January 8, 2014

“Wait, who did Cain marry?”

If you grew up in church, then at some point you asked that question.

Maybe you were a devout, earnest young person. You were on fire for God and you were praying that God would just, Lord, just draw you closer to Him, Lord, and just, Lord, just show you His will for your life. You were all in, and when your youth minister challenged you to read through the entire Bible in a year you set out to do it.

Or maybe you were a smart-aleck lobbing spitballs and commentary from the back row in Sunday school.

Or maybe you were just an anxious kid, reflexively second-guessing your teachers the same way you constantly second-guessed yourself.

Or maybe all of those at the same time.

But at some point you ran into this passage and realized you just couldn’t make it fit with what you’d been taught about everything that came before it.

Unless you’re some kind of liberal who rejects what gets called a “literal reading” of Genesis, then at the beginning of Genesis 4, the Earth has a human population of four. And by verse 9, that’s down to three: the literal historic individual Adam, his literal historic wife Eve, and their literal historic son Cain, who just murdered their other literal historic son Abel.

And then we read this:

Genesis 4:10-17

And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch.

The nuclear family that makes up the only humans this story will “literally” allow is suddenly surrounded by a host of strangers, foreigners, Nod-ites, potential spouses and a previously unmentioned cast of thousands.

What’s up with that? Where did all these people come from? Where did Cain find this wife of his?

It’s possible, but unlikely, that you asked that question as a young person in church and that you were given a responsible answer. Maybe someone discussed the difference between this kind of theological origin story in Genesis and the kind of story meant to convey the actual events of history. Maybe they discussed how these origin stories were originally stories for Israel.

But probably not. What you were probably told,rather, was an odd babble of legends, half-remembered allusions to other legends, and improvised-on-the-spot ideas that your Sunday school teacher was just as surprised as you to hear coming out of his mouth. You were probably given an “explanation” that involved Cain marrying some previously unmentioned sister — followed by some reassurance that this would have been perfectly fine due to some mumbled rehash of a pulpit myth mangling both genetics and Mosaic law. And all the foreigners and strangers Cain was afraid of — “anyone who meets me may kill me” — were all just more of Cain’s otherwise unmentioned and unnamed brothers and sisters.

In other words, your question, “Wait, who did Cain marry?” didn’t really receive an answer so much as a string of words that threatened to continue flowing until you yielded and agreed not to press the point any further.

It would be helpful to have some studious, enterprising new Brunvand to compile and study all of these pulpit myths and this ever-mutating body of Sunday-school folklore. But until then, the next best thing is Answers in Genesis — which collects, refines and repackages much of this folklore, presenting it as truth.

The Answers in Genesis discussion of Cain’s wife — written by AiG founder Ken Ham himself — is deliriously goofy.

You can skip over most of Ham’s initial tribalist throat-clearing, which stakes out out the us-vs.-them stakes of not memorizing the correct, AiG-approved response. “Skeptics of the Bible have used Cain’s wife time and again to try to discredit the book of Genesis as a true historical record,” Ham says, going on for another 700 words or so about how important it is to not allow such anti-Bible “skeptics” to think they’re winning.

But then things get really weird. Cain’s wife must be his sister, Ham argues, because otherwise it’d be like saying Adam wasn’t the very first unique human. And that’s terribly important because, according to Ham, “The Bible makes it clear that only the descendants of Adam can be saved.”

Thus, if Christians cannot defend that all humans, including Cain’s wife, can trace their ancestry ultimately to Adam and Eve, then how can they understand and explain the gospel? … Therefore, one needs to be able to explain Cain’s wife, to illustrate that Christians can defend the gospel and all that it teaches.

The language there is English. And I recognize all of the words there. But I still find those sentences baffling.

Ham proceeds to retcon the early chapters of Genesis, shuffling the chronology a bit and turning parts of Chapter 5 into a flashback preceding Chapter 4 — all in the name of a “literal” reading of the text. But throughout this fast-talking and dealing from the bottom of the text Ham seems to realize that the core problem he’s facing here is the disturbingly Flowers-in-the-Attic scenario necessitated by insisting on a single original family of original humans.

“One of the reasons many Christians cannot answer the question about Cain’s wife is that they tend to look at today’s world and the problems that would be associated with close relations marrying,” he writes, saying that this involves “taking a secular way of thinking to the Bible.” Christians must set aside their secular incest taboos in order to understand “the simple answers” of Genesis genetics:

If we now work totally from Scripture, without any personal prejudices or other extrabiblical ideas, then back at the beginning, when there was only the first generation, brothers would have had to marry sisters or there wouldn’t have been any more generations!

