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.