Linguistics, Genesis, and evolution—Part 1
Most popular presentations of or claims about evolution, including those by many scientists, discuss evolution using personified language, (things are given human qualities) e.g. Science says, ‘ … and so the osprey developed double-purpose talons’, or ‘ … Isn’t it truly amazing how man broke away from his crouching ancestor … .’ and so on. Some mysterious force inside each organism is often presented as being at work, yet at the same time everything is stated to happen on a chance or fatalistic basis. Such a thought pattern is what sociologists call animistic.
But it is not only the scientists who make claims. The Bible also contains claims dating back thousands of years. Once again, the language is quite personal. But this time it refers to an actual person, not some blind force, or the organism that undergoes changes. What’s more, this person, God, talks things into being. This, of course, is just as hard to believe as the fatalistic view called evolution, and even more so if you’ve been brainwashed against it, for much of the problem isn’t scientific at all! Surprisingly, part of the problem lies with linguistics—the study of human speech. It is with one point from linguistics that I will commence this series of articles.
One of the first linguistic problems we find in Genesis 1 is the question of what is meant by the ‘days’ of creation. Are we to understand ‘days’ as literal days, or as poetic or metaphorical epochs? The best way to decide is to find out whether Genesis 1 is poetry, and therefore symbolic, or just narrative, and therefore factual history.
Contrary to what many people think it’s not impossible to know. Genesis chapter 1 was written in the Hebrew language which is consistent in using one structure for narrative and quite a different one for poetry. Linguists divide the world’s languages into groups according to the structure they use for their normal matter-of-fact statements, as opposed to questions, literary devices and so on. All languages have sentences, and so far no language has been discovered which doesn’t have them. Sentences have in them bits we call subjects (S), verbs (V) and objects (O). Not all sentences have all three, but they occur in all languages.
Languages differ in the order in which these parts appear in basic sentences. English is called an SVO language, Hebrew is VSO, and Japanese is SOV. Let’s take a sentence like: ‘Our cat caught a mouse’. Ignoring the fact that this would be an extremely rare miracle for our cat, the sentence would appear in the three languages roughly as follows:
English-our cat (S) caught (V) a mouse (O)
Hebrew-caught (V) our cat (S) (a) mouse (O)
Japanese-our cat (S) (a) mouse (O) caught (V)
You can work out for yourself that ‘our cat’ is subject, etc., and see why we call Hebrew a VSO language. To find out which is which you say ‘What was it (subject) did what (verb) to what (object)?’
But English doesn’t always put things in that order. If I rephrase my sentence as a question, we have roughly VSVO: ‘Did our cat catch a mouse?’ In stylish writing, and poetry, and all those fancy things they do in literature, languages often change order. Hebrew poets, like David in the Psalms, used an SVO structure like English. In general then, if the Hebrew goes VSO it will be narrative, but if it is SVO it will be poetic. How does Genesis 1:1 go?
At-start created God the heavens and the earth
verb(V) subject(S) object(O)
This is standard VSO, so it is narrative, not poetry. The same pattern goes all the way through Genesis 1 telling of the things that were created on each day. So we are dealing with narrative, or better still, history, because if the Hebrew writer was just telling a tale he’d make it stylish and use a lot of other devices. But he doesn’t. As a linguist, I understand that this claims to be history. This means that the words in the passage have literal meaning unless such meanings can in no way be fitted into the text. So I take the Hebrew word ‘Yom’ or ‘day’ to mean what everybody first thinks when someone says ‘day’ to them.
Another point which is often ignored, is that by far the most frequent translation of Yom (the word in Hebrew which means ‘day’), is ‘day’. And its meaning is predominantly an ‘earth-day’. I say ‘earth-day’ because I do not want to say a ‘24 hour day’. I say ‘earth-day’ because I mean the time it took the earth to rotate just once. The possibility exists that the flood of Noah upset the rotation of the earth, and that our present 24 hour day isn’t exactly the same length as the day Adam had. But what it does not mean is some vast period of time like a geological age.
At this point, two questions may be asked:
- Is the Hebrew word Yom or day, ever used symbolically? and
- Is it easy to tell when Yom is being used symbolically?
The answer to both questions is ‘Yes!’
A very important point that most people overlook when it comes to word use, is that it is impossible to use a word as a symbol or figuratively unless it already has a literal meaning. The word ‘day’ cannot, in Hebrew or English, be used in the abstract or symbolic sense unless it already has a clearly understood literal meaning. Let me illustrate by the interesting way the Hebrew writers of Genesis chapter 2 and Numbers chapter 7 use the word Yom or day.
Genesis 2:4–5—‘in the day that God created the heavens and the earth and every plant of the field before it was in the earth.’
Numbers 7:10—‘in the day the altar was anointed, the princes offered up their offering.’
The Hebrew writer for the book of Numbers clearly spells out in the rest of chapter 7 that it took 12 literal days for the princes to offer up their offerings. He is, in the one chapter, quite content to lump the twelve days together and call them ‘Yom’ or ‘day’, meaning period or group of days that had something in common, as well as specify what happened on each separate day or ‘Yom’ in that group.
Similarly, in Genesis 2, the group of 6 literal days which have creation in common is referred to by ‘Yom’, ‘the day that God created’.
The style of Genesis 1 convinces any ordinary English reader and even the trained linguist that Genesis 1 is describing matter-of-factly the miraculous word of God in creation, so different in style from other more recent creation myths.