Spontaneous Generation in the Bible?

Spontaneous Generation in the Bible? February 3, 2009
My reference to spontaneous generation in my last blog entryhas generated some interesting discussion, so I thought it would be good to single out that subject in a separate post, and give it the attention it deserves.The subject is connected not only to the simple (ha!) question of what the Biblical authors wrote, but also the question of whether, if the Biblical authors use phrases and concepts that were also used by their contemporaries, we ought to assume that they meant what their contemporaries meant, unless they specify otherwise.In poking around on the web for ancient sources, I found a reference to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On The Nature Of Things) that sounds rather like what we find in the Bible. Aram Vartanian, in his article in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas on “Spontaneous Generation”, summarizes Lucretius’ view as follows:

“Mother Earth” had long ago, while in her prime, created all plant and animal species, including man himself, immediately out of her own substance—a creative power of which, in her tired old age, some traces still remained in the similar generation of certain low forms of life.

This sounds to me a lot like what is envisaged in Genesis 1:24, the only difference being the author of Genesis’ emphasis on the Earth producing living things at God’s command, making God the ultimate (albeit not the direct) source of life.

Clearly the author of Genesis was not an Epicurean, but that’s precisely the point. Spontaneous generation was not the view of one particular philosophical school in ancient Greece, but the generally-accepted viewpoint in many cultures up until the time of Pasteur.

What do others think? One comment suggested that the story of the Exodus (presumably the plagues in which frogs seem to be produced by the waters or gnats by the Earth/dust) as a possible example, and Judges 14:8 (bees in a lion’s carcass) as another. In neither case does it specify that the background of thought is spontaneous generation. The question is whether, given that that was the understanding ancient peoples had, we should posit that as the background here too, since the authors do not specify that they meant something different. Is there any reason not to posit such a background, apart from the desire to have the ancient authors of Scripture not be wrong about matters of modern science?

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  • So your bottom line really is to consider the words within context, the context of the times and the context of the intent — rather than the literal meaning based on a more modern context.Certainly would not disagree with that in any way! It’s funny, a couple of months ago. I was talking with one of my own students (CompSci major) about Shakespeare and he was all jazzed up on reading the original plays — not a modern re-telling. He fully recognized how important the context was to the words. However his comments to me on my blog showed that the same thought has never occurred to him while reading the Bible. 🙂 I wonder if he will read this comment and have some remark to me at our next class.tedhohio@gmail.comhttp://sciencestandards.blogspot.com

  • Is the attempt to find corrolation between the ancient text and modern science, an attempt to “prove” the “Bible” as truth for “all time”? That is ludacraous for (at least, it seems to me) that this is a way to literalize the text to the extreme…reducing man, text, “context”(historical) and science…WOW. That is conformity of the “worst kind”…as type of “biblical scientism”…

  • You may have seen it at the time, but in case you didn’t John Wilkins wrote a series of posts about how the “science” in Genesis might have been understood at the time. There’s usually plenty of food for thought in his posts.

  • James,I am not so sure that we should read into the text spontaneous generation. Isn’t it just as misguided to read into an ancient text a meaning x, that we have slim to no evidence for, just because another ancient text has that meaning; as it is to read a modern meaning back into an ancient text?Blake

  • Blake, it seems to me that the two are in fact opposites. While reading modern ideas back into ancient texts is clearly problematic, isn’t using ancient ideas and worldview as background to ancient texts what we should be doing?

