Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jacob and Genetics

For Christians who think Genesis' creation story is other than myth, science poses a great threat. But rather than arguing that they are taking the Bible too seriously, I'm going to take the opposite approach. If creationists really want to stand up for the Bible, they need to be less selective in the sciences that they deny. We should have a controversy over genetics, too.

Genesis 30:25-43 is the story of the negotiations over Jacob's wages. Laban had little when Jacob began to live with him, but now he's rich. They both recognize the role played by Jacob in producing the wealth, but Laban's wealth is still his to give.

Laban: If now it pleases you, stay with me; I have divined that the LORD has blessed me on your account. Name me your wages, and I will give it.

Jacob: You shall not give me anything. If you will do this one thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flock: let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted sheep and every black one among the lambs and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and such shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come concerning my wages. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, will be considered stolen.

(Don't let the precision of the NASB distract from the humor. This is the feigned courtesy of two guys who are trying to swindle each other.)

Next Jacob separates the flocks with the white ones in Laban's flock, and the rest in his flock. But Jacob is still working for Laban and hence has the ability to bolster his own flock without actually breaking any rules. What he does is show the white sheep striped rods while they are mating. Sure enough, the sheep who were shown stripes give birth to striped lambs, and Jacob claims them. Also, he wasn't content to just get random sheep; he wanted the best.

Genesis 30:41-42 “Moreover, whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the gutters, so that they might mate by the rods; but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban's and the stronger Jacob's.”

And so Jacob the deceiver wins this round due to his brilliant scheme.

However, what is to be made of this story due to genetic theory? To apply creationist reasoning to it, we can't rely on the conclusions of geneticists because they are atheistic scientists who assume that God doesn't create new genes. (Also, it's called genetic theory. That's means scientists don't really know if it's true or not.) Every time you see a genetics chart of the alleles of the parents and the potential offspring, think to yourself “naturalistic presuppositions.”

For whatever reason, here Christians are willing to bend the clear meaning of the Bible so that it can be consistent with reality. So how can the striped offspring be explained? You guessed it, Goddidit.

But look back at the story. Where are we told that God intervened to make the plan work? Jacob conned Esau into giving away his birthright without a miracle – Esau was exhausted and a fool. Jacob conned Issac out of Esau's blessing without a miracle – Rebekah helped him, he used goat skins to fake hairiness(!), he wore Esau's clothes to smell right, and mostly he took advantage of Issac's poor eyesight and senility. Laban conned Jacob into sleeping with Leah the night Jacob thought he was marrying Rachel, although the Bible's a bit short on details regarding the logistics of how this one was pulled off. Just like all the other tricks, Jacob's plan via striped rods worked. Jacob was crafty, and “so the feebler were Laban's and the stronger Jacob's.” The Bible doesn't attribute the result directly to God, but to Jacob.

Now, when it comes to believing in miracles, there's believing because you saw, believing because of hard evidence, believing because you know someone who saw, etc. Toward the bottom of the scale of good reasons to believe in a miracle is just because some ancient document says so. Now this miracle – this is several steps below that. This is claiming a miracle happened when the Bible doesn't even suggest that one happened. It's believing in a miracle just to fill in a plot hole in a story ancient people told each other, a plot hole that would have been a perfectly logical mistake for pre-scientific writer.

And yet people still believe Genesis is a reliable source of scientific knowledge. Despite being shown that the story doesn't make any sense without suspending your knowledge of how reality works. It reminds me of a country song:

That's My Story – Colin Raye

I came in as the sun came up.
She glared at me over her coffee cup.
She said, "Where you been?"
So I thought real hard and said,
"I fell asleep in that hammock in the yard."
She said, "You don't know it boy, but you just blew it."
And I said, "Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it."

"That's my story.
Oh, that's my story.
Well, I ain't got a witness, and I can't prove it,
but that's my story and I'm stickin' to it."

I got that deer-in-the-headlight look.
She read my face like the cover of a book
and said, "Don't expect me to believe all that static,
'cause just last week I threw that hammock in the attic."
My skin got so thin so you could see right through it,
and I stuttered, "Well that's my story and I'm stickin' t-t-to it."


  1. Only tangentially related, but you should check out the book "The Red Tent." It's about the pagan women who were married to Jacob. Fiction book, but utterly fascinating portrayal of that time and story of the Bible.

  2. "Jacob was crafty, and “so the feebler were Laban's and the stronger Jacob's.” The Bible doesn't attribute the result directly to God, but to Jacob."

