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Does TaNaKh teach mistaken geology or cosmology, and does that undermine its reliability?

Discussion in 'Judaism DIR' started by Rakovsky, Apr 15, 2017.

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Which of the following do you consider to be factually, literally true:

This poll will close on Aug 30, 2044 at 2:05 PM.
  1. The earth's flatness

    0 vote(s)
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  2. The waters resting above the sun, the stars, and the heavens that have poured onto the earth

    0 vote(s)
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  3. The earth's plants were created before the sun was.

    0 vote(s)
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  4. The story of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood that covered the earth's tallest mountains

    50.0%
  5. None of the above

    50.0%
  6. Other answer / N.A.

    0 vote(s)
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Multiple votes are allowed.
  1. Rakovsky

    Rakovsky Active Member

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    Tanakh's blessed predictions about Messiah, the Messianic era, and the resurrection of the dead are very appealing. In fact, belief in Messiah and the resurrection are two of the thirteen fundamental principles of Judaism laid out by Rabbi Maimonides. Yet does the Tanakh when intentionally describing the facts of geology and cosmology sometimes make mistakes? And if so, does this in turn undermine the reliability of its future predictions? That is, if the writers were severely mistaken in their factual beliefs and understanding of real events that occurred thousands of years before their time, as well as basic reality in their own, then does this make their factual predictions of the future far less reliable?

    Let me address first some potential geological & cosmological mistakes.

    Portayals of a Flat Earth
    Tanakh describes the earth as being in the form of a "circle" ("hug" in Hebrew) rather than a "ball", and it describes its form as like clay under a seal (a seal stamps clay in a flat circle). The earth has "ends", "corners", and "foundations". The earth is "stretched out" (something flat stretches out), it's "stretched out over nothing", and one can "stretch a measuring line across it" (as opposed to "around it"). It can also be seen from a single point in space (like only a flat object can).

    Below are some of the many verses that describe the earth this way:

    The earth has ends and can be seen from a single point in space:
    Job 28:24 (JPT translation) For He looks to the ends of the earth, and He sees under all the heavens.

    Like a flat object, the earth's middle is a single point above ground, and the tree standing on that point can be seen from all points on earth, even its "ends":
    Daniel 4 (JPT) [The king saw] a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was tremendous. The tree grew and became strong, and its height reached the sky, and its appearance [was seen] to the end of all the earth.

    The earth is like a clay circle stamped under a flat seal, has corners, and can be measured with a line over/across it, as opposed to around it:
    Job 38 (JPT):
    I welcome you to compare the Hebrew above with the JPT translation that I provided, since other translations put it a bit differently.

    The plants' creation before the sun's, the heavens' firmness, and the waters above them
    In Genesis 1, the earth's plants are created before the sun, which is made on Day Four of Creation. The heavens are "beaten out" like a hard metal sheet, the sun and stars are fastened in them, and above them rests a body of liquid water (AKA the "water canopy"). The earth also sits on top of a mass of underground water. Then, according to Genesis, during the Great Flood, windows in the heavens opened and the waters poured down enough and burst up enough to flood the earth over the tallest mountains. Psalm 148 (JPT) also talks about the waters above the heavens:
    • Praise Him, highest heavens and the water that is above the heavens.
    • They shall praise the name of the Lord, for He commanded and they were created.
    The Great Flood and Noah's Ark
    In the Great Flood, the water rose over the earth's tallest mountains for over a month, killing all animals and humans except for those whom Noah saved with his ark. The saved were Noah's families and the pairs of every animal kind on earth. After the flood, the animals and humans on board repopulated the earth.

    This is hard to square with our knowledge of reality. The Great Flood happened about 1000 years before Moses' time, based on the Tanakh's chronology. We know from archeology that the indigenous Peruvians had a major civilization already 1700 years before Moses' time, and that Mesoamericans had settled their own region for millenia before then. It's hard to think that 1000 years before Moses these major cultures were wiped out and then humans returned there from Noah's descendants and restored the exact same culture with the same human DNA.

    Even greater difficulty arises with the animals. Did flightless birds live in New Zealand for centuries before Noah's time, then get saved in Noah's Ark, regain their ability to fly, and then fly back to New Zealand where they lost their ability to fly again? Or maybe they rafted back and forth on driftwood? There are so many problems with taking this story factually that it looks like it is not factually true.

    What are some possible responses to these depictions?


    One is Inerrancy, whereby all such expressions are either (A) literally true no matter how unrealistic they sound, (B) figurative expressions and manners of speech, or (C) only meant as allegories. In such an explanation, there are no instances when the authors intended something factually true that later turned out to be factually mistaken.

