Cliff's Edge-Theological Alchemy
Yes, ancient Hebrews lived in a pre-scientific age. So what?
I just read a book by two Seventh-day Adventists . . . (ostensibly). The subtext of their text? Scientists claim that a global flood as depicted in Scripture could not have happened; ergo, a global flood as depicted in Scripture did not happen.
This is the thesis, and their book defends it.
First, they claim that shamayim, “heavens,” and eretz, “earth,” in Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) really mean “sky” and “land,” giving the verse a local as opposed to a universal context (Genesis 1:1 local?). They blame this on William Tyndale, who in 1530 translated eretz as “earth,” setting the precedent. Why did Tyndale get it wrong (supposedly)? Well, in lines so bizarre that I’m thinking a typo or worse, they claim: “Neither Tyndale nor anyone in 1530 knew that ‘earth’ was a planet. Copernicus and Galileo were still in the future.”
What? Sorry, gents, but long before Copernicus and Galileo (whose work dealt with the earth’s motion, not its planetary status), educated people knew that the earth was a planet. About 1,800 years before Tyndale, Aristotle in On the Heavens (Book II, chapter XIV), assuming the earth as a planet, wrote that it “is a circle, and of no great size,” either, which makes their lines such screamers that I’m going to stick with the typo hypothesis.
And what about shamayim as “sky” and eretz as “land”? Sure, when Moses told the Hebrews that “the Lord God has brought you into the eretz you are entering to possess” (Deut. 11:29), or that He “will shut the shamayim so that it will not rain” (Deut. 11:1)—“land” and “sky” work fine. But when the Lord declares, “Behold, I will create new shamayim and a new eretz” (Isa. 65:17)—a text reflected in Revelation 21:1, “I will create a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away”—we can be certain that both shamayim and eretz in Isaiah 65:17, as in Genesis 1:1 (the first heavens and the first earth), refer to the entire planet and not some local area in Mesopotamia.
Their other argument is the Bible writers believed “everything that happened was the result of either human actionor divine action.” These ancients (these moderns claim) had no concept of natural physical laws or natural order. Which means, they assert, that ancient Hebrews didn’t really understand the idea of a miracle, either, an action outside of the natural order. (After all, if you don’t understand natural law, how can you know when something is outside of it?)
Their point? Not cognizant of natural law, the author of the flood narrative, pre-scientific schlub that he was, depicted it as a divine action because he couldn’t grasp that it was a natural disaster only—perhaps “the ice sheets of the last ice age” melting and thus, dramatically raising water levels in some places.
Yet Old Testament words such as nipla’ (“wonders”)mophet (“sign”), and otot (“miracles”) indicate that the ancient Hebrews did recognize physical events radically deviating from the natural order, no matter how limited their understanding of that order might be compared to ours.
For instance, whatever Moses did or didn’t know about combustion (even into the nineteenth century A.D. scientists were debating it), he knew that when a bush caught on fire, it was consumed. He must have realized, then, that something ferlie was afoot when not only did this burning bush not “burn up” (Ex. 3:3), but when God spoke to him from the flames as well.
Yes, ancient Hebrews lived in a pre-scientific age. So what? They didn’t need an Einstein or even a Newton to know that clouds (Eccl. 11:3) or a north wind (Prov. 25:23) could bring rain. And whatever their ignorance of physiology, they knew that sex brought babies and that sleep rejuvenated the body, however many mysteries these natural phenomena held for them (as well as for us, today, too).
That the Bible writers might have attributed natural events, ultimately, to God means only that these Hebrews were much closer to reality—in which God sustains all creation (Job 38; Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17)—than is science with its false assumption of a purely naturalistic universe. Plus, by referring to the sun and moon simply as “lights,” Genesis 1:16 showed that these were natural phenomena only, not deities to be worshipped, more evidence that the Hebrews understood the reality of a natural order.
Their claim that the ancient didn’t know anything about natural law, or didn’t understand the idea of miracles, is theological alchemy, and it led these two authors to the strangest explanation I’ve ever read, ever, by those seeking to harmonize Scripture with present theories of science.
Numbers 11 tells the story about the Hebrews eating quail that flew into the camp, a punishment from the Lord. “But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was aroused against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague” (Num. 11:33). According to these authors, scientific literature showed that thousands of years ago flocks of quail, migrating from Europe on their way to Africa “may have stopped for several days to feed on the Greek islands that surround and include the island of Lesbos.” There on these islands, the birds might have consumed “red-hemp nettle seeds” that are poisonous to humans who ate the birds afterward. And (I’m not kidding!) eating these poisoned birds is, these authors assert, what really happened to the Jews in Numbers 11. But, ignorant of this natural phenomenon, the writer of Numbers attributed their deaths to God’s punishment.
People still debate who killed John F. Kennedy, yet this is how these men seek to explain the deaths in Numbers 11? Perhaps scientific literature could show that thousands of years ago an asteroid hit Mount Carmel at just the spot where Elijah had his altar, which proves that the “fire from God” (1 Kings 18:33) wasn’t really the Lord’s answer to Elijah’s prayer but another amazingly timed natural phenomenon.
The above is what happens when people accept the great myth of the modern era, which is that scientific pronouncements trump all other forms of knowledge, including revelation. Scientists says that no global flood occurred; thus no global flood occurred. Period. And this book, which includes their example from Numbers 11, shows what the hierophants of the myth will do, not just to the flood narrative but to other biblical accounts, in order to try and ram Scripture into the great myth itself.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.