Part 3 discusses the factuality of descriptions of the natural world in Scripture generally, and whether it is necessary to see them as factual to interpret the passages.
What the lion said about St. Francis
The purpose of reference to the natural world in the Old Testament
The closest approaches to naturalistic description in the Bible are:
- the descriptions of the world in Job and Isaiah, which, however, are generally about God’s sovereignty (see below)
- the descriptions of the ant etc in Proverbs, and of futility in Ecclesiastes, but these are turned towards moral or philosophical issues, not scientific questions.
A passage of Scripture can mention or refer to some aspect of the natural world in the way in which the latter was understood when the passage was written. But it is difficult to find any examples when this is the point of the passage or gives useful information about the natural world (outside the key passage of Genesis 1 where this is precisely what is being contested). As an illustration of non-explanatory reference to the natural world, look at the depiction of St Francis below
(source unknown, image accessed at http://nowstar.net/god/prayers/saint-francis-friend-of-animals.htm).
Note that this is an imaginary depiction of St Francis. A dog, lion, squirrel, bird and possibly a fox are shown. Question: what does the portrayal of these creatures say about them? Answer: very little, apart from their posture and shape. What, on the other hand, does the picture say about St. Francis? Well, that he was a friend to, and befriended by animals, that we happen to know are both tame and wild. And this is the entire point of the illustration. The inclusion of fierce and tame animals illustrates something about the reputed character of St Francis, but says very little about the animals themselves.
The picture takes what is generally known or assumed about these animals – e.g. that some are wild and fierce – and uses that to illustrate St Francis’ reputed character, as friend of animals. In fact, if you took the illustration as giving accurate information about the animals – that lions, for instance are tame (or St. Francis had a tame lion) and happily cuddle up to people and deer, this would firstly be wrong about the animals, and secondly completely undermine the point of the picture about St. Francis. In just the same way, most of the references to the natural world in the Bible are not primarily written to give information about the natural world, but rather they take what was generally known or assumed about the world to illustrate God’s character and sovereignty, to invoke worship of God, to make moral or ethical points, or occasionally to muse and philosophise.
So the Old Testament descriptions of the natural world are usually simple and primitive and not intended to provide a technical description. But, further, they are sometimes wrong, and here, in particular, we can see an example of what I have just been saying.
It’s not about ostriches
Are the Old Testament descriptions of the natural world necessarily accurate?
Not always. Take, for instance, these three mentions of the sun and the world.
Ecclesiastes 1:5. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
1 Chronicles 16:30. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.
Psalm 24:2 . ….for he founded [the earth] on the seas and established it on the waters.
These reflect the ancient ideas of the sun moving around the world, the fixity of the world, and the founding of earth on top of water. Some of these verses were stumbling blocks to accepting Galileo’s ideas about the orbit of the earth around the sun.
What about the natural world. When God is reported as speaking to Job he says:
[The ostrich] lays her eggs on the ground and lets them warm in the sand, unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some wild animal may trample them. She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers; she cares not that her labor was in vain, for God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense. Job 39:14–17
This is echoed in Lamentations
… my people have become heartless like ostriches in the desert. Lamentations 4:3
According to field biologists, however, ostriches are very devoted parents. They lose a lot of their young because they live in a harsh environment, but they defend their young fiercely and have even been known to kill lions in the process. I took this picture in Zimbabwe last year and only realised when looking at the photo later that the little lumps at their feet were chicks – one little head is seen on the left.
How do you reconcile that with the statement in Job? Well, it is possible that the word translated as ostrich is not the same as our ostrich. But it is more likely that whoever wrote the message of Job, incorporated what was commonly known or assumed about ostriches to make another point, relevant to the passage, which is not about ostriches.
Imagine that Job had replied to God: “Lord, as my research supervisor, you have given me some excellent information about various animals: mountain goats, deer, wild donkeys, wild oxen, ostriches, horses and hawks. Of these, I would like to learn a bit more about the ostrich parenting habits. Can you help me plan some research about their reproductive biology?” God would no doubt have replied to Job that he had missed the entire point of the passage: that is, Job’s entire lack of sovereignty in the world and God’s absolute sovereignty. Just like the picture of St. Francis, if you take the passage as a lesson on ostrich parenting, you not only get that wrong, but you miss the whole point of the passage. It’s not about ostriches!
So how do we apply this back to Genesis 1 and the creation narrative? If this is not descriptive of the natural world and the events of its origin, what would the passage have intended to convey to Israel, and what does it say to us today? This is the subject of Part 4.