Pages 2-5: autumn 1990
WHAT ABOUT SCIENTIFIC FOREKNOWLEDGE IN THE BIBLE?
Any challenge to the Bible inerrancy doctrine will sooner or later encoun-
ter the scientific-foreknowledge argument. "If the Bible is not the inspired
word of God," the inerrancy spokesmen ask, "then how do you explain the
many examples of scientific foreknowledge in it?" The claim implied in this
question is that men writing in an age of relative ignorance indicated in
various passages of the Bible that they understood scientific truths that were
completely unknown at the time. The response the question seeks is that
these scientific facts could not have been known to Bible writers without
God's having revealed them during the verbal inspiration process. They see
this as a compelling argument for the inerrancy doctrine.
A basic problem with this argument is the same as the one found in the
familiar harmonious-content, unity-of-theme, and fulfillment-of-prophecy
arguments so often presented in the Bible's defense. It is based more on
speculation, imaginative interpretations, and wishful thinking than on verifia-
ble facts. As I write this, I am engaged in a written debate with a Church-
of-Christ preacher who, in trying to use this argument, threw a volley of
speculatively conceived questions at me in his second affirmative manuscript.
How did Moses know of woman's seed being involved in the conception of
children, (Gen. 3:15)? How did Isaiah know in his day that the earth is
round, (Isa. 40:22)? How did Job know that the earth rests on no material
foundation, (Job 26:7)? How did Moses know that life is in the blood (Gen.
9:4), when medical science didn't know it until a late date? How did David
know of the moon's bearing witness (Ps. 89:37) to the sunlight on the other
side of the earth? How did David know that there are paths in the seas
(Ps. 8:8) long before oceanography and Matthew Maury's work found it so?
These are the questions exactly as he fired them at me. Not once did he
take the time to explicate scripture references to show reasonable proof that
the writers meant what he was interpreting them to mean. He just tacked the
references onto his questions as if this alone were enough to establish that
the writers had intended the meanings he was attributing to them.
Any verbal communication, however, whether oral or written, must be
interpreted before it can be understood, and this is doubly true of written
statements. Participants in oral communication enjoy the advantage of voice
inflections and body gestures to help them establish or determine meaning,
but this advantage is lost in written communication. Written statements,
then, often require careful explication to determine meaning. Without it, the
risk of misinterpretation increases.
But in the volley of questions listed above, not even a hint of explication
was in evidence. What explication, for example, is involved in asking, "How
did Moses know of woman's seed being involved in the conception of children,
(Gen. 3:15)"? There is none. The intended impact of the question depends
on two assumptions (aside from the assumption that Moses wrote the book of
Genesis): (1) the word seed in this passage refers to the ovum that the
female contributes to procreation and (2) the existence of the ovum was
unknown when Genesis 3:15 was written.
To assess the plausibility of the first of these assumptions, we must
examine the passage that the question alludes to. After their disobedience to
Yahweh's command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
Yahweh pronounced curses upon all parties involved in the act. To the
serpent, he said, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all
cattle and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you
shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the
woman and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and
you shall bruise his heel," (Gen. 3:14-15, RSV).
To assert that the word seed in this passage refers to the ova of the
woman is almost too ridiculous to warrant serious comment. For one thing, an
ovum is only a female germ cell that cannot develop into a person unless it is
first fertilized by the male counterpart, so if ova were the intended meaning
of the word, how could the "seed" of the woman ever bruise the head of the
The Hebrew word translated "seed" in this passage is zera, which could
mean both seed, in the sense of plant ovules, or posterity (offspring or
descendants). It is the same word that was used several times in Genesis
1:11-12 in reference to the creation of vegetation that yielded seed after "its
kind." The meaning of the word here seems rather obvious; it was a refer-
ence to the seed produced by plants like corn, alfalfa, and turnips. The seed
of a plant, however, is something radically different from the ovum of a
woman. A plant seed is actually an embryo (formed from the union of the male
and female germ cells) encased in a shell with an endosperm that will provide
the germinating embryo with food until it is mature enough to survive on its
own. A seed, in other words, is the offspring of a plant. It is to the plant
what an embryo in the womb is to a woman, so certainly a woman's ovum
alone cannot be considered biologically parallel to a plant seed, because it is
only half of what a seed is. The one is just a female germ cell; the other an
embryo formed from the union of both the female and male germ cells.
If we are to understand Genesis 3:15, then, we must think of zera as a
Hebrew word that most often meant offspring. In many places in the book of
Genesis alone, it was clearly used in this sense. Yahweh
said to Abram in Genesis 12:7, "Unto thy seed [zera] will I give this land."
