Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A closer look at Genesis 1: Why do you believe in creation?

The Bible says so, right? ....aaaand you think it's inspired by a god, right? But how do you know? Suppose this god was would you know then? "But God doesn't tell lies", you might insist! How do you know? Did he tell you that? That's exactly what he would say, even if he did tell lies, isn't it?

I know, I know, you think you've got proof. You've got all this evidence that the Bible must be divinely inspired, otherwise how do I explain bananas? or something. But here's the thing. You disagree with pretty much every other type of Christian on earth. And they all think the Bible is divinely inspired too...yet they disagree with you (and each other). Interesting, isn't it?

But perhaps you claim that you can disprove every other Christian. They're all wrong except you. And yet somewhere in the world there is a Catholic who thinks exactly the same way. And somewhere else in the world is a Jehovah's Witness, and a Pentecostal, and a Baptist, and all of them are confident that they alone have the truth, and all the others are heretics. Perhaps you all just haven't met each other yet...

Besides, even if your favourite holy book was inspired, the message still had to go through several stages, or "hops", before it reached your neurons.

In the case of the Bible, we've got God apparently talking to some random scribe (which actually means that some random scribe simply claimed that a god was talking to him), who writes it down in Hebrew, and then we've got someone else later down the track copying that onto something else, making a few mistakes along the way, then a bunch of other scribes making more copies (including "fixing" the mistakes of the last scribe and making a few more of their own) for hundreds of years until one of those copies ends up in the Dead Sea Scrolls which are the oldest extant manuscripts for the Old Testament. Then, some person from sometime during the 16-20th century translates the Hebrew into English, which essentially means the translator reads the Hebrew, their brain interprets the message according to their cultural context, they decide what they think it means, and then they come up with what they believe to be an equivalent phrase in English, according to their interpretation of the Hebrew. Then it gets printed in a Bible in English (in the case of the KJV that's 17th century English too). You pick up the Bible and read it, in the 21st century, and your brain interprets the message according to your cultural context, you decide what you think it means, and you imagine that what you think it means is exactly the same as what God meant when he allegedly told the random scribe to write it down thousands of years ago. What could possibly go wrong?

See, writing something down is only a fraction of the process. Even if God inspired the writers to write every single word, that still doesn't help you to understand it in a different country, speaking a different language, and having grown up in an entirely different culture and time period. The chances of you misinterpreting it are pretty huge, and it's not even your fault. There's only so much that can be known about the ancient culture of the writers, and we just can't know what they meant in some cases.

"Aha", you may say, "but what about Jesus and Paul? They both interpreted Genesis literally didn't they?" Well, maybe they did, maybe they didn't. I'm happy to accept that they did for the sake of argument, but that's just another demonstration of the problem. They too were reading an ancient text and were not exempt from any of the process I mentioned above. Instead of being translated into English, their version (most likely the Septuagint) had been translated into Greek instead. Perhaps Jesus could read Hebrew (doubtful, given the literacy rate at the time), but even so he was living in a different culture and a different time period than the authors. He and Paul would have had almost the same difficulties interpreting it as we would today. Did they know that talking animals were a common Ancient Near Eastern literary device? Were they aware of the similarities and parallels between the early chapters of Genesis and the mythology of ancient Babylon and Egypt? Probably not. We only know these things through archaeology, after digging up clay tablets that were buried long before the first century CE.

But Genesis is so easy to understand, right? Wrong!

Genesis 1
Take Genesis 1 for example:
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".
What beginning? What does it mean by "heavens"? Is it the universe? Why isn't the earth included in that? If not the universe, then what is it talking about? and if it is the universe, why not just say "God created the heavens"? Or perhaps it is talking about "earth" as in the ground? Maybe the "heavens" are just the sky? Who knows?
"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
Without form? Was it not even a sphere? How can it be without form? Surely whatever it was, it still had a form? I'm assuming the "deep" is referring to water, since it mentions "the face of the waters" later. We were just told it was without form, and now there's water? Where did that come from?
"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."
Oh good, an easy one. Everyone knows what light is, right? It's what comes out of the light bulb when we turn it on. It's those beams that reach us from the sun, correct? Electromagnetic radiation to be precise, delivered in nice little photons. Great, we're getting somewhere now...
"And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."
Wait, what? How on earth do you separate light from darkness? Isn't it kind of implied in the definition of light, that darkness is simply all of the places where light isn't? Isn't darkness just the absence of light? They are separate by definition. Never mind, carry on...
"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day."
Hold on a second. I thought we were talking about light? You know, the stuff that shines from the sun? How can that be called "Day"? Light doesn't stop travelling at night. We just can't see the sun at night because of the earth's rotation.

