Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bad Theology, Too

I guess I feel the need for one more post before leaving the issue of Noah's flood and modern misunderstandings about it. We have seen that belief in a global flood a few thousand years ago involves bad hermeneutics. That is, the dating of the flood as occurring approximately 5,000 years ago is based upon imposing a false modern understanding of the role of genealogies upon Hebrew genealogies in Scripture that were never meant to play such a role. Likewise, understanding the flood as covering the entire planet is also anachronistic, and depends upon prefering a superficial reading of the text to one that does justice to the intent and context of the passage.

But there's perhaps a more basic problem at the back of 'flood geology' and modern attempts to insist that a recent global flood can account for all the geology, paleontology, and biology of Earth's history. This position begins and ends with bad theology, a view of God that is both unbiblical and unsupportable.

Let me, before quoting some folks who ascribe to this bad theology, first paraphrase it...
An all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God would not have created a universe in which animal suffering and death occurred for millions of years. God could have no place or purpose for such suffering.
Now here's the really interesting thing about this view of God. Those who hold or have held this view include not only young-earth creationists but also Darwin and his modern defenders. That is, both Darwin (and Darwinists) and global-flood advocates cannot in their minds reconcile their view of God with millions of years of animal suffering. Of course, the two groups explain the problem away differently: Darwinists acknowledge the millions of years of animal death attested to in the record of nature, and choose to deny the existence of God, whereas young-earth creationists acknowledge God's existence but deny the millions of years.

Darwin's theory was, in essence, a theodicy, an attempt to deal with the so-called problem of evil and suffering.* In On the Origin of Species, he offered a great deal of very speculative theorizing, almost nothing in the way of evidential support, and a good smattering of bad theological arguments. The following comes from his autobiography:
Suffering is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species, in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances.

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain it in reference to human beings, imagining that it serves their moral improvement. But the number of people in the world is nothing compared with the numbers of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient. It revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; and the abundant presence of suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.
As you see here--and throughout Darwin's writings, the appeal is made not to evidence supporting his theory but to his how his particular view of God argues against that God existing. Now here's a sample from Henry Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood and late president of The Institute for Creation Research:
What conceivable purpose could God have had in interposing a billion years of suffering and death in the animal kingdom prior to implementing His great plan of salvation for lost men and women? He is neither cruel nor capricious, and would never be guilty of such pointless sadism.
James Stambaugh, also of the Institute for Creation Research, echoes Morris' theology:
If God created a world in which the creatures that inhabit it must suffer from evil (at least physical and emotional), then this evil has been present from the very beginning. This means that God is either powerless to do away with this kind of world or that He enjoys seeing His creatures suffer. A god who could create the world "subjected to vanity and corruption" is exactly like all the other gods of the ancient world--cruel, vicious, and capricious. In short, this god is not the God of the Bible.
Morris again:
One of the hardest things to understand is how anyone who claims to believe in a God of love can also believe in the geological ages, with their supposed record of billions of years of suffering and death before sin came into the world. This seems clearly to make God a God of waste and cruelty rather than a God of wisdom and power and love.
There's a great deal that could be said against this view, and a host of Scriptures that argue against it. And then the Darwin quote above has enough misunderstandings, mischaracterizations, and bad reasoning to take up a couple of blog posts. Indeed, I could take several posts answering the question Darwin (and Morris) asked, 'What reasons could there be for God's allowing billions of years of death?'

But for now let me just drive home what these men have in common... They have placed themselves in judgment over God, rather than allow Him the sovereignty He claims in Scripture.

Wherever animal death and predatory behavior are mentioned in Scripture (as in God's dialogue with Job and in Psalm 104), God unapologetically claims responsibility for it. Likewise, throughout the Bible, God claims responsibility for the natural disasters that cause so much human and animal calamity, floods, earthquakes, and tornadoes. And nowhere does Scripture suggest that this is a response on God's part to Adam's sin, a sort of cosmic Plan B. Instead, the God of Scripture claims to be unwavering in His purpose:
I am God, and there is no other, I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.' (Is. 46:9-11)
In the final analysis, the inaccurate theology of Morris and other young-earth creationists begins with the declaration that 'the God whom I worship could have no place for such suffering!' But this is exactly the claim for which the Lord Himself rebuked Peter (in Matthew 16). Peter had rightly acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and for this affirmation had received the Lord's blessing. But immediately after this, Jesus reveals that He will go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter's response to this is "Far be it from you, Lord!" In other words, "My understanding of God cannot be reconciled with the suffering you (Lord) just described."

