Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 1

As an homage to the Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll and his work Some Mistakes of Moses, I've decided to publish my own remarks on the Pentateuch under the heading "Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe." Star Wars fans will get the "expanded universe" reference. This series will begin with Genesis and go through Deuteronomy. I don't pretend to be an expert and this is simply a vehicle for disseminating my personal notes on certain passages in these books of the Bible that I find problematic for those who hold to a doctrine of inerrancy akin to the one put forward in the Chicago Statement. Christians with a more robust view of scripture probably won't have any real problems getting around many of the issues I am likely to point out. Those with a more traditional view will take issue from the outset.


Genesis 1 & 2 (overview)
There are quite a few odd things in the creation account aside from contradictions with current understandings of cosmology and biology. Most of the internal difficulties stem from the fact that there seems to be two separate creation stories that have been placed together. Chapter 1 appears to relate a more detailed “wet” creation narrative that takes place over 6 days in which plants then animals then mankind (both male and female) are brought forth. Chapter 2 is a “dry” creation narrative that appears to take place in a single day, begins with one man, followed by plants and then animals and finally the woman.

The difficulties have been variously dealt with by either glossing over problems, treating the first chapter as a prologue and the second chapter as a more specific account of what took place on the 6th day, or any number of other creative ways in which the semantic ranges of words are stretched to mean whatever is necessary to provide an interpretation that escapes the difficulties. If one simply acknowledges that there are two separate and distinct origin stories here with different authors and different emphases, the passages start to make sense just fine with a straightforward reading of the text.

Additionally, there are striking similarities in these creation accounts when compared with other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths that likely pre-date Genesis. I suppose one could argue that those other myths contained the “cultural memories” of people that had passed on various details of what really happened and that those retellings had been distorted over time so that only the Genesis author got it right by divine inspiration. One could interpret these similarities as corroborating evidence for the Genesis accounts or one could understand these similarities to be more likely showing how the Genesis stories might just be amalgamations of and/or polemical reactions to the competing myths of other nearby cultures. Either way, the point remains that much of what is portrayed in various books of the Bible can be shown to have similarly existed or originated elsewhere. Its contents are not as unique as many are led to believe.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1 ESV)
This first verse is widely understood to denote creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). Some, like John Calvin, make this argument based on the use of the Hebrew word bara (create). Calvin says that since this verb is used rather than yatsar (formed), it must mean “out of nothing.” However, this is the same word used in 1:27 when Elohim “makes” male and female humankind. So did he speak them into existence and make them out of nothing or did he use the existing materials of the dust of the ground and a rib as the story goes in chapter 2? In 5:1-2 and 6:7 bara is used in reference to all mankind alive at that time. Were the people referred to in chapters 5 and 6 also created out of nothing?

Bara is the same verb used in Ezekiel 21:19 (albeit with a different stem), when Ezekiel is told to “make a signpost.” Did Ezekiel make this signpost ex nihilo or did he use existing matter? Other passages where it’s used with reference to God like Psalm 51:10 (“Create in me a clean heart”) and Isaiah 43:15 (“I am…the one who created Israel”) strongly imply reforming or renewing using something already existing.

Isaiah 45:7 uses three different Hebrew words for making something:  “I form (yatsar) light and create (bara) darkness, I bring (asah) prosperity and create (bara) calamity.” It’s noteworthy that yatsar is almost always used in the sense of forming or fashioning something (often a potter with clay) and in this passage of Isaiah it is referring to light, the very thing that many interpreters would suggest Genesis 1:3 claims was spoken into existence from nothing. This semantic argument simply doesn’t work.

Even the writer of 2 Peter seems to express the idea that creation was formed out of pre-existent water (2 Peter 3:5). Arguably the whole concept of creation ex nihilo comes as a reaction to Greek thought coming in contact with Jewish thought and is later expanded by proto-orthodox Christians reacting to the Gnostic idea of matter being inherently bad. Indeed it seems that it’s not really until Hellenistic culture impacts Judaism that one sees Jewish writings like 2 Maccabees 7:28 that directly imply the concept of creation ex nihilo. Of course one sees this idea expanded in later Jewish and Christian thought, but the fact remains that Genesis 1:1 cannot be said to necessarily imply creation ex nihilo.

