Thursday, 26 December 2019

Review - Grabbe, Lester L. Faith and Fossils: The Bible, Creation, and Evolution

Review - Grabbe, Lester L. Faith and Fossils: The Bible, Creation, and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018.

As the founder and convenor of the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, Lester Grabbe is not someone whom I would have imagined likely to enter the overcrowded field of evolution / creation literature, even though his expertise as an historian of ancient Judaism eminently qualifies him to comment on the biblical end of the subject. Having expressed my reservation up front, I am happy to admit that my reservations about the value of a book on evolution / creation by a specialist in Second Temple Judaism were ill-placed. Grabbe has written a book that not only is informative and accessible, but which deserves a place on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in the subject.

 Faith and Fossils: The Bible, Creation, and Evolution begins on a personal note, with Grabbe noting that his childhood fascination with science, particularly palaeontology almost resulted in him following a scientific career. Grabbe notes that apart from being deeply interested in science, he was also a fundamentalist Christian and unsurprisingly deeply opposed to evolution, and quite disappointed to note that at an exclusive Summer Science Program in Biology for secondary school students to which he’d won admittance, he was the only student who doubted evolution. Grabbe, recognising that his scepticism of evolution would stand in the way of any dream of pursuing a career in palaeontology professionally elected to become a minister, and ultimately a biblical scholar. As for what catalysed the change from fundamentalism, Grabbe states that it was reading the Bible in its original languages and sociocultural context that was pivotal:
“As a conservative Christian early in my studies, I learned very well what was widely believed in scholarship. I often sought for ways to argue against it. However, knowledge of the various civilizations in the ancient Near East and the ability to read the Bible in the original languages changed my perception. [1]
One of the main ways in which looking at the creation narratives in their original language does this is by showing that the narratives are not describing the universe as modern science describes but rather the cosmogeography of the ancient Near East.
“Modern readers assume that Genesis is describing the sun around which the earth circulates and the moon that rotates around the earth. That is not the case in Genesis. The language suggests that sun and moon are set in this firmament and thus move across the solid sky, the inverted basin holding back waters above it. Belatedly, the “stars” are also mentioned as being created alongside the “greater light” and the “lesser light” (1:16). The language is wonderfully poetic while being scientifically vacuous…What is expressed in stunning Hebrew is a description of the universe that is similar to other cosmological descriptions in the literature of the ancient Near East.” [2]
While Genesis shares a similar cosmogeography with other ANE creation myths, as Grabbe points out when he compares it with the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish there are polemical differences along with significant parallels. In Enuma Elish, the goddess-monster Tiamat is slaughtered by the hero Marduk who after his triumph carves her in two and creates the universe from her remains. Genesis 1, while sharing details such as a world with waters above and below the earth, differs in that the motif of divine conflict is absent, with the “forces of chaos have become lifeless elements that God shapes as he will.” [3] Interestingly, vestiges of this conflict motif can be found in earlier creation accounts outside of Genesis such as the ones found in Psalm 74v13-14, Psa 89:9-10, and Job 26:12-13
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

