Friday, August 05, 2005

Hast thou with Him spread out the sky? (Gen 1:14-19)

Remember analogies? If you took the SATs in high school like I and so many others did, you had to go through a whole series of these odd little things that were supposed to say something about how well-suited you were for college somehow. Do they still have those on the SAT today? You know, those things:

1) FOOT : SOCK :: HAND :
a. tool
b. finger
c. shoe
d. glove
e. mouth

Of course, the answer is (d). That's easy. Here's a really tough one:

2) DAY : SUN :: NIGHT :

No multiple choice, I'd just like you to mull it over. I'd be willing to bet that a strong majority of the people presented with this would immediately know that the answer was "MOON". Okay, the fun quiz time is over. (It wasn't that much fun, anyway.) Let's look at the SAB, which has three points to bring up about verse 16.

First, "the moon is not a light; it only reflects light from the sun." Granted, but I think that's a technicality. I would say that light's light, whether directly radiating from an object or reflecting off of it. When the moon's out at night, it lights up the place, and the fact that it's just reflected light doesn't change that fact. If I said, "Boy, the moon sure is bright tonight, isn't it?" would you really sound thoughtful to respond, "No it isn't; it's the sun that's bright, and the moon just happens to reflect that brightness," or would you sound like a jerk? I mean, in the morning, the sun will come up and the moon will go down, right? Wrong, the sun doesn't "come up"; the earth rotates until your perspective causes the sun to appear to be relatively positioned above the horizon line, foolish person! Ugh, that would be annoying to talk like that all the time, wouldn't it? I'm moving on.

Second point: "why, if God made the moon to 'rule the night', does it spend half of its time moving through the daytime sky?" Okay, I hope you all saw that the analogy thing up above was intended to respond to this point. The sun "rules the day" because it's the brightest object in the sky during the day, and the moon "rules the night" because...(can you feel the tension?)'s the brightest object in the sky during the night, even if it is only reflected light. If a person is going to insist on such an over-literal interpretation of the Bible, then they're missing out on another golden opportunity like yesterday.

The moon is a big hunk of rock. The sun is a huge ball of glowing gas. Usually when we talk about something "ruling" something, the thing doing the ruling is either a person, group of people, or a set of laws created by a person or group of people. If I walked in on President Bush with a big chunk of moon rock, put it on his desk in the oval office and said, "This rock is hereby placed upon this desk by me to rule over the nation," they'd cart me away and lock me in a rubber room. (Although I'm sure many are convinced that the rock would do a better job...) Why don't skeptics ever point out this absurdity? It seems obvious that it's because they know "rule over" is just a poetic expression in this passage.

Last point on this passage: "almost as an afterthought, he makes the trillions of stars." I've heard Stephen Hawking himself has pointed this out as a reason to be an atheist. Maybe someone can find the quote; it's an interesting one about how God made too many stars. I'm going to guess Steve Wells is saying the same thing, as he doesn't actually seem to explain why he views this as a problem. Why trillions of stars? Why not a few hundred? Why not a dozen or so? Why any stars at all other than the sun? As for myself, I can imagine God creating a world with just the sun and the moon, and the moon is always full and out at night. On the surface of the planet, instead of thousands or perhaps millions of kinds of animals, just human beings, and the only plant would be a tree that has a terrific-tasting fruit that is perfectly nutritionally balanced for human needs. No harsh weather, no high mountains, no deep waters. Essentially very, very boring.

Now, I'm not the kind of guy who says, "Look at the world, and how complex and beautiful everything is; there must be a God!" But I grew up largely in the country, and late at night, you could lie on your back in a field among the grass and the weeds, and smell the pine trees, and hear the sounds of grasshoppers, wolves, a babbling stream nearby, and on a clear night, you could look up and feel like you could see every one of those trillions of stars scattered across the blackness of the sky. If you could imagine yourself there with me, both of us kids staring up at those stars, and I ask you, which of those stars are the unneccesary ones? The beauty of the universe doesn't tell me that there must be a God, but it does make me think often that if indeed there is a God, He made something beautiful that I wouldn't change in the least. Sure, they're not all visible from the ground, but have you seen images from the Hubble telescope? What if we'd put that thing up there, and there was nothing to see? All those stars don't necessarily serve a practical purpose, but do they really need to?

Final note, I notice that Wells also has a note on verse 14, and you may have noticed I didn't address it. That's because I have no answer for that one. (But I picked it up at a later date.) It might be a grammatical problem with the KJV, I don't know.

(See the comments for more musings on the nature of language.)


---------------------------------- said...

Props from the heretofore silent masses who are enjoying this fascinating read.

Regarding using the stars for signs, I think God could have forseen a plan to use a star to mark the birth of the messiah. Maybe this is what was meant.

Brucker said...

Sure, that could be the case, and the Bible certainly seems to be saying that the stars gave a sign of the birth of Christ, but that still allows the question to stand, doesn't it? Maybe it's not astrology in the usual sense, but it's still a very similar sort of thing.

Thanks for your comments, though, and I'm glad to hear someone's enjoying reading it!

marauder34 said...