It seems instead that Genesis 1:1 is merely an opening summation of what was to follow, similar to the opening of the Enuma Elish. Interestingly, just like in the Enuma Elish, there is no mention of the waters being created. Of course, in that myth the waters are represented by the primeval gods Abzu (fresh water) and Tiamat (ocean water/chaos) from whom all the other gods are brought forth. Marduk shows up on the scene later and uses the already-existing chaos water that he has conquered to make everything else, similar to what Elohim does in Genesis 1, but in a truncated and less dramatic fashion.

The second part of this verse is usually translated something like “the Spirit (ruwach) of God was moving (rachaph) over the face of the water. Ruwach is interchangeable with “wind/breath.” The NRSV even translates it as, “…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. When Marduk takes prominence as the chief god in the narrative of the Enuma Elish, he blows his breath across the face of Tiamat the goddess of chaos and the watery deep and eventually overthrows her by splitting her in two (Tablet IV lines 96-100). Of note is that the Akkadian word "tiamat" is a cognate to the Hebrew word for deep (tÿhom) used here in Genesis.

Interestingly, Tiamat is represented as a sea monster, kind of like Leviathan, Rahab or Yam. I mention this because Psalm 74:12-17 recounts a strikingly similar event in which Elohim is portrayed splitting the head of a sea monster as a first act of creation and then carrying on with other creative acts much like Marduk does in the Enuma Elish. Why would Moses (and especially the the Pslamist) so clearly allude to the same motifs found in Sumerian, Canaanite and even Greek creation myths if his goal is to try and show how the God of Israel is so different from these other gods?

In the Enuma Elish, after Marduk slays Tiamat, he bisects her body (the waters) and pushes one half up to fashion the sky and leaves the other to make what is below (Tablet IV line 138 to Tablet V line 62). This is very similar to what Elohim does in these verses when he takes the already existing water and moves some of it up behind a solid dome (firmament) to make the sky (after all, the sky is blue so there must be water up there, right?) and leaves some below for the ocean.

Something of note that is often overlooked is that Elohim directs the land to produce vegetation. He does not create it himself, he orders the land to produce it. Interestingly, Marduk does not create plant life in the Enuma Elish either, but rather it is brought forth from Asarre, the land god under Marduk’s direction.

In this passage Elohim makes the heavenly bodies and places them within the solid dome to establish a calendar and the greater and lesser lights are to rule over the day and night. If the point here is that these are mere inanimate created objects, then why are they given authority to govern? If Moses really wants to differentiate from the pagan concept of deifying the sun and moon then why even go that far? Why perpetuate the idea of lesser celestial authorities governing anything at all when this is exactly the kind of concept shared by the neighboring heathens? Tablet VI of the Enuma Elish is mostly an account of Marduk doing just what is being described in this passage of Genesis. Instead of being distinct, Elohim comes across as just another creator god with lesser gods doing his bidding.

As an aside, why is the moon one of the two great lights? We now know it's not a source of light, but rather reflects it. Playing games with the supposed semantic range of the Hebrew word for light (ma'owr) does not get apologists out of this problem given the context. The moon, along with the sun, is clearly referred to as one of the two great lights. Oddly enough, the stars (some of them larger than our sun by substantial magnitudes), which do emit their own light, are mentioned in passing. The Bible consistently speaks of the moon in a way that assumes it emits rather than reflects light independent of the sun, which is, of course, exactly how it would have appeared to ancient people. See Eccl. 12:2; Is. 13:10, 30:26; Ez. 32:7; Joel 2:10 & 3:15; Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:24. Yet no one today seems to have a problem with reconciling this with what we now know to be the case through scientific evidence even though it directly contradicts the Bible's portrayal of the way things are.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not arguing this is something that completely invalidates the Bible. I'm simply suggesting that any interpretive rationale required to arrive at the conclusion that there is no real contradiction with reality here could be equally applied to other scientific facts that seem to contradict the Bible. It's just a matter of degree. However, unlike some other scientific facts about cosmology, geology and biology that contradict the Bible, no one is going to accuse Christians that deny that the moon emits is own light of adopting a “compromise position.” Nor would they be considered heretics for rejecting the idea that that the moon along with the sun and stars has been placed in a solid dome with flood gates holding back the waters of heaven stretching across the sky over a flat, disc-shaped earth that sits on pillars suspended in space, yet that is the biblical portrayal of the cosmos.

