Science and Faith

In this episode, we focus on the apparent tension between science and faith.

Episode 2
Aug 16, 2017
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Show Notes

Many people believe that science and religious faith are bitter enemies with conflicting views of the universe. One the one hand there is the scientific account of the origins of life and then there is the story of universal origins told by the bible. But is this tension real, or is it based on a deep misunderstanding of what the Bible is and how it communicates? This is a lecture I gave at a Science and Faith conference at Blackhawk Church in Madison, WI in the year 2011. I ask what it means to read the first two pages of the Bible as ancient Hebrew texts written thousands of years ago. When we begin with that simple fact, Genesis chapters 1-2 say many surprising things we never would have imagined, and they also leave unaddressed most of our modern questions. Consider this a crash course in reading the Bible as an ancient cross-cultural experience.


Speaker in the audio file:

Tim Mackie

Tim: Hey everybody! I’m Tim Mackie, and this is my podcast, Exploring My

Strange Bible. I am a card-carrying, Bible, history, and language nerd who thinks

that Jesus of Nazareth is utterly amazing and worth following with everything

that you have.

On this Podcast, I’m putting together the last ten years’ worth of lectures,

and sermons where I’ve been exploring this strange, and wonderful story of the

Bible and how it invites us into the mission of Jesus and the journey of faith. And

I hope this can be helpful for you too.

I also helped start this thing called, The Bible Project. We make animated

videos, and podcasts about all kinds of topics on Bible, and Theology. You can

find those resources at thebibleproject.com.

With all that said, let’s dive into the episode for this week.

Alright. Well in this episode we’re going to be exploring and focusing on a

specific topic that has been really controversial in modern western culture and

that is the tension or at least the apparent tension between science and religious

faith. A flash point in modern western culture has been this debate between the

scientific account of the origins of life or the origins of the universe, and the

beliefs or convictions held by Jewish and Christian religious communities about

creation, God as a creator of the universe and of all of life. How and when and by

what processes did all that happen. This was never a burning question for me

personally when I was a brand new follower of Jesus. I just kind of figured those

problems all had a solution. I wasn’t really concerned about them.

When I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to do my PhD studies in

Hebrew Bible, I ended up at a church community that had professors of Biology,

professors of Ecology, the Head of the Biology Department was one of the elders

of this church. I met all kinds of fascinating researchers and grad students, and

many of them didn’t have any problem with how to sort out their commitment to

scientific method and their religious faith. However, I also met lots of students

and faculty who just were deeply conflicted. They had grown up with one set of

beliefs about how the world came into being that they said or were taught in

church communities that are the Bible’s teachings about all of these matters. But

then here they are in university, and they’re taking Biology 101 and they’re

learning about the evolutionary development and mechanisms by which species

develop and diversify, and how does all this go together? Some people just

compartmentalize it, other people ditch their religious faith and just go the route

of science, other people stick their head in the sand and don’t listen to what

science research is telling them because of their theological beliefs or some

people just try and ignore it, and wish it will all go away.

So what we did at Blackhawk Church when I was working there was we put on a

science and faith conference and we lined up a whole bunch of university

professors to teach about topics about this very tension. We did it on a Saturday,

had no idea what would happen, and hundreds and hundreds of students, and

faculty, and interested people throughout the city came. And it was a really

incredible experience. We all learned a ton. So this was a talk that I gave that had

nothing to do with science, it had more to do with how to read the first two

pages of the Bible without imposing modern western views of the world or the

universe on these chapters but rather, understanding these as Ancient Hebrew

text that they are and how they speak to us about what the world is. Even if

you’re a religious person or not a religious person, we need to respect that these

are text produced in Hebrew by ancient authors that are making claims about the

world and about God and humans within it. What are those claims and how can

we respect Genesis 1 and 2 to say what they’re saying on their own terms in light

of their own culture and language? And that’s what this talk is all about. I hope

it’s helpful for you.

Part of the story of what piqued your curiosity when you heard that we’re doing

this conference when you saw the poster is that there’s some story, kind of in

your own journey about why there’s tension between science and faith or at least

perceived tension. Somewhere in our journeys we perceived that there’s a

problem, and we’re looking to resolve or reconcile that problem someway. And

my guess is that it’s something along the lines of that kind of tension that made

you want to pay $7 and come here today. So what I’d like to move towards is,

what is that tension and in all the sessions today we’re going to be flushing out

what that tension is about or ways to recognize that it’s a perceived tension but

not a real tension.


In many ways, that’s kind of the burden of what we’re doing here today. We

named the conference Science & Faith, not Friends or Foes, but a thoughtful

partnership because it’s the deep conviction of everyone who’s going to be up

here is that there is no inherent conflict between a deep committed religious faith

and scientific method, scientific research. I’m committed to perceived tension and

not a real one. I think the tension comes from this, and this may be a really broad

way of stating where this tension between science and faith comes from. For

most people who are committed to some kind of religious or faith world view,

that’s usually related to the Bible in some way, scriptures. And so there is on the

one hand, conviction what the Bible says about world origins, about human

origin there, it just says it, there you go. And then we have another narrative in

our culture. And it’s the narrative of what modern scientific research tells us

about world origins or human origins. And there is a perceived tension between

those two. And that tension gets worked out in lots of different ways. So

sometimes people will say, “Well, if the Bible really is God’s word, then the

science, no matter what it says must conform to what it is that God’s words says.”

