Monday, February 22, 2010

The Genesis Enigma

crap-o-la [krap-oh-luh]

1. Slang: Sometimes Vulgar.
a. nonsense; drivel.
b. falsehood, exaggeration, propaganda, or the like.
Synonyms: The Genesis Enigma, by Andrew Parker.

I'm a sucker for punishment. Why else would I pick up the book The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate from the library? I admit that I was somewhat intrigued by the back cover blurb, which said that it was "Jaw-dropping... an astounding work which seeks to prove that the ancient Hebrew writers of the book of Genesis knew all about evolution - 3000 years before Darwin." OK, the quote was from the Daily Mail, not a publication known for its rigorous scientific standards, but still...

I first realized what I was in for while reading Chapter 1: Truth: The Old Testament as Factual Record. Parker devotes most of the chapter discussing the early archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia. He points out things like the Merneptah Stele, the earliest evidence of Israel's existence outside the Bible, and discoveries of Woolley and Lawrence and others (Ur, Nineveh, capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, etc). His conclusion: "Having seen now the weight of archaeological evidence for the historical truth of the Bible... Uh, excuse me, Mr. Parker?? Because you can muster a smattering of archaeological findings that corroborate certain Biblical events, that is enough to say that the "weight of evidence" says that it is historically accurate?? Why did you ignore the weight of evidence that argues against a global flood, against a single language in Bavel (pre-dispersion), against a single couple as the progenitor of all humans less than 6000 years ago? No, a real scientist might say that "archaeological evidence shows that certain passages in the Bible reflect a knowledge of the times", but there is NO way that the weight of evidence shows that it is historically true.

The rest of the book was skimming material after I realized the pattern: devote the vast majority of the material to a discussion of scientific matters, such as the Big Bang, geology, and evolution (and their historical development), and sneak in a paragraph or two about the creation account, making an attempt to correlate the opening chapter of Genesis with our current scientific knowledge. In addition, the author is fond of seemingly irrelevant segues, such as his brief interlude to discuss human-caused ecological destruction in the chapter on birds (he states that one should not think that the Bible will solve this problem, and no amount of prayer will correct out behavior toward the environment.)

To save you the time (and pain) of reading the book, here is how he attempts to correlate the account of creation with modern science:

1) Let there be light. This chapter discusses the history of the geocentric and heliocentric models, Newtonian and Einsteinium physics, and the Big Bang. Parker says that the ancient Israelites behind the Genesis account of creation give an order of events that is surprisingly accurate, scientifically. But, says Parker, beginning the story with the formation of the sun 5 billion years before present (YBP) makes "intuitive sense" and might not seem remarkable.

2) The formation of the seas and the emergence of dry land. Parker gives a brief history regarding various estimates of the age of Earth, the work of geologists Hutton and Lyell, the principle of uniformitarianism, how Fleming struck a blow against the notion of a universal deluge, the gradual acceptance of an ancient earth, and the early geologic history of Earth. The separation of land and sea (approx. 4.2 billion YBP) are found in their correct sequence in Genesis. But again, says Parker, "the story may seem rather predictable so far".

3) Life begins! The earth brings forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit trees. Parker discusses Gosse, Darwin and Wallace, then focuses briefly on theories of abiogenesis. Which leads us to the beginning of cyanobacteria 3.6 billion YBP. But cyanobacteria are not mentioned in Genesis, Parker states with wonder! That's because the ancient Israelites would have been oblivious to single-celled life forms. However, plants are photosynthetic just like cyanobacteria - and indeed the former incorporated the latter to do just that. So it is appropriate that plants are mentioned in the third state of creation.

4) Lights to divide day from night. The author of Genesis already covered the appearance of the sun, and so Parker does not accept that this event refers to the sun and the moon as almost all commentators explain (and try to understand.) After discussing at length the emergence of multi-cellular organisms, Parker comes up with a chiddush (novel explanation): this event of Genesis must be referring to the evolution of the eye, which first appeared in trilobites around 521 million YBP! Yes, that is right, the light that divides day from night is actually a reference to the sense of vision. "Why the author of the creation account placed emphasis in his narrative to introduce the eye, cannot be explained." But "he remained on a parallel course with the scientifically correct sequence of events in the history of life".

5) Waters bring forth abundant creatures. Moses ("who may have first spoken [these words]") lived far from the sea and would have known only about land animals, birds and insects who shared his territory. (Parker apparently never looked at a map of Goshen.) A discussion of the Cambrian explosion ensues. Life 580 million YBP was exclusively marine. "Bring forth" corresponds to the evolutionary processes following the evolution of the eye. The author must have "received word that this is the way it really happened." Parker finds this "rather scary".

6) Life unfolds. Great whales and every living creature that moves are brought forth. This corresponds to the great diversity of the Silurian and Devonian ("age of fishes") eras. The author of Genesis is "spot on", as it mentions giant sea monsters. Briefly mentioned here are mammal-like reptiles, dinosaurs (why these giants are not mentioned, Parker doesn't say), and the earliest bird fossils. Then mammals and finally modern humans 160,000 YBP.

7) Winged fowls. Parker doesn't know why birds are singled out, since they are "an exception to the rule of vision, the sense that caused evolution." But he spends considerable time talking about bird feathers. "Birds, evolving late in the history of animals, serve as a message of the power of light and vision on earth today...It was fitting for the author of Genesis to say something special about birds in his creation account".

