From the Mailbag: Why would God allow scientific errors in the Bible?


(system) #1
A reader writes that he is disturbed by the idea that Genesis portrays a solid dome in the sky.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/archive/from-the-mailbag-why-would-god-allow-scientific-errors-in-the-bible

(George Brooks) #2

Oyyyyyy… I forgot all about the Slavery issue!

That’s a very biggggggg one … and we frequently forget to bring it up!

@Christy

Writes this part of the article:

“Haarsma is not claiming that God proactively taught them lies because he thought they couldn’t handle the truth. She is saying he allowed some of their pre-existing misconceptions about the how and why of the universe to remain unchallenged, because they weren’t important to his divine mission in the world and because correcting them was not essential for what he wanted to communicate.”

" We see this accommodation in other areas too. You mentioned the ancient Hebrew belief that God was first among many lesser gods, which is something alluded to throughout the Old Testament. That is a good example. There is also the practice of polygamy and the taking of concubines and divorce, which God seems to have allowed and regulated."

" I think almost everyone who has ever set out to study the Bible carefully comes away with questions about why God did it that way, or why that story is in there, or why God didn’t say it another way that would cause us less headaches. It is the nature of engaging with an ancient faith."

And Gregg Davidson takes a nice tour of scenic logic here:

"So what do I do when I encounter verses that say

[1] the sun does not just rise and set, but hastens back to its starting point (Eccl 1:5),

[2] that the Earth is fixed on its foundations and won’t be moved (Ps 104:5),

[3] that there are waters above a solid dome above the Earth, even describing it as being like a cast metal mirror (Job 37:18),

[4] that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4:30-32), or

[5] that seeds die when they fall to the ground (John 12:24)?

If the authority of the Bible and my standard of truthfulness rests on accurate statements about nature, I have a serious problem. None of these biblical statements reflect the actual workings of nature as we understand them today. In verse after verse, descriptions of nature are consistent with the cultural and historical understanding of the time in which it was written, without apparent regard for advances in knowledge that would come with the scientific age."

But perhaps most indisputably of all … and having nothing to do with the truth of natural law … is the Biblical endorsements and/or toleration of owning other human beings.

This is the perfect explanation for how Genesis could be wrong about Eden and Paradise!

Human editors just can’t help themselves when it comes to mucking around with telling stories!


#3

It’s worth noting (though no one did) that perhaps the Bible doesn’t teach a solid dome and that is, in fact, the view of moderns imposing their own views of the ancients on the text. The fact that someone in the 20th or 21st century says that someone thousands of years ago believed something is not, in and of itself, persuasive of helpful. Those reading the views of ancients to correct modern view of ancient texts are partaking of the same type of error, namely, imposing modern views on ancient understandings.

To the point, there are a number of explanations of the text that do not require God being wrong or accommodating false belief. To me, this is the type of objection (and answers) that show little wrestling with the issues.


(Casper Hesp) #4

So… Forgive me for asking, but what do you think Job 37:17-18 means?

15 Do you know how God controls the clouds
and makes his lightning flash?
16 Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?
17 You who swelter in your clothes
when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
18 can you join him in spreading out the skies,
hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

Is there any way imaginable how this would not be an explicit reference to the skies as a solid dome?


(GJDS) #5

I can imagine that this refers to God and His creation, and the writer correctly expresses his feeling, sense of wonder, and such things in sentences and verse. Perhaps you may try and imagine what the following refers to:

The sun shone brilliantly in clear blue skies
Seas gently lapped golden shores
Vegetation covered the land with emerald green
Embroidered with a rainbow of flowers
Magic beams of moonlight lit the night
The day filled with a chorus of sounds
From animals in pasture
Oceans swarmed with a myriad of creatures.

The sapphire planet hung in the velvet night of space
Rejoicing under the care of it’s Creator.

I suppose some may point out that the earth is not made up of the molecules found in sapphire, (and don’t get me started on space made of velvet) - but than who would care for such boorish comments?


(Christy Hemphill) #6

Similes and metaphors compare two unlike things with one shared characteristic.

In your image, the shared characteristic that everyone would probably understand between sapphires and the planet is color, not hardness,or size, or market value. The shared characteristic between velvet and the night would be darkness or smooth appearance, not the way it feels to touch. The passage Casper quoted actually states explicitly the shared characteristic between the mirror and the sky is hardness.


(GJDS) #7

Ok Christy, let us examine this:

can you join him in spreading out the skies,
hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

The line focusses our attention to an act by him (God), and spreading, I take, to refer to some aspect of a creative act. When I look at the sky, it seems pretty much like it is a permanent fixture - however I have not worked with bronze, nor made a mirror from cast bronze, so I am unable to consider either simile, or metaphor, nor imagine it somehow as an act. I prefer to think the writer had the experiences associated with a mirror of cast bronze and how that was made, and my guess is the line made perfect sense to him.

