Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, Part 2

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May 17, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by Brian Godawa. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, Part 2

This is the second in a six-part series based on Brian Godawa’s scholarly paper “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible”, which can be read in its entirety here. In part one (see sidebar), Brian expressed how studying ancient Hebrew culture challenged his views of a “plain reading” of scripture. Today, he discusses how the Galileo affair also impacted this view.

Something else had always haunted me like a nagging pebble in the shoe of my mind, and that was the Galileo affair. There was a time (the 17th century) when brilliant godly Christian theologians and scientists that I greatly respect considered the new heliocentric theory as being against the plain teaching of the Bible. They believed the Bible could not be wrong about the way the cosmos operated without jeopardizing its authority as the Word of God. They asserted that the Bible plainly says in clear and unambiguous language that the earth does not move (Psa. 93:1; 104:5)1 and that the sun goes around the earth (Josh. 10:13; Ecc. 1:5). These were brilliant men and not the ignorant anti-scientific bigots that they are still portrayed to be by critics with an axe to grind. They eventually accepted the theory as the evidence came in to back it up. But the point was that they learned a principle that has far reaching implications in Bible interpretation (hermeneutics): Sometimes science can correct our interpretation of the Bible.

There it is, I said it, a statement that draws the ire of some Evangelicals who will no doubt jerk their knees and accuse me of being a “liberal” and of not believing the Bible. But the fact of history is that science has corrected that very same Evangelical tradition of interpreting of the Bible. I really hated to admit this too, because I believe that the Bible is my ultimate authority on the truth of God, so if science could correct the Bible, then would that not make science a higher authority than the Bible? Only if you assume that your interpretation of the Bible is exactly what God is trying to communicate to you. But our interpretation of God’s intent and meaning is not always the same thing as God’s actual intent and meaning. So revising our understanding of the meaning of God’s Word does not make God’s Word wrong, but rather it makes our interpretation of God’s Word wrong by showing us that we are expecting of the Scriptures something that the Scriptures are not offering us.

The implications of this principle forced me to re-evaluate my own understanding of just what the Bible is saying when it comes to science and cosmography. Because of my modern western scientific bias, I could easily misinterpret something as literal that was intended to be figurative, such as stars falling from the sky and the sun and moon losing their light (Isa. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7; Matt. 24:29).2 But I also realized something just as important: My modern western scientific bias could also guide me to misinterpret something as figurative that the Bible intended to be literal! If I read about the “floodgates of heaven” for rain (Gen. 7:11), or the earth set upon a foundation of pillars (Psa. 75:3) or of Sheol being below the earth (Num. 13:32-33), I automatically think of these as poetic metaphors because modern science has revealed that none of these things are “literally” or physically there. But the ancient Israelite did not know these scientific facts that I know now, so what did these images mean to them?

As I pursued an intense Bible study on this issue, I started to learn more about the literary cultural context of Israel and her neighbors. What I discovered was that the Bible uses cosmic geographical language in common with other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures that shared its situated time and location. Believers in today’s world use the language of Relativity when we write, even in our non-scientific discourse, because Einstein has affected the way they see the universe. Believers before the 17th century used Ptolemaic language because they too were children of their time. It should be no surprise to anyone that believers in ancient Israel would use the language of ANE cosmography because it was the mental construct within which they lived and thought.3

With regard to these Biblical and ancient Near Eastern literary parallels, critical scholarship tends to stress the similarities, downplay the differences and construct a secularized evolutionary theory of the transformation of Israel’s religion from polytheism into monotheism through plagiarism.4 In other words, critical scholarship is anthropocentric, or human-centered. Confessional scholarship tends to stress the differences, downplay the similarities and interpret the evidence as indicative of the radical otherness of Israelite religion.5 In other words, confessional scholarship is theocentric, or God-centered. In this way, both critical and confessional hermeneutics err on opposite extremes.