It's quite clear that whoever wrote Genesis didn't have an accurate view of the cosmos at their disposal. Instead they had the knowledge that everyone else in the Ancient Near East had at their disposal. They apparently weren't tapping into some omniscient source that could've revealed these things to them, otherwise it stands to reason that they would have provided a more accurate picture of the way things really are instead of carrying on the incorrect notions of their time. What better way to bring the sun and moon down from the heights of deification than to more accurately present them as merely a giant ball of fire and a rock? Instead they're presented as these mystical, albeit subordinate, great luminaries that "govern" things.

While we’re on the subject of the moon reflecting rather than emitting its own light, wouldn’t it have been nice if God would’ve revealed things like this thousands of years ago? We could now point to that passage and say, “Look! There is something that only an omniscient deity could’ve known and he revealed it thousands of years before mankind could verify it.” I suppose if that would’ve happened a skeptic could claim that some ancient could’ve easily just guessed that the moon was reflecting light from the sun. Of course, that would still be better than having his supposedly inspired, inerrant and infallible word simply repeating the accepted erroneous views of the day and going along with the notion that the moon gives off its own light in virtually every instance in the Bible which the subject comes up.

Some will point to the “us” in this passage as early evidence of the Trinity. Others will say it refers to a plurality of majesty. Still others will suggest it refers to the heavenly court of angelic beings (the creation of which has yet to be even hinted at). But what if it’s just the first of many vestiges of the polytheism of early Israelite religion that progressed over time? What if it’s merely the reflection of a development from polytheism with a pantheon of a high god and lesser gods to tribal henotheism with Yahweh as Israel’s god, but still recognizing the existence of the gods of other nations and finally moving to strict monotheism with all those other gods being relegated to the status of angelic beings? What if that is the reason why the word “god” is in the plural form (elohim) and only later did the Jewish monotheists reinterpret it to mean something other than what it appears to mean on the surface? What if it really does imply that there is more than one god as the text so obviously seems to suggest?

Something often overlooked is the fact that when the passage speaks of mankind, male and female, it does not necessitate understanding this to mean it was the creation of only two people, especially given that other animals are said to be swarming and teeming. It’s only when looking back from the account recorded in chapter 2 that we are led to assume that it was only two people that were created here and not a group of humans, both male and female. However, treating this account as separate from the account in chapter 2 does not rule out the idea that the author had a bunch of anonymous human beings in mind and not merely two.

Elohim addresses mankind, male and female, charges them to reproduce, rule the earth and all that’s in it and then gives them every seed-bearing plant and every tree that has fruit with seed in it as food. There is nothing about tending a garden or making an exception for any particular tree. The fact that this proclamation is made to both male and female would seem to indicate that it should be placed chronologically after chapter 2 verse 23 when Yahweh makes the woman from the rib of the man, if we are to take the passages literally and harmonize them. The problem is that the commands about the garden and which fruit not to eat of along with other events like the man naming every living animal of the field and every bird of the air had to all take place before both the man and the woman could be addressed together in 1:28-29 and all on the sixth day.

Let’s recap the events combining the accounts from both chapters. On the sixth day God makes land animals and in his final act of creation, God makes Adam from the dust. God plants a garden/orchard and puts Adam in it. God gives Adam the instructions in 2:17 not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then God brings “every living beast of the field and bird of the air” to Adam to see what he would name them. After that’s done, God makes Adam fall asleep and forms Eve from his rib. Then he tells both of them to multiply, rule the earth, etc. He tells them they can eat from every tree that has fruit with seed in it for food and makes no mention with Eve present of an exception that could potentially negatively alter the entire universe and damn countless numbers of their children to unimaginable torture for all eternity. All of this happens in one single day.

Naming all the land animals in a single day is quite a feat, as this would presumably include all now-extinct species as well as currently existing ones. Currently there are 10,000 known species of birds, 5,490 known species of mammals and 9,084 known species of reptiles. For argument's sake we’ll leave off all amphibians and every species of land-based invertebrate, which would number well over 1 million known species (including over 400,000 known species of beetle). The numbers we have included thus far, of course, don’t include the rather numerous and still growing list of now-extinct species of mammals, birds, reptiles and all of the more than 527 distinct genera (not species) of dinosaurs that have since been discovered.