… When the first two people were created, they were perfect. Everything God made was “very good.” That means their genes were perfect — no mistakes. But when sin entered the world because of Adam, God cursed the world so that the perfect creation then began to degenerate, that is, suffer death and decay. Over a long period of time, this degeneration would have resulted in all sorts of mistakes occurring in the genetic material of living things.

But Cain was in the first generation of children ever born. He, as well as his brothers and sisters, would have received virtually no imperfect genes from Adam or Eve, since the effects of sin and the Curse would have been minimal to start with. In that situation, brother and sister could have married (provided it was one man for one woman, which is what marriage is all about) without any potential to produce deformed offspring.

By the time of Moses (about 2,500 years later), degenerative mistakes would have accumulated to such an extent in the human race that it would have been necessary for God to bring in the laws forbidding brother-sister (and close relative) marriage.

(Gotta love that “one man for one woman” swipe in there. Ham says this in the midst of trying to defend Genesis 4:17. Here’s the beginning of Genesis 4:19: “Lamech took two wives …”)

Ham’s theme of gradual, inexorable human degeneration is something he stresses throughout his argument. “The human race is slowly degenerating as mistakes accumulate generation after generation,” he says. That’s part of the explanation, he says, for why so many people seem unable to grasp “the simple answers” he provides:

We must remember that our brains have suffered from 6,000 years of the Curse. We have greatly degenerated compared to people many generations ago.

And then Ham gets all Ancient-Astronaut-y — suggesting that Adam and his first children may have had superior technology to what we have today:

Adam and Eve’s descendants were very intelligent people. We are told that Jubal made musical instruments, such as the harp and organ, and Tubal-cain worked with brass and iron.

Because of intense evolutionary indoctrination, many people today have the idea that their generation is the most advanced that has ever been on this planet. Just because we have jet airplanes and computers doesn’t mean we are the most intelligent or advanced. This modern technology is really a result of the accumulation of knowledge.

… Scripture gives us a glimpse of what appears to be advanced technology almost from the beginning.

Cain had the knowledge and talent to know how to build a city!

That’s kind of disappointing. Ham can usually be counted on for coming up with goofily inventive attempts to patch the holes in his leaky construct, but this is just a bit of badly recycled Chariots-of-the-Gods nonsense minus the aliens. Where’s the originality?

Tubal-cain deserves better. Cain’s iron-working heir is too much of a howling anachronism for such a weak explanation. The book of Genesis, Ken Ham insists, was dictated by God and written down by Moses “about 1445–1405 BC” — centuries before anyone had imagined the “iron tools” Tubal-cain is credited with inventing in Genesis 4:22. That verse might as well speak of Tubal-cain’s sonic screwdriver or his fusion-powered DeLorean and Calvin Klein underwear.

If Ham couldn’t come up with anything better than his “advanced technology almost from the beginning” claim for this, then he should fully commit and run with it. If we’re going to take “all kinds of iron tools” to mean “advanced technology” then let’s give the children of Cain some advanced technology — ray guns, tricorders, smart phones, Zeppelins … the skies are the limit.

July 3, 2012

So the other day I tripped over Tubal-cain and wound up wishing I’d paid more attention in my biblical studies classes and/or done more of the reading for my history classes.

Let me explain where this is going, then ask for your help in pointing me toward where I might learn more to sort this out.

The story of Tubal-cain is a bit obscure. It’s a one-liner tucked in amongst the “begats” of Genesis 4. The biblical begats — long genealogical lists — don’t make for compelling reading, and this section is even less compelling than most such lists, since it traces the children and grandchildren of Cain. It’s difficult to get too caught up in the details of these people since we know that they’re all about to drown in the flood a couple of pages later.

Like everything else in the book of Genesis — particularly in these first 11 chapters — this passage intends to tell us how and why everything got started. These chapters are overflowing with origin stories — just-so-stories of how the snake lost its legs, how the rose got its thorns, or of where rainbows or giants came from. Hidden here amongst the begats of Cain are three more mini origin stories, succinct little tales of the origins of nomadic herders, musicians and metalworkers.*

Those three things, we’re told, were innovations introduced by the firm of Lamech & Sons, a family that seems to have been the Bell Labs of prehistory:

Lamech took two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

What tripped me up here was Tubal-cain and the assertion there in Genesis 4:22 that he was the inventor of “all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”

One of the gaps between seminary grads and so-called “traditionalists” involves the question of who wrote the books of the Pentateuch and, more importantly, when they were written. The traditional folklore holds that Moses wrote the books of Moses — you know, just like Father Brown wrote the Father Brown mysteries. That’s not what most biblical scholars think. Those scholars — boo! hiss! liberal intellectuals! — believe these books were written much, much later.

And that brings us to what I don’t know here. The story of Tubal-cain certainly seems like it ought to be a part of this conversation about when the book of Genesis was written.

