November 12, 2014

Atheist Bible Study: Genesis 1, Part 2

I'm back with another installment in our Atheist Bible Study on Genesis. Yay!

Monday, we went through verse by verse and talked about the importance of some sections, both secularly and biblically. We also mentioned a handful of qualms that are raised with the verses.

Today, we are going to pick up talking about Elohim and why it isn't the fatal blow that some nonbelievers think it is.

Again, this is an exploration of the text and related doctrines--most certainly it is not intended as a comprehensive guide to apologetics arguments and counter-arguments. But feel free to add some in the comments!

Ready then? Here we go.

How do Christians reconcile the use of elohim to describe God multiple times in Genesis 1:1 through 2:3?


There are a variety of theories to attempt to reconcile the use of pluralities to define God, but let's start with why elohim is not a good argument from a secular perspective.

We tend to look for contradictions in the bible, and I personally feel there are more than enough to draw on without using faulty logic. So many times this argument is introduced along the lines of this:
"Silly Christians. They say they are monotheistic but even the bible has 'gods' in the very first verse. It's just more proof that these goatherders had no idea what they were talking about--they didn't even know what they believed! Don't Christians see this stuff?"
Even looking at it from a secular perspective, though, this is not an accurate representation of the text, in light of whom it was written by and when. We know that liberal scholarship dates this portion of Genesis to the 8th or 9th century B.C.E., well after the monotheism of Judaism was clearly established. So pointing to the verses we will talk about here, and saying, "Ha ha!" isn't just childish--it's ill-informed. When we look at the doctrines proposed to explain this, and go, "Oh you are just making things up to cover up a contradiction," we're taking the verses out of their cultural and historical context and trying to go liturgical on them--and it simply doesn't work.

Anyway, we touched on the idea yesterday that there are three main doctrines proposed to reconcile these pluralities, and a Christian may choose to look at any of the three or a combination of them to explain the word choice for this section.

The first reconciliatory theory is the idea of the "majestic plural." Kings have often used the plural to refer to themselves; why, then, shouldn't God?

This is an idea that is sometimes addressed as the "singularity"--God is so all-encompassing that he has to be expressed in the plural form. This is an idea that nonbelievers often attempt to deconstruct, but it's not that out of the realm of possibility when you consider that the Priestly source writing the first chapter we look at here is using literary license. P-dawg is purposefully choosing his words--it's not by accident.

When we talk about plurality referring to God in the bible, some scholars prefer to use the term "pluralis excellentiae" to differentiate between the use with regards to the divine and the usage in other (such as royal) contexts.

This idea is backed by multiple appearances of the plurality in the Old Testament, where God is referred to as "Elohim," Adonai," and "El Shaddai," but I personally think the most convincing evidence on the topic doesn't come from the bible or the Judeo-Christian tradition at all. Instead, if you look at the Qur'an, you'll see God referred to in the plural consistently--the Arabic nahnu and its derivations are common examples. We know the Arabic is referring to only one god here, because we know the history of Islam, as it's a fairly recent religion, over 600 years younger than Christianity and therefore far younger than Genesis which predates it by at least 1400 years. So we have a good example of this theory, in a format that's relatively easy to prove.

The next idea is that of the divine council. It's the idea that God is the greatest of a divine council of beings, and there's more evidence for it biblically than you'd probably believe up front. 

The idea of a divine council is fairly consistent with beliefs in Canaan and Mesopotamia at the time, the only difference being that the lower divine beings in this tradition were more obscure than in others. There are several other references to what could be considered a divine council in the bible.

In Psalms 82:

1 God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the gods.

And another verse from the same chapter:

6 I said, "You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High."

And from I Kings 22:

19 Then Micaiah said, "therefore hear the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on his Left."

In Job 1:6:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.

And again in Job 2:1:

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord. 

A third theory  is uniquely Christian in perspective. Here it is expressed in bible study from the Blue Letter Bible:

Leupold quoting Luther on Elohim: “But we have clear testimony that Moses aimed to indicate the Trinity or the three persons in the one divine nature. 1

Obviously, this is coming from a traditional evangelical Christian background, accepting the authorship of the Pentateuch by Moses. But it's important to understand these distinctions. Without understanding this justification for Elohim, you risk undercutting your credibility when discussing the matter with evangelical Christians.

The site Jesus Plus Nothing puts it like this:

It should also be noted that the word for God used in Gen 1:1 is Elohim which is itself plural and lends support for the latter revelation that God exists in the three persons of the trinity. 2

There are a variety of verses cited to back up this belief, but the most common examples come from John.

From John 1:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 
2 He was in the beginning with God. 
3 All things were made through Him, and without Him, nothing was made that was made.

From John 17:

5 And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was.

And:

24 Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

The Blue Letter Bible also says:

Leupold does a good job showing that the plurality of "let Us make" (from Genesis 1:26) cannot be merely the plurality of royalty, nor can it be God speaking with and to the angels. It is an indicator of the Trinity, though not clearly spelled out. 1

This is a built-in justification for these pluralities. That the scriptural basis for these beliefs is found in John isn't surprising--John is the book that deifies Jesus, the only Gospel that truly paints him as divine.

How can we discuss Genesis 1:1-2:3 as literature?


Personally, I think Genesis makes great literature. It fits neatly into any set of creation myths you lend yourself to.

