The Protective Plover

Australia is famous for its diverse wildlife wanting to kill you.  Even the birds get in on the action.  In certain regions the Australian magpie (no relation to the Canadian bird) will swoop at humans, at times with deadly consequences.  A five-month old baby recently died when her mother stumbled while trying to avoid a swooping magpie in Brisbane.  Thankfully, the magpies here in Tasmania are much milder mannered – they don’t swoop.  However, things are quite different when it comes to our plovers.

Ornithologists call them masked lapwings, but most Aussies just call them plovers.  For North American readers, just imagine a large killdeer with a bad temper at certain times of the year.  In our Launceston neighbourhood they’re prolific.  You can’t avoid them, even though at times you desperately want to.

I’d nominate them as Tasmania’s most dangerous bird.  Though they’re sometimes hard to see from a distance, plovers have a black-tipped yellow spur on the carpal joint of their wings.  And they’re not afraid to use these spiky little weapons.  Swooping magpies just have their beaks; plovers intimidate with beaks and spurs – doubly dangerous.

Most of the year plovers are harmless.  They just go about their business feasting on worms and insects.  At such times their only fault is their awful sound.  Australian magpies have a beautiful throaty call, but plovers sound like a malfunctioning home alarm.

However, when the winter solstice rolls around in the antipodes (June 21), plovers become unhinged.  The solstice usually marks the beginning of their breeding season.  The problems begin with where the females choose to lay their eggs, which is just about anywhere.  A few weeks ago I was on my normal daily walk route.  I rounded a corner on a sidewalk and there, right next to the sidewalk on the grass, was a female plover sitting on her eggs.  She started squawking at me, the male started squawking at me, and I made a hasty retreat to the other side of the street.  I don’t mess with plovers.   

In the weeks following, I knew to avoid that spot.  In that instance, a predator appears to have eventually raided the nest – I never saw any chicks.  But it’s when the chicks hatch that things really start to get out of control.  In another spot on my daily walk route, plovers have been nesting regularly each year.  This year they initially had four chicks hatch.  At the moment, they’re down to one.  The other three haven’t survived – probably due to cats, but we also have a goshawk in the vicinity, as well as some falcons.  But with that one chick, that pair of plovers will protect it with their lives.  A nest is static – it stays in one spot; but chicks are mobile and you never know where they’re going to be from day to day.  If you come anywhere near a plover chick, the parents only give you a couple of warning squawks before the aggressive aerial attack begins.  I’ve been attacked several times, always by accidentally coming across chicks and their parents, and I can tell you it’s the kind of experience which requires a change of undergarments afterwards.  They’ve never made contact, but it’s still a terrifying ordeal.

Plovers seem insane about protecting their young, their most vulnerable.  I often think about their instinct to do whatever it takes to make sure their chicks survive, even before they hatch. They’ll even resort to violence to protect the next generation.  But then are others of God’s creatures which resort to violence to destroy the next generation.  So many tiny helpless human beings are being brutally destroyed in the womb each day.  The human parents who are supposed to protect them fail.  Plovers may appear insane with their protective instincts, but I’d propose that it’s actually humans who are insane with their failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our species.  And unlike plovers who have no moral responsibility for their violent instincts, we humans are culpable for our insanity.  Even in creation, God has not left us without a witness to this fact. It’s neither natural or moral to fail to protect.

An Exhaustive Exegetical Extravaganza

In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2, Cornelis Van Dam.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Dr. C. Van Dam begins his latest book by explicitly laying out his presuppositions.  He’s upfront about his non-negotiable assumptions and biases.  As I review his book, it’s appropriate that I share mine too.  I share his presuppositions about Scripture as the trustworthy Word of God, but I also bring a personal bias to the table.  Back in the day, Van Dam was my Old Testament professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  I had an affectionate nickname for him in view of his ability to put the smack-down on unbelieving or shoddy scholarship:  “Wham-Bam-Van-Dam.”  This was always said with the greatest admiration for Dr. Van Dam.  As a seminary professor he was nothing if not thorough and careful.

