Ancient Hebrew Cosmology

Ancient Hebrew Cosmology November 10, 2012

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?

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