If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Mummy mummy what's a firmament?

"In the beginning": in other words, once upon a time. Genesis indicates from its first words that there follows a story, to be read as such. It provides other clues in case you miss the first one.

Looked upon as science or history however, Genesis is quite extraordinarily uninformative. Day One: God creates the heavens and the earth. It's without form and void. Dark, wet and windy. Light is created, with no source other than divine command. What is it being emitted by? Silly question. It is then separated from the darkness, and we are told that a day passes; this despite the word "day" denoting the time between one sunrise and the next - and we won't have a sun for another three, well, days.

As science this is drivel, but it gets worse. On Day Two, God creates a "firmament" which will enable him to separate "waters from waters". We now have the sky, containing a certain quantity of water, while below there is basically a vast quantity of mud; tomorrow, God will further separate it into dry land and sea. But let us return to this matter of the firmament. We are familiar with the word, less so with its meaning.

Exactly what did the biblical writers picture when they had God create "the firmament"? They must have been thinking of something like a giant version of the Astrodome. The "firmament," as the very word, containing the element "firm," implies, the underlying Hebrew denotes a solid dome of metal or crystal. The Latin noun firmamentum comes from the verb firmare , "to make firm." It is a good word to choose to translate the Hebrew raqiya, which denotes "a dome beaten out of metal sheets."

Heaven and Its Wonders, and Earth: The World the Biblical Writers Thought They Lived In Robert M. Price and Reginald Finley Sr.

So far as the writers of Genesis are concerned, argue Price and Finley, the world had a solid ceiling. Two huge problems then: first, the idea of the sky of a dome seems to confirm one's suspicion that for Bible writers the earth is indeed flat - try imagining a dome anchored on a sphere and you'll see the difficulty. Second, in two days' time the sun is going to be created; and clearly if its warmth and light are to reach the earth it must be positioned below the inner side of the firmament. Forget 93 million miles away; but then, forget also any notion you might have that the sun is much larger than the earth. Think instead in terms of this diagram, which shows the kind of mental picture of the universe which the Bible writers had.

Creationists (with a few seriously lunatic exceptions) tend to fight shy of flat-earth and geocentric cosmologies, despite evidence that these are more "Scriptural" than our modern understanding of a spherical earth orbitting a large, relatively distant sun. Apologists like J P Holding, writing for Answers In Genesis, argue that "firmament" in Genesis 1.7 and elsewhere means something like "expanse" and should not be taken literally; he accuses "skeptics" like Price and Finley of having an ulterior motive in wanting to attribute to Bible writers a clearly primitive cosmology. Holding also resists the implication of verses like Isaiah 11.12 and Revelation 7.1, with their references to the four corner of earth, that this planet of ours is in fact a disc rather than a sphere.

Apologists never acknowledge their own ulterior motives of course, and one could easily turn the tables on Holding by asking why he is so keen to interpret Scripture in the light of scientific discoveries made since it was written. Why should it surprise us to discover that ancient Hebrews, in common with other Middle Eastern peoples, did think of the earth as a disc? But even if Holding is right, it seems to me he's missed the point. According to Genesis 1, God first brings into being a formless mass of muddy water; then he performs two distinct acts of separation, one by way of the "firmament" which creates the sky, then another which creates a single landmass. Anyone seeking a detailed, scientifically credible description of these processes is whistling in the dark.


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