This new book exhibits that same kind of comprehensive and precise approach to the two opening chapters of Scripture.  Van Dam leaves no stone unturned.  In the Beginning is an exhaustive treatment not only of the meaning of these two chapters, but also the various challenges that have been raised in Old Testament scholarship regarding them.  What you’re looking at here is not just a commentary on Genesis 1-2, but far more.

Over the last decade or so John Walton has become well-known for his views on the early chapters of Genesis.  Walton argues that we often misunderstand Genesis 1-2 because we don’t take into account the ancient Near Eastern context of these chapters.  Once we do that, says Walton, then we can see that Genesis 1-2 was never meant to be taken literally as history.  The history can then be filled in with what science teaches us, including what science says about human origins.  In chapter 2 of In the Beginning, Van Dam discusses Walton’s views at length and explains how and where they fail to do justice to the character of Scripture as the Word of God.  In my view this is the most important chapter of the book. 

To whet your appetite further, let me share a selection of questions that Dr. Van Dam answers elsewhere in the book:

  • Can new scientific data be regarded as general revelation given by God?
  • What is the relationship of Scripture to science?  Is Scripture a scientific textbook?
  • Can geology give us a history of creation?
  • Was Herman Dooyeweerd faithful to Scripture in his view of origins?
  • How are we to evaluate Meredith Kline’s Framework Hypothesis?
  • Did the ancient Israelites believe that heaven was a solid vault above us?
  • Why is there no mention of evening and morning with the seventh day in Genesis 1?
  • What does Scripture mean when it says that God created through his Son?
  • Can the breath of life in Genesis 2:7 be equated with the Holy Spirit?
  • Was there animal death before the fall into sin?
  • Why did God create everything with an appearance of age?  Was he being deceptive in so doing?

Those are just a few of the questions answered.  There are far more.  What I appreciate about Van Dam’s answers is that he bases them on what Scripture says.  He doesn’t want to go beyond Scripture and so he’ll sometimes say, “Scripture doesn’t say more than this – this is as far as we can go.”

If I would venture some respectful disagreement, it would be in the final chapter where the author briefly discusses whether there’s a need for new confessional formulations to address the challenges of evolution.  In 2014-15, I was involved with an effort to add some clarification to article 14 of the Belgic Confession in the Canadian Reformed Church.  That effort was ultimately unsuccessful.  I don’t regret having made the effort, nor do I think it unnecessary to this day. 

Van Dam argues that Scripture is clear and our “confessions faithfully reflect that testimony” (p.300).  However, that fails to account for those who have argued that the Three Forms of Unity provide the latitude needed to hold to forms of theistic macro-evolution.  Their arguments have persuaded some.  This wiggle-room ought to be addressed, especially if there is openness to theistic macro-evolution in your churches.

Van Dam also posits that “A difficulty with preparing a new formulation asserting the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 is the temptation to go beyond what Scripture says, in other words, to provide specifics about that which Scripture gives no additional detail” (pp.300-301).  The proposal to add clarification to BC 14 was to state what Scripture states:  that Adam was created from dust (Gen.2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22).  As a consequence:  “They were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans.  There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid.”  If one thinks that this infringes upon the freedom of exegesis, then one is willing to grant the latitude for theistic evolutionary accounts of human (and other) origins.    

That criticism notwithstanding, In the Beginning was a delight to read – personally it brought me back to many of the OT lectures I enjoyed from Dr. Van Dam in my seminary years.  While I found it enjoyable, there may be others who will find it tough-going at times.  It’s not highly technical, but in places Van Dam does go academic.  It’s not a book you’d necessarily be giving out as gifts to those doing profession of faith.  It would, however, be a great gift for someone doing post-secondary studies, whether in the sciences or in the humanities.  And it’s definitely a recommended read for those who’ve completed such studies. 

