Interpreting the Genesis creation account has caused a great deal of controversy in the Christian community. This is largely a modern debate, and so we must ask, what was the cosmological understanding of the author and his original audience? And how does that knowledge relate to our modern scientific understanding?
These are questions addressed in a recent book by Bible scholar Ben Stanhope. Entitled (Mis)interpreting Genesis: How the Creation Museum Misunderstands the Ancient Near Eastern Context of the Bible,1 the book’s basic thesis is that the Genesis creation account should be understood as having been composed within the framework of ancient Near Eastern cosmology. While Stanhope’s focus is on the mistaken views of young-earth creationism, he is critical of all forms of concordism, which also includes the old-earth approach promoted by Reasons to Believe (RTB).
Stanhope argues that Genesis’s human author held essentially the same cosmological worldview as the rest of the ancient Near East, where the earth was conceived of as a flat disc surrounded by water, while the sky above was a solid dome holding up the waters above and over which the heavenly bodies moved. Stanhope’s description of various ancient civilizations’ understanding leads me to believe that we can think of it as a “phenomenological” understanding—one still used today in expressions such as our ordinary use of “sunset” and “sunrise.” We know that the Sun does not literally “set” or “rise,” so we recognize a phenomenological description. The question, of course, is the extent to which the ancients recognized that. Stanhope’s thesis is that there was little if any such recognition, and he provides a great deal of evidence to back that up.
In the modern world, we have a variety of instruments that allow us to see and measure what is really going on in the cosmos. The ancients had only their naked-eye observations—together with primitive instruments that facilitated naked-eye observations, often with surprising accuracy. Likewise, the modern discovery of numerous ancient observatories shows that there was great interest concerning the workings of the physical heavens, since that interest directly related to ancient religious worldviews.
Stanhope contends that the dominant cosmological worldview of the ancients was that of a solid dome dividing the waters above from the waters below on the disc-shaped earth. He doesn’t address the obvious exceptions mentioned above—where many ancient cultures showed great interest in making astronomical observations and with surprising accuracy—so the impression given from reading his book is that he believes the evidence demands that we conclude that the author of the Genesis creation account likewise held that understanding.
Stanhope is thus dismissive of any attempt to use modern understandings of astronomy or other relevant scientific disciplines to interpret this ancient document. He considers such attempts as reading into the text meanings that were not intended by the authors. RTB scholars, on the other hand, have concluded that God guided the wording of the Hebrew and Greek text so as to make it consistent with the record of nature as understood by modern science.
Reconciling Ancient Cosmology and Modern Science
How, then, can RTB respond to Stanhope’s argument? First of all, I think everyone at RTB, together with at least most of those reading this blog, would agree with Stanhope’s critique of the various young-earth creationist ideas on display at the Creation Museum (such as dinosaurs being contemporary with human beings, no animal death before the fall, and a global flood that wiped out all land-dwelling animals except those on the ark). Likewise, old-earth concordists are not suggesting that the human authors of Scripture had any inkling of the reality revealed by modern scientific instruments when they wrote down those descriptions of the created order. Nevertheless, irrespective of the intellectual understanding of the original authors and audience, the expressions used in describing the natural world are still remarkably consistent with modern scientific understanding.
It should also be noted that Stanhope is not implying that the ancient Israelites held the same theological views as their neighbors, as that should be clear to all who are involved in this debate. The Israelites’ understandings of the Creator God, how that God had created the cosmos ex nihilo, and how they—as created beings—were to relate to their Creator stood in sharp contrast to their neighbors’ beliefs. Stanhope is simply saying that their cosmological understanding was basically the same.
I think that Stanhope has done a commendable job presenting evidence that the creation account as laid out in Genesis was constructed from within the framework of ancient cosmology. At the same time, however, I believe that the scenario laid out in Hugh Ross’s thesis as described in Genesis One: A Scientific Perspective and other RTB publications is still a valid interpretation of the Genesis account.
I don’t have the necessary academic background to make a robust conclusion about whether Stanhope is correct. While I do think he has strong arguments in his favor, there seems to be a lack of consideration for opposing arguments in his book. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that further research will confirm the conclusion that Stanhope has reached. If that is the case, what then? Is there a way these two seemingly antithetical concepts of a flat-earth, domed creation and modern cosmology can still be put together?
It seems to me that an appropriate analogy can be found in how certain biblical prophecies sometimes have a dual fulfillment: a short-term fulfillment on one level followed by an ultimate fulfillment on a different level. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 (particularly verses 11b–16), God’s promise to David is recorded. That prophecy is fulfilled on a human level in the birth of Solomon, who is the one to build “a house for my (God’s) name” in the form of the temple in Jerusalem. But it was not until some 1,000 years later that this prophecy of the “Son of David” was fulfilled on a divine level with the birth of Jesus Christ—the one who is to “establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
If Stanhope’s thesis turns out to be correct, could not a similar phenomenon be going on in Genesis 1? In this case, the immediate context would be that the human author wrote a description within his personal cosmological understanding, while at the same time, the divine Author guided the writing in such a way that it was still consistent with the cosmology as revealed through modern science. When one considers all the amazing ways that God revealed himself through the limitations of the Bible’s human authors, it seems at least plausible—and I would think even probable—that he would accomplish such a feat. If that is true, this would be a shining example of God explaining his creation in a way that people in any era would understand.
Ben Stanhope, (Mis)interpreting Genesis: How the Creation Museum Misunderstands the Ancient Near Eastern Context of the Bible (Louisville, KY: Scarab Press, 2020).
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