Or you may have some sort of marriage between the two. Well perhaps the Bible

is really saying what we think it says and going to make the Bible and science

kind of fit together in some kind of relationship.

Or you have another resolution which would be, “Nah, these two just don’t go

together. Take your choice and walk away.” And I cannot tell you how many cups

of coffee during my seven years of being down on campus everyday. How many

cups of coffee I’ve had with grad students, with undergrad students at Expresso

Royale, Steep and Brew or Starbucks working this issue out. People having a crisis

of faith. And usually whatever position or however you reconcile the tension, it

usually comes down to there’s some core assumptions at work. And that core

assumption is that the Bible in fact has some very detailed specific things to say

about the material biological, geological processes by which the world came into

being and by which humans came into being. And at least, you know, I’m not

going to claim being unbiased. I do have a particular view on how this works out,

but it’s completed unrelated to science. It’s more related to my own journey of

trying to figure out what on earth the Bible is, and what it says. And I think for

most of us, that’s really where the confusion comes in. What does in fact the Bible

say about world origins and human origins? What’s the million-dollar question,

right? That’s what I want to tackle in the session here today because I think really

what this gets to is a much larger confusion, not about what the Bible says about

world origins, but about what the Bible is, and about what the Bible is for, and

how the Bible communicates. So if you don’t remember anything from my talk,

remember this: It’s basic observation that I think has huge implications.

The Bible is an ancient text. Right, okay. I already knew that. The Bible’s is an

ancient text, okay. Next, I’m convinced that most of us, while we say we recognize

the Bible as an ancient text, the reality is, is most of us do not treat the Bible like

an ancient text. We treat it as though it were a contemporary text. Now there’s

motivation behind this, right. So most people from sort of Protestant or Catholic,

Christian background somehow believe that the Bible is in some way God’s

words. That somehow uniquely through this text, God speaks to His people. And

so we are looking for a word from God to us in these texts. But how exactly that

works out, there’s actually quite a lot confusion among most people about what

that means. And so what mostly happens is people read the Bible and whatever

language they happen to reading it in, usually translation English, whatever

French, German, Spanish, whatever language you happen to read the Bible in,

and we just kind of immediately correspond those words in the Bible to our lives

and to our world, and we expect an immediate fit between the way—what the

Bible is saying and between the language and ideas that I may happen to have

about the world.

And so that leads to this conflict in a lot of different ways. It will work itself out

between science and faith. Well the Bible says this is the face value reading My

Bible in English, and here’s what science says, look there’s tension.


In my mind, there’s this—we need get back to a much more fundamental step

here because we’re trying to join something that maybe ought not to be joined.

So if the Bible is an ancient text, what this means is that the Bible is an act of

communication. But we rarely think through the implications of what that really

means because any act of communication by nature has to be done in a

particular language, in a particular culture and historical context. So let’s do a

little thought experiment here to kind of flush this out. I say the English words,

“But my lips hurt real bad.” How many of you know exactly what I’m doing right

now? Okay. Alright. How many of you understood the English words, “But my lips

hurt real bad?” We all knew what the English words mean, right? But there was

actually a very small tribe among us who actually know what I was doing right

there, right? That was a cultural reference to what I think was one of the most

brilliant and absurd movies of the early 2000s, right? And that tribe is small and

dwindling, I’m finding. High school students these days, what? Napoleon

Dynamite? You’re joking. So, we all understand the English words, “But my lips

hurt real bad.” But to know the true significance, the background. The resonance

and connection of those words, you have to do work. You have to know the

cultural background and reference. And that’s a very small number of us. I say the

English words, “Beat me up, Scottie.” How many of you are tracking with me,

here? Okay. Exactly right, exactly right. So it’s a much wider cultural reference,

right? Now let’s say we go to the other side of the planet, a hundred years from

now. We go to Vietnam and we say the English words, “Beat me up, Scottie.”

Who’s going to know what on earth we’re talking about. No, of course not. This is

just a fundamental principle of communication. Communication is not just about

words, it’s about culture. And any act of communication assumes a whole world

of cultural knowledge, background, and so on. And so it’s not just about

meanings of words, any act of communication is a cross-cultural experience.

Think about it. Now maybe it’s a cross-cultural experience from you to me, and

we may live in the same country, speak the same language. But even if so right

there, “My lips hurt real bad.” It’s a cross-cultural experience to try to understand

those words. So here’s the basic principle how this works out. You would never,

or at least I hope you will never go to France and start walking around Paris and

assume that everyone is going to speak English to you and want to eat Big Macs

and talk about American Idol. That’s the height of cultural presumption. To go to

someone else’s culture and assume that their language, their words, their ideas

are just going to fit with the way I see the world. You would never do that. But I

would submit to you that most readers of the Bible do precisely that when we

open the Bible’s pages. We just assume that the words on the page immediately

are going to correspond to my way of seeing the world, my culture, my cultural

understanding. And I think that’s something at the root of what’s going on this

perceived tension between science and faith. We just assumed that the Bible is

speaking about world origins the way we think about it. And in my mind, that’s

just the fundamental mistake of human communication.

Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience which means that you need to

put aside our ways of thinking about the world and step into another culture’s

ways of seeing things. And when we’re stepping into the early chapters of

Genesis, we’re stepping into an ancient Near Eastern culture. Culture of the

ancient Hebrews and they had a very different way of seeing the world than we


So, let’s do another example, right. We did that, “My lips hurt real bad.” “Beat me

up, Scottie.” How about this one, “B'reishit bara…” Oh excuse me, dang it. The

timing on that one. There you go, so really good quote from John Walton that

summarizes this. “Effective communication requires a body of agreed upon words

turns, terms, and ideas. A common ground of understanding. For the speaker,

this often requires accommodation to the audience by using words and ideas

they’ll understand. For the audience, if they are not native to the language and

cultural matrix of the speaker, this means reaching common ground may require

seeking out additional information or explanation.”

“My lips hurt real bad.” You need to have a conversation with me about

Napoleon Dynamite and how awesome it is for you to understand. It requires

homework on your part to understand my words. In other words, the audience

has to adapt to a new and unfamiliar culture.

So, let’s take one more example here. In Hebrew, B'reishit bara Elohim et

hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz. Did you get that? Oh wait, I’m sorry. That’s ancient

Hebrew. Alright, let me translate that into English. Well no, wait a second. The

moment you translate this into English, the meaning will change. Because in

English, we don’t have precise—no language has precise equivalents to what

words mean in another language because words don’t just mean what the words



Words have a whole cultural background to them. But let’s just give it our best

shot at least in doing this in English. And when we give our best shot, we actually

have two equally valid translations.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” or I think more

accurately, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth.” Now, let’s

just make some observations here. The word beginning, this is the first sentence

of the Bible. The word beginning in English, we think of beginning as a point in

time before which there, who knows we’re not concerned about a point in time

and then a sequence of chronology or sequence of time after that point. So the

English word beginning mean. That is not what the Hebrew word reishit means.

Reishit is actually a very unspecific word. It’s not—it’s very general. Hebrew has a

word for a beginning point of time from which sequence of events follow. That

word is takila. And that is not the word that begins the Bible. The words that

begins the Bible is the word, reishit. Which refers to—really, it’s about specific as

our English phrase way back when beginning, before now. It’s very general. It’s an

unspecified period of time before now. So way back when, God created the

heavens and the earth. Let me pitch another question to you, the English word

earth, I say English word earth, and what comes into your minds? What image do

you have in your mind? Yes, of course, right? Like the planet. The globe. So let me

ask you a question, you can see from the picture up here, how long have human

beings had access to the mental image of the Earth, the English word earth

referring to a globe, how long? 50ish years. 50ish years to the public. 50 years.

How old is Genesis chapter 1? Oh yes, it’s like 3,000 years old, right? So if you

picture a globe in your head, it’s the equivalent of flying to France and just

assuming everyone’s going to speak English and want to talk about American

Idol. No, no, stop, stop. You’re importing your view of the world back into this

ancient text. We have to respect the author and think, what is the author’s

conception? And in this case, the Hebrew word, ha’aretz. Earth is probably not a

very good translation because the contemporary English means planet. And same

with heavens, we think cosmos is galaxies and nebulas, whatever this kind of

thing. No, no. From a--someone’s saying 3,000 years ago, what does it mean to

say Earth? What’s down here. What’s under my feet. What does it mean to say

heavens? Well what’s up there? So way, way back, I don’t know, way back before

now, God made what’s down here and what’s up there. See all of a sudden we’ve

stepped into another culture. Let’s do another example from Genesis Chapter 1

where the meaning of words links to cultural understanding.

The second day, we’ll talk about the days of Genesis 1 a little bit here. Verse 6,

Then God said, “Let there be a rakia between the waters. Let it separate the

waters from the waters.” So God made the rakia and separated the water under

the rakia from the water above the rakia, and the first question that you have is,

“What on earth is the rakia?” right? What’s the rakia? Well let’s turn to our English

translations and let’s see. Oh what this isn’t going to help us. So the New

American Standard, NIV, translate it as expands, New Living translation translates

it as space, the classic King James translates it as firmament. I don’t know what on

earth a firmament is. And the new revised translation, translates it as dome. Oh so

this is all very clear. So what’s the rakia? What is the rakia? What the Hebrew

word raqa refers to something that—a smith, a blacksmith or a metal smith does.

It refers to the hammering out a piece of metal on the anvil. And so, a blacksmith

would hammer out like a shield, it means smoothing out a surface. The rakia is

that which has been hammered smooth. Have you ever noticed that when you

look up, there’s that big blue dome in the sky? It’s a dome, right? I mean you get

up on high places like, “Wow, it’s like a big dome.” Do you know why it’s blue?

What’s on top of that blue dome up in the sky? There’s water. It’s supporting a

whole body of water up there. Now how do you know there’s a whole body of

water up there? Well because every once in a while the windows of the rakia

open up and they drop down some of the water that’s up there down on top of

us here.


And then they close and it stops. Stops raining. Whoa, okay. We just stepped into

another culture.

In the ancient Hebrew understanding the world, that’s a big solid thing up there.

That’s what the word means, rakia, that which has been hammered and

smoothed out and spread like a canopy, you know the passages of the Bible. So

this is an ancient under—it’s ancient science right here in Genesis chapter 1.

