Monthly Archives: April 2014

Society and Tradition

America – the United States – is a nation of law. Each American – whether great or small – is equally its subject. Legislation is passed, after careful deliberation, in order to allow our society to function more peacefully and fairly. Law governs our day-to-day life. As much as we hate to admit it, law enforcement officers are our friends. Without them our society would degenerate into chaos.

And unicorns exist. Really!

The idea that laws govern our day-to-day lives is a myth. Most of our interactions with others are based on custom, on tradition. Shared customs are the glue that keep a society together. Traditions – rules that the vast majority know and obey – govern our daily actions. Customs keep society from degenerating into chaos.

Allow me to present an example.

You have, I’m sure, noticed the rectangular white signs that appear at intervals along the roads and highways. The signs have a printed legend, “Speed Limit,” and a number. Each of those signs is a posted law that everyone can see. They leave no room for pleading ignorance. But almost everyone routinely drives faster than the numbers “allow.” It’s a tradition.

Just yesterday I noticed a young lady driving a Ford Explorer. It was obvious to me that she was breaking at least two laws – she was exceeding the posted speed limit and tailgating. Both of that those activities, however, are customary on that particular highway. She was quite sure she was doing nothing worthy of punishment. The driver in front of her seemed to be of the same opinion. He was a deputy Sheriff in a marked police car.

To continue the example from a different point of view: the other day I read a blog post in which the writer claimed that he had found the worst drivers in the country. The reality is something different. Once again, custom trumps law. Traffic laws are pretty uniform throughout the United States – but if you drive from New York to New Orleans you’ll notice tremendous differences in behavior behind the wheel. The laws are the same – but people follow different driving customs in different areas. The more these customs differ from your own, the lower your opinion of the local drivers.

I’m not claiming that legislation has no effect on the way we live. But its primary effect is to change customs by forcing people (through fear) to change their behavior. I might go so far as to say that man-made written laws are, almost always, harmful.

The customs and traditions of a society develop gradually over time. What these customs are, or will become, depends on many factors. Among these are religion, population density, the ways in which people make a living, geography, climate, and the sorts of technologies in use.

As these factors change so will the traditions – but gradually, a little bit at a time. Changes in customs are usually slow and always tentative. After all, the old ways served well – most people will continue to use them. A behavioral innovator might influence his family, friends, and near neighbors but unless the new custom noticably outperforms the old custom it will be quietly forgotten.

Written laws are like new customs – except instantaneous and carved in stone. How often does a legislature repeal a law that it has passed? Like a new custom, the new law will be tried out. If it’s a complete and abject failure, as most are, more laws will be piled on top of the original law in an attempt to fix its shortcomings. Eventually a society finds itself in the situation we’re in today – a web of laws, passed with every good intention, that makes most human behavior illegal.

And so, for society to function, the law must be ignored and tradition obeyed.

But it isn’t that simple. People tend to confuse the laws and the customs and so lose respect for both. Most Americans tend to believe that the law is equal to the traditions – it’s the right way to order society. Because of this they come to believe that if a behavior isn’t illegal it must be suitable. This is probably a major factor in the disappearance of common (customary) courtesy. Discourteous behavior isn’t illegal so it must be moral! Written laws are often destructive of good customs.

Some argue that because society and technology are so advanced and complex today that more and more written laws are necessary. The converse is true. Customary laws are organic – they can change to suit changing conditions. Just as a person dropped into an unfamiliar environment can adapt and learn and survive, so can a society.

A society held rigid by a fossilized skeleton of legislation cannot adapt – and will die.

In The Beginning

The first two verses of Genesis contain a concise summary of the origin of the heavens and the earth. Fortunately for the livelihoods of theologians and theoretical scientists, there aren’t a lot of details given. Let’s take a look at what can be known from the Bible. Theories about cosmology and creation can be great fun – but we should never lose sight of the truth that intellectual brilliance doesn’t lead people to God.

To begin, let’s read what’s written in verse one.

Genesis 1:1
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

What was the origin of the cosmos? God created it. How exactly did he do this? The Bible doesn’t tell us. When did it happen? “In the beginning.” How long ago was the beginning? We don’t know.

