Revisiting God, Sky & Land by Fritz Guy and Brian Bull
by Sean Pitman:
Recently, as part of Dr. Paul Giem’s lecture series at Loma Linda University Church, Drs. Fritz Guy (theologian, former president of La Sierra University, and one of the framers of Adventist Fundamental Belief #6 on Creation) and Brian Bull (pathologist and well-published medical scientist) were invited to present their latest book, God, Sky & Land, (about how to read the Genesis account of creation as the original Hebrews would have heard it) and respond to various questions about their book (see video below).
In short, Drs. Guy and Bull argue that it is effectively impossible to bring the ancient mindset in line with modern concepts of empirical reality. They conclude that both the original writer(s) and readers of the Genesis account viewed the Earth as a flat disc covered by a solid dome or vault which separated the land below from the “waters of chaos” above… and that this vault had “windows” in it that could allow, if needed, the waters above to flow down onto the Earth on occasion (as during Noah’s Flood). Obviously, such concepts are completely foreign to the modern reader – given the discoveries of modern science. Yet, for the ancient Hebrews such concepts were accepted as facts of life.
Drs. Guy and Bull conclude that the Genesis account of origins cannot be taken to be a scientific description of empirical reality. Rather, it is limited to the idea that God is the Creator without saying when or how He actually created the universe, this planet, or living things on this planet. After all, Guy and Bull point out that modern science has essentially proven, beyond any real reasonable doubt, that the Earth, and life on it, is very old and that living things have gradually changed or evolved over hundreds of millions, even billions, of years. Surely then, the Genesis account must be read through the eyes of the ancients. This sort of understanding of Genesis allows the modern reader to combine modern science with modern religion… to obtain a deeper and more intellectually satisfying view of science, religion, and even of God.
Toward the end of the video Dr. Guy makes an interesting comment. He notes that one of the most difficult claims of Genesis for those who take the Genesis account literally is the account of the creation of the land (the Earth) and the “days” of light and dark, all before the creation of the Sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Guy also argues that Genesis clearly suggests that the creation of the entire universe took place within one week – which is completely opposed to the views of many modern Christians, to include the vast majority of Adventist scientists and theologians who believe that the universe pre-existed the creation of this world. Even Mrs. White explains that other worlds and other created intelligences pre-existed the creation of our world and that they stood in wonder of God’s creative power as He formed our world.
Before the creation of man, angels were in existence; for when the foundations of the earth were laid, “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Job 38:7. – GC, p 511
By the marvelous display of his love in giving “his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” the glory of God is revealed to lost humanity and to the intelligences of other worlds. – ST, April 25, 1892
Now, some might be surprised that I, a conservative “Bible-thumping Adventist fundamentalist”, actually agree with many if not most of the arguments that Drs. Guy and Bull present in their book (and in this particular discussion with Dr. Giem). For example, I do not think that the author of the Genesis account (i.e., Moses) was necessarily given privileged information from the modern scientific perspective to understand the nature of the universe or even our own planet or solar system. In other words, we might actually know a few things today about the nature of our world and universe that Moses may not have known or understood when he wrote Genesis. I think most of us would agree on this potentiality (especially given our detailed experience with the life and inspiration of the modern prophetess, Ellen White).
Yet, to argue that Moses was shown, in a vision from God no less, a view of history that really has no useful basis in empirical reality, that God did not actually give Moses privileged information about historical events as they really took place, is a bit premature – even rationally inconsistent with the notion that any part of the Bible was actually inspired by God in any sort of privileged manner. After all, if nothing in the Bible can be subjected to any kind of potentially falsifying empirical test, upon what basis does it gain credibility as the Word of God? – over a made-up fairytale, moral fable, legend, or just-so story?
Now, I should point out at this point that Drs. Bull and Guy do actually argue that Genesis was inspired by God – though they don’t explain why they believe this given that they see little in Genesis as representing empirical reality or requiring privileged information from God above and beyond that of other creation legends in other cultures.
As far as the argument of limited perspectives is concerned, consider a situation where an infinite all-knowing God shows someone from a very limited perspective a movie or a “vision” of the creation week where the observer maintains his limited Earth-bound perspective. If one assumes that the author of Genesis had such a limited perspective, the description of a very real historical event, such as the creation week described in Genesis, still makes a whole lot of sense. The light of the Sun would become visible, penetrating the dense atmosphere, before the actual outlines of the Sun, moon, or stars would become visible – and the “evenings and mornings” would also be detectable before the outline or specific location of the Sun in the sky could be appreciated (as is the case during a cloudy day). The formation of the atmosphere would have appeared, from a limited Earth-bound perspective, as a bright and shiny crystalline-appearing blue dome above the head of the observer; replacing the darkness and the chaotic waters that were there before. It would all be a matter of perspective and appearances from that limited perspective…
Consider also that there is good reason to believe that Moses did in fact understand that the universe pre-existed the creation of our particular planet. After all, in his writing of the Book of Job, it was Moses who pointed out that the sons of God sang together and shouted for joy at the creation of our world (Job 38:7). Didn’t the sons of God have to live somewhere prior to the creation of our planet?