Here is a one-verse origin story about the invention of iron tools. It makes sense, then, to assume that this story was written some time after such tools were invented, which is to say this story could not have been written before the Iron Age.

We generally do not bother telling origin stories for things that haven’t yet originated. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. So attributing the story of Tubal-cain to an early Bronze Age author seems doubly anachronistic. In that framework, Genesis 4:22 might as well read, “Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made iPhones and transparent aluminum.”

So here is my request. As Ta-Nehisi Coates often says to his readers, “Talk to me like I’m stupid.” I’m hoping some of you can point me in a good direction for clarifying two things:

1. Does anyone know of a good discussion of the authorship of Genesis that addresses this story of Tubal-cain? Or, more broadly, of a helpful book or article exploring metallurgy in the Bible and what it can suggest to us about the dating of these books? (I’m thinking also of things like Sisera’s iron chariots in the book of Judges.)

2. The “Iron Age” seems like an extremely flexible span of history, covering a very long period and a very different period for different cultures. Any attempt to pin down the historical context of the Moses story will locate it squarely in the Bronze Age, but the pertinent question here would be whether such a Moses figure could have known of “all kinds of iron tools.” For example, Ramesses II battled the Hittites, and they seem to have been precocious early adapters of iron tools. So if we posit an Egyptian prince circa 1200 BCE or circa 1446 BCE, would it make sense for such a man to speak of “all kinds of iron tools”?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This trio of mini-origin stories is pretty clearly out of place. They don’t work here where the authors/editors of Genesis have put them. The inventions of the sons of Lamech were all features of life for those reading and hearing the stories of the book of Genesis — which is to say they all remained features of life after the flood. The logic of the narrative of Genesis 1-11 does not allow us to accept Jabal as “the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock,” because that narrative does not allow Jabal to have any descendants at all. Oops.

My guess is that these references to Jabal and Jubal and Tubal-cain aren’t so much miniature stories here as they are allusions to other stories that the original authors/editors expected their audience to be familiar with and only needed to name-check here. I think it’s similar to if I wrote something like: “The Galveston seawall was the most ambitious public works project in southern Texas since Pecos Bill lassoed that tornado.” I’m not telling the story of Pecos Bill there, merely referring to it with the expectation that readers will know the full story. But again, that’s just my guess.

Oh, and if you don’t know the story of the Galveston seawall, then go read it now. It’s more audacious and astounding than any tall-tale involving Pecos Bill and it really happened.

August 5, 2015

• “Speak English!” Racist white woman at IHOP doesn’t seem to realize what the ‘I’ in IHOP stands for.

• A few weeks ago we looked at Tubal-cain in our Sunday WTF? lectionary. Tubal-cain, Genesis 4 says, “made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”

That passage is helpful when establishing when this part of Genesis was written. The writer had seen bronze and iron tools, and was accustomed enough to them that they assumed such things had been around for all of time. (The early Iron Age didn’t have a lot of museums one could visit to learn about the very long history of the Bronze Age, so the writer couldn’t have known that bronze and iron tools weren’t developed at the same time or invented by the same guy.)

Attributing the invention of “all kinds of bronze and iron tools” to one person seven generations after Adam also creates a problem for the selective “literalism” of young-Earth creationists like Ken Ham and Al Mohler. It means they have to argue that the Stone Age was only a few short centuries long.

“For my house shall be called a house of pancakes for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)

Joel Duff of Naturalis Historia has pointed out that the vast numbers of Stone Age artifacts we’ve found creates a pretty huge problem for such young-earthers. Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis attempted a response to this point. It didn’t go well. Jonathan Baker of Age of Rocks and Adam Benton of EvoAnth took the time to shred Mortenson’s reply.

• “I’m not a violent person.” Not personally. David Daleiden positions himself as the Gerry Adams of Operation Rescue.

Alan Bean offers a long, fascinating reflection on the divergent paths of evangelist Billy Graham and his former mentor, the apostate evangelist Chuck Templeton. (Well, it’s fascinating to me, anyway, although admittedly not everyone is fascinated by the history of mid-20th-century white evangelicalism.) Here’s the crux of it: “In the end, neither Billy nor Chuck could believe that Jesus redefines the nature of God.”

• Ruth Moon writes about how a Seattle CEO’s “$70,000 Minimum Wage Brings Bible Parable to Life (Unfortunately)” noting the clear parallels between this real-world story of crabs-in-a-bucket resentment and anti-solidarity and Jesus’ story of the workers in the vineyard.

Atrios’ one-word summary of that story from Seattle is more to the point. That one word is probably also the most accurate exegesis of Jesus’ parable I’ve ever read.