Whether we like it or not, whether we understand it completely or not, the God of the Bible has purposes for allowing suffering in this creation (though He promises another, better one in which suffering will have no part). Indeed, the central event in all of cosmic history is at the same time the quintessential example of suffering, that of God Himself upon a Roman cross.

Young-earth creationism and global flood geology begin with a distortion of God's revelation to us with regard to His perfect purposes in allowing suffering in this creation. We would do better to conform our theology to Scripture than to interpret Scripture in ways that conform to our pet theologies.**

*The works of Cornelius Hunter (Darwin's God and Darwin's Proof) explore in depth the theological nature of the original arguments of Darwin and of the arguments made by his modern admirers.

**An outstanding treatment of the theology behind young-earth creationism is Mark Whorton's Peril in Paradise. It's a great read!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scope of the Flood (Part 3)

We've seen that the hermeneutic principle used by some today to conclude that the flood described in Genesis 6-8 must be understood as covering the entire planet is too subjective to be useful. We have further seen that a number of absurd ideas are offered as necessary support for such a belief. We have traced the history of the global flood idea to its recent source, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism in the late 1800's. Finally, we have discussed more foundational and well-accepted interpretive principles, including the one that says that
The context establishes limits on the scope of a passage.
What's left is to look at how this principle is applied to a number of Scripture passages, including the flood account. In fact, let's begin with the flood account, to remind us how the all-encompassing verbiage can tempt a modern, globally-oriented person to wrongly attribute to the passage a planet-wide scope.
The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. (Gen. 7:17-23)
It's pretty easy to see that the language in this passage can--when read superficially--lead to understanding the flood as global. But no ancient would have understood it that way, and to read it aright we must allow the context--all humanity--to establish limits on the scope. We do this very naturally with a host of other Scripture passages that have similar all-encompassing language. Here are a few examples.

Right after greeting the Christians at Rome, Paul writes (in Rom. 1:8),
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.
No scholar or commentator interprets Paul here as including far-flung people groups such as the Maoris of New Zealand or the Inuits of North America. Instead, they (and we) unconciously recognize the context of Paul's letter as constraining the scope to the known world of Paul and his readers, the Roman Empire. As another example, here's what we read in I Kings 10:24,
And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.
In reading this, do you envision pilgrims coming from Machu Pichu to check out Solomon's kingdom and question him? Of course not. You recognize that the context establishes the scope to be the region surrounding the Israel of Solomon's day.

How about an example from the same book of the Bible in which the flood account is recorded? In Genesis 41:57, we find,
Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.
Note that this is the exact same language that in Genesis 7 causes modern readers to see the flood as global. But no one that I know would spend any time trying to defend the interpretation that the famine of Joseph's day was planet-wide. What's the difference? With regard to the famine, we rightly allow the context to establish the scope. And we must do the same with the flood if we are to avoid the absurdities that arise out of a global flood view.

Many of us, of course, bring to the flood account other issues. We retain in our mind visual images of the ark containing pairs of animals of all kinds, including kangaroos and penguins, elephants and aardvarks, animals that most certainly would not have been a part of Noah's scope. Moreover, the people who taught us the story of Noah's ark when we were children were probably some of the nicest, most well-meaning Christians we have known. None of this changes the fact that if we are to take the Bible seriously we must give up childish ways and apply to it the common sense and well-established interpretive principles that will prevent us from coming to inaccurate conclusions.

If you're still struggling with understanding the flood as encompassing all humanity but nonetheless inundating only the Mesopotamian Plain, here're a few tips...

1) Where the word 'earth' appears (in the Gen. 7 passage at the start of the post), substitute the word 'land' or 'ground.' Each is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew word erets. Part of the problem is that when we today read the word 'earth,' we tend to think of the 'third planet in our solar system' whereas that picture of a planet would never have occurred to any ancient hearers/readers. Erets is interchangeably translated as 'ground,' 'land,' or 'earth' (and can also be used to refer to a plot of ground or even to the soil), but translating it here as 'earth' unnecessarily conjures up (for us) images of a planet.