By his power he stilled the Sea;
by his understanding he struck down Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
As Grabbe notes, the parallels between these earlier creation stories in Genesis and parallel accounts in ancient Near Eastern mythology are clear as this passage from the Ugaritic Baal cycle notes:
Surely I fought Yamm, the Beloved of El.
Surely I finished off River, the Great God,
Surely I bound Tunnan and destroyed (?) him.
I fought the Twisty Serpent,
The Potentate with Seven Heads. [4]
While the fact the ancient Hebrews believed the earth to be flat and covered by a firmament separating waters above from below and believed that YHWH had battled chaos monsters may seem odd, we need to read the narratives from the context of a pre-scientific world and stop projecting a modern cosmology and theology onto these ancient texts. The purpose of these narratives was not scientific exposition but theological polemic, depicting YHWH alone as the one who battled the forced of chaos at creation, and (in the later account of Gen 1) the demythologisation of nature itself. Grabbe puts it well:
“We must, as careful biblical readers, abandon the notion that the writer of Genesis 1 is painting a vision of the universe that is commensurate with a scientific model of creation. The knowledge of the cosmos that would enable such parallels was not in existence at the time. The knowledge and understanding of people in the ancient Near East are the conceptual bricks and mortar for the descriptions found in the Bible.” [5]
After covering the flood, noting again the similarities and differences between the Genesis flood and Mesopotamian flood accounts, touching on how the Flood narrative, in relating how waters from above and below flooded the earth in a reversal of the creation narrative of separating waters above and below - a reference again to the premodern cosmology of the Bible - Grabbe touches on the phrase “after its kind” which is used by many creationists as the basis for a creationist theory of taxonomy in which animals can vary “within kinds” but not vary past that limit. The evidence for large-scale evolutionary change in the fossil record of course completely invalidates creationist taxonomy, but there are good theological arguments against creationist taxonomy. [6] The argument as Grabbe shows fails at the first hurdle when we see how the creationist interpretation of kind fails when attempting to apply it to the Bible.
“While many of us would think of a falcon kind as one that encompassed both eagles and hawks, Leviticus 11:21 seems to make them separate. We would also tend to lump crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts together. Yet Leviticus 11:21–22 seems to make them different kinds. Similarly, Genesis 8:6–12 indicates that a raven kind and a dove kind were in the ark. In these cases, “kind” is hardly a scientific category that groups related animals at the level of family. Rather, it seems to function as only a vague and indeterminate expression for sort or variety. These texts do not offer a clear scientific classification of larger animal groupings.” [7]
Having covered the Biblical and ANE issues in Part 1, Grabbe addresses the modern socioculturtal issues.He begins by looking at the increasing trend towards secularisation in the US, along with the rise of what he calls ‘militant atheism’. In passing, he reveals a lack of sympathy with the more outspoken areas of atheism. His criticism of Dawkins is anything but subtle:
“What is grating about Dawkins is not his atheism: he is welcome to believe—or not believe—what he wishes. One big problem is his stance that all should be rational when it is clear that his hatred of religion is in part irrational.

“He believes earnestly, one might say religiously, that science will ultimately provide all the answers about who we are and where we came from. This belief is simply not shared by many scientists (or philosophers, for that matter). Most scientists recognize the limits of science to explain reality.” [8]
Having criticised what he refers to as ‘militant atheism’, he turns to the broader question of the so-called “science versus religion” conflict. While noting that a survey of the members of the elite US National Academy of Sciences showed only 7% professed a belief in God, he notes that in the broader scientific community, belief in a deity is much higher. He also notes the conciliatory view between science and religion from major figures (living and dead) such as the palaeontologists George Gaylord Simpson, Stephen Gould, and NIles Eldredge, the latter of whom he cites:
“I was not surprised by their results. I myself may not affect such belief, but I know a number of colleagues who do. The number of religious scientists grows, of course, when one expands belief to a less proactive conception of a Christian God, or, of course, acknowledges that other religions—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on—are, well, actual religions, equally valid per se as the narrow-minded version of Christianity espoused by many, if not all, creationists.” [9]
Grabbe concludes by noting that it is possible to be a person of faith while accepting the fact of evolution. This would hardly surprise anyone who works in the sciences (or related professions such as medicine and engineering) but for the lay Christian whose view of the debate is informed by the extremes of YEC and “New Atheist”, it is one that needs stressing. The almost symbiotic relationship between these two extremes is one that Grabbe perceptively notes:
“For Dawkins, there is no doubt that this is impossible. Indeed, for one who is a scientist, he is remarkably dogmatic about this! The fact is that Dawkins’s approach puts him in a rather ironic position. By stating that acceptance of the science of evolution requires one to be an atheist, he is, in fact, holding a point of view of one of his intellectual foes. Some creationists would argue the very same thing.” [10]
After taking a chapter to quote from a representative list of believing scientists from the life and earth sciences who accept evolution, Grabbe covers exegetical, source and text-critical issues in order to provide the reader with the reasons why the majority of biblical scholars and believing scientists accept evolution. That’s a subject which deserves a book in its own right, so while Grabbe certainly covers the salient points, a reader coming to this subject for the first time will no doubt still have questions. Grabbe does appear quite sensitive to these concerns as evidenced by the irenic, non-threatening tone he takes:
“The Bible consists of human literature. It was written, copied, translated, and transmitted by human beings. This is not a denial of divine inspiration, but it means that the Bible did not fall from heaven in 1611 in a hermetically sealed package, printed by the finger of God, complete with red lettering, gold edging, leather covers, and silk marker ribbons. In whatever way God was behind the producers of the Bible—however the originators were inspired—it was still made by human beings, in their language and according to conventions of their literature, with all their limitations of knowledge and expression.” [11]
In the last part of his book, Grabbe moves to palaeoanthropology and the question of Adam and human ancestry. He begins with a summary of what modern science has discovered about our ancestry. His conclusion is entirely uncontroversial, “Although much remains to be learned, there seems to be no doubt that modern humans evolved from earlier primates over millions of years.” [12] Having covered the scientific angle, he then moves to the question of how to integrate the Biblical Adam with the fact of human evolution. Unsurprisingly, given the doctrine of Original Sin, particularly as taught in Reformed. and to a lesser extent Catholic faith traditions, this is where the evolution-creation debate is at its most fierce. If your theological worldview demands universal human descent from two people to genetically inherit the consequences of Adam’s sin, then what modern sciences has found about human origins completely pulls the rug out from that theological worldview.

