The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
-Carl Sagan, Cosmos
The question of the world that we find ourselves in, as well as our role within it, is one that has fueled debate for many centuries. What answer we give to it will have implications about who we are, why we are, and perhaps even how we ought to be. History tells an ongoing story of how different thinkers living at different times have incorporated their beliefs into their view of the cosmos, and how their view of the cosmos has impacted their beliefs. It also tells the somber story of the conflicts between those of opposing views, conflicts that have at times been aggressive and violent. Even today, this subject is still capable of eliciting controversy and heated argumentation, as has been shown by the response of some viewers to the recently concluded science education series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.1
How the authors of the Bible saw the cosmos is a complicated issue. The Bible is a collection of numerous texts penned by different writers at various points in history, and so it’s not difficult to understand why some texts may express a view of the world that seems at odds with other texts in the canon. While most contemporary Jewish and liberal Christian congregations accept such an errantist or non-literalist conception of the Bible, there are, however, still a number of more conservative Christians that defend the accuracy of the scriptures against such claims.2 To their minds, the Bible’s statements about the world are perfectly compatible with modern science. It is important to note that not all who hold this view are Young Earth Creationists – some simply believe, for example, that Genesis is not in contradiction to the Big Bang, evolution, or other scientific theories.
The extensively studied phenomenon of confirmation bias shows that we are prone to interpreting information in ways that favor our pre-existing beliefs.3 Historian C.B. McCullagh has noted how some members of his own discipline display bias in only favoring evidence that accords with their interests and omitting what might disconfirm their theses.4 We ought to exercise caution in the way we interpret things, especially the writings of ancient peoples who did not share many of the assumptions we have today, centuries after the Scientific Revolution. It may be that these ancestors of ours were not as concerned with certain questions we try to pull out of them now, but it may just as likely be that the views they held are relics of a bygone era, no more compatible with modern science than Thales’ hypothesis that everything ultimately comes from water. Indeed, this is no basis for judging their intelligence or credulity, but should serve as an important lesson on how we approach ancient sources.
With that said, it appears that a good starting point for considering the biblical cosmology will be a brief look at the cosmologies of other cultures of the time, to which we proceed.
I. Pre-Biblical Cosmologies
When on high the heaven had not been named
firm ground below had not been called by name,
naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,
(and) Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all,
their waters commingling as a single body…
Then it was that the gods were formed within them.5
The above excerpt and image are from the Enuma Elish, a Bronze Age Babylonian creation myth. The main focus of the myth is the defeat of Tiamat, a primordial chaos-monster goddess, and the exaltation of the storm-god Marduk. Tiamat, often depicted as a watery serpent or dragon,6 gives birth to a generation of young deities that destroy her consort, Apsu. As she vows revenge, the younger gods elect Marduk as their champion, who barters to become the new king of the gods, if he succeeds. Marduk wins the battle and dismembers Tiamat, creating earth and sky from her corpse.
In section III of my article on the Origins of the Old Testament, I discuss some of the parallels between the Enuma Elish and the Genesis creation account. What’s important for our purposes here are a couple of details in how Marduk creates the cosmos from Tiamat. “Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky,” the text says, “Pulled down the bar and posted guards, He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.” Next comes the squaring of Apsu’s domain (earth), setting the constellations, and making humankind for service to the gods. The cosmos formed in the text is a particular kind of ancient model, sometimes referred to as the three-tiered cosmos, common to a number of cultures in antiquity. In this model, the earth is a flat disc floating on waters, below which is the underworld. The sky is a solid dome expanse above the earth, behind which is more water, and above that are the heavens. [See example]
The logic of this model might escape us today, but to peoples who did not have our knowledge of, for example, an electromagnetic spectrum, air, light, or the atmosphere, the intuitive conclusion might be that the sky is blue because water is above us. Ancient Mesopotamian men and women lived near oceans, relied on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for much of their way of life, and would not have been unfamiliar with rainfall and storms. If water is above, there must be something strong enough to hold it at bay most of the time. Interestingly, Wayne Horowitz notes that, “The interior of Marduk’s cella in the Middle Heavens is not seen from earth, but its blue saggilmud-stone floor may be visible as the blue sky.”7 The mention of a blue stone floor is strikingly similar to the sapphire pavement on which God is seen standing in Exodus 24:9-10, noted for being “clear as the sky itself.”
