A few weeks ago I saw Jurassic World, the latest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise based on the Michael Crichton novel by that name. The novel and the films center around the idea of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction by means of genetic engineering. It’s a fascinating premise, especially since some paleontologists and geneticists are working on real-world procedures for accomplishing the feat. If you want a glimpse of the real science, I recommend the book How to Build a Dinosaur, by paleontologist Jack Horner, the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant, the paleontologist in Jurassic Park.
One of the more interesting background elements in Horner’s book is the story of Dr. Mary Schweitzer, who now teaches at North Carolina State University. When she began her journey into what would become her career, Schweitzer was a substitute teacher and mother of three. She gained Horner’s permission to audit his vertebrate paleontology class at Montana State. The rest is history. Schweitzer got hooked and soon became Horner’s protégé, earning a PhD in biology. She is now world-famous for discovering soft tissue in dinosaur bones that were 68 million years old. Young earth creationists thrilled to the discovery, touting it as incontrovertible proof that the earth is actually only thousands of years old, not millions since (they argue) soft tissue could never have survived that long.
There’s just one problem with this picture. Schweitzer is an evangelical Christian—and doesn’t agree with the young earth use of her research. By her own testimony, she learned that a lot of what she’d heard about her field and scientists in church wasn’t true. But the experience didn’t harm her faith; it made it stronger. Schweitzer is now an old-earth creationist. This is no secret in the paleontological community. Her faith is as well-known as her discovery. Schweitzer is living proof that serious Christians can be serious scientists.
Mary Schweitzer is also living proof that honesty and integrity in letting the Bible be what it is and doing science matter. She isn’t disputing the science behind the age of the bones she works on. She knows her field as well as anyone in the world. She isn’t pretending that we need a young earth to believe in the authority of Scripture. She understands that the Bible is an ancient work inspired by God not to give us science, but to give us truth about things that can’t be put under a microscope, like the spiritual world, our spiritual need, and our spiritual destiny if we believe God’s plan for salvation. Those truths transcend science and aren’t dependent on it. The Bible has a pre-scientific cosmology because God chose writers who lived in a pre-scientific age. He knew that would be no obstacle to communicating what he wanted communicated.
Schweitzer’s testimony is useful for framing another example of how the Bible gets interpreted out of context to address a modern controversy: the teaching that there are dinosaurs in the Bible. The alleged evidence comes in the form of words like Leviathan (לויתן, lwytn; e.g., Psa 104:26; Rahab (רהב, rhb; Isa 51:9); and “sea monster, dragon” (תנין, tnyn; Gen 1:21). This flawed notion isn’t as disastrous as the “Bible teaching” that arose to account for newly discovered races from the 16th century onward that produced “biblical” racism. No one is going to be enslaved or die because people believe it. Its harm is less discernible. It gets filed with other ideas that are falsifiable and, once Christians learn that it isn’t true, their faith in the Bible’s inspiration will be damaged when it doesn’t need to be.
How is this idea falsifiable? Context. As the Lexham Bible Dictionary (LBD) notes:
Leviathan is mentioned by name six times in the Hebrew Bible (Job 3:8; 41:1; Pss 74:14; 104:26; Isa 27:1). Most of these passages assert or allude to Yahweh’s power and control over the sea monster. The mythological background of the deity battling and defeating a sea monster (i.e., the Chaoskampf [“chaos struggle”] motif) is most evident in Psa 74:14 and Isa 27:1. . . . The mythological background of the Bible’s references to Leviathan became apparent with the discovery of Ugaritic references to a sea monster called “Litan” (ltn).
The Baal Cycle from Ugarit offers particularly precise parallels. LBD continues:
The Baal Epic recounts how the storm god Baal displaced El as the chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon. The story involves Baal defeating Yam, the sea god . . . . In this exchange, Mot refers to Baal’s defeat of Litan (or Leviathan), apparently equating Yam and Litan (KTU 1.5, col. i, lines 1–8). . . .
When you killed Litan, the Fleeing Serpent,
Annihilated the Twisty Serpent,
The Potentate with Seven Heads,
The heavens grew hot, they withered.
But let me tear you to pieces,
Let me eat flanks, innards, forearms.
Surely you will descend into Divine Mot’s throat,
Into the gullet of El’s Beloved, the Hero.
The description of Litan in the first lines of this tablet from the Baal Epic use almost the exact words as the description of Leviathan in Isa 27:1.
Readers are invited to consult the LBD entries for “Rahab” and “Dragon and the Sea” for parallels an ancient texts from Ugarit and elsewhere to those biblical terms. The point I’m making here is that Leviathan and other “dinosaurs” are well-known mythological figures from uninspired texts outside the Bible contemporary with the biblical world. Pagan texts have their gods defeating these creatures to show their superiority or assert that their gods brought order over chaos at creation. But the Baal myth isn’t literally true. Baal didn’t really battle a dinosaur and become the god of all gods. These creatures are metaphors for the forces of chaos. Psalms 74:12–14 and 89:9–11 use this same metaphor to argue that it was Yahweh who subdued Leviathan / the sea dragon / Rahab to bring about creation order.[1. Note that Psalm 74:12–17 uses combat creation imagery to also describe God’s victory in the wilderness—i.e., the parting of the Red Sea and the conquest of Pharaoh.] The point of these passages isn’t that God was killing literal dinosaurs to transform the formless and empty world at creation. Rather, it was a polemic strategy to assert that Yahweh—not Baal or any other deity in the ancient world—was the lord of creation and Most High God. Interpreting these terms in their original context means we don’t have to fabricate “biblical meaning” to defend the Bible.
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