Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is there error in scripture?

I have not the vaguest idea whether scripture can be or is in error in part or not. I am inclined to say that insofar as it is truly the communication of a supremely good God that it is not in error and insofar as it is a human production it is almost certainly in error in part. But I don't claim to be able to tell which is which and whether even what I've just said is true or not.

So how do I go about it, i.e. reading scripture? Well I read it as if it is error free on the supposition that anything I really need to know will be correct. I also read it with discernment based on the innate sense of right and wrong that God has given each of us. If something doesn't seem to make sense to me, I don't automatically assume it is wrong, I assume that it doesn't make sense to me, i.e. I acknowledge my lack of understanding. There are many things in scripture that are obscure to us because we live such different lives so much later on the time line. Straightforward customs of ancient times, things that would not need to have been explained to anyone and are just understood will completely pass us by. Occasionally some of these are pointed out by the author, likely others simply mystify us even to the point of not being translated.

The scholars of the late nineteenth century decided that the bible was full of doubtful material. All those miracles for example could not be true. What happened was a whole lot of rethinking of biblical material always questioning the accuracy of the accounts. Theories were advanced of a long period of oral tradition before the accounts were written down. Now in fact there is no particular reason to believe in a long period of oral tradition. Nothing we know of demands it except the suppositions of skeptics to begin with. Tradition has assigned the accounts to eye witnesses or those who knew eye witnesses. There is no particular reason to doubt the traditional assignments except that it would call into question the theory of oral tradition.

I want to take a particular case in point and talk about it. That is the rather timely case (since it is within the Christmas Season) of the Nativity accounts. There are two accounts of the birth of Jesus, one in the gospel of Matthew and the other in the gospel of Luke. Christians typically conflate the accounts and scholars say that the accounts are irreconcilable. Now I think it is pretty silly to claim that they are irreconcilable when the average person reading the accounts doesn't leap to the conclusion that something is wrong. I think the reason for that is that harmonizing the accounts, far from being particularly difficult, is actually fairly easy. There are no outright contradiction only silences which disquiet scholars who are used to printed texts and instant communication. The ancient world wasn't like that. Books were expensive since each had to be individually written out. One did not multiple details that were irrelevant to one's purposes so it is not at all surprising that two writers writing at different times for different purposes might give different accounts of the same story, Matthew writing for a Jewish audience and Luke writing for a Gentile audience. If we keep those factors in mind we can almost immediately see why the accounts differ. The details in each case that are left out are details of little interest to the other evangelist because his audience is different. It is also quite possible that their own sources differed and that they were simply unaware of some details and so didn't touch upon those matters they did not know in common. We'll look a bit more closely at these two Nativity accounts in the next post.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

An Aside on Biblical Interpretation and the Nature of Revelation

Before going too much further it might be worthwhile to say a few words about biblical interpretation and the nature of revelation. Let me divide that into a few steps:

Step 1: Definition of Revelation — I am defining revelation (here understood as Divine Revelation) as a communication between God and man. Now God is the primary agent in such a communication. God has all the properties of God which make everything he says certainly true and so forth. But communication has two side and the other side is human. Human beings are fallible. There are plenty of occasions in the bible where God is not understood by the human side of the equation. So step one is a communication from a perfect God to an imperfect human or humans.

Step 2: The Communication of the Revelation to Succeeding Generations — requires that it be written down or remembered as an oral tradition. This requires a chain of accuracy to be maintained if the communication is not to be distorted. In Christian circles it is assumed that the revelation is preserved in accuracy by the action of the Holy Spirit. Exactly how this happens is a matter of theoretical concern and one has to overcome the existence of an awful lot of variants in the texts to take it too literally. This is particularly true of whole passages which appear in some manuscripts and do not appear at all in others.

Step 3: The Interpretation of the Revelation by Each Generation — is where the rubber meets the road. We can't even interpret William Shakespeare with perfection, English has changed so much. Why do we think we can interpret scripture which comes to us from ancient Hebrew or koine Greek or Aramatic over a span of many millenia?