So clearly we've gotten the definition of light wrong. The Bible isn't referring to electromagnetic radiation at all. It's simply talking about daytime. If we backtrack and start over we realise that we've been overthinking it. This is just telling us about days and nights. That's all. Not light, not space, none of that.

And that's another thing, why not just say that the earth rotates and that's why we have the day/night cycle? It's almost as though it's written by people who think the earth is flat...
"And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so."
Excuse me, what's a "firmament"? Are these the same waters we were talking about before? So now we've got this thing called a firmament, and we've got water above and below it. Cool.
"And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."
Hang on. Big red flag going up here. Haven't we already created this "heaven" thing? You know, back in verse 1? Back then we thought "heavens" might have been talking about the universe. Now this thing called heaven is sitting somewhere on earth with water above and below it. Maybe it's the atmosphere or the sky or something?
"And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good."
Ok, it's happened again. Back in verse 1 we had this grand statement about God creating the "heavens and the earth" (da da daaaaaaaaa, drumroll please!). And now we discover that "heaven" is just the sky, and "earth" is just dirt. Today we call our planet "Earth". Not so in Genesis 1. Earth is the dry land, surrounded by Seas, which is supposedly one of the "waters" we read about earlier.
"And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And the evening and the morning were the third day."
Cool. The dirt can grow stuff. Nice work.
"And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also."
Stop. Stop right there. Didn't we already establish the day/night cycle back in verses 4 and 5? And what's this about seasons and years? In order to get seasons you need the earth to be tilted on its axis, and in order to have years you need the earth to orbit the sun. Sigh. And without the sun, how are we on the fourth day? That's a neat trick.

So God finally got around to putting a sun at the centre of our solar system and a moon orbiting the earth at a distance of some 384,000km away. Er, nope. It says he put them "in the firmament". So going with our previous definition I'm guessing this means he put them in the sky? But didn't the firmament have water above it? How can the sun and moon be in the firmament? Where's the water "above" them?

Then he made the stars. Shouldn't that be the "other" stars, since the sun itself is a star? What about the planets that orbit all of those other stars? What about galaxies? No? Ok.

You know, it's almost as if the author didn't actually know all that much about cosmology...

In fact, it sounds exactly like... well... like it would if someone living in the iron age wrote down their views about the origins of the earth. Funny that...

So I hope the point is pretty clear by now. Genesis 1 doesn't make an ounce of sense if we try to interpret it according to our literal understanding in English in the 21st century. Either that or it's just flat out scientifically wrong. Either way, the idea of a literal creation of the universe in 6 days or even 6000 years is impossible to derive from the text. There's no way you can make it say that, without deliberately misinterpreting it and reading into it what you want it to say.

I've shown that even scientific ideas of a universe, a spherical earth, a solar system, and even an atmosphere, don't fit the text at all. Forget evolution, Genesis 1 doesn't even describe the solar system properly!

So what does Genesis 1 mean?
Suppose I told you that the ancient civilisations surrounding Israel at the time this was written all believed that the earth was a flat, circular disc covered by a dome-shaped sky upon which sat the sun and moon, and the stars were thought to be just tiny little points of light scattered across the dome. The dome, by the way, was considered to be solid. This is the reason behind the word "firmament". Take the time to read through Genesis 1 with this view in mind, and you'll find everything just slots neatly into place. Now we have waters above the firmament (thought to be where rain came from), and waters below. We have heaven being synonymous with the firmament or the "sky". We have earth as simply "dry land". Sounds fairly primitive doesn't it? Well, it was the best knowledge they had at the time, and it probably served them well enough.

So perhaps next time you find yourself declaring that God created the heavens and the earth just like it says in Genesis, you might want to take a moment and think about just what that means. Just where is that water above the sun? and if God separated light from darkness, what did it look like before that?