Some of us have a tendency to obsess over minor details in the wording the biblical texts. I have no problem with this. To outsiders, i.e. people who do not compulsively read the Bible whether Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, this can all seem arcane and at risk of missing the forest for the trees. But the Bible is an important text. In some circles authorship is credited to God (although to my knowledge God has not claimed authorship himself), and so the words that God chose to communicate with humanity are important spiritual artifacts.
The connection many Jews have to these words is of a different sort to that which most Christians have. Many Jews speak and read modern Hebrew, a good number as a first language. When they read the Bible, they hear the traditional text in its own words and in a language that is at least an early version of one they speak. Greek-speaking Christians have a comparable connection to the New Testament.
For most Christians, however, to contemplate the Bible is not to contemplate its words but their meaning as interpreted through translation into another language. The fact that the first recipients of the Word spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and the later recipients spoke a form of common Greek is incidental to the message of the Bible, its meaning. Those languages were simply the medium through which the message was delivered. We don’t obsess over the particles of air that conducted the sound waves emitting from Jesus’ mouth, why obsess over the particular vibrations they caused?
The prophets, historians, and songwriters of Israel happened to speak Hebrew, so they wrote in Hebrew. The evangelists and letter-writers of the New Testament spoke Greek and lived in a world where Greek was a common language of the Roman Empire, and so they wrote in Greek. No Christians I know attach any importance to the role of Greek in the creation of the New Testament. That is, Christ apparently did not wait to be incarnated until the world had a sufficient number of Greek speakers. Rather people happened to speak Greek, so the Bible was written in Greek; had they spoken Japanese, well then we’d have a Japanese Bible. The Hebrew texts had already been translated into Greek, and the New Testament texts were soon translated into Latin and Syriac and Coptic and so on without controversy.
So the New Testament was written in Greek. Even the most literalist Christians generally admit that many of its scenes took place in Aramaic. No one seems to have complained when the characters in The Passion of the Christ spoke Aramaic because it failed to match the Greek text. Sure, a degree of overconfidence in the ability to translate from one language to another without influencing the meaning underlies this, but the translation itself actually helps to shift focus away from the words towards their meaning (in whatever language).
I would argue that this, in turn, moves us away from treating the Bible as a magical text, one that we don’t need to understand in order to have power. Biblical scholars have gone to some lengths to argue that biblical prayers (such as the Lord’s Prayer) are not spells even if we are meant to benefit from them in direct appeal to a god. But if I were to teach a child the Lord’s Prayer in Greek without telling her its meaning, then a spell is all it would be.
Granted, Christians and Jews have overtly used the Bible as a magical object for centuries. For an example in modern-day America (at least since 1973), an exorcist waving around a well-organized pile of wood pulp with squiggles on the front that look like ‘Holy Bible’ to scare off a demon is likewise indulging in a bit of magic. A bible is just an object, and a man-made one at that. Treating the object as powerful (and not its message) is magic at best, idolatry at worst.
So Hebrew and Greek are just the media through which the message was given. The words – which were not made up just for the Bible but everyday Hebrew and Greek words already being used to ask for directions, write contracts, and describe bowel movements – should not be the final focus of our attention because they are incidental, the noises and squiggles people made at the time to represent ideas. Studying these noises and squiggles is important to get at the ideas they represent, but what should be the focus are the ideas themselves. What were the biblical authors trying to say using the languages they inherited from their culture?
Now let’s turn to the mythical, cosmological, and scientific systems that we can detect in the Bible. I’ll get to Genesis in a minute, but let me give another example first. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, the children of God are described as those who were not born of bloods, but of God (John 1:13). Why the plural ‘bloods,’ haimatōn not haimatos? Because in the biological understanding of the day embryos were formed by the mixture of two bloods: the menstrual ‘blood’ of the woman (which is not strictly speaking blood but endometrial tissue) and the semen of the man, which was believed to be purified blood. Think of waves frothing in the ocean and turning white, only here a dude gets all hot and bothered, starts shaking things around, and soon he has, well, frothed up some baby juice out of his own blood. Does anyone think of semen in this way anymore? Blood and sperm cells (not to mention all of the other material in semen) are radically different in structure and genetic potential, and they have very different functions in the body. But in the ancient world, no one had ever seen a blood cell or a sperm cell (or for that matter menstrual tissue and ova) under a microscope. The ideological framework behind John’s wording here is simply out of date and evidently inaccurate.
There are perhaps three possible responses to learning this. First, one might embrace his inner fundamentalist and decide that biological science is wrong, that semen and menstrual tissue are in fact just forms of blood and that children are formed by mixing the bloods of a man and a woman.
Second, one might reject the truth of the Gospel’s assertion that we can become children of God because, whether he was inspired by the Holy Spirit or just an early Christian writing down his religious ideas, if the author can’t get basic biology right, how can we trust him on salvation?
Yet a third possibility exists. Whatever the nature of the author’s ‘inspiration,’ it seems to have been cooperative, not coercive. The author spoke common first century Greek, so he communicated ideas through that medium. No angelic language, for example, was used. The author also wanted to explain becoming a child of God in contrast to becoming a child in a normal way. His point is not that the biological understanding of his day is eternally valid. Who cares? His point is that being begotten of God is a ‘birth’ completely distinct from biological reproduction. God does not need to have sex with your mom for you to be God’s child. More to the point, you do not need to be high-born but born again, from above, of water and Spirit. You do not need to be born into the right ethnicity or gender or class to become a child of God, but to believe. The biological details are only there to highlight the contrast between the two births, not to give us a lesson in human reproduction. At that level, we can still appreciate and understand what he was trying to say.
