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Noah’s Flood, and how to talk to creationists about it

“Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren” Saint Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on Genesis, ca. 400 AD

How do you discuss evolution and Earth science with biblical creationists, in such a way as to lead them to question their beliefs, rather than digging in deeper? This is the central problem for the book that I am now at last writing, and I would greatly value comments.

If we want to engage biblical literalists in meaningful discussion, we need to use arguments that make sense from the literalists’ point of view. As Lakatos pointed out, scientists will not abandon a position, despite anomalies, until a more satisfactory one is offered. Why should the creationist be any different? It is not enough to point to the scientific evidence. It is not even enough to point out that Noah’s Flood, using biblical chronology, would have come just in time to drown the pyramid-builders. We need to do more than simply raise objections. We must offer a better alternative, better, that is, on the creationist’s terms, emotionally and spiritually. Such an alternative, I argue, is what emerges from textual and historical analysis.

It helps, I think, to dispel the myth that religious belief requires belief in a young Earth, and the rejection of evolution, and one way of doing this is to point out that most religious believers, in the West at least, do accept, and have contributed to, the science. Since the early 19th Century, biblical believers have been among prominent proponents of scientific geology and, later, of evolution. Most Christians belong to denominations that accept the fact of evolution, and there is an organisation, the Clergy Letter Project, dedicated to the celebration of evolution as part of God’s handiwork, a position sometimes referred to as theistic evolution. There are organisations, such as the American Scientific Association, devoted to accommodating religious beliefs to the science, and a large literature on the subject. Creationists, however, are either unaware of this activity, or reject it as incompatible with their more fundamental beliefs.

The creationist argument is simple: the Bible (including in particular Genesis) is the word of God, God tells the truth, therefore the Bible is true. What could be wrong with that, from the point of view of the believer?

Plenty.

However inspired the writers of Genesis may have been, they were of necessity people of their own times, expressing themselves within their own cultural context. This is hardly a novel observation. It goes back at least to Maimonides, 12th Century biblical commentator and philosopher.

And what a context! The Old Testament text itself refers to many books that are now lost to us. The biblical Flood narrative itself shows signs of being formed from the welding together of two separate accounts written from different viewpoints, while its literary antecedents, and the antecedents of numerous other biblical passages, go back long before the date ascribed to Moses.

File:Sargon of Akkad.jpg

Bronze head of Sargon(?), unearthed at Nineveh. Public domain via Wikipedia

You are probably familiar with the story of Moses in the bulrushes, and may have wondered where on earth it came from. Here’s your answer. It is a direct echo of the story of Sargon of Akkad (2270 – 2215 BCE). Sargon’s mother, he tells us, was a priestess, and therefore had no business having children. So she made him a reed basket sealed with bitumen, and placed him in the river, from which he was rescued by a farmer drawing water.

Consider also the Code of Hammurabi, around 1754 BC. This code, and many subsequent cuneiform tablets, resemble in their “If a man…” format the codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy, including the notorious “an eye for an eye”, which the Jews by rabbinical times had reinterpreted as a right to financial compensation for injury. And the part-mythical, part-historical Sumerian Kings List (ca. 2000 BCE) assigns enormously long lives of the pre-Flood rulers, as Genesis does to its pre-Flood patriarchs.

 

 

F0182 Louvre Code Hammourabi Bas-relief Sb8 rwk.jpg

Hammurabi receiving insignia from a seated god (Shamash, the Sun God, or Marduk); from Louvre stele of the Code, ca. 1750 – 1790 BCE. Image Mbtz own work via Wikipedia

The Flood story itself exists in numerous versions, the oldest ones known to us being the Sumerian Flood of Ziusudra and the Old Babylonian (Akkadian) of Atrahasis, from around 1600 BCE, although the story may by then already have been ancient. We should also remember that our cuneiform libraries are sadly incomplete, and in several key texts the ending is missing. Even so, the resemblance is clear, and sometimes extends to specific details. On one Old Babylonian tablet, the god who warns Atrahasis says that he will send him the animals to wait at his door to be rescued. Compare Genesis 6:20, where two of every sort will come of their own accord to Noah, thus answering the question of how he would have been able to round them all up. The same tablet even uses the expression “two by two”, as in Genesis 7:9, as does another recently translated tablet, the “Ark tablet” from around 1750 BCE, that shows the Ark as an enormous coracle.

