Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tiktaalik; Atheists in Church; Syrian Land Sabbath; Captain Egyptian Obvious; Babylonian Deuteronomists; Edifying; Pro-Spiritual Journey

1. Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, pages 37-38:

Tiktaalik has features that make it a direct link between the earlier lobe-finned fish and the later amphibians…With gills, scales, and fins, it was clearly a fish that lived its life in water. But it also has amphibianlike features. For one thing, its head is flattened like that of a salamander, with the eyes and nostrils on top rather than on the sides of the skull. This suggests that it lived in shallow water and could peer, and probably breathe, above the surface. The fins had become more robust, allowing the animal to flex itself upward to help survey its surroundings. And, like the early amphibians, Tiktaalik had a neck. Fish don’t have necks—their skull joins directly to their shoulders…

Clearly Tiktaalik was well adapted to live and crawl about in shallow waters, peek above the surface, and breathe air…Tiktaalik itself was not ready for life ashore. For one thing, it had not yet evolved a limb that would allow it to walk. And it still had internal gills for breathing underwater…

The best way to experience the drama of evolution is to see the fossils for yourself, or better yet, handle them. My students had this chance when Neil brought a cast of Tiktaalik to class, passed it around, and showed how it filled the bill of a true transitional form. This was, to them, the most tangible evidence that evolution was true. How often do you get to put your hands on a piece of evolutionary history, much less one that might have been your distant ancestor?

Here are some creationists attempts to explain Tiktaalik: Tiktaalik and the Fishy Story of Walking Fish – Answers in Genesis, Tiktaalik—a fishy ‘missing link’, Tiktaalik—sticking its head out of water?, and Tiktaalik – CreationWiki, the encyclopedia of creation science.

The first article is by David Menton, who has a Ph.D. in cell biology from Brown. I’m not sure about the credentials of those who wrote the other three articles, but a good thing about two of them is that they show you a picture of a fossil of Tiktaalik. That isn’t as good as holding it in your hands, but at least it’s something!

I can’t say that I understood the articles all that well, but their basic claim is that Tiktaalik is a fish. They go to great length to argue that the “legs” of Tiktaalik are fins—nothing more. And, in their view, these fins would not be sufficient for Tiktaalik to walk on land. So Tiktaalik is not a fish with legs—the sort that you see on the the bumpers of evolutionists’ automobiles! But, as you can see above, Coyne the evolutionist actually concedes that point!

In my opinion, the following quote from Menton is a good summary of the creationist case regarding Tiktaalik:

Many species of living fish are known to breathe air as well as slither on their bellies, with the help of their pectoral fins, across large expanses of land (evolutionists call this “walking”). For example, the northern snakehead and the “walking catfish” (Clarias batrachus) are air–breathing fish that can travel overland for considerable distances. The mudskippers are fish that breathe oxygen through their skin and “skip” along on land with the aid of their fleshy fins. The climbing perch (Anabas testudineus) not only breathes air and “walks” on land but is even capable of climbing trees! Yet none of these curious fish are considered by evolutionists to be ancestors of tetrapods—they are simply interesting and specialized fish…

Most evolutionists look to crossopterygian fish for the ancestors of tetrapods—even though unlike many living fish, none of these fish are known to be capable of either walking or breathing out of water. These fish have fleshy pectoral fins containing bony elements (considered similar to tetrapod legs). These similarities have prompted evolutionists to confidently declare that crossopterygians evolved into tetrapods. According to evolutionists, the crossopterygians flourished about 380 million years ago and all were once believed to have become extinct about 80 million years ago. However, in 1938 a fishing trawler netted a fish in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar that was identified as a crossopterygian fish, previously known only from the fossil record as the coelacanth. Since then, dozens of living coelacanths have been discovered. This came as a huge shock to evolutionists who assumed that the reason the coelacanth disappeared from the fossil record was because they evolved into land-dwelling tetrapods; yet, here they were very much alive—and swimming! At the very least, evolutionists expected to observe some hint of walking behavior in the coelacanth, but nothing of the kind has ever been observed. Coelacanths have been observed swimming backward, upside–down, and even standing on their head but they have never been observed to walk on land or in the sea.

It appears that the creationist case is that there are strange animals out there—that there are fish that can breath air and travel on land, or that may even share traits with tetrapods, even though that’s not what they are. And these fish are still around.

