by Ervin Taylor
by Ervin Taylor, August 5, 2014
My good friend Cliff Goldstein has yet again in the pages of the Adventist Review (AR) addressed an aspect of one of his favorite topics: “Why ‘real’ Adventists can’t be evolutionists.”
(An alternative way of expressing this would be: “Why we ‘real’ Adventists can tell other Adventists why they can’t be evolutionists.”) The title of his article is “Another (False) Argument against a Six-day Creation” published in the July 24, 2014, issue of the AR. In the spirit of his title, the title of this commentary on his article is: “Another (Very Strange) Argument in Support of a Six-day Creation.”
Cliff sets up his approach using four major assertions with several sub-parts: First: “Unbelievers . . . [h]igher critics or theistic evolutionists . . .” argue that “Genesis is not a reliable account of how creation happened” since the Genesis creation story “wasn’t meant to be understood literally.”
Second: “Unbelievers” call attention to the fact that the Genesis creation narrative is organized into “days” of “evenings and mornings.”
Third: Then “Unbelievers” ask a series of questions: (a) Are not “days” defined by the passage of a day and night? (b) Is not the existence of days and nights based on the rotation of the earth in relationship to the sun, i.e., to have a day and night on planet earth you have to have a sun? [Comment: Now, of course, the ancient Hebrews believed that the sun went around the earth and had no concept of the earth as a planet among other planets circling around the sun, but let’s not get technical here.] (c) Does not the text say that on the first day of creation, God said “Let there be light”? (d) However, does not the text say that God did not create the sun until the fourth day?
Fourth: Thus “Unbelievers” ask: How can you have light on earth without the sun? And how can you have the passage of three “days” unless you have a sun? Don’t you have a problem here?
Cliff’s response to this problem is: “No problem.” Why, in the opinion of Cliff, is there no problem?
Here is how he explains it: (1) He begins with his own question: “If on the fourth day, God created the “greater light” (obviously the sun) to separate the “day from the night,” what was the light that God spoke into existence on “the first day” that “separated the light from the darkness”? (2) His amazing answer is “Who knows?” [Comment: I interpret this answer to mean that he doesn’t know and he thinks that no one else knows.] (3) This contrasting “light” on the first day and “sun” on the fourth actually gives “the Spirit-inspired reader more reasons to accept Genesis 1 and 2 as a literal account of the six-day creation of our world.” [Comment: Really? What, pray tell, is a “Spirit-inspired reader”? But we don’t want to quibble over details. Let’s see where this is going.] (4) Then Cliff asks another question: “Why would Moses write a creation story that went so blatantly against what was one of the most obvious features of the natural world as we humans experience it: the dominance of the sun in determining the arrival and departure of each day?”(Emphasis supplied) [Comment: Excellent question! By the way, let’s not get bogged down in arguing about the authorship of Genesis. Let’s just go, for the moment, with “Moses wrote it.”] (5) Cliff then asserts that “Scripture was written so that people would believe it; thus, why would the author write an account so counter to everyday experience unless God told it to him?” [Comment: Another excellent question.] (6) He continues, “Moses might have been as baffled as we are about the existence of day and night before the appearance of the sun on day four. That’s why one could argue that it was truth revealed to him; otherwise, who would concoct something so contrary to what humans experience on a daily basis? (Emphasis supplied)” (7) Then he quotes an Ellen White statement that the “mysteries of the Bible . . . are among the strongest evidence of its divine inspiration. If it contained no account of God but that which . . . could be grasped by finite minds, then the Bible would not . . . bear the unmistakable evidence of divinity.” (8) Cliff’s conclusion?: “. . . [T]he existence of these first three days, before the appearance of the sun on the fourth, can be interpreted as more evidence for that divinity, not less.” That’s it. End of column.