    Genesis Chapter 31:4 - 12

    I read somewhere that the branch idea was just a local superstition. However, in the above verses Jacob gives the credit to God.

  3. There are two different authors that contributed to Genesis 30:25-31:16. In Genesis 31:1-5, two completely different reasons are given for Jacob leaving – Laban's sons wanted him gone and Yahweh told him to leave. 31:3 is completely out of place; it's just thrown in the middle of a paragraph about Jacob sensing and responding to hostility.

    30:25-43 is the first story of how Jacob earned the striped and speckled, and except for the misfit 31:3, 31:1-16 is the second story of how Jacob earned the striped and speckled.

    In 30:27 and 30:30, Yahweh has blessed Jacob. But in 31:9, 11, 13, and 16, Elohim is the deity who blesses Jacob with the striped and speckled (expect for the misfit verse 3 – that's Yahweh.)

    In the first version, it's Jacob's idea to take the striped and speckled. But in the second version, the context of “the speckled shall be your wages” is Laban cheating Jacob by changing his wages – this implies that giving Jacob the striped and speckled was Laban's idea.

    In the first version, next we hear about Jacob's plan, it's execution, and how successful it was. But in the second version, Jacob the deceiver doesn't do anything. Laban just tells Jacob he gets the speckled and it works out for no apparent reason until Elohim shows up to take credit for it.

    And finally, 31:20 is a surprising verse: “Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing.” Why does Jacob have to sneak away? And how is that being deceitful? It's been planned since 30:25. But if they are two different stories merged together, then in the original version this departure hadn't been planned.

    (Btw – I don't know enough to actually defend a conclusion this precise, but according to a JEPD source theory, the Yahweh author of the flood and here is J, the Elohim author of chapter 31 is E, and the Elohim author of the flood is P.)

    >I read somewhere that the branch idea was just a local superstition. However, in the above verses Jacob gives the credit to God.

    Yes! The people in the Bible are superstitious! So why believe them when they say they saw a ladder going up to heaven? Do not the superstitions of any other people group cause us to doubt the existence of the spirits they believe in and the reliability of their visions?

    Phrased only slightly differently, the Bible paints a world where God is why superstitions work.

  4. I hope you don't mind that I am commenting on these...I just find what people think/believe interesting.

    In response to what you said...I need some clarification. (I probably should go read some of your old posts too) Are you saying that there is significance in the two author theory because the two authors are contradiciting eachother? Hence, that would make the Bible refutable because there isn't really a clear message?

    If that is your main argument we would mainly have to agree to disagree. Mainly because I think we view the Bible in two completely different ways.

    Answer me this: what do you feel the purpose of the Bible (and it's stories/characters) is? I think that has a lot to do with why you consider these details to be something bigger and I only see them as a small part of something bigger. I don't know if that makes sense..ha

  5. I welcome all comments on either old or new posts. With a few of the old posts (Matthew and the OT in particular) I would have worded things a lot differently if I wrote it today, but I still agree with the basic premise.

    My blog is contra-evangelical rather than contra-Christianity in general. (And like evangelicals, I often confuse the two.) So when something is obviously a problem for evangelicals, I rarely discuss how it is or isn't a problem for everyone else. I don't know enough about other approaches to engage them effectively. The one problem this gives everyone is that this means Moses didn't write the Law (or at least not all) and yet Jesus thought he did.

    >What do you feel the purpose of the Bible is?

    It depends. The intent of the first author, the intent of the second author, and the intent of the redactor in principle could all be different. An intent of the redactor was to harmonize the two versions. But if we are trying to understand each of the two versions, we shouldn't seek to harmonize the two accounts but rather recognize that the differences between the two versions are real differences.

    Most of the narratives in the Bible are historiography. So the little details in the story were likely not even intended to correspond with historical facts. On some level, it's unfair to criticize Genesis for having two contradictory versions of so many stories – it wasn't meant to be that precise. But on the other hand, as long as tens of millions of Americans believe it to be inerrant (and vote accordingly), arguing that it isn't inerrant is important.

    As far as how this influences faith, I don't take sides – I let Christians figure out what's left to believe and then see if they can defend their claims.

    >I think that has a lot to do with why you consider these details to be something bigger and I only see them as a small part of something bigger.

    That absolutely makes sense. You're getting me ahead of myself, but I'll go there. The Documentary Hypothesis is the forest – so far, I've only argued for two trees. With a more complete view, political rhetoric and religious rivalries can be found brewing between the authors.

