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If it ain’t broke

May 16, 2011
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I’ve recently been reading Ronald Number’s The Creationists. It’s an excellent book which chronicles the history of creationism in its various flavors and forms from the time of Darwin until quite recently. This, combined with writing a series of articles on Genesis, has made me aware of a tendency in some circles to add considerably to the Genesis story. For instance, there’s a problem with Cain leaving the only people on earth and then finding people and marrying one of them. I previously addressed this when I addressed Genesis 4 but there are a number of alternate theories floating around. The simpler ones simply claim that God made some additional people and that this didn’t get mentioned or that Adam and Eve actually had lots of children who are also not mentioned. Now these are simple and seem like innocuous additions to the text. They aren’t nearly as elaborate as particular theories about the Flood which hold that God created a giant unstable ring of ice around the Earth in precisely such a manner that the orbit of this ice ring decayed just when God knew He would want a flood. The chunks of ice falling to earth (and melting on the way down) are supposed to have provided forty days of rain. There are two problems with this. The first is that that’s quite a lot of water and when it fell it would turn the potential energy of its orbit into kinetic energy and heat and would likely kill everyone on earth. (My hasty calculations suggest that about 93,389,463,369 megatons of energy would be released – approximately 5,188,300,000,000 times the yield of the bomb that flattened Hiroshima*.) The second problem, more relevant to this blog, is that this entire system exists outside of Scripture.

These systems are generally defended in a fairly straightforward manner. Scripture, we are told, is being assaulted by people who want to poke holes in it. By providing these possible explanations we block their attempts. In fact, this behavior looks a lot like other forms of apologetics. When we use historical information to explain something that seems problematic in a story we are doing something that looks nearly identical – telling a new story with more information in it. However, there is a critical difference.

When we use historical information to fill in details of a story we are not adding new information. Rather, we are restoring information. Let’s use a simple example. In the story of Deborah the enemy commander, Sisera, makes extensive use of things called either “merkavah” or “rakav”. Linguistic and historical information reveals that these items are two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicles used in combat, normally as fast-moving archery platforms. We call them chariots. When we add this information to the text we are not adding new information except for modern readers who are unfamiliar with chariots. The original audience knew quite well what rakav and merkavah meant.

The entire point of good reading is that we are regaining what was lost. When Jesus uses the word “gehenna” he is speaking to a Jewish audience that is familiar with the idea that the Valley of Hinnom contains the mouth of Hell. Few of us know these traditions and so we need either the memory of the Church (which has continued to translate gehenna as Hell since those times) or scholarship to explain this. When we read about the Samaritan woman we are reading a story written to people who knew where Samaria was and who probably knew all about the Samaritan-Jewish conflict (although the fact that John 4:9 includes the note “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” suggests that some audience members were not expected to know this).

The construction of the systems I am criticizing is different. There is no information in Genesis 4 about where the people Cain meets come from. The strange theory about the Flood is not drawn from any Scriptural citation that suggests that the Flood was caused by melting ice asteroids. These sorts of systems come in contact with Biblical data but are just-so stories that link various points of information that the Bible itself does not connect. Indeed, if the Bible connected these points of information there would be no need for these theories.

I titled this article “If it ain’t broke” in reference to the saying, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” This is exactly how I feel about these systems. While these systems are often held to be taking the Bible very seriously because they treat the Bible as a document full of historical information from which one can make theories they are also asserting that the Bible is broken. You don’t need to fix what isn’t broken.

The obvious objection to this is that something does need to be fixed because lots of people don’t understand the Bible. I propose that instead of fixing the Bible by making up theories to explain events which the Bible didn’t feel a need to explain that we concentrate on fixing people. People want to know the mechanics of how Cain found a wife. It’s not as if the author of Genesis 4 couldn’t figure out that this was a problem in the story but despite this they didn’t address it. This suggests that we should learn to read the story in a way where the question “Where did Cain get a wife?” was as silly as asking what color tunic the apostle Paul preferred.

Ultimately learning to read like this may mean we do not concentrate on the “serious” mechanics of certain stories. This might look a lot like not taking the Bible seriously. The alternative, however, is much worse: we could decide that the mechanics are the serious part of the Bible and that the Bible is in need of serious repair.

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*These calculations assume that the original ice asteroids started one hundred miles above the earth. This is probably too low (which makes the energy yield too low). I’ve also assumed that there is enough water in these asteroids to put 5,000 meters of water on every spot on the globe. This is based on the current height of Mount Ararat (5,137 meters) and the fact that I don’t see a way to have Ararat grow any after the water starts to drain away (although a lot of Young Earth Creationist theories hold that the Flood caused many geological formations these changes would need to be completed by the end of the Flood). Of course, 5,000 meters is not the right answer since existing topology fills in some of those 5,000 meters above sea level (although not that much when you consider the area the oceans take up). However, even if you redid the calculations assuming only a single meter of water at every point on the globe you would still get an 18,677,893 megaton yield.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011 9:29 am

    Really like this! Thanks… sorry I’ve been a bit irregular of late – I have a number of things going on (and I admire your ability to write so regularly!) – including the possibility of a career change, and i’ve needed to put time into those things, which has hampered my time to blog. Hopefully in June I’ll get back to normal again.

    Hmm… I may link to this article actually, if you don’t mind, since it addresses a number of issues that often come up amongst certain individuals in the UK.

    Jos.

  2. Eric permalink
    May 17, 2011 11:17 am

    I actually don’t write regularly. I write in big batches and maintain a large buffer. Since we always post something on Monday and almost never post at any other time my rate of posting doesn’t scale to my rate of writing and I’m able to maintain the appearance that I write one article a week. In reality, last week I wrote six articles and finished two more and the week before I wrote none.

    I’d be happy for you to link here. You may remember that some time ago I asked you about linking to one of your articles – that article of mine is now written and awaiting editing and posting.

  3. Dave permalink
    May 20, 2011 7:54 pm

    Great article! Glad I found your blog via Relevant Forums.

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