Coracle on the Tigris in Baghdad, 1914. Freddy Khalastchy via Wikipedia

Closest to the biblical account among the surviving materials is the story of Utnapishtim, embedded in the Assyrian Epic of Gilgamesh, which I finally got around to reading this year. part of the great library of Ashur-bani-pal that was buried in the wreckage of Nineveh when that city was sacked by the Babylonians and their allies in 612 BCE. Gilgamesh is a surprisingly modern hero. As King, he accomplishes mighty deeds, including gaining access to the timber required for his building plans by overcoming the guardian of the forest. But this victory comes at a cost; his beloved friend Enkidu opens by hand the gate to the forest when he should have smashed his way in with his axe. This seemingly minor lapse, like Moses’ minor lapse in striking the rock when he should have spoken to it, proves fatal.

Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh, unable to accept this fact, sets out in search of the secret of immortality, only to learn that there is no such thing. He does bring back from his journey a youth-restoring herb, but at the last moment even this is stolen from him by a snake when he turns aside to bathe. In due course, he dies, mourned by his subjects and surrounded by a grieving family, but despite his many successes, what remains with us is his deep disappointment. He has not managed to accomplish what he set out to do.

On his journey, Gilgamesh meets the one man who has achieved immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of a flood remarkably similar, even in its details, to the Flood in the Bible. This includes the central figure acting on orders from a god, taking samples of all living things into the Ark, sealing it watertight with pitch (which is abundant in Mesopotamia), sending birds out of the Ark to test for dry land when, after the flood, it runs aground, and offering up sacrifice on emergence. In Genesis, famously, we have God pointing to the rainbow as a sign that He will never again bring on a universal flood. In the parallel passage in Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar displays her bejewelled necklace and says that she will never forget this time. There is a final element in Gilgamesh that is completely absent in Genesis. Enlil, who was primarily responsible for the Flood, is persuaded by the other gods that he has rather overdone it, goes down into the Ark, takes Utnapishtim and his wife by the hand, and grants them eternal life. (In Genesis, you may recall, Noah goes and gets drunk.)

One dramatic difference between the Genesis story and its Mesopotamian precursors is the length of the Flood; a year, rather than a few days. Another is the shape and composition of the Ark, which changes from a round coracle woven from reeds in Atrahasis to square planking in Gilgamesh to a giant gopher wood longboat in Genesis, although one feature (the use of pitch for waterproofing) remains constant throughout. Then there is the reason for the Flood. In Gilgamesh, none is given, but in other versions we are told that the gods, and especially the ill-tempered and arbitrary Enlil, think that humankind is making too much noise for their comfort.1 The gods are, among other things, personifications of natural forces, and Enlil as sky god is responsible for storms. In Genesis, humankind is destroyed, by the God who created them, because they deserve it. We can debate the relative merits and degree of realism of these two approaches.

Schoolroom cuneiform tablet, Babylon, describing Baby Sargon in his cradle. From Finkel, p. 254

From very early times, the Israelites must have been familiar with the literature of their powerful neighbours to the East. They would certainly have come into contact with it during the Babylonian Exile. The Book of Daniel tells us (and why should we not believe it?) that selected Judaean youth were given three-year courses in Babylonian language and literature, during which provision was made for their food and wine. A university education, complete with maintenance grant! And we know from the recovered debris of Babylonian schoolrooms that the King List, Sargon, and Gilgamesh were part of the curriculum.

Other interesting things were happening in Babylon around this time. One remarkable tablet seems to describe all the other gods as attributes of Marduk, the god particularly associated with Babylon. So we are told that Urush is Marduk of planting, Nergal is Marduk of battle, Nabu is Marduk of accountancy, and so on through a total of 14 equivalences. If Marduk-worship really was moving in the direction of monotheism, this might help explain the puzzling fact that the Jewish hero of the book of Esther is called Mordechai.

The Flood story may have entered what was to become the Jewish tradition more than once, and from subtly varying sources. The Genesis account gives the strong impression of being the fusion of two slightly inconsistent narratives, using different ways of referring to God.2 One of these has Noah taking one pair of each kind into the Ark, while the latter has him take in seven pairs of clean animals, presumably in order to have some available for sacrificing, or perhaps to restore agriculture after the Flood. The degree of distinctiveness of these two narratives, and their dates of composition, remain fertile areas for study and debate.

Thus, placed in context, the Flood story fits into a picture of intellectual and spiritual ferment as people, and peoples, develop their descriptions of the Deity. By contrast, the doctrine of verbal infallibility offers nothing but a single sterile rootless revelation. Genesis deserves better.

