This is the first 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.
Throughout history, all civilizations and peoples have operated under the assumption of a cosmography or picture of the universe. Cosmography is a technical term that means a theory that describes and maps the main features of the heavens and the earth. A Cosmography or “cosmic geography” can be a complex picture of the universe that includes elements like astronomy, geology, and geography; and those elements can include theological implications as well. We are most familiar with the historical change that science went through from a Ptolemaic cosmography of the earth at the center of the universe (geocentrism) to a Copernican cosmography of the sun at the center of a galaxy (heliocentrism).
Some mythologies maintained that the earth was a flat disc on the back of a giant turtle; animistic cultures believe that spirits inhabit natural objects and cause them to behave in certain ways; modern westerners believe in a space-time continuum where everything is relative to its frame of reference in relation to the speed of light. Ancients tended to believe that the gods caused the weather; moderns tend to believe that impersonal physical processes cause weather. All these different beliefs are elements of a cosmography or picture of what the universe is really like and how it operates. Even though “pre-scientific” cultures like the Hebrews did not have the same notions of science that we moderns have, they still observed the world around them and made interpretations as to the structure and operations of the universe. The Bible also contains a cosmography or picture of the universe that its stories inhabit.
I have said this before, and I will say it again: I am not a scientist, I am a professional storyteller, and so my interest in Biblical cosmography comes from my study of imagery, metaphor, and story. But a picture of the cosmos certainly has a bearing on scientific notions of the way the universe is and operates. Imagination and science are not completely unconnected. I am also a Christian who believes that the Bible is the Word of God. But does this mean that the Bible will have a cosmography that agrees with modern western science? I used to believe it did. I used to believe that if the Bible was scientifically errant in anyway, then it could not be the Word of God, since God would never communicate false information to us. That would make God a liar, or so I thought.
This led to the corollary that whatever modern science has proven would have to be in accord with the Bible’s own revelation. This is called “scientific concordism.” So, if we now know that the earth is a sphere and that the universe is expanding, then Scripture would not contradict that truth. What’s more, I might even be able to find a verse that would have that truth hidden it: Behold, I thought I found it: “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…who stretches out the heavens like a curtain” (Isa. 40:22). In this scientific concordist paradigm, the Bible contains veiled scientific truths before their time in a gnostic hiddenness that is uncovered by initiates into such mysteries.
Unfortunately, this paradigm would lead to much cognitive dissonance for me as I tortured the text to fit whatever scientific theory I was trying to support at the time. First, I accepted Genesis as literally explaining material creation chronology and relegated evolutionary scientists to dishonest manipulators of facts.1 Then I tried to find dinosaurs in the Bible by interpreting the Leviathan or Behemoth as references to ichthyosaurs and sauropods.2 Then I tried to make six literal days and young chronology of Creation in Genesis square symbolically with the seriously old age of the earth.3 Then I tried to creatively reconcile the billions of years of the Big Bang with 24-hour earth-bound solar days though gravity-warped space-time.4
I also thought that the best interpretation of the Bible was the “plain reading” of the text. That is, any interpretation that would turn the meaning into unwarranted figurative, symbolic, allegorical or metaphorical language would be disingenuous hermeneutics. I didn’t mean obvious figurative and allegorical language like parables of talking brambles and trees (Jud. 9:7-15) or clearly poetic expressions of singing mountains and clapping trees (Isa. 55:12). I meant that when the Bible talked about the physical order and events in heaven and earth it would mean just what it said since the Creator of the cosmos would know best what was actually happening.
But something started to seriously challenge these assumptions. First, as I studied the ancient Hebrew culture and its surrounding Near Eastern background, I began to see how very different a “plain reading” of a text was to them than a “plain reading” was to me.5 The ancient Hebrew mind was steeped in different symbols, ideas, and language than I was. If I read a phrase like “sun, moon and stars,” my western cultural understanding, which is deeply affected by a post-Galileo, post-Enlightened, materialist science would tend to read such references in terms of the physical bodies of matter, gas, and gravity spread out over vast light years of space-time. When ancient Israelites used that phrase, they would have pictures in their minds of markers and signs (Gen. 1:14), and more personal objects like pagan gods (Deut. 4:19), heavenly beings (1 Kg. 22:19), symbolic influential leaders (Gen. 37:9), or the fall of governing powers (Isa. 13:10).6
An ancient Jew hearing the words leviathan and sea conjured up notions of a disordered world without Yahweh’s rule, and Yahweh’s covenant creation out of chaos.7 Whereas for me, hearing those words makes me think of a monster fish swimming in the ocean – or maybe Moby Dick, a symbol of man’s hubris – but primarily the physical material being of those objects. It is easier to see now that my plain reading of the text through my modern western worldview could completely miss the plain meaning that the Scripture would have to an ancient Israelite. My so-called act of “plain reading” was ironically an imposition of my own cultural bias onto the text removed by thousands of years, thousands of miles, and thousands of cultural motifs.8 We must seek the “plain reading” of the ancient authors and their audience, and in this way we can be “diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Something else had always haunted me like a nagging pebble in the shoe of my mind, and that was the Galileo affair. We’ll look more at this in my next post.