I looked up the fish that Menton mentions—the northern snakehead, walking catfish, mudskippers, and climbing perch. As far as I could tell, they don’t have necks, and their eyes are on their sides—as is the case with fish. (Feel free to google these fish and tell me if you have the same impression that I do, or not, since I don’t have the eye of a biologist!) Tiktaalik, however, has a neck, and its eyes are on top. So is it really a fish, or something a little different?

But who am I to act like I’m an authority? Up to today, I didn’t know that there were actual fish that breathed air and travelled on land! I assumed there was a solid line separating “fish” from “amphibian”!

Here’s another point: who says that a “missing link” (if you will) has to go extinct once it evolves past its characteristics? Some Tiktaalik may have mutated, but others may not have. I say this in response to the creationist argument that amphibious fish are still around, and so evolution must be false, as well as the evolutionists’ surprise that crossopterygians still exist.

But I’m like a fish crawling out of its natural habitat on these matters, so please bear with me!

2. Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, page 415:

“…The rest are the usual run of Protestants and one atheist…that is, he thought he was an atheist, until Michael opened his eyes. He came here to scoff; he stayed to learn…and he’ll be a priest before long…”

There are atheists who can enter a church service or a group of believers and become transformed into people of faith. Maybe they see something in the religious tradition that speaks to them, and presents them with something that they want, which they believe is missing from their lives. Perhaps they witness what they consider to be answers to prayer. I know a person who was once an atheist Marxist, and he became an evangelical as a result of what he saw as a participant in a prayer meeting.

There are others, however, who can go to church and remain unaffected—or maybe even pushed into the direction of skpeticism. They may dislike the dogmatism, the intolerance, the legalism, or the hypocrisy of religion. Or they may look at the tradition and feel that it’s not intellectually sound.

Is God’s word powerful? On some, yes. On some, no. It depends on where people are, and what they’re looking for.

3. Alberdina Houtmann, Mishnah and Tosefta, page 153:

In Tosefta Shebiit 4:12, we see Rabbi Akiba’s rule that an Israelite cannot sow or plow in the land of Syria during the seventh year, which is the time of the Israelite land Sabbath. Syria is not included in 4:11, which details the land that belongs to Israel. But the land Sabbath still applies in Syria. Is this because one prominent version of the land promise was that Abraham’s inheritance would extend north—all the way up to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:18), and that would include Syria?

At the same time, the Tosefta is sensitive to the fact that the Jews do not possess Syria. And so 4:12 goes on to say that an Israelite can bind produce that a gentile uproots, or trample grapes that a gentile plucks—just so long as the Israelite is not directly involved in the planting and harvesting.

4. Donald Redford, “Scribe and Speaker”, in Writings and Speech in Israelites and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy, pages 171-172:

Redford refers to the long-held Egyptian view that oral transmission of information was unreliable, whereas written info was more reliable.

I think that point’s pretty obvious! It makes me wonder how there were ancients that relied on oral tradition.

5. Moshe Weinfeld, “Ancient Near Eastern Patterns in Prophetic Literature”, Vetus Testamentum 27:194-195:

However, surprisingly enough the idea of moral behaviour as a decisive factor for the survival of the nation is found even in pagan literature.

Thus when describing the moral decay of Babylon before its destruction the Esarhaddon inscriptions tell us:

[“]the people living in it (Babylon) answered each other Yes, (in their heart): No…they plotted evil…they (the Babylonians) were oppressing the weak/poor and putting them into the power of the mighty, there was oppression and acceptance of bribe within the city daily without ceasing; they were robbing each other’s property; the son was cursing his father in the street…then the god (Enlil/ Marduk) became angry, he planned to over[w]helm the land and to destroy its people.[”]

This passage reminds us especially the prophecy of Micah vii 1 ff.: [“]there is no upright man, people hunt each other, the officer and the judge ask for bribe, the son despises the father, the daughter rises against her mother[”.]

The Isaianic concept of Jerusalem as the city of faithfulness and justice…is also not unique to classical prophecy. Similar attributes were ascribed to Nippur the city of Enlil in the Sumerian Hymns.