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the FloodSources: This piece was triggered by reading Sanders’ 1960 translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Reading this sent me back to Genesis, and hence to two other books, The Bible [actually, just the Pentateuch] with Sources Revealed,   by Friedman, and The Ark Before Noah,  by Finkel. Friedman is Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, while Finkel is curator of the British Museum’s collection of cuneiform tablets. Most of the material here derives from these two sources.

1] Sandars interpolated this reason from the Atrahasis Flood story into her translation of Gilgamesh; see her introduction for details.

2] Some readers will recognise these as P (in some authors, E) and J respectively, two of the four sources proposed in the Documentary Hypothesis, for which Friedman lays out the evidence in the work already mentioned and, at greater length, in Who Wrote the Bible?  For a powerfully dissenting view, however, see Rendsburg, “The Biblical Flood story in the light of the Gilgamesh Flood account,” in Gilgamesh and the world of Assyria, Azize, J & Weeks, N., Peeters, 2007, p. 117, open access here (Publication 119), and How the Bible Is Written (scheduled for 2019).

Maimonides image via O Jardim de Epicuro. I would welcome information about its source. I thank Professor Gary Rendsburg for helpful correspondence and access to unpublished material. Some of the material in this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

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Meeting creationists on their own terms: understanding the Genesis flood

Maimonides said it best, over 800 years ago. The Divine Teaching is, of necessity, expressed in human language. We don’t believe that God has fingers and hands (Exodus, Isaiah, Psalms, Luke) or goes for walks in gardens (Genesis). I would add that no one takes the commandments in the Bible literally, and when Daesh comes close to following the rules of law laid down in Deuteronomy, we are quite properly appalled. All of this is familiar, but this piece combats biblical literalism on its own terms, shows how it is inseparable from interpretation, and thereby undermines its strongest attraction – the illusion of certainty.

The Logic of Science

In this post, I am going to do something highly atypical for a science blog: I am going to talk about theology. I want to be very clear about why I am doing this and why you should pay attention (regardless of your personal religious beliefs or lack thereof). I have spent a great deal of time talking to creationists, and what I have found is that most of them are concerned primarily with what the Bible says, and they only accept science when it happens to line up with their religious views. In other words, it’s not that the creationists are unintelligent, it’s simply that they have different priorities. As a result, if you initiate a conversation with creationists by talking about the science of evolution, you won’t get anywhere because they think that the science conflicts with their religion, but if you start by explaining why the science

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Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism

Last month, Professor Alice Roberts visited Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, a creationist establishment recommended by Answers in Genesis, and wrote a highly critical report of what she found there. The Zoo Farm has replied on the Bristol culture website, and their response only adds further credibility to her strongest accusations. Since this website does not want to be accused of quote mining, I attach, in full, the Zoo’s statement, with our own comments inserted as appropriate. It should be remembered that the Zoo offers a range of what it describes as educational activities, including “an educational day out” for schools, with price discounts, on-site workshops described as being linked to the National Curriculum, and school and nursery outreach packages.

Alice Roberts

Professor Alice Roberts, from her web site

Prof Roberts tells of posters in the auditorium and children’s play area, which is presumably where the on-site workshops take place, claiming among other things that there are “30 reasons why apes are not related to man”, that humans were around at the same time as the first tetrapods (was Tiktaalik tasty, one wonders), that rates of radioactive decay were greater in the past, and that these possibilities should be considered as part of “an open, critical approach to explain what we see in the natural world.” She comments

I believe that religious fundamentalism has the potential to ruin scientific education. Apart from obscuring scientific facts, it teaches a way of thinking that is incredibly rigid. The evidence for a (very) old Earth and for evolution is overwhelming.

But believing in these things isn’t like a religious faith – it comes from a belief in evidence…. This [the zoo presentations] is, purely and simply, subversion of science Read the rest of this entry

Intelligently designed; the creationist assault on science; Conway Hall talk draft flier

I will be giving the Sunday Lecture to the Conway Hall Ethical Society at 11:00 on 16th March 2014. Attached is my draft publicity material. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Creation science” is a 20th century heresy, albeit with far older roots. Its central claim is that beliefs compatible with biblically inspired creationism are in fact scientifically superior to mainstream views on evolution and an old earth. Its arguments for supernatural intervention range from the ludicrous to the highly sophisticated; from “Flood geology” to the origin of biological information; from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to seemingly scholarly works invoking cellular complexity or the so-called Cambrian Explosion. The creationists themselves are not necessarily stupid, nor ill-informed, nor (in other matters) deluded. In all cases, their deep motivation is the wish to preserve the supernatural role of God the Creator, and a particular view of the man-God relationship.