2) In reading the passage, keep in mind not God's (omnipresent) perspective but that of Noah and all of the humanity experiencing the deluge. For them--as the passage very graphically portrays--there was water everywhere, with no ground in sight (not even the highest mountains of that inhabited region), and no creature remaining alive in all the affected region. In this context, so sudden and widespread was that flood judgment that there was no escape for man nor beast.

One more Scripture passage may suffice to drive the point home, as it comes from the flood account itself. In Genesis 8, we read the same descriptive words, but now applying not to water but to lack of water:
So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth... In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. ...and behold, the face of the earth was dry. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. (Gen. 8:11-14)
It is illegitimate to insist upon a global interpretation of the flood waters in chapter 7 and then not to apply the same hermeneutic to the lack of water in chapter 8. Yet is it not obvious that the 'the earth had dried out' cannot intend to convey that the entire planet was now dry? The correct understanding, and the one that covers both the flood and the subsequent subsiding of the waters, is that a particular area is in view, the area inhabited by humanity at the time of the flood judgment.

The flood of Noah's day was universal--applying to all humanity. But understanding it as also being global involves logical absurdities and bad hermeneutics. Insisting upon a global flood interpretation is to place artificial barriers between educated people and the actual claims of true, historic Christianity.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Scope of the Flood (Part 2)

(This is about the 6th post in a series on modern misunderstandings--especially among evangelical Christians--about the flood of Noah's day. The series was motivated by a recent claim of the discovery of Noah's ark. The new reader would do well to scroll down and read the series in order to better understand this post.)

Unlike the subjective hermeneutic principle of John MacArthur ("If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other"), the two interpretive principles I want to discuss today are well-accepted by Bible scholars and fundamental to understanding any passage of Scripture. We will apply them to the flood account of Genesis 6-8, specifically with regard to the scope of the flood. These principles apply not only to understanding the Bible, but should be used with any written document (the Constitution of the United States, Moby Dick, or whatever). These two principles are closely related, so closely, in fact, that I will state them as one:
At the outset, establish the intent and the context of the passage in question.
So, arguably the first thing one should ask about Genesis 6-8 is a series of questions like, "What's it there for? Why did the ancient author include this account? (How does it fit with the author's larger project and purpose?) What is it about?" These are questions of intent, and if we ignore or miss the author's intent, we are much more likely to miss his meaning, which is what we ought to be after.

The intent of the flood account is to describe God's judgment on sinful humanity. I won't spend time supporting this claim, since it is so well-recognized by such a broad spectrum of serious Bible scholars. That is, if there is a more central purpose (intent) to this passage, the burden of proof would seem to lie with the proponent of that other purpose. What I will take the time to point out is what the intent of this passage is not.

It is not a hydrological treatise. Though it mentions water a great deal, and says some things about where the flood waters came from and departed to, its intent is to describe God's judgment on sinful humanity.

It is not a geological or paleontological explanation. Finding in Genesis 6-8 (as Ellen G. White, Henry Morris, John Whitcomb, and others have found) a way of explaining away the record from creation itself (the fossil and geological records) is completely ad hoc and foreign to the purposes of the ancient author.

It is not a biological treatise. It was not meant to explain the diversity of life on Earth as seen at present. Nor was its intent to offer instructions on captive breeding, animal husbandry, or other aspects of conservation biology. Its purpose was to describe God's judgment on sinful humanity.

The second thing that needs to be established is the context. The context, in a very real sense, flows out of the intent, and in this case (as in many others) the context and scope will be seen to be very similar.

The flood account claims to deal with God's judgment of sinful humanity, and the scope and context of that judgment is made very clear. The context is all humanity. All humans living at the time of Noah (with the exception of the 8 members of his immediate family) were judged by God to be exceedingly wicked, and were destroyed in the flood described here.

Given the context of all humanity, the question of scope then becomes,
Does the passage necessarily describe a global flood--one that somehow covered the entire planet--as modern readers are tempted to assume, or does it describe a more localized flood, but one which encompassed all humanity of that time?
There is a good deal to be said on behalf a local flood. Considering the larger context (including the passages of the Bible that precede and follow the flood account) reveals the following:

1) The exceeding wickedness of the humanity of that day included murder and the failure to obey the dominion mandate (to multiply and fill the earth).

2) Humanity had not spread far from its place of origin. (There are no place names given in the run-up to the flood account that refer to locations outside of Mesopotamia.) Indeed, humanity's spread to other parts of the planet is described by Scripture as taking place only after the Tower of Babel incident, which follows the flood. (The latest archeological and genetic evidence fit very nicely with the Bible's, so long as one does not impose an unsupportable, recent date on them. According to those evidences, the spread of humans to Europe and Asia did not occur until a mere 30-40 thousand years ago, with the spread of people into the Americas happening about 11-13 thousand years ago.)

In addition, a local flood (but one that was nonetheless universal to all humanity) fits all of the available evidence (both from Scripture and from the creation itself) very well. A global flood, on the other hand, runs into all sorts of evidential problems, so much so that proponents of a global flood (young-earth creationists) end up promalgating a host of bizarre doctrines, each of which is ad hoc and not found in Scripture. These include the idea that the Earth was almost entirely flat prior to the flood and that all of the plate tectonics evident to geologists and paleogeologists occurred during the flood.

They include the doctrine that there were far fewer species at that time and that what we see today is the result of extremely rapid adaptation that occurred after the ark came to rest. Meant to account for the obvious lack of space on the ark for the millions of terrestrial species that have inhabited the Earth, this young-earth doctrine involves a rate of evolution that exceeds by orders of magnitude that in which the staunchest evolutionist would believe.

Similarly, the young-earth and global flood view seems to depend upon the ideas that there were only representative "kinds" of dinosaurs on the ark, that these were probably "teenage" or young dinosaurs (not fully grown Brachiosaurus), which subsequently evolved at extremely rapid rates to account for the much greater number of dinosaur species found in the fossil record.

Another, related bizarre doctrine used to defend the global flood position is the idea that all animals were created as vegetarians. I'm not making this stuff up. Ken Ham and other "creation scientists" insist that lions and eagles were originally plant-eaters, though everything about the physiology and anatomy of these creatures is perfectly designed for capturing, consuming, and digesting other animals.

Now, as a Christian you may choose to believe such nonsense, but it is not "plainly taught" by Scripture, even though the most important reason offered for holding this view is that it is the plain sense of the flood account. In the next post, we'll look at the parts of the passage that make modern readers overlook the context and jump to the conclusion that the entire planet was involved. We'll look at other Bible passages that have similar all-inclusive language but for which we all recognize the context as limiting or narrowing the scope.

In the meantime, I urge you not to promote a global flood as a part of Christian belief. It is not, and never has been. Indeed, it is belief that the Bible teaches such silliness that keeps many unbelievers from considering Christianity's true claims and leads many young people raised in the church to abandon Christian belief when they finally come to reason through this issue and to become aware of the overwhelming contrary evidence.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Scope of the Flood

Well, I got pretty busy for a few days, but I think I promised in the last post to address another huge misunderstanding about the flood of Noah's day, the one recorded in Genesis 6-8. This misunderstanding exists especially among conservative (Bible-believing) English-speaking Christians, but its popularity among such Christians has led many unbelievers to assume that it is what the Bible teaches. That is, this misunderstanding presents a significant barrier among educated people to considering the central claims of Christianity, like the deity, substitutionary atonement, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I'm talking, of course, about the idea that the flood encompassed the entire planet.

Where did this idea come from? Well, it came (and comes) from a particular interpretation of Genesis 6-8, but one that didn't gain any traction until the late 1800's. Throughout church history up until that time, no one seriously claimed for this passage a global scope. But by the late 19th century, a couple of things began to change. For one thing, people came increasingly to see the world in global terms, as crossing from one side of the planet to the other became realistic. It was perhaps inevitable that modern readers would begin to interpret this passage from a global perspective that would have been completely foreign to previous generations. In addition, a host of evidence from the sciences--particularly from geology and paleontology--began to call in to question another interpretation held dear by many Christians of that time, that the earth and universe were created in six 24-hour days only some 6,000 years ago.

