Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, Part 6
This is the sixth and final part 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 the last post, Brian concluded his examples of the ancient cosmography found in the Bible. Today he offers some closing thoughts on what these examples mean for a “plain reading” of Scripture.
So, What’s Wrong With the Bible?
As I stated earlier, if I believe that the Bible cannot be scientifically inaccurate without jeopardizing its authority as God’s Word, then I am in big trouble because the Bible clearly contains the Mesopotamian cosmic geography of a three-tiered universe with God on a heavenly throne above a heavenly sea, underneath which is a solid vaulted dome with the sun, moon, and stars connected to it, covering the flat disc earth, founded immovably firm on pillars, surrounded by a circular sea, on top of a watery abyss, beneath which is the underworld of Sheol.
Some well-intentioned Evangelicals seek to maintain their particular definition of Biblical inerrancy by denying that the Bible contains this ancient Near Eastern cosmography. They try to explain it away as phenomenal language or poetic license. Phenomenal language is the act of describing what one sees subjectively from one’s perspective without further claiming objective reality. So when the writer says the sun stood still, or that the sun rises and sets within the solid dome of heaven, he is only describing his observation, not cosmic reality. The claim of observation from a personal frame of reference is certainly true as far as it goes. Of course the observer describes what they are observing. But the distinction between appearance and reality is an imposition of our alien modern understanding onto theirs. As Seely explains,
It is precisely because ancient peoples were scientifically naive that they did not distinguish between the appearance of the sky and their scientific concept of the sky. They had no reason to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as the earth itself.1
If the ancients did not know the earth was a sphere in space, they could not know that their observations of appearances were anything other than reality. It would be easy enough to relegate one or two examples of Scripture to the notion of phenomenal language, but when dozens of those phenomenal descriptions reflect the same complex integrated picture of the universe that Israel’s neighbors shared, and when that picture included many elements that were not phenomenally observable, such as the Abyss, Sheol or the pillars of earth and heaven, it strains credulity to suggest these were merely phenomenal descriptions intentionally unrelated to reality. If it walks like a Mesopotamian duck and talks like a Mesopotamian duck, then chances are they thought it was an Mesopotamian duck, not just the “appearance” of one having no reality.
It would be a mistake to claim that there is a single monolithic Mesopotamian cosmography.2 There are varieties of stories with overlapping imagery, and some contradictory notions. But there are certainly enough commonalities to affirm a generic yet mysterious picture of the universe. And that picture in Scripture undeniably includes poetic language. The Hebrew culture was imaginative. They integrated poetry into everything, including their observational descriptions of nature. Thus a hymn of creation such as Psalm 19 tells of the heavens declaring God’s glory as if using speech, and then describes the operations of the sun in terms of a bridegroom in his chamber or a man running a race. Metaphor is inescapable and ubiquitous. And herein lies a potential solution for the dilemma of scientific inaccuracy of the Mesopotamian cosmic geography in Scripture: The Israelite culture, being pre-scientific, thought more in terms of function and purpose than material structure. Even if their picture of the heavens and earth as a three-tiered geocentric cosmology, was scientifically “false,” from our modern perspective, it nevertheless still accurately describes the teleological purpose and meaning of creation that they were intending to communicate.
Othmar Keel, one of the leading scholars on Ancient Near Eastern art has argued that even though modern depictions of the ancient worldview like the illustration of the three-tiered universe above are helpful, they are fundamentally flawed because they depict a “profane, lifeless, virtually closed mechanical system,” which reflects our own modern bias. To the ancient Near East “rather, the world was an entity open at every side. The powers which determine the world are of more interest to the ancient Near East than the structure of the cosmic system. A wide variety of diverse, uncoordinated notions regarding the cosmic structure were advanced from various points of departure.”3
John Walton has written recently of this ANE concern with powers over structure in direct relation to the creation story of Genesis. He argues that in the ancient world existence was understood more in terms of function within a god-created purposeful order than in terms of material status within a natural physical structure.4 This is not to say that the physical world was denied or ignored, but rather that the priority and interests were different from our own. We should therefore be careful in judging their purpose-driven cosmography too strictly in light of our own material-driven cosmography. And in this sense, modern material descriptions of reality are just as “false” as the ancient pictures because they do not include the immaterial aspect of reality: Meaning and purpose.
