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7th April, 2008

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Moses, earth science, and astronomy

Bias and prejudice all too often wreak havoc on our ability to think clearly and behave rationally. Two Australian sailors were sentenced by a San Diego court today to weeks of public service after getting into a fight with a US sailor over which form of football is best — US gridiron, Australian rules, or rugby union. The American sailor suffered a broken nose and eye socket in the melee. The Aussie sailors "knew" that Australian football is better than American; the US sailor, of course, knew better.

The whole biased world today just "knows" that we are far more rational and scientific in our thinking than those primitive souls who trod the planet thousands of years ago. Some blatantly tell us that back then, "… man's reasoning powers were of so primitive a character that it is perhaps not possible for us to get down to his mentality" (Oesterly and Robinson, Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development). And the whole prejudiced world today just "knows" that the feeblest-minded of all were Bible writers, Moses in particular. His descriptions of heaven and earth supposedly betray a primitive, unscientific conception.

The truth is, ancient peoples had a far more sophisticated knowledge of many scientific disciplines than we give them credit for. The notion that they believed that the sun was pulled across the sky in a chariot of fire by some "god" betrays ignorance on our part, not on theirs. To paint a caveman's face on Moses demeans the artist. If we are willing to put aside our patronizing prejudices and seek to understand what Moses actually said and actually meant we will find a picture that corresponds with scientific truisms.

In "Ancient Cosmologies", authors Blacker and Loewe assert that Moses believed the following about heaven and earth:

•  Stretched above the earth is the sky, "heaven" or "firmament", a solid substance (Gen 1:6-8);
•  Just as the earth has an "end" so does the sky (Deut 4:32);
•  The sun, moon and stars are positioned in, or just beneath, the firmament (Gen 1:14-17);
•  Beneath the earth is Sheol, the abode of the dead (Num 16:28-34);
•  There are waters above the firmament (Gen 1:6-7) as well as beneath it;
•  Some of the waters beneath the firmament were gathered together at the beginning of creation to form the seas (Gen 1:9-10) but, in addition, these waters flow beneath the earth (Exod 20:4, Deut 4:18) where they are connected to the waters of the great deep (Gen 1:2);
•  The Deluge was caused by the opening of the windows of heaven (Gen 7:11).

Analyzing these points, together with their textual explanations, reveals three errors:

1. Assumptions about the meaning of certain words

The authors say, for instance, that the "firmament" of

Genesis 1:6-8 is solid. This notion is based on the belief that the Hebrew word for "firmament", raqîa, comes from a verb that means "beat, stamp, beat out, spread". The noun is taken by some to refer to a beaten strip of metal, and thus the firmament is seen as a layer, "stretched across it [the upper cosmic ocean] to prevent its waters from overflowing".1 Others who have examined the word, however, conclude that the derived noun carries the connotation of thinness or tenuity,2 as suggested by passages such as Exodus 39:3 where the verb refers to the beating out of "thin sheets", an image that matches well the nature of earth's thin atmosphere. (See also 2 Samuel 22:43 where the verb is used to describe the spreading abroad of "human dust".) The idea that the firmament was believed to consist of a solid curved strip above the earth has little to commend it; Moses would have been well aware that a metal strip could not support massive weights of water.

2. A tendency to misread meaning

Please read Genesis 1:14-17. Do you see the slightest suggestion that Moses was saying that the "stars are positioned in, or just beneath, the firmament", as the authors interpret? Likewise, they suggest that Moses thought water flowed between the waters "above the earth" towards the waters "under the earth" and thence into some subterranean "deep". Why take it that way? Could it be that modern prejudices "inspire" a skewed reading? No justification can be given for interpreting these words to conflict with scientific facts.

3. Insensitivity to different modes of expression

Above all, the authors seem to display a common fault - insensitivity to unfamiliar ways of expressing meaning. Waters "under the earth" is squeezed through the grinder of modern phraseology and comes out referring to subterranean lakes or seas! The Hebrew word tachath means not only "under" but also "lower". Water in seas is always in lower places than the land. The ancient Greek Septuagint translation uses the word upokato to render the Hebrew. This word is used in John 1:48 to describe Nathanael being "under", i.e., "at the base of" a fig tree. In Revelation 6:9, John describes the souls of martyred saints as being "under", i.e., "down before" the altar. So the water "under the earth" lies at the base of, or down before the land. No problem.

To interpret the phrase "windows of heaven" to show that Moses believed in literal openings in a solid vault or the locution "one end of heaven to the other" to prove he conceived of a place somewhere far away where the solid vault of heaven rested on a flat earth illustrates yet again our misinformed belief that the ancients were dullards. That's just the way they spoke. If someone tells you they love you "with all their heart" you know what they mean. Let's treat ancient modes of expression with the respect and sensitivity they deserve.

1 Buttrick, G. A. (ed.) 1962, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible , vol. 1, p. 704

2 Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, p. 67


Faith and reason articles

Did Moses believe that insects had four legs (Lev. 11:20-23), or that the moon produced "precious things" (Deut. 33:14)? The question of the scientific accuracy of the Bible is dealt with at length in the Dawn to Dusk book, "Jacob's Multi-colored Dream Goats". We invite you to read the chapter "The Bible: scientific drivel?" (pdf)

For other blogs dealing with this theme, see:

Was Moses an ignoramus?

Old Testament creation accounts: tainted by pagan mythology?



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