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.
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
2 Pet. 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).