"I didn't know the Tigris was that old..."

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #1

So I peeked in my fifth grader’s room to find her reading her Bible this morning.

“You readin’ the Bible?” I asked with a smile.
“Yeah.” she said.
“Whatcha readin’?”
“Genesis 2.”
“Well, lemme know if you have any questions. Not that I have answers, but it’d be great to talk about it.”

I came back around after a few minutes.

“Any thoughts?”
“Yeah. I didn’t know the Tigris and Euphrates were that old!” she said.

I wonder how those with a nuanced view of Scriptural inspiration and non-literal understandings of Adam convey that to their elementary school-age kids.

“Well, honey…” I bumbled, after a long pause. “The Bible is inspired by God. It was also written by people in ancient Israel, to people in ancient Israel. Those people didn’t have a camcorder out to record what happened 200,000 years ago when the first humans walked the earth. There wasn’t even writing back then.”

I saw the window of attention span closing, as her siblings had turned on a movie in the other room. I moved to wrap it up. “There are a lot of different ways to understand the story of Adam and Eve. I will say that humanity started in Africa, not Iraq. Anyway, I guess I’m not really being clear. But does any of that make sense?”

“Not really,” she admitted.

So… I’m hoping to do better on round two! :slight_smile:

What struck me in this exchange was how even concordist readings of Adam have to grapple with details like the Tigris and Euphrates being there in the Garden. I suppose this speaks to the relative strength of either approaches like Dr. Swamidass’s (i.e., yes, Adam was in the Ancient Near East, and his genes made their way to all of us) or approaches that emphasize Adam as an “everyman” (the details are less important because this was God’s truth about universal sinfulness found in a story set in the Ancient Near East). If we try to blend it to say that Adam was one of the first homo sapiens in Africa, the details get somewhat more challenging.

There isn’t really a clear question here, but I would be interested to hear people’s thoughtful reactions.

(Phil) #2

I enjoyed the story, and it reminds us of how we have to be alert for those teachable moments.
One bit of clarification, even though @Swamidass’ geniological Adam puts everyone in his linage, technically it does not mean we share any genes with Adam due to gene sorting etc.
It is also interesting that if you accept the young earth view, Eden and the rivers running from it are buried somewhere under thousands of feet of sedimentary rock, as they hold the deep sediments that comprise the region were formed in the flood.
To me it is obvious that those ideas were foreign to the original writers, and they were writing of the landscape they were familiar with, but oh well. If the kids are interested in rivers, Joel Duff has some neat articles on his blog Natural Historian about the Nile and the ancient canyon that underlies the current river valley.

(Peaceful Science) #3

That is exactly right. Instead we all share genealogical ancestry to him.

That sounds right. Those drawn to a historical Adam are drawn to affirming as many of these details as possible. The key question I’ve pressrd on is the hermeneutical and theological warrant of insisting Homo sapien = the descentants of Adam (i.e human according to Paul). Homo sapien is a fuzzy taxonomic category, not a theological category.

I suppose i think both these things could true. Adam is everyman in our current world and the details are not important.

However I have a hard time swallowing “paul was right on jesus and wrong on adam”.

(George Brooks) #4


If your 5th grader can handle the fellow being swallowed by a fish… and released on shore after 3 days there… then I think she can handle how old the Tigris is.

The age of the Trigris is not one of the big impediments we usually write about. But if it caught her attention, I would hold onto something tight during her next 10 years… no doubt she will find lots to talk about!

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #5

Well, to be fair, I think it’s a little easier to talk about Jonah as inspired fiction. Yes, Jesus refers to Jonah, but people refer to literary figures all the time without flagging it explicitly as such.

The “age of the Tigris” properly speaking isn’t the issue, actually, though that is what she said. The real issue here is the location of the Garden of Eden, and its literal historicity. Sure, the Tigris and Euphrates were probably around 200,000 years ago (though I’m sure their courses have changed somewhat in that time, as rivers do). But it’s unlikely there were any homo sapiens in the vicinity.

The issue is really one of how to talk about genres and ancient readers and all of that with a kid. I’ve talked with her previously about genres — in response to questions yesterday about Methuselah, actually — but this was harder, somehow, because I was faced with a specific fact that didn’t seem to fit. And I think the problem is perhaps with my own muddy thinking, come to think of it. If I have fully resolved questions of Adam and genre and all that in my own mind, I should be able to simplify them to a kid’s level, right?

(George Brooks) #6


You are most ambitious. I don’t think it would have ever crossed my mind to attempt to explaine genre’s of Hebrew literature to my 5th grade son.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #7

Well, it’s borne of necessity. The alternatives to such a genre discussion are…

  • “The Bible is lying to you” or
  • “I’ve been lying to you about the relevant science.”

