This is a guest post by Gordon Glover, author of Beyond the Firmament. Modern evangelicals have one unfortunate thing in common with modern atheists, modern agnostics, and modern liberals—they are all modern. In other words, we all tend to have inappropriate and unrealistic expectations as to what something written by the hand of God should look like to 21st century believers 3500 years after the fact. Here is just one example:
“God would never incorporate any themes or ideas from the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. That is simply not befitting of Holy Scripture!”Is that so? Who decided this? Unfortunately, once we draw this shortsighted line in the sand, we have no choice but to defend the Bible against all archaeological evidence that challenges the Bible’s originality. The problem is that year after year, more and more ancient cuneiform tablets are unearthed that not only predate the Hebrew language (and therefore the OT), but also appear to be source material for many of our favorite OT Bible stories. By continuing to ignore or explain away this material, we are actually subverting our Christian witness by being intellectually dishonest. Perhaps in our zeal to defend God’s Word against worldly attacks, we have backed ourselves into an impossible corner. And our only way out is to attack those for whose salvation we toil.
Let’s take the Hebrew cosmos for instance. This 3-story model of the universe with its flat earth, vaulted sky, and waters above the heavens, is structurally no different than the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies—both of which God’s people would have been very familiar with (Joshua 24:3, Exodus 1:15-19; 2:1-10, Acts 7:22)—which explains why we can find many references to this model throughout the Bible. While this ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) model of the universe might make little sense to us today, could it have possibly served a useful purpose to the Hebrews as they left Egypt and headed for the promised land? What if God, in his infinite wisdom, had very good reasons for borrowing this ANE cosmology? Rather than run from this idea, let us embrace it for a moment.
What would have been the reaction of the notoriously hard-headed Hebrews if Moses came down from Sinai and said something like,
You might think I’m just trying to be funny, but this is actually what many modern Christians expect to see when they read Genesis. But could there have been other important considerations at the time—perhaps more important than giving the Hebrews a 21st century cosmology?
“Hey guys, check this out. God just told me about creation and guess what? You’re never gonna believe this, but the earth is actually round! No kidding! And there is no solid firmament holding back an ocean of water above us either—can you believe those silly Egyptians? No wonder God kicked their butt! And the earth is actually whirling though space at incredible speeds with the other planets, and there are two more planets that we didn’t even know about! As soon as we get to the Promised
Land, we’re starting a university!”
To illustrate why God is God and we are not, let me relate to you a familiar story that I recently heard. When an English schoolteacher named Anna Leonowens (i.e. Anna and the King) attempted to teach Siamese children about water freezing in the sky and falling to earth in white flakes called snow, her students did not marvel at her knowledge of meteorology. They were actually very offended. In fact, the adult classroom helpers actually asked her to leave. The Siamese people were quite offended that Anna would think them so gullible as to believe such absurdities. The entire incident completely destroyed her credibility. Only the King was able to restore her teaching authority after he reassured the class, with eyewitness testimony (the king was educated in England), that her statement about snow was factually correct.
So already we can see one good reason why God would do such a thing with the telling of His own creation story—even if the material details given fail to satisfy the scientific demands of some future culture such as our 21st century western world. God was wisely protecting the tenuous credibility of His prophet, Moses. The monotheistic creation account of Genesis, set against the backdrop of the pagan polytheistic versions, would have already represented a radical paradigm shift for any ANE people. But had God also elected to correct the erroneous ANE cosmology, this powerful monotheistic message would have been completely obscured by the incredible physical details needed to describe the universe as we know it today.
Now this raises a very interesting question for those who practice “creation science”. If the purpose of the Hebrew creation story was not to provide Israel (or us) with accurate scientific knowledge about the cosmos, why then do so many Christians reject any version of natural history that fails to conform to the Hebrew account?