Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, Part 3

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May 20, 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 3

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)

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.

Geocentricity

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.

Notes

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.


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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Loren Haas - #61540

May 22nd 2011

Brian,

     Over the past few weeks my pastor has been teaching about creation, Adam & Eve, and Noah in terms of how these stories were understood by the ancient listeners. Your scholarly paper arrived in a very timely fashion to be incorporated into his sermons and be directed to on his blog (http://peterrshaw.blogspot.com/) Thanks for making this important knowledge accessible without reading a dozen books!

 


Brian G - #61547

May 23rd 2011

That’s encouraging to hear, Loren.

Thanks for the kudos and tip!

Merv - #61542

May 22nd 2011

So was this Babylonian cosmology just not as sophisticated as the later Ptolemaic one?  I notice that sun, moon, & stars are all lumped into the same sphere, whereas in the Ptolemaic system they recognize the separate spheres (and their concentric order) for the moon, sun, and stars.  Surely the Babylonians had seen eclipses?  Or was this geocentric cosmology just not as concerned with the details of how the heavens might be mapped?

—Merv


Brian G - #61548

May 23rd 2011

Othmar Keel addresses the fact that there is no complete or coherent systemic cosmography because the powers that determine the world were of more interest than the physical structure of the world. I guess that Ptolemy was more structurally sophisticated in that sense. Genesis 1:14-17 talks about all the lights being in the solid firmament in a general sense. I am not aware of any other notion in the Bible or Mesopotamian Cosmography of concentric spheres. There may be, but I have not come across it yet. Maybe someone else may know.


Jon Garvey - #61619

May 25th 2011

“Othmar Keel addresses the fact that there is no complete or coherent systemic cosmography because the powers that determine the world were of more interest than the physical structure of the world.”

This is surely key - one error is to be using our own very physical worldview to translate ancient ones, in which the physical is very much secondary to other considerations like spiritual heirarchy, function etc. A more recent (and therefore accessible) example I have cited before is the mediaeval mappa mundi, which serves a completely different function from the how-to-get-from-A-to-B approach of today. In its own terms mappa mundi represents the world accurately - more accurately than ours which don’t show Jerusalem at the centre.
 
An even more recent example is the typical evolutionary-history world map, in which realistic seas, mountains and lifeforms inhabit a spiral suspended in space. To ask why the world doesn’t really look like that is simply the wrong question.


Robert Byers - #61588

May 24th 2011

The bible was done by God and not men. it has no errors. These others do because they were men with worthless investigative abilities and generally not that sharp.

The article here is trying to undercut confidence in the bible by saying its like the others with kooky ideas.
Its not the others.
The bible is true and its conclusions on nature are true and mens ideas that contradict it are not true.
Its of no persuasive bearing on the accuracy of the bible by bringing up the inaccuracy of obscure ancient peoples.



Brian G - #61598

May 24th 2011

Robert,

Your view is heterodox and not in line with the Scriptures. According to the Scriptures themselves, the Bible is written by both God AND men (2Pet 1:20-21, 2Tim 3:16). As I proved from the Bible, the Scriptures say the earth is a flat disc surrounded by circular waters with a solid dome sky and waters above that dome, with Sheol beneath the earth. 

Robert Byers - #61614

May 24th 2011

I say the scriptures are clear they are from Gods mind and not mere humans. Starting with the begining and the ending.

The scriptures don’t say the earth is flat and so on.
I guess your going to pick verses.
yet if the bible was wrong and so written by men its very unlikely that over the centuries the authors would all agree or understand the same few points on these details.
In fact the issues here are not interesting to them and only by chance comments could would figure out what they thought.
i will watch to see the proof that the bible was not written by God and by man on some points and so wrong.
P.S. one would think the earth shape etc would of been Gods contribution.


Brian G - #61616

May 24th 2011

Robert,

You can read the full article right now. Click on the link up in the intro. I have examined dozens of verses that demand an answer from those who would deny what the Bible says.
When I expound dozens of Scriptures that prove the Bible assumes a flat earth, a three tiered universe with Sheol below and waters in heaven above with a solid firmament, it is not a Biblical argument to just deny all those Scriptures and say “The scriptures do not say the earth is flat.” I just showed that it does. You must answer the Bible, and that’s with a capital “B”.

Robert Byers - #61618

May 25th 2011

I read some of the verses and general concepts behind your conclusions here.