I've known a few people who believe that when Genesis 1 claims the stars were set to mark the times and seasons of man, that it's referring to the calendar and the progression of seasons, rather than to the Mazeroth (sp), the Hebrews' version of the Zodiac.

While I grant a certain logic and safety to that interpretation, I think the example of the Star of Bethlehem suggests that there may be other times and seasons the stars measure.

The difference between this and astrology is a matter of scale; if the stars measure out seasons of man in an other-than-calendrical sense, it is in a broad, expansive manner more concerned with the works of God with empires and kingdoms, than with whether the stars are smiling upon a Capricorn's efforts to get a good parking space at the mall today.

Much later, the psalmist declares that the heavens declare the glory of God, and that the sun proclaims him, like a bridegroom dressed in white. Yes, this may be metaphorical in the sense that "since the beginning of time, all creation has been filled with the invisible, eternal qualities of God, so that men are left without excuse"; but I think there is a certain logic and reason to believing that there is more to it than that.

Brucker said...

I have heard that there is a Hebrew zodiac, and it tells a story that starts with a virgin and ends with a triumphant lion. Interesting thought, there...

Brucker said...

Finally, a word or two about prepositions

Someone once protested to me concerning this passage that the fact God placed lights "in the firmament" suggests that the Bible is making a scientific claim that the sun, moon, stars and planets are all little lights physically stuck into the "firmament", which to him was clearly a solid, opaque bowl-shaped object. It's probably something he assumed the Bible must be saying since it's clear that some people have viewed the cosmos that way in the past.

My view on this is that there is an inherent difficulty in translating prepositions, and I think it's something that has to be taken into account throughout not only the Bible, but in all literature (occasionally even in non-translated works!)

In this particular case, even if we assume that the firmament is a solid object in the sky, we don't have to take this concept of being "in the firmament" as a literal phrase meaning that certain objects are physically lodged within it. Think of the firmament (whatever it may be) as a skylight. A skylight is a physically solid object that is above ones head that serves to keep out the water that is above you (rain). But if you were in a room with a skylight, and you saw the sun through it, you'd be perfectly justified in saying, "The sun is in the skylight."

In a more general sense, the fact that the actual nature of the "firmament" is not known gives a lot of leeway in possible meaning. At my work, most people have cubicles with desks in them, and the desks are complicated compound structures that have many places within them for storage (like this?). A particular curiosity preposition-wise is the overhead bins in the cubicles. Since the word "desk" refers to both the apparatus as a whole and particularly to the surface on which a person would place a coffee cup or a document for reading or editing, if you put a book in the overhead bin, you could say that it was over the desk or in the desk, depending on what seemed right to you. Something "over the desk" could be in the overhead storage, sitting on the writing surface, hanging from the ceiling, resting on the floor near the desk while taller than the writing surface, or resting on an object that itself was over the desk. If the thing in question were an abstract concept, it could be over the desk without having an actual physical location, such as "a sense of gloom".

I could probably say much, much more, but I think you get the point. As hard as it is to nail down a meaning for an untranslated preposition, when one is translating from a foreign language, things can get really shady. Skeptics shouldn't hang an objection solely on the nuance of a single preposition (not that I've seen the SAB do this yet, and hopefully I will not), nor in my opinion should a believer hang a doctrine on the same.

On an only semi-related note, translation of the Bible into some languages can be far more daunting than translation into English. I was talking to a Bible translator once who told me of a small South American tribe that had 23 different words for "carry". The challenge then for a translator is to decide what word to use for John carrying Jesus' sandals, and for Jesus asking his disciples to carry their cross. Furthermore, once you get the right word for those actions, how do you know the concept is really getting through, when both of those verses are symbolic rather than completely literal in nature? It's a really tough job being a translator.

Brucker said...

I just noticed I didn't answer the issue of when the stars were created. I have put my response here.

Unknown said...

Yes, it's over two years later, but I must affirm as a person with a degree in Linguistics and experience learning more than a few foreign languages - prepositions are the weirdest behaving, most arbitrary bits of language. Even adverbs aren't as weird.

Brucker said...


On another interesting note, I recall the translator I mentioned saying that there was one tribe in Africa that had some experience in the past with cannibalism, and when they translated the story of the death of John the Baptist, most people seemed to think that the reason there was a request made for John's head on a platter was that someone desired to eat it.

Na said...

Firstly, if we are going to say god is magic and he does stuff to make things less boring; he could have put anything up there. Lots and lots of stars, as pretty as it is (I grew up in the countryside too), always and every night is not the least boring option. Especially for most of humanity that has lived so far.

Second studying Japanese I also think that prepositions can be tricky (at least at my level). However, they are 'most of the time' quite clear in context to those who are fluent. I was wondering whether you have actually looked into whether the instances of prepositions used that you say could be misunderstood are that ambiguous in the Hebrew text?

Brucker said...

I haven't looked into it in great detail, but I'm contending a couple things. One, that translation of prepositions is probably the hardest part of translation, and two, that when reading a book written over 3,000 years ago to say that you can be sure about the meaning of a preposition is questionable: after all, there are a few nouns, verbs, and adjectives we don't quite know for sure.