Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, Part 6

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May 30, 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 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.
Psa. 19:1-6

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

Notes

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).


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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Roger A. Sawtelle - #61800

May 30th 2011

The geocentric picture in Scripture is a depiction through man’s ancient perspective of God’s purpose and humankind’s significance.

While I agree that this was thought during the Middle Ages that this is true, I do not think that this is true.  Since there are strong depictions in the Bible of God’s purpose and humankind’s significance that are NOT related to geocentric cosmology, I think that it would be a mistake to assume that the geocentric cosmology is related to this.

I really do not think that Hebrews were concerned about cosmology, as opposed to the Greeks and ourselves.  

While it is certainly true that modern science has rejected teleology, I think that this is a mistake that corupts the modern understganding of Reality.  There is no sound philosophical basis for this decision.  Theology, i.e. the Bible, is primarily about Meaning and Purpose and to ignore them because we are looking for scientific knowledge is a very serious mistake, because science does not exhaust our understanding of reality.       


Brian G - #61815

May 30th 2011

Roger,

I would agree with you that there are many other kinds of usage for creation language, such as obvious poetic reference and even covenantal reference, as i have indicated in the article and elsewhere. So my intent here is not to establish an absolute reference for the ANE cosmography, but I think it appears to be a thread of influence. And why wouldn’t it? They were people of their times, just as we are.

Norman - #61802

May 30th 2011

Brian,

 

These points you are making in my opinion are essential to a proper understanding of scripture. There is no doubt that the ANE world view of the Jews dealt with concepts that are foreign to us today.

 

I’m glad you are tying your observations in with Walton’s recognition of a functional creation account which are extremely important not only for Genesis but also for the rest of scripture including Revelation.  If Walton is correct that Genesis 1 is a functional temple creation account with the establishment of the Heavens and Earth then likewise Revelation 21 is a functional de creation account of the new order of the world. In Rev 21 John sees a new H & E but there is no “sea” and there is a “new city” coming down from above. There also is no “sun nor moon” nor Temple because God and the Lamb provide the Light.  Many want to ascribe this description to  a physical new world order somewhere off in the future or even in Heaven itself but under an ANE functional creation scenario it makes perfect sense to view it as the new Kingdom of Christ becoming fully established.

 

From the Jewish perspective the “sea” represented the waters from whom Israel was drawn out of to be made a separate and special people but in the new H & E the “sea” is no longer, meaning the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been done away with or functionally de created by God through Christ. The New city from above replaces the physical Jerusalem which is doomed for destruction according to Christ.  The Temple no longer resides in a place made with human hands but resides in the hearts of Gods people.  The sun and the moon are no longer needed for determining times and seasons anymore for festivals because the Lamb is the lamp who brings light.

 

When we moderns grasp this functional creation mentality of the ancient Jews then the story will unfold for us in a much more coherent manner. When we read Isaiah 65 & 66 we will grasp that with the coming of messiah there will be a “new world order” so to speak called a New Heavens and Earth. The Jews said it would be a time when the clean and unclean animals would lie down at rest with each other. It’s important to recognize then the symbolic language and how it was applied; something that often gets left in the wayside of biblical exegesis.  This New Heaven and Earth as envisioned by us moderns would have greatly confused the Jewish authors and their intended audience. However it is also true that the Jews themselves often did not have eyes to see or ears to hear according to Jesus as He expounded with parable language.  


Brian G - #61816

May 30th 2011

You give some interesting points and I agree with some of them. I hope to write an article on some of these very ideas soon. Thanks for your feedback, Norman.


Norman - #61827

May 31st 2011

Brian,

Here are a few scriptures that I believe reinforce this functional creation understanding from the Jewish perspective. This one in Jeremiah 31 appears to be especially relevant toward a deconstruction of the Gen 1 creation elements of Judaism as outlined in Rev 21. Notice that the prophecy regards the consequences of the change of covenant from the old to the new and will correspond when physical Israel ends being God’s covenant people.  This fixed order will depart from before God in regards to the old covenant ways and explicitly the sun and the moon’s purpose are no longer needed just as Rev 21 says. The stirring of the sea appears to represent the distress of the Gentile Nations at this time. 