Of course, there are several other things I find troubling about God, Sky & Land. For example, how can Drs. Bull and Guy feel themselves free to quote Mrs. White in a way that suggests that she would actually support their efforts to promote a modern neo-Darwinian view of origins which does away with a literal 6-day creation week in favor of hundreds of millions of years of death, suffering, and evolutionary changes of sentient creatures on this planet? – before the moral Fall or even the existence of mankind? What is most strange is that Drs. Bull and Guy fail to point out where Mrs. White claims that she was shown, directly by God in vision, that the creation week of Genesis was actually a literal week – the same as the weeks we now experience.
I was then carried back to the creation, and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.
Ellen White, Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 1, Chap. 8, “Disguised Infidelity”, p. 85
Beyond this, in her well-known book, Patriarchs and Prophets, she even has an entire chapter entitled, “The Literal Week” where she writes:
Geologists claim to find evidence from the earth itself that it is very much older than the Mosaic record teaches… Such reasoning has led many professed Bible believers to adopt the position that the days of creation were vast, indefinite periods.
But, apart from Bible history, geology can prove nothing. Those who reason so confidently upon its discoveries have no adequate conception of the size of men, animals, and trees before the Flood, or of the great changes which then took place. Relics found in the earth do give evidence of conditions differing in many respects from the present, but the time when these conditions existed can be learned only from the Inspired Record. In the history of the Flood, inspiration has explained that which geology alone could never fathom. In the days of Noah, men, animals, and trees, many times larger than now exist, were buried, and thus preserved as an evidence to later generations that the antediluvians perished by a flood. God designed that the discovery of these things should establish faith in inspired history; but men, with their vain reasoning, fall into the same error as did the people before the Flood–the things which God gave them as a benefit, they turn into a curse by making a wrong use of them.
So, at minimum it seems rather inconsistent for Drs. Guy and Bull to think to quote Mrs. White in support of their views on Genesis when she was very strongly opposed to their main conclusions… in no uncertain terms. I mean really, if you’re going to quote someone as some kind of authority to support your position, at least present his/her actual views on the topic at hand.
Another interesting argument presented in their book is the notion that the Biblical authors/readers had no concept of natural law outside of a direct act of either God or man. At least part of the problem here is that the Biblical authors did seem to have a rather good concept of “chance” occurrences outside of the direct action of either God or man and they also seem to have had a concept of consistently predictable natural laws.
For example, consider the experiment described in the Bible where the Philistines put the Ark of God into a cart to send it back to Israel.
Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us and that it happened to us by chance. – 1 Samuel 6:1-12
Notice that the concepts of random chance events as well as consistently predictable natural laws were well established in the mind of this biblical author.
Another problem with the arguments presented by Bull and Guy is in regard to the supposedly Hebrew concept of “raqi’a” as an inverted metallic or otherwise solid half dome covering a flat Earth. According to Randall Younker (Andrews University):
“The idea that the ancient Hebrews believed the heaven(s) was a solid vault appears to emerged for the first time only during the early 19th century when introduced as part of the flat earth concept introduced by Washington Irving and Antoine-Jean Letronne. Scholars who supported this idea argued that the flat earth/vaulted heaven was held throughout the early Christian and Medieval periods, and indeed, was an idea that goes back into antiquity and was held by both ancient Mesopotamians and Hebrews. However, more recent research has shown that the idea of a flat earth was not held by either the early Christian church nor Medieval scholars. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence is that they believed in a spherical earth surrounded by celestial spheres (sometimes hard, sometimes soft) that conveyed the sun, moon, stars and planets in their orbits around the earth. Moreover, research of ancient Babylonian astronomical documents shows that they did not have the concept of a heavenly vault. Rather, this was erroneously introduced into the scholarly literature by a mistranslation of Enuma Elish by Peter Jensen.
