25th Century sociologist discovering some of the writings of the ancient Christians of the 21st Century, and interpreting them as though we do believe that one segment of the population is physically blind, and one sighted. Immediately we see that symbolic language, a symbolic construct, that describes a true state of affairs in metaphorical terms, would have to be read in a foolishly literal manner in order for such an error to occur. This is what happens when the claim is made that the people of Israel believed the world was flat, for example.

So when we read about the “three-story universe,” in the Bible, we need to keep this symbolic worldview in mind. The division of the world into three segments is found throughout Scripture. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the world (the “second story” in the three-story universe) is described as being itself composed of three parts – the greater world, the land of Eden, and the Garden of Eden.

In the tabernacle and the temple, this division of the world into three segments is shown symbolically in their construction, as well as in their furnishings and decorations. In the typology and symbolism of Scripture, the heavens, the earth, and the waters below (and the created things that fill each “story”) often stand as symbols. This is an example of a way of understanding the world that does not attempt to scientifically describe physical reality, but rather a mental and symbolic construct of that physical reality.

So before we make claims about what the ancient Hebrews believed about the physical nature of the universe, and what they didn’t believe, we need to understand the symbolic worldview of Scripture, and what the Bible is, and is not, telling us about the actual physical structure of the universe. We should not take the metaphorical and poetic descriptions of the world in a woodenly literal fashion.

Did the ancient Hebrews believe that the world stood on a literal foundation? If you don’t understand the use of figurative language, you might come to that conclusion:

He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved” (Psalm 104:5).

But then consider this: did the ancient Hebrews believe that these foundations were immovable? Did they believe that they were permanently fixed? If so, how do we deal with passages like this?

They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken” (Psalm 82:5).

These descriptions use word pictures to make specific points. In one word picture, the foundations of the earth cannot be moved; in the other, the foundations of the earth are shaken. So which of these verses supposedly describes the primitive cosmology of the ancient Hebrews?

The ancient Hebrews’ worldview was shaped by Scripture, not reflected in Scripture. This is an important distinction, and it’s one that is overturned by modern critical scholarship, which views the Bible as the work of men interpreting reality, instead of as the work of God, meant to shape human understanding of reality. Our understanding of the world, too, must be shaped by Scripture. In order for that to happen, we must seek to understand it on its own terms.

Test of Faith: Challenging Assumptions (2)

In my previous post, I examined Dr. Deborah Haarsma’s assumption that the original audience for the Genesis account of creation was the “ancient Hebrews.” In this post, I will turn to the claims that Dr. Haarsma makes about the ancient Hebrew understanding of the created order – namely, that they believed there was a solid sky dome above the earth.

As a reminder, here is the video to which I am responding. If you haven’t already watched it, please take a moment to do so.

So did the ancient Hebrews believe that there was a solid dome above the earth? And where do we go to find out what they believed? The only source for ancient Hebrew belief is the Bible, so that’s where we’ll turn.

Much of this discussion turns on the meaning of the Hebrew word raqia, which is first found in Genesis 1:6-8:

“And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day” (ESV).

The word raqia is translated in the ESV as “expanse,” which makes sense. In the NIV 2011, it is translated as “vault,” which makes somewhat less sense. The King James Version, however, translates this word as “firmament,” which is completely wrong.

And when we look at the KJV translation of raqia, things get really interesting. The word “firmament” comes from the Latin word firmamentum, which means “a support, a strengthening. That Latin word itself derives from the word firmus, which means “strong, steadfast, or enduring.” The King James translators chose this word to translate raqia because it was used in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Scripture.

Follow me here, because the trail is twisting and turning – but if you can follow this path, there’s a reward of clarity at the end of it. The Vulgate used the word firmamentum to translate the word stereoma, which was the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate raqia in Genesis 1. That Greek word means “what is solid and firm.”

So here’s the path we took to get from raqia to “firmament”:

raqiastereomafirmamentum → firmament

We’ve made the journey from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, and along the way, a serious error in translation occurred. You see, the word raqia comes from the Hebrew verb raqa. Raqa means “to spread out, to hammer out, or to overlay.” In Syriac, however, raqa means “to make firm or solid.” This is one of the sources of the mistaken (but oft-repeated) view that the ancient Hebrews believed that there was a solid sky dome above the earth.

Context is important here, as always. And there are a number of passages in Scripture that refer to the LORD’s having “stretched out” the heavens, which support the meaning of raqia as “something that has been stretched out, or spread out.”

Isaiah 42:5 – “Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it, and spirit to those who walk in it.”

Isaiah 44:24 – “Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself.”

And finally, Job 37:18 – “Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?”

Uh… Ahem. Okay. So… now what?

“Hard as a cast metal mirror!” Aha! The solid sky dome makes its appearance at last!! My argument has been defeated!

Or has it been?