    In P, God is a cosmic terror that no one can see (this is rather like the modern Christian God, except P is more justice and less love.) In J and E, Moses speaks to God face-to-face, God can be heard walking in the garden, God wrestles with Jacob, God is sorry he made man, and has many other exceedingly human characteristics.

    You can see political/religious rivalries between different groups of priests. Aaronid priests wrote a version of the Exodus where Moses uses Aaron's staff in 7:10, 7:19, 8:5 etc. But in the other version, it is Moses' staff that does the dirty work: 9:23, 10:13.

    For political speech, one interesting place is Exodus 1:11. You can't see it in English, but the word for taskmasters is not the usual word, but the term used for Solomon's policy of forced labor. What the writer of Exodus 1:11 is doing is rhetorically connecting Solomon's economic policy with their Egyptian slave masters.

    With these things in mind, it does make sense to make a big deal out of small differences, because they are probably intentional. Literally speaking, “religious right” and “conservative” aren't very different, but it is one way of figuring out if the paragraph you are reading comes from Rush or the Huffington Post. And sometimes the Bible's authors do disagree this sharply.

  6. It is really hard to write this without being biased…in fact it’s impossible

    I guess my point about asking about the Bible is that, in my opinion, the things you are talking about don’t take away from the central message of the Bible which is Christ.

    However, with that being said, I totally understand how one can think that these things take away from the message! Here we have millions of people around the world who believe in Christianity very strongly and yet do not for a moment consider where all of these stories originate or even the legitimacy of their authors. It’s very frustrating for an evangelical Christian to come your way and tell you to believe something such as…Noah’s ark. “Well why should I believe that?” and their answer would be, “the Bible”. But, as you have noted, there are many instances within the text that lead a person to believe there are flaws.

    But when I read the supposed flaws and contradictions I see them as trivial. And either way isn’t there also a possibility that the Bible is in fact true?

    I think there is!

    “On some level, it's unfair to criticize Genesis for having two contradictory versions of so many stories – it wasn't meant to be that precise. But on the other hand, as long as tens of millions of Americans believe it to be inerrant (and vote accordingly), arguing that it isn't inerrant is important”

    I cannot say that every single account in the Bible is recorded correctly…I just simply do not have that knowledge. I admit that. I also believe that things may have gotten “lost in translation”. I still have not seen how these things are contradictory…ravens and doves? Who is to say Noah didn’t send both and the redactor didn’t want to be repetitive. Is there really a huge difference between a raven and a dove? They are both homing birds. The verses you put up from Exodus, I don’t see a baffling contradiction. “Tell Aaron to raise his staff” Vs. “Moses raised his staff” Couldn’t they both have had staffs? Or perhaps when it said Moses raised his staff it meant the staff in his possession. These sorts of things do not discredit the Bible’s message to me because anything can be read two different ways.

    Getting back to why I asked about your view of the Bible is because I think that our perspectives and personal experiences largely influence the way we view this issue. Before I became a Christian about 6 years ago I didn’t believe in God. I also am the kind of person who wants to know exactly why I believe what I believe. I suppose that was the aspect of myself that kept me from God. The truth of the matter?? I don’t think you can prove God, or discover him soley with logic. This is what I meant before when I was talking about parts of the bigger picture. It wasn’t until after I trusted God to be true that the other things fell into place. I had millions of questions and found legitimate answers to all of them. Christianity sounds like idiocy to someone from the outside. I know that from experience. I want to know more about how you feel Christianity fails the “insider test”. Because, just as a thought, I think that if it does in fact fail the insider test, the person doing the testing perhaps doesn’t truly know God. That is not an accusation.

    Thanks for listening to my ramblings :)

  7. Bible contradictions aren't just about refuting inerrancy, or the idea that the Bible has no coherent message. They are clues for figuring out where the Bible came from.

    For instance, with the word for taskmasters, there isn't really contradiction to resolve. The point is that it is evidence that one of the authors of Exodus lived at the time of Solomon (or shortly after) and opposed his leadership. Similarly, if my blog becomes an archaeological find in 2500, my use of the phrase “above all our pay grades” in reference to determining when human life starts would be evidence that I lived at the time of Obama and supported his leadership.

    The discrepancies themselves could have insignificant implications to your faith while at the same time being useful clues for discovering multiple authors. It is true that people cannot think without bias, but don't use to this to create a false equivalence between two positions with vastly different amounts of evidence supporting them. Sometimes two ways of looking at something cannot be distinguished from each other. Other times, the two ways are eyes opened and eyes closed.

