What About Scientific Foreknowledge in the Bible?
[ref003]The Skeptical Review: 1990: Number Four: What About
Scientific Foreknowledge in the Bible?
Any challenge to the Bible inerrancy doctrine will sooner or later
encounter the scientific-foreknowledge argument. "If the Bible is
not the inspired word of God," the inerrancy spokesmen ask,
"then how do you explain the many examples of scientific
foreknowledge in it?" The claim implied in this question is that men
writing in an age of relative ignorance indicated in various passages of
the Bible that they understood scientific truths that were completely
unknown at the time. The response the question seeks is that these
scientific facts could not have been known to Bible writers without God's
having revealed them during the verbal inspiration process. They see this
as a compelling argument for the inerrancy doctrine.
A basic problem with this argument is the same as the one found in the
familiar harmonious-content, unity-of-theme, and fulfillment-of-prophecy
arguments so often presented in the Bible's defense. It is based more on
speculation, imaginative interpretations, and wishful thinking than on
verifiable facts. As I write this, I am engaged in a written debate with
a Church-of-Christ preacher who, in trying to use this argument, threw a
volley of speculatively conceived questions at me in his second
affirmative manuscript. How did Moses know of woman's seed being involved
in the conception of children, ([ref004]Gen. 3:15)? How
did Isaiah know in his day that the earth is round, ([ref005]Isa. 40:22)? How
did Job know that the earth rests on no material foundation, ([ref006]Job 26:7)? How did
Moses know that life is in the blood ([ref007]Gen. 9:4), when
medical science didn't know it until a late date? How did David know of
the moon's bearing witness ([ref008]Ps. 89:37) to the
sunlight on the other side of the earth? How did David know that there
are paths in the seas ([ref009]Ps. 8:8) long before
oceanography and Matthew Maury's work found it so?
These are the questions exactly as he fired them at me. Not once did
he take the time to explicate scripture references to show reasonable
proof that the writers meant what he was interpreting them to mean. He
just tacked the references onto his questions as if this alone were enough
to establish that the writers had intended the meanings he was attributing
to them. Any verbal communication, however, whether oral or written, must
be interpreted before it can be understood, and this is doubly true of
written statements. Participants in oral communication enjoy the
advantage of voice inflections and body gestures to help them establish or
determine meaning, but this advantage is lost in written communication.
Written statements, then, often require careful explication to determine
meaning. Without it, the risk of misinterpretation increases.
But in the volley of questions listed above, not even a hint of
explication was in evidence. What explication, for example, is involved in
asking, How did Moses know of woman's seed being involved in the
conception of children, ([ref010]Gen. 3:15)"?
There is none. The intended impact of the question depends on two
assumptions (aside from the assumption that Moses wrote the book of
Genesis): (1) the word _seed_ in this passage refers to the ovum that
the female contributes to procreation and (2) the existence of the ovum
was unknown when [ref011]Genesis 3:15 was
To assess the plausibility of the first of these assumptions, we must
examine the passage that the question alludes to. After their disobedience
to Yahweh's command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and
evil, Yahweh pronounced curses upon all parties involved in the act. To
the serpent, he said, "Because you have done this, cursed are you
above all cattle and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity
between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed; he shall
bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel," (Gen. 3:14-15,
To assert that the word _seed_ in this passage refers to the ova
of the woman is almost too ridiculous to warrant serious comment. For one
thing, an ovum is only a female germ cell that cannot develop into a
person unless it is first fertilized by the male counterpart, so if ova
were the intended meaning of the word, how could the "seed" of
the woman ever bruise the head of the serpent?
The Hebrew word translated "seed" in this passage is
_zera_, which could mean both seed, in the sense of plant ovules, or
posterity (offspring or descendants). It is the same word that was used
several times in [ref012]Genesis 1:11-12
in reference to the creation of vegetation that yielded seed after
"its kind." The meaning of the word here seems rather obvious;
it was a reference to the seed produced by plants like corn, alfalfa, and
turnips. The seed of a plant, however, is something radically different
from the ovum of a woman. A plant seed is actually an embryo (formed from
the union of the male and female germ cells) encased in a shell with an
endosperm that will provide the germinating embryo with food until it is
mature enough to survive on its own. A seed, in other words, is the
offspring of a plant. It is to the plant what an embryo in the womb is to
a woman, so certainly a woman's ovum alone cannot be considered
biologically parallel to a plant seed, because it is only half of what a
seed is. The one is just a female germ cell; the other an embryo formed
from the union of both the female and male germ cells.