To really understand the purpose of Genesis, approaching it as literature is best. From Wikipedia:

Another scholar, Conrad Hyers, sums up the same thought in these words: "A literalist  interpretation of the Genesis accounts is inappropriate, misleading, and unworkable [because] it presupposes and insists upon a kind of literature and intention that is not there." 3

Here are some literary elements that we can look at in this first chapter:

* Character and characterization: The author carefully chooses how to characterize God, the only character in this particular story.
* Narrator: The author chooses to use an omniscient third person narrator, which makes the reader feel like they are getting the entire story without the difficulties of a first person narrator (would God narrate? I think not!).
* Dramatic tensions: There are pauses in appropriate places, and each section draws to a neat close with "was the XX day".
* Conflict: The author pits God against nothingness, a unique conflcit.
* Diction: The author carefully chooses words for their influence, such as Elohim, expressing the immense vastness of this divine character, and "lights" instead of Sun or Moon, which would potentially have deified those beings instead.

It's impossible to put Genesis firmly in a genre, but it's very clear that the author uses a variety of story-telling techniques to get his points across.

How is the Creation Myth itself used as evidence of God's existence?


Genesis 1 as evidence of God is frustratingly simple. It is best summed up as: God created, therefore he is. Creation exists; therefore, God must.

Those who accept this will point to scriptural basis for it, such as Psalms 19:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.2 Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge.

And Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and godhead, so that they are without excuse...

It also lends itself to teleological arguments--Arguments from Design. The Watchmaker problem.

It can be summed up like this:

  1. Everything we have ever seen that looks designed has a designer.
  2. The universe looks designed.
  3. The universe must have a designer.
  4. The designer is God.
For a believer, this is an incredibly simple argument to accept, and it's got its roots right here in Genesis, which is seen as the ultimate proof of the creator.

Of course, this means that you have to accept Genesis is as literal--but for some Christians, evangelicals in particular, this is a necessity anyway. As stated in 2 Timothy 3:

16 All Scripture is given in inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 
17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

I'm not going to go into any depth to refute these arguments, because we've all read the refutations, I'm sure. I may do another, not ABS post musing on the Watchmaker argument and what we find from those who have come before.

Why do biblical literalists cling to Genesis even at the expense of modern scientific understanding?


Biblical literalists accept that the bible is to be interpreted literally, as the inerrant word of God. It is incapable of being incorrect.

For these religionists, Genesis is not myth or allegory. It can't be. It can only exist as historical narrative.

This often sets Genesis up in opposition of science. It is critical for literalists that the bible be viewed as perfectly correct on matters of science. As the Blue Letter Bible points out:

After all, if the Bible is false in regard to science or other things that we can prove, then we cannot regard it as reliable in regard to spiritual matters we cannot prove. 1

For people that believe in an inerrant and literal biblical interpretation, there is too much to lose and no room for compromise. If the bible is wrong in any one matter, their entire worldview crumbles.

It is Genesis that sets the stage for their worldview. A world that began from clashes of superheated space junk and primordial gunk isn't a world that they want to see restored, and the entire idea of redemption hinges on the idea of restoration.

The Genesis narrative sets up a perfect world order--one that we innately WANT to return to. Evolutionary theory provides no such comfort. Who wants to go back to gunk and living underwater?

This aspect of redemption is completely encased in this first chapter of Genesis. Heck, according to this, even carnivores did not exist at the time.

To these individuals, scientific discovery isn't a process, because knowledge isn't a process. Knowledge is an end. Understanding and revelation are an end. Thus the very part of science that most of us love--that it constantly changes and shifts--is to them a flaw in the process. Consider this argument from the Blue Letter Bible:

Some scientists often act certain in their knowledge about the origin of the universe, but their constant "revolutionary discoveries" prove they are really just groping in the dark. Honest scientists, those not puffed up with a proud arrogance, will admit this. 1

Of course, you and I probably both spotted the flaw in this rather quickly. Most scientists will admit that science changes. I'd wager all of them would. And I imagine quite a few would admit that a good bit of their research feels like groping in the dark for an illusive lightswitch.

But this isn't a flaw--far from it. Because the literalist is so focused on the necessity of every part of their worldview being underpinned perfectly, they see self-correction as folly.

Why is it important to understand how anti-science creationism is? 


I find most religious doctrines difficult to believe. That's one of many reasons that I am an atheist. However, there are only a handful that I am driven to actively speak out or push back against. Creationism is one of them.

I don't care if you, personally, are a creationist. That's not an issue. Believe what you'd like.

But when we look at how entirely anti-science the creationist movement is, it becomes apparent that the entire ideology must be safely kept separate from schools.

Creationist websites throw around jargon like the "arrogance of scientists" and the "tenuous scientific knowledge." They say things like the "incredulity of modern scientific discovery" like there was some golden age of science that we are now past.

They assert that there would be no scientific method without religion, which simply isn't true.

But they MUST believe these things in order for their very specific belief system to be possible, and so they need for us not to undermine it in our science classrooms--even in public schools.

Creationism is anti-science. The end. It is a religious belief, and should always and forever be addressed and understood as such.

Wrapping It Up


I really enjoyed writing up these segments. I'm enjoying going through and studying the bible from a more secular perspective, but I feel like my religious background gives me a nifty perspective on it.

It's interesting to revisit my former faith in this way. Pretty cool.

I don't know if I will have a chance to write up Genesis 2 or not this week, but if not, look for it sometime next week. I'm excited by the possibility, and hey, we get to talk about the creation of mankind! Yay!

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