Seminary Student Visits the Creation Museum: 27 Million Dollars of Bad Exegesis
The following is an archived version of a highly popular article I originally posted in 2013. In December 2020, I published a full book critiquing the Creation Museum available here.
I just recently got back from Ken Ham's Creation Museum with a couple of other seminary friends. In this post I won’t be clamoring about the “abuse of science” or thundering party lines for either an old or young earth position like other reviews online. I also won't be discussing the length of the days of Genesis. (If you're wondering, I largely side with John Walton's discussion of the seven days in the context of ancient Mesopotamian temple cosmology.) Here we will be doing something much more radical—looking at a couple of Answers in Genesis’ (AiG) claims and examining what sorts of interpretations the original language texts can and cannot sustain. There I go again insisting on all that boring exegetical stuff.
The goal here is to simply ask what range of readings the plain text of the Bible allows in a few cases and whether or not AiG has exceeded that range of legitimate interpretations.
Walking through the museum, I was appalled by the colossal fortune expended on ideas that are obviously deficient in erudition within ancient Near Eastern history and modern Biblical studies. Take a gander at this exhibit of Moses holding the Ten Commandments next to Saruman.
Since this is a history museum, why are the Commandments written in the ashuri block script—a script that wasn't adopted until the 5th century? Why do the Ten Commandments contain diacritical vowel points which weren't invented until the Masoretes operating in the Middle Ages? Why did the creators of this exhibit go through the labors to add such anachronistic elements which are explained in the introductory pages of any Hebrew 101 textbook? Either they didn't care (but why then is so much pain dedicated to detail?), or this is indicative the persons behind it have never had the requisite Biblical training. But if they have never had requisite Biblical training why should we care what they have to say about other elements of Biblical interpretation? Surely, I’m over exaggerating. I know what you’re thinking: “Ben, it’s not like historical issues like vowel points and scribes like the Masorites has significant impact on our theology, right?”
I’m sure the suspense from that rhetorical question is killing you.
Is the Creation Museum based on a mistranslation of the first word of the Bible?
Much fuss has been made over James Ussher's attempt at dating the age of the earth by counting through the Bible's genealogies. Don’t worry, the subject is so hackneyed I’ll spare commenting. A much more interesting (and very rarely asked question) is whether or not we can presume to date the universe with Genesis.
AiG believes the universe ought to be dated at 6,000. Walking through the exhibits, you are ejected from a Nietzschian void--navigate a concrete room of looping grey film of atom bomb explosions, dying children and goring wolves, through a hall depicting a adulterer and a liberal pastor with a sith lord voice (past the demolition ball engraved “millions of years”). You are then taken into a room of looping TV screens and ubiquitous signs emphasizing the first clause of Genesis to justify a six thousand year old universe: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
AiG assumes on the basis of traditional translations which understand Genesis 1.1 as an absolute temporal clause (*yawn,* I know) that the words "the beginning" circumscribe the creation of the universe itself. They take “the beginning” to be the absolute beginning of our universe—of space-time.
So what’s the big deal, and why am I boring you with Hebrew grammar? As a subsection of Robert Holmstedt’s Wisconsin-Madison doctoral dissertation demonstrates, the translation of Genesis 1.1 as an absolute temporal clause is “grammatically indefensible. Period. End of story.” (See Holmstedt’s blog post here.) Modern Semitic grammarians have known this for a long time. You can find it held in the work of scholars like Robert Alter at the University of California, Martin Baasten at the University of Leiden, Mark Smith from NYU, Ellan van Wolde from Radbound and Michael Heiser from Logos. If you are going to argue Genesis 1:1 should be translated “In the beginning” you must supply a vowel point within the first word of the Bible which exists in no Masoretic manuscript on earth and is contradicted by every Masoretic text on earth which includes vowels. (There I go, throwing another tantrum over scribes and their vowel points again!) You must also explain the parallel operation of this same syntactical pattern in other relative clause texts.
The following quote from Holmstedt spells out the implications of the Hebrew grammar:
A young-earth person can say, ‘this is the only and first ראשׁית,’ but such a claim does not proceed directly from the grammar; it interprets the meaning of the text in light of a view brought to the text from some other place. And an old-earth person can say, ‘this relativizes the claims Genesis 1.1-3 makes so that the old-earth and the big-bangity-bang are not disallowed by the text’. Take your pick, but you must do it based on texts or issues outside Gen 1.1-3; the decision cannot be tied directly to the grammar of the passage since the grammar allows for both.
Did you catch that AiG? You cannot cite Genesis 1:1 as a description of the absolute beginning of the universe. (Notice, this critique circumvents and is prior to any discussion of the length of the seven days.) The grammar of the text allows for a pre-existing universe (or even pre-earth conditions), and we cannot know how long that universe may have been around before the proceeding creation events in the chapter. You can’t date the universe with Genesis 1:1. That’s not a claim dictated by someone’s scientific agenda, but by the laws of the Hebrew grammar God’s words are inspired in.
So, how should the first verse of the Bible be translated? You can pursue those additional details with this lecture by Michael S. Heiser (PhD Semitic languages) here. Any lecture by Heiser is like the nerd version of six flags.
There be dragons:
Ken Ham is famous for claiming Leviathan and Behemoth are literal ancient marine reptiles like brontosaurs. This doctrine was taught by all my church youth-ministers and imparted to me through my parents. As you first enter the museum you will be introduced to a dozen exhibits supporting the teaching that dinosaurs and man co-habited; Beowulf, the Lockness monster, Saint John of the Cross, virtually any account of a dragon--modern or ancient--is taken as evidence for cohabitation of dinosaurs and man.