The orthodox doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture is God-breathed human-written words (2Tim. 3:16). Human men wrote from God, moved mysteriously by the Holy Spirit (2Pet. 1:20-21). Even Evangelical inerrantists agree that human authorship involves literary and cultural conventions of their time period. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) summarized their view this way: “We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of His penman’s milieu” (emphasis added).

By studying the Bible within its cultural milieu and human genre conventions, I could no longer avoid the fact that it contains a different cosmography than our modern western post-Enlightenment cosmography. The evidence became so overwhelming that I had to change my theological view to fit the Bible rather than reinterpret the Bible to fit my theological system. That ancient cosmography was workable for its time, but is no longer so, (as no doubt, will ours also be eventually). What they accepted as literal reality we now accept only metaphorically. I do not believe that this jeopardizes the doctrine that the Bible is the Word of God, or that it reduces that Word to merely human authorship, but I do believe that it jeopardizes our man-made traditions and interpretations about what the Word of God is intended to communicate to us. Be that as it may, in my next post we will look at what I have discovered.

Notes

1. In John Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5-6 he affirms the Ptolemaic notion in Scripture. See “Calvin and the Astronomical Revolution” Matthew F. Dowd, University of Notre Dame.

2. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), p. 320-367. For more biblical examples of this collapsing universe and earth shattering hyperbole used of the fall of worldly powers see Jeremiah 4:23-30; Amos 8:9; Isaiah 24:1-23; 40:3-5; Nahum 1:4-6. For an excellent book about the nature of this apocalyptic imagery and symbolism in the Bible, a must-buy book is Last Days Madness, by Gary DeMar, Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999.

3. The book that opened my mind to the Mesopotamian cosmography in the Bible was Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution by Denis O. Lamoureux, Eugene; OR, Wipf & Stock, 2008. I owe much of the material in this article to Mr. Lamoureux’s meticulous research on the ancient science in the Bible.

4. A significant author of this view is Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts; Oxford: Oxford University, 2003.

5. A significant author of this view is Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction; Chicago, Il: Moody Press, 2007.


Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and other feature films. He has written and directed documentaries on church-state relations, stem cell research and higher education politics. He is the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) and Chronicles of the Nephilim, a series of fantasy novels about Biblical heroes within their ancient Near Eastern mythological context. He speaks around the country to churches, high schools and colleges on movies, worldviews and faith. His movie blog can be found at godawa.com/movieblog/.

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Norman - #61334

May 17th 2011

Brian,

Let me illustrate another variation of Hebrew literature that I believe we modern’s haven’t completely come to grips with. In Acts 10 Peter has a vision of animals coming down that were of an unclean nature yet they were now declared clean by God in the coming New Kingdom ushered in by Christ. Peter extrapolates that this is inclusive of Gentile peoples portrayed as animals. Where did Peter develop the association of animals symbolizing Gentiles? From the OT itself where we often gloss over the implication that the OT often used the animal motif to signify the distinctness between Jew and Gentile. I would subscribe that this had nothing to do with an ancient cosmological view point but seems to fall into strictly a proprietary analogical story telling methodology in itself. This combination of ancient cosmology coupled with the usage of symbols and metaphors compounds the difficulty for us in correctly discerning the context of scripture at times.

Let me illustrate with a few OT scriptures to make this point. In Hosea 2:18 there is a prophetic declaration that Israel and Judah will be brought into covenant along with the same animal motifs that are found throughout scriptures beginning even in Gen 1 & 2 and the flood account. The illustration to also lie down brings to mind Isaiah 11 and 65 in which the clean and unclean animals lie down in peace together clearly illustrating Jew and Gentile unification prophetically in the messianic future.

Hos 2:18  And I have made to them a covenant in that day, with the beast of the field, And with the fowl of the heavens, And the creeping thing of the ground, And bow, and sword, and war I break from off the land, And have caused them to lie down confidently.

