Invasion of the Bible Snatchers: Ray Comfort’s ‘Scientific Facts in the Bible’ – Paths of the Seas

To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.


The psalmist wrote, 

You [i.e. Yahweh] have given them [i.e. humanity] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea (Psalm 8:6-8, NRSV).[1]

Concerning v. 8 and specifically the phrase “paths of the sea [ʾorḥōwt ymym],” Ray Comfort writes, 

Man discovered the existence of ocean currents in the 1850s, but the Bible declared the science of oceanography 2,800 years ago. Matthew Maury (1806-1873), considered the father of oceanography, noticed the expression “paths of the sea” in Psalm 8. Maury took God at His word and went looking for these paths, and his book on oceanography is still a basic text on the subject and is used in universities.[2]

This belief that “paths of the sea” is a reference to ocean currents is not an uncommon one. For example, Robert T. Boyd, mentioning Maury, writes, “Currents are due to paths of the sea (Ps. 8:8).”[3] More recently, apologist Lisa Quintana wrote that after reading Psalm 8:8 and the phrase “paths of the seas” that she “just had to investigate” it (emphasis mine). She wrote, 

What struck me was this: “paths of the seas.” Wait…what? This Psalm of David was estimated to have been written in 1015 B.C. – three THOUSAND years ago? How could David have known that there are indeed paths in the oceans? David could not have known this without the inspiration of the Spirit of God; once again, showing that the Bible is truly divine.[4]

More examples could be offered but these suffice to establish the point: many Christians look to Psalm 8:8 and assert the Bible’s divine inspiration because of their understanding of the phrase “the paths of the seas.” But are they right? Is this ancient author of the eighth psalm speaking of ocean currents? 

Matthew Maury and Psalm 8:8

Let’s table that discussion briefly and discuss Matthew Maury’s relationship to the text. According to Comfort, it was Psalm 8:8 that prompted Maury’s search for ocean currents. Comfort does not state how he knows this, though this is no surprise. The information, fortunately, isn’t difficult to come by. 

In 1855, Maury wrote a letter that appeared in the periodical Southern Churchman in which he addresses the question of whether scientific knowledge can be found in the Bible. 

You ask about the “harmony of science and revelation,” and wish to know if I find distinct traces in the Old Testament of scientific knowledge, and in the Bible any knowledge of the winds and ocean currents. Yes, knowledge the most correct and reliable.”[5]

Maury then goes on to talk about various texts of the Bible he believed contained prescient scientific information. But in this letter, Maury does not mention Psalm 8:8 in relation to ocean currents. In her biography of her father (in which this letter appears), Diana Fontaine Maury Corbin nowhere mentions the influence of Psalm 8:8 on Maury’s search for ocean currents. So, where did it come from? 

So far as I can tell, it comes from a biography of Maury written by his son Richard that was published in 1915.[6] But it isn’t Richard recalling the story. Instead, in the introduction written by Katherine Stiles we read the following:

At one time, when Commodore Maury was very sick, he asked one of his daughters to get the Bible and read to him. She chose Psalm 8, the eighth verse of which speaks of “whatever walketh through the paths of the sea,” he repeated “the paths of the sea, the paths of the sea, if God says the paths of the sea, they are there, and if I ever get out of this bed I will find them.”[7]

Did this come from Richard Maury? One of the other Maury children? Was it invented by Stiles, based plausibly upon Maury’s veneration for the Bible?[8] We cannot know for certain.[9] Further complicating the matter is that Diana Fontaine Maury Corbin in her biography of her father records that he first conceived of creating wind and current charts when he sailed on the U.S.S. Falmouth.[10] But this was in 1835 and his oldest child, Elizabeth, was born that very year. If he was already looking for these “paths of the sea” the very year his firstborn came into the world, then the story told by Stiles seems almost apocryphal.  