I’ve discussed Leviathan and Behemoth here. In summary, if you are going to say Leviathan is a plesiosaur you must be willing to live with the fact that the Bible’s historical-literary context outright tells us he is a mythological representation of chaos. You must also ignore texts in God’s word like Psalm 74 which explicitly says he has multiple heads (tellingly, AiG mysteriously DLs on the full text of Psalm 74) and Isaiah’s reference to the creature which also only makes sense as a metaphor for chaos in a polemic corresponding to ancient Near Eastern cosmogony. We know exactly what Leviathan is because the ancient sources name him and tell us. (The additional interpretation of Behemoth as a chaos deity follows from the Leviathan passage.)
Also, AiG’s linchpin verse for proving behemoth is a dinosaur, and not a hippo or elephant ('his tail is like a cedar'), might very easily be translated 'his phallus is like a cedar.' That interpretation may not preach well on a Sunday morning, but it is at least as old as the Latin Vulgate.
In the poetic verse structure, “tail” (Hebrew: zanav) is paralleled with the Hebrew word pachad, translated “thighs.” This word “thighs” only appears once in the Bible, but we know its meaning through Aramaic and a cognate Arabic word (Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic are related languages). In Aramaic literature, it refers to the testicles. This is why the KJV translates this word “stones,” and it’s why Jewish scholars like Rashi and Ibn Ezra interpreted it as “testicles.” The Latin Vulgate likewise uses the word testiculorum, and modern Hebrew experts like Stephen Mitchell and Robert Alter have also opted for translations reflecting language of virility.
In a nutshell, Behemoth was a bovine personification of cosmic chaos (the word Behemoth in Hebrew is an intensified form of a common word for cow and he is paired with the known chaos dragon Leviathan), and the reference to his "tail" is a Near Eastern euphemism for virility.
Isaiah’s Fiery Flying Serpent
One example the museum raises that I’ve currently yet to address on this blog is Isaiah’s “fiery flying serpent.” Ham actually thinks this creature is also a possible dinosaur. Following is the quote from the AiG website:
There is also mention of a flying serpent in the Bible: the ‘fiery flying serpent’ (Isaiah 30:6). This could be a reference to one of the pterodactyls, which are popularly thought of as flying dinosaurs, such as the Pteranodon, Rhamphorhynchus, or Ornithocheirus.
Isaiah 30:6 isn’t the only place where Isaiah refers to the “’fiery’ flying serpent.” Read the below “Seraph” entry in the Dictionary of Deities and Demons (written by the famous scholar T. N. D. Mettinger):
If you were reading closely you probably noticed that the Hebrew term used for “serpent” in these Isaiah passages is similar to the term Isaiah uses in the throne room scene of chapter 6 to describe a category of divine beings called seraphim. (Interpreting scripture with scripture, crazy idea, right!) If you’re catching my drift, and you think it’s weird I’m suggesting the “fiery flying serpent” of Ham’s passage is actually a divine being, hold tight. I’ll let you in on a secret:
The seraph divine beings of the Bible are best understood as serpentine beings.
As a noun, the term means “serpent.” Numbers 21:8, which depicts Moses raising up the bronze serpent, is a more explicit example of seraph referring to a snake. Mettinger belabors that as a double meaning the term is generally taken as derivative of the verb meaning “to burn” (notice certain translations of Ham’s Isaiah passage supply the adjective “fiery”). If the suggestion that seraphim are winged serpentine beings (and not the pale blondes of hallmark) still seems crazy to you, consider this other portion of Mettinger’s entry:
The fiery flying serpent Isaiah associates with Egypt is not a pterodactyl. It’s a symbolic divine being represented by voluminous iconographic examples from Egypt and is well attested in Israel. See images of Judean seraphim seals here. That attribution by the Egyptians is entirely explicable within their own standards of symbolism and mythology. No dinosaurs needed. Those who wish for further reading on this will enjoy Karen Joines' article (Samford university) published here in the Journal of Biblical Literature.
Frankly, it’s rather silly to claim Jewish Babylonian exiles (who feared their scriptures were refuted and that God had finally abandoned them for good when Jerusalem fell) should have any reason to care about velociraptors, even if that alluring man in Song of Solomon mysteriously seems to be a description of Jeff Goldblum (been trying to work that Godblum reference in since the first paragraph).
What about all those worldwide dragon legends, Ben? Surely those are evidence of human-dinosaur co-habitation and that Noah loaded T-Rexes on the Ark, right?
In many cases it is certain that ancient people were offering extinct animal fossils as the origin of mythological creatures. We are able to go to the fossil beds and check for ourselves because, in a few cases, the ancients told us exactly where they were. (They named some of them!) This is the mainstream view of modern anthropology. If you were to visit the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Fraizer History Museum here in Louisville, you would find Mayor cited ubiquitously on these issues. It’s an extremely powerful and convincing thesis.
If Creationists want to parade dragon legends as if they are moly herb--reducing conventional scientists to crying hissy fits, it would be comforting to at least know that the Creation Museum posse are even aware of Mayor’s dissertation. A Google search reveals they are not.
I also got a kick out of the realization the museum perpetuates the myth that Voltaire’s mansion was turned into a printing house. You can read a refutation of the myth here. The kicker, the Answers in Genesis website, in an article entitled, “Arguments Creationists Should Avoid” warns against Christians making this claim.
 B. F. Batto, “Behemoth,” in the DDD (Netherlands: Brill, 1999), 166.