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Not So Good, This Zondervan Commentator

Posted in: Bible & Science,Culture Wars by admin on January 30, 2011

  A few days ago, Thursday morning to be exact, I read:

“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very large trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up…” (Exodus 19:16 – 20, NIV)

 A few minutes later I took a brief detour to read a commentary that Zondervan (the publisher of the bible I was using, the NIV Archeological Study Bible) sandwiched there inside Exodus 19. Its just one of a series of brief articles (each bearing the label, “The Reliability of the Bible”) which Zondervan scattered throughout the edition. I usually read them as I go along. In this one, titled, “The Location of Mount Sinai”, the author starts out telling us that “Scholars continue to debate the location of Mount Sinai…” He then summarizes some of the various arguments in that debate, and then gives us his thinking and approach to determining exactly what and where “Mount Sinai” is:

“According to Exodus 19 … Mount Sinai blazed with fire, was enveloped by a huge plume of cloud or smoke and shook violently as in an earthquake. Flashes of lightning and sounds like trumpet blasts also occurred. The description fits a a volcanic eruption. The emission of hot gases from fissures can produce trumpet-like sounds, and observers have reported seeing massive electrical displays emanating from volcanic clouds. No volcanoes are known to have erupted during that period in the Sinai Peninsula, but Arabia has many volcanoes. One volcanic mountain in the western Arabian Peninsula, Hala al Bedr (Mount Bedr), is according to this theory a particularly promising candidate for ancient Mount Sinai.” (NIV Archeological Study Bible, p. 123)

  I wasn’t all that impressed and continued my reading, pretty much forgetting about it. Until a few hours later. That same afternoon, watching a TV newscast, I saw this photograph:

 

 The photo is so stunning, I could hardly not flash back to that commentary! Nor fail to see the commentator’s point. And my first reaction – to think he had a really good point. A good theory. So I went back and read it again. And then thought about it again. And with my second thoughts, decided it was something I had to write about here.

  I myself use science and observations of the creation all the time to help me in my own understanding of God and the Bible, and to build my own particular kind of apologetics for Christianity and “The Reliability of the Bible” – an apologia I think both believers and skeptics are in dire need of. At first glance this writer is doing something of the same sort. But on deeper inspection, one can see that he is not. If anything, I think the predictable outcome of his “finding Sinai” rationale is exactly the opposite, is one that serves to undermine belief in God and the Bible.

 When I use science, observations and theories, I start from the premise that the Scripture is true, and if we can’t see it so, then we are misinterpreting or misunderstanding Scripture or something in the natural world or our experiences in it. I go to science to retest or reanalyze our beliefs about the creation, or to retest and reanalyze what we think the Scriptures say. Either way, Scripture rules, and it is our thinking or beliefs that need adjustment. The author of “finding Sinai” has not done that.

 To begin with, he’s looking to finger a “Mount Sinai” by finding a mountain that would have a natural volcanic column, and by implication suggesting there was no “God” there, but a natural phenomenon the Israelites mistakenly interpreted as a god just as many peoples in this world have done before. He’s denying the reality of God’s appearing there, thus implying the Scripture a mere story based on a mistaken interpreting of natural phenomena. Rather than demonstrating the “Reliability of the Bible”, he’s showing it only as possibly a good history of the world but not of God.

 Further evidence of this is the fact he completely ignores the rest of Scriptures that speak of the column of smoke and fire that signaled (or concealed from vulnerable human eyes) God’s presence. There is the column of smoke and fire that led them (and even shielded them) out of Egypt, and on all their wandering about the “deserts”. There is the column that signaled (or concealed…) His presence at the Tent of Meeting, and in all His meetings with Aaron and Moses, and at the Tabernacle the carried with them, etc. None could have been some wandering light-footed volcanic plume, and there’s no reason that plume we are looking at in the photo above, or reading about in Exodus 19, or any other time, such as in:

 “Remember the day you stood before the LORD … You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the LORD spoke to you … You heard the sound of words but saw no form…” (Deuteronomy 4:10 – 12, NIV)

 As for his other, more secular, ambition: to discover “The Location of Mount Sinai”, he has nothing to go on. From his point of view, there’s no reason to believe more in the fiery column Exodus 19 describes than any other, and so no reason to believe the real Mount Sinai was a volcanic peak!

 I think Zondervan would be well advised to remove that particular commentary from its next printing of that edition of the Bible!