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here. As with most questions, this one too has already been answered elsewhere. To put it simply, Job is speaking metaphorically; the book of Job is filled with poetic language and metaphor, and this is one of many examples of metaphor in that book. Dr. Joseph R. Nally writes:

The picture being painted in the book of Job is that the sky is solid but thin, like a piece of metal being hammered out (Ex. 39:3; Isaiah 40:19). God stretches out the heavens like a tent (Ps. 104:2). Metaphorically speaking, the heavens are being viewed as hammered out at creation (I.e, a spreading out of the sky or an expanse – Gen. 1:7,8) and/or clouds daily changing their shapes or reforming (Job 36:28,29; cf. Gen. 9:13-16; Psalm 18:9-11).

‘Solid’ in the book of Job does not mean impenetrable. Above the firmament are storehouses for rain (Job 36:27-28) and snow and hail (Job 38:22), and there is a place above it for the sun, moon, and the stars (Job 9:7; 22:12; 30:28; 31:26; 37:21; cf. Gen. 1:14-17). Job’s metaphoric picture says the skies are ‘hard as a mirror of cast bronze.’ Glass mirrors were not known until Roman times. In the day and age of Job, mirrors were cast from hardened bronze (copper hardened by the addition of tin). So, metaphorically, God’s skies are durable and strong.

The problem with Dr. Haarsma’s statement is not limited to the idea that the ancient Hebrews believed in that solid sky dome, or in the flatness of the earth. It goes deeper – to a fundamental misinterpretation of the Bible’s symbolic and conceptual descriptions of creation. All human beings and cultures have a conceptual or symbolic understanding of the world, and a way of describing the world that is based in that understanding. The conceptual and symbolic understanding of the “ancient Hebrews” was shaped by God’s Word. The Lord willing, I will follow up on this important point in a subsequent examination of Dr. Haarsma’s assumptions.

Test of Faith: Challenging Assumptions

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:

  1. The ancient Hebrews did not believe that the world was round.
  2. The ancient Hebrews believed that there was a solid sky dome over the earth (the “firmament”).
  3. 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.

Why?

Why?

Why a new website? To paraphrase Solomon, “Of the making of blogs there is no end.” So do we really need another one?

Why keep on arguing about the issue of origins and its importance to the Christian faith? Is this continual discussion really necessary?

Why continue to fight against the theory of evolution, in the face of all the evidence that apparently supports it? Hasn’t this already been resolved?

Why not leave these disputes behind, and simply get out there and spread the gospel? (Or, to put it in a slightly more crass fashion, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”)

Why perpetuate division in the church? Shouldn’t we all be working together in a common cause, since we all believe in Jesus Christ, and that’s what’s really important?

And finally, in the now immortal words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” Is this debate/controversy/argument/dispute really worth fighting about?

Why?

Because God’s creative work is vitally important to the Christian faith on many levels. What we believe about the origin and development of the universe has an impact that is far-ranging and profound. How we interpret the opening chapters of Genesis affects how we read all of the rest of Scripture. How we view God’s work of creation is closely linked with how we think of everything about God, what he has done, what he continues to do, and what he will accomplish in the future.

David Nelson, writing in Theology and Practice of Mission, wrote the following:

“In order to build a biblical-theological framework for understanding God’s mission, the church’s mission, and the church’s mission to the nations, one must first understand the unified biblical narrative, including its four major plot movements – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.”

When we get one of those “plot movements” wrong, when we go astray in one of those “grand themes” of the Bible, our error compounds itself. The foundations of our faith are eroded. Our theological superstructure begins to crumble. The progression (or regression) is inevitable, and it’s disastrous. History has proven this to be true, time and again. When the Bible’s account of creation is re-interpreted in an attempt to allow the Christian faith to peacefully co-exist with a currently accepted scientific paradigm, Scripture’s “big picture” begins to fall apart. Creation falls; the fall into sin follows; redemption goes next; and what remains to be restored?

That’s why we’ve developed “Creation Without Compromise.” We know that many Christians struggle to maintain faith in God’s Word in the face of criticism, questions, and scepticism about the Bible’s account of creation. We also understand that others struggle to integrate their understanding of the physical sciences with their understanding of Scripture. And there are others who believe this isn’t an issue at all.

Our plan is to address the issue, and to do so with an unapologetic and firmly held starting point: the Bible is God’s perfect word, and our interpretation of the evidence provided by the sciences must be entirely shaped by it.

Why? Because we ignore this issue at our own peril.

Why? Because God requires us to be “prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15), and to do that “with gentleness and respect.” The Creator God’s work of forming and upholding his handiwork is essential to the hope that is in us (Revelation 4:11).

Why? Because when God’s people are struggling with an essential element of their faith, it’s our duty, and privilege, to direct them back to the unshakeable foundation of God’s Word, and to help them to interpret it with wisdom.

Why? Because how God created all things tells us as much about his character as the simple fact that he created all things.

Why? Because God’s creation astounds us more every day, and our hearts cry out to praise him for it!

May God grant us his grace and wisdom as we seek to defend the truth about creation, without compromise – to his glory, and for the benefit of his people.

— Jim Witteveen