This is because I love both science and the Bible and so she has been hearing both types of origins stories since her earliest years. I didn’t do the whole, “Well, they’ll learn about evolution in high school” thing that some do. The kid’s a pretty smart cookie and is now at a point where the distinctions between the two are getting clearer and clearer to her, so… I gots ta do somethin’ to hold it all together.

So if I have to get creative and help her understand the different expectations she brings to movies she watches, then so be it…

(George Brooks) #8


I see.

My own choice of words would have been: the writer who wanted his readers to imagine the reality of Eden did his best to connect what he did know about the world with what he believed about God’s plan.

But the poor fellow just didn’t know anything about geology or archaeology…

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #9

Thanks, George. I think my kid could understand that explanation, and it’s straightforward.

I think the danger for me is that it implies a pretty pointed admittance that God’s inspiration of the text is limited to truths of theology, anthropology, and the like, and that there is a real possibility of error, despite God’s guiding hand. This would place my explanation outside the bounds of most modern American conceptions of inerrancy. I’m not sure I’m ready to commit myself to that jump, in view of other commitments that I have in my various real-life contexts. But I certainly see the strength of the position.

I think therein lies my angst over the whole conversation…

Anyway, thanks for chiming in, George!

(Phil) #10

I sympathize with you as I am a 5th grade Sunday school teacher, and several of our lessons have been in Genesis, and the directors comments have been reflective of a very literalist interpretation in the big group, which has kids down to kindergarten. I feel that for younger kids literalism is appropriate as they only understand concrete ideas, so do not think that is a bad thing, and so submit to leadership in that regard, but at the 5 the grade level, kids can see symbolism and abstract ideas imbedded in the stories also, and feel it my job to try to guide them in seeing that deeper meaning, rather than just the surface. At some point they will realize that Santa is not real, but then can see that he really is real, but just happen to be their parents, to give a holiday spin.
Now, how that relates to the age of rivers, I will leave to you, but you can talk about how there are many rivers with the same name, and rivers have deeper meaning, as they give forth life in arid lands, can be a metaphor of life etc. I just saw a pbs program on the Ganges river and the Hindu pilgrimages to the four spots deemed its origin…maybe stay away from that, another can of worms. Watch African Queen instead and talk about metaphors of life’s journey. Or not.
Perhaps can also explore the Nile articles, with the ancient proto-Nile having a different history deep beneath the present river.
Or maybe just pull down the Chronicles of Narnia, and see where they take you.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #11

Agreed. My younger kids aren’t that interested in figuring all this out yet, and I’m okay with that.

She actually suggested this workaround herself. I tried to steer her away from it, as to me it’s not a very satisfying account.

The metaphorical meaning of rivers is wonderful, but I’m not sure it helps.

I think I just need to commit to one reading or another of the text myself. Most of my confusion in presentation has to do with not wanting to corral her into one interpretation of Adam when there are so many that people are currently debating. But I have my preferences in the matter, and it’s fair for me to make them known — maybe when she’s got a bit more attention to give the matter.

I think I can capture the spirit of @gbrooks9’s presentation without the pitfalls if I take the position not that the original author got it wrong by accident but that the geographic details were not part of the intended teaching of the text in the first place. This is a subtle change but I think an important one.

I dunno. Still open to more thoughts on this. I appreciate your input!

(Phil) #12

You are right to sit back and let things unfold for them. My kids did fine, and quite honestly we did not ever sit around talking about such things. They did see their mom and me try to live our faith as imperfect human beings, saw us treat others respectfully and saw us strive to understand the meaning behind texts, and other traditions as we occasionally attended services outside our denomination. You already have the wonderful experience for them of working outside their native culture, which greatly opens their minds. They will figure out what they think, you can work on letting them watch you in your journey.

(Peaceful Science) #13

I wonder if the Lutheran approach to paradox could be meaningful here. Why not teach the secular evolutionary account and the Genesis account as simultaneously true but in paradoxical tension? The paradox is a sign we are finding something true, but beyond our understanding. The invitation is to wonder in the mystery betwix the two accounts.

@JustAnotherLutheran would you add anything to that? @J.E.S?

(Jonathan) #14

I had been meaning to show this to you…This is the LCMS, CPH Sunday school leaflet for the creation. I hope you can make it larger…(if you look closely in the background, you can see the dinosaur in the distance [a sauropod]), but I had to hold my computer about an inch from my face in order to see it ;), I also know it exists, so that helps (all though many of you may “not be able to make out a thing”). Wish I had a paper copy that I could somehow show to all of you simultaneously ;)…