The first person recorded as claiming that the flood of Noah's day covered the entire planet and could be used to explain (away) the geologic and fossil records was Ellen G. White, the prophetess and founder of Seventh Day Adventism. She claimed to receive revelations directly from God in her frequent trance-like visions, and her followers considered the resulting pronouncements to be on an authoritative par with the Bible itself. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers (The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism)
Because of their distinctive Sabbath doctrine, Adventists adamantly opposed any scientific theory that proposed interpreting the days of creation symbolically. To follow "infidel geologists" in supposing that the events described in Genesis 1 "required seven vast, indefinite periods for their accomplishment, strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment," argued White. "It makes indefinite and obscure that which God has made very plain."
One of White's disciples was an amateur geologist named George McCready Price, and in 1923 he authored a geology textbook, The New Geology, whose main thesis was that the flood was the central geological event of Earth's history. In part because of his Adventist roots and his lack of credentials, Price's book received little attention. But in 1961, theologian John Whitcomb and hydrology engineer Henry Morris resurrected Price's ideas in The Genesis Flood, a heavy tome with all the trappings of a scientific publication. This book garnered a much wider readership, at least among conservative Christians desperate for an argument against evolution and scientific naturalism but unable to reason through the arguments and evidence for themselves. Indeed, for a particular group of people--conservative American evangelicals--this book was so influential that it led to the proliferation of so-called creation science organizations, groups dedicated not to doing good science but to filtering all scientific evidence through the very fine filter of their modern interpretation of Genesis. Their starting point was and remains that the Earth and universe are only thousands of years old and that the flood of Noah's day was global (and thus explains away all of the scientific evidence that seems to show a much older Earth).

Interestingly, the hermeneutic grounding of this position remains very similar to Ellen G. White's personal, subjective approach. John MacArthur, for example, who without any scientific understanding maintains a young-earth and global flood view, grounds those in the hermeneutic dictum
If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other.
The first significant problem with this principle is that it is subjective. To whom must the plain sense make sense? Let's acknowledge (for the sake of argument) that a plain sense reading of Genesis 6-8 might include a global scope for the flood. That sense didn't make sense to any readers of this passage until very recently, when we began to see the world in global terms. More importantly, it doesn't make sense to me, or to anyone else with a modicum of understanding about the planet on which we actually live. It doesn't make sense to geologists or hydrologists or anyone who takes seriously the idea that God has faithfully revealed Himself both through Scripture and through the creation. In short. MacArthur's principle is too subjective to be valid.

In addition, this principle is not a well-recognized one among Bible scholars, but seems to be an ad hoc principle, one established in order to support dubious interpretations like that of a global flood. There are other hermeneutic principles that are both more important and more universally accepted that would seem to make MacArthur's unnecessary and ineffectual.

In the next post, I'll discuss two such principles as they relate to the flood, considering the intent of the passage and considering the context of the passage. I hope to show that ignoring both of these very basic interpretive principles is fundamental to arriving at the conclusion that Noah's flood encompassed the entire planet.

I hope you'll hang with me, even though these posts are lengthy.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hebrew Genealogies

One of the most important rules of Biblical hermeneutics is that the modern reader must not place on the ancient text modern or cultural standards that didn't apply in the time of the writing. The writers of the gospels, when retelling an account of a dialogue or teaching of Jesus, frequently disagree in the exact wording attributed to Him. In our day and culture, this would be considered misquoting, and could even be grounds for a lawsuit. But the standards of Jesus' day were different, and in 'quoting' someone else the goal was to be faithful to their meaning, not to their exact wording.

Those today who use the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 to attempt to date the people and events of pre-Abrahamic history (including Noah's flood) are guilty of the same sort of thing--placing an inappropriate modern expectation on an ancient account.

Today, when we compile a genealogy, the goal is completeness; we attempt to fill in a name to account for every generation from whenever that list begins right down to our generation. And so the temptation, when reading the genealogies presented in Scripture, is to expect that their goal was the same. But it was not. Moreover, because we tend to get glassy-eyed when we come to those portions of Scripture devoted to genealogies, we don't bother to study them, to compare them, or to try to understand them.

