Biblical Literalism II – In the Beginning
The very first page of the Bible tells how God created the earth:
“God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.’ And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was. And God called the vault Heavens…. And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,’ and so it was. And God called the dry land earth and the gathering of the waters he called Seas.” (Genesis 1:6-11).
In other words, the world started off as an expanse of water, like the ocean. But then God decided to create Heaven. This was just a layer of air in the middle of the waters, like the vanilla layer in an Oreo cookie. Then he rearranged the bottom layer of water to expose land. The Bible espouses a layer theory of the world. There is a topmost layer of water, a middle layer of heaven, and a lower layer of both land and water. These layers are parallel. The earth is flat.
Recall that Barna found that 22% of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true, word for word. Do they really believe this layer theory? Can any sentient being today believe there is a layer of water sitting on top of the atmosphere, and that the earth is flat? Haven’t they even read the first page of the Bible?
Recall too that another 30% of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true except that some verses are “symbolic.” No commentary on Genesis that I know of has proposed a symbolic interpretation of this passage. What is the symbolism of a layer of water sitting on Heaven?
Religion is intended to answer the Big Questions. This passage was written thousands of years ago in the Near East, a semi-arid region, where water is critical. When Moses describes the Promised Land, the very first thing he talks about is water: “a goodly land, a land of brooks of water, springs and deeps coming out in valley and in mountain…” (Deut. 8:7). Rain was crucial for survival, and one of the Big Questions.
Rain is water falling from above, and the layer theory explains how it got up there. God makes it rain by opening the heavens. The story of Noah and the flood repeats this explanation. Since God did the heavy lifting up front, it is easy for Him to reach up and allow some rain to fall. If God had to go down to the bottom layer each time and carry all that water up, making it rain would be much more arduous. Under the layer theory, when you pray for rain, you are not asking for a big favor.
The layer theory was a model of how the world worked. It was an explanation, not a metaphor or a symbolic description. And it wasn’t a bad one for its time. It explained the key facts. First, how rainwater got up there, and second, why earth looks flat-- because it is.
But it boggles the mind to think that over half of all Americans claim it is literally true. I suspect that if you actually asked them about it, they’d be willing to admit it is not. While they assert the Bible is literally true, they are incredibly ignorant of what the Bible actually says. They don’t even know the very first page. I suspect most have read the words, but failed to understand their meaning.
Those who loudly thump the Bible know very little about what’s under its cover. Everyone in the field recognzes this, but almost no one says or does anything about it. Media politely looks the other way. They ask people their opinions about the Bible and its relevance to current issues, knowing full well that the answers are uninformed. It’s like asking them for their opinion about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Pastors of these literalists are a different story. Most know of the Bible’s layer theory, yet they still teach and reinforce their flock’s belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Religious professionals routinely suppress facts and even misrepresent them on behalf of their faith. Their “higher” morality demands that they violate normal standards of morality, ethics, and intellectual integrity. I provided many examples of this in Paul Revealed. For example, they suppress the lavish nature of Paul’s Roman housing, suppress the fact that his churches called him a fraud and a liar, suppress his repeated condemnation of the Holy Bible, suppress the fact that he spent great deal of money while earning a subsistence wage, look the other way while a colleague fraudulently misrepresents the cost of letters, and so on. Media and right-minded people not only think it impolite to point out this out, they view it as downright immoral.