I only raise these issues because they are real ones. One can't always wave one's hands and say "It's a miracle!" The divisions of the churches over iota's is a history of tragedy and suffering. A bit less hubris seems called for. Since this blog is not just for Christians, nor even just for believers, I am taking a rather low road. My definition of scripture will be books held by the Judeo-Christian tradition as inspired. This only selects the books. Then I will treat them as one might treat any other books giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are what they claim to be, insofar as they make any claims at all. It is appropriate to point out that scripture typically doesn't identify itself as scripture. Moreover, many books not in the canon are quoted within the canon as if they are authoritative, ex. the book of Enoch.

Here is a link to a site that presents a Catholic view of revelation. Click Here I don't know anything about it as I just stumbled upon so my link is not a recommendation. I add more links as I stumble upon them.

Abram and the Covenant

The prehistory of Israel continues with the story of Abram who becomes Abraham patriarch of Israel. Abram is son of Terah of Ur of the Chaldees, and Abram is the older brother of Nahor, and Haran. Haran died before his father but not before he begat Lot, Abram's nephew. I'm not qualified to comment technically, but various genetic markers suggest that there is DNA evidence for a common ancestor to the Hebrew and Arab peoples that is contemporary with the biblical Abram See Here
Terah took his children and their wives to the land of Canaan to Haran. The death of Terah at the age of 205 in Haran ends Genesis 11. The question of dating comes into play. When did the historical Abraham walk the earth? Obvously this is a highly speculative question that requires a lot of cross referencing of events, locations, individuals and the like. We will explore these questions in the following order:
  • Dating of Abram/Abraham
  • Abram's Story
  • The Covenant

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Tower of Babel

The whole story of the tower of Babel, like that of the flood, is a story emerging out of pre-history and hence full of mythological and legendary elements. Stories of this kind are hard to analyze it seems to me. The excavations at the historic sites show that large temples to pagan gods were erected. The Babylonian god Marduk had a temple, the ziggurat of Marduk, which was 300 feet square at its base. The ziggurat rose to a height of about 300 feet and could be seen from far outside the city.

The story which begins in Genesis 10 is at pains to trace all the nations of the earth to the sons of Noah. The chapter concludes (Genesis 10:32) "These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood."

Genesis chapter 11 takes us from this point to the time of Abram who was a son of Terah and born in Ur of the Chaldees. One source which simply accumulates the time line gives the birth of Abram as 1948 years since Adam. A more secular timeline for the period is shown below.
The motivation for destroying the tower of Babel is a bit muddled in the text. The way it sounds is that God was offended by the construction and confounded their language and scattered them. I've always found the story a bit strange. It would have made more sense to me if there had been a reference to false gods or something like that, but instead it comes across as if God is jealous of their accomplishments and that would make no sense at all. It does have slight echos of the pagan stories of the Titans and also there are stories in Babylonian mythology of the gods trying to destroy man that might also contribute to this story.

One also wonders if the shift from cuneiform script to alphabetic writing on perishable materials may play some role in this story.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Noah and the Flood

I don't want to belabor the flood story. It is hard to know what to do with it. As an historical account it is hard to credit. As myth it shares a number of significant points of contact with the epic of Gilgamesh which also recounts a flood story and one which closely parallels aspects of the Noah story. This strongly suggests that the two accounts are interdependent, either one influenced the other or both depending on another source we don't have.
In schematic form the story is that God, displeased with the corruption of man finds a righteous man in Noah and tells him to build an ark 300x50x30 cubits (about 450x75x45 feet) with three decks and stock it with all the animals on the earth. The flood comes, everyone dies except Noah and his family, and so forth. After the flood ends and things dry out God makes a covenant with Noah never to do this again and cements it with the rainbow.
The story extends from Genesis Chapter 6 to Chapter 9. There is much support for an ancient flood of epic proportions in the legends of many cultures. Whether these are references to many events or a single cataclysmic event cannot be established. Elements of the account are frankly fantastic and implausible which makes it appear the account was elaborated becoming legendary as it accumulated details in the retelling. It continues to inspire people today and a lively cottage industry exists in recreating the ark, explaining the details, searching Mount Ararat and even Alien Contact.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Genealogies and Giants