Hemant Mehta shares the news that one Alabama sheriff’s office is now painting their vehicles with Bible verses. He argues, rightly, that this is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

It’s also dishonest. The cars bear the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers” and the Bible reference “Matthew 5:9.” This is the wrong Beatitude for Alabama law enforcement. Their motto should be Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely.” That’s how police do things in Alabama:

A police officer in Alabama proposed murdering a black resident and creating bogus evidence to suggest the killing was in self-defense, the Guardian has learned.

Officer Troy Middlebrooks kept his job and continues to patrol Alexander City after authorities there paid the man $35,000 to avoid being publicly sued over the incident. Middlebrooks, a veteran of the US Marines, said the man “needs a god damn bullet” …

“And before the police got here, I’d fucking put marks all over my shit and make it look like he was trying to fucking kill me. I god damn guarantee you,” Middlebrooks said. “What would it look like? Self fucking defense. Fuck that piece of shit.”

Years ago I tried (and failed) to post one of my Favoritest Things — a video of Kurt Vonnegut performing his lecture/comedy skit on the shape of stories. Open Culture informs me that this is, happily, at last available on YouTube, and here it is:

July 19, 2015

Genesis 4:22

Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

Screen shot 2015-07-19 at 8.19.06 AM

February 6, 2014

This is interesting: Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, researchers from Tel-Aviv University, have pin-pointed the introduction of domesticated camels into ancient Israel. Well, “pin-pointed” in archaeological terms — meaning they’ve got it narrowed down to within decades, which is about as pin-point-y as you can hope to get for something that happened thousands of years ago:

The researchers examined ancient copper smelting sites in the Arava Valley, in southern Israel, and discovered that “camel bones were unearthed almost exclusively in archaeological layers dating from the last third of the 10th century BCE or later,” and that “all the sites active in the 9th century in the Arava Valley had camel bones, but none of the sites that were active earlier contained them.”

“The introduction of the camel to our region was a very important economic and social development. By analyzing archaeological evidence from the copper production sites of the Arava Valley, we were able to estimate the date of this event in terms of decades rather than centuries,” said Ben-Yosef.

The headline-grabbing aspect of this story comes due to the presence of domesticated camels in lots of biblical stories — stories that are set long before “the last third of the 10th century BCE.” Evidence that there were no such camels in Israel at that time, Tel Aviv University says, is “is direct proof that the [Biblical] text was compiled well after the events it describes.”

So that’s big news.

Well, it’s big news for anyone who’s never read the Bible before, I guess.

Those who have read their Bibles aren’t surprised by this at all. It’s not like we didn’t already have gobs of “direct proof that the biblical text was compiled well after the events it describes.” We now know that the many camels the Bible says were owned by folks like Abraham and Job are anachronisms. So let’s add them to the list — the long list — of biblical anachronisms we already knew about.

Think of Cain’s grandson the craftsman, Tubal-Cain, who supposedly crafted iron tools eons before the Iron Age. Or the many places in Genesis where everyone presumes to know all about the laws of Moses — the “clean and unclean” animals on Noah’s ark, for example — even though Moses hasn’t yet come down from Sinai on account of not being born yet.

So this new research narrowing down the introduction of domesticated camels in Israel — and confirming it as another biblical anachronism — is interesting, but not earth-shattering.

And it’s not nearly as interesting as the hostility and foot-stamping nuh-uh! denial that will greet this new research from people like Al Mohler and his intellectual guru, Ken Ham. For folks like them, excavations at ancient copper smelting sites in the Arava Valley are not the proper way to go about learning ancient copper smelting sites in the Arava Valley. Research doesn’t matter — only having the proper “worldview” matters.

And that means, above all else, rejecting anything — no matter how real — that doesn’t conform to one’s preconceived notions of what the Bible says.

What’s really interesting about this worldview of the foot-stamping denialists is how it distorts their perception not just of the world, but of the text they claim to revere. I suggested above that biblical anachronism could only be news to someone who had never read the Bible, but let me qualify that. It is only news to someone who has never read the Bible with their eyes open. Al Mohler reads the Bible as he wants to see it, and that renders an awful lot of the text invisible to him.

I can relate to that. That’s how I was taught to read the Bible, too, when I went to a fundamentalist Baptist church and a fundie private Christian school. Our church youth group urged us to read the Bible and I did — I read it cover to cover, over and over, every day. Yet if you asked me about the kingdom of God, or about justice and Jubilee, or about what it says regarding poverty and wealth, I couldn’t even begin to have answered you. I had read those words — those many tens of thousands of words — and yet none of it registered somehow. That’s weird. Even stranger, teenage me was convinced that a lot of the Bible had to do with avoiding Hell and masturbation (not necessarily in that order) even though neither of those is actually a biblical concern. Weird.

The thing about foot-stamping denialism is that it’s a mechanism for defending against facts. And that means it can’t be corrected with facts.

