Friday, April 30, 2021

Questions to Ask Before Asking Questions About Genesis

 A few questions people have posted online recently have prompted me to write this. This started out as a response to someone's thoughts on reconciling the story of the creation in Genesis with what we are figuring out from modern science.

 Before asking any questions about Genesis it is best to first ask yourself a few questions.

1. Who wrote the Bible?

More specifically, who wrote the book of Genesis? The easiest thing to do is assume that it was Moses. But how does that fit with what we know from an LDS perspective? In the Pearl of Great Price the Book of Moses is Joseph Smith's "translation" of Genesis chapters 1-6 up to verse 13. So the Joseph Smith translation took 5 and 1/2 chapters in Genesis and expanded them into 8 chapters for the Book of Moses. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this.

The material added by Joseph Smith could be divinely inspired or mandated material added to the original text by Moses. Or it could be material that originally was in the book written by Moses and later editors removed it when writing the "Reader's Digest condensed" version of Genesis. Either way the implication is that just the text from Genesis was not considered complete and additional revelation was needed.

This all of course assumes that Moses was the one who wrote the version that we have in Genesis. If you start looking into that question just realize that the answer gets very complex very quickly, and it does nothing to make the question "Who wrote the Bible?" any easier.

From the Book of Moses we learn that what was written about the creation and the Garden of Eden was shown to Moses in a vision. The story of the Garden of Eden was not written down by Adam. The story of the flood wasn't written down by Noah. If we assume that Moses wrote Genesis, and there are arguments that he may not have (or there may have been many editorial revisions), then whoever wrote Genesis in the form that we have now was writing 1,000-4,000 years after the events in the Book of Genesis. 

In so many ways the question of who wrote the Bible leads to the next major question that you have to ask.

2. What language was the Bible written in?

Anyone who has learned a second language knows that translation is not always as simple and straight forward as you might think. For many years my dad taught Spanish and something he always told his students was, "Spanish is not translated English!"

Yes, words like "que" are usually translated into English as "what". But "que" does not mean "what". The word "que" has its own meaning and use in Spanish that does not always correspond to "what" in English.

But it gets more complex from there. In most universities, and even in some high schools, students are required to take a few classes of a foreign language. In some cases taking advanced math classes counts towards the foreign language credit. This actually makes sense because as anyone who has suffered through several math classes knows, math is a foreign language. You have to learn how to read, write, and speak math. It's deceptive because math can use all English words and numbers, yet still be a completely foreign language.

The same is true of science. Science has its own language. Many people are completely unaware of this because if you pick up a book on physics or chemistry there will be mostly English words in there (or Spanish words in Spanish speaking countries, or Mandarin words in China, or etc.). But learning the language of modern science is literally like learning a foreign language.

So this brings us back to the question of what language was the Bible written in. Was it written in English? Why not? Other than the obvious fact that English didn't exist yet. Back when Moses was alive alphabets were still being invented!

Not only did Moses not write the Book of Genesis in English, but God didn't even speak to Moses in English! God spoke in a language that Moses understood! ("well duh qleap42, get to the point.")

God didn't speak to Moses in modern English because its not something Moses would have understood. In the exact same way, God didn't speak to Moses in the language of modern science. He spoke to Moses in a language that Moses could understand. Many people will say that if God had shown Moses the creation in vision, then God had to have shown Moses "the correct" way creation happened. Anything else would mean God was deceiving Moses. 

But these things were shown to Moses in a vision. Lehi in his vision of the tree of life saw the love of God as a tree with fruit on it. The vanity of the world was a great and spacious building without foundation. Did God deceive Lehi by representing "the love of God" as fruit on a tree? Or vanity as a "great and spacious building without foundation"? In the Book of John's Revelation, John saw many things, all of which were symbolic. Did God deceive John by showing him symbolic events about the end of the world?