Thus we read in the Hymn to Enlil:

[“]Hypocrisy, distortion, abuse, malice … enmity, oppression, envy, (brute) force, libelous speech, arrogance, violation or agreement, breach of contract, abuse of (a court) verdict, (all these) evils the city does not tolerate … the city endowed with truth where righteousness (and) justice are perpetuated.[”]

The last sentence reminds us of sdqylyn bh in Isa. i 23. The phrase “city of justice, the faithful city”…found in Isa. i 26 (cp. Jer. xxxi 22 mvh hsdq) is also attested in the Assyrian literature in reference to the Babylonian city Borsippa…

A similar attitude is reflected in the so called “Advice to a Prince” in the Babylonian literature. There we read:

[“]If a king does not heed justice, his people will fall into anarchy and his land w;ll be devastated … if he does not heed his nobles, his life will be cut short. If he does not heed his adviser, his land will rebel against him … If citizens of Nippur are brought before him for judgment and he accepts bribe and treats them with injustice, Enlil, lord of the lands, will bring a foreign army against him … If he takes the money of his citizens and puts it into his treasure … Marduk .. . will give his wealth and property to his enemy. If he mobilized the whole of Sippar, Nippur and Babylon and imposed forced labour on the people … Marduk … will turn his land over to his enemy[.”]

So Babylon believed that a god upheld social justice in its nation through a system of reward and punishment—just like those who fashioned the religion of ancient Israel! Ancient Israel wasn’t totally unique in its support for social justice, as Jewish and Christian apologists have claimed. Maybe the system that it supported was more just than what existed throughout the ancient Near East (see Lawson Stone’s post, Seedy Thoughts), but many nations showed concern for the poor. Compassion is a universal idea. And it makes sense: if everyone is selfish and evil, society will soon collapse! One doesn’t have to be a genius—or an ancient Israelite worshipping the LORD—to grasp this truth! 

6. One book review I read was David Bakke’s analysis of F. Young’s Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. I’d like to read more reviews of this book, since it discusses how Christian exegetes drew from pagan exegesis, and my impression is that my professor deems this to be an important topic!

According to Bakke, Young discusses how biblical scholars once loved the Antioch School of Christian exegesis—which was literal and tried to interpret the biblical writings in light of their historical contexts (even though the Antiochians believed that the Hebrew Bible could be a type of later events, such as Christ). Historical critics of the Bible didn’t care as much for the Alexandrian School, which was more allegorical—it treated the biblical text as symbolic of spiritual or philosophical truth, rather than focusing on its literal meaning.

But, with postmodernism and deconstruction, there emerged a greater acceptance among scholars of the Alexandrian School. Who’s to say that there is one objective literal meaning in a text, some may argue, for readers bring themselves into their reading, and that colors what they see! Plus, why be so stale as to stick with the literal meaning? Why not have fun and be creative?

I’m reminded of something that a professor at DePauw once told me. Conservative that I was, I was trying to show that Matthew interprets Zechariah 9:9 correctly. Many have argued that Matthew misunderstands Zechariah 9:9′s parallelism and presents Jesus as riding upon two animals, when he didn’t have to do so to remain true to Zechariah 9:9 (see Matthew and Zechariah 9:9). In any case, my professor responded that Matthew is not Zechariah 9:9, but it is Matthew. And Zechariah 9:9 is not Matthew, but it is Zechariah 9:9!

What’s my point here? Part of me prefers the Antiochian approach because it tries to stick with the biblical text, whereas I fear that the Alexandrian method could result in an “anything goes” eisegesis, which reads into the text whatever suits the reader. Yet, if I simply recognize the Alexandrian interpretations for what they are—not as solid, literal interpretations of the Bible, but as interesting and profound ideas about God and life—then I can appreciate them more. For me, the Alexandrian interpretations of the Bible are not the Bible, but they are interesting and edifying in their own right.

7. Rachel Held Evans has a good post, Confessions of a Reluctant Stumbling Block. I like this line: “What I don’t want to be is the kind of stumbling block that so severely cripples a brother or sister in their journey with God that they can’t continue to move forward. Doubt can be immeasurably beneficial when it inspires us to embrace a more examined faith, but it can be incredibly destructive when it tempts us to quit or disobey.”

On my blog, I may disagree with fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or conservative Christianity in general. I may have problems with inerrancy. But I hope and pray that you never conclude from my blog that a journey with God is not worth pursuing. My blog is a part of my spiritual journey—through highs and lows—not something that tries to discourage spiritual journey.

I just wanted to let you know that!

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