Notice there’s no solid thing up there. The Bible’s wrong. God’s word is an error.

No, no, no. The Bible is speaking about the world in a different language than our

culture speaks, and we need to respect it, and this raises the big question then.

Perhaps the purpose of the Bible is not primarily to tell us about the physical

structure of our world or about human anatomy. In the Bible, you don’t think with

your brain because there is no Hebrew word for brain. This was just stuff. Where

do you think? And you read through the Bible, where does human volition and

thought come from? It comes from your heart which is more likely down here or

you can actually think with your guts too. Literally, your entrails, your intestines.

We know that thinking that happens in the brain, so that means the Bible is

wrong. No, no. It means that the purpose of the Bible is not to tell us about

human anatomy and human physiology. So the purpose of the Bible must be to

do something else. And this raises all kinds of fascinating questions and takes us

deeper, deeper down the rabbit hole. But perhaps the Bible is not trying to tell us

what the purpose of the Bible is not to tell us about the physical structure of our

world. So you play this out and some of you have done this before, may have

been bothered by this, you know, you look to all of the references in the Bible

about the structure of the world and how it’s put together. And you got the blue

solid rakia up there.

Have you ever read in the Bible these references to The Pillars of the Earth? The

Pillars of the Earth stands on pillars and will not be shaken. The Lord set it on

pillars. It says in Book of Job. What’s the idea? Well, this idea that the Earth as we

know it, is flat of course because there’s edges of the Earth, you can read about

the edges of the earth in the Bible, and it’s floating. How do you know it’s

floating? Well if you dig down deep down in the earth, what do you eventually

find? You find water. We’re floating, right? Makes perfect sense. It’s absolute

perfect sense. Of course we’re floating. Well what keeps us from sinking? Well, it

must be put on pillars. What holds the rakia up in the sky? Well it says in the

Book of Psalms, it’s the mountains that hold up the sky. And on top of the rakia is

water, and then God’s space which corresponds to the temple of human space

here, because heaven and earth are not disconnected in the Bible, they’re

interconnected, they overlap. God’s space sits on top of the waters up there. So

this is how in Ancient Israelites is envisioning the world. This does not mean that

the Bible is wrong. What it means is that the Bible is an ancient text and perhaps

the purpose of the Bible is to tell us something else than about how the world is

put together in terms of its physical structure. So… let’s see. So in no instance of

the Bible does God choose to update the ancient science of the Bible. In other

words, nowhere in the Bible do you read some leap forward in the Ancient

Hebrew’s understanding of the physical world or human physiology or anything

like that. That’s just not the purpose of the Bible. So when we’re going around

looking for big bang in Genesis 1, we’re looking for a biosphere or science of

evolution. We’re flying to France, and assuming that everyone’s going to speak

English. No, don’t do that. The Bible is trying to do something else. Some scholars

who are, I’m not just making all this up on my own, Peter Enns, Old Testament

scholar, The Bible belonged to an ancient world in which it was produced. It was

not in abstract, other worldly book dropped down out of heaven. It was

connected to, and therefor spoke to the people in that ancient culture. In

cultured qualities of the Bible, therefore are not extra elements that we can just

discard to get the real point, the timeless truths. Rather, it’s precisely because

Christianity is a historical religion. God’s word reflects various historical moments

in which it was written. And as we learn more about this history, we should gladly

address the implications of that history for how we view the Bible and what we

should expect to hear from it. And so when we turn to these early chapters of the

Bible, Genesis chapter 1, Genesis chapter 2, what this means is we need to put

aside our cultural understanding and just say, okay, ancient Hebrew author, what

are you trying to do? Let me step into your shoes, what are you trying to

communicate? And what are the most exciting things in the last 150 years or so

has been the advances of our understanding in biblical study.


Especially related to archaeological digs that have unearthed texts from the

Ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Babylonians, the Canaanites, Israel’s neighbors of

the Phoenicians and so on. And among these texts of Israel’s contemporaries, are

documents that date like to the time period of the Bible or long pre-dated the

Bible. When they speak about world origins, they speak in very similar language

and ideas, and motifs of what we find in these early chapters of Genesis. This is

not threatening, this is thrilling. Because what it means is that we can even more

accurately step into the biblical author’s shoes, to understand what it is they

really want to communicate to us. William Brown of Colombia Seminary puts it

this way, the framers of creation in the Bible inherited a treasure trove of

venerable traditions from their cultural neighbors. Instead of creating their

accounts ex nihilo, it’s Latin for out of nothing, it’s a good pun in the book on

creation, anyway, the composers of scripture developed their traditions in

dialogue with some of the great religious traditions of the surrounding cultures

particularly those that originate from Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as those of

the more immediate Canaanite neighbors. In other words, the Bible’s creation

narratives are not in dialogue with modern science. Modern scientific concepts of

big bang, cosmic background or radiation, DNA, it’s just, they’re not talking to

those concepts and ideas. What they are doing, the Biblical creation narratives,

are in dialogue with their neighbors. Those early chapters of Genesis are a

Hebrew Israelite author talking and addressing to their Babylonian, Egyptian,

Canaanite neighbors. And this accounts for similarities that we’ll see, that will

point out similarities between Genesis 1 and 2, and other ancient Near Eastern

creation stories. But also for key differences. And so let me just kind of throw out

their thesis statement for approaching Genesis 1 and 2 in line of all that we’ve

been saying, and we’re going to dive into some more examples.