  • Clarification: I was not saying that we do not seek to understand the texts historical context. However, I do think we should be careful in declaring that Ancient people beleived “x” about the world. For instance there was a book recently published on Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography by Horowitz that questions the assumption that the Ancients viewed the world in any uniform manner. This would apply to your previous post on the Bible’s “comological model”. Second, why should we assume that a Greek would believe the same things about the world as a Hebrew and vice versa. It seems to me that we are making a lot of assumptions based on evidence from a Greek Philosophical text, along with strained interpretations from the OT itself.Blake

  • I certainly don’t want to offer a strained interpretation! You make the good point that what evidence I know of for the ancient view of spontaneous generation is from ancient Greece, and of course later Europe more generally. As for the meaning of the text, all I would say with confidence is that Genesis seems to reflect the viewpoint that the Earth (and seas) have a divinely-bestowed creative potency, which (at God’s command) they are able to exercise by producing living things. Is that saying too much? Is it “spontaneous generation” (albeit of a “creationist” variety)? Is there a better label we might use?

  • Another thing I forgot to mention: It was a good thing that you quoted Walton previously, because it would be interesting to think through the implications of Genesis viewing the world as a cosmic temple. If that is the case then its cosmology is not necessarily explaining the atmosphere or the earth in scientific terms, but in fleshing out the world from a more subjective and existential perspective. Of course I am not sure if this explanation would exclude contributing to scientific explanations. That is not something I have thought on much as of late. Though, I would venture to say that there are certain parts of Genesis 1-3 that should not be forced into a soley metaphorical view. I think that the intention was history writing with a metaphorical/poetic/epic(?) bent.I would dispute viewing raqia as a solid dome. I view this to be an overly literal handling of the text. Maybe a hangover of a previous fundamentalist up bringing?

  • James, I actually have no problem with saying that creation has potency. At the risk of sounding Aristotelian I think that maybe it could be hinted at in the text. However, scripture is silent on anything like this outside of the Creation Narrative. I would not expect the world to be the same sort of place in the period of intense Divine Creativity. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    “… scripture is silent on anything like this outside of the Creation Narrative.”What about the references already given to Exodus and Judges?Tom S.

  • Thanks Anonymous. I “misspoke”. First, The text of Judges never draws the conclusion of spontaneous generation. I do not think we need to assume that is what it means, a more reasonable explanation lies close at hand.The ESV translates this as:”8After some days he returned to take her. And he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. 9He scraped it out into his hands and went on, eating as he went. And he came to his father and mother and gave some to them, and they ate. But he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey from the carcass of the lion.”James’ said after some time. I will have to look further into it, but as of now it looks as if a few days passes between his killing the Lion and turning it over. If this is the case, then spontaneous generation is being read into the text.The Exodus passage would be similar to the Creation Narrative. The Frogs and the Flies come about by acts of Divine Power. This is far different than the earth “creating” living things out of itself.

  • If an ancient Greek or pre-modern European had written Judges, we’d probably have no doubt I’d like to find the source of the “recipe for bees” mentioned at this site.I have a colleague (away this semester) whose specialty is history of science. I will see if he knows whether other peoples situated on the Mediterranean shared this view of how life arises.

  • I beg to differ James… We would still be going beyond the evidence from the text itself.Now… back to work… helping Oxford University Press survive the economic down turn, as a lowly library sales associate.

  • I’ve asked a couple of colleagues for their input on the subject of spontaneous generation. There are several references to Arab thinkers and scientists accepting spontaneous generation, but that may result from the influence of Aristotle. Earlier Greek thinkers had some very interesting ideas.I also found another Christian blog thinking about this subject.

  • Thanks for the links.

  • Anonymous

    Reformed Baptist:The phrase “spontaneous generation” is maybe not the best one to use, as it describes the generation as being “spontaneous”. There is an old expression “generatio aequivoca” which may be better – it refers to the idea simply that a new living thing arises from something different.Note that the narrative about the Exodus also talks about the Egyptian magicians generating serpents from their staffs (presumably without divine intervention).James:There is an essay by John S. Wilkins, who has some knowledge of the history of biology, which may be helpful:http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/spontaneous-generation.htmlTom S.

