It's a perfect example of what happens when you let irrational faith trump scholarship and rationality: every time a new fact comes along, your defense of your beliefs has to get even more contorted and far-fetched than before.
According to Professor Ellen van Wolde, the story of Genesis was mistranslated, and badly. God didn't create the universe, it was here already. He just sorted it all out and made sense of it. Sorting out the heavens and firmament, and the waters from the land, and so on, would be a mighty task, one worthy of any ordinary god. But it's a far cry from creating the universe itself ex nihlo.
If Professor van Wolde is right, it puts Yahweh in the same league as gods like Thor, Zeus and Baal: mighty gods, but of-this-universe rather than creator of the universe. Instead of being omniscient and omnipotent, Yahweh would just be more like an ultra-magical human. Quite a downfall.
While this academic debate over a single Hebrew word is interesting and amusing, it's the reaction of Christians and Jews that I find far more instructive, and sad. Professor Van Wolde's short thesis has spawned hundreds of replies on the newspaper's web site, and some of them fill pages with their arguments.
To a scholar, this sort of thing is fun and fascinating, and the debate is just part of an ongoing, somewhat esoteric, effort to expand knowledge. If this were any book other than the Bible, it would be left in the dry, dusty attics of just a few linguists and historians.
But because it affects one of the core beliefs of conservative Christians and Jews, it has to be refuted. Never mind that in a scholarly debate, everyone might eventually conclude that the professor is right (or not ... that's what scholarship is about). No matter what the facts are, these conservative Christians and Jews have to concoct dozens of reasons why the experts must be wrong.
The refutations fall into three main camps:
- Professor van Wolde's translation is wrong (this from people who don't even speak Hebrew).
- The word "separate" can be taken to mean "create."
- The original Hebrew is irrelevant, because the Bible is God's inerrant word and the current translation is His divine will.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog that is relevant again:
There is no objective truth for religion, no foundation. When religious people argue, they're arguing about opinion, and they can argue forever. But when scientists argue, it's over facts, and sooner or later, the facts prevail. One theory will win out because it is true, and the others will be forgotten. And the scientists will then move on to the next question, to expand our knowledge even more.That's the beauty of true scholarship, that ultimately, through hard work and clear thinking, and by ignoring our own wishes about what we'd like to be true, we find a core truth that everyone can verify for him/herself. And we move on to the next question.
Religion's reliance on faith, and belief in things that can't possibly be true, makes it impossible to move forward. People waste days, years, and even whole lifetimes, concocting silly explanations to justify two-thousand-year-old mythology, simply because some priests or rabbis declared it to be from Yahweh's own mouth. It's a terrible waste of human intelligence.