As LCMS Lutherans, God’s Word (a.k.a: “The Bible”) is a big deal to us. Doctrines based on the pure teachings of the scriptures are what our entire church body is based on (It is actually a pretty inspiring story: https://www.ce-debate.org/reformation). We are not dealing with theological paradox here, we are dealing with conflicting accounts of historical events. While paradox can be/is a possibility/thing in deep theology and philosophy, when it comes to the hard facts of what happened and what did not, paradox is simply not an option. The idea of teaching evolution and allegory alongside the pure truth of scripture in LCMS classrooms practically undermines a part of the very foundation of Lutheranism, which is sola scriptura, not “scripture alone, as long as it does not teach something that doesn’t square with things that we deem more reliable than God’s word, in which case we can easily reinterpret it to say whatever we want!” I fear that such things may be happening in other areas of the synod already, although I hope this is not the case. To put it in perspective, how about we teach Biblical Creationism in public school classrooms alongside evolution as an equally plausible view of origins? (Perhaps I misjudged the intent of Swamidass’s comment here, but that seems to be the general trajectory of this conversation [which I made a point of reading before I posted in it, as being too quick to post has backfired in the past ;)])

I don’t use bold that often because it looks kind of mean when people read it on the screen, but I wanted that point to jump out, and I hope I do not hurt anybody’s feelings too badly ;)!

I also would be interested to hear what @JustAnotherLutheran, and others, has/have to say!

(Phil) #15

Alas, what constitututes the pure truth of scripture, as you put it is the question. If you read Genesis 1 and say the subject is the chronological and methodological description of the origin of all matter in the universe, you have quite a different interpretation from someone who says the subject is who God is and what that means. Is the latter more pure truth or less? You avoid the conflict of two historical accounts when you recognize that you indeed are not dealing with a historical account.
Regarding the teaching of biblical creation alongside evolution, that is great for a religion class or philosophy, but is going to be disaster for creationists in a science class when the evidence is put forth. That is the problem we have now, with that dichotomy presented, and many young people concluding that young earth creationism is not only invalid as a scientific explanation, but rejecting the gospel with it as well since they are joined together in their minds.

(Jonathan) #16

Suffice it to say, I find this telling:

(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

I’m glad you include the caveat that there is at least some place for paradox, even if for you that must be buried away somewhere in “deep theology” or “philosophy”; because I think we do a disservice to ancient traditions of wrestling with the text (as early Hebrew scribes did) by trying to disallow paradox or even just shuffling it to the margins. If we turn Bible reading into a “21st century-style-facts first and foremost” exercise I think you end up doing much gymnastic violence to God’s word.

One of our pastors once referred to biblical paradoxes as a way of keeping us centered around important truths as if we had two springs on either side of us, both with tension. When we stray too close to one side, the opposite spring stretches more, pulling harder as a corrective to keep us centered. One example that comes to mind for me is: should Christians do their good works in a public way or not? According to Matthew 5:16 we should “let our light shine… that others may see your good works and give glory to God…”; but in the next chapter we are also admonished to do our alms giving and prayer in secret – not even letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Such observations predictably cue modern inerrantists to spring into action to show how there isn’t the slightest hint of any contradiction in any of this, but that it is all about attitude and motivation (who is it that should be getting glory, etc.) But I am not interested (any more) in playing these gymnastic games to satisfy modern “factism” concerns. I want to dwell between the full paradox here (even contradiction for those who don’t mind calling it that) and let it do its essential and vital work as such. If/when anyone gets puffed up in their own glory for how much public good everyone credits to them, the second passage is there to convict them. When they get so secretive about everything that this becomes its own legalism and they are too bound up to ever share what good things God has done for and through them (or their secret cadre of deeds is just another form of self-righteousness in its own way), then the first scripture is there to pull them back too.

In letting Scripture do its work from all around us instead of trying to keep it on the other side of our theological / inerrantist magnifying glasses, I am pretty sure we are more in the company of ancient scribes who seemed to have a better handle on this kind of engagement than so many of biblicists who follow more modern persuasions.

Regarding how we answer our children; also keep in mind the handy and often true answer: “I don’t really know …”. We can also say “A lot of earnest Christians disagree about this, and I have my own opinion too … here is why I think as I do …” I’ve rarely regretted treating adolescents more like grownups when it comes to how we discuss these things. They almost always rise to higher expectations, usually surprising us along the way.

Clarifying edits added above …

(Phil) #18

What can I say but:
1 Corinthians 13:11New King James Version (NKJV)

11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

(Peaceful Science) #19

My friend @J.E.S this is what I mean when I say the Lutheran voice is lost, and supplanted with fundamentalism. I was commenting on Paradox.

Except I have show you that we can take Genesis literally regarding Adam and Eve, and this fits in evolution. So both can be true. They are not in contradiction. http://peacefulscience.org/genealogical-rapprochement/ Paradox is the strength of the Lutheran approach because it allows to acknowledge that possibility, before we can map out the “how” of it all. The fundamentalist way, however, is to force contradictions into the dialogue where they need not nor certainly are.

(Jonathan) #20

What can I say but Matthew 11:25 (ESV)

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.

I mean, this verse beautifully resonates with the current situation! :wink: