Encultured prophets and the firmament: Peter Enns continued

Encultured prophets and the firmament: Peter Enns continued November 9, 2010

In my last post (and hinted at in the one before that), I raised the idea that prophets tend to share the worldviews and myths of their culture, with myth properly defined as something like “worldview expressed in narrative.” Their revelations are by necessity received and framed within that worldview. In other words, prophets in different times and places would understand the world differently, though they may share some revealed knowledge of the Gospel. Put very bluntly, some prophets in the past believed things we would today consider false or counter-factual and, further, the scriptures themselves are the evidence for that.

I’m fine with this idea; indeed, it seems self-evident, as well as easily compatible with  the LDS  principle of line-upon-line, but neither  President (but Elder at the time of his comments below) Joseph Fielding Smith  or Elder Bruce Redd McConkie, his son-in-law, were willing to allow prophets their own cultural inheritance, at least, not in the sense that it had any effect on their message. (I’m far from an expert on either McConkie or Smith, and what follows comes primarily from the cited example. If those more knowledgeable are aware of counter-examples, please share them to temper and nuance my presentation here.) In my example below, their rejection of the idea that prophets had a worldview that differs from our own seems to arise out of a matrix of three axioms.

  1. Revelation and scripture (or at least that which has been passed down and “translated correctly”) are divine and therefore represent God’s viewpoint and Truth. All scripture, therefore, is harmonious.
  2. Anything appearing to be non-harmonious, whether internally inconsistent or incompatible with modern knowledge (whether secular or Gospel-related) results from the Apostasy and corruption of scripture, or else a (deliberate?) misreading. This axiom received heavy rhetorical usage in their writings, and was picked up by other LDS writers on similar topics. 1
  3. Secular academic knowledge that is inconsistent with their (modern, Western) interpretation of the (English KJV) scriptures is unreliable and related to axiom 2.

Peter Enns addresses axioms 1&2 in his Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Though addressed to Evangelicals, it should be obvious how much this bears on common LDS views. “It is a common expectation, often implicit, that for the Bible to be God’s word, it should be unique, that is, it should not bear striking similarities to the literature of other peoples…. It is a common expectation that the Bible be unified in its outlook, be free of diverse views, if we are being asked to trust it as God’s word (does not God have just one opinion on things?)”

I. Firmamentum

Exhibit A is the raqiya’ of Genesis 1:6-8. Translations  of this term fall into two camps, one which translates raqiya’ as something solid, such as stereoma (pre-Christian Greek LXX, “solid body” or “”firmness”),  firmamentum (Latin Vulgate), “firmament” (KJV, Geneva Bible), “dome” (NRSV, Complete Jewish Bible ), “solid arch” (Bible in Basic English), “vault” (New Jerusalem Bible, Today’s NIV),  and the other camp which translates as the more ambiguous “expanse” (NET, JPS, NIV, Holman CSB, NASB, ESV).

With these translations, we must distinguish between what raqiya’ refers to (that sky area between the ground and the heavens, i.e. an expanse) and how they conceived of it (i.e. a solid dome).  The first allows us some wiggle room, but the second is more accurate. Among those translations that use “expanse,” I suspect the NIV, as a conservative Evangelical translation, is attempting to minimize ancient worldviews through translation, but the JPS and NRSV are translating the referent instead of the conception.

“Despite the NIV’s attempt to mitigate the meaning of this word in Genesis 1 through an ambiguous translation such as ‘expanse’ and the attempt of others to make it scientifically precise through the translation ‘atmosphere,’ Seely has amply demonstrated that, structurally speaking, the raqîa’ was perceived by the Israelite audience, as by nearly everyone else until modern times, as a solid dome (Seely 1991, 1992). This conclusion is not based on false etymologizing that extrapolates the meaning of the noun from its verbal forms (which have to do with beating something out) but on the comparison of the lexical data from OT usage of the noun with the cultural context of the ancient Near East.” -John Walton, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, “Creation”

As Walton says, it is eminently clear that nearly every worldview in every culture until the late middle ages, conceivedof the sky as solid. The ancient Israelites as well as their neighbors considered the sky to be a solid dome, though they were uncertain as to its composition. A recital of all this data is found in Seely, available here and here, in a follow-up article.

Conservative counter-arguments to Seely have not convinced me.   They take as granted the idea that prophets live culture-free or that Israelite culture shared nothing relevant with surrounding cultures. In light of my graduate work at the University of Chicago in Near Eastern languages and cultures (particularly Semitics), I find this assertion untenable and indefensable. The problem, as Enns lays out very clearly, is that the closer one studies the Israelites and their neighbors, the more one realizes just how much they shared. “How can we say logically that the biblical stories are true and the Akkadian stories are false when they both look so very much alike?”

