Arks a-plenty

The Noah’s Ark theme park being built by Answers in Genesis gets lots of publicity, but it is only one of a number of Noah’s Ark projects in progress around the world. Christianity Today reports on eight such projects: A Flood of Arks.

FloodOfArks

If you were to build a Noah’s Ark attraction, what would you include?

I think I would try to build mine out of “gopher barky barky.”

Grace and Peace

GeoScriptures — Genesis 3:17-18 — Thorns, thistles, cats, dogs, and hyperliteralism

And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.”
Genesis 3:17-18 (ESV)

Suppose I were to tell you, “Sometimes it rains cats and dogs in St. Louis.” How would you interpret my statement? If you didn’t know English idioms very well, you might be quite confused by what I said, or come to the conclusion that I was—intentionally or unintentionally—speaking nonsense. Because you know it does not really ever rain cats and dogs, you probably would not take me as actually believing that cats and dogs fall from the sky.

Now suppose that the biblical account of Noah’s flood (Genesis 6-9) contained a verse that said, “And Noah looked out of the window of the ark and saw that it was raining cats and dogs.” How would we interpret this statement? The most natural way to interpret it would be to assume there was some sort of idiom or metaphor in use, and to interpret it as “it was raining very hard.” Unfortunately, we would not be able to look up “raining cats and dogs”  in the 1400 BC edition of Hebrew Idioms for Dummies, so we might have to do some educated guesswork.

On the other hand, if we had little stomach for idioms or other literary devices as we read the Old Testament, we might come to the conclusion that the deluge was so cataclysmic that, in this instance, cats and dogs must have been sucked up from the watery surface by strong updrafts, and then hurled down upon the deep, as witnessed by Noah. This would be a reading that goes far beyond seeking the literal, or intended, meaning of the passage. This would be an example of what some call hyperliteralism; a reading of the text that allows for no figures of speech whatsoever.

Now Genesis does not contain the phrase “raining cats and dogs,” but it does contain examples of non-literal writing. Take for example the phrase “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” in Genesis 3:18. This is part of the curse God pronounced on the ground after Adam and Eve sinned. After humanity’s fall into sin, God pronounced a curse on the serpent, Satan; and spoke words of discipline and judgement (and promise) to Adam and Eve. Rather than experiencing the blessings of Eden, Eve would experience, among other things, pain in childbirth, and Adam would experience “thorns and thistles.”

What is the meaning of the phrase “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you?” One common interpretation of this passage is that it teaches that there were no thorns or thistles on the Earth until God made this pronouncement. In Eden, so the interpretation goes, there could not possibly have been things like thorns and thistles; not only do they cause pain and draw blood when they prick our skin, they are specifically mentioned as part of the curse on the ground here in Genesis 3. In other words, thorns and thistles did not exist until they became part of God’s curse on the ground.

Following this line of reasoning further, we have to consider the fact that the fossil record contains plants that have thorns and thistles. If one holds to the “literal” interpretation, then it is clear that these plant fossils could only have formed after Adam sinned. Therefore, the fossil record—and by correlation this would mean just about any rock of Phanerozoic (Cambrian and more recent) age—had to have formed after Adam. This is one of the supposed Biblical foundations for young-Earth creationist “flood geology.”

But is this the best way to understand God’s “thorns and thistles” curse? A better interpretation is that there is a figurative aspect to “thorns and thistles.” If so, the young-Earth interpretation is an example of hyperliteralism, an over-reading of the text caused by focusing on the literal words on the page rather than the main thrust of the section. A broader view of the text is that God was removing his blessing on mankind’s work. The intention at creation was that Adam and his descendants would be fruitful; not just in reproduction, but in their stewardship and dominion over the rest of creation. There would be shalom between man and his Creator, within each person, between man and wife, between individuals, and between humans and nature. This was all frustrated by Adam’s rebellion, and we have been living with the consequences ever since. Thorns and thistles may have existed before, but with the advent of sin they could now have dominion over humanity rather than humanity having dominion over them. All of our work is now frustrated to one degree or another by figurative thorns and thistles, whether it be the weeds in our garden, the broken relationships with coworkers and clients, mistakes we make in our work, or bugs in the latest software on our computers.

Genesis 3:18 is not about thorns and thistles any more than Genesis 3:14-15 is about how snakes lost their legs. Genesis 3:18 is about how our work in general is frustrated because of sin, and Genesis 3:14-15 is about the humiliation of Satan, grovelling in the dust just as defeated enemies of some Mesopotamian ruler would be forced to do. It is much better, in terms of the literary imagery of the passage, to take thorns and thistles as having a broader meaning in terms of our work and relationships rather than narrowing the meaning down to the appearance of weeds in Adam’s garden.

The undoing of the curse on our work is found in the work of Christ, who bore a crown of thorns as he suffered on our behalf. We live in confident hope that all of creation will one day come under the healing rule of Christ, and that our broken bodies will be resurrected whole. In the new (or renewed) Earth there will be gardens, and I won’t be at all surprised if we find roses growing there.

Grace and Peace

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Notes:

The Phrase Finder has an article about the origin of “raining cats and dogs.”