If we did take the time to study them, we would find that the genealogies presented in the Bible are not and were never intended to be complete, exhaustive lists of ancestry. Instead, they were meant to establish lineage by highlighting key figures linking one individual with another. The genealogies found in Scripture are commonly--if not invariably--telescoped, a process in which some names are included and others are omitted for brevity's sake or as unnecessary for establishing the particular claim being made (whether that claim has primarily familial, religious, or political purpose).

Key to understanding this telescoping of the genealogies is the recognition that the Hebrew words generally translated 'father,' 'son,' and 'begat' (or 'became the father of') and their Greek New Testament counterparts have much broader meaning than the precise ones the English words have. The Hebrew ab covers not only father but also grandfather or ancestor; ben means not only son but grandson or descendent; yalad does not mean precisely 'gave birth to,' but rather 'became the ancestor of' or 'gave rise to the line of.'

Interestingly, we accept (at least subconsciously) the concept of telescoping even in English, as when we read the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1,
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
This is a typical Hebrew genealogy. It takes the identical form as that of genealogies throughout Scripture. It is not meant to convey the number of generations between Abraham and Jesus, but merely to establish ancestry. In this case, it is so obvious even to the modern reader that we are not even tempted to apply to it our own expectations of genealogies. But when we turn to a longer Hebrew genealogy, we may be tempted to treat it as an exhaustive list.

We must avoid this temptation. In almost every case (or perhaps all cases) where there is enough other biblical evidence to assess the completeness of a genealogy recorded in Scripture, we discover that telescoping has occurred. In addition, no clues are ever given as to whether or not a particular genealogy is complete (in modern terms) or telescoped. And the amount of telescoping can be quite significant in terms of generations omitted. Nonetheless, comparison among genealogies and assessing other historical evidence from Scripture leads to the conclusion (by conservative Bible scholars) that biblical genealogies are generally not less than 10% complete.*

There really is no longer any debate among serious Bible scholars about the fact that most Biblical genealogies are telescoped. Nonetheless, proponents of a young Earth (and of a global flood 4,800 years ago) insist that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are special, that they really are intended to be exhaustive. In part, this is naivete or ignorance about what I have discussed above. Henry Morris, for example, writes
The record [of Genesis 5] is perfectly natural and straightforward and is obviously intended to give both the necessary genealogical data to denote the promised lineage and also the only reliable chronological framework we have for the antediluvian period of history.
Morris here presumes that these genealogies are complete; he does not provide any reason for believing it. As we have seen, understanding Biblical genealogies makes it anything but "natural," "straightforward," or "obvious" that Morris' interpretation is correct. Indeed, comparison of the Genesis 11 genealogy with the one in Luke 3 demonstrates that the former is telescoped, since it omits (at least) the name Cainan (between Shelad and Arphaxad).

One thing sets the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 apart from most, the addition (to the normal formula) of information about the age at fatherhood and the age at death of the people listed. Neither this nor anything else in the text necessitates understanding these genealogies as complete. As in other places in Scripture, the inclusion of these ages is done only because they are exceptional, and because the Hebrew culture recognized both old age and old fatherhood as signs of blessedness. The four different genealogies of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Ex. 6:16-20, Num. 26:57-59, I Chron. 6:1-3, and 23:6, 12-13) likewise include personal details like age at death, yet these genealogies can be shown to be only 20 to 40 percent complete (highly telescoped).

The claims of Morris and others notwithstanding, Scripture does not enable us to date the creation, the flood of Noah's day, or any other pre-Abrahamic events. Evidence from the creation itself (God's other revelation to us) does allow us to set some limits on these events. And a date of 4,800 years ago for the flood (that claimed by those who alledgedly discovered the ark) is way outside those limits.

In the next post in this fun series, I'll revisit the misconception that the flood of Noah's day should be understood as global in its scope.