In truth, Maury was not strictly speaking discovering something new in his work on ocean currents. In their book on oceanography, Tom Garrison and Robert Ellis speak of Maury as “a compiler, not a scientist,” who was actually building on the work of Benjamin Franklin who had in the century prior

noticed the peculiar fact that the fastest ships were not always the fastest ships; that is, hull speed did not always correlate with out-and-return time on the European run. Franklin’s cousin, a Nantucket merchant named Tim Folger, noted Franklin’s puzzlement and provided him with a rough draft of the “Gulph Stream” that he (Folger) had worked out. By staying within the stream on the outbound leg and adding its speed to their own, and by avoiding it on their return, captains could traverse the Atlantic much more quickly. It was Franklin who published, in 1769, the first chart of any current.[11]

That isn’t to downplay the significance of Maury’s contributions. Garrison and Ellis write that he was indeed “the first person to sense the worldwide pattern of surface winds and currents.”[12] But Maury’s work wasn’t wholly original and there is no indication that Franklin, his cousin, or anyone else was inspired by the biblical phrase “the paths of the sea.” 

But for the sake of argument, let’s concede that Maury was inspired by the verbiage of Psalm 8:8. It does not follow that because he saw in Psalm 8:8 the existence of ocean currents that this must be to what the psalmist was referring. So, just what was the psalmist speaking about at the end of v. 8? 

Psalm 8:8 in Context 

Psalm 8 is generally regarded as a hymn.[13] It opens with a superscription: “To the leader: according to the Gittith. A Psalm of David.” To what “Gittith” refers is not entirely known, though it may be referring to either an instrument of some kind or the key in which it was to be sung.[14] David, however, is well known. Many psalms are attributed to the ancient king but whether this attribution is original to the psalms or was added later is a matter of debate, one which we will not rehash here.[15] For the sake of argument, we will grant Davidic authorship of Psalm 8 as it really doesn’t affect our understanding of the psalm generally or of v. 8 particularly. 

The psalm’s flow is fairly simple to follow. It opens and closes by praising Yahweh: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (vv. 1, 9). Yahweh, the psalmist declares, has set his glory above the heavens and therefore higher than the highest thing of which the psalmist could conceive. And his fortress or bulwark is founded upon the lips of even the seemingly most insignificant of humans – infants (v. 2).[16] The shift then focuses to the skies above, described as “the work of [Yahweh’s] fingers,” and includes the moon and the stars (v. 3).[17] In v. 4, the psalmist ponders humanity and their station in creation. God need not be mindful of them since he is so high above them and yet, v. 5 tells us, he “made them a little lower than God.” In his translation of v. 5, Robert Alter renders the Hebrew, “You make him little less than the gods.”[18] Alter’s reason for rendering the Hebrew ʾĕlōhîm as “gods” rather than “God” has to do with his view of the psalm’s structure.[19] Regardless of whether ʾĕlōhîm is best rendered as “God” or “gods,” the point of the passage is that humanity enjoys exalted status, having been “crowned…with glory and honor” and “given…dominion over the works of your hands,” having “put all things under their feet” (v. 6). It is here that the psalmist explains exactly what is under humanity’s authority. He begins with terrestrial animals: “all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field” (v. 7). He then moves on to animals that soar in the sky or swim in the sea: “the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (v. 8). The psalm then closes his hymn of praise as he had begun it. 

“Whatever Passes Along the Paths of the Seas”

The question before us is, what does the psalmist mean when he speaks of “the paths of the seas”? Is he somehow alluding to ocean currents? In my estimation, it seems very unlikely that this is what the writer intended. Instead, the phrase “whatever passes along the paths of the sea” is a kind of kenning, a poetic device whereby a noun or phrase is explained in a metaphorical way. Robert Alter explains: 

A kenning, once recent study has suggested, is a riddle transformed from the interrogative into the declarative, which one can see by turning it back into a riddle: What is a whale-road? The sea. What is fruit of the loins? A child. Kennings are minimal metaphors, usually…more or less self-explanatory. In other words, the metaphorical vehicle of a kenning may often have rather limited saliency in relation to the tenor to which it refers.[20]

Here in Psalm 8:8, “the paths of the seas” is part of the larger kenning “whatever passes along the paths of the seas,” a way to describe “fish of the sea” in the same verse. Thus, “paths of the seas” is the sea and “whatever passes along the paths of the seas” is a reference to fish that swim in the sea. 