Biblical writers did not teach their cosmography as scientific doctrine revealed by God about the way the physical universe was materially structured, they assumed the popular cosmography to teach their doctrine about God’s purposes and intent. To critique the cosmic model carrying the message is to miss the meaning altogether, which is the message. God’s throne may not be physically above us in waters held back by a solid firmament, but he truly does rule “over” us and is king and sustainer of creation in whatever model man uses to depict that creation. The phrase “every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth” (Rev. 5:13) is equivalent in meaning to the modern concept of every particle and wave in every dimension of the Big Bang space-time continuum, as well as every person dead or alive in heaven or hell.
The geocentric picture in Scripture is a depiction through man’s ancient perspective of God’s purpose and humankind’s significance. For a modern heliocentrist to attack that picture as falsifying the theology would be cultural imperialism of the worst kind. Reducing significance to physical location is simply a prejudice of material priority over spiritual purpose. One of the humorous ironies of this debate is that if the history of science is any judge, a thousand years from now, scientists will no doubt consider our current paradigm with which we judge the ancients to be itself fatally flawed. This is not to reduce reality to relativism, but rather to illustrate that all claims of empirical knowledge contain an inescapable element of human fallibility and finitude. A proper response should be a bit more humility and a bit less hubris regarding the use of our own scientific models as standards in judging theological meaning or purpose.
The skeptic who says that the Bible is scientifically false and therefore unreliable myth reducible to mere human construction assumes the same criteria of judgment as the Evangelical Christian who says that the Bible must be scientifically accurate or it is not the Word of God. They both assume the fallacy that precision of physical description verifies the accuracy of transcendent meaning or interpretation. The worldview that most accurately depicts material structure is the one that knows true meaning. The proposition that a scientifically “false” description can communicate spiritual truth or meaning becomes an outrageous truth claim. But is it really so outrageous?
If a young child asks where babies come from, who is right: The father who says, “from mommy’s tummy,” the scientist who says, “no, from both your mother and father,” or the pastor who says, “from God.”5 Answer: They are all right and all wrong, depending on the frame of reference (my Einstein bias). The father is scientifically imprecise in his structural definition. The baby actually comes from the uterus. But for a young child, the father must alter his language to accommodate the child’s own context and understanding or the child will simply not understand. But the truth claim is still true enough despite the lack of scientific precision. Though the scientist is more precise, he too must adapt his description to the child and suffers the falsity of attributing creative powers to the humans whose genetics are not determined by their choices. Lastly, the pastor is imprecise in that the baby does not come directly from God to the world, as his statement may imply, but is mediated through human behavior and genetics. But he is right in that ultimately, God is the origin of all created things and certainly in terms of meaning, God gives that baby its meaning of existence. Knowledge of the material world is simply not the only form of legitimate knowledge.
So now, imagine the foolishness of that scientist spending his time and energy trying to discredit loving fathers and pastors for using imprecise descriptions of biology in their answer to the child. As the child grows into a young adult, she will become more precise or accurate in her understanding of just exactly where babies come from in a scientific sense, but that knowledge has no bearing on the enduring truth that babies come from mommy’s tummy and from God. God remains the transcendent origin of that baby as well as its provider of significance and meaning, something science simply cannot discover in material processes alone.
So, now our modern cosmography/cosmology is more precise and accurate than the Mesopotamian cosmography assumed by the Biblical writers, but that does not discredit the intent of the Scriptural picture which is to give glory to God for his sovereign origin and control of creation. Even in today’s modern world I can still affirm with full truthfulness that...
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
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.” Rev. 5:13
1. Seely, “The Firmament,” p 228.
2. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography.
3. Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World, Winona Lake; IN: Eisenbrauns, 1972, 1997, 56-57.
4. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IL, InterVarsity Press, 2009), 23-36.
5. The genesis of this analogy is from Michael Heiser, “Genesis & Creation - Class 3 of 4” - September 29, 2010 at Grace Church Bellingham, video lecture, at 20’35”, (accessed April 8, 2011). Michael probably got it from Calvin who said, ““For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accomodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness” (Calvin, Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1).