Ezekiel uses these animal metaphors throughout its writing and culminates in chapter 47 which is portrayed in Rev 22 as soon to be concluded. Eze 47 clearly is pulling from the imagery of Gen 1 and 2 especially with the river of life now determined to be only one instead of the original four seen in the Garden account. The NT also picks up on the fish and fisherman motif from the very beginnings of Christ ministry calling the apostles. 

 Eze  47:9  And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes.

This understanding of the continual usage of the animal motif throughout OT and NT scriptures should raise an eyebrow or two when we encounter their usage in literature such as Gen 1,2 and the flood account. In fact the Jews themselves in the Book of Enoch have a piece of literature detailing whom the animals represent as Nations when they get off Noah’s ark. They carry the animal theme all the way to the projection of the Messiah in what is called the “Dream Vision” and Judgment upon Israel. Makes one wonder how the author of the Genesis flood account wanted his writings interpreted. Maybe not as a cosmological global flood perhaps

With this knowledge about how the Hebrews used symbols we need to be ever alert concerning our tendency to read these stories literally especially in Genesis.


Brian G - #61336

May 17th 2011

Norman,

I had not heard that before. These are definitely food for thought. Pun intended. 
But seriously, the differentiation of clean and unclean animals certainly does become a covenantal reference for Jew and Gentile distinction in the NT and in the Millennial passages like Isa. 65. Thanks for the thoughts. Any materials to point to in order to read more about this?

Norman - #61338

May 17th 2011

Brian,

I doubt if you are going to find too many scholars that delve deeply into this subject due to the controversial nature of examining this subject and the push back one might receive. The subject is somewhat similar to the recognition of the meaning of Heaven and Earth and how that opens up the scriptures to a more consistent understanding. I have a tendency to not be satisfied with the status quo answers and when I began examining Revelation, Daniel and Ezekiel these animal metaphors started popping up all over the place. I consider Daniel the easiest apocalyptic literature to grasp as it provides its own commentary to a degree and there we encounter the “beast from the Sea”. The animals are also found living under King Nebs Tree receiving his protection. Ezekiel uses the same Tree and animal metaphor as well in describing Assyria’s and Egypt’s fall. We also encounter the Great Sea monster representing Egypt and a simple search takes us back to the creation of the Sea Monster and the animals in Day 5. Isaiah 27:1 then states that the demise of the Sea Monster is projected to occur at the coming of messiah. This is simply judgment language portraying the end of the Nations influencing God’s faithful as they have with Old Covenant Israel. In the new spiritual Kingdom of Christ they will have no jurisdiction.

Isa 27:1 In that day Jehovah with his hard and great and strong sword will punish leviathan the swift serpent, and leviathan the crooked serpent; and he will slay the monster that is in the sea.

Our literalist and dispensational friends may think that this language implies literal happenings but it is obviously upon close examination just a methodology of telling story. And contrary to scholars who think the Hebrews were just ignorant about physical reality the implication is that their reality was simply being illustrated differently than we might expect. It might be similar to discovering an Aesop fable and we mistakenly analyze it from a literal standpoint instead of the moral one intended.

If you get the chance I would really recommend reading Enoch’s Dream Vision as it explicitly demonstrates the story telling method of the Hebrews using the animal metaphor extensively.

Here is a link

http://www.gregwolf.com/enoch/enochdream.htm

Also regarding the animals found in the Garden with Adam it might be instructive to look at the Book of Jubilees where Adam is expelled from the Garden. The animals are sent packing along with him but Adam is instructed to offer up sacrifices for Him and also the animals. If you are knowledgeable concerning the Jewish Feast of Booths you might be aware that Israel was instructed to offer sacrifices for themselves but also for the Nations. The Jubilees account parallels Israel’s instructions just as one might expect if I’m correct on how they often used the animal metaphor to illustrate a distinction with the Gentile Nations.

 

Jubilees 3:27 And on that day on which Adam went forth from the Garden, he offered as a sweet savour an offering, frankincense, galbanum, and stacte, and spices in the morning with the rising of the sun from the day when he covered his shame.

