t f p g+ YouTube icon

Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, Part 4

Bookmark and Share

May 24, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins
Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, Part 4

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

This is the fourth 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 his last post, Brian looked at several aspects of the cosmography of the Old Testament, including a flat earth and geocentricity. Today, he explores more aspects of this cosmography and what it means for our reading of Scripture.

Pillars of the Earth

The notion of an immovable earth is not a mere description of observational experience by earth dwellers; it is based upon another cosmological notion that the earth is on a foundation of pillars that hold it firmly in place. (See Psa. 104:5, Job 38:4, 2Sam. 22:16, 1Sam. 2:8, Psa. 75:3, and Zech. 12:1)

Ancient man such as the Babylonians believed that mountains and important ziggurat temples had foundations that went below the earth into the abyss (apsu) or the underworld.1 But even if one would argue that the notion of foundations and pillars of the earth are only intended to be symbolic, they are still symbolic of a stationary earth that does not move.

Some have pointed out the single verse that seems to mitigate this notion of a solid foundation of pillars, Job 26:6-7: “Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering. He stretches out the north over the void and hangs the earth on nothing.” They suggest that this is a revelation of the earth in space before ancient man even knew about the spatial location of the earth in a galaxy. But the reason I do not believe this is because of the context of the verse. Within that chapter Job affirms the three-tiered universe of waters of the Abyss below him (v. 5) and under that Sheol (v. 6), with pillars holding up the heavens (v. 11). Later in the same book, God himself speaks about the earth laid on foundations (38:4), sinking its bases and cornerstone like a building (38:5-6). Ancient peoples believed the earth was on top of some other object like the back of a turtle, and that it was too heavy to float on the waters. So in context, Job 26 appears to be saying that the earth is over the waters of the abyss and Sheol, on its foundations, but there is nothing under those pillars but God himself holding it all up. This is not the suggestion of a planet hanging in space, but rather the negative claim of an earth that is not on the back of a turtle or other ancient object.

Sheol Below

Before we ascend to the heavens, let’s take a look at the Underworld below the earth. The Underworld was a common location of extensive stories about gods and departed souls of men journeying to the depths of the earth through special gates of some kind into a geographic location that might also be accessed through cracks in the earth above.2 Entire Mesopotamian stories engage the location of the subterranean netherworld in their narrative such as The Descent of Inanna, The Descent of Ishtar, Nergal and Ereshkigal, and many others.

Sheol was the Hebrew word for the underworld.3 Though the Bible does not contain any narratives of experiences in Sheol, it was nevertheless described as the abode of the dead that was below the earth. Though Sheol was sometimes used interchangeably with “Abaddon” as the place of destruction of the body (Prov. 15:11; 27:20),4 and “the grave” (qibrah) as a reference to the state of being dead and buried in the earth (Psa. 88:11; Isa. 14:9-11) it was also considered to be physically located beneath the earth in the same way as other ANE worldviews.

When the sons of Korah are swallowed up by the earth for their rebellion against God, Numbers chapter 16 says that “they went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly (v. 33).” People would not “fall alive” into death or the grave and then perish if Sheol was not a location. But they would die after they fall down into a location (Sheol) and the earth closes over them after that.

The divine being (elohim), known as the departed spirit of Samuel “came up out of the earth” for the witch of Endor’s necromancy with Saul (1Sam. 28:13). This was not a reference to a body coming out of a grave, but a spirit of the dead coming from a location beneath the earth. When Isaiah writes about Sheol in Isaiah 14, he combines the notion of the physical location of the dead body in the earth (v. 11) with the location beneath the earth of the spirits of the dead (v. 9). It’s really a both/and proposition.

Here is a list of some verses that speak of Sheol geographically as a spiritual underworld in contrast with heaven as a spiritual overworld: Amos 9:2, Job 11:8, Psa. 16:10, Psa. 139:8, Isa. 7:11

These are not mere references to the body in the grave, but to locations of the spiritual soul as well. Sheol is a combined term that describes both the grave for the body and the underworld location of the departed souls of the dead.