Jer 31:27-37   …  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  not like the covenant that I made with their fathers …  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. … For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (35)  Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD of hosts is his name:  (36)  “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.” 

Luk 21:25 And there shall be signs in sun and moon and stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows; … for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken …

Gen 1:14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years,

Col 2:15-17 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.  (16)  Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  (17)  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Isa 60:3-5 And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.  (4)  Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: they all gather themselves together, they come to thee; thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be carried in the arms.  (5)  Then thou shalt see and be radiant, and thy heart shall thrill and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned unto thee, the wealth of the nations shall come unto thee.

Rev 21:24-26 And the nations shall walk amidst the light thereof: and the kings of the earth bring their glory into It …  and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it:

 

Isa 65:17 For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.

Heb 1:10-12 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning didst lay the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the works of thy hands:  (11)  They shall perish; but thou continuest: And they all shall wax old as doth a garment;  (12)  And as a mantle shalt thou roll them up, As a garment, and they shall be changed:

Gen 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Joh 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.


Steve Ruble - #61806

May 30th 2011

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.”

Consider the case of a nanny who says, “God makes them, then the stork brings them in a basket and hides them under cabbage plants, where their fathers find them in the morning.” Imagine that the child grows up a little and learns that babies are not found under cabbage plants, and are not brought anywhere by storks. Now, given this sequence, would it be reasonable for the child to continue to believe that God makes babies in heaven? I submit that it is, at the very least, reasonable for the child to doubt that God makes babies, if not to reject the claim outright. The nanny who told the story has been demonstrated to be an utterly unreliable source of information about where babies come from with regards to two thirds of the claims she made; what reason is there for the child to suppose that the third part of the story is nevertheless correct? Rather than cling to those first three words, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to simply reject the nanny’s account and start from scratch?


Isn’t this how we make judgments about how reliable people are, in general? The more often someone is incorrect in making some claim we can check, the less likely we are to believe them when they make a claim we can’t check. Everyone has a friend or two who may be fun to hang out with, but you know them well enough that you don’t really believe their stories until you’ve heard them from an independent source, because any particular detail might have been made up.

So, to tie this back into the essay: given that the authors of your scripture were demonstrably incorrect in their cosmology, and that the process by which they developed their cosmology shows that they were quite willing to make things up and/or believe them with no justification, what consistent rationale can you give for believing that they were nevertheless correct when it comes to claims about gods?

Brian G - #61818

May 30th 2011

I would agree with your analogy. However, it is all the difference from my analogy. We should not tell children that storks babies under cabbage plants, but we *should* tell them they come from mommy’s tummy. 


As i wrote in the article, the Bible does not *teach* a scientific material cosmology or cosmography. So it is not making claims of a scientific kind that can then be falsified as wrong, because as Pete Enns writes, “That’s not the point.” 

I would make a gloss on the universal truism of “context, context, context,” by saying, “genre, genre, genre.” 

Considering the fact that our own cosmography is imprecise and will be found wanting in the future (if history is any judge), then I would say, it is more accurate to say they had a less precise cosmology. And scientific precision is not the point. Think about it, in some ways, our view of the universe is actually an expanded version of their own “snow globe.” Our snow globe is just bigger.

Steve Ruble - #61832

May 31st 2011

Brian, the emphasis that you put on the claim that “the Bible does not *teach* a scientific material cosmology or cosmography” is puzzling. Certainly, the Biblical cosmological claims are not “scientific” in the sense of using the scientific method, but they obviously touch on matters which science can investigate (as I’m sure you agree); and the idea that the Bible doesn’t “teach” concepts which it explicitly and implicitly affirms to be true seems like a very unusual usage of the word “teach”. I would totally agree if you were to claim, say, that the teaching of cosmology is not the primary purpose of the Bible, but the claim that the Bible doesn’t teach cosmology at all is implausible. You might as convincingly say that the lists of “begats” were not intended to “teach” people who their ancestors really were, but were instead merely intended to metaphorically point to some fact about ancestry.

As for the trope that “our own cosmography is imprecise and will be found wanting in the future (if history is any judge),” there’s a world of difference between being wrong in thinking the world is flat (when it’s really round) and being wrong in thinking it’s a sphere (when it’s really an oblate spheroid) (H/T Isaac Asimov). No matter how cosmology changes in the future, it will never demonstrate that the world is a flat plate supported by pillers; while we may find new theoretical frameworks to explain the things we observe, we have observations, something the Mesopotamians never had.