We do know that the creation didn’t happen last Wednesday – God doesn’t lie and he places it before thousands of years of history in the Old Testament. From secular historical records we also know that it has been about 2400 years since the last prophet who wrote in the Old Testament – Malachi.

Now let’s take a look at the beginning of verse two.

Genesis 1:2a
And the earth was without form [Hebrew: tohu], and void [bohu]…

There has been a lot of debate – going back at least to some early church fathers and rabbinical scholars – as to whether verse two describes the results of verse one. Did God originally create the earth without form and void or did something bad happen between the two verses? From my own research I tend to lean toward the latter – but that doesn’t make me a proponent of “Gap Creationism.”

Before I continue with the study, here’s the link to the interlinear of Genesis 1:2. From this page you can find the definition and, where applicable, the parsing of every Hebrew word used in this verse. You can also find every single verse in the Bible where each word is used. It will even take you to the complete context of those verses.

Back in the old days (“hand me my cane, Sonny”) this sort of study took me many days to complete. It also required a number of expensive reference works (all of which I still own). And lots of pencils and paper. Now it can be done in a couple of hours without moving anything more than a mouse. Amazing! This raises a question in my mind. If studying the Bible is so easy today why do so few do it?

First of all let’s look at the word “was.” In Hebrew it’s in the perfect tense. It could be translated accurately as either “was” or “became.” This doesn’t tell us when it happened. It could have been simultaneous with verse one or sometime afterward.

Next let’s look at “without form and void.” From their root forms these words could best be translated as “a waste” and “empty [uninhabited].” The word bohu only occurs twice more in the Bible. In both cases it is paired with tohu. Both instances are speaking about a land made uninhabitable by warfare – a result of sin and rebellion against God.

Tohu occurs twenty times in the Old Testament and is translated into English in nine different ways. Only one more of these occurrences is relevant in this context. Here tohu is translated, “in vain.”

Isaiah 45:18
For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.

In this verse God tells us that he did not create the earth in vain (without form). This is the primary reason I believe that verse two describes something that happened after verse one. “The earth became waste and empty…”

There are hints in God’s word that the calamity that caused this state was the rebellion of the head Angel, Lucifer, against God. After he set himself up as God’s adversary he picked up some delightful nicknames – Satan, the devil, the serpent, the father of lies, the god of this world. I’m certainly not scholar enough to prove this one way or the other—so I’ll leave it alone.

Putting together everything we’ve read, how much time passed between the first and second verses of Genesis? Could it have been 13 billion years as the scientists say? Sure! How about thirteen minutes? I suppose so. Sigh. After all that work we still don’t know the age of the universe. We don’t know if God created the heavens and the earth via the Big Bang (taking 13 million years) or if he did it in a moment of time.

Guess what? Knowing or not knowing won’t make any difference to living the more abundant life that Christ promised. What we don’t know isn’t going to hurt us. If it were, God would’ve told us.

Now, I do understand the appeal of all of these theories of creation and cosmology. We men, especially in our youths, are driven to explore. Those of us with an intellectual bent are driven to explore theories, explanations, and philosophies. I have no problem with that – I was the same way!

So go ahead and jump on Wikipedia – discover the dozens of theories that theologians and scientists have come up with to try to explain that which God describes in a handful of words. Just remember that you’re doing it as a fun way to stretch your mind. None of these theories are true – they are just theories. After you’ve done a little research you’ll notice that scientists actually disagree with each other more than theologians do!

Earlier I mentioned that I am not a proponent of “gap creationism.” I’m also not a proponent of the “young earth” theory, or any other. Each of these theories makes assumptions that cannot be proven from God’s word. The “gappers” claim that the plant and animal life that formed fossils – perhaps even an earlier race of man – lived between Genesis verses 1 and 2. But the Bible doesn’t say that. Many “youngers” claim that the fossils were laid down during an ice age following the flood. There’s no biblical proof for that, either.

Christians arguing about unprovable theories is a cause of division; it plays directly into the adversary’s hands. When we get invested in such theories we get distracted from that which is important. We lose sight of the truth of God’s word. If we worship our own thoughts we won’t be believing the Bible.

Let’s set aside our differences to concentrate on that which we do know. God created the heavens and the earth. God made the earth to be inhabited by man. God’s motivation was love – for God is love.

And if you want others to come to God you’re not going to convince them with your theories. “…the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.”