I’ve adapted this thesis statement by one of the books we have for sale in the

resource room by Richard Carlson and Chamber Longman. A thesis statement.

Early chapters of Genesis accurately present two accounts of cosmic and human

origins in the language and ideas of the Ancient Hebrews. These texts should not

be removed from their ancient context and read as if they speak literally about

the universe or humans in the 21st century scientific terms. They speak in terms of

an ancient Near Eastern perception of the world and should be interpreted within

that setting. When we discern the meaning of the text in their ancient context, we

find that they constitute a world view statement about God and His relationship

to the world, about humans and their relation to God and the world. This basic

worldview statement transcends its ancient cultural setting and commands the

attention of God’s people in all places and all times. So ancient Near Eastern

cosmologies, narratives about world origins and of which Genesis 1 and 2 is one

example, but there are Babylonian, Egyptians, Canaanites examples too. They do

not have their primary purpose to narrate for us the geological, biological

sequence or description of the material origins of the universe. This is not what

these narratives are about. These narratives are trying to answer fundamental

basic questions like, who are we, where are we, what’s the nature of the universe,

who are the gods and how do we relate to them? What is this whole thing about?

And every ancient Near Eastern cosmology is make a good claim about all those

questions. Genesis 1 and 2 are definitely making a claim that was radical in our

ancient context. So what am I going to do for the rest of our time is just touch

down at different points in Genesis 1 and 2, read it in terms of its original context,

how then it would be interpreted in that setting, and then get to what is the core

worldview statement at work here. Good.

So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to dive into some examples. If you have

a Bible, you can turn them and have text appear on the screen, Genesis chapter 1.

Let me just read the first 5 verses of the Bible, this is a translation—I guess it

would be called my own, but I quote elements from lots of different scholars and

commentaries and so on.

“When God began to create the sky and the land, the land was wild and waste

and darkness was over the surface of the deep waters and the breath of God was

hovering over the waters, and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

And God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the

darkness and God called the light “day,” and the darkness He called “night.” And

there was evening, and there was morning—one day.


Now, dramatic finish, right? Plus, let’s notice one thing here, did you notice in this

translation, where’s the period? Just one. There’s only one period. In ancient

Hebrew, there is no period. There’s no such thing as period, there’s just the word

“and”, eternal and. Everything is and, and, and… Hyper little translation from the

Bible would never have a period, if you’re reading historical narrative. Almost

never. Very rarely. It’s just one long sequence of events, that’s worth noting.

Now. So we’ve already talked about the word beginning. We talked about the sky

and the land, now in our English translation, the next thing here is what’s—in

many of our English translations, the phrase called formless and void. Do you see

this here? In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the

earth was formless and void. That’s the most English translations read. Now I

don’t know what on earth comes into your mind when you think of formless and

void. That’s an old English translation that actually comes to us from the Tyndale,

when the first English translations, and then this authorized version of King James

in 1611. Formless and void, if you’re already thinking about a planet, you know,

from misunderstanding the earth as a little kid, it was like a play planet floating in

space or something. That was just a bizarre image, you know, that comes into

your head. So sky, land. Way back when God made up there and down here. Now

what’s down here? Problems. Huge problems. What’s down here? Begin as tohu

wa-bohu. It’s a little poetic rhyme phrase right there. That’s why I adopted Evert

Fox’s translations, wild and waste, to catch that rhyming bit there. Tohu wa-bohu

refers to a space that is uninhabited and inhospitable to human life. Now ancient

Hebrew, what kinds of places are inhospitable and uninhabited? Yeah, what’s to

the east of the ancient Israelites? Now you go down to the Dead Sea, ended up in

modern Jordan, and then what? Far as you go, at least you’re going to be alive to

make it. What are you going to see? Tohu wa-bohu, desserts. Just a big, huge

dessert. Tohu wa-bohu in Deuteronomy 32, it gets translated as howling

wasteland. So okay. This is very important for us to see here.

The ancient Hebrews, and they have no categories for thinking of the universe as

being nothing and then God creating something out of nothing. The category of

nothing is a very sophisticated modern concept actually. And I don’t claim to

understand quantum physics at all. But at least as far as I understand quantum

physics or as far as anyone does, nothing actually doesn’t truly exist because

even what you think is empty space, and nothing is really nothing, explain that

one to your kids. So nothing’s a very sophisticated concept. And the ancients had

no categories. When they thought about the beginning of the world, it’s not

something coming out of nothing. It’s, how do we have this beautiful, flourishing

land that we live in. There are plants, and we have the capability for agriculture,

because you know what, east of here is tohu wa-bohu and I know that probably

everything has not always been beautiful and flourishing here. When they

envisioned the world, they envisioned the world as beginning as a wild, howling

wasteland. You turn to the Babylonians, you turn to the Egyptians, you read their

cosmology stories. That’s precisely, it always begins with some sort of dessert

wasteland and the gods are god bringing life for potential for flourishing life out

of the desert, wasteland. That’s precisely what we see here in Genesis chapter 1.