When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, things go down hill fast. Moreover we move from language that is very mythical to language that is transitional. It contains matter of fact material delivered with unusual data, for example: A string of patriarchs who live over 900 years.
It begins with the story of Cain murdering his brother Abel. What lies behind this first primordial murder? After a story of ritual punishment we are given a genealogy of Cain. This is followed by The birth of Seth and a detailed genealogy following the Adam-Seth chain which contains a bizarre sequence of implausible birth and death ages. A sequence of patriarchs starting with Adam live to impossibly long ages ranging from a low of Enoch at 365 when he is taken away by God, to Methusalah who lives to the age of 969. Noah doesn't have children until he is 500. It seems very unlikely that these are accurate accounts of human ages. The arithmetic is carefully confirmed in each case, for example:Genesis 5:12-14 When Kenan had lived 70 years, he became the father of Mahalalel. 13 And after he became the father of Mahalalel, Kenan lived 840 years and had other sons and daughters. 14 Altogether, Kenan lived 910 years, and then he died. Notice the careful confirmation of the arithmetic: 70 + 840 = 910 years. Each of the generations is described this way. Why is that?
One ought always to admit ignorance in matters like this. We simply don't know why these numbers are the way they are. The way numbers are conveyed in Hebrew, like Greek, is with letters standing for numbers and their interpretation demands that you know what the letters mean. One theory I have seen advanced is that the meaning before the Babylonian captivity was different from the meaning after, and the original meaning had been forgotten. In the course of the redaction a later system of interpretation was applied and the careful summations were added to make sure that 1) the numbers added up, and 2) the same thing didn't happen again. Thus these odd and implausible numbers may simply be due to a common human failing, that of forgetting.
Numerology of various sorts has a very long and respectable history. Theomatics is a term used for the process of calculating the numerical values of letters in Hebrew and Greek. It's worth a look if you're interested in calculating 666 for example. In Hebrew mysticism this is called Gematria and is related to Kabbalah which is itself a much misunderstood subject.
What are we to say of these numerical matters? I think we can say that it is a mystery. It may be a mistake. It is probably not literal, and all of these statements are conjectural. The mystery only deepens when we reach Genesis 6:4: The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. This is one of the reasons why I say that we have not entirely gone beyond the realm of myth here. Who are these Nephilim? and who are the sons of God and the daughters of men? There are many speculations, but again these are only conjecture and reach us out of the dim mists of time and the fog of history turned to myth.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Threading ...

All tapestries are woven of threads. One of the more moving metaphors of life for me is that of the thread. In Greek mythology there were three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho spun the thread of life. Lachesis measured out the thread of life, and Atropos cut the thread of life. Thus was your destiny determined. The tapestry of all life was woven with these individual threads.
I like that image. I think it conveys a kind of global vision of the providence of God and not merely an ancient fatalism. Each thread is woven into the pattern of life in a certain way so that the pattern will be correct, the world will not be right without that particular thread woven in in just that way.
In Scripture the threads are the sentences that convey meaning. We are told in Psalm 104:24 "How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures." A thread in Scripture is an idea, a concept which reveals God to us in some particular way. Each of the threads is positioned to convey the message of God's revelation. When a thread is torn from it's position in Scripture, we cannot always be certain that the meaning is preserved. For that reason I am very uncomfortable with what I call the snippet approach to bible quoting. One snippet here, another there, and you can prove 'most anything.
I want to step back a little from the discussion of Genesis to revisit Adam and Eve. We saw Adam is derived from earth and Eve from life. Eve desired wisdom under the enticement of the serpent and gave the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Adam to eat. This act of disobedience caused them to lose paradise and gain a life of toil, pain and ultimately death.
I have a lot of questions about this story. I am curious about its ultimate meaning. So let's flash forward thousands of years to the New Testament. The word 'Adam' only appears in 24 places in the bible (if you search on that single word in )
Sixteen are in the Old Testament and eight in the New Testament. Of these eight I will focus only on half: 1) those in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 and those in Romans chapter 5.