And on that day was closed the mouth of all beasts, and of cattle, and of birds, and of whatever walks, and of whatever moves, so that they could no longer speak: for they had all spoken one with another with one lip and with one tongue.

And He sent out of the Garden of Eden all flesh that was in the Garden of Eden, and all flesh was scattered according to its kinds, and according to its types unto the places which had been created for them.

And to Adam alone did He give (the wherewithal) to cover his shame, of all the beasts and cattle.

Notice the similarity of the animals all speaking with one lip which is almost identical language used in Gen 10-11 with the dispersion of the Nations. This is obviously a story describing the establishment of the Nations portrayed through animal metaphor.


Brian G - #61341

May 17th 2011

I own Enoch in several translations, and consulted it in writing my novel about Noah. So I am familiar with it and Jubilees, but I have not examined those chapters as closely. Thanks for the tip. I have written on Leviathan the sea dragon in previous BioLogos papers so I do believe that there are animals that are deliberately metaphorical. I understand Leviathan to be a common ANE reference to the chaos and disorder that one’s god or gods subdues to establish their religion or power and world order. Satan becomes a personified version of Leviathan in the NT.


Well, if there are no texts to point to about the subject matter, YOU should write on it and get it published!

Norman - #61344

May 17th 2011

Brian,

I have actually written some articles on various blogs but I’m essentially an amateur theologian at best and certainly not a trained writer. As a famous fabled man once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations” I’m more comfortable discussing and pointing out some of these issues hoping others who do have the skills will possibly pickup on them.

By the way how does one get a list of your published works and books?

Also have you ever considered putting together a story line that illustrates the narrative flow of the OT from Genesis to Revelation? I’m thinking something possibly animated using color and black and white to illustrate visually creation, Garden, flood, Abraham, Moses, Exile and the finality of the consummated Kingdom. The Garden begins in color coming out of darkness and chaos similar to the Wizard of Oz and loses its color at the fall and all along the way little glimpses of color reappear through different people who harbor the seed of Christ and the full hope to come. Then it all culminates with Christ fully portrayed in color and then the darkness of the tribulation sets in and full color only fully reappears at the consummation of the ages when the old city dies and those who Christ instructed to flee to the hills see the whole world explode in color once again as originally seen in the Garden. I’m thinking something visual like that would be a great tool to teach people about the old covenant and the new covenant contrast.


Brian G - #61346

May 17th 2011

Well, I believe there are graphic novel Bibles out there. And that would be a bit ambitious for me. But I have just finished a novel about Noah based on alot of my biblical research into the nephilim, the divine council, and other oddities like the article above. I am trying to get it published. And I hope to make a graphic novel out of it.


Here are my free articles:
http://www.godawa.com/HW/hollywoodworldviews.htm
Click on “Additional Reading”

And then Amazon.com my name for my two books.

Eric Ross - #61383

May 18th 2011

So, in your calculus, if my understanding of the Bible is contradicted by the facts, my interpretation is necessarily mistaken.  How then would I know if it’s the Bible that’s mistaken?  If you cannot answer this question, any statement you may make to the effect of “the Bible is true” is circular and meaningless.


Brian G - #61387

May 18th 2011

I would not call empiricial observations “facts” as if they are incontestable. All facts are interpreted so there is no such thing as brute facts that exist outside interpretations. 


That said, I would agree that if observations contradict a theory or an interpretation, then there are several possibilities: 1) the theory is partially wrong and needs minor ammendations 2)  the observation is inaccurate and further calibration may ammend inaccuracies in our observations that may line up with the theory 3) the small contradiction may be indicative of larger problems with the theory that needs wholesale paradigm change.

The main point I am making is that humility requires the acknowledgement that one’s interpretation of a text is not always the absolute meaning of a text. Kind of like when you are having a hard time getting a point across to someone and you say, “You are not listening to what I am saying.” Interestingly, I think this same problem goes for empirical scientific observations. We can get them wrong as well because our instruments are often as encumbered with inaccuracy and subjectivity as anything else. Kinda like when you look at the water and see with your own eyes that the oar in the water is bent, but it is not. 