In general, Parker takes a pretty standard scientific approach towards evolution, geology, etc. He also agrees with the Documentary Hypothesis. But in the chapter God, Parker plunges into theology when he states that "Either the author of Genesis was directed by divine intervention, or he made a lucky guess." In presenting this false dilemma, he doesn't consider that he is fitting the account of creation to his own theory. The Bible clearly says that "the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars" are created after the plants; but that doesn't jive with his thesis. He ignores the obvious (sun, moon, and stars) and creates a general category that he equates with the "evolution of vision". Gimmeabreak! He likewise ignores other anomalies, such as fruit trees (actually all flowering plants) developing very late, after mammals and birds, completely at odds with the order in Genesis. Birds likewise evolved relatively late, and again the order in Genesis is inconsistent with the scientific understanding, but for Parker birds are "an exception"!

Parker also says that the Bible is the greatest inconvenience to atheists. The stronger our belief in God, the higher our morale. (Yeah, the Crusaders did have high morale, it just that they weren't very moral!) He hints that he agrees with the Catholic Church of Scotland's 2005 guide to the Bible which - while arguing for a symbolic interpretation of the text - accepts that it is a divine revelation to Moses.

I think that one can sum up the book by looking at this quote in the chapter on birds: "When the biblical text is taken literally, it is left in the wake of an advancing science. But when it is read figuratively, as here in the case of birds, it becomes a great unknown in the way it keeps pace with modern science". In other words, "I will interpret the text in such a manner as to agree with my thesis, and ignore the obvious problems with a literal reading."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Case for a Return to Biblical Slavery

In this very brief talk on Parsha Mishpatim, Rabbi Sroy Levitansky discusses the benefits of the Jewish system of indentured servitude versus the American system of incarceration (although nowadays, compensation to the victim is also often required by the court). Of course, this "Sage of St. Louis" restricts his discussion to that of a Jewish thief, and conveniently ignores the halachic parameters surrounding the non-Jewish slave. The latter remains a slave forever, and it is permissible to abuse him (within limits), even though Rambam, for example, strongly cautions the slave-owner to act in a compassionate manner. So does Levitansky want a return to all forms of Biblical slavery? Does he want to allow (or perhaps force) a Jewish male servant (I hesitate to call him a "slave") to marry a non-Jewish female slave and produce children that are slaves forever?

And how about a return to other Biblical laws mentioned in the same parsha: does he want the death penalty for a child that curses (even a dead) parent? Would he prefer that his (virgin) 12-year old daughter marry her rapist, or would he rather take monetary compensation?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Jewish Nation - For Men Only

In preparation for the revelation at Sinai, Moses tells the people not to go near (i.e., have relations with) women for three days. It is therefore obvious from the context that the people, הָעָם, the nation, excludes women. Does this suggest that when הָעָם is used in the passages immediately adjacent to v. 15, that women are also excluded? Did the women not prepare and wash their garments (v. 14)? Did only the men shudder (v. 16)? Did only the men stand at the foot of the mountain (v. 17)? Etcetera.
14. So Moses descended from the mountain to the people, and he prepared the people, and they washed their garments.
יד. וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה מִן הָהָר אֶל הָעָם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת הָעָם וַיְכַבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם:
15. He said to the people, "Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman."
טו. וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעָם הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים אַל תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל אִשָּׁה:
16. It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered.
טז. וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה:
17. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.
יז. וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱ־לֹהִים מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר:
I could not find any meforshim that discuss this problem. Is there no commentator that is troubled by the exclusionary wording of Exodus 19:15?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Rebbe's Omniscience

From Noah Efron's Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel (p. 177):

[Journalist Shahar] Ilan recounted that use of amulets and blessings as electoral assets was pioneered in 1988 by representatives of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, working to enlist votes for Israel’s Agudat Yisrael party. Aryeh Deri, the former leader of Shas who was imprisoned for financial irregularities and breach of trust (which I will soon describe), explained the modus operandi of the Lubavitchers, from which he would learn important lessons for the elections that followed:

They would have a person sign a letter to the Lubavitcher rebbe, in which they committed to voting for the Agudah. The next day, someone would call the same person, presenting himself as a pollster for a public opinion research center, asking how the person planned to vote. If he answered with some other party, they would later call him again, this time in the name of the Lubavitchers, and say, “We sent your name by fax to the Rebbe in New York, and we received a reply that you’re unreliable."

This tactic combined spiritual carrot and stick: blessings for compliance, and the Rebbe’s omniscient wrath for noncompliance. For people who care about this sort of thing, it was powerful incentive to vote the way the Rebbe (or, at least, his representatives) wished.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

News Flash - All Judges in Jerusalem Fired Except for Single Justice!

Jerusalem eliminates all judicial appointments except for a lone judge. Gentile priest attempts to intervene and proclaims "one justice is simply not enough".

Supposedly there were 600,000 adult men during the sojourn in the desert, greater than the current Jewish population of Jerusalem. Yet until Jethro comes up with his brilliant idea of setting up a court system, Moses as sole judge of every dispute - no matter how minor - has to stay up morning till night to accomplish his task.

Just another of many examples why a literal interpretation of 600,000 is quite absurd...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance Trilogy

The Lancet retracts a 1998 research paper linking childhood vaccines with autism, finding Dr. Andrew Wakefield - the original researcher - to have been deceptive and guilty of ethical violations. Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents.“Attacking scientists and attacking doctors is dangerous,” he said. “This is about suppressing research, and it will fuel the controversy by bringing it all up again.”

Dayan Fisher's segulah for difficult births doesn't work. If it had, it would have (supposedly) endangered the baby. That it didn't work proves that it is a miracle!

Man emphatically states that he isn't the messiah. Followers claim that "only the true Messiah denies his divinity!"