So this Genesis thing. Let’s leave aside the fact that taking the account as a strict chronology of seven (consecutive, “24-hour” in a Newtonian sense) days was largely abandoned for centuries. The point is that it has recently resurfaced due to 1) increased literacy from public and private education that was not coupled with traditional study of the Bible, so that the most simplistic reading was made possible without the benefit of centuries of contemplation and development, and 2) the negative reaction to the success of scientific investigation. Just when people were beginning to be able to read (translated) Bibles all on their own, scientists were telling us that there is only a molten core under the surface of the earth, not Hell; that the earth took billions of years to form, not a few days; and that humans are animals made up of molecules and bound by the same laws as the rest of the universe, that we cannot simply walk back the process x number of times to arrive at our great-great-great-…-great grandparents and their creepy, inbred children.
This ‘young Earth’ position is no different than a ‘two bloods’ position. The message of the first chapter of Genesis has something to do with the order of the universe, an order credited to God’s guidance in creation over time. When humanity is created last of the living beings (in the first chapter at least—contradicted immediately in the second), two further points seem to be made. The first is that we are dependent on God and the order that God infused creation with for our existence. We are subsequent to and yet no different from the other created beings except in the second point, which is that we have a responsibility as intelligent beings to contribute to the order of creation, not to the chaos. This message tends to get lost on American readers who want to make a buck off of savaging the environment.
The implied author wanted to convey this message, and so he expressed it in a language (ancient Hebrew) and a cosmological framework that he and his audience could understand. That the author envisions a flat earth with water below it and water above it (hence rain and a blue sky) is beside the actual point, which is that the configuration of the cosmos in a way that is amenable to (human) life is accomplished through God’s guidance. The nice neighborhood is what’s important, not the ‘bowl on a plate’ cosmological model. Creation itself, not its verbal and paradigmatic description. Likewise the seven days are clearly a symbol linked to the Sabbath (cf. the 10 Commandments, Exod 20:11) meant to demonstrate the harmony of Israel’s Law with creation. Again, most of the young Earthers don’t even bother with the Sabbath.
And what if God directly inspired this text to the point that it represents a verbatim dictation of the divine Word? Well, even then communication is a two-way street. If someone speaks incredibly eloquent Russian to me, no communication will take place because I do not speak Russian. Likewise, if a physicist explains a particularly obscure theory to me in eloquent English, a language I understand, we can expect almost as little communication to take place because I do not have the background in theoretical physics to understand what she is saying. If we are quite traditional (since the text is anonymous) and literal about the book of Genesis, then we might believe that it was dictated word for word to Moses. Since Moses spoke Hebrew, God spoke Hebrew to him. Addressing him in ancient Chinese would have been counter-productive, so God met Moses on his own terms.
Similarly, God wanted to communicate to Moses certain ideas about humanity’s dependence on the order that God had created. Moses had a particular cosmological understanding that was quite common among the cultures surrounding Israel. He was also a lawgiver tasked with upholding certain traditions such as the Sabbath, and integrating the Sabbath structure into creation underlines its importance. God could communicate these important theological ideas within Moses’ ancient and common cosmology, so there was no need to correct it since the cosmology itself was not the point! God could have wasted their time giving Moses an advanced training course in thermodynamics, temporal mechanics, and a detailed lesson in geology, but that would be to miss the forest for the trees.
Furthermore, Moses was only an intermediary. He then had to communicate the message to the people of Israel, who themselves had inherited ideas of cosmology and creation. Had Moses tried to explain all of the intricacies of cosmological history to them from the big bang forward, they would have thrown their hands up and said, “Whatever nerd, I’m going back to Egypt!” It is all but certain that the theological message would have been lost. Shockingly, knowing the limitations of human understanding, God may have chosen the theological message over a science lesson. The message could be communicated well enough without teaching them a new language or a new cosmology.
So even within a very traditional framework there is no reason to dismiss scientific developments because they do not align with ancient cosmologies if one has a somewhat more nuanced understanding of how communication takes place (and a great deal more humility about human understanding in general). To treat the ancient and foreign words/paradigms of the Bible as powerful in themselves apart from their message is to treat the Bible as a magical text with all the abracadabra that works whether you know what it means or not, whether it connects to your real experience of the world or not.
Instead, the ancient, pre-biblical words were a way of conveying meaning. The same goes for ancient, pre-biblical ideologies. They are a means for conveying a new and deeper theological idea, and the theological idea should be our focus, not the ‘noise’ used to convey it. To do otherwise is to treat the Bible as a magical text with its ancient, esoteric understandings of the universe, its waters in the sky that we cannot see but must be there because the Bible says they are, the stars as angels who obey physical laws only because they’re marching in formation. The ancient cosmology is perhaps a more complex building block out of which to build a theological message than whatever words certain people spoke 3,000 years ago, but it serves the same purpose. To the same extent that Christians do not feel the need to learn and in fact speak ancient, biblical Hebrew in their daily lives, it is just as unnecessary for them to pretend that no advances in human understanding of the cosmos have occurred in over three millennia. It is far more important for them to contemplate the orderly and life-giving world that God has provided them with as they make decisions that potentially upend that order and drive our fellow creations to extinction.