The question, given that the ANE writers were so wildly incorrect when they made up their stories about the unobserved cosmos, is this: Why would you believe any other stories they wrote about any other unobserved entities?


hashavyahu - #61842

May 31st 2011

I agree with Steve Ruble’s comment this whole-heartedly. I find it unsatisfying to describe Genesis 1 especially as not “teaching” a version of 1st mil BCE “science.” I have found Baruch Halperns “The Assyrian Astronomy of Genesis 1 and the Birth of Milesian Philosophy,” EI 27 (2003), very suggestive in this regard. 


To some extent it just seems too easy to claim that the Bible only assumes but “doesn’t teach” ancient science. What if the Bible does teach, and not simply assume, a form of ancient science that we obviously have to bypass?

Brian G - #61849

May 31st 2011

Steve, 

The Bible is not saying, “Thus saith the Lord, this is the science of creation…” it is saying, “Thus saith the Lord, Yahweh is Lord of creation…” Different kinds of truth claims need to be addressed differently.

Your example of genealogies is a good one. As a matter of fact, genealogies are NOT mere historical lists of family history. They are sometimes intended for “metaphorically pointing to some fact about ancestry” as you put it. Case in point: Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:17. There are more than 14 generations in each of those lists. But that does not have to mean the writer is a liar or is ignorant. It can also mean the genre of genealogy is different for them than it is for us. They make theological points with genealogies that WE are not familiar with. Genre matters. 

I believe the writers about other unobserved realities through faith. The doctrine of inspiration is that the Bible is not automatic dictation and therefore it does not claim to be inerrant in “everything it touches upon.” Inspiration is the claim that God speaks through men by breathing in his truth through the human writing. So, men are limited in what they know and understand, but even though God is not limited, he still communicates sufficiently, even if not exhaustively, what he wants us to know through those imperfect humans. This is why I can see a separation between man’s limited knowledge (the flat earth of experience) and God’s revealed truth (he is sovereign creator). 


Brian G - #61850

May 31st 2011

hashavyahu,

That material sounds interesting. Is it an article or a book? I could not find it either way online.

hashavyahu - #61868

May 31st 2011

Sorry I didn’t provide a more complete citation. The article is from Eretz Israel 27 (2003). I’d be happy to email you a pdf if you’d like.Let me push the question another way. No one would deny the importance of genre, but the precise nature of the genre of Genesis 1 is up for discussion. What is at stake if it turns out that Genesis 1 does, in a mid-1st mil BCE kind of way, say, “Thus saith the Lord, this is the science of creation ....”? It seems to me to be completely within the realm of possibility that the priestly writer of Gen 1 was concerned to actually reach its own speculative astronomical/cosmological science.


Brian G - #61872

May 31st 2011

I would LOVE to get a copy of that article. Yeah, I agree that the precise nature of the genre is up for question, in fact, so is the time of authorship. I am not very convinced it is a post-exilic document myself. Much of that theory has been undone in recent years. And that can greatly affect its context. My email is brian at godawa dot com. 


Jeff Fischer - #61812

May 30th 2011

Brian,

Thanks for providing us with this excellent essay. Your “storytelling” skill is put to wonderful use here and I’ve enjoyed this series very much. A solid understanding of ANE perspective is of tremendous value when reading and studying the Scriptures, as Norman so aptly pointed out above.

Blessings.


Brian G - #61817

May 30th 2011

Thanks, William. 

More to come!

Papalinton - #61821

May 30th 2011

Yes William, that’s what it is.  Storytelling.


Merv - #61845

May 31st 2011

Thank you, Brian for your story-telling.  I’ve learned truths from both fiction and non-fiction, and Bible stories obviously make use of both categories to instruct.  Thank you for explaining these ANE connections.

—Merv


Ed Babinski - #62063

June 3rd 2011

Brian,

What is the use of
assuring Fundamentalists that science is compatible with religion. They
retort at once, “Certainly not with our religion.”

Luther Burbank, to Joseph McCabe, quoted in Joseph McCabe, “Luther Burbank Speaks Out”


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