The focus of this blog is always Genesis 1 & 2 and my translation and how it affects, or is affected by, science. I read a lot of science journals and blogs and ezines and I’m always looking to see where science is going and whether it continues to confirm – as it most usually does, or (very rarely) contradicts the translation I have proffered here and in the book “Hey Mom, What About Dinosaurs?”. When I find contradictions, I go back both to the Hebrew sources and the Scriptural translation I’ve made of them and see if I should rethink my work, or if Genesis should be a basis to judge the science. Usually it doesn’t matter, though I’ve a couple of examples I wish scientists could handle, and let Genesis clue them into a possibility or probability. But, of course, most of the time there is no contradiction, just more confirmation of the Genesis record.

Let me give you an example of each. The first is about mosses. In ScienceDaily, an easily accessible ezine, out of England, that collects and reports on the latest of nearly every kind of science. In “Moss Helps Chart the Conquest of Land by Plants”, they tell us about a project reported in Science (a not-so-accessible peer-reviewed weekly put out by the AAAS).

Mosses appear in Genesis 1:11. I make quite a bit of it because no one quite recognized this until I brought it out. Until my work, everyone accepted something like the NKJ version, “Let the earth bring forth grass”, or the NAS, “Let the earth sprout vegetation” – which is better but still misses the idea that it was a category (the first) in a sequence of 3: (a) simple plants such as algae and mosses, etc, (b) grasses and other seed-bearing plants, and (c) fruit-bearing woody plants, rather than just “plants”, and then parenthetically mentioning seed-bearing and fruit-bearing sorts. Critics, like scientists and scoffers of the Bible prefer the KJV/NKY version, of course, because it actually lists “grass” as first, thus showing just how off the Bible is, because science has shown grass is a sophisticated/advanced plant type that appeared much later, after major historical and/or evolutionary progress amongst plants. You can read all that, and my refutation of it, in Chapter Three of “Hey Mom, What About Dinosaurs?”

If you read the ScienceDaily article, you’ll learn a few things. First, of course, confirmation that mosses are most likely the pioneers of land life. The scientists, here, are interested in identifying and understanding the genetics and biology that allow mosses to survive both very wet and very dry. They say its a pretty complex genetic system, in both DNA and RNA design/functions. It looks like, to them, that the mosses pioneered an ability to survive dessication and passed it on to flowering plants, but only their seeds. Fascinating. But as for me, I’m especially impressed to see that mosses, “simple plants”, came with such complexity and well-developed genetic software as early as 480 million years ago, and get this – in the order Genesis said. So, this is a “Science backs up Genesis”!

The next example comes from another ScienceDaily article, “Bird-from-Dinosaur Theory of Evolution Challenged: Was It the Other Way Around?” (Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences) Anything to do with dinosaurs is huge. Everyone, young and old, every ethnic group, is fascinated by dinosaurs – and critics have long had a field day scornfully pointing out the Bible seems oblivious of them. Of course, I blew that out of the water – I just wish more people would read my book and blogs so they would know it!

Almost as big a deal, for anyone knowledgeable of such things, is the fact scientists have long believed, and adduced a lot of paleontological evidence, that birds came after – perhaps even evolved from – dinosaurs. So its no small matter that I show in my work that Genesis talks about birds just after it does about dinosaurs. (See Chapter Four of “Hey Mom, What About Dinosaurs?”) The Bible doesn’t say birds “evolved from”, of course. It doesn’t say anything about the way in which life and its myriad of forms came to be, of how God created. It simply says He was the Author of life, and supplies a historical outline – without timescales or and dates – of the most significant forms (as far as we, mankind, are concerned) of life.

As you can tell from the title of the article, some are now hypothesizing that dinosaurs came (evolved) from birds. They have some interesting evidences. And who can tell, from fossils at least 60 to 70 million years old? Who knows, if (as they say) “Small animals such as velociraptor that generally have been thought to be dinosaurs are more likely flightless birds”. Remember Jurassic Park? Wouldn’t that contradict the movie! Whatever, they really have nothing conclusive. The best I can offer is to agree with them that “We’re finally breaking out of the conventional wisdom of the last 20 years, which insisted that birds evolved from dinosaurs and that the debate is all over and done with.” (Does that sound familiar?)

But what about Genesis? I would say Genesis tends to support the traditional “first dinos, then birds” but should scientists decide this reverse evolutionary history is right, there’s still no real conflict with Genesis. First, Genesis actually speaks about birds that have feathers and fly, not flightless “birds”. And the fact that only after the dinos are gone do birds (and mammals, for that matter) become well established or preeminent still leaves Genesis’ history in fine shape. Other scientists suggest that dinos and birds have a common ancestor rather than a more linear connection. Again, that too is fine with the Genesis account. So, in this case, there’s nothing here that requires any new work on my translation of Genesis 1 and 2. Its a tie (or bye?).