A review of the linguistic arguments that the Hebrews believed in the idea of a flat earth and vaulted heaven shows that the arguments are unfounded. The arguments derive from passages that are clearly figurative in nature. Indeed, one of the great ironies in recreating a Hebrew cosmology is that scholars have tended to treat figurative usages as literal (e.g. Psalms and Job), while treating literal passages such as in Genesis as figurative. The noun form of raqia is never associated with hard substances in any of its usages in Biblical Hebrew; only the verbal form raqa. And even the latter cannot be definitely tied to metals, etc. Rather it is understood as a process in which a substance is ‘thinned’ – this can include pounding, but also includes stretching. The noun raqia is best translated as expanse in all of its usages.”
Randall Younker, The Myth of the Solid Heavenly Dome: Another Look at the Hebrew [raqia], pre-published version, July 2009
If the writer(s) of Genesis believed that the raqi’a was a solid structure, it seems odd to me that God would be quoted as defining it as “sky” – a place within which birds can also fly (Gen. 1:8, 20 and Deut. 4:17). Now, I know that some argue that the description is of birds flying across, not within, the raqi’a (in possible conflict with Deut. 4:17). However, everything seems to fit better, as far as I can tell, if this term is understood as an expanse – similar to the space or raqi’a that contains the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14). Consider also that the psalmist spoke of God’s “sanctuary” as being “in the raqi’a” (Psalm 150:1).
It seems like the context in which this word is used needs to be taken into account before one automatically assumes that the author(s) were clearly talking about some solid crystalline or metallic dome-shaped structure. In context, this doesn’t seem to me to be conclusive – and was probably why the original NIV translators used the word “expanse” instead of definitively indicating something more solid. And, even if that was in fact the understanding of the original author and/or readers, it really does nothing to undermine the idea that they were still being shown literal historical events from a limited perspective… a perspective that may have made it a bit hard for them to understand and describe what they were seeing, but not so limited that very useful information about real historical events could not be understood by the modern reader (As would be the case for a young child trying to describe a television set. The mistaken description of “little people in a black box” would not take away all useful meaning from the actual empirical reality of what the child was in fact describing from a limited perspective – i.e., the description itself is empirically accurate as far as appearances are concerned. A television does look like a box with little people inside).
Now, I understand that this is an attempt by many to undermine a literal view of the Genesis account – despite the fact that the author of this account clearly intended it to be taken as describing a literal historical event shown to him by God (possibly from an Earth-bound perspective). The core problem with the arguments presented in God, Sky & Land is that one does not have to be a modern scientists or understand all knowledge to be a good witness in reasonably describing a real historical event in the language that one understands from one’s own limited perspective. It is very difficult for anyone, even a small child, to misinterpret something as basic and easy to understand and describe as “evenings and mornings”. In other words, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that it got light, then it got dark, then it got light again, etc. It also wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to understand God if God had said, “By the way, it took me a bit longer than one week to make everything on Earth . . .”
Really, if God doesn’t actually speak to us in a language that we can understand when he is talking about our origins, why even bother? Why say that it took a “week” when it really took hundreds of millions of years? Why even bother describing evenings and mornings in such detail and in such consistency? – so much so that the authors themselves believed in the literal interpretation of their own work? Why would God tell us that death for all sentient animal life began with the moral fall of man when it really began hundreds of millions of years before man arrived on the scene? It would only hurt the credibility of the metaphysical claims of the Bible to find out that its descriptions of empirical realities that are most difficult to misinterpret regardless of perspective, especially those that are so easily investigated, aren’t remotely true as described.
God has to know the importance of empirical evidence when it comes to establishing the credibility of fantastic claims. In fact, he often used physical evidence to support his metaphysical claims within the Bible – just read the story of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:9 – “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?…” Clearly, the falsification of the physical claim says something about the validity of the metaphysical claim as well. In other words, what would have come of Jesus’ metaphysical claim to be able to forgive sins if the paralyzed man had not actually stood up and walked at Jesus’ command?
Suffice it to say that there are plenty of scholars on both sides of most of these issues. One has to somehow weigh the evidence on a personal basis. At this point, however, it is no wonder that with such leaders in charge of some of our schools that our young people are more confused than ever on the topic of origins – and are leaving the SDA Church, and Christian churches in general, in droves over this very issue.Dr. Guy was once president of La Sierra University and is still a prominent figure and guest lecturer at LSU and in the local SDA community. Dr. Bull is a leader at Loma Linda University Medical Center and is also a popular teacher, lecturer, and author on the topic of origins and mainstream science. And many who are teachers and leaders at LSU and LLU share similar views on Genesis and the eons of evolution of life, death, and untold suffering on this planet… all before humans ever came along.