Monday, June 18, 2012

1 Chronicles 16:30: Does the Bible Say the Earth Doesn't Move?

A frequent visitor to my blog left a comment where he alluded to biblical passages that speak of the earth not moving (geocentricism). He didn't cite a specific verse but this isn't the first time I've heard that criticism so I'm aware of certain passages which are frequently cited in support of that claim. Perhaps the most frequently cited is 1 Chronicles 16:30:

Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved. (1 Chronicles 16:30)

At first hearing, this criticism seems to have legs (for any Bible critic reading this, I'm using an expression. The criticism doesn't “literally” have legs). The genre of 1 Chronicles is historical narrative – unlike Psalms which is Hebrew poetry. So when we read a passage like 1 Chron 16:30 in the midst of historical narrative, it seems as though the Bible might literally be saying the earth does not move. A quick look at the context, however, quickly dispels that notion.

First off, the passage is clearly introduced as a psalm (i.e. “song” or “prayer”) of David. 1 Chron 16:7 says, Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the Lord into the hand of Asaph and his brethren.” Like the book of Psalms, the passage uses poetic descriptions to convey spiritual truth – not necessarily literal truth. In the same passage (v. 32-33) David says that the sea “roars,” the fields “rejoice,” and the trees “sing.”

Why don't the same critics who allege this passage endorses geocentricism, also assert the Bible teaches that trees sing? It's because they know that people will immediately recognize trees singing as an obvious use of metaphor. Yet they still quote v. 30 as though it's meant to be a statement of fact. This is a clear case of quote mining where critics cite a passage out of context in order to make it sound like the Bible says something that it clearly does not intend.

Another thing we must be careful to consider is what is meant by the use of the words like “world” and “earth.” Often, when these words are used, they are not referring to the physical earth but the people of the earth. This is demonstrated in the same verse in question. 1 Chron 16:30a says, “Fear before Him all the earth.” Do you think this means the literal “earth” should fear Him or doesn't it more likely mean the people of the earth? It could mean the literal earth in the same sense that the “fields” rejoice. On the other hand, it could also mean the people of the earth. The Bible does use the words “earth” and “world” in that sense; Here are some indisputable examples where this is so:

And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity. (Isaiah 13:11a)

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (Luke 2:1)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

In these passages, and others, the word “world” clearly means the people who live in the world. No one, for example, could rationally argue that Luke 2:1 means that the literal earth (that is, dirt and rock) is going to be taxed.

We also must ask what is meant by “not moved.” The most ordinary meaning, of course, is that it means “stationary” and that is what the critics who cite this passage claim it means. However, “not moved” can also mean “not moved from its course” or “unpersuaded.” Psalm 21:7 says, “For the king trusteth in the Lord, and through the mercy of the most High he shall not be moved.” I'll ask you: does this passage mean the king is stationary or does it mean that he should not be moved from his trust in the Lord?

In conclusion, remember that this is a psalm. In a poetic passage that says the Lord established the earth that it should not be moved, would it be entirely unreasonable to interpret that to mean the Lord established the ways of the earth (or its people) and it/they will not be moved from the way He established? What is unreasonable is that critics (whether intentionally or by ignorance) ignore the clear context of a passage and assert the correct interpretation of an obvious use of poetry is that it is meant to be literal fact. It's no wonder that critics see the Bible as rife with errors. They obviously have trouble reading.


Steven J. said...

I would, myself, say that Psalm 104 is a better expression of "the Earth never moving," but never mind. Yes, 1 Chronicles 16 speaks of trees singing. It also speaks of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites being established in Canaan. Is all that equally figurative? I do not think you will take that position. The point is that the passage is, like much poetry, a mixture of literal and figurative speech. Similarly, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 mixes what seems to be figurative language ("the stars in their courses fought against Sisera") with what is unmistakeably quite literal language (describing how Jael treated Sisera). We know that many ancient peoples in the area -- and even many Jews of the first centuries BC and AD -- thought that indeed the Earth stood motionless at the center of the cosmos, so the passage is not nearly so obviously figurative as a reference to trees singing.

Now, it is worth noting that passages speaking of the Earth "not being moved" are not the sole indication of biblical geocentrism. Gerardus Bouw picks, as the clearest example of geocentric declaration, Joshua 10:13 ("So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day"). Now, that might be interpreted as merely a description of how it appeared to an Earthbound observer (though Martin Luther agreed with Bouw), and I'd go with Ecclesiastes 1:5 ("The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose").