1 Corinthians 15:21-15;41-49

1 Cor 15:21-25
21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Cor 15:41-49
41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

Romans 5:12-14

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— 13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

The Wisdom of God, He who is with God from the beginning and without whom nothing was made that was made comes to transform us from earth, the natural man, the first man, to transcendent man, risen with the likeness of the Man from Heaven.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What are we to make of this?

The story of the temptation and disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is emblematic of the Fall of Man from a state of original bliss in perfect communion with God to a state of relative degradation, condemned to toil and pain and death. These trappings to the story are the accumulation of ages and ages of exegesis.
The story itself has very primitive elements. It is mythic, set in a place of perfection. It is mythic in the sense of animals given sentience and voice in the form of the serpent. The implication being that other animals, less crafty, less disobedient, may also have had voices. God Himself is pictured as a gardener, a shaper of the earth, who shapes even life itself, but also one who is jealous of competition. The last verse we saw said: Genesis 3:22 "And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."

Some Questions

What does it mean that "man has now become like one of us ..."? Who are "us"? Why is it a surprise that "man has now become like one of us ..." if man was made to be in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) then how can it be that God is now concerned? What is "the tree of life" which man had not been forbidden to eat of?
The point is not that I have answers, but that I have many questions which are not answered by any exegesis that I've seen. Eve ate because the fruit was beautiful and wisdom was desired and because the serpent had lied to her. The wisdom was the knowledge of good and evil, i.e. the capacity to discern the true nature of things, hence becoming more godlike, but also more rebellious since to eat was to disobey. What does this tell us about the relationship between obedience to divine command and knowledge? C.S. Lewis in a number of places cites John 7:17 "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." [King James Version] as a basis for his view of a 'Deep Church' of those who serve God through their obedience. " In following the serpent after wisdom, Adam and Eve doomed themselves to perpetually seeking a lesser wisdom perhaps, than would have been offered had they been obedient. Moreover, the second tree, the tree of life, still awaits us.

The End of Bliss

Chapter 2 of Genesis ends on the verse Genesis 2:25 "The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." — It's probably a good time to point out that the chapter and verse notations as well as any little headings are all very late additions to the bible. They are not original and they are often not very well considered.
Enter a talking serpent. Genesis 3:1 "Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" Everyone is used to assuming that the serpent is Satan, but Satan is a much later conceptual entity. The serpent could be anything at all, but one thing he certainly is and that is the personification of disobedience and rebellion. His very first action is to sow doubt.
The precipitous Fall of Man takes place in the span of a single verse (two short sentences), Genesis 3:6 "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it."
The serpent had made two claims, one false and the other true: 1) "You will not surely die" which was false, and 2) "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." which appears to be true. For before they ate of the apple they had no shame at their nakedness, although it is not said if they should have felt shame, that is only an implication and not an assertion.
The Consequences quickly followed — Was is wisdom now that informed them that they were naked? God called to the man but he hid because he was naked. When God asks Adam if he has eaten of the fruit of the tree from which he had been forbidden to eat he compounds his betrayal: Genesis 3:12 "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." Thus Adam, Father of the Human Race starts his reign with a double betrayal. He disobeys God, blames his wife, who then blames the serpent.
The Consequences are:
1) the serpent is condemned to slither on the ground,
2) enmity is put between the woman and the serpent and in a verse with several Christian interpretations we are told: Genesis 3:15 "... I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." In Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ we saw one of the Christian interpretations acted out in another garden. There are three translations, that from the Hebrew, the Greek of the Septuagint (LXX), and from the Latin Vulgate. Each translation has fostered a different interpretation. (See Here) The Hebrew uses a neuter it, the LXX he with Christological implications, and the Vulgate uses she with Mariological implications. It all seems a mystical treatment of a mystical passage.
3) Eve, woman, Life, is condemned to pain in childbirth and submission to her husband (Genesis 3:16),
4) the very ground is cursed and man is condemned to a life of toil. Genesis 3:17 "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life"
5) finally they are cast out of the garden. However the reason given is bizarre: Genesis 3:22 "And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."

