This is the third 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 parts one and two, Brian revealed how his own view of what a “plain reading” of Scripture meant was challenged by his studying of ancient Hebrew culture and the Galileo affair. Today, he begins to look more closely at some of the ancient cosmic geography found in the Bible.
The Three-Tiered Universe
Othmar Keel, leading expert on ancient Near Eastern art has argued that there was no singular technical physical description of the cosmos in the ancient Near East, but rather patterns of thinking, similarity of images, and repetition of motifs.1 A common simplification of these images is expressed in the three-tiered universe of the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.2 A good generic depiction of this cosmography is rendered on page 108 in Denis Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creation:
Wayne Horowitz has chronicled Mesopotamian texts that illustrate this multi-leveled universe among the successive civilizations of Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria. The heavens above were further subdivided into “the heaven of Anu (or chief god)” at the very top, the “middle heavens” below him and the sky. In the middle was the earth’s surface, and below that was the third level that was further divided into the waters of the abyss and the underworld.
Let’s take a look at the Scriptures that appear to reinforce this three-tiered universe so different from our modern understanding of expanding galaxies of warped space-time, where the notion of heaven and hell are without physical location. Though the focus of this essay will be on Old Testament context, I want to start with the New Testament to make the point that their cosmography did not necessarily change with the change of Old to New Covenants. (See Phil. 2:10, Rev. 5:3, 13,,Ex. 20:4, Matt. 11:23)
Phil. 2:10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth,
Rev. 5:3, 13 And no one in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the book, or to look into it… And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
Ex. 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
Matt. 11:23 Jesus said, “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades [the underworld].
Both apostles Paul and John were writing about the totality of creation being subject to the authority of Jesus on his throne. So this word picture of “heaven, earth, and under the earth” was used as the description of the total known universe – which they conceived of spatially as heaven above, the earth below, and the underworld below the earth. And not only the human writers wrote of the universe in this three-tiered fashion but so did Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith; as well as God himself, when giving the commandments on Sinai.
One may naturally wonder if this notion of “heaven above” may merely be a symbolic or figurative expression for the exalted spiritual nature of heaven. Since we cannot see where heaven is, God would use physical analogies to express spiritual truths. This explanation would be easier to stomach if the three-tiered notion were not so rooted in a cosmic geography that clearly was their understanding of the universe (as proven below). And this would further jeopardize the doctrine of the ascension of Jesus into heaven which also affirms the spatial location of heaven above and the earth below, in very literal terms. (See Acts 1:9-11; John 3:13, John 6:62, John 20:17, Eph. 4:8-10)
The location of heaven being above us may be figurative to our modern cosmology only because we now know it is not literally above us, but it was not figurative to the Biblical writers. Now let’s take a closer look at each of these tiers or domains of the cosmos through the eyes of Scripture in their ancient Near Eastern context.
Flat Earth Surrounded by Waters
I want to start with the earth because the Scriptures start with the earth. That is, the Bible is geocentric in its picture of a flat earth founded on immovable pillars at the center of the universe. Over a hundred years ago, a Babylonian map of the world was discovered that dated back to approximately the ninth century B.C. As seen below, this map was unique from other Mesopotamian maps because it was not merely local but international in its scale, and contained features that appeared to indicate cosmological interpretation.3 That map and a translated interpretation are reproduced below.4
The geography of the Babylonian map portrayed a flat disc of earth with Babylon in the center and extending out to the known regions of its empire, whose perimeters were surrounded by cosmic waters and islands out in those waters. Of the earliest Sumerian and Akkadian texts with geographical information, only the Babylonian map of the world and another text, The Sargon Geography, describe the earth’s surface, and they both picture a central circular continent surrounded by cosmic waters, often referred to as “the circle of the earth.”5 Other texts like the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, and Egyptian, and Sumerian works share in common with the Babylonian map the notion of mountains at the edge of the earth beyond which is the cosmic sea and the unknown6, and from which come “the circle of the four winds” that blow upon the four corners of the earth (a reference to compass points).7
The Biblical picture of the earth is remarkably similar to this Mesopotamian cosmic geography. When Daniel had his dream from God in Babylon, of a tree “in the middle of the earth” whose height reached so high that “it was visible to the end of the whole earth,” (Dan. 4:10) it reflected this very Babylonian map of the culture that Daniel was educated in. One cannot see the end of the whole earth on a globe, but one can do so on a circular continent embodying the known world of Babylon as the center of the earth.