In Genesis 13:16, Yahweh promised Abram, "I will make thy seed [zera] as
the dust of the earth." After showing a willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac
at Jehovah-jireh, an angel of Yahweh told Abraham, "I will multiply thy seed
[zera] as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is upon the sea-
shore; and thy seed [zera] shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy
seed [zera] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed," (Gen. 22:17-18).
In these and other passages too numerous to cite, the Hebrew word zera
was obviously used to indicate offspring or descendants. Since this meaning
also fits appropriately into the context of Genesis 3:15, only someone desper-
ate to find support for an indefensible position would ever feel a need to
interpret it as a lesson in modern biology by a primitive writer. Most English
translations, in fact, use offspring or descendants in all of these passages as
well as many others in which the King James and American Standard Versions
translated zera as seed.
If these facts leave any doubt about what the Genesis writer meant in
referring to Eve's "seed," Genesis 16:10 should remove it. In her flight from
the wrath of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham's concubine, was visited by an angel of
Yahweh, who promised her, "I will greatly multiply thy seed [zera], that it
shall not be numbered for multitude." In the translations referred to above,
the word descendants is used where seed appears in the KJV and ASV. Yet
if zera meant ova in reference to Eve's "seed" in Genesis 3:15, consistency
would require the proponents of this argument to believe that it also meant
ova when referring to Hagar's seed. Hence, we would have an angel of
Yahweh promising Hagar that she would produce so many ova that she would-
n't be able to count them. Such is the predicament that inerrancy propo-
nents get themselves into when they try to manufacture evidence out of
Isaiah 40:22 speaks of God who "sitteth above the circle of the earth,"
but there are many explicative problems that must be resolved before one can
present this as proof that Isaiah knew the shape of the earth in a time when
no one else did. For one thing, how can we be sure that Isaiah was speak-
ing literally in the passage? He also spoke of "the four corners of the
earth" (11:12), but if I should cite this verse as an example of scientific
inaccuracy on the part of a Bible writer who thought the earth was square,
inerrancy advocates would demand proof that Isaiah had intended literal
meaning. By the same token, then, they should be prepared to prove that
Isaiah's reference to the "circle of the earth" was meant literally.
Even if they could successfully do this, they would then have to prove
that Isaiah meant circle in the sense of sphere. Plates and disks are circular
in shape as well as spheres, and, as practically any general encyclopedia will
confirm, some ancient cultures before and during Isaiah's time thought that
the earth was a flat disk. To find evidence of scientific foreknowledge in
Isaiah 40:22, then, the inerrancy advocates would have to prove that the
passage referred to a spherical rather than a discoid circle. I seriously
doubt that they can ever do that, but until they do, they have no argument.
The main weakness of this argument, however, is the fact that the shape
of the earth was known in Isaiah's time. In discussing the spherical era of
Earth's history, the Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. 6, 1978, pp. 1-3) explains
that ancient astronomers determined that the earth was round by observing
its circular shadow move across the moon during lunar eclipses. The Egyp-
tians and Greeks as far back as 2550 B.C. (more than a thousand years
before Moses) knew not only the earth's spherical shape but also its approxi-
mate size. The Grecian philosopher Pythagoras, who was born in 532 B.C.,
defended the spherical theory on the basis of observations he had made of
the shape of the sun and moon. If this information was generally known by
educated Greeks and Egyptians before and during biblical times, how can
anyone say with certitude that Isaiah couldn't have known about it?
If space allowed, I would explicate the other scriptures mentioned earlier
that are often cited as evidence of scientific foreknowledge in the Bible, but
these are enough to demonstrate the problems that the inerrancy proponents
must solve before rational-thinking people can take their argument seriously.
If Pythagoras could observe the sun and the moon and thereby reason that
the earth was also spherical in shape, why couldn't Job have looked at the
moon or the sun and concluded that the earth, like them, was suspended in
space on nothing? Why couldn't Moses, if he was indeed the author of Gene-
sis, have observed that when blood is drained from the body, life flowed out
with it so that in some sense life was "in the blood"? Just why does this
have to mean that Moses knew that blood carries oxygen to cells throughout
the body and thereby sustains life? Why does "paths of the seas" in Psalm
8:8 have to be a reference to ocean currents like the Gulf Stream and the
North Atlantic Current? Why couldn't it just as easily have been a reference
to ocean trade routes that the ships of that time traveled? The Hebrew word
orach translated paths in this passage in fact meant "customary road." And
even if it was a reference to currents in the oceans, how can anyone deter-
mine today that knowledge of those currents was completely unknown at that
time? Simply because it isn't now known that it was known doesn't prove that
it wasn't known. So inerrancy proponents aren't the only ones who can ask
questions. Those of us who reject the inerrancy doctrine have a lot of ques-
tions to ask too, especially on this matter of alleged scientific foreknowledge
in the Bible.
