Friday, December 19, 2008

Biological Semblance

Without question, science has made some blundering errors due to inappropriate assumptions, erroneous interpretation of results, and inadequate tools. However scientific knowledge has evolved, and continues to evolve, ever revealing better functioning models and more accurate depictions of the truth.

Just like scientific knowledge, Biblical knowledge has evolved too. Like the constant laws of the universe, the Bible's text is constant (at least at this time). It is only man's interpretation that is changing and evolving.

However, unlike science, new interpretation of the Bible never seems to reveal any new, practical universal concept. Instead, we find that science leads the way, like in disproving a geocentric solar system, while Bible scholars lag behind until a new interpretation can be found which reconciles itself with the scientific truth.

Points in the Bible that can't be reconciled by semantics are quite often dismissed as being poetic metaphors or hyperbole, or in other cases they are said to be miracles. In this post, we examine one of these irreconcilable differences.

In a previous post, we studied Jacob's polygamist marriage to two of his cousins at his uncle Laban's estate. After that, a tale of bawdry involving Jacob, his two wives, their maidservants, and some mandrakes, yields Jacob a large family to support. Jacob is then anxious to leave his uncle Laban's estate and begin to establish his own household, but Laban doesn't want Jacob to leave just yet...

Biological Semblance
In Genesis 30:25-43, Laban pleads with Jacob to stay at his estate, because Laban has discovered by divination that he is being blessed by Jacob's presence. Jacob decides to stay for awhile, building his wealth in a manner that would make Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics, turn over in his grave.

As pay for tending the flocks, Laban agrees that Jacob will now own “every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat”, both those in his flock now and those that will be born in the future. In that way, Jacob's “honesty will testify” for him, because his own flock will be easily identified.

Well, Jacob's honesty isn't worth much, as he sets out to actively change the odds of producing a motley flock. How? I'll let the Bible explain in Genesis 30:37-39:
Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. NIV
In other words, what parents see at the time of conception directly influences the genetics of the offspring. Clearly this is what Jacob believed. This is a prime example of where the Bible portrays the cultural beliefs at the time as a truth, as opposed to the actual truth.

To be fair, Jacob does sort of get some concepts of genetics correct a little bit later down, with regard to creating strong progeny in Genesis 30:41-42:
Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. NIV
At best, this represents only a primitive understanding of genetics. It suggests that certain traits are inherent from the parents physique, while other traits are relative to the environment at the time of conception. This is about the limit of what man could discern at that time due to a lack of scientific methodology. It would have been obvious that strong animals tend to have strong offspring, but what exactly controls the finer traits, such as fur color, would have remained elusive largely due to the presence of recessive genes that appear only when homogeneously paired, or produce some blended result or become completely obscured when they are heterogeneously paired. Thus, factors of superstition, such as influence based on what parents saw during copulation, would have been suspected as having influence over those fine traits.

The only possible recourse for the modern believer is to say that Jacob's motley flocks were produced from the divine hand of God, not by Jacob's actions. There is no explicit reference to God's involvement to support this belief. God neither explicitly provided instructions for Jacob to increase his pay disproportionately nor explicitly involved Himself in the production of the offspring at this point in the story.

However, when you continue the story into Genesis 31:1-21, God does stick His hand into the motley flock equation. Then does this explain everything? Not exactly. In Genesis 31:6-7, Jacob says:
"You know that I've worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, 'The speckled ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, 'The streaked ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks bore streaked young." NIV
On the surface, we see God's hand in all of this. But remember that according to Genesis 30:43, Jacob seems to have gotten rich by his own efforts. We can deduce that Laban was angered and/or frustrated by Jacob's ever-growing wealth compared to his own ever-dwindling wealth, and that provided the impetus to change Jacob's wages. Prior to the change in wages, it seems God was not involved. God stepped in when the wages changed. This becomes evident when we study a divine dream that Jacob had, relayed in Genesis 31:10-13. God reveals the timing of His actions in Genesis 31:12:
"And [God] said, 'Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you.'" NIV
God got involved because of all that Laban was doing to Jacob. This reads with a negative connotation referring to how Laban has been changing Jacob's wages. After all, this is the only mentioned specific gripe that Jacob had against Laban. Indeed, it would seem that Jacob would need divine help to match the prescribed changing wages. The account in Genesis 30:37-39 suggests that Jacob could only make streaked or speckled or spotted offspring, but could not particularly make only streaked, or only speckled, or only spotted offspring. That would require God's help, and that's where we see God step in.

In summary, I believe that this story, with particular emphasis on Chapter 30, has fossilized an ancient misconception of how genetics worked. And with that nugget of bad scientific knowledge encapsulated in a body of text that claims to be the Truth, one must wonder if the Bible really does contain the Truth.

In fairness, it is possible that all of the motley offspring may have come about due to God's divine hand, despite a lack of explicit text, due to an implicit execution of God's promised blessing of Jacob back at Bethel in Genesis 28:10-22. However, note that God Himself does not provide that reason when He appears in Jacob's dream.

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