Apostles of FSD, like Al Mohler, will never accept Tel Aviv’s research findings, no matter how many ancient camel bones can or cannot be found. It’s not about archaeology or history or camels or facts. It’s about the Bible says. And it’s about fear.

For Mohler, the Bible says that Abraham had camels. Take away those camels and you might as well take away Abraham, and take away God’s promise to redeem the world through the calling of Abraham. Take away any one piece and the whole thing crumbles and then life is meaningless and death wins and that’s the last word.

Here’s what I wrote about that a few years back. It’s still true:

The real problem with Answers in Genesis can’t be found in Genesis, or in their tortured reading of it. The real problem is that they’ve somehow become convinced that there exist two and only two possibilities. Either their particular, smallish reading of Genesis is “literally” true and the world was created in six, 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago by their particular, smallish notion of god, or else the universe and human existence within it are meaningless, a realm violence and death in which kindness, goodness, justice and beauty are nothing more than illusion. They believe that either the history of the universe is a brutally short 6,000 years, or else life in that universe is nasty, brutish and short and nothing but. They prefer the former, understandably. And any challenge to it — by argument or by exposure to science or reality — is thus interpreted as an affirmation of the latter view.

You’ll never get anywhere talking to these folks unless you confront that fundamental error. Their hostility to science and their appalling theology are big problems — unsustainably life-distorting problems — but they both derive from this deeper mistake. If you can’t get them to accept that their fundamental false dichotomy is, in fact, false — that they are not forced to choose either impossible antiscience or cruel nihilism — then they will never be able to consider any other possibilities.


December 2, 2013

Israel is putting its tax shekels to work, expanding Route 38, the main highway to Beit Shemesh. Highway projects can be tricky in Israel, though, involving not just the Ministry of Transportation, but also, quite often, the always busy Israel Antiquities Authority. Start digging to expand a highway in Israel and you never know what you’ll uncover: “10,000-year-old house among amazing finds unearthed in Israel.”

Archaeologists say they’ve uncovered some stunning finds while digging at a construction site in Israel, including stone axes, a “cultic” temple and traces of a 10,000-year-old house.

… The building seems to have undergone a number of renovations and represents a time when humans were first starting to live in permanent settlements rather than constantly migrating in search of food, the researchers said. Near this house, the team found a cluster of abandoned flint and limestone axes.

… The excavators also say they found the remains of a possible “cultic” temple that’s more than 6,000 years old. The researchers think this structure, built in the second half of the fifth millennium B.C., was used for ritual purposes, because it contains a heavy, 4-foot-tall (1.3 meters) standing stone that is smoothed on all six of its sides and was erected facing east.

That’s a pretty cool find, but as Megan Gannon reports, it’s not unusual news in Israel, where:

… construction projects often lead to new archaeological discoveries. For example, during recent expansions of Highway 1, the main road connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, excavators discovered 9,500-year-old animal figurines, a carving of a phallus from the Stone Age and a ritual building from the First Temple era.

The wide range of artifacts there reflects the reality of life in Israel — a place where people have lived continuously for millennia. That continuous history is part of what gives such authority to the findings of the Antiquities Authority. When they say the house discovered under Route 38 is 10,000 years old, that figure is based on a host of data, including the fact that this house is clearly far older than the 6,000-year-old cultic ruins discovered nearby. The 10,000-year-old house is one more piece of the puzzle and the long, continuous timeline of history in Israel allows great confidence about where that puzzle-piece fits.

This house is, in fact, 10,000 years old. If it’s not, then all of archaeology is either a mistake or a lie. (Photo by Ya’akov Vardi, Israel Antiquities Authority.)

This new excavation at Eshtaol is about 15 miles west of Jerusalem. For another example of why such long timelines are so conclusive, just look about the same distance in the other direction, east of Jerusalem in Jericho. That’s the same Jericho as the one in the Bible — the place where Rahab sheltered Joshua’s spies. People have been living there, continuously, for about 11,000 years.

We know this. We have artifacts that show this indisputably. Arti-facts — facts that can be touched, held, photographed. We have evidence of successive settlements — building and rebuilding of the city — with layer upon undeniably older layer.

Fundamentalists and white evangelical Christians in America tend to like archaeology. Biblical Archaeology Review, which claims to have the largest paid circulation of any magazine about archaeology, is a popular magazine among white evangelical clergy. Evangelicals tend to like the idea of “biblical archaeology,” seeing the discovery of new artifacts in the lands of the Bible as evidence confirming the truth of their scriptures.