Eric Ross - #61389

May 18th 2011

I do not see how you have answered my question.  How would you distinguish between these two cases: (1) The Bible is correct, but my interpretation of it is incorrect.  (2) The Bible is incorrect.  In your calculus, it seems that you are willing to sometimes conclude (1), but have no way to ever conclude (2).

You also have a related problem.  What can’t God, in his omnipotence, make himself clear?  By your own admission, he mislead many generations of humans, including some very smart people, about the relative motion of the Earth and the Sun (to use just this one example).  Now that we understand the true motions of the solar system (no thanks to the Bible), the credibility of the Bible has been severely undermined in the eyes of many.  It would have been trivially easy for God to have the Bible say “the Earth revolves around the Sun.”  Instead he has mislead many people and undermined the credibility of his alleged word.  Why would he do this?


Brian G - #61395

May 18th 2011

1 and 2 are both possible. But you forgot one more: The Bible is not correct in its science but that’s not the point it is making. I explain this in the conclusion. A child believing a baby comes directly from God maybe be scientifically wrong, but teleologically right.


I don’t know why God doesn’t make the Bible more clear or why our finite instruments of observation can be so inadequate at times. I’ll have to ask him that when I see him face to face. But that is not an intellectual problem, it is an emotional one. There is a spiritual element as well that our sinful natures affect our minds and therefore our reasoning to the extent that we blind ourselves to the truth by our own desire to avoid God. This is a reasonable explanation for why many rejected the Big Bang at first, and some even admitted it: Because it was strong evidence of a beginning to the material universe and therefore affirming of a Creator beyond matter.

We do not understand the “true motions of the solar system.” We have what we consider a more accurate theory of that. Be careful, Newtonians thought they had the true motions of the universe down as well.

You are loading your accusations with your own prejudice when you say God “misleads”. That is like saying the father misleads his child when he tells her the baby comes from mommy’s tummy. I would not agree. I would not call that misleading. Theologians have various descriptions such as “accomodation.”

Eric Ross - #61449

May 19th 2011

I find your evasion and obfuscation tiresome, and your amateur appologetics do not impress (if you think cosmology provides strong evidence for your God, or any god, you don’t know what you’re talking about).

Please, just answer this one simple question.  Under what circumstances would you, Brian Godawa, conclude that the Bible is incorrect on a particular point?


Brian G - #61453

May 19th 2011

Eric,

I did address your questions. You address nothing I wrote and only make baseless insults which indicates that you are not reading what I wrote in the article and posts. If you want to continue with a civil discourse, I will do so, but not until.

Eric Ross - #61477

May 20th 2011

Brian,

I have read everything you have written on this page thus far.  I find no answer to the question I have asked repeatedly.  Let me try again.  I am looking for something like this:

“If the Bible contained statement A, I, Brian Godawa, would conclude that it is false because we have discovered, beyond a reasonable doubt, that in fact B is true.”

OR

“The Bible, as written, contains statement C.  If we were to discover, beyond a reasonable doubt, that in fact D is true, I, Brian Godawa, would deem statement C to be falsified.”

Thus, I have made it easy for you—simply provide values for A and B, or C and D, or both.  I am attempting to discern what, if anything, would falsify the Bible, at least in part, for you.  Apparently the Bible being the bearer of false witness (see Commandments, Ten) doesn’t do it, so what would?


Brian G - #61485

May 20th 2011

I do address this in the article.


Eric Ross - #61651

May 26th 2011

In that case, you should have no trouble providing values for my placeholders A, B, C, and D.  In fact, you should be able to provide them via copy and paste.  So please, by all means ...

If I haven’t already made myself clear despite several attempts, when I speak of a statement being false, or falsified, I mean it in the usual sense of the term, as in “simply wrong, full stop”, not

something like “ought to be taken metaphorically” or “should be read as making a different point altogether”.


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