Mark Swint

Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Foolish Traditions

In Abraham, Adam and Eve, Albert Einstein, Bible, Genesis, Geology, God, miracles, Moses, Philosophy, Plate Techtonics, Relativity, science, Science and Religion, technology on December 23, 2008 at 10:37 am


Mark Swint

author of

OCULUS: The Zebulon Initiative

I find it interesting that the conflict between scientists and theologians often tends to focus on just the mechanics of the various claims of the Bible and not the greater context of the account. The main emphasis is on the specific claim that ‘God’ made it happen, the implication being that the mere belief in a higher entity is silly and foolish. While the various arguments may rage on about whether the specifics of the claims have merit, a bigger issue goes unexamined. Why do these stories exist in the Bible at all?

Seriously, have you ever stopped to consider how odd, for example, the creation story in the first few chapters of Genesis is? Take for example the story of the actual physical creation of the planet. Remember as you read that Moses, while undoubtedly getting some formal training in Egypt, was basically just a goat herder. His life was consumed with the desert; with sand and scorpions and goats and thistle bushes and rocks. Isn’t it interesting then that he starts his description of the creation of the earth by saying that “in the beginning…the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Now, you can argue all day long about the merits of saying that God created the heavens and the earth but step back for a moment and ask yourself why, if Moses were making this up, or if he were just a deluded old Bedouin, would he start by saying the earth began by being covered with water completely? The old adage, ‘write what you know’ comes to mind. Moses’ life was inextricable tied to sand and desert. The lifeblood of Egypt was the Nile River. Sand, rocks and a river were the sum of his experience, so why not tell a tale about a vast expanse of desert, lifeless and barren, empty and motionless. You could then bring in a great river that sprang forth out of the ground to water and give life to everything. A creation story that began like that would have found much more traction among the people who would hear this story than a story about a featureless ocean with no land whatsoever. It is doubtful that most of the people he led out of Egypt had ever seen an ocean, and the account in Exodus is clear in stating that the children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. I suspect that had Moses led them to some nice seaside paradise they would have stayed right there – thank you very much – and not ventured one more step onto the burning sands that had been their home for so long. There is no plausible reason for Moses to begin a fable (as many would call it) with an initiatory experience so far out of the common experience of his listeners.

Many Norwegian legends begin and end with the sea because Norwegians lived and died by the sea. A land so inhospitable to vast agriculture relied heavily upon the bounties drawn from the ocean. Fish and fishing were common to all the experiences of those hearty people. So legends of sea monsters, or invaders who came by boat from across the sea were perfectly reasonable myths to propagate.

Similarly, tribal customs from people that lived and died at the foot of volcanoes all incorporated those volcanoes in their lore. To this day it is taboo to take from Hawaii a piece of lava off the island, as the goddess Pelè will put a curse upon the unfortunate thief.

So we get back to Moses. Why did he start his ‘myth’ with an experience completely foreign to the common experience of his people? His story goes on; the land didn’t just appear. Rather, Moses puts in the curious detail that “the waters under heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.” How would Moses know, how would he deduce, that in order for land to appear the water would need to recede? I would be willing to bet that if you asked a thousand people to create a creation story of their own, every one of them, if given a water covered world to start with, would have the land spring up out of the water. Not one, in my opinion, would ever think to have the water recede. That is counter-intuitive and foreign to the common experience of most people.

That idea was so counter-intuitive, in fact, that geologists didn’t come up with it for the next 4,000 years! And these were people dedicated to studying the subject! Theories of the creation of the earth abounded for thousands of years but not until 1965 did the theory of Plate Tectonics come forth; a theory, by the way, which completely supports Moses’ brief observation in Genesis 1.

Other elements of the creation story begin to come forth as we look from this different vantage point. Why, for instance, did Moses make the effort to peg the creation of the Earth to six different creative periods? Why not just say something like “God brought forth the river unto the barren land and life sprang forth in all its myriad and abundant glory. Wouldn’t it be logical for everything to spring forth at once? Let’s see; Barren, lifeless desert – water – life filled desert! Water would give life to all and suddenly we would have plants and trees and birds of every kind and animals. This newly formed garden would be the perfect birthplace for mankind to appear.