There are several interlocking organisations active in the UK to promote creationism. These include Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (closely linked to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and its notorious Wedge Strategy), Truth in Science, and The World Around Us/The Genesis Agendum, who between them have links to Brethren churches, the Christian Schools Trust, Answers in Genesis, and Creation Ministries International.

I will be discussing the attempts by such organizations to infiltrate the educational system, the inadequacies of official attempts to prevent this, and possible countermeasures. I will also be giving my own views on why creationist arguments are appealing to those without detailed background knowledge, and how we should respond.

Paul Braterman is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at GlasgowUniversity, and former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, where his research related to the origins of life was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology program. He is a committee member of the British Centre for Science Education, and of the Scottish Secular Society, and has been following creationist infiltration into education in the UK for some years. He is a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, and his most recent book, From Stars to Stalagmites, discusses aspects of chemistry in their historical and everyday contexts.

psbraterman@yahoo.com  https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com  @paulbraterman

Answers in Genesis supporter providing Religious Observance at Scottish “Non-Denominational” School

Creation_Museum_10Calderglen High School, a publicly funded school in East Kilbride near Glasgow, has a seven-member chaplaincy team,   which, according to the School’s website, “provides for the school a rich and key resource for the curriculum”. The team includes three representatives of Baptist churches, three from the Church of Scotland, and one, Dr. Nagy Iskander, from Westwoodhill Evangelical Church. Generally speaking, the Church of Scotland accepts scientific reality, while views within the Baptist churches vary. So what of Dr. Iskander, who holds the balance?

On the school website, he says

I am interested in Science and the Bible and always happy to tackle questions in this area, so please feel free to contact me about any questions regarding Science and the Christian faith.

What he does not say is that he is an out and out supporter of biblical literalism, singled out for praise by Answers in Genesis, and a welcome visitor and occasional speaker at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, where you will learn that the fossil record is a result of Noah’s Flood, and that “Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs.” You will also find on the AiG web site recorded lectures by Dr Iskander, in which he states that belief in the literal truth of Genesis is foundational to Christianity. As for the relationship between Science and the Bible, Dr. Iskander had this to say to his local newspaper, on the occasion of Answers in Genesis’ Scottish Conference this month:

Both the creationists and evolutionists have the same facts – we have the same earth, the same geological layers, the same fossils – but when we examine the facts we might come to different conclusions, depending on our starting point.

And in case you are charitable enough to see some wriggle room here (note that weasel word “might”) for reconciling science with Dr. Iskander’s view of religion, consider this, from his statement to a reporter from the [Glasgow] Sunday Herald:

Creation according to the Christian faith is a supernatural act of God, so it will not be repeated and we can’t test creation in the lab. Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that either. My view on this is we should mention everything – we should examine all the evidence and all the facts and have an open and civilised discussion about all of this without excluding one or the other.

In response, I cannot improve on the words of my friend Roger Downie, Professor of Zoological Education in a letter he sent to the Sunday Herald (published 16 June):

Your quotation from Dr Nagy Iskander illustrates why creationists should not be let near science classes. He said ‘Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that…’ On the contrary, evolution through Darwin and Wallace’s process of natural selection is happening all the time, sometimes quite quickly. Since Dr Iskander is said to be a surgeon, I would hope that he is fully aware of the evolution of the antibiotic resistance that has made hospital procedures so risky. Science advances through the testing of hypotheses and the accumulation of evidence. Both medicine and biology have greatly benefited from this process. I presume Dr Iskander’s medical practice is based on such advances, rather than the superstitions of previous times.

It is perhaps unkind to describe pre-scientific views as “superstitions” when considered in the context of their time. But to put such views forward today in the name of religion, as serious alternatives to scientific knowledge, brings religion itself into disrepute.

Who appointed Dr. Iskander to his position with the school? Were they aware of his Young Earth creationist views? What do the school’s own teachers, including both the science teachers and those who teach about religion, think of his role, and does he have any influence over their teaching? How often does he address the school, and on what subjects? Are parents notified of his views and influence? Do he and his fellow members of the Chaplaincy Panel receive any payments or reimbursements from the school? And does the school obtain any materials from a company called Christian Schools Scotland, of which he is a director?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but intend to find out by addressing a Freedom of Information request of the school. I will let you know what they say.

PS: Today’s small country viewing here is the Cayman Islands, population 55,000.

Illustration: Humans living peacefully before the Fall with vegetarian tyrannosaurs. Public domain photo of actual exhibit, through http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_Museum_10.png

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