Like so much of the other "evidence" that Bible fundamentalists offer as
proof of the inerrancy doctrine, they see scientific foreknowledge in the Bible
only because they so desperately want to see something that can form a ra-
tional basis for their faith. In the same way, they see prophecies and their
fulfillments in passages so obscurely written that no one can really determine
what the writers originally intended in the statements. In the face of une-
quivocal inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible text, they see unity
of theme because they so desperately want to see unity of theme.
This approach to Bible interpretation has at times caused them major
embarrassment. In 1939, for example, George DeHoff wrote a biblical apology
entitled Why We Believe the Bible. An entire chapter was devoted to the
scientific-foreknowledge argument in which he cited Job 26:7 as supporting
evidence, (p. 50):
Astronomers have discovered that there is a great empty space in
the North. It contains no moving planets and shining stars. By
turning their telescopes to the South, the East and the West, men
may behold countless millions of stars invisible to the naked eye but
when the telescope is set exactly to the North there is a great
empty space. For this, astronomers have been unable to account.
They did not know until recently that there was such an empty
space, yet Job declared, "He stretcheth out the North over the
empty places [sic] and hangeth the earth upon nothing," (Job
DeHoff's conclusion was that "Job could not have written by guess. It must
be that he wrote by inspiration of God."
For years, this scripture was cited from Church-of-Christ pulpits as
compelling evidence that the Bible was divinely inspired, but there was just
one thing wrong with it. The premise on which it was based wasn't true.
There is no "empty place" in our northern space. Everywhere astronomers
look, they find space filled with galaxies and stars. That includes our
northern space too. So wherever DeHoff got this argument, he didn't get it
from science, and he will find no support for it in scientific circles.
Inerrancy advocates in the Churches of Christ are now admitting that
they erred in using Job 26:7 as an example of scientific foreknowledge in the
Bible. In the September 1989 issue of Reason & Revelation, Dr. Bert Thomp-
son summarized the traditional DeHoffian interpretation of Job 26:7 and then
said this, (p. 35):
This writer has so used the verse himself in the past, but does
so no longer, because of problems associated with such interpreta-
tions. For example, if we attempt to convince people that this
verse is to be taken literally, how do we then consistently deal
with statements in the chapter which are obviously figurative
(such as verse 11: "The pillars of heaven tremble, and are aston-
ished at his reproof")? Further, there seems to be no empty space
in the north. Instead, "billions of stars and galaxies extend out-
ward in all directions," (Donald B. DeYoung, Astronomy and the
We congratulate Dr. Thompson for finally recognizing an obvious flaw in
a popular inerrancy argument. It gives us hope that he might someday
see the flaws in other inerrancy arguments too.
Something that has long perplexed me is the way that inerrancy
proponents can so easily find "scientific foreknowledge" in obscurely
worded Bible passages but seem completely unable to see scientific error
in statements that were rather plainly written. There are too many to
discuss, but Leviticus 11:5-6 can serve as an example. Here "Moses,"
after having identified clean animals as those that "chew the cud and
part the hoof," said, "And the coney, because he cheweth the cud but
parteth not the hoof, he is unclean unto you. And the hare, because
she cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, she is unclean unto
you." Deuteronomy 14:7 also described the hare and the cony as cud-
chewers, but in reality they are not. They do not have compartmental-
ized stomachs that ruminants must have in order to be cud-chewers.
Inerrancy champions have stumbled over these passages with various
attempts to explain them. Gleason Archer justifies the classification of
hares and conies as cud-chewers on the grounds that they "give the
appearance of chewing their cud in the same way ruminants do,"
(Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 126). Yet after all has been said
on the matter, the fact remains that hares and conies are not cud-
chewers. But "Moses" said that they were.
One would think that if God were going to arm his inspired writers
with scientific foreknowledge about complex matters like the "seed of
woman" and the shape of the earth, he could have easily programmed
them to know the simple fact that hares and conies aren't cud-chewers.
That he didn't reveal this to them, as well as other things, certainly
doesn't help the scientific-foreknowledge argument.
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