|A scholar of Hebrew manuscripts offers a heterodox and cutting edge exploration of the implications of the Old Testament.
|December 14, 2020
As someone who grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist family, I must admit that one of the most bizarre experiences of my life was when I went to visit the infamous Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, two summers ago. The massive facility, and its twin facility The Noah’s Ark Encounter with its life-sized creation of the Biblical Ark, was certainly fascinating to experience in real life after years of hearing stories about its reputation. The museum itself, for all its good intentions and sincerity, is the unfortunate laughingstock of the secular intellectual world, which has moved beyond suggestions of a literal worldwide flood or the idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old.
Even as a Christian, my experience at the museum was somewhat alienating. I enjoyed the experience of visiting with friends, but the claims it made didn’t stick with me comfortably. My faith journey has taken me away from my roots and guided me towards Liturgical Protestantism, which is more focused on the nature of the sacraments and of ultimate truth than questions about the nature of the six-day creation story.
I take no stance on the inerrant nature of the Bible other than to say that it is ultimately true. However, there is a necessity to reconcile the Bible’s cosmology with that of modern science to some degree. There is a very real tension there that I am afraid some Christians want to write off as irrelevant.
I have intelligent, sensible friends who do not share this opinion. They believe the six-day creation is an exegetically more honest way to read the Bible’s truth claims. I don’t agree with them. I hope these ideas do not come off as purposely aggressive or disrespectful to my fellow believers, many of whom I am sure wrestle with similar anxieties.
Spiritual Content: It is a theology textbook that explores the implications of cryptic Old Testament passages.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Some frank discussions of human sexual anatomy and their theological implications.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: Potentially controversial or disturbing exploration of complex theories about the truth of the Bible.
Positive Content: Complex and meaningful exploration of the intersection between Biblical scholarship and Pagan Mythology.
I suspect I share a similar experience of alienation with the Creation Museum with Ben Stanhope, a young doctoral graduate of the University of Hamberg who studies ancient Hebrew Manuscripts and Hebrew Seals. He is part of a small movement of Christians like Michael Heiser, David Falk, and Michael Jones interrogating the truth claims of Biblical cosmology by marrying theology to the study of Near-Eastern archeology and mythology. In doing so, these scholars have managed to pull together some of the most cutting-edge scholarship and analysis to answer many of the most cryptic questions the Bible poses.
In his recent book Misinterpreting Genesis, Stanhope uses the Creation Museum as his rhetorical muse, although not because it deserves special scorn. He describes his upbringing as a Fundamentalist missionary kid growing up within the miasma of creationism advocates like Answers in Genesis and other fundamentalist theologians.
“I have chosen to target the Creation Museum largely because I believe they have done the finest job of any institution in making the issues involved dramatically tangible and clear to the public. Some of the ideas I critique in this book are popular in mainstream evangelicalism in general, but the Creation Museum is evangelicalism’s flagship embodiment of these ideas and therefore make for a fine space to discuss them” (15).
Unlike some other attempts at defending intelligent design or rationalizing evolution within a metaphorical context, Stanhope discusses the Creation Museum’s approach by reversing in the opposite direction. By taking the Bible’s mythological implications even MORE literally.
An Introduction to Hebrew Cosmology
He starts the book by exploring the question of the “Leviathan,” a cryptic oceanic animal or being mentioned several times throughout the Bible. The identity of that creature mentioned in Job 41 and Psalm 74 has bewildered the millennia of Christians. Most translations do not attempt to guess, although some recent translations try to put the issue to bed. The Living Bible translation claims he is an alligator. The New Life Version calls him a crocodile. Some supposes he is a whale. Answers in Genesis believes him to be a large marine dinosaur like a plesiosaur or mosasaur.
Such attempts at translation ignore the Bible’s own statements that Leviathan has multiple heads and breaths fire, something that apologists like Ken Ham suggest may have been something dinosaurs were capable of doing. As Stanhope points out, there is an actual answer to the question that has been discovered thanks to recent archeological discoveries surrounding the Ugaritic creation myth, in a society that would’ve existed parallel to ancient Israel.
A similar creature to Leviathan exists in Ugaritic mythology as an ancient fire-breathing chaos dragon who had a role in the creation of the Earth. This suggests that Job’s author was engaging in poetic hyperbole, not literally saying that Yahweh slays dragons and demigods, but that the God of Israel is greater than all the demigods of Israel’s neighbors. The sentiment is satirical. God created order out of chaos and supersedes all other neighboring deities that the ancient Israelites were tempted to worship. A major problem, considering the Israelites repeatedly break God’s order not to intermarry with the neighboring Canaanite or other Pagan tribes.
“When we read Psalm 74 in this context, we see it as a slap in the face of the pagan gods” (34).
This understanding of Leviathan lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. Once we understand that the language and cosmology of the Old Testament is infested with literary references to the mythologies of other pantheons, the possibilities open up for how to contextualize the most cryptic and bizarre verses in the Bible. Then we can begin unpacking them via comparative religious scholarship.