“The ends of the earth” is a common phrase, occurring over fifty times throughout the Scriptures that means more than just “remote lands,” but rather includes the notion of the very physical end of the whole earth all round before the cosmic waters that hem it in. Here are just a few of the verses that indicate this circular land mass bounded by seas as the entire earth: Isa. 41:9; Psa. 65:5; Zech. 9:10; Mark 13:27; Acts 13:47; Job 28:24
Remember that Mesopotamian phrase, “circle of the earth” that meant a flat disc terra firma? Well, it’s in the Bible too. “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers” (Isa. 40:22). Some have tried to say that the Hebrew word for “circle” could mean sphere, but it does not. The Hebrew word used here (ḥûg) could however refer to a vaulted dome that covers the visible circular horizon, which would be more accurate to say, “above the vault of the earth.”8 If Isaiah had wanted to say the earth was a sphere he would have used another word that he used in a previous chapter (22:18) for a ball, but he did not.9
Two further Scriptures use this “circle of the earth” in reference to God’s original creation of the land out of the waters and extend it outward to include the circumferential ocean with its own mysterious boundary:
Prov. 8:27 When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep… 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
Job 26:10 He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness [where the sun rises and sets].
Even when the Old Testament writers are deliberately using metaphors for the earth, they use metaphors for a flat earth spread out like a flat blanket, as in Job 38:13, Job 38:18, Psa. 136:6, and Isa. 44:24.
In the Bible, the earth is not merely a flat disk surrounded by cosmic waters under the heavens; it is also the center of the universe. To the ancient Near Eastern mindset, including that of the Hebrews, the earth did not move (except for earthquakes) and the sun revolved around that immovable earth. They did not know that the earth was spinning one thousand miles an hour and flying through space at 65,000 miles an hour. Evidently, God did not consider it important enough to correct this primitive inaccurate understanding. Here are the passages that caused such trouble with those early Christians who took the text too literally because it did not seem to be figurative to them: Psa. 19:4; Psa. 50:1; Eccl. 1:5; Josh. 10:13; Matt. 5:45.
Two objections are often raised when considering these passages. First, they use phenomenal language. That is, they describe simply what the viewer observes and makes no cosmological claims beyond simply description of what one sees. We even use these terms of the sun rising and setting today and we know the earth moves around the sun. Fair enough. The only problem is they were pre-scientific and did not know the earth went around the sun, so when they said the sun was moving from one end of the heavens to the other they had absolutely no reason to believe that it was not doing so.10
The second objection is that some of the language is obvious metaphor. David painted the sun as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber or of being summoned by God and responding like a human. This is called anthropomorphism and is obviously poetic. But the problem here is that the metaphors still reinforce the sun doing all the moving around a stationary immobile earth (see 1Chr. 16:30; Psa. 93:1; Psa. 96:10).
Understandably, these texts have been thought to indicate that the Bible is explicitly saying the earth does not move. But the case is not so strong for these examples because the Hebrew word used in these passages for “the world” is not the word for earth (erets), but the word that is sometimes used for the inhabited world (tebel). So it is possible that these verses are talking about the “the world order” as does the poetry of 2Sam. 22:16. But the problem that then arises is that the broader chapter context of these verses describe the earth’s physical aspects such as oceans, trees, and in the case of 1Chron. 16:30, even the “earth” (erets) in redundant context with the “world” (tebel), which would seem to indicate that “world” may refer to the physical earth. Lastly, world can be interchangeable with earth as it is in 1Sam. 2:8, “For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, And He set the world on them.”
And this adds a new element to the conversation of a stationary earth, a foundation of pillars, which we will look at in my next post.
1. Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World, Winona Lake; IN: Eisenbrauns, 1972, 1997, 16-59.
2. Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, Winona Lake; IN: Eisenbrauns, 1998, xii-xiii.
3. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, 25-27.
4. Photo is public domain (Courtesy of the British Museum). Illustration is my reproduction from Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography.
5. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, 320, 334. This interpretation continued to maintain influence even into the Greek period of the 6th century B.C. (41).
6. A Sumerian hymn to the god Enlil, Lord of the Wind, represents these ends of the earth within the context of the god’s rule over all the earth: Lord, as far as the edge of heaven, lord as far as the edge of earth, from the mountain of sunrise to the mountain of sunset. In the mountain/land, no (other) lord resides, you exercise lordship. Enlil, in the lands no (other) lady resides, your wife, exercises ladyship. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, 331. “Circle of the earth” in Egyptian understanding meant the disc of the earth unto the horizon “(These) lands were united, and they laid their hands upon the land as far as the Circle of the Earth.” “Inscription on the second pylon at Medinet Habu,” J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, University of Chicago, 1906, p 64.
7. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, 195-97, 334.
8. “ḥûg” Harris, R. Laird, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, p 266-67.
9. Even the Septuagint (LXX) does not translate the Hebrew word into the Greek word for sphere. “Isaiah 40:22,” Tan, Randall, David A. deSilva, and Logos Bible Software. The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear Septuagint. Logos Bible Software, 2009.
10. “The Firmament And The Water Above: Part I: The Meaning Of Raqia In Gen 1:6-8,” Paul H. Seely, The Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 227-40.