October 26, 2013

Noah’s Flood

Do not read anything into the fact that this post is coming immediately after one entitled Arguing with Idiots. I do not think that David Montgomery is an idiot. I think he is misguided and confused, but I do not think he is an idiot. David Montgomery is a college professor; he teaches geomorphology at the University of Washington. He has written a few books, but his most recent is entitled The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (2012, W.W. Norton & Co.). As I was perusing the books at our local library a couple of weeks ago I saw this book on the table with other recently-acquired titles. The topic struck me as interesting, and I decided to read it. The teaser inside the front flap reads, “How the mystery of the Bible’s greatest story shaped geology: a surprising new perspective on Noah’s Flood from a world-class geologist and a MacArthur Fellow.” Had to be interesting, I surmised, though I was fairly confident that I would not find Dr. Montgomery to be presenting a biblically-accurate case.

I will not hold you in suspense; I was absolutely right. The book is well written and is an easy read. I may be a nerd, but nearly 300 pages on geology is not really my idea of fun, so the fact that I found it easy to read and understand should be an encouragement to anyone who may like to read the book. However, if you want to read it with a purely unbiased perspective, read no further, because I am going to point out several areas of the book that trouble me. In other words…here is your spoiler alert.

Truthfully, the little blurb I already quoted above provides ample evidence of Montgomery’s flawed perspective. After all, Noah’s Flood is not the Bible’s greatest story. Not by a long shot. Anyone who thinks that it is obviously denies the veracity of Scripture and denies that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, lived a perfect life, died, was buried and rose again. But we’ll set that aside for now and just address several specific areas of Montgomery’s work.

Early on, in a chapter entitled “A Grand Canyon,” Montgomery writes about hiking out of the Grand Canyon and observing the fossilized plants and animals in the canyon walls. It struck him, he said, that all of the plants and animals he saw there are extinct, which prompted him to ask this question: “If all the creatures buried in that mile-high wall of rock had been put there by the biblical flood, then why aren’t modern animals entombed among them? That the vast majority of fossils are extinct species presents a fundamental problem for anyone trying to argue that fossils were deposited by a flood from which Noah saved a pair of every living thing.” This does not really pose any problem at all, of course, because the Bible does not say that Noah saved a pair of every living thing. What is says is this: “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female” (Genesis 6:19, ESV). The Message perhaps provides some clarification: “You are also to take two of each living creature, a male and a female, on board the ship, to preserve their lives with you: two of every species of bird, mammal, and reptile—two of everything so as to preserve their lives along with yours.” My point is this: Noah was to bring two of every kind of animal, two of each species, but not two of every living thing, as Montgomery suggests. For example, Noah had to bring two dogs on the ark, but he did not have to bring two of every breed of dogs along. A “species” is a class, but there can be a variety within the species. German Shepherds, Dalmations, Pit Bulls, Golden Retrievers and yes, even Poodles, are all different breeds of dogs but they are all within the dog species. If Noah took two of every species on board but not two of every breed in actually makes sense that the fossils Montgomery founds in the walls of the Grand Canyon would be mostly extinct.

Montgomery, in a chapter entitled “The Test of Time,” also makes this odd statement regarding the young-earth creationist view that the earth is not much more than six thousand years old: “This curious belief comes from literally adding up years gleaned from biblical chronology to arrive at how far back the world was created.” Curious indeed. After all, if I wondered how long ago my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather lived why in the world would I use such a silly thing as his birth date to figure that out? Excuse the sarcasm, please, I could not resist. Montgomery actually does not have an issue with adding up years from biblical chronologies to determine such a thing as I just alluded to; rather, his problem comes with the belief held by those holding to a literal interpretation of the Bible that God actually created Adam on the sixth 24-hour day, meaning the world is only five days (or one hundred twenty hours) older than Adam. I am afraid a more exhaustive discussion of day in Genesis 1 will have to wait for another time. The bottom line is that Montgomery’s thinking is clearly aligned with that of Baron Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, whom Montgomery affirms just a few pages after the remark about adding up biblical chronologies. Buffon, Montgomery says, “did point out that there was no conflict between Genesis and geology of one did not take the days of Creation literally. He thought, just as some theologians had argued, that Genesis was written for uneducated people and should not be interpreted literally on matters pertaining to earth history. It was never intended to convey scientific truths.” I should probably just stop by review now, because it is abundantly clear that anyone adhering to that position will not come to any kind of conclusion even close to being consistent with the Bible.

