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The following is Part 4 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1C: Genesis 3-4

It is a bit artificial to divide Sarna’s first chapter, which focuses on Genesis 1-4, into sections as I have done in these past four blog posts. Doing so makes it seem like the author is examining these chapters individually, but he does not. Genesis 3, then, is part of his ongoing discussion on Genesis 2.

Having focused on the garden of Eden and the two trees at its center, Sarna next looks briefly at the serpent. He notes that the creature is a common feature of Near Eastern religion, symbolizing both deity and fertility, but, as so often happens in the opening chapters of Genesis, the writer/editor of chapter 3 reduces him to a mere creature of God, devoid of magical properties. Unlike Adam and Eve, the serpent is not dignified with an interrogation by God after the act of disobedience, nor does he say anything in God’s presence. This seems to be an intentional attack against and negation of the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. Sarna, however, does not address the possibility that this episode is alluding to the lure of nearby religions for Israel’s devotion. Instead, he interprets the snake’s role as tempter in light of the cosmic conflict between God and Leviathan, since this creature of chaos who opposes God is commonly described as a serpent (cf. Isaiah 27:1 and Job 26:13).

Sarna concludes chapter 3 by noting the difference of emphasis in Genesis 2-3 from other Near East cultures. They are focused on gaining immortaility as seen from the prominent usage of the tree of life symbol, but the Hebrews are focused on godliness. The serpent’s temptation to become like God is a distortion of the need to emulate his character into the desire to be like him in power. Adam and Eve’s disobedience shows that we are indeed free to obey or disobey, and their punishment teaches that evil comes from our own decision to rebel and is not inherent in creation. This principle of human freedom and the consequences of disobedience is illustrated nicely in Genesis 4 with the story of Cain and Abel.

First, though, Sarna rejects the interpretation that this episode reflects a preference in Israel for the nomadic lifestyle rather than the agricultural one, as some have commonly posited based on the rejection of farmer Cain’s offering and the acceptance of the shepherd Abel’s. He notes that the evidence for a nomadic ideal in Israel is very flimsy and that the opening chapters of Genesis itself argue against it. It is, after all, Adam’s occupation both in the garden and after his expulsion, and the sons of Cain after him are not given their father’s punishment. Instead, they the inventors of herding cattle, playing music, and working metal, all of which are “the three pillars of semi-nomadic culture.” Cain and Abel are treated as individuals, not types, and interpretating the story in that way departs from the intentions of the author.

Next, Sarna argues that the Cain and Abel story’s incompletion is an indication that it existed elsewhere as an independent and complete story. He notes that there is no explanation given for why Cain’s offering is rejected; how God communicated his opinion of the two offerings; who Cain, one of only a few humans alive, was afraid might kill him; where the “land of Nod” is; who inhabited it; and how he got a wife there. Such questions are often answered by literalists in terms of Adam’s descendents multiplying and Cain marrying one of his sisters or relatives, but this explanation seems to me to do injustice to the story. It seems more likely that this episode was pulled from tradition by the writer/editor and used for his own purposes in compiling Genesis. Questions about where Cain got his wife were not that important to him.

Sarna’s commentary on the story begins with the idea of worship. Cain and Abel both make an offering to God without any indication from the text that they were commanded to do so. To make a sacrifice to God, then, is an innate desire, but even this can be corrupted, as the story tells us. There is not an explicit reason given for why God accepts or rejects the offerings, but we do read that “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground” while Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Gen. 4:3-4). Worship, then, is a matter of the heart, not of form.

The story also continues the idea of man’s ability to choose between good and evil. God’s warning to Cain that sin’s “disire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7) indicates the presence of a conflict within us between good and evil and the necessity of mastering the latter. Of course, Cain’s failure indicates our need for God’s power in overcoming the evil within.

Sarna also points out that even though the reader knows that Cain and Abel are brothers, the chapter indicates this fact seven separate times. The point of this emphasis is brought out in verse 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers, and furthermore, “that all homicide is at the same time fratricide.”

Sarna draws out a few other points, as well. He addresses the fact that there was an unspoken moral law forbidding murder and that it is a sin against society and against God; the question of why God did not carry out the penalty against Cain for murder; and the principle that acts of injustice cry out to God.

I appreciate looking at Genesis 3 and 4 through Sarna’s lens. His commentary on Cain and Able especially shows me how much meaning and richness is packed into Genesis and how much we can gain from understanding something about the nature of ANE culture. When the distraction of wondering how Cain found a wife is removed, the story has a lot more to tell us. To me, the historicity of this story does not negate God’s inspiration. He is free to use this medium as he is free to use others.


Most young earth creationists who have studied the issue will make a distinction between evolution within a species (micro-evolution) and evolution from species to species (macro-evolution). The former they liberally embrace; the latter they reject as unbiblical. The distinction is that in microevolution, the gene pool is diminished, whereas it is increased in macro-evolution.

Is evolution really limited to occurring within species only? What about within a genus? Or a family? At what point does a YEC draw a line in the sand and say, “This far you may evolve and no farther!”

In the Answers In Genesis article “Were Dinosaurs On Noah’s Ark?“, the author makes an interesting observation about micro-evolution as he explains how so many different species could fit on the ark:

Creationist researcher John Woodmorappe assumed, for his calculation, that each “kind” would be the ancestor of all “species” in a modern “genus” (plural genera), meaning that only about 8,000 animal genera (including some extinct animals), and when multiplying by two, meant that over 16,000 animals had to be aboard. When you realize that horses, zebras, and donkeys are probably descended from the horse-like “kind”, it should be clear that Noah did not have to carry 2 sets of each such animal. Also, dogs, wolves, and coyotes are probably from a single canine “kind”, so hundreds of different dogs were not needed.

