Sunday, December 31, 2006

What Would the Bible Look Like with an Old Earth?

I'm continuing my series on creation / evolution questions, where I explain why I'm genuinely unsure about how old the Earth and the universe are.

Having asked what the Earth would look like if it had been suddenly created from nothing, I'm now going to ask what the Bible would look like if the Old Earth Creationists were right. Old Earth Creationism, roughly, is the belief that God created the universe over a very long period of time a very long time ago, quite possibly using stuff like a Big Bang and evolution to do it. What would the Bible say about it?

The first thing to note is that Genesis was written to a group of Iron Age subsistence farmers. We should not therefore expect it to contain stuff that they wouldn't understand. Not that they were stupid, but they hadn't exactly had much of a modern scientific education. They didn't know what genes, quark-gluon plasmas or quantum vacuum fluctuations were; they didn't have any use for numbers bigger than those in a census, and even then they seem quite capable of confusing thousands with leaders (the two are the same word in Hebrew - see e.g. Wenham on the census in Numbers). So what would a true description of creation written for those people be like? Certainly not like a modern scientific description would be. What use could they possibly have for that?

They were also in the context of the ancient Near East, with lots of various creation myths about other gods doing the rounds. So an account of creation written for people in that situation should include references to those myths - maybe showing important points where they were wrong (like having gods as part of creation and the universe as always having existed). And where these myths said that other gods did things that the True God really did (like imposing order and so on), the account should say that he did those things. And it's important to know that God was always in control and that he did things at his own pace rather than being forced by events.

In fact, I think a creation account written for the ancient Israelites, telling them what they needed to know about creation, even if it was written by someone who understood about quark-gluon plasmas and stuff, would probably look quite like the one in Genesis.


Phillip Fayers said...

The first thing to note is that Genesis was written to a group of Iron Age subsistence farmers.

Are you sure? Tradition has it that Genesis was "written" down by Moses so it would have been "written to" a group of ex-slaves from a reasonably advanced nation, Egypt had moved somewhat past the point of iron age subsistence.

If Genesis actually comes from an oral tradition passed down through many generations then I agree with you that, no matter how the earth got here, its no real suprise that the Genesis account is as it is. When you read it it "feels" like something which comes from an oral story telling tradition in much the same way as other creation stories do.

John said...

Fair point - if Moses wrote it then it was written to a group of escaped slaves from a Late Bronze Age society, which makes little difference in terms of educational background or what they'd need to know.

I tend to say that Genesis was probably written in the reign of David or Solomon - I don't think that Genesis 36:31 (for example) could have been written by Moses.

I'd also agree that it comes from an earlier oral tradition.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to keep going on about the factors of ten thing, but this seems to be proving my point. If they didn't have a word for billion (1G) and no concept of what a billion was then why would it make any sense to give them an answer in terms of billions (unless of course the answer isn't in billions but indeed in thousands)? I wonder if the bible said that the universe were billions of years old that we would be having this discussion at all.

John said...

I disagree with the comment made a few days ago about large numbers - I for one think I can conceive of them and work with them pretty well. To be honest, that's probably because of a strong science / maths background.

I do however agree that the ancient Israelites are unlikely to have had any conception of a billion, let along a word for it.

I also agree that if the Bible said the universe was billions of years old we wouldn't be having this discussion. But it doesn't.

However, the lack of word for "a billion" in ancient Hebrew does not in itself mean that the universe is a billion years old, any more than it means that the population of Canaan was in the billions.