  • Tom S.Thanks for your comments. You appealed to the example of the Egyptian Magicians. I think the writer of exodus would have seen this as another form of “intervention” by a deity (demonic force?) of some sort. I do not think this is applicable to Spontaneous Generation.Spontaneous Generation is a different sort of thing, at least the way I have always taken it. It seems to be an ancient natural explanation for the existence of life. The Magicians, on the other hand, did their miracle through some sort of evil power (non-natural), which was connected to the Egyptian Pantheon. The Exodus narrative views the plagues and the Exodus as a triumph over the god’s of Egypt by YHWH.

  • Thank you for the comments. I think that the terminology may be part of the issue. Perhaps we should leave “spontaneous generation” to a limited technical usage. There are a few things that seem clear to me, so far:1) The author of Genesis shares the widespread view of the Earth as having creative potency. God is not said to fashion life from the ground in Genesis 1: God is said to command the Earth to bring it forth, which implies that the Earth has the capacity to obey the command.2) This isn’t the only place that a notion of “mother Earth” is found in the Bible. Where is “there” in Job 1:21 (where once again the NIV translators found the meaning of the text uncomfortable)?3) Nothing that I know of in the Bible is incompatible with “spontaneous generation”. The story about the bees fits, although it doesn’t require it. The magicians may be using magic, but they could well be using magic to try to provoke the dust or the Nile to do in increased quantity something it was thought to be capable of doing more generally. The key issue thus becomes whether we can establish the wider thought world of the ancient Israelites. If not only ancient Greek sources, but Mesopotamian and Egyptian ones also seem to adopt or presuppose the idea or something like it, then we would have good reason to suspect (given no statements to the contrary) that ancient Israelites probably shared this particular belief.Thoughts?

  • The Biblical text in Genesis and in Exodus are not comparable to spontaneous generation. Part of the point of spontaneous generation was that it was a method of generation that occurred regularly and systematically. Both the creation story and the plagues in Exodus are both explicitly caused by the intervention of God. Similarly, the transformation of the Egyptian magicians’ staffs to snakes is not spontaneous generation since it is using some form of magic which is out of the ordinary. They aren’t similar to spontaneous generation (although some late proponents of spontaneous generation especially in the 18th and 19th centuries attributed spontaneous generation as evidence of the creative power of God). The verse in Judges about Samson says nothing at all about where the bees come from. There’s nothing in the verse that suggests the bees originated in the carcass.The text is consistent with spontaneous generation but there’s no evidence in the text for any support of spontaneous generation.I presume that the authors likely believed in spontaneous generation simply because beliefs of that sort were common but there’s no textual evidence for it. In general, the people in the ancient Middle East didn’t know much about the natural world. Incidentally, it is clear that the Jews at least by around 500 c.e. or so explicitly believed in spontaneous generation. Forms of spontaneous generation are mentioned in the Talmud. This is of course much too late to be helpful for what the author of Genesis were thinking.

  • Also in regard to the Earth bringing forth the plants at God’s command, three points: First, it is still at God’s command so the Earth doesn’t do that without God telling it to. Second, similar language is used in regard to God saying other things and then they happen, for example with light in 1:3. So it may just as well be that the only reason the earth is mentioned here is because plants reside in the Earth or something similar. Thus, there may be overemphasis on the wording of the verse. The command of the deity in the text is strong enough to cause things to happen without relying on any separate powers. c) There may be an implicit issue here of the language in Hebrew as opposed to English. In English we normally translate God’s command as something like “Let the earth bring forth” but the words used “תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ ” is closer to “The earth will bring forth.”

  • Thanks, Joshua, for these helpful comments. I wasn’t trying to posit “spontaneous generation” as something the author of Genesis subscribed to rather than believing in divine creation. The author depicts God commanding the earth and seas to produce life, which might suggest the author believed that the earth and seas had been created with the ability to do this – just as there is the command to living things to “be fruitful and multiply”. But I’m not sure that one can say there is anything grammatically speaking that would place the command to the earth to produce life closer to the command to reproduce than to the “command” that light “be”.