The Wacky Wombat

Common Wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania

Back when I was a missionary in British Columbia, we had a friend visit from Australia.  I asked him, “Have you ever seen a bear in the wild?”  He hadn’t.  “Would you like to see one?”  He certainly did, but expressed his doubts whether I could just conjure up a wild bear for him.  We drove for about 15 minutes north and arrived at the fish-counting weir on the Babine River.  And sure enough, as always at that time of year, there were grizzly bears about, fishing for spawning salmon.  Our Aussie friend was duly impressed. 

Now if you were to visit our part of Australia today, I’d ask you, “Have you ever seen a wombat in the wild?”  The wombat is as close as we get to a bear here in Tasmania.  We’d have to drive a little bit, but there are some spots here where I can guarantee you’d see one — places like Maria Island, Cradle Mountain, or Narawntapu.  And there are plenty of other places where, even if we didn’t see an actual wombat, we could definitely see evidence of them. 

The main evidence you’d find would be their droppings.  They’re rather distinctive.  Wombat droppings are cubic, you see.  Yep, they’re the only animals in the world that poop cubes.  How does a wombat manage this feat?  According to a recent study of wombat intestines, rather than being consistent like most animals, wombats have areas of varying thickness and stiffness.  The droppings go through grooved tissues and irregular contractions and this produces cubes.  Now not all wombat droppings are perfect cubes, but apparently the more cubic they are, the healthier the wombat.

When most people think of marsupials, they think kangaroos.  However, wombats are marsupials too.  The wombat’s pouch faces backwards between its legs.  So you could very well see a momma wombat wandering away with a baby wombat peeking out from the pouch. 

Wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania

Wombats are also renowned road kill in Tasmania and elsewhere.  Adult wombats can be a meter long and weigh in at 35 kg or 77 lbs.  They are like little bears.  If you hit one with your vehicle, you’re going to feel it and it’s going to do some damage.  This is because a wombat is not only large and heavy, but also built tough.  Wombats may look soft and cuddly, but they’ve been designed like a tank.  It’s especially their backsides that present a formidable wall – they have four fused bony plates.  They use their backsides for defence and mating.  When they’re in their burrows and an animal threatens to invade, they’ll just stick their bony butts out.  They’ve been known to crush their enemies with their ample derrieres.  Male and female wombats bite each other in their solid back ends as part of their mating rituals – and are none the worse for it.

Other wacky wombat facts:

  • Baby wombats hiccup when they’re stressed.
  • Wombat digestive processes include fermentation, a process which lasts weeks.
  • Some early European arrivals mistook the wombat for a badger.  Hence Tasmania has a “Badger Beach” on its north coast. 
  • Wombats create lengthy and complex burrow systems.  In 1960, a 15 year old Australian schoolboy began exploring wombat burrows by crawling through them.  Peter Nicholson’s research is still used today.
  • There are three species of wombats:  the common, the northern hairy-nosed, and the southern hairy-nosed.  All are only found in Australia (in the south and east).
  • The Latin name of the common wombat is vombatus ursinus – literally, “wombat bear.”  If you know your Heidelberg Catechism history, Zacharias Ursinus’ original German surname was Baer (=Bear).   

God has certainly put fascinating creatures on this earth.  Wombats are among them, animals that illustrate our Maker’s creative genius.  Here we have an animal that looks a little bear, but could hardly be more different than a bear.  I can’t help but exclaim with the psalmist, “O LORD, how manifold your works!  In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).                          

The Eccentric Echidna

For the last few years I’ve been privileged to live in Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and arguably most beautiful state.  One of the wonderful things about Tasmania is the opportunity to regularly encounter unique wildlife.  We have some of the most interesting creatures in the world and with many of them, you don’t have to travel far to meet them. 

For example, I take a daily walk which brings me through a nearby bushland reserve.  During the warmer months, I frequently encounter the oddly fascinating echidna.  I’ll be walking along and an echidna will be foraging for food in the dirt at the side of the track.  If I walk up slowly from behind, usually I won’t be noticed.  But if I am noticed, the echidna doesn’t scurry away like most creatures might.  Instead, it freezes in place, tucks its head down and hopes for the best. 

