Sci-fi and the Bible

Posted in character of God, creation, science on June 3rd, 2010 by yf

Before time began there was no before: language cannot encompass that first beginning. It is beyond human conception. The awkward opening of Genesis – as we have seen – points to the difficulty of beginning at the very beginning. Elohim becomes knowable only through His action in time to create the universe. The word order of Genesis 1:1 shows this.

The description of creation in that first verse, separates time – the “In the beginning” – from the physical creation of the heavens and the earth. Time is not just another dimension, it provides the grounds for creation.

time and spaceSurprisingly, for those who regard Genesis as necessarily unscientific, this approach is in advance of 20th C scientific thinking. Science in the 21st C is only now arriving at the understanding of the beginning that is set out for the simplest peasant in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1.

Even the most sophisticated 20thC approaches to cosmology have usually worked on the basis of what is called Euclidean space. In Euclidean space, time is one of a number of dimensions. There are so many physical dimensions (whether 3 or 4 or 10 or n) plus one further dimension, which is time. The underlying assumption here is that fundamentally all the dimensions can be modeled together; theoretically one can move about in the time dimension as in the other dimensions. This is the idea of space-time and of lots of science-fiction

The hidden consequence is that causality – that a causes b and so forth – is lost as a fundamental precondition of the universe. Time’s arrow is lost. As scientists construct their models of the universe, they can reintroduce causality. But it is not part of the warp and whoof, the foundations, of the universe. Time’s arrow is fired late, so to speak. If time is another dimension of space-time, then causality is no longer fundamental, but a secondary phenomenon. If so, what causes it? Stephen Hawking’s famous Brief History of Time is, in part, a struggle with that conundrum.

Recently,* there has been a move away from thinking in terms of Euclidean space to what is called Lorentzian space. Here time is distinguished from the other dimensions of space-time. In Lorentzian space, time cannot be moved about within, in the same way as the other dimensions. It is fundamentally different. Time’s arrow is restored and causality is an initial condition of the universe. This approach seems to be yielding more elegant formulae and solutions than hitherto achieved in tackling the big issues of cosmology.

But, once time is distinguished from space and time’s arrow is restored, one arrives inevitably back at the question of who fired that arrow; what is the first cause or prime mover? This is exactly the discussion that Genesis 1:1 provides.

* See, notably, various articles by J. Ambjørn, J. Jurkiewicz and R. Loll in Physics Review, Nuclear Physics etc.

Beneath the chatter

Posted in creation, messiah, specific Hebrew words on April 30th, 2010 by yf

What underlies our conversation? From so many words, what is essential? Before Noah’s flood, the Bible records only nine ‘speeches’ by human beings. The Hebrew sages regard first or early occurrences in the Bible as critical to understanding what follows. So, what do these early speeches tell us?

A clear, and discomforting, pattern emerges. Taking the nine speeches in order :

  • Adam is impatient with God to find his companion (Genesis 2:23). Obscured by most translations but see here.
  • Eve corrects the serpent about what God said but gets it wrong (Genesis 3:2). See here.
  • Adam explains to God why he is hiding: he is afraid of God (Genesis 3:11).
  • When asked to explain, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-14).
  • In the first human to human speech recorded, Cain says to his brother …. nothing, and then murders him (Genesis 4:8). Obscured by most translations but see here.
  • Cain denies knowledge of Abel to God Word map of Obama speech (ex NYT)and then complains of his punishment for murder (Genesis 4:9 and 13-14).
  • Lamech bemoans, boasts or threatens (opinions differ) to having killed or being prepared to kill people, and compares himself to Cain (Genesis 4:23-24).
  • Eve names her new son – replacement for Abel – Seth (Genesis 4:25). Seth means ‘appointed’ in Hebrew.
  • Lamech calls his son Noah, saying “This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed. ” (Genesis 5:29). Noah means ‘rest’ in Hebrew.
  • We begin with Adam’s impatience for a human companion. The next six speeches reveal a growing mess. Then, in the last two – the naming of Seth and Noah – we find hope for a human figure to put matters right.

    In naming Seth, Eve is reflecting God’s remark in Genesis 3:15 that Eve’s seed will crush the serpent’s head. Both Judaic and Christian literature see this passage as Messianic. Eve is placing her hopes on Seth. Similarly, Lamech places his hopes of rest from toil – also a consequence of the interaction with the serpent – on Noah.

    In sum, this record shows humanity as either: (i) longing for another human to fulfill them or to put matters right; or (ii) making a mess. Based on the first nine speeches, this is the Biblical view of what lies beneath our chatter.

    A stark view of humanity! It shows the problem – us – and where we look for the answer: somebody else. This perspective gives the foundation to understand what happens after the flood.

    Surprising openings: 3

    Posted in creation, specific Hebrew words on April 8th, 2010 by yf

    We have commented on the seemingly stumbling opening words of the serpent here and of the beginning of the Bible here. Adam’s first quoted words are also surprising, though they do not stumble.