II. What were the views of Smith and McConkie regarding the firmament?

In 1954, Elder Smith wrote in his controversial Man, His Origin and Destiny,

Ecclesiastical writers as well as scientists may have believed this condition [a solid firmament]  to have been true, and it may have been the opinion of the translators of some manuscripts; but it  is an unwarranted fallacy to proclaim that the ancient Hebrews believed that the earth was covered by ‘a solid, concave firmament,’ or dome. No such statement is found in the ancient Hebrew, and certainly such thoughts were not entertained by the prophets of old. [Emphasis mine] The word ‘firmament’ has appeared in various printed editions of the Bible for so many years that we have come to look upon this word with no misunderstanding of the fact which it represents. Even our dictionaries recognize the word “firmament” as referring to “the expanse of heaven.” Not one word in the Bible can be pointed out as declaring that the heaven above the earth is a solid dome.

Four years later in his own controversial book, Elder McConkie cited Smith and wrote the following.

As used in the scriptures, firmament means expanse. The firmament of heaven is the expanse of heaven; it refers, depending upon the context, to either the atmospheric or the sidereal heavens…. It is not true, as has been falsely supposed, that the ancient prophets believed that the firmament was a solid arch between the lower and upper waters in which the stars were set as so many stones in gold or silver. Such was rather the false view of the church in the dark ages. (Man: His Origin and Destiny, pp. 468-474.)” –Mormon Doctrine, “Firmament.”

Certainly the prophets never believed such things; these views were introduced in the dark ages, goes the rhetoric. As a sidenote, one might ask, “Why? What possible reason could medieval Christians, scribes or translators have for reading this in, if it were not already present?” Moreover, both the Latin and Greek attest to a very early even pre-Christian understanding of the raqiya’ as solid.

III- Conclusion: What’s really at stake?

In essence, this seems to be an example of encultured interpreters not recognizing their own enculturation nor that of those they are interpreting. One reviewer of John Walton’s recent volume, commenting on this phenomenon among certain Bible readers, offers the example of the mind/heart dichotomy. Israelites conceived of the heart and internal organs  as the center of both conscious thought and emotion, in contrast to the modern mind/heart dichotomy. See, for example, the many examples of God searching the heart and kidneys (“reins” in KJV-speak) or  the phrase “bowels of mercy” in the Book of Mormon ( Mosiah 15:9; Alma 7:12; Alma 26:37, 34:15, 3 Nephi 17:7).

“There is, it is important to note, no movement among conservative Christians to argue against the modern viewpoint that our thinking and emotions are not centered in either the heart or the bowels but the brain. Indeed, I think it is worth pointing out that many Christians find themselves able to believe that they are ‘Biblical literalists’, and that the Bible is in all things scientifically accurate, precisely because they read the Bible in translations that have translated ancient Israel’s literal understanding into modern metaphors, replacing bowels with compassion and heart with mind where necessary [or ‘expanse’ for ‘firmament’.] And thus we have the Catch-22 that the better the job that translators do, the more likely it is that Christians reading the Bible may be unaware that they are thinking in ways that may be similar to ancient Israelites in crucial ways, but are also vastly different from them in terms of understanding of anatomy and other matters of science.”

Do we have problems with prophets thinking this way? Not in this example, but then, nothing “doctrinal” seems to be at stake here, as it might be with creation and cosmology. What does become clear when reading the scriptures from a critical perspective is that prophets in all ages are encultured, and God communicates with them within that matrix. Enns unknowingly paraphrases D&C 1:24 in saying that

When God reveals himself, he always does so to people, which means that he must speak and act in ways that they will understand. People are time bound, and so God adopts that characteristic if he wishes to reveal himself. We can put this even a bit more strongly: It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture. [Emphasis in original.]

The implication of all this, messy though it may be,  is that scripture both modern or ancient cannot automatically be reduced to God’s Handbook of Instructions, God’s Straight Dope Opinion, or Pure Truth Written in Stone. When we fail to take note of that complexity in our reading or teaching, we create problems for ourselves and our students. Certainly many people have faith such that they never encounter those problems, but when we do nothing more than dismiss those problems as misunderstandings, theories of men, or apostate theology, when we hang heavy doctrinal weights on slender revealed threads, or make every point of scripture an ultimatum on which hang all the law and the prophets, we unwittingly put many others on a path out of both the Church and theistic faith. Ultimately what’s at stake is not scriptural harmony or  academic arguments about prophets and worldviews, but the souls of men and women encountering these issues.


1. James R. Harris, writing on the Book of Moses in BYU Studies comments on the usage of “firmament” instead of “expanse” in Moses 2:6. Quoting Smith as quoted above, he goes on to say,

A firmament, then, is a solid dome; an  expanse is simply a space; these two things are obviously not the same. The one idea reflects an apostate theology; the other, the true condition of the waters in the sidereal heavens. Thus we see that Moses 2 is one place that additional changes should have been made. Therefore, it may be said of Moses 2 that ‘we believe it as far as it has been translated correctly.’ [emphasis added]

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