    So in order to promote their (A) Literal Factuality, one could point out that some scholars believe that there are masses of water underneath the earth.
    Massive Underground 'Ocean' Probably The Source Of Our Surface Seas
    Massive Underground 'Ocean' Probably The Source Of Our Surface Seas Kids News Article[​IMG]

    In order to interpret (B) the verses as figurative expressions, one can point out that "to the ends of the earth" is an expression used even today in common speech, even though today people no longer believe that the earth is flat. Hence, such expressions could have been used in Tanakh without the writer actually considering the earth to be flat.

    And to propose (C) that the stories are only meant allegorically, one could propose that Noah is an allegorical figure, his ark is allegorical, and the flood is allegorical. I am not aware of any place in Tanakh that spells out that "The Story of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood is nonfiction". I suppose that theoretically the stories of Job or Jonah could have been allegorical, just like the Song of Solomon might not have intended to narrate a real event where a doe literally looked through a window for her beloved. And in that case, I suppose that theoretically Noah's story could have been inserted as an allegory in the Tanakh's history of Abraham's ancestors.

    Still, none of these answers seems to fully deal with the problem I posed at the message's beginning. The passages are very hard to all read as literally true. The earth isn't literally flat, it's hard to imagine the plants on earth as made before the sun, and it's hard to square Noah's Ark story with geology and biology. Occasionally, figures of speech do turn up in literature, but the expressions of a flat earth are given so frequently and expressions of the earth being a sphere are nonexistent, so it seems likely that sometimes the writer was expressing his understanding of a flat earth when he wrote these expressions.
    Finally, the stories of Creation and Noah's Ark are narrated in a straightforward way as part of a chronology that leads to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, so the plain reading suggests that it is meant as a real history of the Israelite nation's real ancestors.

    However, let's say that the many references to a Flat Earth, the Creation story, or Noah's Ark are figures of speech or fictional allegories about the past or about the present reality. This conclusion then raises a question for me whether the appealing blessed promises about the future like Messiah's arrival, his blessed era, and the resurrection are also an array of figurative, metaphorical expressions and allegories. If the writers were factually mistaken or only allegorized the distant past and present reality, could the same easily be true about the blessed eschatological future?

    Such an idea however that the Messiah concept or resurrection were only mistakes or only allegorical fictions would contradict Maimonides' principles that are recited in the Yigdal in this form:

    Maimonides' 13 Principles of Jewish Faith


    Footnote:
    The reason I put this thread in the Judaism section is because the Tanakh is a Jewish sacred book. I am not asking the question in the thread rhetorically, nor am I proposing a particular solution. Rather, I prefer the blessed promises to be factually true and would like to see if such issues can be addressed successfully.
     
  2. Tumah

    Tumah Veteran Member

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    The Tanach is a sacred Jewish Book, but so is the Oral Torah and that is what we look to when trying to understand the Tanach. As a Christian, lacking belief in the Oral Torah you won't get many satisfactory answers here. Our entire approach to the nature of the Written Torah and its function is different than yours. So I think it should be obvious that you aren't going to get answers that will work for you. I recommend looking to your own tradition and clergy who are familiar with Christian theology and philosophy to find the answers you are searching for.

    As a side note, your quote from Yigdal is actually just a quote of two of the Maimonides Principles of Faith. Yigdal is a liturgical poem.
     
  3. Jayhawker Soule

    Jayhawker Soule <yawn> ignore </yawn>
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    The Tanakh is not reliable for those things for which it was not intended.
     
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  4. Rakovsky

    Rakovsky Active Member

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    Dear Tumah,
    Thank you for your answer to me. I understand that the Oral Torah is what you look to in order to understand Tanakh, and even though I am not Jewish, I also find it helpful when trying to understand Tanakh. This is because Talmud has centuries of traditions, especially those involving interpretations of Tanakh. I welcome you to talk more about how your approach to the nature of the Written Torah and its function is different, and then how to use Talmud in order to better understand the teachings on geology and cosmology. You are also correct that Yigdal is quoting Maimonides' Principles of Faith.

    So to address this important need, let me present some rabbinic discussions on the Talmud on the flat earth question.
    Dan Rabinowitz writes on the Talmud and the topic of the earth's flatness:
    the Seforim blog: A Flat or Round Earth and the Zohar

    The Aishdas website quotes more passages on this. The Gemara in Chagiga 12b sees the earth as resting on pillars:
    However, the Aishdas essay proposes that it was meant metaphorically and not literally, asking:
    Personally, it is not so clear to me that the name tzaddik for the pillar shows that this was meant only metaphorically, although I can see the ethical lesson.