If we are to understand [ref013]Genesis 3:15, then,
we must think of _zera_ as a Hebrew word that most often meant
offspring. In many places in the book of Genesis alone, it was clearly
used in this sense. Yahweh said to Abram in [ref014]Genesis 12:7,
"Unto thy seed [_zera_] will I give this land." In [ref015]Genesis 13:16,
Yahweh promised Abram, "I will make thy seed [_zera_] as the
dust of the earth." After showing a willingness to sacrifice his son
Isaac at Jehovah-jireh, an angel of Yahweh told Abraham, "I will
multiply thy seed [_zera_] as the stars of the heavens and as the
sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed [_zera_] shall possess
the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed [_zera_] shall all the
nations of the earth be blessed," ([ref016]Gen. 22:17-18).
In these and other passages too numerous to cite, the Hebrew word
_zera_ was obviously used to indicate offspring or descendants.
Since this meaning also fits appropriately into the context of [ref017]Genesis 3:15, only
someone desperate to find support for an indefensible position would ever
feel a need to interpret it as a lesson in modern biology by a primitive
writer. Most English translations, in fact, use _offspring_ or
_descendants_ in all of these passages as well as many others in
which the King James and American Standard Versions translated _zera_
If these facts leave any doubt about what the Genesis writer meant in
referring to Eve's "seed," Genesis 16:10 should remove it. In
her flight from the wrath of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham's concubine, was
visited by an angel of Yahweh, who promised her, "I will greatly
multiply thy seed [_zera_], that it shall not be numbered for
multitude." In the translations referred to above, the word
_descendants_ is used where _seed_ appears in the KJV and ASV.
Yet if _zera_ meant _ova_ in reference to Eve's "seed"
3:15, consistency would require the proponents of this argument
to believe that it also meant _ova_ when referring to Hagar's seed.
Hence, we would have an angel of Yahweh promising Hagar that she would
produce so many ova that she wouldn't be able to count them. Such is the
predicament that inerrancy proponents get themselves into when they try to
manufacture evidence out of nothing.
40:22 speaks of God who "sitteth above the circle of the
earth," but there are many explicative problems that must be resolved
before one can present this as proof that Isaiah knew the shape of the
earth in a time when no one else did. For one thing, how can we be sure
that Isaiah was speaking literally in the passage? He also spoke of
"the four corners of the earth" ([ref020]11:12), but if I
should cite this verse as an example of scientific inaccuracy on the part
of a Bible writer who thought the earth was square, inerrancy advocates
would demand proof that Isaiah had intended literal meaning. By the same
token, then, they should be prepared to prove that Isaiah's reference to
the "circle of the earth" was meant literally.
Even if they could successfully do this, they would then have to prove
that Isaiah meant circle in the sense of sphere. Plates and disks are
circular in shape as well as spheres, and, as practically any general
encyclopedia will confirm, some ancient cultures before and during
Isaiah's time thought that the earth was a flat disk. To find evidence of
scientific foreknowledge in [ref021]Isaiah 40:22, then,
the inerrancy advocates would have to prove that the passage referred to a
spherical rather than a discoid circle. I seriously doubt that they can
ever do that, but until they do, they have no argument.
The main weakness of this argument, however, is the fact that the shape
of the earth was known in Isaiah's time. In discussing the spherical era
of Earth's history, the _Encyclopedia_Britannica_ (Vol. 6, 1978, pp.
1-3) explains that ancient astronomers determined that the earth was round
by observing its circular shadow move across the moon during lunar
eclipses. The Egyptians and Greeks as far back as 2550 B.C. (more than a
thousand years before Moses) knew not only the earth's spherical shape but
also its approximate size. The Grecian philosopher Pythagoras, who was
born in 532 B.C., defended the spherical theory on the basis of
observations he had made of the shape of the sun and moon. If this
information was generally known by educated Greeks and Egyptians before
and during biblical times, how can anyone say with certitude that Isaiah
couldn't have known about it?