* Bible scholars that recognize that Hebrew genealogies are telescoped place the date for the creation of Adam at between 30,000 and 60,000 years ago, a date that matches well with the relevant evidence from archaeology, anthropology, genetics, and other fields.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Wrong Date, Too

Okay, I'll cut straight to the chase today. The next main reason for doubting the recent claims of having found Noah's ark is that
Just as the location of the alledged ark discovery, so, too, the dating of the ark is wrong--fitting perfectly with expectations that arise from a (popular, widespread) misinterpretation of Scripture rather than what would be expected by archaeologists and serious students of the Bible.
While the Bible lends itself to verification and falsification by specifying historical people and places, it never gives dates. The calendar dates by which we order our lives (B.C. and A.D.) are very recently derived, and would, of course, have been unavailable to the human authors of the various books that make up the Bible. The closest Scripture comes to specifying dates is to fix an event in a particular year of the reign of some well-known ruler. And this sort of date fixing didn't become feasible until the point at which humanity had begun to order itself into kingdoms, which was a rather later development. The point is that the Genesis accounts--including the account of the flood--do not attempt to fix dates for the events they describe.

This is not to say that we cannot arrive at dates for some of the events recorded in Genesis. Historical, archaeological, and anthropological evidence can, in some cases, be aligned with the Bible's accounts to estimate the timing of certain events and people. There remains, to be sure, some controversy about the exact date of the exodus (of Moses and the Israelites from Egyptian captivity), but the two dates at issue are not all that far apart. And most Bible scholars and archaeologists accept that the "Ur of the Chaldeans" from which Abraham was called by God to move is the important city in southern Mesopotamia that flourished from about 3000 to 1900 B.C. But dating any events or people described in Scripture prior to Abraham can only be done in very general terms, that is, within very broad limits.

And even though the chronological limits placed on the flood are necessarily broad, they do not include a date as recent as only 4,800 years ago. A host of evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and even (now) genetics, places the spread of humanity that occurred not only post-flood but post-Babel at between 9,000 and 40,000 years ago. So, if neither Scripture itself nor the available corroborating evidence provides a date for Noah of 4,800 years ago, where does that date come from? Well, if you're tracking with this series of posts, you'll have by now guessed that it comes from a rather modern (but popular) misinterpretation or superficial reading of Scripture.

Ask many conservative evangelical Christians how they come to the conclusion that the Earth and universe are only thousands of years old--and that, therefore, the flood of Noah's day dates to about 4,800 years ago--and an important part of their answer will be the idea that the names and ages in the Hebrew genealogies (of Scripture generally and of Gen. 5 and Gen. 11 in particular) can be set end-to-end and summed to arrive at such dates. As I will flesh out in the next post, this idea involves a misassumption about Hebrew genealogies and is demonstrably false. It persists in modern circles, however, because studying and testing it involves greater effort than does reading the text superficially.

But by now you can understand why I immediately dismiss the recent reports of an ark that dates to 4,800 years ago on Mt. Ararat. Both the date and the place match perfectly with popular expectations but miss by miles and thousands of years the place and date that a careful study of Scripture and the relevant evidence predict.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ark in the Wrong Place

In the last post, I claimed that it was highly improbable that remains of Noah's ark had been found. The only reason I gave was that such a find would be unexpected based simply on the fact that it would be from a much earlier period than any other of the many biblical artifacts so far discovered. I suggested that it was the sensation that such a find would represent--not its likelihood--that causes people to search for it and make claims of having discovered it.

I should perhaps have added that I find it highly unlikely that the sturdy wood used to build it would have been left unused throughout the intervening millenia. If we take the Bible's account as true (which I do), we will know that God promised Noah that He would never again use a flood to wipe out humanity. There was, therefore, no need to keep a large boat lying around, and I expect that the timbers were reused for more practical purposes almost immediately by the survivors of the flood. Moreover, since the ark came to rest in the mountains, it is also unlikely that sands would have buried it, which is the case for most buildlings, stellae, and other artifacts from Bible times that are being discovered by modern archaeologists. But this is a relatively minor point, and not one of my main reasons for discounting the recent claims of a discovery of the ark.

So here's my next main reason...
The place of the alleged discovery of the ark--Mt. Ararat--is not where the Bible claims that Noah's ark came to rest.
I realize that many people have come somehow to believe that Noah's ark ran aground on Mt. Ararat. It did not, at least according to Scripture. What the Bible actually says (in Gen. 8:4) is that
the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. (italics mine)
The mountains of Ararat are a rather vast range that occupies a large portion of present-day Turkey and Armenia. This large range includes Mt. Ararat itself, but the biblical account--rather than specifying "on Mt. Ararat," which the Hebrew of the time was certainly capable of doing--only asserts that the boat came to rest somewhere in a much larger geographical area.

