Biblical Views of Time and Space

Lake and SkyChapter 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?

Harris runs through a number of aspects of time in the bible. Time isn’t simply a linear scientific concept related to cause and effect and process. On a grand scale time – as we experience it at least – is contingent on God as part of creation. There was a beginning to time (as we experience it). There is an end of time – but “it is perhaps not a final end so much as a completion or fulfilment: the beginning of the new creation.” (p. 93) There is a flow to time, but time is best described in terms of fixed points and theologically significant events. Historical time is not an impersonal and objective parameter. “Rather, it is the arena in which God’s personal will and purposes are revealed.” (p. 93) Although it is common to view God as outside time, this seems to be more of a philosophers move than a biblical move.

[T]he biblical texts … suggest that God is inside time, experiencing it in ways outside our ken. God engages fully with it and in it, but is by no means constrained by it. It might be better therefore, to use a relational metaphor rather than a spatial one, to say that God exists in relationship with time rather than outside it. God relates to time in analogous ways to those in which God relates to other created entities being both transcendent and immanent with respect to it. (p. 97)

The view of eternity – the age to come – is ambiguous, but reflects the point of view of God who is drawing us forward into his presence. This is particularly true in the New Testament. “God relates to created time from eternity by reaching back and redeeming time so as to bring it into eternity.” (p. 99) And Harris concludes: “An ontological view of time is replaced by a relational view. God’s transcendence relates to eternity, while God’s immanence relates to time.” (p. 99)

Dates and numbers in the Bible reflect this relational view of time. These often carry a significance that prevents accurate numerical calculations of the passage of time. As one example, Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the age of the earth from biblical genealogies overlooks the way that dates have been systematized to convey general concepts rather than precise passage of time. There are patterns that convey cultural and theological meaning. The non-random nature of the ages in the genealogies, using multiples of 5 and 60, for example. Another example is the common use of forty and its multiples to describe spans. Rain fell for forty days and forty nights. Moses was in Egypt for forty years and then in exile for forty years and led Israel for forty years. The time from the Exodus to the building of Solomon’s temple is given as 480 years, and many reigns of kings or judges were forty years. The common occurrence of forty is especially obvious when reading (or listening to) the books of the Old Testament in large chunks rather than isolates bits and pieces.

The biblical authors were not bound by our scientific worldview and our concern for technical and literal accuracy when citing numbers. But we should not set up too strong a distinction between them and us for two reasons:

1. The Israelites were as capable as we are of performing accurate calculations using elementary numbers … . The differences concern more their interest in the significance of numbers and dates. …

2. It should not be concluded from this discussion that every number and date recorded in the Bible is of symbolic value only, since some narratives show signs of careful historical research not unlike that of modern-day historians. (p. 101)

The approach the biblical authors took to numbers and dates reflected the specific concerns and literary forms of the various books and sources. We shouldn’t assume that they all reflect a technical historical accuracy.

Apollo 8 earth riseThe ancient Hebrew view of space. The ancient Hebrew view of the cosmos is as complex as the view of time. There are varied views on the construction of the world presented in the Bible. Ancient Israelite cosmology was not modern cosmology in disguise. It used common ideas from the surrounding culture. Most importantly, Harris argues that the ancient Hebrews had no simple, uniform understanding of a three-tiered cosmos with heavens above, the earth, and the realm of the dead below. He suggests that “most of the cosmological statements which are interpreted as evidence for in its favor are in fact metaphorical allusions to God’s relationship with the world.” (p. 104) Most of the language used to describe the cosmos has more theological than scientific significance. The biblical authors were not particularly interested in describing the material world. Rather they were interested in the immanence and transcendence of God himself. The three-tiered cosmology is symbolic way of talking about religious truths. In fact, “many of the biblical interpretations of physical space are metaphors for the Creator/creation relationship.” (p. 107) The various references to an “earthly Jerusalem” and a “heavenly Jerusalem” are another example of the metaphorical significance of physical space.

Conclusion. Our modern scientific preoccupation with the pernicious tyranny of literalism and a scientific worldview places something of a hurdle between us and the ancient biblical authors and audiences. We expect them to communicate in ways that the simply did not understand or see as important. Harris concludes:

Our modern scientific worldview has clearly drawn us into a much more deistic frame of mind than the early Israelites, or at least those who were active in the composition of biblical texts. If we find it straightforward to see the big picture of our world, of time and space, of boundaries and structures, without God active in it, then the early Israelites seem to have found it correspondingly harder to conceive of such a big picture. Their default big picture incorporated God’s activity as a matter of course. Ours rarely does. (p. 110)

Many of the difficulties in reconciling modern science with the Bible arise, quite simply, from this difference in perspective. The Bible won’t change. We need to understand this difference in perspective in order to faithfully interpret the intent and message of Scripture.

Do you agree with Harris, that the biblical authors were more interested in theological concepts than in the scientific ideas about time and space?

Does his description of the difference between modern and ancient perspectives ring true?

If so, how should this influence our approach to scripture?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Biblical Views of Time and Space at Jesus Creed.

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