Grabbe argues for a non-literal Adam, seeing them as “characters in a theological narrative”, [13] but acknowledges there are other models [14] which advocate a literal Adam and Eve and while declaring that he find these models problematic asserts that ultimately both views are substantively in harmony on the fundamentals:
"Those who believe Adam and Eve existed but were not the first or only humans have ultimately given a symbolic interpretation to the Genesis stories and have made the theological archetypical meanings the prime concern. Affirming that Adam and Eve were actual persons does not (in my view and the view of many others) change the emphasis or the ultimate significance of the biblical message. We are mortal and sinful individuals not because of two human beings in the distant past but because of who we are and the nature with which we were born. That nature was not put there by anything Adam did but because it is part and parcel of being human.” [15]
Grabbe’s short volume is not without its shortcomings, with the main problem being that his chapter on exegetical, source and text-critical issues germane to why mainstream scholars do not take a literal approach to Genesis being too short for a first-time reader. That caveat aside, Grabbe manages to cover both scientific and biblical sides of the debate adroitly.


1. Grabbe, Lester L. Faith and Fossils: The Bible, Creation, and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018, p 7
2. ibid, p 11
3. ibid, p 16
4. KTU–39;
5. Grabbe, op cit pp 23-24
6. “Thus the phrase in which mîn appears in Genesis 1 emphasizes the great variety of kinds of plants and animals. It does not assert that each plant and animal reproduced exactly as what preceded it. It says nothing about that point. Instead, the biblical text emphasizes the diversity of life – plants and animals – with which God filled the sky, the sea, and the dry land he had created. Consistent with the basic message of Genesis 1, the emphasis rests upon God’s creation of life in all its abundance and diversity. In this context, the Hebrew term mîn carries a sense of all types of divisions between plants and animals, not necessarily in the taxonomies of modern scientific divisions but certainly in those distinctions that were meaningful to ancient Israel, movement within their domain of sky, sea, and land, and clean and unclean.” Richard Hess “The Meaning of mîn in the Hebrew Old Testament” BioLogos July 21 2012
7. ibid, p 46
8. ibid, p 72
9. Eldredge, N The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism p 169. Cited by Grabbe op cit, p 75
10. Grabbe, op cit, p 78
11. Ibid, p 110
12. ibid, p 127
13. ibid, p 144
14.  One of the more intriguing models is that espoused by the medical doctor and clinical scientist S. Joshua Swamidass who argues for a literal Adan as a genealogical ancestor of humanity, while accepting mainstream evolutionary biology.
15. op cit, p 145