What are we to make of this?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Things Get Complicated

We last looked at the creation of man, Adam, from the earth (adamah in the Hebrew), and finished with God's command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The punishment for transgression was death, but the phrasing is interesting: Genesis 2:17 "but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." — when you eat of it you you will surely die.

The phrasing suggests a natural outcome and not simply a punishment as a quid pro quo of a juridical law. But we'll leave that for now and go forward. In Genesis 2:18-25 we have the account of the creation of woman. God sees that it is not good for the man to be alone and creates all the animals, but they are not adequate companions for the man. So God casts Adam into a deep sleep and creates ishah from ish, that is woman from man. The words distinguished only by their endings. This is the same distinction between Adam and adamah only the formation direction is the opposite. Adam comes from the earth, adamah. Woman ishah comes from the man, ish. And in death both return to the earth.

If we look at the passage Genesis 2:22-25 we find that first God presents the woman to the man. The man acknowledges the woman as flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, and then we are told: Genesis 2:24 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." The prefatory phrase "For this reason..." has to go back and refer to something and it isn't Adam's acknowlegement alone but the fact that God has presented the woman to him. Just so, going forward, it is God that presents each man with the woman who will be bound to him in intimacy. We find the words of Geneses 2:24 on the lips of Jesus (Mark 10:3-10) rejecting divorce and St. Paul (Ephesians 5:25-33) when he explains the mystery of Christ's union with the Church.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Engagement with Faith

I was reading a book about faith. I think it was by Cardinal Suenens. But whether that is correct or not what I remember is a bit about religious responses. The author made the point that there are three kinds of religious responses and that everyone's response is made up of some mix of those three kinds.

The kinds are:
  • Autogenous — the response of personal responsibility to make up your own mind and inform your own conscience. One might say personal intellectual discernment.
  • Programmatic — the response of obedience to duly constituted authority such as the pastor, the bishop, the scripture, the pope, or whatever authority is recognized in your particular case.
  • Pneumatic — the response to the Spirit as experienced in your own faith life. This is the response to personal inspiration under appropriate discernment and is the kind of response often characterized as charismatic.
I think there are also three characteristic and related resposes required in each case and these are: Humility for the besetting sin of the Autogenous is likely to be intellectual arrogance. Submissive Obedience for the likely sin of the Programmatic is disobedience when he or she ought to obey. Finally, Prayer and Discernment for the danger to the Pneumatic is Spiritual Pride and mistakenly following false spirits.

Over the years I've often reflected on these things. I am personally rather Autogenous, probably 60% at least, and maybe 30% Programmatic, and only 10% Pneumatic. I'm not entirely sure how useful this sort of taxonomy is more generally, but it has been useful to me.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Another Garden, Another Tree

If the first Adam was placed in a garden and disobeyed God, the second Adam came to repair the damage. As St. Paul says in Romans 5:14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
Adam was made in the likeness of God, and the second Adam was God Himself come to restore us. 1 Cor 15:45-49 gives — 45 So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

At the beginning of time one man brought death into the world. At the end of the age, God came to the world as Man and restored Man to union with God even accepting death Himself.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Garden and a Tree

Adam in the Hebrew sounds like the word earth, adamah. And Adam is set in this special Garden which God has made. It is full of food bearing trees and In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then God gives the single command which is that they may eat of every tree of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they eat of that tree they will die. So that's the scenario. There are also rivers flowing out of the garden that divide into a whole bunch of rivers with names that are current even today. Stopping at verse 17 (Gen 2:17) we might reasonably ask: What's going on here?