If you’ve never seen one, an echidna is best described as a cross between a porcupine and a hedgehog.  It has quills like a porcupine, but unlike a porcupine the quills can’t be released as a defensive measure.  You don’t see Tasmanian dogs with echidna quills stuck in their noses!  If you’re careful, you can pick up an echidna – though you probably really shouldn’t.    

Echidnas are a type of monotreme.  Monotremes are egg-laying mammals.  The only other example is another Australian oddball, the platypus.  Female echidnas lay a single egg into a pouch – they don’t lay them on the ground in a nest, so you’re unlikely to find any echidna eggs.  The egg is incubated in the pouch and in 7-10 days the baby echidna (known as a ‘puggle’) hatches.  It stays in the pouch feeding on its mother’s milk until its ready for the outside world, about 6-8 weeks.  The development of the puggle’s sharp spines is what marks the moment – momma echidnas don’t like being poked.

They’re renowned for their slow metabolism and their typically low body temperature.  In the winter months, echidnas enter into a type of hibernation known as torpor.  By Canadian standards, winters in my home city of Launceston are quite mild.  Occasionally it does fall below freezing, but most of the time daytime highs are 10-14 degrees Celsius.  Despite that, you’ll seldom see an echidna in the winter.  Even those relatively mild winter temperatures will put them into a state of torpor.

Other fun facts about echidnas:

  • They don’t have teeth. Instead they have rough pads on their tongues and roofs of their mouths between which they grind their food.
  • Male echidnas have a spurs on their hind legs which secrete a smelly substance thought to play a role in communication. 
  • Male echidnas also have four penises, but only two are functional at any given moment. 
  • Apparently because of their slow metabolism, echidnas can live up to 50 years.
  • Historically they were used for food by First Nations. After all, they are easy to catch.

I’ve always had a fascination with wildlife, so my regular encounters with echidnas never get old.  I love watching them waddle along and intently search for insects.   But more than that, for me seeing echidnas is a moment to stop and praise God, the Creator of these amazing creatures.  It’s doxological.  Echidnas are unique animals, purposefully designed for their environment and also to bring adoration to their Maker.  When I see one, I always try to remind myself that my Father, who holds all things in his hand, has put this one echidna on my path so that I would see it and praise his handiwork.  Echidnas truly are eccentric members of the animal world, but like us, they were put on this planet for the glory of God.

Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 5 — Final)

See here for Part 1, here for Part 2, here for Part 3, and here for Part 4.

The Extent of the Flood

As already mentioned, USTO disparages a “Bible-first” approach.  Instead, the Bible has to be understood, not only on its own terms, but also in terms of what God is revealing in the “second book” of scientific evidence.  Not surprisingly, this leads USTO to reject the notion of a global flood in the days of Noah.  They grant that the Bible describes some cataclysmic event of massive proportions; however USTO insists that it was not global.  Moreover, “the event is described with a specific theological and literary goal in mind” (241).  It is not meant to provide us with a “hydro-geological” explanation.

Once again we are presented with a false dilemma:  a global flood versus a “specific theological and literary goal.”  This dilemma is false because if we understand the text to be referring to a global flood, that certainly does not rule out a theological and literary goal.  Creationists understand that God reveals what he does in Genesis 6-9 for a theological purpose, but that by no means rules out the historical fact of what it describes.

In Genesis 6-9, one of the key issues is how we understand the Hebrew word kol (all).  USTO concludes that the Hebrew word kol in the Flood story is used rhetorically – it simply means that a large area was inundated and large numbers of people were affected.  Kol can be used rhetorically – no one questions that.  However, Scripture must interpret Scripture.  USTO ignores the key section in Genesis 6.  In Genesis 6:5-7, God observes the wickedness of human beings “in the earth.”  USTO would translate that as “in the land,” and yes, the Hebrew word for ‘earth’ can also be translated ‘land.’  But verse 6 militates against that, because it speaks of God’s creation of human beings “on the earth.”  God did not create human beings “in the land,” i.e. in some region now under his scrutiny.  This is universal language.  That becomes further evident when Genesis 6:7 refers to the animals.  God plans not only to destroy humanity, but also the “animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens” which he created at the beginning (cf. Gen. 7:4).  This too favours a global understanding.  Later in chapter 6, God speaks of “all flesh” having corrupted its way on the earth.  Are we to imagine that there were pockets of humanity which were immune to this trend?  Genesis 6:17 says, “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven.  Everything that is on the earth shall die.”  Notice the mention of “under heaven.”  All flesh “under heaven” is slated for destruction.  Again, that distinctly favours a global understanding of this event.

