Thursday, December 28, 2006

Imposing upon the text

Looks like Touchstone has responded to my post in four parts. I've only time for the first at the moment.

...and even at this level, I’d argue that Genesis is delivered in the form of a “creation hymn”, at least in its first chapters...

Touchstone argues that Genesis is delivered in the form of a "creation hymn." So where's the argument?

...and that a scientific/historical chronicle is quite an anachronistic expectation to place on the ancient Hebrew reader...

Touchstone often trades on equivocations. Here, he's using "scientific" and "historical" as if they were synonymous. Although it's true a scientific chronicle would be anachronistic, it's false that a historical one would be anachronistic. It's important to note this particular equivocation between science and history because Touchstone later uses it as part of his argument (more below).

As for presuppositions and external knowledge, it’s getting to be a bit repetitive, but again, external knowledge is necessary for any understanding of the text.

What's getting repetitive is that Touchstone often imputes to others positions they don't hold. Perhaps he's doing so to cloud the other side's position. Or to recast his own argument in a more positive light. Or perhaps he just doesn't know any better despite being corrected time and time again. Duplicity or stupidity. Such poor choices. Sigh.

Isaiah’s clapping trees can’t be understood without knowledge from outside the Bible — knowledge of nature and language reflecting that. If the trees in our yard give us clues as to what Isaiah means — they don’t have hands to our knowledge, so Isaiah must be deploying a bit of personification there — the rocks in the garden provide an atomic “clock” telling us the earth is very old.

It's true one needs external knowledge to interpret passages of Scripture. But the original author and his target audience also lived in the real world. They had access to external knowledge. For them, this external knowledge would be the knowledge of Ancient Near East (ANE) societies and cultures. Nothing less, nothing more. Emphasis on "nothing more." In other words, it's not a blank check to interpret the passage through the lens of the theory of evolution. Or through the lens of modern radiocarbon or atomic dating. And so on. In fact, doing so would be anachronistic (not to mention anthropomorphic), wouldn't it?

All of which is a recapitulation of a truth that is manifestly true for interpreting any text: a semantic context, and external knowledge base is necessary to enable interpretation. If this is in doubt, think of your favorite chapter of the Bible and see how far you get without external knowledge — language, culture, geography, biology.

Again, the "external knowledge" which Touchstone appeals to here does not mean one can go beyond the external knowledge of the ANE. Touchstone wants to use external knowledge in such a way as to allow him to import modern evolutionary theory and/or modern dating methods and their results into the text. The point is that external knowledge does not here refer to "the body of modern knowledge," but rather to something more like "the body of ANE knowledge."

The knowledge we begin with in reading the text shapes and defines what the text means. That’s a major principle in the grammatical-historical method as well; what we know about the historical context, the customs of the times, the language idioms, the cultural nuances, help us determine what the text is saying. The big split happens from the animus many Christians have toward science. The same heuristics deployed by proponents of GHM — application of historical knowledge from outside the Bible — are rejected when the knowledge is scientific. Why? Well, the apparent reason (to me) is that many Christians simply are uncomfortable with the answers they get if scientific knowledge is applied the way, say, extra-Biblical historical knowledge is applied via GHM.

The same "heurestics" are not "rejected when the knowledge is scientific," but when the knowledge is not in line with the original author's intended meaning. Of course, by no means do we reject modern science outright. But the real question is, what did the original author mean and how would the text be understood by someone in the ANE? We can then extrapolate from this, if it's possible, if the text warrants it, to see how it might apply to the modern reader. But the point of reference must be from the original author's intended meaning and perspective. But Touchstone wants to start from the modern reader's perspective and then read his perspective into the text.

The whole point of the Grammatico-Historical Method (GHM) is to avoid anachronistic readings of a text. The whole point of GHM is to understand the text from the original author's intended meaning and perspective. Not to understand it from our perspective. If our perspective happens to mesh with the original author's, that's fine and good. But, again, we need to keep in mind that the point of reference is the original author and his target audience. Not our own. Sorry to belabor the point, but it's an important one.