This is highly figurative language. God is presented as the proprietor of a perfect place. From the earth he creates Man whose name is like earth and puts him in charge of taking care of the garden with only one restriction. This is fairy-tale-like. The obvious question is why is the story framed this way and why such a pointed story? — A single command with ultimate obedience required and an ultimate punishment to be imposed if the command is not obeyed.

This is clearly a story intended to teach a single primary point for it turns on a single primary command. Any reader can see already at this point that there would be no story if the command were not to be disobeyed. Obedience and disobedience are the core of the story.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Compare and Contrast

In academic circles the phrase compare and contrast is a mantra. It's what academics do, especially with multiple sources. Now the last entry looked at Genesis 1 through Genesis 2:3. We now enter upon new ground with Genesis 2:4. It is the garden of Eden story, a second and apparently independent account of creations.


Well yes independent. The last story ended with the creation of man on the sixth day. Now we find that in the initial verses, Genesis 2:4-7 that man is created, but "no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up"— if you go back and look you'll find that God created the plants in the first account on the third day, so if man was created before them either it was early on the third day or on the second day. Isn't there a problem here? I mean if you are a bible literalist, how is it you can reconcile the two accounts? You can't. Day three is much less than day six. What is implied is that the days don't matter. They are only there for the purpose of making the sabbath holy not for keeping a detailed account of the time of various things being created.

The Garden

After creating man God places him in a garden which He has planted ahead of time (before the other plants were planted presumably) — the chronology is decidedly muddled. The function of the garden seems to be to provide an idyllic place for man. God is depicted as full of fruit bearing trees and God gives Adam this command (Genesis 2:16-17): "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." The scene is set. We will return.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


The creation story in Genesis 1 is rather obviously not to be taken literally. I don't say that with any disrespect for the word of God, only based on the fact that it is a story with several manifest lessons that have nothing to do with the ancient cosmological content in which the story is set.
We don't know if the text had an external setting in the life of Israel as possibly a ceremonial reading. The lessons it teaches are straightforward:
  1. God created everthing that is.
  2. Everything God created is good.
  3. God made man in His own image.
  4. God gave man stewardship of the earth.
  5. God rested on the seventh day which is why we have the Sabbath.
That I think is the religious content of Geneses 1:1 through 2:2

Now the story is set over the seven days of creation and part of the story fits more or less well into the chronology that modern science would recognize and part simply reflects the ancient cosmology of the author.
Day 1: God creates light and separates it from darkness and there was evening and morning the first day. This is rather poetic language. It isn't clear what evening and morning mean in the absence of the cycle of light and darkness provided by the sun. Light scientifically is something while darkness is simply the absence of light.

Day 2: On the second day God separates the water into water above the sky and water below the sky creating the sky. This sort of explains how it can rain, but it's a primitive and incorrect cosmology.

Day 3: God does quite a bit more on day three. He separates the water from the land and creates plants, vegetation and seed and fruit bearing trees.

Day 4: God creates the sun and the moon. Now it's always seemed a bit odd to me that He would create vegetation before there was a way for the vegetation to get light. I don't think it makes much sense as an actual account of origins.

Day 5: On the fifth day God creates the creatures that live in the sea and the birds of the air.

Day 6: On the sixth day God creates the animals and man, creating man in his own image and giving him dominion over all the other creatures.

Day 7: God rests on the seventh day blessing it and making it holy. (Note: we transition at the end of the sixth day to Chapter 2 which is strange. It is important to note that the chapter and verse divisions of the bible are not original coming about only in the 13th century and hence not divinely revealed.)

