The Bible and Natural History
The next field of knowledge to which we ask attention is that included under natural history. One of the principles governing this discussion, already announced, we repeat: that, while the Bible was not designed to be a treatise upon natural history, still, however numerous its statements or allusions in this department of science, there must be no inaccuracy, provided the book is what orthodoxy represents it to be.
Under the general head of natural history, we speak first of botany. Upon examination it will be found that the Old Testament alone contains more than two hundred and fifty distinct botanical terms. It speaks of the flora of all the ancient countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea; the great cedar of Lebanon is described and extolled, and the little vine on the trellis is not forgotten: and yet no inaccuracy is found in any of its statements or allusions. Can this fact be other than a surprise to any one who is familiar with what Plato, Empedocles, Aristotle, and Plutarch have said as to the composition and nature of the plant-world? We are not criticizing the ignorance or the crude and wild hypotheses of those wise men: we are merely expressing surprise at the wisdom of the “ignorant men” (?) who wrote the Bible.
The latest botanists are classifying plants according to what is known as the seed-method. But this is the method employed by Moses when speaking of the grass and herb yielding seed, and the tree yielding fruit whose seed is in itself (Gen. i. 12). This, for a general classification, is perfect, and is modern. Even the geology of the plant-world, as to which other ancient literature abounds in all sorts of errors, is with absolute correctness disclosed in the Bible.
Thus, too, of zoological science, which is another department of natural history. While many of the views advanced by Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Plato, Democritus, and Epicurus seem, according to modern view, to be needlessly and grossly at fault, yet, under the most recent and careful examination, the Bible, though describing all sorts of animal life, from the leviathan to the snail, from the lion in the forest to the moth upon the garment, is found to be above reasonable criticism. Its accuracy in some respects is remarkable. It speaks of the vulture, not in the words of the poet, as scenting “the carrion from afar,” but as finding its prey through the keenness of its eye, which is, as a matter of scientific fact, correct; it speaks of the industry and provident character of the ant, a statement once ridiculed, but now confirmed in the known habits of the “harvesting ant” of Syria; it discloses the fact that animal life inhabited the sea before appearing on the earth; it gives correctly the geology of animal life, and enumerates the four great divisions of the animal creation in the order of nature, as now taught by the most approved science — beasts, birds, reptiles, and fishes.
So likewise the references of the Bible to the various meteorological phenomena are worthy of attention, though they can receive but a passing mention. Note the following: “All the rivers run into the sea; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again” (Eccles. i. 7); and, “The wind goeth towards the south, and turneth about unto the north. The wind returneth again according to its circuit” (Eccles. i. 6). These may be poetic statements, but that does not explain how, as brief and accurate descriptions of water and aerial circulations, they chance to have scarcely a parallel in the literature in the literature of the ancient world, and can hardly be improved upon even in our own day.
“He that fainteth not , neither is weary,” is represented as the One who hath made “a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning.” He it is who “bindeth up the waters in his thick cloud, and the cloud is not rent under them;” “he draweth up the drops of water; rain is condensed from his vapor.” These also are held to be poetic expressions, but their accuracy is none the less a marvel.
It is likewise the Infinite One, “who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out the heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance” (Isa. xl. 12). This language is but another way of saying that in the physical universe there are the nicest adjustments of part to part; that “one grain more or less of sand,” to quote from science, “would disturb, or even fatally disorder, except for some supernatural interposition, the whole scheme of the heavenly motions.”
The object we have in view in this treatise does not allow further discussion in the field of natural history. We, therefore, merely add that notwithstanding the Bible, as we have seen, refers to a multitude of phenomena belonging to this department of science; and notwithstanding the contemporaneous or nearly contemporaneous treatises of the Indians, the Chinese, the Greeks, and the Romans, abound in the falsest speculations – still no mistakes are found in the Bible. Its records in these respects are as immaculate as if written by the best scholars of modern times. We do not claim that the Bible is as full as if it were designed to be a scientific treatise, or that its writers themselves understood all they said, or that in every instance they knew distinctly why they compiled into the Bible some materials, and rejected others which were at their command: we simply assert that thus far in our investigations we find the Bible free from the errors which everywhere prevailed at the time it was composed.
Opinion of Lieut. Maury
The statement of the late Lieut. Maury, who is now recognized as having been one of the leading scientific men of his age, on account of both his valuable discoveries, and his contributions to scientific literature, is in point, and is authoritative. In his “Physical Geography of the Sea,” he employs this language: “The Bible frequently makes allusion to the laws of nature, their operation and effects. But such allusions are often so wrapped in the folds of the peculiar and graceful drapery with which its language is occasionally clothed, that the meaning, though peeping out from its thin covering all the while, yet lies in some sense concealed, until the lights and revelations of science are thrown upon it; then it bursts out, and strikes us with the more force and beauty.” And elsewhere this distinguished writer remarks, “I have always found in my scientific studies, that, when I could get the Bible to say any thing upon the subject, it afforded me a firm platform to stand upon, and a round in the ladder by which I could safely ascend.” These words read like those of the Psalmist when saying, “Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right.”
But can it be possible that in all these matters there should have been this freedom from mistakes, and in the light of modern investigation this wonderful accuracy of statement, unless the Bible writers and compilers were, as the apostle says, “pheromenoi,” borne along by the Holy Spirit as a ship is borne before the wind?