As Steve has pointed out before, imagine if we tried to interpret Dante's Divine Comedy in light of string theory. Or imagine if we tried to read modern genetics into Homer's Iliad in an attempt to explain Achilles' mortal heel. So why should we read modern biological evolutionary theory into Genesis? Or foist upon Gen. 1 modern dating schemes?

(Of course, one obvious difference is Christians affirm the historical veracity of Genesis. Moses was not writing a fictional story. But Homer and Dante knew and intended their works to be fictional even if they were based on historical events and people.)

It’s not at all clear from context in Genesis 1 that yom=solar day is implicated. There’s no earth for the sunrise or sunset even in existence on the first day — that’s a problem, suggesting that this is contextual evidence for a solar day when the sun and earth aren’t even created yet.

It's only a problem if we insist the text address our issues. That is, if we insist Gen. 1 addresses modern cosmology rather than ANE or Mosaic era Israelite cosmogony.

As Prof. John Walton explains in his commentary on Genesis:

In the Israelite view the sun was seen as a source of heat and as a source of light, but not as the source of light. The world was light before the sun came up, after the sun went down, and while the sun was hidden by clouds. The moon was also understood to give off light. "Light" could be better understood in Israelite structural terms by translating it as "daylight." One need not be troubled about whether the Israelite concept was that daylight was created before the sun. We must instead understand that the sequence of events in the chapter is according to functions, not according to material objects.


And, as always, we have available an overwhelming base of evidence for an ancient earth in view that provides an epistemic trump over conjectures from the text. Gen 2:4 uses yom as something different than solar days. Should we interpret Gen 2:4 to mean a solar day because solar days are implicated “nearly always”.

Here's what I originally said:

3. The Hebrew term yom (="day") nearly always means "day" in the Bible. And when it does not, it is clear from the context that it does not.

How does Gen. 2:4 contradict what I originally said? How does a different meaning for yom in Gen. 2:4 negate the meaning of yom in Gen. 1? The question at issue is, what does yom mean in the context of Gen. 1? Specifically, what did Moses mean by yom and what does yom mean for his target audience in Gen. 1?

Plus, if yom in Gen. 1 = an indefinite period of time, then would that likewise apply to Gen. 2:1-3? Because the Jews base their Sabbath rest on interpreting Gen. 2:1-3 as a day which begins on Friday evening and concludes on Saturday evening (the seventh day). As Ex. 20:11 teaches: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."

Again, Touchstone is attempting to understand Genesis according to modern scientific categories. But Genesis should be understood on its own terms. And let the chips fall where they may.

As physicist Richard Feynman once said:

People say to me, "Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?" No, I'm not. If it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it. That would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it's like an onion with millions of layers, then that's the way it is.

The point is that the universe must be understood and explained on its own terms. It is what it is. We shouldn't attempt to read into it our own preconceived ideas or theories, or look for things which don't exist in the first place. We shouldn't come to it expecting to find something -- especially something which we already have in mind.

Likewise with the Bible.

Here’s a summary of some of the similarities from Dr. Alexander Heidel’s The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation.

Touchstone cites Heidel's work in order to show similarities between the first few chapters of Genesis and the Enuma Elish. But, actually, Touchstone's summary of Heidel's book doesn't do that at all. Instead, Touchstone's summary underscores how dissimilar the two are.

Nevertheless, if he wants to make an argument for similarities between the two, Touchstone needs to do more than merely summarize the Enuma Elish. He needs to place the actual verses side by side with one another. He needs to take the Genesis verses and the Enuma Elish verses, place them alongside one another, and then draw whatever parallels he apparently sees between them. Since it's his argument that the two are similar, he needs to pull up his sleeves and do the hard work to demonstrate his argument for us. In other words, let's see what happens when Touchstone works with the actual texts in question.

Zimmern went so far as to state that the early appearance of the watery chaos in Genesis 1 'is unintelligible in the mouth of an early Israelite,' for he supposed that the concept of a watery chaos was derived from the annual flooding of the Mesopotamian river.12 Of course, his argument is no longer tenable because, as Wakeman has demonstrated,13 the concept of primeval water is found across a broad spectrum of ancient myths and not confined to any one geographical area.

Primeval water is not synonymous with chaotic water. In fact, chaotic water is not even mentioned in Gen. 1, is it? This is an outside imposition on the text.

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