    After God has presented every beast and every bird to Adam, the Lord fashions Eve and brings her to Adam. Adam responds: “This time is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23). Though not captured in translation, the combination of the words zeh (‘this’) and paam (‘time’, in the sense of an event or occurrence) is strong.* In context, it has the sense of “at last” or “finally we have got there”.

    bone of my bones, flesh of my fleshAfter looking through and naming all the different classes of birds and beasts, Adam has become impatient with God (the first, but certainly not the last, person in the Bible to do so). The first words addressed to God in the Bible are ones of impatience, not worship, or praise or thanksgiving. What is Adam impatient about? He is impatient for a companion. Fellowship with other human beings as well as with God is vital to each of us. As God says in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good for man to be alone.”

    In verse 24, it says “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage is presented as the potential ideal realization of that closeness that each human being so desires. The following chapter of Genesis sees that closeness dented.

    The message is that our primary driver is the search for companionship and that in this we can become impatient with God. But note that this impatience arose after Adam did not find a suitable companion amongst the animals. God had endowed Adam with the breath of life (nishmat chaim) in Genesis 2:7. Consequently, Adam had – as we have – the potential to go beyond mere animal existence. Adam was not to be satisfied with less. This search for more is how humanity first speaks in the Bible.

    *The four other occasions in the Torah where this word combination occurs, each have a definite edge to them (Genesis 18:32, Genesis 27:36, Exodus 8:32, Numbers 14:22).

    The pope and the telescope

    Posted in creation, science on March 12th, 2010 by yf

    The pope refusing to look though Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter is an icon of humanism: science v religion (or ‘blind’ faith). The pope declined to view evidence that not everything in the universe revolves around the earth. Yet, from a Biblically based Hebraic perspective the moral of the story is turned upside down or, rather, put right-side up.

    Why wouldn’t the pope look? Galileo developed the ideas of Copernicus about the solar system, with the cautious backing of cardinal Barberini. But, Galileo fell foul of Vatican politics and lost Barberini as an ally after he became pope Urban VIII. This is the pope who declined to look through the telescope and forced Galileo to recant his claims.

    There is a deeper story here than the workings of a papal court. Greek philosophy dominated Western thought and rationalism. Aristotle’s idea of the sun, moon and stars fixed on crystal spheres revolving around the earth was generally accepted. The irrelevance or subordinate nature of the merely material world compared to higher thought comes from Plato and Aristotle. By the 17thC, it was embedded in Western thought – and to some extent in Jewish and Islamic thinking too. So why look through a contraption like a telescope to test an idea? Greek philosophy leaves only a subordinate role for empiricism.

    Unlike the Greek philosophers, the Bible gives great weight to the material world as created by God and as humanity’s sphere of action. Viewing the material world as both to be engaged with by us and as where God reveals Himself is part of the Hebraic mind-set. Galileo’s development of the scientific method stands on this foundation.

    The word ‘science’ originates from the Latin meaning ‘knowledge’. The Hebrew term for knowledge – yada – and related words are used in the Bible for practical knowledge (including the sexual act), for the ability to discriminate morally and for Divine knowledge (by man of God and by God of man). These are all part of a continuum of knowledge experienced and worked out in creation, without the hierarchy imposed by the Greek philosophers.

    Copernicus, Galileo and other astronomers saw no contradiction between their theories and the Bible (Interpretation of the relevant Bible passages is for discussion another day.)

    Zechariah 9:13 says “I will stir up your sons O Zion against your sons O Greece.” In these terms, the confrontation between Galileo and pope Urban was not between science and religion but between the sons of Zion and of Greece.

    Stumbling openings 2: “In the beginning…”

    Posted in creation on March 5th, 2010 by yf

    The opening Hebrew words of the Bible read awkwardly, causing dispute as to how to understand (and translate) them. The form is not used again in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament).

    They can be read as the first statement in a sequence of events – God did this, then this, then this. Or they can be read as a construct form – “In the beginning of His creating…” – and could even imply “for the sake of the beginning, God created…”. So, for example, the great Hebrew scholar Ramban takes the statement as the opening of a sequence; Rashi takes it as the construct form.

    If this is His book, couldn’t God have started – and stated – matters more clearly?
    In the beginning of His creating
    Unless the author begins with poor grammar, the wording draws attention to the very difficulty in the words concerned: how to describe the beginning of time with words that rely on the concept of time, that necessarily assume that time exists. When something begins, then previously in time it had not yet begun – the past differs from the present. But, there is no past before the beginning of Genesis 1:1; there is no before, and thus no beginning in a sense that we, as time bound creatures, can understand.

    Genesis 1:1 reminds us of this. The beginning of time is beyond the rules of grammar. By separating the creation of time (“In the beginning of His creating”) from material creation, Genesis is well in advance of scientific thinking. We have all been told that Genesis is unscientific and outdated in terms of understanding the physical world. But, as we shall see in a later blog, science in the 21st C is only just arriving at the understanding of the beginning that is set out for the simplest peasant in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1.

    The previous biblejolts blog

    Posted in character of God, creation, israel, specific Hebrew words on February 22nd, 2010 by yf

    Find the previous biblejolts blog here.