Ancient Hebrew Cosmology

Nick Norelli shared the image below depicting ancient Hebrew cosmology, i.e. the cosmological assumptions of the authors of the Jewish Scriptures/Christian Old Testament. (It is from the new Logos 5 software which I am looking forward to testing out and blogging about soon.)

Nick asks whether those who reconstruct this view of the cosmos based on the Bible’s language might not be taking that language too literally.

I think a distinction needs to be made – and perhaps more than one. There definitely are ancient authors who seem to have assumed that the language used about the cosmos – such as the solid dome or “firmament” of the sky – was literally there. They had no way of knowing otherwise, and so most likely assumed that such language was an accurate depiction of what is really there.

There are also ancient authors in later times who had the opportunity to know that, for instance, the Earth was spherical. If such an author used earlier phrases such as “the ends” or “four corners” of the Earth, we may well wonder whether they were clinging to an earlier cosmology, or simply using a fixed expression, much as we talk about “sunrise” without it involving a commitment to geocentrism.

Either way, the statement that many make today that the Bible cannot be taken literally is not, in most instances, an attempt to argue that ancient people did not assume its cosmological language to be literal. It is stating that we today cannot, even if people in the past could and did.

But perhaps Nick is right, and we don’t give ancient writers enough credit for being capable of using metaphor. Do you think the image depicts what ancient Hebrews and others believed the cosmos was actually like? Either way, how does your view on that relate to how you understand the Bible today?

  • Dustin Smith

    I wonder how this picture would be modified with the Jewish picture(s) of their revised understanding(s) within the 2nd Temple Period. Although it is interesting that the early Christians maintained the belief that death is unconscious sleep in Sheol/Hades with the expectation to resurrection at the end of the age.

    • Paul d.

      Genesis was written during the Second Temple Period. (Assuming there actually was a first temple.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.bailey.7 Scott Bailey

    The reason scholars reconstruct the cosmos this way is because of the repeated understanding of it in a variety of texts.

    For me the distinction is not whether it is too ‘literal’ but as you point out the ancients had no way to know otherwise. In other words, they had no useful technology or method to properly understand their solar system, much less the universe. Therefore, you end up with a lot of astrological texts, calendars, and myths that are nothing but wild speculation from Babylonian, Jewish, and Egyptian sources amongst other cultures. Reconstructing Egyptian cosmology is not reading those myths “too literally” it’s merely a reconstruction of their ridiculous speculation because they had no way to know otherwise. Read Astronomical Enoch from Qumran and see if there is much useful information concerning natural reality. Let me save some time for you: no. It is ideological speculation transposed onto a limited physical observation they didn’t understand too well.

    But again, this is not reading it too literally because there were lots of physical situations they didn’t understand other than cosmology. Why do people get sick? Demons! The evil eye!… what about human origins? The “Hymn to Atum,” is an Egyptian creation myth whose roots are in the Old Kingdom (2575-2134 BCE).

    When I first began to create
    When I alone was planning and designing many creatures,
    I had not sneezed Shu the wind,
    I had not spat Tefnut the rain,

    There was not a single living creature.
    I planned many living creatures;
    All were in my heart, and their children and their grandchildren.

    Then I copulated with my own fist.
    I masturbated with my own hand.
    I ejaculated into my own mouth.

    I sneezed to create Shu the wind,
    I spat to create Tefnut the rain.
    Old Man Nun reared them;

    So Atum masturbates into his own mouth and spits out other gods? Hmmmmm… probably not going to make through the process of peer-review. Why does it rain? Baal makes it rain! Why can’t she get pregnant? Yahweh closed her womb! How do you cure leprosy? Get two birds, kill one, sprinkle the blood of the dead bird on the living bird, and then sprinkle on the person who has the disease! How well do you think that worked?

    So not just in the case of cosmology, but in lots of issues pertaining to actual knowledge, the ancients had very limited methods for ‘knowing’, and the scholarly reconstructions are not just reading “too literally” but trying to recreate the ideological understandings–sometimes even in the form of myths–of people trying to understand patterns with not very serviceable methods.

    • Susan Burns

      We developed the technology as we evolved the language to describe that technology. Without the language of myths (or religion) we would not have the basis with which our knowledge could evolve.

  • Gary

    “Do you think the image depicts what ancient Hebrews and others believed the cosmos was actually like?” Beats me. But when looking to buy a “Who Wrote the Bible” by Richard Elliot Friedman from B&N (wanted to give it to a friend), I found that there is a book, “Who Really Wrote the Bible”, by someone I don’t want to name, since I wouldn’t want to provide him more advertising. Seems like Jewish diversity extends to false conclusions, much like Christian fundamentalists (i.e. Moses was the sole author of the Pentateuch, and YEC). I mean, even a caveman like me can see that there had to be multiple authors. If someone believes in Moses as the sole author, shouldn’t he also believe in the ancient Hebrew universe?

  • Robert Fisher

    When I read a book on linguistics, I don’t expect anything in it to reflect the most recent consensus of geology. Even if it might talk about rocks tangentially.

    It does not matter what the scripture writers thought or didn’t think about cosmology because the point of the text isn’t cosmology. The only thing that really comes close to that is the beginning of Genesis (no pun intended), and—even there—anyone who is getting distracted by cosmology is missing some much more interesting and salient points.

    That said, I really enjoy learning about such historical conceptions of cosmology.

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    FREE ONLINE RESOURCES ON BIBLICAL COSMOLOGY

    Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible

    http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper_2.pdf

    Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant
    http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper.pdf

    Links to articles on the firmament by Paul Seely

    http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2010/12/old-testament-cosmologypaul-seely.html

    The Cosmology of the Bible (a chapter in The Christian Delusion), you can “look inside” that chapter at amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Delusion-Why-Faith-Fails/dp/1616141689

    Piece that also leads to a video: “Interpreting Genesis 1, who’s the literalist now?”
    http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2012/09/interpreting-genesis-1-literalist/

    Note, Michael Heiser’s view, per his piece above,is that “What Genesis describes is consistent with all other ancient Near Eastern creation models, and shares the vocabulary and motifs of those other pre-scientific cosmologies. Not a surprise, given God’s own choices about when to produce the material and who would do that.”

    But I think the question remains, namely, how certain can you be that the “choices” he mentioned were “made by God?” Because anyone writing at that time and place would naturally entertain such ancient cosmological assumptions.

    See also John Walton’s book, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology
    http://www.amazon.com/Genesis-1-as-Ancient-Cosmology/dp/157506216X/ref=la_B001IGOV8C_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1353835994&sr=1-10

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