If space allowed, I would explicate the other scriptures mentioned
earlier that are often cited as evidence of scientific foreknowledge in
the Bible, but these are enough to demonstrate the problems that the
inerrancy proponents must solve before rational-thinking people can take
their argument seriously. If Pythagoras could observe the sun and the moon
and thereby reason that the earth was also spherical in shape, why
couldn't Job have looked at the moon or the sun and concluded that the
earth, like them, was suspended in space on nothing? Why couldn't Moses,
if he was indeed the author of Genesis, have observed that when blood is
drained from the body, life flowed out with it so that in some sense life
was "in the blood"? Just why does this have to mean that Moses
knew that blood carries oxygen to cells throughout the body and thereby
sustains life? Why does "paths of the seas" in Psalm 8:8 have
to be a reference to ocean currents like the Gulf Stream and the North
Atlantic Current? Why couldn't it just as easily have been a reference to
ocean trade routes that the ships of that time traveled? The Hebrew word
_orach_ translated _paths_ in this passage in fact meant
"customary road." And even if it was a reference to currents in
the oceans, how can anyone determine today that knowledge of those
currents was completely unknown at that time? Simply because it isn't now
known that it was known doesn't prove that it wasn't known. So inerrancy
proponents aren't the only ones who can ask questions. Those of us who
reject the inerrancy doctrine have a lot of questions to ask too,
especially on this matter of alleged scientific foreknowledge in the
Like so much of the other "evidence" that Bible
fundamentalists offer as proof of the inerrancy doctrine, they see
scientific foreknowledge in the Bible only because they so desperately
want to see something that can form a rational basis for their faith. In
the same way, they see prophecies and their fulfillments in passages so
obscurely written that no one can really determine what the writers
originally intended in the statements. In the face of unequivocal
inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible text, they see unity of
theme because they so desperately want to see unity of theme.
This approach to Bible interpretation has at times caused them major
embarrassment. In 1939, for example, George DeHoff wrote a biblical
apology entitled _Why_We_Believe_the_Bible_. An entire chapter was
devoted to the scientific-foreknowledge argument in which he cited [ref022]Job 26:7 as
supporting evidence, (p. 50):
Astronomers have discovered that there is a great empty space in the
North. It contains no moving planets and shining stars. By turning their
telescopes to the South, the East and the West, men may behold countless
millions of stars invisible to the naked eye but when the telescope is set
exactly to the North there is a great empty space. For this, astronomers
have been unable to account. They did not know until recently that there
was such an empty space, yet Job declared, "He stretcheth out the North
_over_the_empty_places_ [sic] and hangeth the earth upon nothing,"
DeHoff's conclusion was that "Job could not have
written by guess. It must be that he wrote by inspiration of God."
For years, this scripture was cited from Church-of-Christ pulpits as
compelling evidence that the Bible was divinely inspired, but there was
just one thing wrong with it. The premise on which it was based wasn't
true. There is no "empty place" in our northern space. Everywhere
astronomers look, they find space filled with galaxies and stars. That
includes our northern space too. So wherever DeHoff got this argument, he
didn't get it from science, and he will find no support for it in
Inerrancy advocates in the Churches of Christ are now admitting that
they erred in using [ref024]Job
26:7 as an example of scientific foreknowledge in
the Bible. In the September 1989 issue of _Reason_&_Revelation_,
Dr. Bert Thompson summarized the traditional DeHoffian interpretation of
Job 26:7 and then said this, (p. 35):
This writer has so used the verse himself in the past, but
does so no longer, because of problems associated with such
interpretations. For example, if we attempt to convince people that this
verse is to be taken literally, how do we then consistently deal with
statements in the chapter which are obviously figurative (such as [ref025]verse
11: "The pillars of heaven tremble, and are astonished at his
reproof")? Further, there seems to be no empty space in the north.
Instead, "billions of stars and galaxies extend outward in all
directions," (Donald B. DeYoung, _Astronomy_and_the_Bible_).
We congratulate Dr. Thompson for finally recognizing an obvious flaw in a
popular inerrancy argument. It gives us hope that he might someday see
the flaws in other inerrancy arguments too.
Something that has long perplexed me is the way that inerrancy
proponents can so easily find "scientific foreknowledge" in
obscurely worded Bible passages but seem completely unable to see
scientific error in statements that were rather plainly written. There
are too many to discuss, but [ref026]Leviticus 11:5-6
can serve as an example.
Here "Moses," after having identified clean animals as those
that "chew the cud and part the hoof," said, "And the
coney, because he cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, he is unclean
unto you. And the hare, because she cheweth the cud but parteth not the
hoof, she is unclean unto you." [ref027]Deuteronomy 14:7
also described the
hare and the cony as cud-chewers, but in reality they are not. They do not
have compartmentalized stomachs that ruminants must have in order to be
cud-chewers. Inerrancy champions have stumbled over these passages with
various attempts to explain them. Gleason Archer justifies the
classification of hares and conies as cud-chewers on the grounds that they
"give the appearance of chewing their cud in the same way ruminants
do," (_Encyclopedia_of_Bible_Difficulties_, p. 126). Yet after
all has been said on the matter, the fact remains that hares and conies
are not cud-chewers. But "Moses" said that they were.
One would think that if God were going to arm his inspired writers with
scientific foreknowledge about complex matters like the "seed of
woman" and the shape of the earth, he could have easily programmed
them to know the simple fact that hares and conies aren't cud-chewers.
That he didn't reveal this to them, as well as other things, certainly
doesn't help the scientific-foreknowledge argument.
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