Speaking of mankind, Adam and Eve didn’t begin in the Garden of Eden! Did you know that? It’s a good bar bet if you’re into that stuff. No, read what it says! “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Then in the next chapter, 12 verses later, we read, “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden: and there he put the man whom he had formed.” What an odd story! Again, it makes no logical sense to go through this elaborate creation myth and then create man in some nondescript place and then put him in the garden. Wouldn’t it have made much more sense to create a beautiful setting for the coming forth of mankind? Isn’t that the stuff myths are made of? The Greek myths all have their gods springing forth from their respective birthplaces in accordance with their natures, i.e. in the kingdoms of the clouds, or the sun, or the sea, or the underworld. How odd then that Moses would decide, if he were the fabricator of the creation myth, that man’s coming forth should be so bland and non-magnificent and only later put him in a garden. Why not create him in the garden? That would have made for a much better story. After all, the very essence of a garden is that it is more abundant of life and more beautiful than the surrounding terrain. Remember, the Bedouin and all desert dwellers lived and died by the Oasis. The Oasis was their only source of water – or life – in an otherwise inhospitable desert.  

In Genesis, the Garden of Eden is representative of the oasis in the desert. The story of Adam and Eve tells of the beauty and the abundance of food in the garden. As Adam and Eve were innocent from the beginning, it is unreasonable to surmise that their occupancy in the garden was a reward for some accomplishment. On the contrary, all indications were that the garden would be their home forever as they tended the animals and got about the task of multiplying and replenishing the earth. It was only after they had transgressed the laws that they were punished and thrust out of the garden and into the ‘dark and dreary world’. They were, in essence, forced to leave the oasis and wander into the desert, not unlike Moses’ own people who left the relative security and abundance of Egypt to wander in the desert for forty years.

Another point or two about biblical stories supports my thesis. In the account of the parting of the Red/Reed Sea, why, if you were chronicling the story of God saving a people, would you not just say “God parted the waters”? Why would you feel compelled to include the detail that the wind blew and imply that that was what parted the waters?

The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah can be explained easily enough by supposing that a meteor of some sort might have entered the atmosphere and broken up, raining down fiery pieces that set the whole place ablaze. Isn’t it interesting that that story, which we attach to just the two towns, actually recounts the destruction of four cities, all proximate to one another, and tells us that one city escaped the fire. Zoar was within the area of destruction of the other four cities but somehow escaped destruction. Isn’t it interesting that all four cities destroyed were right next to each other? Aren’t we to suppose that these were the only cities in northern Africa that were wicked? How convenient that they were all next to each other! And why not Zoar? Wouldn’t it have been tainted by the same local traditions and customs. Wouldn’t debauchery and sin have invaded its doors as well? Probably. But just as we see a tornado demolish one house and leave the next one unscathed, so too, a meteor or other object falling from the sky can be just as random. But why did Moses say that Sodom and Gomorrah would have fire rained down upon them? Why not just afflict them with a plague or some other commonly recognized peril of the time? Even for Sodom and Gomorrah fire raining down from heaven was a pretty unique experience.

My point in all this is simply this. We argue about the merits of a tale, whether it is true or fantasy. In so doing we argue about the details without standing back and asking the bigger question – Where did this tale come from? Atheists and intellectuals can bloviate all daylong about how silly the Bible stories are and how foolish people of faith are but they risk ultimately looking foolish themselves one day. Moses and the other Biblical chroniclers were only reporters relating what they had seen in visions and dreams and prophecies. As we argue about the details of what they saw we miss the fact that these tales came about in the first place. We miss the fact that many of these tales have details that were not available to the common experience of man in that era. We should not overlook the fact that these men provided us stories with facts and ascertains that were un-provable or unsupportable for the next three or four thousand years. We fail to ask ourselves “Why would Moses say something like this?” What in his experience would possibly lead to a detail as explicit as some we read when nothing in his life experience would have even given him the notions that would later form some of the accounts we have from his records?

When an ancient Mayan record tells us that time is a variable quantity that marches differently on different spheres we should ask ourselves “how did they know about special relativity – a theory not put forth in our time until 1905? How would they know that the marking of time would vary according to the size and speed of rotation of that planet or celestial body?

Rather than dismiss all of these ancient tales as folly and foolish traditions we should ask ourselves how these details and these stories even came to be. Without some divine input, some infusion of knowledge from a higher source, we are left only to marvel at the creative wisdom of the people we deride.

I, for one, tip my hat to Moses and the other prophets of the Bible. They were either men of God or at very least, men much smarter than I. In either event I would be wise to follow their council.