So that is the first creation story in the bible. It has resulted in all kinds of squabbling. The general sequence is not too hard to reconcile with modern science with the exception of the creation of vegetation before the sun if you imagine that the days are in fact eras. But that's really wrong headed. The cosmology doesn't really have any religious content. It doesn't matter. It's the trappings in which the religious content is wrapped. It would be hard to imagine God trying to give a modern science lesson to migrant shepherds or ancient agrarian farmers. It also does not constitute a basis for contradicting evolutionary theory. Whether evolution is right or wrong is simply irrelevant to the religious payload of Genesis 1, at least that's how I see it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In the beginning ...

Let's return to Genesis chapter one. To understand any text it is important as Mortimer Adler points out in How to Read a Book to know what kind of text it is. Is it history, poetry, a teaching story (midrash), prophecy, and so forth through all the possible genres one could imagine? It is also important to understand the point of view of the author. In the context of scripture one might expect people to say something like "But the author is God" and that somewhat begs the question. For while God doubtless inspired sacred writings, they are still written down by human authors with human intent. God doesn't turn the author into some sort of robot.
The first verse of Genesis is: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Already we have some key concepts to consider.


The idea that things were not always as they are, that the world had a beginning was not a universal idea. Aristotle, for example, taught that the world was eternal. It is probably hard for us to appreciate how significant the idea of a beginning of the world actually is. We are not really able to imagine nothing or existence before time itself.


God created— is also a concept when we tend to misconstrue. When we create it is to assemble from previously existing things. The whole concept of God is of a being who preexists all that exists and is the root cause of all that exists. That's actually a pretty tall order. God creates then ex nihilo—from nothing in that existentially formative moment, the beginning.

The Heavens and The Earth

With this phrase we leave the modern world and its cosmology of deep space and enter an ancient understanding of the world. The heavens are a place of perfection and the earth a place of imperfection. The world is composed of earth, air, fire and water. Life itself is the breath and the blood. But we are getting ahead of the text.
The second verse reads: Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Notice that the heavens are dark for light does not yet exist. The world is all the waters, the deep, for the dry land will only come later. Even the sky does not yet exist. We are in an ancient cosmology, one familiar to the author but not to us. We are not in the cosmology of the present day.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Knowing When You're Done

As one lecturer I heard from Oxford said once:"The Oxford way is to begin at the beginning and go straight through to the end and then stop." That, of course, begs the question if you can't tell when you've reached the end.
The general rule when reading scripture is to accept the plain meaning if there is one and allow for a deeper meaning, possibly symbolic or figurative or metaphorical in addition to the plain meaning. If the plain meaning seems to make no sense (something we have to discern) then the meaning must lie in the other dimensions.
A second rule is that scripture, if it has God's authorship, is all of a piece. The pieces can't contradict each other without making God the author of error. Apparent contradictions therefore much imply that we don't understand what is being said.
Of course there is the other construction in the face of contradiction, that this is evidence that the material is not divinely revealed or that it contains errors. Now on the face of it, going back to what I said when setting out on this journey, we are all reading translations. So a contradiction may only be an error in translation. It may be simply an error in our understanding.
But the question before us is: How do we know when we are done?
The short answer and one that will satisfy for now is: We are done when we have achieved a stated understanding which is consistent with all the passages that we have considered. However, we are undone, i.e. we have to go back and review, if we find that subsequent passages contradict our prior understanding or expand it. Each advance in understanding broadens the reach of the light, but may also cast shadows back behind us which adumbrate what we thought earlier was understood.

The Indwelling of Reason

Thomas Aquinas ( c. 1225 to March 7, 1274), following Aristotle, would define man as a reasoning animal. The capacity to reason is a defining characteristic of man. It is only through our reason that we are able to distinguish truth from error.
We saw yesterday that light dwells within us as the life of man, the Divine Word. One aspect of this is reason and through reason we hope to attain wisdom which is the knowledge conveyed by the light received from the spirit we receive from God.
Aquinas points out "The prime author and mover of the universe is intelligence ..." He goes on to say "Blessed is the man that shall dwell in wisdom (Ecclus xiv, 22). The more sublime, because thereby man comes closest to the likeness of God, who hath made all things in wisdom (Ps. ciii, 24)."
In short than, human reason is a primary path to the clarity we require. In fact, human reason stands at a higher level than scripture in the sense that without reason we would be unable to judge what is scripture and what is not. The canon of scripture was set informally at first by those books and writings read in the assembly. As writings mulitiplied it became important to separate those that were authoritative from those that were not. This process continued through the 4th and early 5th centuries. We'll consider the canon closed by roughly the first decade of the 5th century, between 405 A.D. and the council of Carthage in 419 A.D. See this interesting discussion.
The canon was set through the action of reason on the documents received. Reason alone, taken in its modern sense as the operation of logical thought, was not enough. More properly reason is the whole aspect of human discernment which allows us to distinguish the truth from falsehood.