In a laughable article, Creation Ministries International attempts to deal with the problem by using an undefined system of taxonomy and arbitrarily slashing the number to 2,500 "proto-species” and positing that if Adam named one “proto-species” every five seconds with a five minute break every hour he could have accomplished the task in under four hours. Think about that. The claim is that the hours-old Adam has the astounding mental and linguistic capacity to take a mere five seconds, construct a unique verbal utterance and assign it to something he’s never seen before and understands virtually nothing about; he’s able to do this thousands of times over without name repetition or slowing down due to either physical or mental fatigue. Do they really think that solves the problem? People are satisfied with that explanation?


Intelligent, educated grownups believe this actually happened.


10 comments:

  1. Interesting thoughts. I have a criticism of your Genesis 1:2 suggestion that Psalms is taking from the other creation myths.

    Wouldn't it be at least equally likely that the other accounts are similar because they are telling of what actually happened? Simply because one account was written first (assuming that is the case) does not mean that a second is copied from the first. They could both be varied accounts of what actually happened.

    Dan P

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    1. Hi Dan.

      Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure I understand your criticism entirely.

      Are you suggesting that one of these many variations of the Chaoskampf myth (storm god vs. sea serpent representing the clash between order and chaos), a common trope in Indo-European and Ancient Near Eastern mythology, contains an account of what actually happened? If that’s the case, I addressed this in the 4th paragraph of the above post:

      I suppose one could argue that those other myths contained the “cultural memories” of people that had passed on various details of what really happened and that those retellings had been distorted over time so that only the Genesis author got it right by divine inspiration. One could interpret these similarities as corroborating evidence for the Genesis accounts or one could understand these similarities to be more likely showing how the Genesis stories might just be amalgamations of and/or polemical reactions to the competing myths of other nearby cultures. Either way, the point remains that much of what is portrayed in various books of the Bible can be shown to have similarly existed or originated elsewhere. Its contents are not as unique as many are led to believe.

      As to your question: “Wouldn't it be at least equally likely that the other accounts are similar because they are telling of what actually happened?”

      In short, no. It’s not equally likely and this is partly because we don’t just have a bunch of unfalsifiable ancient chaos myths from the ANE to choose from when it comes to explaining origins. We have emergence myths, earth-diver myths, world parent myths, ex nihilo myths, etc. and these types are usually traceable to certain cultures and geographic regions. Add to that the fact that we have falsifiable origin theories based on empirical evidence (i.e. modern biology and cosmology) that run counter to nearly every one of those origin myths. So far science has a much more proven track record than mythology when it comes to providing explanations that conform to evidence and reality.

      Given all this it seems much more probable that the other accounts are similar because they share a common cultural origin in Proto-Indo-European mythic tropes that were eventually transmitted to the ANE. Is it logically possible that the other accounts are similar because they are telling of what actually happened? I suppose. Is it at least equally likely? I don't think so.

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  2. Sorry. I guess it was late and I missed your previous explanation.

    I need to come back when I can devote more time and effort. My viewpoint comes from a belief in the bible, not a deep study into other myths, so I am accepting a lot of your factual statements as a starting point.

    I actually came here when searching for some commentary on the "firmament." Technical study of the bible/creation theory fascinates me, so I am glad to find someone who seems to make logical, well-developed arguments, even if I disagree with your conclusions.

    My point was also that Moses would have been relaying an accurate account, not trying to show how his God was different. (Obviously you don't believe his account was accurate, but I think that was his intention) I'm sure I will find more to discuss when I have more time.

    Dan P

    (I don't have a website or any of the accounts you offer. I also have to protect my career at this time, so I never make controversial comments on the internet in any area if I think it will be easily found out, such as by facebook, e.g.)

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  3. No need to apologize. I don’t have any delusions that people are going to be hanging on every word, nor do I expect people to have instant recall of everything I’ve written several paragraphs prior to what they’re commenting on.

    As for your “firmament” search, you may find this article to be of some aid.