The ESV Study Bible comments:

Gen. 3:17–19 God’s punishment of the man involves his relationship with the very ground from which he was formed (see note on 2:5–7). Because he has eaten that which was prohibited to him, he will have to struggle to eat in the future. Given the abundance of food that God provided in the garden, this judgment reflects God’s disfavor. Adam will no longer enjoy the garden’s abundance but will have to work the ground from which he was taken (3:23; see note on 2:8–9). The punishment is not work itself (cf. 2:15), but rather the hardship and frustration (i.e., “pain,” itstsabon; cf. 3:16) that will accompany the man’s labor. To say that the ground is cursed (Hb. ’arar, v. 17) and will bring forth thorns and thistles (v. 18) indicates that the abundant productivity that was seen in Eden will no longer be the case. Underlying this judgment is a disruption of the harmonious relationship that originally existed between humans and nature.

Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Genesis (p. 72 of 1967 printing), writes,

Thorns… and thistles are eloquent signs of nature untamed and encroaching; in the Old Testament they mark the scenes of man’s self-defeat and God’s judgment, e.g. in the sluggard’s field (Pr. 24:31) and the ruined city (Is. 34:13). They need not be envisaged here as newly created, but as henceforth a perennial threat (as the unconquered Canaanites would be to Israel, Nu. 33:55); for man in his own disorder would never now ‘subdue’ the earth.

GeoScriptures — Genesis 7:19 — “All the earth” doesn’t always mean “all the earth”

And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. — Genesis 7:19 (ESV)

Many Christians point to the universal nature of some verses in the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9 to prove that the flood must have been global in extent. For instance, Genesis 6:13 states,

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

We also read,

The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.

How do old-Earth Christians who hold to a local (rather than global) flood interpret these passages? The answer is by using standard tools of hermeneutics (interpretation), including examining what the text does and does not say, and by comparing Scripture to Scripture. I would like to focus right now on the “let Scripture interpret Scripture” aspect of hermeneutics.

There are a number of passages in the Old Testament (and even in the New Testament) where “all the earth” does not mean “all the earth.” Here are the main ones:

  • Genesis 41:57Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth. — In this case, does “all the earth” mean “all the earth,” or does it mean a widespread area in the Eastern Mediterranean? Most Bible scholars take this as a figure of speech, not as a literal statement. People came from far away, such as from Canaan, but not necessarily from Spain. I was having a conversation with someone about this passage a few months ago, and I asked him if he believed that people from every nation, from the Eskimos to the Zulus, showed up to buy grain from Joseph. He answered that he believed it was a literal “all the earth,” but that mankind had not yet dispersed very far following the Tower of Babel.
  • Deuteronomy 2:25 — This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.’ — Did the Incas and Chinese hear reports about the Exodus, or again, is “the peoples who are under the whole heaven” to be taken in some sense figuratively?
  • 1 Kings 18:10 — There is no nation or kingdom where my lord [King Ahab] has not sent to seek you. — Did Ahab send emissaries to Japan and Zimbabwe to look for Elijah? If I were a hyper-literalist, I would have to say that he did.
  • 2 Chronicles 9:23 — And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. — Do I have to affirm that leaders of the Australian Aborigines showed up in Jerusalem to listen to Solomon?
  • Jeremiah 27:7 — All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson. — God said that “all the nations” shall serve Nebuchadnezzar. Does this mean that there is some gap in our historical knowledge; a period of time when Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire stretched from Los Angeles to London to Tokyo, and from Murmansk to the Cape of Good Hope? Or was God using a figure of speech?
  • Dan 4:22It is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. — As in Jer 27:7, does the Bible teach that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire covered the entire planet? (see also Daniel 5:19).
  • Zephaniah 1:2 — “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. (also see v. 18) — Is this teaching the destruction of the entire Earth, or a more limited judgement on unfaithful Israel and the surrounding nations?
  • Similar “universal” passages can be found in the New Testament — Luke 2:1 (all the world to be registered), John 12:19 (the Pharisees were concerned that the whole world was going to Jesus), Acts 2:5 (Jews were present at Pentecost from every nation under heaven), Colossians 1:23 (the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven).

In each case a more natural reading of the text is something other than “all the Earth.” Only if we bring a rigid, overly-literalistic hermeneutic to the passages do we end up with things like Ahab’s servants trekking through the Himalayas looking for Elijah.

In many ways, Hebrew functions like other languages. It is not a Vulcan-like tongue where everything is mechanical and logical, lacking in word pictures or hyperbole.  In English, if we say “everyone is doing it,” we don’t literally mean “everyone,” unless we are talking about something like breathing. So if I say, “everyone in America likes McDonalds,” most people would not take that to mean “everyone in America likes McDonalds.” The same is true in the foreign language I know best, Romanian. The phrase “toată lumea” literally means “all the world,” which translates into English as “everyone.” If I were to say toată lumea likes going to the beach, I would literally be saying that the whole world likes going to the beach, but I would really mean that many or most people like going to the beach, or most people I know like going to the beach.

I hope that I have demonstrated that “all the Earth” usually does not mean “all the Earth” in the Old Testament. The question then becomes: can we apply this knowledge (letting Scripture interpret Scripture) to the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9? Are the universal phrases in the passage to be taken in a “literalistic” sense, or is there room for reading these as figures of speech?  I believe I can show that much of the universal imagery of Genesis 6-9 is indeed hyperbolic, and that the passage can be read naturally as a very large, but still limited flood that appeared universal from Noah’s perspective in the middle of it all. I will save that discussion for another time.

Grace and Peace.