The bible’s not a biology textbook!

by K.W. Leslie, 07 November

Leviticus 11.13-19 • Deuteronomy 14.11-18 • Jonah 1.17 • Matthew 12.40

During a talk with a fellow Christian, we went off on a bit of a tangent.

ME. “…Like when Jonah got swallowed by the whale…”
HE. “Sea creature.”
ME. “Whale. How’re you getting ‘sea creature’ from kítus?
HE. “From what?”
HE.Kítus. The Greek word for ‘whale.’ The word Jesus used when he talked about Jonah being in the whale’s belly three days and nights. Mt 12.40 It’s the word we get our adjective ‘cetacean’ from, which refers to whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other marine mammals.”
HE. [confused; betcha he didn’t expect me to know what I was talking about] “But Jonah said he was swallowed by a great fish.” Jh 1.17
ME. “Sure.”
HE. “Well a whale’s not a fish.”
ME. “Not anymore. It was a fish in Jesus’s day.”
HE. “Whales used to be fish…?”
HE. “Yep. No, they didn’t once have gills then evolve lungs. They used to be fish because the ancients classified them as fish: If it lives in the sea it’s a fish. Then somebody realized some of these fishes have lungs, and decided if you have lungs you’re not a fish, and humanity redefined ‘fish.’ Well, the bible’s still using the old definition. So whales, in the bible, are still big fish.”
HE. [still confused] “But whales aren’t fish.”
ME. “Aren’t fish now. Were fish back in Jesus and Jonah’s day.”
HE. “So are you saying the bible’s wrong, or we are?”
ME. “Neither. The bible doesn’t define fish; it explains God. We define fish. You remember Adam got to name the animals. Ge 2.19-20 We get to decide what’s called a fish and what’s not. And if we update the words, we gotta update our bible translations. Problem is, sometimes we update ’em wrong and make the bible look inconsistent. It’s not. It’s just a quirk of language.”

Turns out his confusion came from the fact his updated bible translation changed the wrong word. It took Jesus’s kítos—which still means “whale” in modern Greek!—and rendered it thisaway:

Matthew 12.40 NIV
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Which isn’t an entirely illegitimate translation. To Jesus’s mind (at the time) a whale was a huge fish. But if we wanna be precise, he said kítus/“whale.” Whenever there appears to be a bible difficulty, the NIV is notorious for changing the text till it’s not so difficult anymore.

Problem is, people aren’t always gonna read an NIV bible. Plenty of people still read the KJV. All those Gideon bibles in the hotel rooms still read “whale’s belly,” and people are still gonna read ’em. And maybe wonder why Jesus thought a marine mammal was a fish. If you don’t know your history, you won’t know why it was totally okay for Jesus to think that.

Bats and birds.

Give you another fun example from the scriptures. In the Law, the LORD spelled out for the Hebrews which animals were ritually clean and which weren’t. Thus they’d know if they ate a ritually unclean one, they couldn’t worship unless they washed and waited till sundown. (Not that they should’ve been eating ritually unclean things anyway.) The LORD gave ’em a few lists, and Moses repeated these lists in Deuteronomy. Here are the birds:

Leviticus 11.13-19 KWL
13 “Of the birds, shun these. Don’t eat them. They’re abominations.
Eagles. Vultures. Black kites. 14 Red kites. Any species of falcon. 15 Any species of raven.
16 Ostriches. Nighthawks. Seagulls. Any species of hawk. 17 Small owls. Cormorants. Eagle owls.
18 Ibises. Pelicans. Carrion vultures. 19 Storks. Any species of heron. Hoopoes. Bats.”
Deuteronomy 14.11-18 KWL
11 “Eat all ritually clean birds. 12 Don’t eat these birds:
Eagles. Vultures. Black kites. 13 Red kites. Any species of falcon. 14 Any species of raven.
15 Ostriches. Nighthawks. Seagulls. Any species of hawk. 16 Small owls. Cormorants. Eagle owls.
17 Ibises. Pelicans. Carrion vultures. 18 Storks. Any species of heron. Hoopoes. Bats.”

Bats? Yep; an atalléf is a bat. But a bat isn’t a bird! Shouldn’t the LORD, of all people, know this?

Again, bats were birds in Moses’s day. Birds were winged creatures, larger than insects so as not to be lumped together with them, and since a bat’s a winged creature too, it was counted as a bird. It was only later that humans decided birds are defined as winged feathered creatures, which leaves out bats. (And now that it turns out dinosaurs had feathers, scientists are likely gonna make a further distinction between pteranodons and birds.) God was using human language, and human definitions, to spell out what not to eat. We’re the ones who changed the categories. As we have every right to do.

Like I said, the NIV likes to hide difficulties, but this is one they weren’t able to hide. God’s list still ends with “and the bat.” Lv 11.19, Dt 14.18 NIV And every bible teacher still has to tell confused kids to relax; the bible’s not a biology textbook. We classify species differently than the ancients did, and if God were giving these lists again today, he’d lump bats with the mammals instead of the birds.

(And yeah, I know many Christians in the present day figure we don’t need to follow these lists anymore, ’cause having the Holy Spirit indwell us means we’re constantly ritually clean. Mostly so they can eat pork, not bats. Me, I don’t think it’s wise to be so dismissive of ritual cleanliness. But that’s a debate for another time.)

Young-earth creationists and biology.

Various Christians, who think they’re taking the bible literally, insist the bible can be used as a biology textbook. That when God created the cosmos, he only did it about 6 millennia ago, and the bible has clues as to how all the animals got here. And it’s not through evolution by natural selection (or at least not through a lot of evolution by natural selection): God created miyn/“kinds” of animals Ge 1.24 which diversified into the different species we have nowadays.

Bluntly, this is pure speculation on their part. And not all that consistent with the bible, I might add. Fr’instance some of ’em claim donkeys and horses are the same “kind” of animal. They’re not just physically similar; they’re genetically similar, which is why you can crossbreed ’em and produce mules. Thing is, in the Law the LORD forbade mules.

Leviticus 19.19 KWL
“Guard my rulings. Don’t make two different seeds of your animals breed.
Don’t sow many different seeds in your fields.
Don’t put clothes made from many different seeds on yourselves.”

Various young-earthers insist this command can’t be about mules, ’cause there were still mules in the bible. Even King David owned a mule, 1Ki 1.33 and he followed the Law, right? No; not always. People have always sucked at sticking to the Law.

I’m not entirely certain why God made this a command. My guess is he didn’t want ranchers experimenting to see what kind of interesting animals they could create by getting their animals to commingle. Put a sheep and horse together and get a woolly horse? Put a cow and goat together and see what kind of milk this weird new creature would make? Not that any of these animals would naturally breed; nor would you even get results. But you can get mules by crossing a horse and donkey, and mules are useful. Still, it’s a bad precedent. (And a little pervy.)

And an indicator young-earth creationists aren’t sticking to the bible as closely as they claim when it comes to their theories of creation. As I went into detail about elsewhere. Their motives are more about being anti-science than pro-bible. In some cases, more about being anti-intellectual than loving their LORD God with all their minds.

The authors of the bible weren’t even trying to teach us science and natural history. They were trying to teach us God and salvation history. The bible’s about who God is, not about how the world works. About how God cures the sin problem, not about other ailments and their treatment (unless of course we turn to God for some supernatural healing). About how to follow him and do good works, not how to interpret nature. About the fact God created everything, not how. How God did it is for us humans to figure out—and if our theories are inconsistent with the bible, it’s nearly always because we’re expecting more of the bible than is its proper, stated purpose. 2Ti 3.16-17

Got that?

Bible difficulties.