We have addressed to some degree the aspect of light but not yet the question of when we have illuminated matters enough. We'll work on that a little next.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Let there be light ...

It seems significant to me that in both Genesis 1 and John 1 we find Light mentioned early. Genesis has God create first the heavens and the earth but the earth is formless. Then God through the action of his Word says: Let there be light!
If we turn now to John's gospel we see that there is more to be understood. The Word is with God from the beginning because He was God and made all that was made.

John goes on to say that the Word was life and this life was the light of man. This is very figurative and poetic language in both Genesis 1 and John 1.

The first chapter of Genesis goes on to say after detailing the creation that God in His climactic act of creation makes man in the image of God. The life, the Word, is the light of man.

Light and Looking

I like the story of the slightly drunken guy looking for his car keys under a streetlight. A passer-by asks him what he's doing and he says he's looking for his car keys. "Why are you looking under the street light" asked the passer-by. "Because that's where the light is," answers the inebriated man.

The problem of clarity is not solved by looking where the light is because the surrounding area is dark. So the problem is to strive to increase the light to the greatest degree. That often means looking at ways of thinking about things you have not considered before.

If you approach scripture by a single route, with a single point of view, you are searching under a streetlight. There may be other lights that should be considered, that reveal more or at least different. So the first rule is not to create shadows. Don't assume that your streetlight is the only one worth looking under.

Well after I wrote this I ran into the following juicy example of what I'm talking about. It's titled the tyranny of scripture and is an example of someone who thinks he has all the light. It's sort of a in-your-face counterexample since it is by a fellow who thinks scripture is just fantasy and bigotry. I think he's using a pencil beam and not even the whole streetlight. If you have seven minutes Click Here and don't blame me if you're offended. I warned you ahead of time.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Discourse on Method

With apologies to Descartes for stealing his title, I think I'll briefly address method before getting underway. The term method doesn't mean much in the absence of a goal statement. "A method to accomplish what exactly?" is the obvious question. For Descartes it was to reach certitude. I'm a good deal more humble than that since I harbor existential doubts about pretty much everything. A human being saying they are "certain" of something is really another way of saying that they don't have to think about it anymore. The subject is decided. Not only that, but everyone else is wrong. Since that seems to me at least to claim far more than human beings have a right to claim, I don't think certitude can be my goal. So what is?
I think the goal should be Illumination which is the state of seeing something in the clearest light possible. Achieving clarity of vision is important. We can envision that as the light cast upon a cluttered room. You can't clean up what you can't see.
So the question of method when the goal is clarity comes down to the answers to some questions:
  1. How do I cast light on the subject?
  2. How do I know when I've reached as clear a view as possible?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ancient Languages

When we read the bible it is almost always in translation from the ancient languages, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and if we are reading from the surrounding apocryphal literature it may be Coptic or many other languages from the distant past.
Yet the bible conveys insights and wisdom to people today. This blog is going to focus, occasionally on my own personal journey through the bible. It will be eclectic since I'll only visit the bible episodically in a sporadic and unorganized manner. When we read we are doing something quite magical. We are turning obscure markings into sensible thoughts. We rarely reflect enough on the sheer miracle of language. Writing which makes language permanent long before our more recent recording technologies is no less miraculous for being ancient. Count your blessings for they are many.