Now, I don't know how so many people who would claim to be serious students of the Bible can be so superficial in their reading of it as to miss this plain fact. Perhaps part of it is that well-meaning Sunday school teachers "dumb down" such Bible stories for easy consumption by the children they are charged with teaching. Then, perhaps, we tend to remember the stories as taught us rather than ever reading them aright for ourselves. At any rate, I strongly believe that we--like the apostle Paul--should at some point "give up childish ways" and take Scripture seriously enough to read it truly.

Here's the point for this post, though. For whatever reason or reasons, a misconception about where Noah's ark landed has become very popular. When, then, I hear that the ark has been found not where it should be but rather where popular misconception would place it, I have every reason to suspect that something fishy is going on.

But the problem is worse than this, as I'll hope to share in the next post or two. Thanks for reading!

Thoughts on Noah's Ark

In case you hadn't heard, news reports in the last week have covered the claim that a team of Chinese and Turkish archaeologists have discovered the remains of Noah's ark on Mt. Ararat and that carbon-dating of the wood yields a result of 4,800 years old.

A friend of mine who keeps a close watch on the latest discoveries in archaeology in the Middle East emailed several Christian friends (including me) to warn them to be very cautious about believing these reports. My response to him was that it never once crossed my mind that the reports of finding the ark on Mt. Ararat could be legitimate. So, perhaps it would be worthwhile for me to explain why. But first, a word about biblical archeology (from a non-expert)...

The Bible--unique among the world's "Holy Books"--presents itself as historically true. It is filled with specific names of people and places, and opens itself to verification or falsification. Many of the Bible's historical claims ought to be accessible to the archeologist, including the places, people, and events of Jesus' day and those of the thousand years or more preceeding the time of Jesus.

How has the Bible fared with regard to archaeological evidence? There have, of course, been periods of time in which verification of the events, people, and places recorded in the Bible has been lacking, or slow in coming. And during such periods, bold claims have been made by skeptics, that the Old Testament is mainly myth, that people like Moses, David, and Solomon never existed, that Israel didn't achieve the level of culture ('kingdom' level, as it were) claimed for it, and on and on.

Such claims have always been unwise, for the very simple reason that "absence of evidence does not prove evidence of absence." And, in the case of biblical archaeology, the makers of such claims have had to eat crow time and time again. The history of archaeology in the lands mentioned in the Bible is a continual record of verification, and this has been especially true of the past 100 years of digging.

It used to be believed that David and Solomon never existed. But that skeptical view was disproved by the discovery in 1993 of a stela on Tel Dan that refers to King David.

So, okay, it seems pretty clear now that David (and probably, therefore, Solomon) existed. The skeptical response (of not all that long ago) was that while these men existed, claims of their having established kingdoms are greatly exaggerated. Several independent recent discoveries are proving the skeptics wrong and verifying the Bible's portrayal of Israel's existence as a thriving, far-reaching kingdom in David's day.

In short, archaeology has provided no falsification of any biblical account and has incrementally, progressively provided verification of more and more of the people, places, and events recorded in the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. To be sure, there still has been no archeological evidence uncovered to verify the existence of Moses or the Exodus (though many will be aware of one archaeologist's claims--never independently confirmed--of discovering chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea). The history of research in this field would suggest that thereby claiming that Moses didn't exist would be folly. But this leads into my first reason for dismissing the recent claims about the discovery of Noah's ark...
In terms of historical time, the discovery of Noah's ark would be a complete outlier (a much earlier event than any other verified biblical events) and therefore not anticipated by any serious archaeologists (Jewish, Christian, or otherwise).
This is not my most important reason for rejecting these claims, but it is significant. For one thing, it suggests that the claim may have less to do with likelihood and more to do with perceived apologetic value. That is, while finding Noah's ark would be highly improbable, it would nonetheless be sensational and striking in its implications for verifying the historicity of the Old Testament. This is a first clue that one ought to be suspicious of this claim.

But we can't confuse improbability with impossibility. It's possible that some remains of the ark could one day be found. So in the next post, I'll offer more compelling reasons why 'this ain't it.'