But American evangelicals do not like biblical archaeology when it finds things like a 10,000-year-old house in Eshtaol, or when it says that Jericho has been continuously occupied for 11,000 years. That’s because many American evangelicals have got it fixed in their heads that the Bible must only be read in such a way that it teaches that nothing is 10,000 years old. They insist that the book of Genesis and the genealogies of the Hebrew scriptures have to be read in a way that says the universe was created by God in six days about 7,000 years ago. For these evangelicals, then, anything said to be older than 7,000 years becomes “controversial.”

That’s a problem in places like Eshtaol and Jericho. Such sites have offered up many artifacts that are less than 7,000 years old. Those artifacts are not deemed “controversial.” A building is discovered in Jericho and archaeologists say it is 6,500 years old. Can we all agree that it is, in fact, 6,500 years old? Yes. We can and we do agree to this. Everyone agrees that building is 6,500 years old, even the American evangelicals. But what about the building found beneath that one? And beneath that one? Those must surely be older — far older — than the non-controversial 6,500-year-old building, yet here the evangelicals balk because now we’re crossing that uncrossable line into the realm of things that are older than they say the Bible says that anything could possibly be.

Something’s gotta give. You can’t have a 10,000-year-old house in a 7,000-year-old universe. And the Israel Antiquities Authority has just authoritatively stated that we’ve got ourselves a 10,000-year-old house.

Here, then, are the options for young-Earth creationist evangelicals reading the story above:

1. The Israel Antiquities Authority must be wrong. Archaeologists who say this house is 10,000 years old must be mistaken.

The problem with this response is that the archaeologists evaluating and dating the finds at Eshtaol aren’t doing anything unusual or deviating in any way from the standards of their science. If this dating of the finds at Eshtaol is doubtful, then all of archaeology is doubtful and it’s time to cancel our subscriptions to BAR.

This is also trickier because we’re dealing with archaeology, which offers a variety of different means for dating such discoveries. Thus the magical invocation of evangelical skepticism about carbon dating won’t work here. “Skepticism” is a generous term for this reflexive dismissal of the science for which Walter Libby earned a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It amounts to nothing more than a series of stock phrases that can be recited like a protective spell. “Scientists say radiocarbon dating is flawed.” (Really? Which scientists? Name two. And why haven’t they stepped forward to claim their own Nobel for disproving the chemistry and math, correcting this universal error?) Or “Radiocarbon dating is often mistaken.” This assertion is repeated as protective bullshit — in the technical, Frankfurtian sense. It is not stated as something the speaker knows to be true, nor as something the speaker knows to be false. It is stated by someone who is unconcerned with whether it is true or false in the hopes of muddying the waters and changing the subject.

2. The Israel Antiquities Authority must be lying. Science is a gigantic, evil conspiracy and archaeologists must be in on it.

This approach is easier than the one above because it doesn’t require one to know anything at all about science or archaeology. To say that scientists are mistaken is to accept a responsibility to further suggest how they might be mistaken — to point to some mistake they may have made. Those too lazy to take on such homework can instead find refuge in claims of a scientific conspiracy. We don’t need to say how or why scientific claims are mistaken if we simply assert, instead, that everybody knows scientists are devious, immoral monsters serving some other agenda than finding the truth.

One appeal of such conspiracy theorizing is that it allows one to spin one’s ignorance as a form of sophistication. People who accept scientific conclusions based on evidence, experiment and observation can be condescendingly dismissed as naive. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear on TV” can easily be expanded to become, “You shouldn’t believe anything you read in peer-reviewed science journals, museums, or universities.”

The downside of this conspiracy theory, of course, is that it would need to be breathtakingly vast — encompassing almost everyone other than the elect cognoscenti who alone stand against the grand conspiracy of lies. Such necessary vastness inverts the usual conspiratorial worldview. It turns the small handful of undeceived doubters into the secret cabal of guardians of occult truth. Instead of suggesting, as other conspiracies do, that the secret hand of the Knights Templar is behind all of human history, it says that we are the Knights Templar preserving our secret truth in opposition to all of history.

Plus it’s just goofy. If you want to dismiss the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of some ancient-universe conspiracy because they’re reporting the discovery of a 10,000-year-old house, then you might as well also accuse them of shooting JFK, faking the moon landing, and hiding the alien bodies from Roswell.

3. The Bible must be false.

If there is one and only one acceptable way of reading the Bible, and if that one and only one acceptable way of reading the Bible insists that nothing can be older than 7,000 years, then this 10,000-year-old house refutes the Bible. Therefore there is no God, Jesus is dead, and the Golden Rule is for suckers.

