From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Fri Feb 20 2004 - 13:01:44 EST

Dick Fischer and I clearly don't agree about the value of Hyers' article and
the accuracy of his interpretative scheme.

So much can be said in defense of Hyers by people who know far more than I
do, about ancient Near East creation narratives, that I will pass over that
central part of any "defense" of Hyers I'd like to construct. In other
words, I'll rely on experts to defend Hyers here.

My reply will focus only on a key fact: none of Hyers' points about
difficulties raised by the order of events in the text are new in our day,
and they aren't being put forth by Hyers simply to confirm some crazy idea
he has about how to interpret this text. It's the other way around. Since
the earliest centuries of the church, many interpreters have been puzzled by
the fact that the sun and moon aren't created until the fourth day (for
example), so much so that it was standard practice to ask whether the first
three days were equivalent to the next three days, interpretively. This
particular issue gets significant attention in the most influential
treatment of "origins" issues in Antebellum America: Benjamin Silliman's
"outline" of his geological course at Yale. On my webpage, I've made
available a very long excerpt from the third edition (1839) of Silliman's
notes. Interested readers may go here and search for his conversations
about the fourth day, etc., using various keywords:

Dick is mistaken, to think that Hyers somehow invents this issue, it's been
around at least 1700 years or more. I'd be very surprised, in fact, if
Hebrew commentators hadn't also been puzzled by this before Christianity
arrived on the scene. Someone may be in a good position to tell us about

Now as for the cloud cover and Gleason Archer, I have my suspicions that
Archer is implicitly (perhaps explicitly, though not in the part quoted by
Dick) invoking some version of the "vapor canopy" hypothesis that was widely
employed by fundamentalist writers in the mid-20th century and since. They
in turn picked it up--though most of them don't know this--from Isaac Newton
Vail, a 19-th century Quaker and theosophist who thought this made sense of
Genesis. It's a fascinating historical story that a friend of mine is
presently writing, I hope for publication in PSCF, but it isn't my story to
tell in any detail here.

Suffice to say, that I think many modern interpreters have lost sight of
further points, related to the canopy and the "firmament" that is created on
the second day, points that also point to the non-historical nature of this
text. Until at least the time of Copernicus, it was pretty much assumed on
the basis of Genesis that there is literally a sphere of water (ice in some
versions, to make it a solid sphere) above the starry heaven--that is, above
the sphere containing the fixed stars at the edge of the universe. This
"raqia" cannot be transformed into an imaginary vapor canopy that then
dissipates at the flood, for the same Hebrew noun is referenced in the
present tense in other parts of the Bible, such as Psalms, Ezekial, and
Daniel. Whatever it was, it is still "there" after the flood. This all
makes sense, if the cosmology is that of a 3-storied universe (earth, starry
heaven, and under the earth), but it all gets pretty messy if we try to
modernize it.

I find the point about no names on the fourth day for the chief gods of the
ancient near east (sun, moon, and stars) quite strong, by itself. When
combined with other puzzling features--features that are puzzling, that is,
if one takes this story as historical and or scientific--it makes a powerful
case (IMO) for seeing the relevant genre as something like a hymn to the

Received on Fri Feb 20 13:02:27 2004

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