It is miles away from concluding the Bible proposed a science of a bronze mirror sky, is it not? Nonetheless, I am bothered by people treating such magnificent writing as some type of ignorant science taught by ??? hmmm, who has taught such nonsense?


#8

@Casper_Hesp, Is this directed to me? If so, do you think we are the first generation to come up with things like poetic devices? Job, of all places, is filled with these types of literary devices. And for all the claims people make about reading the Bible as literature, some seem to not do that when want to use it to make a point. Which is to say, you seem not to want to read this literarily because you want to use it to make a point about how backwards their understanding is. Yet if we read it literally (as in what the author intended), then there is no need to see some sort of uninformed or untaught view of the sky.

The answer is yes, there is a very imaginable way: It’s poetic, referring to the heat as intensified in the desert like a sun reflecting off a mirror, which is ancient times would have been made of bronze. When they look up into the sky, the heat comes out of it like a light intensified off of a mirror. I doubt that any ancient would have had difficult understanding that. After all, if there is a solid dome, where would the sunlight come from?

The Bible, particularly the OT, is filled with poetic and literary devices. Why do you deny that in places like this and instead insist on a literalistic reading of the text that makes no sense today and would likely have made no sense back then?


(Phil) #9

This statement seems to be root of the problem, doesn’t it. What a a good question, and great discussion. I was particularly touched by the comments regarding slavery, divorce, and polygamy. Those certainly are of greater mystery than heliocentrism with regard to spiritual truths, yet, there they are.


(Casper Hesp) #10

Hi LT, I directed my reply at you because you seem to hold the position that the ancients did not conceptualize the skies as a hard dome.

I actually enjoy reading these passages “literarily”, but they also reflect the way the biblical authors viewed the cosmos. I don’t view that ancient cosmology as “backwards”. Instead, I view it as phenomenological, in much the same way as you describe.

In the case of cosmology, things are often different than they seem. So the phenomenological descriptions end up being physically “incorrect”. But… Who cares? I’m an astronomer. Astronomers today talk about observing objects “on the sky”, as if the heavens were some kind of hard wall on which the objects are pinned. This phenomenological description is physically wrong, but works perfectly fine for the meaning one intends to convey.

Let me ask you this question. Let’s assume for a moment that the biblical authors in fact did view the heavens as a hard dome. Would you view that as a stumbling block to accepting the authority of Scripture?

In my humble opinion, I think we don’t need to classify all the biblical references to ancient cosmology as “literary devices” to appreciate the wisdom and revelations contained in the Scriptures.

Cheers,
Casper

BTW, isn’t this the typical case of the pot calling the kettle black? You argue that your literary interpretation reflects the “true” intention of the biblical writers, as opposed to the interpretation that they actually viewed the heavens as a hard dome. In that case, you’re still imposing your own views of the ancients’ views on the text.


#11

Phenomenology is part of the issue to be sure, but I think literary devices are much more likely the issue.

In answer to your question, no, because I think people are wrong sometimes and Scripture never is by virtue of the inspiration of the God who cannot lie. I agree that we need not classify all biblical references to ancient cosmology as literary devices. I think it entirely possible that people that long ago misunderstood both the revelation of God and the creation just as people do today.

Regarding the pot calling the kettle black, yes, we all are imposing our own views of ancients’ view back on the text. It is likely impossible not to. But the question becomes one of probability. IMO, I think your view takes the most negative and prejudicial reading and makes it the most likely when there is, so far as I know, to read it in such a prejudicial way. We can read Job, for instance, and see poetic and literary devices all throughout it aside from chapters 1-2 and 42. So why would we pick one occasion and say that it’s not literary or poetic? It just seems to me like a case of special pleading of a sort.

Thanks


#12

I don’t find slavery, divorce, or polygamy that difficult for the most part.


#13

The sad thing is when various statements such as the five below, are clarified and explained, and in the stubbornness of heart, people refuse to acknowledge, accept, or understand the mix of metaphor, hyperbole and literal truth embedded in these statements.

> [1] the sun does not just rise and set, but hastens back to its starting point (Eccl 1:5),

> [2] that the Earth is fixed on its foundations and won’t be moved (Ps 104:5),

> [3] that there are waters above a solid dome above the Earth, even describing it as being like a cast metal mirror (Job 37:18),

> [4] that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4:30-32), or

> [5] that seeds die when they fall to the ground (John 12:24)?