Most young-Earth creationists have convinced themselves that these are the stakes here. They’ve hypnotized themselves and their followers into accepting this “one and only one acceptable way of reading the Bible” mantra as though it were self-evidently true. And if that were true, then they conclude there can be only two binary options: Fundamentalist biblical inerrancy or nihilistic atheism. As David Rennie recently wrote for The Economist, this either/or insistence creates a fragile faith: “The seeming paradox of a strong faith in crisis is explained by rigidity: that which cannot bend may break instead.” Rigid but brittle. Young-Earth creationism creates a kind of faith that is vulnerable to being falsified by something as simple as a highway expansion project in Israel.

The proponents of young-Earth creationism all insist that this option must be considered as a possible response to any new scientific discovery. “If … then,” they’re always saying. If the universe could be proved to be any older than 7,000 years, then the Bible must be false. Yet they never seem to seriously consider taking this option themselves — preferring instead the BS or conspiracy theories above whenever they’re cornered into confronting it.

Unfortunately, though, the followers of those young-Earth proponents have been listening to this if … then, either/or mantra, and they have made the mistake of taking their spiritual leaders seriously. Those followers learn of something like this 10,000-year-old house, realize that it is not a mistake and not a lie told by a nefarious conspiracy of archaeologists, and then, following what they have been taught all their lives, they come to the only conclusion they’ve been told is left: Nihilistic atheism. This is why young-Earth creationism is such an efficient assembly-line for the mass production of ex-Christians.

The good news is that after the initial crisis and trauma of losing their rigid-and-brittle faith in young-Earth creationism, most of those ex-fundies eventually realize that nihilistic atheism isn’t their only option. Either they come to realize that atheism need not be nihilistic and amoral, or else they come to realize that there was another option besides the three we’ve discussed so far. Such as:

4. Young-earth creationism misreads the Bible. Maybe there is more than one and only one way to read the Bible.

This is the option that young-Earth creationists don’t like to talk about. Yes, they’ll act sad when some young followers of theirs lose their faith, but such occasions also, in effect, serve to reinforce the ideology of fundamentalism. Every time the rigid faith of some believer is shattered, it confirms that such rigidity is the essence of faith. Such defections thus are no threat to fundamentalism itself, but rather can be seen as validating the binary if … then, either/or construct at its core.

Far more dangerous to fundamentalist religion is the possibility of faith that can accommodate science and the reality of the universe around us.

The truth, in fact, is that most Christians have such faith. Most Christians do not read the first chapter of Genesis as a scientific text that must be read as a contradiction of every other scientific text. Most Christians do not see the excavations at Eshtaol as any kind of threat to our way of reading the Bible, or to our belief in God, or to our devotion to Jesus. We haven’t twisted ourselves into knots trying to read the Bible as something other than what it presents itself to be, and so we’re free to read an article like Molly Gannon’s above and just think, “Hey, cool, a 10,000-year-old house. Neat.”

And the further truth is that these other Christians are not adopting some new, “liberal” way of reading the Bible. They’re simply sticking to reading the Bible the way it was read before the parochial modern invention of young-Earth creationism. Their ways of reading the Bible pre-date the fundamentalist hermeneutic, which is itself a deviant, dead-end branch sticking off from the long history of Christians reading the Bible. (There’s a reason it’s called the “1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” and not the Inerrancy Creed of the Council of Chicago in CE 78.)

Christians also aren’t the only ones reading the book of Genesis. Nor were we the first to do so. Here is Haviv Rettig Gur’s report on the Eshtaol find for The Times of Israel. Note that the tone of Gur’s piece, like Gannon’s, is a celebration of this wondrous discovery as wonderful news. “The house is the oldest structure ever found in the Judean lowlands, [Antiquities Authority researchers] said, dating back to the period known to archaeologists as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.”

For young-Earth creationists, there cannot be any such thing as “the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.” Genesis 4 says that Tubalcain was an “artificer in brass and iron” before Noah’s flood, so young-Earth creationists don’t believe there ever was a Stone Age. Yet you won’t find any suggestion anywhere in Gur’s article that these researchers are challenging the legitimacy of the book of Genesis. That wouldn’t make sense because no one reads Genesis in such a weird way as to make that the case.

Well, almost no one. But Gur isn’t writing for an American audience, so he doesn’t have to account for the sensibilities of American evangelicals and the weird way they’ve come to misinterpret the Bible. That interpretation doesn’t matter to The Times of Israel because its readers live surrounded by daily, constant reminders of the times of Israel — the long times that “trace 10 millennia of human development,” as the subhed to Gur’s article says.

You can’t be a young-Earth creationist in Israel. Such a rigid, brittle scheme couldn’t survive in a land where every highway expansion project could easily turn unearth yet another crisis of faith.

November 11, 2013

Ken Ham’s “Ark Encounter” is a transparent fundraising scam.

