The Bible is not “scientifically accurate”: why that’s good news for Christians

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)



In a previous post, I mentioned Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 as “problem passages” for those whose view of inspiration depends on the Bible being accurate in everything it says (or seems to say) about astronomy, geology, biology, etc.

Joshua 10 claims the sun temporarily stood still during a battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites, while 1 Chronicles 16 describes an immovable earth. On my blog the other day, I wrote that it’s obvious these texts “should be viewed as metaphor, not literal assertion.”

Actually, I got it wrong, as a friend pointed out later.

These texts are not simply metaphor. They’re not merely “the language of appearance,” as sometimes claimed. They’re not the equivalent of modern-day people saying “sunrise” and “sunset” when we know full well the sun doesn’t literally rise and set.

Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 reflect how people in the ancient Near East understood the cosmos.

They really DID think the sun moved and the earth didn’t. “Sunrise” and “sunset” weren’t metaphors to them; that’s what they thought the sun did.

This drawing depicts the cosmology of the ancient Near Eastern world.

anecosmology1

The earth was conceived of as a flat disc, surrounded by a primeval ocean. Above the earth was the firmament, a solid dome which held the sun, moon, and stars. Above that, a heavenly ocean.

This is how pretty much everyone, including the writers of the Bible, understood the universe. That’s why the authors of Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 wrote what they did.

It shouldn’t come as surprise that we also find this view of the cosmos in the creation story of Genesis 1.

The primeval ocean shows up as the watery depth over which God’s spirit hovers in Genesis 1:2. A solid “firmament” or “vault” is depicted a few lines later (1:6), holding back the “waters above,” a.k.a. the heavenly ocean (1:7).

In other words, Genesis 1 reflects an ancient cosmology which we all know to be scientifically inaccurate. The earth is not a flat disc surrounded by a primeval ocean. There is no solid dome above us, and there is no heavenly ocean above that.

For young-earth creationists like Ken Ham, to question the scientific accuracy of Genesis 1 is to undermine confidence in the whole Bible. For me, accepting that Genesis reflects an ancient (and scientifically inaccurate) cosmology causes me to love these ancient texts even more.

Why? Because it means God meets us where we are, limitations and all. Speaking in and through the scriptures, he met people of the ancient Near Eastern world where they were. He didn’t let their limited understanding of the universe stop him from revealing himself. He doesn’t let our limited understanding stop him from doing he same for us today.

So, for example, when God revealed himself as creator, he did so in the language of a prescientific world, within the framework of ancient Near Eastern cosmology — flat earth, solid firmament, moving stars, and all. That’s the only way that would have made sense to an ancient Near Eastern person, so that’s how God spoke.

This is sometimes called the incarnational view of scripture. Just as God took on flesh in the form of Jesus — a reality people could see, touch and understand — so God revealed himself in scripture in ways the very first to encounter his revelation could understand.

He doesn’t demand we overcome our limitations first. He did not wait for ancient people to shed their ancient cosmology before he said something about why he made the world.

We’re not so different from the people of the ancient Near East. We have our limitations, our blind spots. We may know the sun doesn’t move across a solid dome of firmament, but we do not know everything there is to know. Not by a long shot.

That doesn’t stop God from revealing himself to us.

Genesis is not a scientifically accurate record of how the universe came into being. It was never meant to be. But that didn’t stop God from telling us something about why the universe came into being.

For me, the latter is a story worth reading.

—//—

*A great book on the incarnational view of Scripture is Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns.

9 thoughts on “The Bible is not “scientifically accurate”: why that’s good news for Christians

  1. I have struggled with the fact that the Bible and Science seem to be so incompatible. I’ve been told many things about it, including that science is somehow an invention of Satan to turn us from God. Thank you for writing this.

  2. This is where subjective and objective comes into play. The Bible wasn’t written to be a scientific journal. But, it’s still not at odds with science. The “circle of the earth” mentioned in the Bible is poetic terminology that describes an object that is round. Although the earth is a sphere and not perfectly round, a circle would still apply. In the dictionary, one definition of circle is: a curved upper tier of seats in a theater. Note that it says curved not flat. No where in the Bible is the earth described at flat.

    An immovable earth, means, as per Ecclesiastes 1:4 “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” Immovable should not to be taken literally. The sun standing still? God circumvents time, meaning, “all things are possible with God.”

    The firmament or primeval ocean was a water canopy that existed in the heavens before the Flood. Prior to the flood it had never rained on earth in the Garden of Eden. There was a mist rising up from the ground that watered the vegetation. During the Flood the water canopy was released, ergo, no more primeval ocean in the heavens today.