In the New Testament, the word Hades is used for the underworld, which was the Greek equivalent of Sheol.5 Jesus himself used the term Hades as the location of damned spirits in contrast with heaven as the location of redeemed spirits when he talked of Capernaum rejecting miracles, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades (Matt. 11:23).” Hades was the location of departed spirits in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Hades (Luke 16:19-31).

In Greek mythology, Tartarus was another term for a location beneath the “roots of the earth” and beneath the waters where the warring giants called “Titans” were bound in chains because of their rebellion against the gods.6 Peter uses a derivative of that very Greek word Tartarus to describe a very similar location and scenario of angels being bound during the time of Noah and the warring titans called “Nephilim.”7

2Pet. 2:4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [tartaroo] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah.

The Watery Abyss

In Mesopotamian cosmography, the Abyss (Apsu in Akkadian) was a cosmic subterranean lake or body of water that was between the earth and the underworld (Sheol), and was the source of the waters above such as oceans, rivers, and springs or fountains.8 In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah, tells his fellow citizens that he is building his boat and will abandon the earth of Enlil to join Ea in the waters of the Abyss that would soon fill the land.9 Even bitumen pools used to make pitch were thought to rise up from the “underground waters,” or the Abyss.10

In the Bible the earth also rests on the seas or “the deep” (tehom) that produces the springs and waters from its subterranean waters below the earth (see Psa. 24:1-2, Psa. 136:6, Gen. 49:25, Ex. 20:4)

Leviathan is even said to dwell in the Abyss in Job 41:32 (LXX). And when God brings the flood, part of the waters are from “the fountains of the great deep” bursting open (Gen. 7:11; 8:2).


1. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, 98, 124, 308-12, 336-37.
2. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, p 348-362
3. “Sheol,” DDD, p 768.
4. “Abaddon,” DDD, p 1.
5. “Hades,” DDD, p 382.
6. “They then conducted them [the Titans] under the highways of the earth as far below the ground as the ground is below the sky, and tied them with cruel chains. So far down below the ground is gloomy Tartarus...Tartarus is surrounded by a bronze moat...above which the roots of earth and barren sea are planted. In that gloomy underground region the Titans were imprisoned by the decree of Zeus.” Norman Brown, Trans. Theogony: Hesiod. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953, p 73-4.
7. 1.25 ταρταρόω [tartaroo] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible societies, 1996. Bauckham, Richard J. Vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Peter, Jude. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002, p 248-249.
8. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, p 334-348.
9. The Epic of Gilgamesh XI:40-44. The Ancient Near East an Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Edited by James Bennett Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, p 93.
10. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, p 337.

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/.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Merv - #61654

May 26th 2011

Your description of ancient or Babylonian cosmology makes it easy to “think their thoughts after them” and imagine why some things seemed so obvious to the ancient world.  While we now think of oceans as being atop a crustal surface, it looks like they imagined a reverse scenario where land (and its supporting pillars) were floating in or surrounded by water which they took as the “base” substance (echoed in Genesis 1:2?)  If a young lad had lived his entire life in a boat at sea, he may think of the boat as the only type of structure on which people can live, and the water as the basis for that structure.  He sees water all around where the boat is not, and knows it is underneath the boat, since any holes in the boat admit water.  (springs bubbling up through the earth).  Of course, volcanoes showed other things too as being subterranean (brimstone from the tormented underworld), but they envisioned water underlying even that.  I seem to remember reading about the ancient view that earth was like a living creature in which water was somehow pushed through veins like blood enabling it to bubble up in springs even in the mountains.  They didn’t imagine that an evaporative water cycle could fill that role which left them with the problem of water getting uphill. 

Regarding earlier comments about heaven being “up” —  since all directions away from the earth are “up”, the seemingly infinite cosmos would be the logical setting for such an association.  Even with the geocentric Ptolemaic system, they did have one point of their cosmology correct:  they thought of the earth as being a small speck compared to the size of the cosmos.  While I don’t think Heaven can be located in a spatial or Cartesian way, I certainly can’t disprove the possibility, and for those who want to speculate in that direction they have a virtually infinite cosmos out there to speculate about.  One other note on a more recent kind of cosmology:  C.S. Lewis in his space trilogy imagined space as a gloriously warm, welcoming, and starry bright place.  His books predated the first space flights, and so could have represented viable speculations of the day.  Now we see it in terms of deadly temperature extremes and fatal radiation —NOT a friendly place.  It would be interesting to analyze the psychological / religious effects of that switch in cosmology.