Ham’s young-Earth creationist con has raised more than $13 million of the $24.5 million he says it will take to build his full-scale “replica” of Noah’s Ark, and he’s looking to bilk supporters out of the remaining $12 million by having them sign up for monthly pledges as “sponsors” of every peg, board and beam of the project — that’s $10/month to sponsor a peg, “as low as” $100/month to sponsor a plank, and “as low as” $500/month to sponsor a beam. “Your tax-deductible sponsorship donation will be assigned a unique serial number that you can use to look up the location of your peg, plank, or beam in the Ark.” (The book of Genesis says that every board in Noah’s Ark had a unique serial number. I forget the exact verse where it says that.)

So, for $6,000 a year you could “sponsor” a wooden beam on a replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. Or you could use that same $6,000 a year to sponsor 15 desperately poor children through World Vision. These are, obviously, equally valid uses of that $6,000 for a good, godly American Christian.

Ken Ham has produced a video update of “Phase 1 of the Ark Encounter,” featuring someone named Patrick Marsh, who takes obvious delight in playing with his tiny trees and parking lots in the scale model of the project. (I do not begrudge him this. The scale model looks fun and I found myself wishing Marsh had included a train set running through, because that would be kind of neat.)

There is so very, very much wrong with all of this — theologically, exegetically, historically, ethically, etc. — that it seems inappropriate to fixate on any one thing, but I find the “blacksmith shop” particularly infuriating.

The Ark Encounter will include a model of Noah’s “workshop,” which will include, Marsh says, “A working saw, vertical saw, and a blacksmith shop, because we want to show that Noah was capable of using all kinds of equipment and things to be able to build this wonderful ark.”

The image there to the right is the artist’s rendering of the Ark Encounter’s planned “Noah’s Workshop.” Note the medieval-looking ax, the array of chisels and planes, and the selection of various drill bits.

Not bad for 2348 BCE.

That very precise date is the year that Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis gives as the date of Noah’s flood. That’s early in the Bronze Age. Some bronze saw blades have been found from that time, and even older — dating back to 2750 BCE or so — but they were crude metal squares, nothing like the Colonial Williamsburg-looking array of tools shown in the Ark Encounter’s workshop. Tools like those shown just didn’t exist in the Bronze Age.

But the Ark Encounter isn’t set in the Bronze Age. It’s set in the Iron Age.

How can this be? Answers in Genesis has given us an extremely precise date for Noah’s flood: 2348 BCE. That’s more than a thousand years before the very earliest hints of anybody, anywhere even starting to work with iron. Yet the Answers in Genesis folks say Noah had a full array of the best Iron Age technology, because they say the Bible says so. Genesis 4:22:

And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah.

Tubalcain was the son of Lamech, which makes him Noah’s brother. So if the Bible says that Noah’s brother was an “artificer in brass and iron,” then Noah must have lived in the Iron Age which must have started some time before 2348 BCE. And that is that.

My point here is not to nitpick about the anachronistic metallurgy of the Ark Encounter. Ken Ham claims that the entire universe is only 6,000 years old, so his mangled chronology of the Iron Age seems like a relatively minor problem.

What I’m getting at here is that Ham’s reality-denying “creation science” doesn’t just dismiss all of human history and natural history from before 6,000 years ago. It’s worse than that. His “creation science” also forces him to disregard most of human history and natural history within those 6,000 years.

Set aside the story of Noah and his ark. Imagine instead we’re just trying to create a museum display about a state-of-the-art shipbuilder ca. 2348 BCE. What kinds of tools would such an ancient craftsman have available? What tools have we discovered from that time period?

The Khufu Boat Museum, located behind the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt, has just such a display — including an actual boat built more than a century before Ken Ham says Noah’s flood happened. (Blogger Danee Gilmartin has some cool pictures of the ca. 2500 BCE felucca that was buried with King Khufu.)

This ought to be a fascinating topic, but the folks at Answers in Genesis aren’t fascinated by it. They’re not eager to learn more about ancient boat-building. They are, instead, terrified of it. For Ham & Co., it’s not that ignorance is bliss, but that ignorance is necessary.

What would happen if they started learning about ancient shipbuilding or ancient metallurgy? Even if they managed to somehow insulate themselves from everything that archaeology tells us about human culture and the world of long before 6,000 years ago, there’d still be enough within that 6,000-year timeframe to upend their whole ideology.

Tubalcain’s way-too-early ironsmithing would be the least of it. The bigger problem would be encountering all those ancient cultures like Khufu’s Egypt that thrived before, after and during the time of Noah’s flood — without any apparent interruption or disruption from any such allegedly global calamity. We can identify many civilizations that were thriving in 2348 BCE, and they were all still thriving in 2347 BCE too.

If Ken Ham sincerely believes what he claims to believe, then he can’t allow himself to know that. And regardless of whether he is sincere or not, he can’t allow his loyal “sponsors” to know that either.

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