    (With Moses/Aaron's staff, don't think that I think that I've made a good argument – you asked for why I care about these things. If this one is true, it means many of the details in the Bible are political propaganda. I didn't take the time to carefully set up an argument that this one actually is true.)

    One of two problems must be faced head on: either Jesus had an incorrect view of the Bible, or you have to deal with all the subtle problems as more than arguments for a contradiction but as evidence for multiple authors. If you're willing to conclude that Moses didn't write the Law, only then you can start deciding if the contradictions themselves can be brushed aside as trivial.

    >It wasn’t until after I trusted God to be true that the other things fell into place.

    Nichiren Buddhists gave me the same line when I went to one of their meetings last fall. They told me the way to a life of peace was through chanting nom-myo-ho-reng-yay-kyo over and over again. One guy gave his testimony about how chanting turned his life around. I don't disbelieve that his life now is much, much better, and that this change started around the time he started chanting. I, of course, asked the obvious question about why in the heck I should think chanting does anything at all. A highly intelligent grad student looked me in the eye and admitted it doesn't make a lot of sense at first. But once you've done it for a while, you really start seeing how it works. I don't doubt that it makes sense once you've done it for a while. But I didn't come back. It seemed too much like Christianity.

    You mentioned that people don't always think logically. And I agree. Whichever one position is right, one thing that is very clear is that lots of highly intelligent people have managed to construction hundreds of coherent positions through which they see the world. This seems to support agnosticism first, atheism (or uncertain religion) second, and truth-based religions like Christianity last.

    Except, what makes more sense of the somewhat arbitrariness of how we can view the world? Cosmic design, or impersonal forces? Maybe making sense of the world is like watching a die roll and trying to understand what makes it sometimes come up "3." Atheism is the position that no understands what makes the die come up "3." All we can do is talk about "probability" and pretend we know what we mean.

    >Because, just as a thought, I think that if it does in fact fail the insider test, the person doing the testing perhaps doesn’t truly know God.

    I could just as implausibly claim that people who truly disbelieve in God don't start believing in God. And if it looks like you did, that means you never truly disbelieved.

    (Although strictly speaking, while I did truly believe, I do agree that I never knew God...)

  8. hmmm you raised lots of good points. I think what you said makes a lot of sense. I like what you said about "not truly disbelieving"...there is probably some merit to that. I can see you have thought a great deal about this haha. However, I do find those details to be trivial...I guess you really can't understand why a person believes what they do until you walk a mile in their shoes.

  9. Most people miss the point of scripture must understand Hebrew and the depth of meanings of each word as far back as the Paleo Hebrew meanings of each letter as building blocks for word meanings. You must pay attention to what type of tree each rod is made from and the medicinal and other characteristics of each kind of must understand the genetics of shepherds...Jacob was only called a deceiver by Esau. Jacob means 'hand on heal' not deceiver. Your hand would be on Esau's heel too if he was trying to stomp your head in the birth canal! JEPD is not important to me...I use YHWH, Elohim, Adonai, etc. interchangeably for different reasons personally. You must consider that the writers/editors were writing in a Hebraic Eastern way which includes chiastic structures which must be preserved and these structured stories must be stacked together///overlayed to understand their prophetic implications...e.g. all the stories that a man told his wife 'say you are my sister'...all the stories where a boy was to die and ultimately lives whether he actually dies and was resuscitated or was just supposed to die and miraculously a ram appeared... these stories are to be overlayed and analyzed as units. The purpose of scripture is not Christ...but the echad/unity achieved by way of Messiah's laying down his life and resurrecting personally and later resurrecting his bride and the unity which is brought about in the wedding feast of the Lamb. Bone of my bone (tree/cross of my tree/cross, flesh /Gospel of my flesh/Gospel...the two become one flesh/Gospel...the dry bones live and put on flesh...the two sticks Ephraim (with companions) and Judah (with companions) become one...John 10 purpose of Messiah's ministry is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel...John 17 garden prayer 'that they become one/echad as I and the Father are one/echad...per the Shema in Deut 6 'Hear O Israel YHWH is Elohim/God, YHWH is echad/one/unity'.

  10. Nearly the only clear claim that you made is false:

    "Jacob was only called a deceiver by Esau."

    Genesis 27:12 "Perhaps my father will feel me, then I will be as a deceiver in his sight, and I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing." Here, Jacob calls himself a deceiver.

    Genesis 31:20 "And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing." Here, the narrator calls him a deceiver.

    Genesis 31:27: "Why did you flee secretly and deceive me..." Here, Laban calls Jacob a deceiver.