Furthermore, what is the "correct" scientific understanding that God is supposed to have shown to Moses to not deceive him? The scientific understanding during the 18th dynasty in Egypt? Or was it the science of 7th century BC Babylon? The science of 3rd century BC Greece? 3rd century AD Rome? 11th century China? 16th century Europe? Science of the 19th century? The 20th, or the 21st? Perhaps better the 22nd? Or the 31st?

It's awfully presumptuous of us to think that God should have explained things to Moses in a way that Moses couldn't understand just so that we could. It's awfully presumptuous to think that we currently understand the universe correctly. That the way we see things is the way God sees them. It's awfully presumptuous to think that God can only explain things to people in a way that fits with our understanding of reality. Anything else is wrong and would mean God is deceiving them. That's an awfully prideful way of looking at things.

In the Doctrine and Covenants it mentions that in the last days everything will be reveled, including how the earth was made and the power by which it came to be. An interesting corollary of that is the idea that how the earth was made has not been revealed! That means the story in Genesis is not the story of the literal creation of the world, but symbols in a vision given to Moses so that he could understand. In that way God taught Moses how he, Moses, sits in relation to God. When Moses saw that he realized "that man is nothing, which thing [Moses] never had supposed."

Perhaps we should keep that in mind as we use science to learn things about the universe and how vast it is. When we consider the size and the true scope of reality that we are just now beginning to understand through science, we learn things we never thought possible. The size and scope of the universe is something that I literally deal with on a daily basis. Whenever I see someone, especially Latter-day Saints, insist the earth is only 6,000 years old, or that the earth was created in six 24 hour periods, I just think about just how big the universe really is. I think about how complex it is, from the creation of elements, the formation of stars and galaxies, the complexities of nuclear reactions, neutron stars, gravitational collapse, supernovas, neutron star mergers, basic chemistry, the time it took life to evolve, the complexities of life, the intricacies of evolution, evolutionary niches, the complex reactions that govern our bodies, the chaotic neuron cascades in our brains, not to mention the complexity of history, language, science, culture, and human societies. And there at the center of it all a God who knows and understands it all. Whose hand can hold millions of earths like this. Who watches as millions of earth come into being and millions pass away. God is someone who can know all that, and wants to teach us all of that, but first we have to learn how to understand what He is saying.

In all the vastness of creation it is awfully presumptuous of us to presume that we know how God made the earth because we read something in a book and assumed that we understood what it was saying.

Before we ask questions from Genesis, perhaps we should ask ourselves some questions.


Rozy Lass said...

"The story of the Garden of Eden was not written down by Adam." I respectfully disagree: Moses 6:5 "And a book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded, in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration;" going on to say, verse 8 "Now this prophecy Adam spake,", and so on.

Every prophet has written (or had recorded by scribes) his history and prophecies, how else would we have what we consider scripture? We don't have a complete record because of what Nephi wrote about, that is, the plain and precious parts being removed.

I look forward to the day when it will all be restored, and additionally we'll receive all the records from prophets in Eastern lands!

LL said...

Supporting QL42's thesis:

We, ourselves, explain things differently to different audiences. For example, we might explain the birds and the bees differently to a six year old, a fourteen year old and a second year OB GYN resident. Degrees of granularity pervade every culture, and our Heavenly Father knows his audience.

The explanation to the six year old is not a lie. And at the same time it's not the OB GYN resident's lecture. The very language is not the same, even though both discussions could be held in English, Mandarin or Greek.

LL said...

Jewish scholars (mainly) and others, have disclosed that there was an older text than the Bible, alternatively called the "Book of Humanity", the "Book of the Generations of Adam", etc. from which Genesis had been drawn. The book mentioned would have pre-dated Moses by quite some time.

I'm not aware of the specifics of that book, what language it was originally written in or by whom, or if it was translated into Ancient Hebrew. The Qumran texts touch on it by reference. I don't think that it came up in the Elephantine Library (Nag Hamadi).

Finding truth is often controversial. It's like reading the ENTIRE King Follett discourse instead of the excerpted version on It's not worth the trouble one encounters in teaching it, but it's worth reading it to provide context in areas that are less well traveled. Missing pieces of the puzzle.