Brian G - #61693

May 26th 2011

You know, it’s interesting that immersing myself in all this biblical imagery got me to thinking about it as I prayed. Sometimes as I pray, I envision the very cosmography they are depicting in the Bible, like God on his throne above the waters that reflects the temple down on earth (which is now his people). Of course I think of it in terms of metaphor carrying the same meaning and purpose behind creation that the Bible writers themselves carried in their expressions. I know, I’m weird.

But it reminds me of David writing about the sun coming out like a bridegroom from its chamber. Well, David considered that a metaphor for the personality of God behind the event giving it a personification that reflected upon God’s own creative beauty and immanent involvement in his creation. 

Every one of these historic cosmographies certainly do reflect a complex creativity and increasing beauty with each advance. As our cosmographic knowledge expands, so does my appreciation of God’s creativity and beauty.

Yeah, I remember that passage at the end of the space triology. In fact, I quoted it at the end of my latest book! 

Merv - #61732

May 27th 2011

I think you would be weird NOT to use any metaphor.  What else can we humans do when thinking of something we can’t see?  A white-haired old man seems to be the current imagery used by many (like in Far-side cartoons).  The mind will use a symbol where no concrete object is readily available. 

My references to Lewis’ trilogy were only the vague sort—that I remember that impression from somewhere in those books.  So now I’m curious which specific passage you are remembering.  I’ll have to see if I can find my copy at home.

(so if moles or worms had been the species to develop religious consciousness, they would be worshiping their savior who finally “descended before them” into the heavenly depths, saving them from the sun-scorched over-world and its torments.)

Brian G - #61820

May 30th 2011

Here is the passage. Though I must say, Lewis was keenly aware of the “coldness” of space at that time, and he was actually remystifying space through a new lens.

But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and
more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A
nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in
the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back
of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold
vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds… but now
that very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of
radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead”; he felt life pouring
into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of
this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he
saw now that it was the womb of worlds. No: space was the wrong name. Older
thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens - the heavens
which declared the glory–the


“happy climes that ly

Where day never shuts his eye

Up in the broad fields of the sky.”

C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York, NY: Scribner, 1938, 2003), pg 34.

Merv - #61733

May 27th 2011

A classic (probably deliberate) confusion over metaphor that comes to mind would be General (cosmonaut) Titov who declared he hadn’t seen any God while orbiting the earth. 

One wonders what kind of confusion might have ensued had he seen a white-haired old man sitting in some sort of gold throne in low-earth orbit.  One further wonders just what such an observation would that have convinced him of!

It seems to me that for all of us in every age, our cosmology is “nothing more than” context.  Sagan mistakes context for content.  Theists want to put the content in context.


Jesse - #62400

June 9th 2011

Very interesting information. I can imagine some people protesting that the authors of the Bible did not actually believe that the dead went down into the interior of the Earth, or that the Earth stood on pillars over water, or that Heaven was a place located physically above a solid dome over the Earth; but rather the authors were describing supernatural places in ways that all people could understand, assuming that everyone views Up as good and pleasant and Down as unpleasant (because that is what these people who are protesting assume).

This assumption is not necessarily true, though. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine a different culture that believed Heaven is Down and Hell is Up:
This culture might believe that the wiser a person gets, the heavier his spirit gets, because wisdom is deep and weighty, while foolish people have shallow, fluffy spirits that float. So when a wise person dies, his spirit descends into the Earth, while foolish spirits drift up and away.

Alternatively, another people might believe that when people die, the spirits of righteous people leave the body to go Up during the day, when it is bright and good, and I guess they go around the Earth with the Sun, always in the Light. Evil people’s spirits leave at night, when it’s dark and cold. Alternatively, evil spirits go Up in the daytime, cos the Sun is hot and bright and burns them; while good spirits leave at night, when the sky’s all pretty (especially on clear nights) and it’s cooler. The latter might work better in warm climates. Either way, Up is both good and bad.

It’s fascinating to think of how different worldviews might shape interpretation of the Bible.
Page 1 of 1   1