    • Dissident Fairy, I think you’ve completely missed the entire post’s point, concept(s), and understanding of what is being communicating. Don’t worry, this is natural for us 21st century people who think via a certain modern scientific world-view, and especially for those not studied up on ANE thought. Your attempt to approach the water canopy as a concordist is a prime example. Ever consider that Genesis has nothing what-so-ever to do with the material universe? You see your presumption that Genesis is a material creation account leads you down the road of trying to reconcile it with science and/or physical entities at the get go. You should get John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One as a start. This is probably where Ben – can’t say for sure as I don’t know Ben- is gaining his understanding from (which I agree with 100%). You will then have a pretty good foundation to be able to grasp what Ben is communicating in his post.

      In the mean time you might want to give these articles a read by Brian Godawa. He has studied much on ANE thought, from scholars like Walton, and is a very good communicator. Highly recommend his presentations.

      https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7037150/Mesopotamian%20Cosmic%20Geography%20in%20the%20Bible.pdf

      https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7037150/Biblical%20Creation%20and%20Story%20Telling.pdf

      Blessings.

  3. Hello, God bless you. This post is exiting. I would like make a traslation and put in in my blog. Can I? Would be to spanish. My blog is “volvamosalasfuentes. blogspot.com”

  4. You explained your understanding of the scripture pretty early on: “Actually, I got it wrong, as a friend pointed out later.” You should have just stopped there and let those who understand the scriptures and history to deal with it. The writers of scripture didn’t believe that, and almost nobody ever believed the earth was flat. But nice attempt at trolling anyway.

    • ^Says the only person here doing any actual trolling.
      It’s his interpretation man. Nowhere did he say “This is how it is, I’m right and you’re wrong.”
      You’re pretty quick to tell him not to meddle in things he doesn’t understand, but I don’t see YOU bringing anything worthwhile to the table.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I am however not convinced that God would, using our old paradigms, keep us in ignorance concerning creation/our home – the universe. Surely he would much rather have said it as it is, offended our old-paradigm mindsets, and left us wondering what the truth really is, as in the case of the creation of the world.
    To paraphrase Jesus, he said ‘if you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no part of me’. This still offends many today, but challenges us to hear the context in which it is said.
    I believe it is our paradigms that need adjusting, and if God does not share with us the truth, so that we may come into the fullness of understanding it in context, how will we ever know what God says in the bible is true?
    In your statement concerning scientific ‘fact’ you are assuming that we’ve got our model of the universe worked out. What will our understanding and therefore perception be in future generations? We’ve had our understanding of the universe drastically altered since the dark ages, and even more so in recent times.
    Perhaps… we still have a long way to go in our understanding, to come back to the place where it started, and to realise that it is the way God said it, just that the scales on our eyes are coming off layer after layer.
    I do realise that there is the metaphorical/poetic expression and then there also appears to be the more direct ‘scientific’ expression.
    For me one of the greatest paradoxes of truth is its uncanny ability to be shrouded in mystery. It’s almost as if we can only access truth through the eye of the artist. Read the best summations of a scientific truth, an Einstein quote for example, and you find it written with an artist’s ‘eye’. It is through the spirit of truth that the underlying order is discerned.

    I am open to have my worldview radically altered, and i do realise that one’s first reaction to a new worldview is unbelief.
    I’m not comfortable though with God introducing us to His world with a Greek mythological paradigm for the sake of knowing him. It’s like telling children to believe in Santa Claus – providing the gifts as evidence – and then later crushing their faith by persuading them he doesn’t exist.
    I don’t see a good Father revealing himself this way. A good father would rather, at the expense of uncertainty, in due time lead his child into the full truth.

    Thanks for your ear.

    • The question I would ask is: was it necessary for Scripture to challenge the prevailing view of the universe in order to say what it wanted to say about God as creator? I would answer no. Genesis 1, in my view, aims to communicate the why of creation, not the how. It was able to do the former quite easily within the context of ancient Near Eastern cosmology.

      It sounds like you’re saying that in order to trust the Bible, God has to reveal all truth all at once, that he has to correct any old or inaccurate paradigm from the outset. But if that were the case, the Old Testament should have immediately condemned polygamy and slavery. It didn’t. It tolerated and even regulated these “paradigms,” perhaps because they were so deeply engrained in ancient Near Eastern world that to start with either would have all but guaranteed that nothing else God wanted to say would have been heard. God meets us where we are, limitations and all, and works from there.

      I don’t assume that we’ve got our model of the universe completely worked out. In fact, that would be a very unscientific assumption to hold. Science is fundamentally concerned with new discovery, with learning new things…it’s continually driven by the fact that we don’t know all there is to know.

      But we CAN say with confidence:
      (1) what the ancient Near Eastern conception of the universe looked like,
      (2) that Genesis 1 uses language consistent with the prevailing ancient Near Eastern view of the universe,
      (3) and that this model is not a scientifically accurate way of describing the universe.

      For me, none of this means that Genesis 1 isn’t true, because scientific truth isn’t the only kind of truth.

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