Chapter 5 of Mark Harris’s book The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science looks at the biblical framework of creation. The concern is not so much the act of creation, but the way in which the bible’s authors talk about the nature of creation, especially time and space and the theological significance of this discussion. The challenge is to try, as much as we are able, to project ourselves back some two to three or four thousand years and imagine how the ancient Near Eastern audience pictured creation and God’s relationship to creation. Harris starts with two ideas that should guide the approach to scientific topics – including time and space – in the Bible.
First, we need to move away from a neat division between natural and supernatural. The Israelites certainly knew that there were a range of normal, regular processes in the world. However, they did not draw a neat line between God’s action and these “natural” processes. The rising and setting of the sun, the downward flow of rivers, and the progression of seasons were known to be regular and “normal” – but they were not viewed apart from God.
In short, there is often no easy division between the natural and the supernatural in the texts of the Bible. Such a division stems from much later philosophical developments and is more at home in our modern scientific worldview. Let us take an example. Can we say that Yahweh’s creative work in making “springs gush forth in the valleys” (Ps 104:10) is of a different kind from that which miraculously stopped the river Jordan flowing so that Joshua and the people could cross (Jos. 3:16)?
The first is a normal occurrence, while the second had a specific purpose, but it isn’t clear that there is a theological difference between the two descriptions.
…the point of both is that the phenomena they describe occur because God is “Lord of all the earth” (Josh. 3:13). To distinguish God’s natural activity from God’s supernatural activity is thus to imply two mutually exclusive views of divine activity, which goes beyond what the biblical authors claim, at least in these two texts. (p. 84)
This isn’t to say that the biblical authors were ignorant of regular behavior and many workings of nature – including the science necessary for agricultural practice. They could and did distinguish between God’s normal activity and new or novel action. The description of the demise of those who belonged to Korah in Numbers 16, for example, makes a distinction between natural events and a miraculous event (a “new creation”). God’s activity, however isn’t viewed as confined to these miraculous events. Normal, “natural” processes are also given theological explanations “The people of the biblical world were capable of thinking in scientific ways not so far removed from ours in some respects, but also capable of expressing a thorough-going theistic theology when it came to literary expression.” (p. 86)
Second, we need to avoid thinking about the ancient authors and audience as “primitive.” This is more a problem for scholars than Christians, but nonetheless is important to point out. While there are difference in perspectives between the modern and ancient world, the divisions are not as clean as many would like to claim. The naturalistic point of view prevalent among scholars today carries much less weight among the wider population. Likewise there is evidence for skepticism in the past. Harris points out that Josephus realized that many would be skeptical of the Exodus account and tailored his argument accordingly. The modern scholarly stereotype of ancient ignorance and superstition is wrongheaded.
The differences in ancient and modern outlooks are more subtle than such terms as primitive and enlightened convey.
While our view of cosmic order is heavily influenced by the natural sciences, Israelite thinking sees creation in terms of distinctions between order and disorder which we barely recognize, especially between “clean” and “unclean” states of existence, prescribing social and ritual interactions, which foods can and cannot be eaten, and so on. It is not that the Israelites lived in a mystical world where myth was inseparable from reality … but in a world which was differently conceived from ours in terms of order and propriety. (p. 89)
One key point relates to the distinction between natural and supernatural described above. The distinction between deism and theism is a modern invention. The tendency to push God out of natural normal occurrences is deistic and “any tendency to towards Deism in our interpretations of the Bible should be carefully highlighted and evaluated.” We may, simply, be missing the point.
So how did the biblical authors and audience understand such “scientific” concepts as time and space?