Friday, August 14, 2009

Vocabulary and Vantage Point in Genesis

This blog is devoted to questions science must ask but cannot answer, but I have one little question about the Bible which is more grammatical than theological. It has to do with the perspective of the narrator in two passages in Genesis.

Genesis 1 tells about six days of creation. Genesis 7:19 tells how the waters of Noah's flood covered all the high hills and mountains under the sky. The original observer of the events in Genesis 1 could not have been a human being, since humans weren't created until day 6. The original observer in Genesis 7 could easily have been a human; either Noah or a member of his family.

By contrast, the passage from Genesis 6:9-9:29 is a story that is all about human beings. Although God speaks in this story, it is only and always to Noah. There's nothing in this text that needed to come from any other source than Noah himself except the very last sentence, which says that Noah died. For purposes of this argument, I'm going to assume that Genesis 7 is not fiction, but is instead an oral tradition passed down from Noah himself to some scribe at a much later date.

Here's the question: should we interpret these two passages as stories told by a human observer from a particular frame of reference, or as the report of an "omniscient observer" who sees all and knows all? To be specific, are the "days" in Genesis defined by the sunrise and sunset on planet Earth? And are "all the high hills and mountains under the sky" the mountains that Noah could see out to his horizon, or everything an angel could observe, including Mount Everest?

If we assume both passages were narrated by an angel, we should treat them both the same way. An angel who can see every mountain under the Earth's atmosphere may or may not use the term "day" to mean 24 hours. The "angel only" model of Genesis would lead one to predict a world-wide Flood but does not necessitate a young earth.

If we assume both passages were narrated by a human, the Genesis 1 account must be "poetic," to put it nicely. By its terms, there weren't any humans around for the first five days. That means we should look for a regional flood and take the "six days of Creation" as poetry, symbolism, or just plain fraud.

If we assume Genesis 1 originally came from a non-human source, we should look for a word-for-word correlation with what human science can detect about the origins of the universe, Earth, and life... but not within a human frame of reference.

If Genesis 7 began as an oral report by a faithful human witness, we shouldn't require Mt. Everest to be covered with water. If it was Noah telling the story, then "All the mountains under the sky" literally meant "every mountain Noah could see." It takes at least an angelic narrator to provide a reliable first-hand report of a global flood.

I don't have any problem with the text of Genesis. I do believe that people who take strong positions about the meaning of that text should be willing to explicitly state their assumptions. In this case, it seems like Young Earth Creationists who believe in a world-wide flood assume that the super-human narrator of Genesis 1 spoke from a human frame of reference, while the arguably human narrator of Genesis 7 reported things that only an angel (or better) could know.

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