They’re dialoguing with their Babylonian neighbors.

So we find darkness, and howling wasteland. But we find the breath of God there,

in the midst of the darkness howling. Howling wasteland. Put your hand up to

your mouth with me if you would. Right close, so please say with me, “Hello.” Did

you feel that? Say it again, “Hello.” You feel that? What is that? That’s your ruach.

That’s the word breath there, often translated in spirit. So when we speak, we

exhale our ruach. Our rauch. So God’s ruach is out there hovering in this dark

howling wasteland. And what is the first act of the God of the Bible? Speaks. The

imagery is all connected here in these first sentences of the Bible so God speaks,

and what does God speak into being? Light. Let’s just stop right here again.

Modern scientific view of the world, what is light? Is it a wave, is it a particle? I

don’t know. Solve that one, you know. So we have technical term for the smallest

little packets of energy that we call light, and that term is, photon, right? Photon.

So God’s making photons here.


No, God is not making photons. That’s like flying to France, and so, you get the

idea. So okay, let’s step into the culture’s shoes. Light is not a thing. You can read

many, many commentaries, and they just assume. Well in our culture assumption,

light is a thing, so that must be what Genesis 1 is talking about. Holy cow. Light is

not a thing. What does God call the light? It’s the first clue. God does not call the

light photon. What does God call the light? Day. What is day? Day is not a thing.

God is not creating or manufacturing anything here. What is God doing? God is

designating the sequence of time. Day and night. For whom are the words day

and night meaningful? Us. Day and night is part of our construct of how the

world functions and His meaning. What’s the basic building blocks of how things

grow and flourish and humans can do what they do? How is the sequence of

light and dark, light and dark? It’s like the same every single day. It’s regular, it’s

coherent, and it creates the potential for meaning in our lives. Where did this

come from? Who ordained this rhythm of the world? The Israelite God.

So God’s not creating a thing here. And as you work through the days and

Genesis chapter 1, often God’s not making or manufacturing anything. He’s

creating as John Walton says, we’ve posted here before, his book is on sale. He’s

bringing function and order out of chaos. He’s creating the potential for beauty

and meaning out of chaos. This would be jaw dropping in the ancient Near East.

The perception of God here in Genesis chapter 1. Because in the ancient Near

East, one of the most common motifs for cosmology, especially Babylonian and

Canaanites as a thing called, the motif called theomaki. Just two Greek words,

theo, god, maki comes from maka which means fighting or battle. So one of the

most ancient depictions of world origins that we have from the ancient

Sumerians is the idea of the Sumerian God named Gurisu, fighting a sevenheaded

dragon, claiming the dragon, splitting it open and from the two-parts of

the body, making heavens, the sky, and the land. In the lower left, you see an

ancient depiction of the Babylonian God, Marduk. And he’s fighting this ancient

Goddess Tiamat. Tiamat is this goddess of the waters. It’s a very well-known story

from the Babylonian creation narrative in Enuma Elis. It can be quite graphic, you

know, don’t read it to your kids when they’re too young because—Marduk, he’s

the Babylonian God, he’s the one who found Babylon and made Babylon the

greatest, most powerful nation ever. So he gets into this battle with Tiamat, and

he causes a huge wind to come to Tiamat, and catches Tiamat when the mouth is

open, and then the wind is going down her throat, she’s like… You can picture the

scene, I don’t know. Like the lips going like this… And Marduk shoots an arrow,

arrow goes down, pierces her, and this is horribly graphic, and Marduk takes her

sticks in mouth and rips Tiamat in half. And out of one-half makes the sky, and

the other half makes the land. The lower right, you see the Canaanite God, Ba’al,

or in English we butcher it to Ba’al. And in Ba’al, it’s like—is Israel’s contemporary

neighbors have a cosmology about Ba’al fighting the same God of the Sea except

in their words, it’s called Yam. Yam, same thing. Ba’al slays Yam, also fights

another God to bring order out of chaos, to make the world. And that God,

interestingly is called, Lotan. It’s the cognate word to Hebrew word you find in

your Bible Leviathan. When Ba’al killed Litan, who is Litan? Serpent. A fleeing

serpent annihilated the twisting serpent, the ruler with seven heads, the heavens

grew hot and then they withered and then after Ba’al kills Yam and Litan, Ba’al

creates his royal palace in a seven-day ceremony inaugurates his rule over


What’s the world view statement being made in these narratives? The world is the

result of a violent conflict which creates all this in the president. How are

humans? What’s the nature of humanity and how we go about relating to each

other and flourishing in our world? It’s a narrative of violence and conflict that’s

the root story of the nature of humanity.

Contrast this with Genesis 1. Israelite neighbor goes and has a cup of coffee with

a Babylonian friend, and he says, “Actually, the world’s quite different. Actually

the world is not the result of a violent conflict among the Gods. The world is a

result of this unrivaled God. God of Israel. It’s the God who rescued us out of

Egypt, and slavery, that God.


And this God has no rivals. The world that this God creates is not the result of

violent, selfish conflict. No, no, no. This God creates a world like it’s a royal artist,

just speaks, commands as a royal king. And kings come into being. And the world

that our God has created is the world of goodness, the world of beauty. It’s like a

work of art and this thing, this baby just hums,” you know what I’m saying.