Again, the sun arising and going down is arguably just a phenomenological description (though Bouw argues against this view, saying that if one can view statements about the rising of the sun as figurative, one can do the same with statements about the rising of the Son), but the sun "hastening to his place where he arose" is not a description of how it looks (at night, we can't see the sun, so it doesn't look like anything; descriptions of what it does are inferred from our cosmology).

Bouw, besides adducing additional prooftexts, makes another argument, noting that skeptics often ask what the Earth was orbiting for three days before the sun was created; a geocentric cosmos doesn't have this problem. Genesis 1, it seems to me (and the creationist Bouw), implies through the order of creation a geocentric cosmos.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I'm sorry I haven't been responding promptly to comments. This summer has proved especially demanding on my time and it's all I can do to even write new posts.

If you're going to stick with the idea that the Bible teaches geocentrism, I would suggest you avoid Psalms all together as your proof text. In the context of Psalms 104, which you cited, are also references to the wind having wings, God being “clothed” with honor, the clouds being God's chariot, and His ministers being a flame of fire. So if you are claiming that Psalm 104 is “literally” saying that the earth doesn't move, why do you not also assert that the Bible “literally” claims the wind has wings as attested in the same passage?

You're correct that I don't believe the mention of Abraham in 1 Chronicles is figurative. I did say that the poetic passages don't necessarily convey “literal” truth as much as spiritual truth. Psalms, for example, says that God is our strong tower. Of course, He's not “literally” a tower but He does give us protection, comfort, and refuge. So the passage is true even if it is not “literally” true. I also know from other, non-poetic passages, that Abraham was a real person. Remember that the Promised Land was described as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Obviously, milk and honey didn't literally flow through the land like a river. It's a figurative expression to describe a real place. It's not really hard at all to discern the literal from the poetic in any passage. It could be a not-too-demanding 8th grade reading exercise.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!


Anonymous said...

"It's not really hard at all to discern the literal from the poetic in any passage."

Sure, just as long as you already presuppose to veracity of the Bible, it's a simple matter to have it conform to your specific belief structure. For those people that don't automatically assume the Bible is true, it becomes very much more difficult to distinguish between literal and figurative supernatural events or language that doesn't seem to coincide with scientific reality.

RKBentley said...

"Very much more difficult"? Really? Do you have similar problems reading other pieces of literature? If I described a man as having "chiseled features" I think you would know in a moment that it is only an expression. Surely you wouldn't think someone carved out the man's face from stone. Why do you not apply those same rules of common sense when reading the Bible? Perhaps it is as you said; people tend to approach the Bible with the attitude that they either believe it or they don't. If they don't, then they would believe that a term like "chiseled features" is proof that the Bible teaches that people literally have carved faces.

Thanks for visiting. God bless!


Anonymous said...

The difference between the Bible and other works of literature, is that the Bible makes at least some supernatural claims that are generally accepted as literal fact by those who presuppose the text is the inspired word of a higher being. In that context, I do think that there is a distinct and intrinsic disconnect between the interpretations, even between believers, of various passages.

For those, like myself, who are not already assuming the inherent truth of the Bible, interpretation is far more subjective when I am not guided by my already formed belief structure. When I read Shakespeare, which also contains the supernatural, there is a tacit
understanding that those events are not expected to be interpreted literally.

You seem to assume that I simply peruse the Bible seeking to find 'gotchas' in an effort to discredit and/or disprove the Bible. I would not need to read the Bible to understand that there are rather significant discrepancies. All I need do is compare the various Christian sects that base themselves around the Bible and note the many differences, large and small.

I think people tend to focus on the Theist/Atheist interpretations, and quite frankly, I think both sides have an agenda to one degree or another. I daresay a Christian reading the Qur'an would tend to interpret that text in the same way as an Atheist reading the Bible. The same would apply to Muslims reading the Bible.

RKBentley said...

Even when discussing supernatural events, it still is not difficult to determine if a passage is meant to be literal or figurative. Jesus literally turned water into wine. Trees do not literally sing.

Instead of discussing generalities, is there a particular passage you believe is obviously meant to be figurative where I might think it is literal?

God bless!


Anonymous said...

Great post! Your answer was very insightful.

I'm looking forward to reading more!