Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ancient Science

In my introduction to religion class here at Chowan, when we finally got to Genesis, I had the students read the first two chapters of the book and come up with a list of the order of creation in 1:1-2:4a, and a list of the order of creation in 2:4b-2:25.

Every year this exercise yields very interesting results.  What I noticed this year was that as the students were reading Genesis 1, when they got to day 2, reading verses 6-7, before they got to verse 8, many students were saying that God was creating land on day 2.

Here is how Genesis 1:6-8 reads in the NIV
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
Why did my students think that God was creating land?  It is simple to see.  In our scientific worldview, all water rests on the earth.  So, when the text says "to separate water from water" in verse 6, what pops into a modern person's mind is "land."

But this merely illustrates the difference between ancient knowledge of the world, what I think could reasonably be called their "science" on the one hand, and our scientific knowledge of the world on the other hand.

It is not that the ancients were stupid.  Yet, they were limited.  Their knowledge of the world was largely based upon visual observation. 

Think about it.  When the ancients walked outside, they saw a flat earth. If one walked far enough in any direction, one would find water, an ocean.  Far out into the ocean, ancients suspected that the world just ended.  OK, so that is one gathering of water, water on land.  But what of the other water, since Genesis 1:6 speaks of separating the water from the water.  Well, the ancients also astutely noticed that from time to time, water falls from the sky.  So, there must be water up above as well.  Yet, it does not fall constantly, so there must be something holding it up there.  Enter the "Firmament," "Vault," "Dome."  This is what God created on day 2.  A giant dome to keep the water above from constantly falling on the earth.  This makes sense if you are an ancient.  If you walk outside and look, it looks like there is a giant dome over the flat earth.  It is in this giant dome that the Sun, Moon, and stars make their circuit.

When my students finally got to verse 8, they were somewhat shocked to find that this creation was not land, but the sky.  Yet, this merely illustrates the difference between our modern scientific worldview and the worldview of the ancients.  The ancient worldview was not un-scientific, it was just using the best observation/science available at the time.

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