Because day and night, and this God has packed this world with potential for selfregeneration

of flourishing on its own. It’s a worldview statement. It’s what

Genesis 1 is.

So how do the seven days relate to all of this then? An ancient Israelite author

and again, John Walton summarizes this in his book, I’ll just go through it briefly,

seven days would have had an immediate cultural reference just like, “My lips

hurt real bad.” The seven days structure of Genesis 1 would have had an

immediate cultural reference to the Israelite readers because seven days was the

official period of time in which an ancient Israelite King or an ancient Near

Eastern King at the beginning of their reign, they would claim authority over the

temple and there would be either the construction of a new temple or

inauguration of an existing temple to show that this king is now reigning over the

empire or the universe and so on. So you can read this in the Bible when

Solomon built a temple, he built it in seven years. He has a seven-day dedication

feast, and a seven-day inauguration ceremony. What happens on the seventh day

of that inauguration ceremony? In the narrative First Kings, God’s presence

comes to dwell in the temple. God comes to rest in His temple. And what scholars

have often noticed about Genesis chapter 1, is what’s this like symmetry. This

artistic symmetry design of Genesis 1. And so you have two panels. You have God

ordaining structures that make the world meaningful. Time. The sky and the

weather. Land and vegetation and agriculture. And then the next three days are

lined up right next to them with the functionaries or the inhabitants of those

domains. With the sun, the moon, the stars that guide our view of time, with

inhabitants of the sea and sky. And then the sixth day, humans are at the pinnacle

of God’s creative word. M

any scholars, they tune in to this. They make the case, John Walton does again

the book that we have on sale, that Genesis 1 is not trying to talk to us about

chronology. Chronological sequence of world origins. It’s not about cosmic

chronology, but cosmic theology. It’s making it feel the chronological claim about

the nature of the world, that the world is God’s temple. That the world has order

and coherence the way our world came into being was through coherence and

meaningful order not violent conflict, but beauty, and meaning, and order. And

then as the crown of God’s creative work like any ancient Near Eastern King, he

came to rest in His temple. Now here’s what’s fascinating, for six days in Genesis

1, there’s a little concluding formula. There’s evening, there’s morning, one day.

There’s evening there’s morning, second day. Three, four, five, six. There’s no

concluding formula for the seventh day. And why is that? Is God no longer ruling

the world? No, God is ruling in control of the world. The seventh day has no end.

We’re in it. That’s the theological claim, being made by Genesis chapter 1. And so

that is what Ancient Israelites commemorated every seventh day to rest in the

fact that God is in control of the world. It’s a different way of seeing world origins.

Genesis chapter 1 in fifteen minutes, there you go.

Genesis chapter 2 and the scholars have been long aware of this, Genesis 1 and

Genesis 2 have two distinct narratives when it comes to human origins, and this is

the point of contention. Hot topics these days especially in Protestants and

Evangelical old testaments scholarships. So in Genesis 1, you have a sequence of

events where you have land, plants, animals. Humans are the pinnacle of creation

in Genesis chapter 1. In Genesis Chapter 2, humans come first. And then they

tend the grounds for agriculture and then animals, and then man, and then

female. So two distinct views and the author just plops both of them in front of

us. So that’s the first clue that a literal like whatever you want to do with a literal

reading. You just got a huge problem right there off the bat.


Maybe the author is not trying to tell us about chronology. Maybe he’s sitting

two distinct statements about the world in front of us. So when it comes to the

human origins, again, the Israelite author is engaging with his Babylonian

neighbors, and making a very radical claim.

We’ll move down to humanity in Genesis chapter 2. And this is the statement in

Genesis chapter 2, “The Lord God formed the man,” and if you’ve been in Black

Hawk very long, you know the Hebrew word for man because I say it all the time,

adam or Adam. That means humanity. God formed Adam from the dust of the

ground and breathe into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a

living being. And we hear that and we think, okay. So God has hands apparently.

He’s reaching down into the dirt, and like forming a little lump of clay. Hold on.

The Ancient Israelite author is sitting down with his Babylonian neighbor right

here in Genesis chapter 2. The idea of the gods forming humans out of the clay

of the earth is a very common motif in Ancient New Eastern cosmologies. In

Babylonian Cosmologies, one very well-known one called the Atrahasis Epic, the

gods are—they’re tired of working and providing for themselves. And so, they

want to create beings that will be slaves for them. And so they say, well none of

us like the god Kingu, so let’s kill him. Let’s slit his throat and drain his blood into

the clay of the earth. And then out of the blood mixed with the clay we’ll make

humans and they will be our slaves. And that’s how the story goes until the

humans make too much noise and then they get mad at them so they send

cosmic flood to wipe them all out, right? And so that’s where the story continues.

This idea of humans being the result of a murderous act of murder and blood,

but divine and earth. Humans are both from the earth but are connected to the

divine. And the Israelite author steps into this conversation and says, “Yes, but…

Yes, we know that humans are from the earth because you die and they rot and

go back to the earth. Yes, we know there’s something unique about humans that

connects us to the divine breath here.” And they use the image as their

Babylonian neighbors formed out of clay. The Hebrew word form here is a very

technical term, yatsaris what describes the work of the potter sitting at the wheel,

forming a pot out of a lump of clay. But the unique claim, the worldview claim of

Genesis 2 is this, is that humans are no slaves of the gods, God was the first one

to plant the garden and to make the world a beautiful, flourishing place, and

what’s happening here is God is creating a creature of His own nature, divine, but

also connected to the earth, how are humans treated by God in Genesis 2.

