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Let the Ancient Israelites Be Who They Were

Editor's Note: 

The World Known to the Biblical Writers Was a Lot Smaller than Ours

Genesis 10 is known to Bible scholars as the “Table of Nations.” The chapter is a biblical explanation of what happened in the centuries after Noah and his family disembarked the ark,

having survived the flood. The Table of Nations describes how the descendants of Noah’s three sons — Shem, Ham, and Japheth — repopulated the earth, forming the nations known in the rest of the Old Testament story. In terms of the unfolding narrative of Genesis, the chapter is a precursor to the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11:1–9), where the nations were divided and dispersed by God.

There’s an obvious problem with the Table of Nations — or for those who let the Bible be what it is, an obvious disconnect between the world of the biblical writers and the world we know today. The Table of Nations shows no knowledge whatsoever of the geography belonging to North America, South America, Australia, China, India, and Scandinavia. The same is true of the knowledge of earth’s geography in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2). The known world in biblical times covered a fraction of the size of the globe we know today.

This is no surprise if we let the Bible be what it is. The biblical “world” is composed of seventy nations that are situated in what we now call the ancient Near East (or modern Middle East) on the land masses that surround the Mediterranean Sea. There is no hint in the Scriptures of any land mass beyond this region.

We can learn a lesson from other’s misguided attempts to make the Bible into something it isn’t with respect to the true size of the world. Once Europeans achieved the ability to cross the Atlantic and circumnavigate the world, people immediately questioned where these other countries and people came from. Most Europeans, well familiar with the Bible, presumed these people must have come from Adam. But how did the descendants of Noah produce these peoples?

All sorts of strange proposals were offered in answer to these questions. Those efforts in turn produced theories of race, including the theory that non-European (nonwhite) races came from sub-humans or humans separate from and inferior to Adam. The rest is history. Europeans believed that embracing these explanations, which are inherently flawed and racist, was necessary to preserve biblical authority. Despite their absence in the Table of Nations, the Bible had to speak to the discovery of these new lands and peoples. These interpretive gymnastics institutionalized racial ideas that the Bible never endorses.

Biblical Writers Believed That God Made the World They Knew, Not the World They Didn’t Know

The biblical writers didn’t know a lot of things we know today. That’s especially true when it comes to areas like medicine, engineering, and science. Today, many Christians want to make the Bible a source of science due to the perceived threat of evolution. Other Bible believers try to force certain passages into teaching evolutionary theory. But the biblical writers had no concept of a theory that was formulated in the nineteenth century. Both approaches are flawed and don’t allow the Bible to be what it is.

The biblical authors were premodern and therefore prescientific in the modern sense. The Bible itself informs us of this in some transparent ways. For example, ancient Israelites believed the seat of emotions and decision-making was the internal organs (heart, intestines, kidneys; see Ps. 16:7; 26:2; 31:9; Prov. 20:27; Jer. 11:20; Rev. 2:23). We use such language today metaphorically because we know that emotions are brain-based. Biblical Hebrew doesn’t even have a word for “brain.”

Hebrews 7:4–10 mentions that the descendants of Levi existed in the loins of Abraham. We know from modern science that a person’s full genetics result from conception, an insight into procre- ation of which the author of Hebrews would have had no concept.

Biblical cosmology is also prescientific. For example, many interpreters see in Old Testament passages a three-tiered universe: heavens above, earth beneath, and water under the earth (Ex. 20:4; Phil. 2:10; Rev. 5:3). This perspective would have been common throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean.

The biblical writers had no intention (or ability) to teach modern science in Genesis or any other passage. They put forth ideas that transcend the facts of biology, physics, chemistry, and any other hard science: God created the world and everything in it. This assertion does not contradict science, though many scientists want to resist it. God in his wisdom gave us a truth proposition that surpasses scientific theories and debates. Let critics deride the Bible for not being what it wasn’t intended to be—they will sound hopelessly foolish.