Such kennings are found elsewhere in biblical poetry. Alter notes a few in his book on biblical poetry.[21] In Joel 1:5 we read, “Wake up, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers….” Here the phrase “you wine drinkers” is a substitute for “drunkards.” This is a type of kenning. Similarly, in Joel 1:13 we read, “Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests; wail, you ministers of the altar.” In this instance, “ministers of the altar” is the kenning which replaces “priests” in the parallelism. In Psalm 74:1, the psalmist cries out, “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” Here “sheep of your pasture” is the kenning which replaces the “us” of the first line. 

Conclusion 

An understanding of Hebrew poetry and specifically the use of kennings illuminates the meaning of v. 8. Far from being a reference to ocean currents, it is in fact a metaphor for “the sea” set in connection with those that pass along it – fish. The salient point for the psalmist had nothing to do with offering readers a glimpse into a future scientific discovery and everything with explaining humanity’s dominion over creation, even over the fish in the seas. 

Comfort has yet again struck out. 


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all citations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Bellflower, CA: Living Waters Publication, 2016), 10.

[3] Robert T. Boyd, Boyd’s Handbook of Practical Apologetics: Scientific Facts, Fulfilled Prophecies, and Archaeological Discoveries That Confirm the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1997), 61. Boyd erroneously refers to Maury as “Murray.” 

[4] Lisa Quintana, “How To Read the Bible Differently” (4.30.20), thinkdivinely.com.

[5] In Diana Fontaine Maury Corbin, A Life of Matthew Maury Fontaine, U.S.N and C.S.N. (London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1888), 158.

[6] Richard L. Maury, A Brief Sketch of the Work of Matthew Fontaine Maury During the War 1861-1865 (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1915).

[7] Katherine C. Stiles, “Introduction,” in Maury, A Brief Sketch of the Work of Matthew Fontaine Maury During the War 1861-1865), 3.

[8] When Maury died in 1873, the following was said about him in a death notice: 

For the Bible he entertained the highest veneration, and its testimony, to his mind, was ever strengthened by the progress of scientific discovery.

The Book of Job and the Psalms of David were his favourite parts of the Old Testament, especially the 107th Psalm. Very early in life he felt ‘That they who go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters, see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.

See Corbin, A Life of Matthew Maury Fontaine, 287.

[9] Another issue is that Richard Maury died in 1907, eight years before this volume was published. 

[10] Corbin, A Life of Matthew Maury Fontaine, 22-23.

[11] Tom Garrison and Robert Ellis, Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science (Cengage: 2013), 43-44; cf. Alan P. Trujillo and Harold V. Thurman, Essentials of Oceanography, tenth edition (Glenview, IL: Prentice Hall, 2011), 210; Mark Denny, How the Ocean Works: An Introduction to Oceanography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 216. Denny notes that Christopher Columbus observed that on one trip from Europe to the Caribbean his ships drifted westward despite there being no wind, “an unwitting observation of the Atlantic North Equatorial Current.”

[12] Garrison and Ellis, Oceanography, 44.

[13] Klaus Seybold, Introducing the Psalms, R. Graeme Dunphy, translator (London: T&T Clark, 1990), 113-114; John Day, Psalms, Old Testament Guides (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 40.

[14] Seybold, Introducing the Psalms, 86; cf. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel (Danvers, MA: Chalice Press, 2004), 153; Psalm 81:1; 84:1.

[15] See the discussion in John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books, second edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 485-486; cf. David M. Carr, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010), 66; Elieser Slomovic, “Toward an Understanding of the Formation of Historical Titles in the Book of Psalms,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 91 issue 3 (1979), 350-380.

[16] Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Jr. (Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014], 59) note that the text may be referring to the common trope among ancient Near Eastern creation myths of the deity creating a fortress following the creation event. 

Ancient Near Eastern creation texts often include the building of a fortress or citadel for the creator after the work of creation is complete. In Ps. 8:2, the fortress is built after the defeat of enemies representative of chaos; this fortress or bulwark comes even from “the mouths of babes and infants.” The verse thus fits the psalm’s focus on creation and illustrates a common theme in the Hebrew Bible of weakness turned into strength.

An example of this can be found in Canaanite mythology in the Baal Cycle

[17] Though curiously enough, not the sun. 

[18] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, vol. 3: The Writings: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 39. 

[19] Cf. Brueggemann and Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, 59-60.

[20] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), 15-16.

[21] Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 15.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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