When I taught various applications of the evolution paradigm at a couple of universities, I would teach the danger of assuming evolution. The danger was ad hoc and post hoc interpretation and explanation of a biological history or current biological form/design. The danger was rationalization instead of science, of teleology: that the end explains the beginning and process, that the theory explains and confirms the hypothesis. That’s how evolution came to be “a fact” instead of a theory, and scientific research became little more than fleshing out the story of Creation and extolling the beauty of evolution as Creator. All this is exactly what critics say about Intelligent Design. And they were pretty much on much of the time. But what is good for the goose must surely be good for the gander.

When I critiqued evolution articles and books, and research and authors, for that sort of language and reasoning I was keeping biology and anthropology honest, and most people in the field agreed. And truthfully, error of that sort remained rare in evolutionary science but not so much in Intelligent Design. I think that sort of error contributed much to the decline in standing which Intelligent Design has suffered in the past couple of years, and why the “Evolutionists” have won essentially every major contest in courts and school boards and politics in general. It might be hard for the proponents of Intelligent Design to admit they’ve lost enough battles that many on both sides think the war is over, I think most of the science and anti-ID community are confident they’ve won. Certainly their hackles and anxieties are way down today compared to, say, the time of the Dover trial.

Along with their hackles, however, I fear they’ve also dropped their guard against sloppy language and thinking, and a lot of that ad hoc and post hoc and teleological garbage is sneaking back into the picture. And in so doing, the science of evolution is beginning to sound like many researchers are not so anti Intelligent Design. Like those studying evolutionary biological topics, at least, are open to, or leaning towards accepting the idea that evolution of life has had some hand of a higher intelligence guiding or directing or influencing the flow of creation!

I’ve always seen some of this and figured it was, as I’ve said, sloppy thinking or speaking. But in recent times its gotten to be more than just a rare thing, and not just error by junior or less – say, bright? – scientists. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are three examples I came across in one brief session reading online reports.<.h3>

The first:

“Smoke plays an intriguing role in promoting the germination of seeds of many species following a fire,” Johannes Van Staden and colleagues point out in the report (in ACS’s Journal of Natural Products) They previously discovered a chemical compound in smoke from burning plants that promotes seed germination….
In their new research, the scientists report discovery of an inhibitor compound that may block the action of the stimulator, preventing germination of seeds. They suspect that the compounds may be part of a carefully crafted regulatory system for repopulating fire-ravaged landscapes…. The inhibitor thus may delay germination of seeds until moisture and temperature are right, and then take a back seat to the germination promoter in smoke.

Comment: “They suspect that the compounds may be part of a carefully crafted regulatory system…”. “Crafted” by an overseeing Intelligent Designer of the ecological system?

The Second:

Has the almond tree developed a unique way of drawing potential pollinators? A group of researchers at the Department of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Science Education at the University of Haifa-Oranim speculate that the toxin called amygdalin that is found in almond tree nectar is in fact an evolutionary development intended to give that tree an advantage over others…. it is likely that amygdalin is produced in the almond nectar so as to give the almond tree an advantage in reproduction…. it is possible that the plant produces it so as to attract potential pollinators.
Another possibility is that the almond tree has developed this substance in its nectar as a form of filter: it repulses “non-expert” pollinatrors, but gives access to the “experts”… providing efficient pollination services….

Comment: “[A] possibility is that the almond tree has developed this substance in its nectar as a form of filter: it repulses ‘non-expert’ pollinatrors, but gives access to the ‘experts'”. Is the intelligence and discernment of which pollinators are “expert” in the tree, or an outside Intelligent Designer of the system?

The Third:

A team of University of Toronto chemists have made a major contribution to the emerging field of quantum biology, observing quantum mechanics at work in photosynthesis in marine algae….
“Our latest experiments show that normally functioning biological systems have the capacity to use quantum mechanics in order to optimize a process as essential to their survival as photosynthesis…. We were astonished…. This and other recent discoveries …. [raise] some … potentially fascinating questions, such as, have these organisms developed quantum-mechanical strategies for light-harvesting to gain an evolutionary advantage? It suggests that algae knew about quantum mechanics nearly two billion years before humans,” says Scholes.

Comment: algae knew about quantum mechanics nearly two billion years before humans. We all doubt the ability of an algae to know about and use quantum mechanics, but does this suggest there was a much higher Intelligent Designer that did, and helped start this life form some 2 billion years ago?