  1. We still can say this today, and do, and it is understood. It is not wise to use this statement as an argument against Genesis 1.
  2. The earth will not be moved from its orbit, and the foundations of its mass are significant. From a human perspective, this statement makes sense both literally and figuratively. Even today.
  3. Sure, and just as the statement (a single verse) says “as” a mirror, knowing yet that it is not, you want to argue against Genesis 1 on the basis of something like this? Really? Scraping the bottom of the barrel… So does this mean that this is not a metaphor then? just a mistake? And an incorrect concept of the ancients about the sky thus invalidates the message of scripture that God created in seven days (which has no dependancy on any ancient perception)? Nor have you explained how they perceived clouds, which clearly brought rain, and clearly were known to bring rain, and clearly seen to move against the sky, and to change as they moved. All of a sudden these clouds are irrelevant, because one verse talks about a “dome”, which is supposed to be impenetrable (and this not taken as a metaphor?).
  4. Is the purpose of this statement to insist on scriptural inaccuracy? or what? The smallest of all seeds on earth might be the gametes found in semen (which was also referred to as seed), so if you want to take things out of context or out of perspective why not consider that. Using this example is an old, useless, futile example, demonstrating only the pickiness and fault finding that will not invalidate an entire eleven chapters of Genesis and the message and history it brings. Would you use the same reasoning to disallow publication of a scientific paper that failed to bring some data to the correct decimal point, or that had two outliers in its recorded data?
  5. Is this a metaphor or an inaccurracy? You cannot have it both ways and use it as an argument for both. But if you want, you can understand that it is true as a partial metaphor, and therefore it is not inaccurate. A seed must become something else. If it merely stays alive as a seed it will produce nothing. It must die as a seed and become alive as a plant. The fact that the germplasm must remain alive until the plant forms is also true, but does not deny the death of the seed as entity. So the metaphor is not based on a scientific misunderstanding, but on a real event. And on this you want to argue that Genesis 1 is invalid, incorrect, or purely metaphorical? Really? give it up.

It is tiring to have to continually refute these simplistic objections.


(Christy Hemphill) #14

So you think the point of comparison of the simile is that sky as an artistic material is as difficult to work with as bronze?

No one is proposing that. They are proposing that the ancients conceived of the sky as a solid object, hard like a bronze mirror. This is documented in surviving ANE drawings and sculptures well as in their writing. It was the concept that endured up through the ancient Greeks. Aristotle had his crystal spheres. So what? No one is saying we should read Job to hunt for scientific nonsense to mock. The contention is we shouldn’t read Job (or our own Western poetry canon for that matter) for scientifically accurate descriptions of the physical universe or weather.


(Casper Hesp) #15

An important difference seems to be that you view it as a “negative” or pessimistic reading to conclude that the biblical authors conceptualized the heavens as a solid dome. From where I stand, that’s not the case at all. It’s a phenomenologically sound description and they didn’t have any other knowledge about it. Also, I do not consider that reading “prejudicial” in any way because it’s a well documented fact about Ancient Near-Eastern cultures:

It’s not really fair to label my reading as “prejudicial” because I have not always held this interpretation. In fact, when I started reading the Bible, I didn’t even know about that part. I tried to make sense of it as much as I could of my own accord. But when I read about ANE cosmology, things started falling into place. Especially the Creation story and Noach’s Flood make much more sense when we consider the ancients’ perspective concerning, for example, the floodgates of the Heavens (above) and the springs of the Deep (below).

Finally, I want to emphasize that I do view these elements as poetic. At the same time, it appears to be an exegetically sound and natural interpretation to say that the cosmological worldview of the biblical author permeates his poetic expressions. It’s not an either-or issue.

Peace,
Casper


(Richard Wright) #16

Hi John,

I actually agree with most of what you posted here. But there can be no doubt that the OT writers believed in a solid dome that we know as, “the sky”. It’s in more than just the one verse in Genesis 1. Read Dennis Lamoureux’s, Evolutionary Creationism, he has a lot on the bible’s and other ANE culture’s belief in the firmament.


(George Brooks) #17

That is a wonderful sentence. I would be willing to add your poem to the last page of my chapter on Psalms!


#18

@Casper_Hesp, In retrospect, I should have used different words. My point about “negative and prejudicial reading” was that I think you chose the reading that best supports your view which is actually the most unlikely reading of the text. It seems like you picked an example that requires a very difficult understanding to support you rather than the reading that would most naturally arise from the text. In other words, I think you prejudiced the issue from the start. I should have used a better description probably.

I think the most natural reading is to see that as poetic and literary rather than some statement of a solid dome. To say the cosmological worldview permeates poetry confuses the issue. Poetry, by its very nature, is symbolic. It doesn’t tell us much of anything about the reality. It is metaphysical in nature, using images to communicate ideas.


(Jay Nelsestuen) #19

@Christy @TedDavis @davidson

You have no idea how much I loved this post.


(James McKay) #20

I’d always thought this whole “solid dome” business was a parody. A straw man argument to make the Bible look absurd in ways that it never intended.

Isn’t it obvious that these descriptions are supposed to be understood as metaphors?