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December 6th, 2011

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08:59 pm - Biblical issues

Just something that came up and was on my mind lately, may be worthy of sharing.

In my rôle as Samaritan Pentateuch Guy, I am on a mailing list for students of the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible (if only they would fix the misspelling on the group page...)  In fact, hardly anyone actually posts there except this one person (I doubt she reads this, but if so, hi Misty!)... and me, answering her (though I probably shouldn't).

She often posts questions involving "seeming" contradictions or difficulties in the Bible, usually asking if the Hebrew text offers some resolution or something, if the translation is bad or whatever.  Usually it doesn't, and you have to find reassurance in some other source to support your faith in the Bible (if that's what you're trying to support).  More on that below.

This time around, she was looking at some quotes in the Bible that "seem to imply" that the Bible speaks of a flat earth (which would be a problem, I guess, since we know that the Earth is not flat).  So, specifically things like Isaiah 40:22, the word חוג is translated in various ways... does it mean a circle, a sphere, a vault, etc...  (there are actually more explicit places, like Psalms 33:13, "God looks from the heavens and sees all people": you can't see all the people on a sphere while looking from the sky.   Or the classic Isaiah 11:12, telling us that the earth has four corners).  And I went through some possibilities, found other places where the root might be used, found where the modern word for "sphere" (כדור) occurs in the Bible, etc.

Anyway, when I realized that the exercise was intended to "answer" the "question" of the Bible saying that the Earth is flat, I realized that the whole question is ridiculous and ill-posed.  Even assuming that the Bible really was written by some Supreme Being or with his inspiration, there's no reason to expect it to be right about incidentals like this.  Biblical inerrancy is absolutely not implied or required for believing in Biblical divinity.

Look, assume that Isaiah, or David, or whoever was writing the Bible down, did know that the Earth was spherical, due to Divine revelation or something.  Well, that's a world-changing(!) piece of knowledge for someone of that age, why wouldn't he tell other people, be more explicit in his words?  I know it's a silly question, there's an obvious answer (and one that doesn't require the question in the first place, once you know it).  You could very rightly answer me that it wasn't what the prophet was talking about.  He had a mission, a message to deliver, and chatting about the shape of the earth would be at best distracting.  Maybe the prophets knew all kinds of scientific facts we are only just discovering, but perhaps were forbidden from revealing them before their time (that is actually a common way of thinking.)

In that case, what difference does it make what he wrote?  We already know that he won't be telling the secrets that he knows, that he has to conform his words to the beliefs of the time.  So why should we be surprised that his words conform to the beliefs of the time?  The Bible wasn't trying to be right here, why should we be surprised that it isn't?  I say "We already know," based on an assumption I made in the preceding paragraph, and maybe you don't believe it, but even so, consider it on your own.  Obviously the Biblical phrases were consonant with contemporary (and later) beliefs, or we would have had ancient commentators asking questions ("Gee, the Bible seems to say that the world is spherical here, and we believe it's flat.")  So when it was said, did it "mean" that the world was flat?  Was that how people who heard it, if they thought about it, understood it?  Yes!  Is that what the composer of the words meant?  Probably, though of course there's no proving it.  Can we find that the wording is also consonant with our knowledge of a spherical earth?  Yes, without straining too terribly hard.  Language tends to be fairly imprecise about things we're not actually talking about; there is enough vagueness in wording, especially after several millennia and language change and so forth.  Does that mean that it was "really saying" the earth was spherical all along?  Not at all.

Getting back to the bigger question, though, of bothering to try to reconcile issues in the Bible, I think there isn't much new to be found there.  We have been picking at this book for three thousand years, do you really think that you're going to find a question/contradiction that someone else never noticed?  And that commentators and apologists haven't spilled gallons of ink answering?  How much you accept their attempts to reconcile it is another matter; sometimes it seems that they are capable of explaining anything; it's hard to imagine what the Bible could say that would actually not be answerable by some of the reasoning I've seen proposed.  But probably all the real "problems" have been analyzed to within an inch of their lives (and more) in the course of the centuries.

I guess there are new things to be found in answering perceived contradictions with new discoveries that have not been known for very long (we've known the Earth to be round at least for some centuries). Germ theory would be a good one, but I don't recall anything in the Bible that really reqires spontaneous generation (there are problems with that and statements in the Talmud, but that's another issue).  Most of the really new discoveries are about things sufficiently invisible to everyday senses that I'm not seeing many of these problems surfacing.

(Sigh.  Though I wonder why I bother with things like this anyway.)

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:December 7th, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)
"God looks from the heavens and sees all people": you can't see all the people on a sphere while looking from the sky.

We can't. Why couldn't God look from all points in the sky simultaneously? Especially since God is omnipresent.

That's just to address that point. I agree that they weren't talking about today's understood facts.

And I wish reCaptcha would understand that I can't easily type Amharic (or Tigrinya, or Somali, or whatever this is.

[User Picture]
Date:December 7th, 2011 04:27 am (UTC)
"We can't. Why couldn't God look from all points in the sky simultaneously? Especially since God is omnipresent."

Naturally. Once again, I don't dispute that there are plenty of explanations for these points. In fact, my whole claim is that there are *gobs* of explanations, and people have been working on them for centuries. In this particular verse, there is a very clear image that is being invoked, of someone in a high place looking down at everyone on a flat surface. That might not be what is claimed to be *happening*, but that is definitely the image that the reader is supposed to understand—because that is the image that accords with what the Psalmist wants to say! And not necessarily with actual fact. Why should you even expect facts in incidental information that is trying to conjure up an image for poetic reasons?

(There's a concept in Jewish exegesis, דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם (See http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/דיברה_תורה_כלשון_בני_אדם ): "The Torah speaks in (or like) the language of people." Even though the Torah is considered divine, it says things as people say them and as people understand them. So this is used in the Talmud to argue against deriving details from certain minutiae of grammar, under the thesis that people don't take such care with their words (though there are other places where the words of the Torah are indeed picked apart with great meticulousness). And later, with broader meaning.

For that matter, we still say "sunrise" and "sunset", and we _know_ that isn't what's "really" happening anymore. (I have heard that Buckminster Fuller proposed the terms "sunglimpse" and "sunclipse" instead.)
[User Picture]
Date:December 7th, 2011 05:36 am (UTC)
Yes, one line I am saving for a good time when somebody asserts a falsehood or myth as truth is "Sure, that's as obvious as sunrise... and as wrong." And then, etc.

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