The Ancient World According to The Bible
The picture he paints of Near-Eastern cosmology is fascinating. He draws on the research of recent Egyptian, Akkadian, and Sumerian archeology discoveries to make similar inferences about the meaning of the flying creatures in Isaiah, the Temple Consecration Theology implied by the opening chapters of Genesis, the strange implications of the long lifespans of the Patriarchs, what Greek superstitions informed Paul’s command for women to wear headscarves, and why the Hebrew text of Psalm 7:9 seems to suggest that human consciousness is stored in the kidneys.
“If your theology forces you to contort and massage the biblical texts to make them conform to modern astrophysics, your theology is forcing you to misinterpret the Bible. An issue like cosmology is so fundamental to the ancient Hebrew worldview that understanding it accurately yields major and rapid gains in our ability to comprehend and join the Bible at a higher resolution” (84).
The painting he creates of this worldview is stunningly alien and bizarre to modern eyes. The Old Testament seems to suggest that not only is the Earth flat but that the sky is a dome holding up an ocean, above which Heaven is literally located. Hell, or Sheol, is conversely located below ground, and the world itself is held up by pillars above a chasm of watery chaos. This is why Genesis and Psalms frequently mention “the waters above.”
The Disruptive Nature of Near-Eastern Cosmology
How should a Christian grapple with the idea that the Scriptures proclaim the earth is flat when we know it isn’t? How should we engage with them given that we know that Heavens are not a literal space above us? As the first Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin famously was famously quoted, “I don’t see any God up here”.
Stanhope doesn’t provide an answer. He says he’s not a theologian and doesn’t intend to explain the full meaning of everything he’s suggesting. As he says in the book, he just doesn’t want to protect people from their own Bibles. He is warning that the Bible should be read within its context and understood as a text that doesn’t provide us literal answers to modern-day materialistic or scientific questions. The people who wrote it had a different way of seeing the world than we do.
“It is wrong to assume ancient creation myths were principally concerned with material origins the way modern scientific theories are” (92).
Nor is that a blow towards the truth of the Bible. As Stanhope points out, Aristotle posited that the stars were small spheres “fixed like nails” to a crystal sphere orbiting the Earth. His ideas bled down into the cosmology of the New Testament centuries later, but none of that speaks to the philosophy of Christ or Paul that remains the core of those writings. God could’ve explained the entire nature of the physical world to us at any point, but He either chose not to or knew better than to do that and instead passed on things we needed.
“I do not wish to minimize the fact that Genesis 1 contains ideas contradicting accurate material cosmology. It does. At the same time, we should appreciate that the ordering of its account, which the church has been biting its nails over for centuries, is most probably the product of the Genesis author simply wanting to make his literary schema symmetrical. You read that correctly” (167).
In my book, such answers are liberating. This isn’t to say that the Bible is a totally unreadable, cryptic text. One can still read most of it and completely understand. When references do appear that common knowledge or wisdom cannot explain, though, this is a reason to consult help. Otherwise, we risk tying ourselves in knots to explain why the T-Rex had razor-sharp teeth to consumer watermelons before the fall of man, as Answers in Genesis does. Doing so saves us from making mistakes like when the King James Bible mistranslates the word “ox” in Deuteronomy 33:17 as “unicorn.”
Such resources are neither pastoral, historical, nor traditional. They come from an intense study that modern technology and research allow us to do.
“How should we understand Genesis 1:1? Let’s consult Thomas Aquinas. What are the gods mentioned in Psalm 82? A man as intimate with the holy spirit as John Calvin must know. Why does God speak in the plural when he says “Let us making man in our image?” If anyone has it figured out, surely a holy man like Luther would know. Of course, I’ve chosen these examples because they are all cases where we can prove these men got these wrong… due to the lack of grammatical and archaeological data only discovered after the 20th century. The golden age of biblical interpretation wasn’t with the patristic fathers. I wasn’t with Augustine. It wasn’t with Calvin, Luther, the puritans, or the founding of your denomination… The golden age of Biblical interpretation is now” (227).
As inflammatory as much of this is, I hope Misinterpreting Genesis does offer a chance for sincere evaluation and consideration. Reading the book took a major burden of questioning off my own shoulders.
If any of this sounds interesting, Stanhope has discussed most of the ideas from his book on his YouTube Channel and most of his academic papers are available online! He was also kind enough to speak with me on a podcast last year prior to me reading the book.
+ Complex Exploration of Modern Day Archeology Scholarship
+ Fascinating Implications for Theological Interpretation
- Unsettling and Occasionally Disturbing Implications at Times, depending on your perspective
The Bottom Line
Misinterpreting Genesis is a book I can imagine many of my dear fellow Christians would be actively frustrated by, but if you're struggling to reconcile religion and science it is a highly useful work of scholarship!