Re: Genesis 1 on ocean and atmosphere

From: Peter Ruest <>
Date: Mon Feb 20 2006 - 07:45:08 EST

David F Siemens wrote (and Michael Roberts endorsed it):
> Peter,
> I should have answered your earlier letter, but it is at home and I am on
> the road. But this gives a second chance. My take on your approach is
> that one can twist the language to fit almost anything desired. This fits
> /raquia`/, which is "expanse" only by ignoring the birds flying in front
> of it and heavenly bodies stuck onto it. That there is water above the
> /raquia`/ also does not fit the notion that it refers to the atmosphere.
> It certainly cannot apply to space. To try to connect Genesis 1 to modern
> cosmology, I am convinced, demands twisting the ancient language into
> nonsense.
> Dave

Dave (and Michael),

All these issues have been discussed in the 2 PSCF papers:

A. Held & P. Rüst (1999), "Genesis reconsidered", PSCF 51/4, 231-243; and
A. Held & P. Rüst (2000), "Taking Genesis as inspired", PSCF 52/3, 212-214;

It seems to me that even modern language (in things perhaps read in published
papers, or in uncounted list posts) can be twisted to fit almost anything
desired, and then ignored.

But I don't want to rehash old explanations if it's not necessary. Let me quote
a paragraph from N.T.Wright, "The Resurrection of the Son of God" (Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 2003), p.655, which I just happened to come across two days ago.
It may be relevant for these questions:

"We may remind ourselves at this point of two basic rules for modern readers
reading ancient Jewish texts. First, two-decker language about a 'heaven' in the
sky above the earth almost certainly did not betoken a two-decker, let alone a
three-decker, cosmology. Just as we speak of the sun 'rising', even though we
know that the earth is turning in relation to the sun, so ancient Jews were
comfortable with the language of heavenly ascent without supposing that their
god, and those who shared his habitation, were physically situated a few
thousand feet above the surface of the earth. Second, and related to this, the
language of 'heaven' and 'earth', though it could be used to denote sky on the
one hand and terra firma on the other, was regularly employed in a sophisticated
theological manner, to denote the parallel and interlocking universes inhabited
by the creator god on the one hand and humans on the other. To speak of someone
'going up to heaven' by no means implied that the person concerned had (a)
become a primitive space-traveller and (b) arrived, by that means, at a
different location within the present space-time universe. We should not allow
the vivid, indeed lurid, language of the Middle Ages, or the many hymns and
prayers which use the word 'heaven' to denote, it seems, a far-off location
within the cosmos we presently inhabit, to make us imagine that first-century
Jews thought literalistically in that way too. Some may indeed have done so;
there is no telling what things people will believe; but we should not imagine
that the early Christian writers thought like that."

I have repeatedly emphasized similar ideas, but I hope Wright makes more
impression. Is there any reason not to extend this attitude Wright commends to
the Old Testament, indeed to Genesis 1? If the Jews of 2000 years ago were less
"primitive" than Bultmann thought, how about those one or more thousand years
earlier? Wright sharply criticizes theologians (not just Bultmann, but also
modern ones) who are erroneously reading Greek philosophy into NT texts and into
the thinking of early Christians. Curiously enough, biblical writers are never
thought to have heard of some more "advanced" concepts of Greek philosophers,
such as a spherical earth - quite apart from the possibility that they
themselves might easily have made some pertinent observations.

The fact is that the belief that Gen.1 reflects a pagan mythological cosmology
is based on indirect inferences, which may be disputable. It is unknown when
Gen.1 was originally written. It is unknown who wrote its original text. It is
unknown in which language and in which script it was written originally. It is
unknown when and where the possibly earlier oral source(s) of the Genesis
text(s) originated. It is unknown whether they were influenced by known
extrabiblical texts or orally transmitted stories, or whether they influenced
them, or whether both were influenced by still earlier events or facts. It is
unknown which similarities between Genesis and extrabiblical texts are
source-critically relevant (in biology, there is plenty of convergent
evolution). It is unknown which of these similarities are hermeneutically
relevant (in biology, it is often difficult to distinguish homology from
orthology or paralogy, and virtually impossible when there are just two or a few
genes to compare).

It seems clear to me that Gen.1 contains some "polemics" against pagan
religions, but against which in which millennium between 0 and 5000 or more BC
(if you allow me a little bit of rhetorical exaggeration)? This is inextricably
linked up with the dating question. But such polemics is a recurring feature
throughout the OT, because God's people were and are always surrounded by
pagans, at least from Adam onward. But even if Gen.1 does contain polemics, it
doesn't follow that it accepts any pagan cosmology - this would be eisegesis.

To emphasize it for the umpteenth time, I have never claimed that the bible
"teaches modern science". All I am saying is that I found Genesis (including
ch.1) to be remarkably free from obvious contradictions to the reality as we
know it today. Of course, this judgment depends on the interpretation of the
text, but where interpretation stands against interpretation, every one of them
should be left standing as a possibility until it is clearly refuted. And this
is exactly what none of those who denigrate such harmonization models as
"concordism" has done up to now. To say it again, God may have had his reasons
to keep his prophet from writing nonsense even where the prophet would not have
recognized it as nonsense himself. God inspired (of course not
mechanically-literalistically) his word for all times and cultures.

On 18 Feb., Michael wrote: "Tomorrow the readings for the day are all on
creation Proverbs 8 22-31, Ps 104, Col 1 and John 1. Great passages to preach
from. But how would Glenn and Peter interpret them?" How about recognizing
different genres? Basically:
- Proverbs 8 22-31 is poetry, using allegory;
- Ps 104 is poetry, using metaphors;
- Col 1:15ff is theology, period;
- John 1 is theology, intermixed with narrative;
- Gen.1 is retroprophetical narrative, using poetical language.
All of these of course proclaim God's primary authorship and activity in all
that happens, including what is accessible to scientific investigation. I don't
see the point behind the question about how I would interpret these texts. Nor
do I see where and how these passages would contradict the harmonization of
Gen.1 with reality - which I suggested as one of various different aspects of
the text.

Dave declares it quite impossible to translate /raqia^/ with "expanse". Yet
there are many translations which have "expanse" (or corresponding terms) for
/raqia^/: among the English ones ESV, NAU, NIV, NLT, YLT; among the French: LSG,
NEG; among the Spanish: LBA; among the Italian: NRV; among the Dutch: LEI, LUV;
I am sure there are more (abbreviations according to "BibleWorks"). Are all
those translators dupes?

Michael, may I ask you to refrain from your abrasive language? Phrases such as
"we are stuck with either YEC or some doomed Concordist approach", "no matter
how hard the bleat whether Glenn, Peter or AIG", "We need to stop reading the
Bible like a motor repair manual" reflect negatively on your readiness for
rational, friendly discourse.


Dr. Peter Ruest, CH-3148 Lanzenhaeusern, Switzerland
<> - Biochemistry - Creation and evolution
"..the work which God created to evolve it" (Genesis 2:3)
Received on Mon Feb 20 07:47:03 2006

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