I watched carefully.
Every verse need not be seen as saying the earth is flat.
You mention spheres but this is exactly what it is. it doesn’t mean its a sphere over a flat earth despite what others elsewhere thought.
Ends of the earth means the end of land areas. we use the term today. it doesn’t mean a flat square.
Circle on the water.
these terms would fit with common observation and need not nor are to be seen as comments on the shape of earth.
They fir fine.
You are still trying to say the bible is not the word of god on points touching on nature.
Your verses are not proof but only interpretations of meanings.
in fact the bible says little and is not making a opinion.
There is little here to conclude the bible is wrong because there is little period. i do see these verses as very vague and fine with the readership in their observations and so not making a bigger point of the earth.
so the bible is not proven to be saying theirs a flat earth.
Just flat out wrong.

Mazzeratti - #61604

May 24th 2011

Robert,

I would agree with Brian’s assessment of the cosmology presented in the Bible. This does not demean or diminish God’s message and glory to his people. It is completely in line with an ANE understanding at that time. It took me quite a while to understand and come to grips with this after being a literalist for so long. The Word of God still stands strong and my love for Christ has never wavered.


DanB - #61717

May 27th 2011

There are a few reasons why I cannot agree with this article.  I am writing as someone who is still an agnostic and fairly new to the Bible.  Raised in a completely non-religious household I had also heard certain views attributed to the Bible (such as the Bible stating that the earth is flat or that the universe is geocentric - similar to the issues you address in this article).  When I finally read the Bible for myself this past year I was surprised to find that
a) the Bible is NOT a science text book and really makes no, or very little, effort to explain the physical universe

 and

b) it clearly does not state such things as the earth being at the center of the universe.

Therefore, when I read in this article “the Bible is geocentric in its picture of a flat earth founded on
immovable pillars at the center of the universe” I cannot agree.  I never read anything in the Bible that indicated that nor do the passages quoted in this article indicate that, at least in my reading of them.  In general the quoted passage was really speaking about some other than how the universe functioned and happened to mention physical events with the sort of language that most all humans have used to describe those events, even to this day when we know the reality of our universe and our language don’t exactly concur.

Furthermore, the Bible, irrespective of what it’s authors knew or believed, had to be written so as to be understood by humans.  So if it turns out there is such a thing as heaven and it resides in some other dimensions in our universe, or some other universe in a multiverse, we can’t really expect the author of the Bible, even if it were God, to have said that, can we?  No one would have understood those terms.  In fact, if the New Testament is accurately quoting Jesus he states that not everything could be properly explained as it would not be understood.

There is one final point that I think is extremely important and it is that we have to distinguish between what Christians as a people believe and what Christianity as a religion (or the Bible) teaches.  In the 18th Century it was widely believed that disease resulted from “bad” blood and therefore blood letting was a treatment for disease.  Presumeably most Christians of the day believed that disease was inherently a problem of their blood.  Fine, it is then to correct to say that most Christians of that time believed that.

However, it would be something very different, and entirely wrong, to say that is a fundamental tenant of Christianity, or that that belief is based on Christian scripture.  That would be flatly false - it was a belief commonly held by Christians but based upon other parts of their knowledge, in this case faulty science.

Similarly, to this day Christian Scientists may believe that all physical ailments result from spiritual problems.  I am also sure they probably cite some passages of the Bible that incline them to believe that.  However, in reading the Bible myself I see nothing to indicate that that is true and so I don’t believe it would be fair to attribute those beliefs to the Bible - they are simply  a belief that some people who are Christians hold and read into Bible passages.

 I could say that Jesus’s teachings on the evil of money and the importance of charity to others lead me to be a liberal Democrat, and that is fine as far as it goes.  But it would be flatly wrong to say that Christianity or the Bible says we should all be liberals.  I hope you can see the point.

Therefore, I think this article is problematic in that it conflates what the Bible says on these subjects of the physical realities of our planet and universe, which is, frankly, very little, with what Christians of any given age may have believed independently of their Christian faith.  This can mislead people who are unfamiliar with Christianity or religion in general, such as myself, and dissuade them from reading what is, at the very least, a very important body of human knowledge.


Brian G - #61819

May 30th 2011

Dan,

Thanks for your comments. I don’t entirely disagree with your statements. I would only say that I sought to prove the “picture of the universe” that the ancient Jews understood through it’s implicit presence in their writings. You are right that what Christians believe is not necessarily what the Bible says, And that is precisely what I was proving as well. Many Christians believe the Bible is addressing science and “teaching” a young earth or the Big Bang or what have you. But the ancients just didn’t think that way. 

BUT everyone thinks and perceives through a paradigm of the universe and I was trying to tease out the ANE one that I think resides in the ANE Jewish mindset. By seeking to address Scriptures within their cultural context, that is one of the ways we can figure out just what God was saying and is saying to humankind.

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