    While I don’t agree with several of that author’s presuppositions and conclusions, I think he does a fair job of laying out why it’s pretty clear that ancient readers of the Bible’s texts would have understood the sky to be a solid dome, just like nearly every other prescientific culture on earth up until the Chinese in about the second century.

    I see now what your point was and what you were addressing. It was in response to the somewhat rhetorical question I posed. That question was aimed more at people who believe that the account was more of an attempt to differentiate the one true God from the gods of the surrounding cultures than those who posit a straightforward recounting of events. These would be people who lean more toward a Framework interpretation of the text rather than a strictly literal one.

    You’re correct that I don’t believe Moses’ account was accurate. In fact, I don’t believe Moses wrote any of it and I’m not certain Moses even ever existed in any form, save perhaps as a tribal leader who may have led a group of escaped Semitic slaves out of Egypt and into the Levant at some point, which may have served as the basis of the legend (if it has any basis in reality at all).

    Don’t sweat the anonymous posting either. I completely understand. My statement about anonymous critical comments being cowardly in the “What’s this all about” section was aimed at internet trolls that hide behind their anonymity. It was not aimed at anonymous persons who wish to offer reasonable inquiry, criticism or commentary.

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  4. I read portions of that article before. I am no Hebrew expert, but I am not totally convinced that the firmament had to necessarily be solid, even if that was the common understanding. But I would mostly agree with that article, and I have no problem with a solid firmament, at least in the sense of a universal boundary. I have a bible that footnotes the "firmament" as "land," so I am glad to find something that makes more sense.

    The idea that there is still some sort of water/ice boundary to the universe is a little strange, but why not? There does seem to be something significant about water in the universe. I found this article about vast amounts of water in the universe to be interesting in light of the creation account: http://www.space.com/12400-universe-biggest-oldest-cloud-water.html (I don't know how to put a neat link in here)

    I would think, of course, that an origin of the universe out of nothing would be at least equally as strange.

    And yes, I don't believe it makes sense to try to hammer a desired viewpoint into the scripture. Translation, as much as possible, should come without worrying about the implications. If it appears intended as literal, that's how it should be understood. I don't know if a multi-headed monster was literal or not, but I don't have a problem accepting it as true if that seems the most likely interpretation.

    As for Moses' authorship, I haven't seen a convincing argument as to why he must have written Genesis, especially the early chapters. I do think the other references to his authorship indicate he did write much of the Pentateuch, however.

    I also don't see how any of the scriptures referencing the moon demand that it be its own source of light. Reflecting light seems to fit just as well in my opinion.

    Dan P

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    1. Nearly all the available evidence points the notion that the biblical writers who wrote of the firmament were referring to a solid dome in the sky. Similarly the moon would have been understood to have emitted its own light. If someone wants to try to take advantage of some perceived semantic wiggle-room to insert another interpretation that sees the firmament as the atmosphere, the solar system, or some kind of solid boundary at the edge of the universe it would seem they’re doing so merely to rescue the text from an interpretation that puts it at odds with what we now know about observable reality.

      If one begins with the assumption that the Bible can’t be wrong and then tries to conform its interpretation to fit observable evidence instead of looking at the evidence to determine if what the Bible says is correct, they’ll always conclude that the Bible is right because that was the starting point. It’s question begging.

      You’re correct that New Testament writers do appear to have understood Moses to have written much if not most of the Pentateuch. I think the available textual and archeological evidence points to their being wrong on that point [and many others] and I think this only further damages their reliability as sources of some kind of divine revelation.

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  5. Hello!

    I just discovered this blog through a link from rolltodisbelieve.com, and I have to say, this is absolutely brilliant. The very informative links, the interesting and thought-provoking content...I think I just found one of my new favorite blogs!

    Thanks for the time you invest in this, and I'm looking forward to reading more! Have a great day!

    Ryan F.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words, Ryan. Cass over at Roll to Disbelieve is the president of my fan club and directs more traffic here than I probably deserve.

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  6. A very interesting piece of information, if anyone would like to read Some Mistakes of Moses, I learned recently that infidels.org has a library that includes many, if not all, of Robert G. Ingersoll's writings.

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    1. Thank you. I've got a link to a scanned copy of the book up in the first paragraph of this post, but you're right, infidels.org has his complete works. You can also find some better formatted selected works over at robertgreeningersoll.org.

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