I must say that, in my opinion, this is not one of Cliff’s better essays. I say this not because I disagree with his views on this topic (which, of course, I do), but because Cliff can usually come up with better arguments that are, on the surface at least, a little more reasonable. While there have been exceptions, his arguments may not be necessarily convincing, but they are at least reasonable. Because I have respect for Cliff’s intellect (and vocabulary), I feel that it is my duty to some up with some excuse for this essay being below even Cliff’s usual standard. Perhaps it had to be written very rapidly, on a short deadline, or perhaps on an airplane coming back from a taxing speaking engagement in some remote part of the world. Whatever excuse might be advanced, it is difficult to understand how Cliff, who is not a deficient thinker, would have put his name on this piece.
Can Cliff really believe that God inspired a vision of the acts of a literal creation sequence, expecting that it would be believed to be a literal description of creation because the narrative stated something that directly contradicted human experience? Such a conclusion is so absurd that I must conclude that perhaps Cliff did not have enough time to read carefully through what he had written.
However it came to be, this essay vividly illustrates the degree to which some contemporary Adventist believers who must interpret the Genesis creation narrative literally are forced to use such ad hoc arguments. Cliff and others of a literal turn of mind might wish to talk to someone who has considered carefully the ancient Hebrew culture and the religions and cultures that surrounded them in the ancient Near East. I understand that Cliff has an M.A. degree from Johns Hopkins in Hebrew, so he can read the original text. But I wonder if he has taken advantage of his knowledge to look carefully at the world within which the ancient Hebrew culture operated. This writer has talked to a number of those who have, and it is a very enlightening exercise.
For example, both the ancient Hebrews and we moderns know that a successive passage of the sun through some fixed point in the sky defines an ordinary day. To have the passage of several days before you have a sun to mark the passage of these days does strike us moderns as a little odd. But the ancient Hebrews apparently did not think it was a problem. Why? To answer that question, modern readers must understand something about the beliefs of the group of people to which the story was originally addressed and the purpose of the writing/editing of this particular creation narrative.
First, I am told that the vast majority of non-fundamentalist biblical scholars do not believe that the Moses of the Hebrew Exodus narratives had anything to do with writing the Genesis Creation narratives. Although some bits and pieces of oral tradition may have been eventually incorporated into the narratives, the final version that we read (in translations, of course) is composed of several different strands which were written down during or after the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th Century BCE and then edited together into the single document that now exists. The majority of Old Testament scholars note that one of the major themes that by this time in the development of Hebrew thought had come to be dominant in some quarters was that it was Yahweh, the only Elohim (“god”), the principal Hebrew God, who was now considered to be the one and only deity that really existed (monotheism) and thus was the only deity responsible for the creation of all that is. The sun, moon, and stars were not deities; they were ordinary created entities like everything else. The use of six “days” to structure the process of creation was a convenient literary device which might be related to how rituals in the Jerusalem temple were structured. There are a number of conjectures as to why “seven” was originally chosen, perhaps there was an astronomical reason.
In the absence of any modern or Greek philosophical idea of the difference between “symbol” and “reality,” the ordinary Hebrew reader probably never really was concerned about the “light” on the first day, and “sun” on the fourth day “problem.” This would be a problem only if you were trying to make very concrete, specific and literal the particular meaning of words. Because ancient Hebrew had such a relatively small vocabulary, the same word had to be used to communicate a number of different concepts. An accurate translation into other languages very much depends on context.
I assume that none of what is noted in the previous two paragraphs will be of any interest to Cliff, except to reject the conclusions of mainline scholars. It appears that his model of how to interpret the Bible, including the Genesis creation narratives, does not depend on contemporary Biblical scholarship. Simply stated, he is an apologist for classical Adventism. Apparently, he sees this as his first and foremost responsibility. The value of his apologetics is that they always can be counted upon to support the theological status quo of traditional Adventism. He does an excellent job if one holds the same assumptions he does. For those who do not, he is a case study in the apologetics of a highly sectarian theological system.