    Pesachim 94b records this debate between Israelite and gentile scientists' views:
    The Aishdas essay adds:
    To me, calling the earth a "ball" means that the earth is a globe, but to say that it is like a lentil bean, a wheel, or a crown all suggest that it is flat or disc-like.
    [​IMG]
    Lentils

    In Seder Olam: The Rabbinic View of Biblical Chronology, Heinrich Walter Guggenheimer cites a rabbinical commentary on the Great Flood, saying, "The waters were 15 cubits over the earth, they diminished by one cubit every 4 days, one and a half handwidth per day."

    Guggenheimer comments:
    Indeed, if the earth is a round globe, then scientifically it is hard to conceive where the waters came from or how they so quickly receded. If they came from the sky, then before the flood they would seem to have massive weather effects (the opposite of global warming?) and if it evaporated so quickly, the earth would seem to have been boiling. Alternately if they rose from and sunk back into the globe, then it's curious what would make the waters gush up so strongly.

    Berakhot Chapter 1 notes about the Tanakh's reference to the "circle of the earth":
    Rabbi Simchah Roth writes for his Jerusalem Talmud Study Group, on the website BET MIDRASH VIRTUALI of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, that this reflects belief in the earth's flatness:
    Jeremy Brown, whose book on rabbinical cosmology was promoted by Rabbi Sacks, writes:
    Bava Basra 74a ~ Where Heaven and Earth Touch
     
  5. Akivah

    Akivah Well-Known Member

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    What I don't get is why some people believe that the bible, which has just one paragraph describing the creation of the Universe, presume that this is a scientific book?
     
  6. Rakovsky

    Rakovsky Active Member

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    Dear Akivah,
    I understand your point. The Bible is a spiritual book about man's (and particularly Israel's) relationship with the Lord. A main issue that I am trying to ask about in the OP is: If the Creation and Flood stories of the past, as well as the other descriptions of the earth are only spiritual allegories, then could the same thing be true about the depictions of the future too, like the Messianic era and the Resurrection?

    If there was no literal Creation of Man directly out of the Earth's clay, then perhaps there will be no literal Raising of Man out of the graves in the Earth either, even though those past and future events are narrated numerous times in the Tanakh?
     
  7. Jayhawker Soule

    Jayhawker Soule <yawn> ignore </yawn>
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    Or, the Tanakh took West Semitic cosmology, demythologized it, and invested it with a monotheistic and egalitarian core -- all the while avoiding the tiresome verbosity that too often plagues threads such as this.
     
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  8. Rakovsky

    Rakovsky Active Member

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    Dear Jayhawker,
    I sympathize with what you are proposing:
    I can see that, because in Babylonian cosmology for example we read about how Marduke chopped in half the goddess Nammu, thus dividing the waters of Creation - the heavenly and oceanic waters. By leaving out the part about the water goddess Nammu, the Hebrew version demythologized an earlier Akkadian mythologic cosmology, leaving a monotheistic core.

    Nonetheless, the question I am raising in this thread is whether this demythologized Creation story that we are left with is factually real. So for example, while the West Semitic myth about Nammu personifying the primordial waters has been rejected, is the accepted part - such as the Water Canopy or theory of a giant heavenly body of liquid water - still factual?

    And then if we say that the accepted result was either a false cosmology that was mistakenly thought to be true or else only meant as an allegory, then does that mean that the story of the future Resurrection could also be mistaken or only allegorical?
     
  9. Jayhawker Soule

    Jayhawker Soule <yawn> ignore </yawn>
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    And then if we say that the accepted result was either a false cosmology that was mistakenly thought to be true or else only meant as an allegory, then does that mean that the story of the future Resurrection could also be mistaken or only allegorical?[/QUOTE]
    What story of the future Resurrection (sic)?
     
  10. Akivah

    Akivah Well-Known Member

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    That's one possibility.
     
  11. Tumah

    Tumah Veteran Member

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    If you don't quote me, I won't know that you've responded unless I happen to look here.
    R. Azariah de Rossi is one commentary. And certainly not everyone's favorite.

    I know of no such attribution to the Vilna Gaon, nor was I able to find it in the source listed (Gilyoni HaShas, Shabbat, 74a). I know a contemporary of his who described a round earth and provided two introductions to a certain book based on whether the geocentric or heliocentric model was correct.

    No, the name of the pillar is not tzaddik. Its saying that the tzaddik (righteous person) is the pillar. In other words its the merit of the righteous person that supports the world's existence.

    This is a famous passage and answers are provided by commentaries.

    I agree.

    This doesn't present a problem for me, being as the whole incident was miraculous in nature.

    This is a Conservative Judaism website.

    This is one approach that is offered by commentaries in understanding these types of passages. But Rabbi Saks notwithstanding, those that I have read denounce it.
     
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