Moreover, the building of the ark itself witnesses to a global flood.  The ark was built by Noah, not only to save him and seven others of his family, but also to save the animals.  USTO has no explanation as to why the animals had to enter the ark if the Flood was something less than global.

In a sidebar, USTO interacts briefly with the New Testament mentions of the Flood.  They claim that none of the New Testament passages “make a statement about its geographical scope” (243).  Luke 17:26-27 is mentioned:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.  They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.

USTO claims that this is just speaking about “how people were living their lives day by day and were caught by surprise when judgment came” (243).  But what is the nature of the judgment to come?  It’s universal.  Just as the Flood destroyed all the ungodly in the days of Noah, “so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.”  In case you miss the point, in the next three verses, Christ speaks about the days of Lot and the wholesale destruction of Sodom:  “fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all.”  No one escaped, except Lot.  Clearly, Christ understood the Flood to be an event which destroyed all human beings except Noah and his family.

According to USTO, 2 Peter 2:5 “references God sparing Noah” (243).  2 Peter 2:5 says, “…if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…”  It beggars belief to argue that Peter believed the flood to be anything less than global.  It was the “ancient world” which was not spared and the flood came upon “the world of the ungodly.”  The natural reading is to understand these terms globally and universally.

USTO also adopts an unnatural reading of 2 Peter 3:5-6.  They argue that it just speaks about the world being deluged and destroyed and the Greek word for ‘world’ (kosmos) is being used in its broadest sense, and therefore it’s not referring to the extent of the Flood.  However, when you look at these verses in context, beginning with verse 4, it becomes evident how implausible that interpretation is:

They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.  For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.

Notice how Peter writes about the creation of the earth – he is quite evidently not speaking about the creation of some portion of the planet.  The same entire planet that was created was deluged with water.

If God is revealing through the scientific evidence that a global flood never happened, then we need to revisit our interpretation of Genesis and somehow bring it into alignment with this newer divine revelation.  That is what USTO is doing.  However, it is a revisionist approach to the Bible.   It simply does not honour the Bible as God’s Word.  We honour God’s Word when we take it on its own terms and then evaluate what we observe in the world around us in the light of what God has said.  As the Psalmist says, “….in your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9).

Conclusion

There are a fair number of other concerns I could mention, but having covered the most important, I’ll bring this lengthy review to a close here.  I began by saying that USTO could be described as the theistic evolution “Bible.”  I said that intentionally because USTO not only contains content from the written Bible as we know it, but it also presents scientific evidence as a second “book” with additional revelation from God (albeit with a “provisional authority”).   Whether this is a legitimate method of approaching origins is really the key issue.  Because I am a Reformed Christian, I emphatically deny that it is.

I believe the Bible alone is our inspired, infallible, inerrant source for doctrine and life.  The Bible teaches that about itself.  Therefore, God’s Word always has to be our starting point.  It is not that the Bible is a “textbook” for science, as USTO and others allege creationists to believe.  Rather, science can only honour God when it takes its starting point from what God has said in the Bible.

I tried, but I could not read this book dispassionately.  In this book, I heard the whispers of Satan in the Garden of Eden:  did God really say?  If someone is questioning my Father or twisting his words, even if it’s done with the greatest sophistication, I cannot remain dispassionate.  I also think of the sad fact that this book comprises course material at Wheaton College.  Scores of impressionable youth have been and are being fed this content.  Because it is happening at a Christian institution, they could be led to believe that this is an acceptable Christian approach.  It is not.  It is unbelief.  I pray for students at Wheaton College that God will help them with his Spirit and Word to discern the truth regarding origins.