Now, I have come to a fairly neutral position regarding the creation-evolution-ID debate. Each has its own strength and possibilities, and each can provide a satisfying paradigm/explanation for some people. My only conclusion is that the Bible, in Genesis 1 and 2, and elsewhere, does not tell us how creation happened. But it does tell us God was at least a witness to it all, and knew where it was going, as evidenced by (in my own translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) by the description, in some detail, of its history, so many years before anyone could have ever had even an inkling of what we have slowly discovered through science – so accurately and so long ago that it reads, as I’ve said, at least as a most remarkable prophecy! Wichever, whatever, this is enough to lend incredible confidence and believability to Genesis 1 and 2, and the Bible’s claim that God is the Intelligent Designer of life and universe, by whatever means He chose … but did not precisely tell us about.

**The three articles can be accessed at the following URLs:


The Secret Life of Smoke….


Almond Tree’s Secret Weapon


Quantum Mechanics at Work in Photosynthesis…

 

That’s the title of a book featuring 5 essays on the subject. Each expands a lecture given in Yale’s annual series entitled Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy. Talk about credentials, these authors could hardly have better: two scientists, a philosopher, an historian, and a sociologist, all tops in their fields. I had to have high hopes about what they would have to say. If anyone could be, they should provide some new insight, right?

Unfortunately, they don’t have much. Brilliant, erudite, and knowledgeable as they are, they offer little to advance our understanding. They, too, are still stuck in the past, have never tried to reexamine the 400 year-old interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, and are more of the same ol’ same ol’. The Intro, by natural historian Keith Thomson, sets the tone and sums it up:

“While the basic issue concerns all of science, the bellwether point of contention is evolution.” That, of course, we all know. We don’t have much problem with astronomy. Or physics. Or biology, genetics, or medical sciences. Nor chemistry or any of the engineering sciences. Contention only arises if they get into EVOLUTION! And why is that? We all know the answer. As Thomson says, its about “The perception of scientific hostility to religion…” And why that is so, Thompson is clear in his explication, but hardly pioneering.

“The debate concerns first and foremost the ‘popular assertions’ – that there is a God who controls our lives and destiny and who is worthy of worship.” What does evolution really have to say about that? Nothing of course. But, in the course of human affairs, there have always been atheists, and for almost 200 years they have said it does. For the most part they are always “antichrists”, not “antibhuddists”, or “antiallahists”, or anti any other religion. Now that’s interesting. Why the focus on God, of the Bible, and his Christ? Why is the “Religion” in the title, and in the minds of everyone involved in the “debate” with science, the religion rooted in the Bible! Not Allah, not Buddha, not Hindus or animists or Zoroastrians. The answer to that question actually moves the ball down the field, a bit (football metaphor, here – can’t help it, I like that sport).

When Thomson talks about “recent attacks on religion by scientists such as Richard Dawkins that have contributed nothing but rancor to the debate”, he assumes everyone knows it is Christianity being attacked, and debated. If he would get explicit and point directly at Genesis 1 & 2, he could set the stage for something new. It is the fact that Christians, for the most part, have always accepted the Genesis assertion that God is the Creator; that God, the god of the Bible, created this universe and all its parts. From quarks to atoms, from energy to the dynamics of the billions of galaxies that make up the fullness of the physical universe, and from the chemical molecules like DNA and proteins to the sentient and spiritual top of the “web” of life on this planet, God created it. He caused it to begin, and become, and be what it is. No other religion does that, at least in terms and details that impress us as serious. Others may have myths about the earth being on a turtle’s back, or springing forth from the dreams of a snoozy prince, etc., but these don’t really spark any fear or debate among scientists, or atheists. Genesis 1 and 2 is why there is a “Debate”! Genesis claims, or is thought to claim to be a record of creation, from the infamous Big Bang to your great and wonderful self.