According to this article, the line in the sand for a YEC is the genus. Evolution can take place as much as it wants but only within the confines of a genus. But what if we go back one classification, from genus to family? Can evolution take place within a family? If we take Woodmorappe’s definition of “kind” strictly, then the answer is no. But let’s consider this within the following example. Lions are in the Panthera Genus, but house cats are not. Both, however, are in the Felidae Family. I do not doubt that a YEC would have no problem lumping both cats and lions under one “kind.” So should we include families, then?  If we can include families, what’s to stop us from going up an order, phylum, class, etc.?

If a YEC finds it acceptable that a horse “kind” can result in zebras, mules, and horses, why would it be unacceptable that a carnivorous “kind” should result in cat-like animals, dog-like animals, etc.? It all seems sticky to me. I would imagine that a YEC would say that the difference has to do with the gene pool increasing or diminishing. My knowledge of genetics is close to nil, so I really can’t contradict or agree with that answer. Even if this explanation is accurate, why can’t we say that a carnivor-like “kind” lost genetic material and became a lion in one instance and a wolf in another instance?

I think the issue goes back to Genesis 1:24, which says that God created animals according to their kinds.

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so.

It seems to me that there is an awful lot of straining over where evolution may happen and where it may not, all for the sake of maintaining the “kinds” mentioned in the above verse. This seems so unnecessary to me. Does evolution in any way negate the fact that God made animals according to their kinds? Whether God uses evolution or fiat creation, the end result is the same:  different kinds of animals. Verse 24 is still true.

So tell me, wordpress people (YECs and non-YECs alike). Am I missing the boat here? Is there a case to be made that it is one thing for a species to form within a kind and another thing for a species to form into a species that is markedly different? Is genetic information really lost going from the original horse kind to a zebra or a mule?

The Christian View of Science and Scripture by Bernard Ramm was published in 1954, but it is clear to me from reading the first chapter that much has remained the same in the relationship of Christianity and science. Ramm has a lot of insight in the subject that is still very applicable. For anyone who is interested, the following is an outline of one of the book’s first sections, “The Present Status of Christianity and Science.”

Ramm begins by noting the change from the medieval university, whose faculty was comprised primarily of Christians, to the modern university, where the Christian professor is a distinct minority. He says that the battle between orthodoxy and “modernism and unbelief” was fought and lost by orthodoxy in the ninteenth century for seven reasons.

1.  There was already a widespread movement away from the medieval authoritarianism of the Catholic church toward secularization, which made people more open toward the changes of the nineteenth century.

2.  Modern philosophy and science had introduced a new and valuable way of thinking that was critical and skeptical. People recognized the practical value of this mentality and were predisposed toward it and against a more theological way of thinking.

3.  The immense practicality of science was easily demonstrated at increasing rates in modern inventions, medicine, etc., offering convincing proof for the arguments of science. Theology had a hard time competing against the flashiness of science.

4.  There were and are innumerable divisions within Christianity over theological truth. In contrast, the sciences were becoming increasingly unanimous in their interpretation of the natural universe. This difference between science and religion created a psychological impression on those observing the battle.

5.  The response of the “hyperorthodox and even the orthodox” to science only hurt itself. First, much of the response was characterized by ignorance about science in general, since ninteenth century education was primarily focused on the liberal arts. (Modern emphasis on scientific education and laboratory experimentation came in the twentieth century.) Secondly, much of the response was characterized by a sarcastic and mocking spirit, which could not possibly stand against the emerging mound of physical evidence.

6.  The people making up the scientific community were increasingly atheistic and naturalistic and decreasingly Christian. Students began to be influenced by the non-Christian philosophies of their teachers.

7.  “Orthodoxy did not have a well-developed philosophy of science or philosophy of biology. The big problems of science and biology must be argued in terms of a broad philosophy of science. The evangelical always fought the battle on too narrow a strip. He argued over the authenticity of this or that bone; this or that phenomenon in a plant or animal; this or that detail in geology. The empirical data are just there, and the scientists can run the evangelicals to death in constantly turning up new material.” (Does this sound familiar, anyone?) Ramm does recognize that evangelicals didn’t have much time during the explosion of science in the ninteenth century to develop a philosophy, but that still doesn’t negate the necessity of having an over-arching philosophy of science.

After giving these reasons for the loss of orthodoxy in its battle with science , Ramm lists the ramifications.

1.  Evangelical Christianity has lost credibility and deference within the sciences.

2.  Many within the church have bowed the knee to naturalism, denying the miraculous in the Bible.

3.  “Numerous intelligent and gifted young men […] could have served the church with distinction but […] live and work outside the church in the belief that Holy Scripture is scientifically untrustworthy. Thousands of splendid, trained, capable men now lost to secularism could have provided the church with an impressive array of scholars in every department of learning and provided for a stronger ministry and more intelligent laity.”

4.  The popular impression is that the Bible and science are opposed to each other, and that fact is on the side of science.

Ramm’s observations here are pretty disheartening to me. I have to wonder what would have happened if evangelical Christianity had responded differently to the emerging sciences. Was such an explosion of conflict really necessary? How many were lost to Christianity because of a bad reaction from the Christian community? Disheartening as these things may be, hope is not lost. Jesus is still Lord, and he is in the business of using people and groups who make big mistakes.

There is more good stuff in the first chapter, but that might be too much for a single blog entry. Hopefully later.

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