Later, in a chapter entitled “Catastrophic Revelations,” Montgomery references the work of Georges Cuvier in the early nineteenth century. Due to Cuvier’s work, Montgomery says, the Stackhouse Bible was cautioning its readers as early as 1816 that Genesis only refers to the current state of the world, and that “there is nothing in the sacred writing forbidding us to suppose that [fossils] are the ruins of a former earth.” Nothing, of course, other than reading the Bible literally and believing that it says exactly what it means. “Geological evidence,” Montgomery writes, “was starting to shape biblical interpretation.” Therein, of course, lies the problem. When men take the findings of other men and determine to rework the Bible into those findings it is possible to figure out a way to make the Bible say or mean almost anything. God is clearly revealed through creation, there is no denying that. Scripture makes that abundantly clear. Accordingly, it is not possible for creation, or geological evidence, rightly discovered and accurately understood, to contradict the Bible. That, of course is what this is really all about. Montgomery titled his book The Rocks Don’t Lie. That, of course, is true. Rocks are inanimate objects and they cannot communicate verbally. The rocks cannot tell us anything in the sense that someone having a conversation with you can tell you something or in the sense that I am telling you something now. Rocks communicate with us only through our understanding of the evidence they contain. Accordingly, accurate understanding of what the rocks tell us depends entirely on accurate reading and interpretation of the evidence the rocks contain. That reading and interpretation is done, however, by humans, using methods developed by humans, and is therefore imperfect.

Montgomery spends a little bit of time addressing the gap theory, the suggestion that there is “an indeterminate gap between the first two verses of Genesis.” This theory is not original to Montgomery nor is it necessarily advocated by him; if nothing else, he does do an admirable job of tracing the various lines of thinking on Noah’s Flood through the centuries. The gap theory is essentially an attempt to have it both ways–to hold that the six days of creation are literal 24-hour days, but that they are not six consecutive days. This argument is really untenable, though, and requires a tremendously creative reading of the text. Such an interpretation would be akin to me suggesting that I was born, graduated high school, graduated college, got married, had a daughter and then had a son all in one week. Those six things did happen on six individual days, but they happened over a period of thirty years. Now imagine that basic premise extended over a period of millions of years and you get an idea of the feasibility of the gap theory. Quite simply, the gap theory requires inserting something into the Bible that is not there.

Later, Montgomery has a chapter entitled “Recycled Tales.” I am not even going to spend much time addressing the issues contained in this chapter; you can read it yourself if you want the nitty gritty details. This opening sentence of the chapter should give you sufficient indication of the chapter’s contents: “Centuries before George Smith discovered that the opening chapters of the Bible were reworked Babylonian tales, controversy over the authorship of the Bible centered on how to interpret it as the literal word of God.”

One of Montgomery’s more unusual assertions comes in this “Recycled Tales” chapter, though, and I think I need to address it. He writes, “Perhaps misinterpretation and quirks lie at the root of the belief in a global deluge. After all, repeated references to unicorns in the King James Bible demonstrate the potential for meanings to become scrambled as words were translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin, and finally to English.” To his credit, Montgomery includes an end note after this statement explaining that “unicorn” in the KJV is an erroneous translation of the Hebrew word re’em which is far more accurately translated as a wild ox in almost every other English translation of the Bible. To suggest, however, that because some translators used “unicorn” to convey the unique one-horned animal referenced in the original Hebrew means that translators have perhaps also erred in translating a global flood is disingenuous. In fact, anyone reading Montgomery’s end note realizes this. How? He makes it clear that just about every other English translation of the Bible has corrected the translation of re’em so that they no longer refer to unicorns. In other words, he is asserting that more recent and more careful translation has corrected the KJV translation of that word to more accurately reflect what the Hebrew word meant. Interestingly, though, all of those more recent and more careful translations still refer to a flood. The Orthodox Jewish Bible uses the Hebrew word mabbul to reference the Noahic flood. What does that mean? According to Strong’s Concordance it means flood. According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance it means a deluge. And according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon it means a flood in the time of Noah, and possibly is derived from an Assyrian word meaning “to destroy.” This Hebrew word is used only to describe the Noahic Flood. Any references to any other floods in Scripture use a different Hebrew word. Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, in his commentary on Genesis from a Messianic Jewish perspective, says, “The Hebrew word for flood is mabul with a definite article, ha-mabul, meaning ‘the flood.'” So, KJV unicorns aside, there is no weight to the argument that the Noahic Flood may just be a mistranslation of original Hebrew.

I could go on in my review and refutation of Montgomery’s book but this has become quite lengthy already. Let me close by saying that Montgomery’s last chapter, entitled “The Nature of Faith,” is worth reading all on its own even if you do not want to read the entire book. I am not endorsing it by any means; this sentence gives you a final look at Montgomery’s perspective: “Even though we can no longer read the story [of Noah’s Flood] literally, we can still learn from it–all of us.” The value of the chapter comes in Montgomery’s acknowledgement that science probably does not have all of the answers, either. He probably diminishes the value and importance of faith, but he at least is up front about the fact that science is not necessarily flawless or completely authoritative. The chapter would be a great source of discussion for a high school or college class, a Sunday school class or even a book discussion group; I am sure it would generate lively and stimulating discussion.

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