Wonderfully. He sets them up for great piece of real estate. You know what I’m

saying. And He says, “Have a blast. Go for it. Imitate my creative acts by

becoming co-creators and making the world flourish, go have a blast.” It’s a

totally different vision of the nature of humanity. It’s a dignified vision. Every

human is infused with the nature and character of the divine. And so one Old

Testament Scholar connects it this way, this is where the Imago day, humans

reflecting the image of God comes from, which is very radical idea in Ancient near

East, that every human is made in the image of God. It’s the claim of Genesis 1

and 2 that God granted a royal priestly identity as Imago day to all humanity

whereas in the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires, whereas power in Babylonian

and Assyrian Empires was concentrated in the hands of few, power in Genesis 1 is

diffused and shared all humans are made in the image of God. No longer is the

image of God applied only to a privileged elite, rather all human beings, male

and female, are created as God’s royal steward entrusted with the privilege task

of ruling on God’s behalf. This democratizing of the Imago day in Genesis 1

constitutes an implicit critique of the entire royal priestly structure of Ancient

Mesopotamian society. There’s a radical claim about the nature of humans here

in Genesis 2.

We don’t hear it because we’re stuck on, God has hands? And he’s making clay?

No, you’re miss—no, no. Fly to France and learn how to speak French. Like learn

what these authors are doing in their context. This also raises questions about

human origins and the relationship of Adam and Eve and these kinds of things.

This current spectrum of views, of how this relates on how to think about Adam

and Eve and so on just to summarize very briefly to conclude you have on the

one hand, views. This is all held within even conservative Evangelical scholarship

right now. You have Adam and Eve, they’re more like literary characters, and the

story is meant to describe all of humanity’s struggle with temptation.


You have another whole other side of this discussion that this is a literal, historical

narrative just like the Book of Kings or the first entry gospels about Jesus and

they’re telling us, real people, real places, actual couple. This is how sin and death

entered into the world. Then you have mediating views between those two that

there is a real beginning to humanity. Yes, humans had a real origin and they are

reflective of the divine in some way. We are morally accountable and we have

morally failed. But the language of Genesis 2 is not literal language describing

those real events. You’ve got a whole spectrum here. And I would encourage you

if you have questions about that, you want to flush that out, we will more than

glad to do that in the Q&A. So the basic principle to conclude is that the Bible is

human word, the Bible is a divine word. As a human word, what this means is we

need you to use all of our tools, our thinking caps to understand the ancient

setting, the ancient background that the resonance it’s in connections that the

Biblical creative narratives would have had as intended by their authors. And our

understanding will continually develop because we’re not given the privilege of

ultimate understanding. So we always hold our interpretations loosely because

human knowledge is always growing and understanding. That’s our God-given

task as we flourish in God’s world. The Bible is a human world. That shouldn’t

scare us. It should excite us, and thrill us. And motivate us to do some homework

when we read the Bible. Now the Bible’s not just a human word. It’s my

conviction that the Bible is also a divine word and so all of our efforts to do

background, to do homework, all need to be in the service of hearing across the

millennia, this divine voice that is addressing every single one of us as hearers of

this word, the voice that’s telling us who are, what this whole world is about. It’s a

voice that’s calling us to respond. And as good readers of the scriptures, that’s

the voice we need to pay attention to most.

Well I hope that was helpful and more importantly, I hope it’s stimulating my real

hope is that you’re asking a ton of questions right now and needing to rethink a

whole bunch of things you thought you already knew about, and that’s awesome.

If you’re looking for further resources, I have actually done a number of other

lectures on the same topic, and they’ll be coming out later on the Strange Bible


If you’re a bookworm, let me throw a few books at you. One I referenced in the

lecture by Hebrew Bible Scholar named John Walton, the book is called, The Lost

World of Genesis 1, look it up on Amazon, it’ll change the way you read Genesis 1

in light of its Ancient Hebrew language and context forever. If you’re looking for

something that’s a little more basic, not so like, right into the original language

and culture, there’s a book called, great titles, one of my favorite titles on this

topic, it’s called, In the Beginning We Misunderstood, interpreting Genesis 1 and

its original context. It’s by two pastors actually. Johnnie V. Miller and John M.

Soden and it’s written for anybody no matter what background or no

background you have in the Bible. Super helpful introduction into this whole

debate, specifically talking about why this has been so politically and emotionally

charged in the history of the church in America. It’s very, very helpful survey of

this issue.

And then last of all, something that’s pushing the conversation in a new direction

is a recent book by a scientist and a biblical scholar, Scott McKnight who’s a

professor of New Testament and then Dennis Venema who’s a genetic scientist.

They wrote a book called Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic

Science. Super, super insightful. And this has more to do and not just with world

origins, but with human origins and how it’s connected to this whole debate.

So we’ll be addressing more matters of science and faith in the Strange Bible

Podcast and episodes to come. So to be continued. Thanks for listening you guys.

[End of transcription 54:41]

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