Darwin never claimed “evolution” created any of these things. Evolution was his theory of how the universe’s physical matter and chemistry became not life in the first instance, but how life (and only life) once started managed to get to be what it is today: very sophisticated, so multifaceted we still discover new “kinds” every day, and so forceful it threatens to consume the physical base upon which it thrives. Darwin’s theory is all about “descent with modification”, modification of life once begun. He doesn’t pretend to address the origins of the universe, matter, energy, physical/existential law and order, or life itself. To Darwin, this “anthropic universe” and the first event of life are outside the paradigm of his theory. And I’m sure he would insist that all the subsequent modifications and new generations of that theory cannot claim to replace God as Creator, but only suggest that God is not an ongoing “Intelligent Designer”! Rather than being the artist of record, Darwin would rather see God as the supplier of paint and canvas and (probably) the Teacher who set the rules for what art is. Darwin proposed that life itself was the power behind the brush, and Natural Selection the Adam Smith-like guide to the emergent painting(s). He knew his theory was challenging some common tenets of Christian doxology, but not the idea or sovereignty of God. That has always been the illicit expansion and disingenuous/ignorant claims and assertions atheists who hoped it did, or hoped Christians would accept that it does and get discouraged and quit their faith. These are the “antichrists” the Bible so often warns about.

If Christians were to accept his paradigm of “evolution”, I think Darwin, if alive today, would be happy to simply agree that “evolution” was a pretty good tactic, or technique, planned and put in motion by God, and be quite impressed by what we have learned about the intelligent design of a universe with such anthropic rules and laws and principles. If left up to Darwin, as with many modern scientists, the “debate” might very well have never arisen. Certainly not continued. Especially if he knew what I know about Genesis 1 and 2.

What everybody’s missing, and what leaves this latest try at explaining the long life and vitality of the culture war between science and religion search falling far short, is the truth about Genesis. They do not know that Genesis’ account of creation is seriously mistranslated, and the whole “debate” is practically groundless! The Genesis account says nothing about method or means. Those Christians, and there are many, who refuse to take part in the culture war because they understand that there is no contradiction between the theory of evolution and Genesis 1 & 2 are absolutely correct. Even if they don’t exactly know why, they nonetheless are correct.

The belief that God merely “spoke various things into creation as they became” is somewhat quaint, and was OK for believers 400 years ago, but not the best translation of what Genesis says. Genesis doesn’t say the way things (especially all the “kinds” of life that currently inhabit the earth) came to be, or actually say how long each event it does mention took to become what it is.

Genesis 1 & 2 are not so much a description of creating as they are an historical account of creation. It is a very abbreviated, sketchy outline of the history of all creation, but mostly of earth and life. So brief and sketchy that it is more like a quick assemblage of headlines or topics, the bold print in an article or textbook.

Tradition, and most people, has it as a series of “Let there be” type statements that command or speak into existence a list of features and things in the natural world. A better translation of those statements, say, “Let dry ground appear” (Gen 1:9, NIV), both a better representation of original Hebrew and what modern science attests, would be “Watch … see how dry land appears”. Plate tectonics are a perfectly good (and natural) and effective explanation of how God produced (and still does produce) dry land from the earth’s crust under the seas (as described in Genesis 1:2) and fit perfectly well with the best translation of the Hebrew texts!

My book walks one through a forensic reinterpretation of the Hebrew language of Genesis, utilizing the best of linguistics and scientific knowledge. It redoes what was last done in 1611. It brings the message of Genesis into modern language and modern understanding of the creation. It brings together Genesis 1 and 2, and Romans 1. It has reached many thousands now, but obviously not the authors at Yale. Our reinterpretation does not remove the miracles from the text and testimony of Scripture, but rather lets us understand another whole sense of the Scriptures, that there is in Genesis a remarkable foretelling, a prophesy of what we will learn as we do study the creation. Its a great testimony for our time, not something that modern science refutes, but something that modern science confirms! Genesis gives, in its outline of creation’s history, something no one in the time it was written could know, let alone understand. It is hard not to believe that the author was there, and saw it all, and told us about it.

Read my rendition of Genesis. Its posted here on this website. Read my book if you want to see how and why I interpreted Genesis as I did. Check the linguistics, the evidence, and the forensic analysis for yourself.

The resulting account is much like the records of the prophets. It tells us the end from the beginning. And, importantly, it answers and corrects a lot of misunderstandings commonly touted by those who accuse Genesis of significant scientific or historical errors. For instance, they like to say birds appear too soon in Genesis. Not so, birds come in at the right time – the King James translators simply thought winged insects were also birds. Critics like to say that the plants are out of order according to modern science’s analysis of “evolution”. Not so, the King James scholars simply mistook simpler plant life for sophisticated/complex grass. Many wonder why there are no dinosaurs in the Genesis account. Actually, the dinosaurs are there – in exactly the right place in the history of things!

So, the best answer to “The Religion and Science Debate, Why Does It Continue?” is “Because no one really knows the truth about what Genesis 1 & 2 actually say”. That’s why the Yale papers get no where new … they, like almost everyone, are saddled with the naiveté and errors of the past – the King James past of 1611.