A variety of ancient Egyptian cosmological reliefs are illustrated and commented on in Othmar Keel’s The Symbolism of the Biblical World. The reliefs show a three-tiered universe represented by three typical beings: Nut, Geb, and Shu/Osiris. The earth god Geb reclines with Nut the sky goddess above. Separating the two is either Shu, the god of air, or Osiris, embodying the Duat or underworld. In some reliefs, a circular earth disc is present, or is represented by a circular figure of Geb. There is reason to think the Egyptians also believed in something like a vault/dome of the sky. Keel warns against jumping to conclusions about the nature of the celestial vault, but notes that the Egyptians at least knew “it had to be capable of restraining the waters of the heavenly ocean, and that it must therefore have had a structure similar to a wall or dam.”8 The primordial waters of chaos have their counterpart to Tiamat in Egyptian myth as well, in the figure of Nun.
One final cosmology to be considered is the ancient Greek cosmology found in the writings of Homer. M.R. Wright explains that the Homeric model conceived of a universe
as a round house with the earth as its circular floor, the sky as a disc of comparable size above it, and the two held apart by pillars situated at the Straits of Gibraltar. In mythology they were kept in place by the Titan Atlas: “who knows the depths of every sea, and himself holds the high columns which keep earth and sky apart.”9
Wright goes on to note that this model also had the earth encircled by waters, a sky of bronze or iron, and sun, moon, and stars that rose from the ocean in the east, set in the west, and would travel around or under the waters to return the next day. The multi-storied universe with a flat earth disc, a hard sky holding the stars and keeping back heavenly waters, with the abode of the gods above, was the way that most ancient peoples saw the world in which they lived. N.F. Gier provides some additional examples of other cultures that also accepted elements of this common view.10 Though how long this exact cosmology lasted seems to be a bit of an open question, something like it may have persisted into the 4th or 3rd century BCE, after figures like Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Eratosthenes began to teach of a spherical earth.11
II. Hebrew Creation Myths
Scholars have distinguished two types of creation myths of the ancient world, known as creation by divine speech and creation by divine might. The former has an example in Genesis 1, where God speaks the cosmos into existence, but is found in Egyptian myth too, as the god Ptah brings the universe into being through his divine word. The latter is exemplified in the conflict between Tiamat and Marduk in Babylonian myth, yet there is also some indication of it in one of the oldest books of the Bible, the Book of Job.
In chapter 26, Job sings the praises of Yahweh, entering into specific praise regarding his role as creator for the six verses starting at verse seven and ending at thirteen. God “stretches out the north over empty space and hangs the earth on nothing… He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters at the boundary of light and darkness. The pillars of heaven tremble and are amazed at His rebuke.” (NAS) From the context, it’s quite apparent that this is part of a creation story. Then, in the verses that follow, we are told, “He quieted the sea with His power, and by His understanding He shattered Rahab. By His breath the heavens are cleared; His hand has pierced the fleeing serpent.” Other passages like Psalm 89:8-10 and Isaiah 51:9 refer to Rahab in the context of pride and seas, the latter even calling the creature a “dragon”.
Though some translators and apologists have argued that Rahab is merely a term for Egypt, this seems to be a later usage derived from passages like Isaiah 30:7, where the author of the text designates Egypt as Rahab precisely because of Egypt’s arrogance or pride. “It must be noted,” says the entry at the Jewish Encyclopedia, “that the Jewish exegetes deprived the word ‘Rahab’ of its mythological character, and explained it as merely an equivalent for ‘arrogance,’ ‘noise,’ or ‘tumult’—applied both to the roaring of the sea and to the arrogant noisiness and proud boasting of the Egyptians.”12
We’ve seen this image before of the raging sea monster defeated by a god at the time of creation. It also appears in Canaanite mythology, with the battle between the god Baal and Yam, a primordial chaos deity who is described as a serpent and whose name means “sea”. Still another variation on this theme is the fight between Tarhunt the sky god and Illuyanka, a serpentine dragon, in Hittite mythology. The interesting similarities especially seem more than just coincidental with the fact that another passage, Psalm 74:12-17, refers to multiple other beasts of the sea defeated by Yahweh as part of a creative process, including one named Leviathan. Thus, Mark Smith and other scholars have argued that
Genesis 1 built on and supplanted other Israelite versions of creation that understood the primordial universe as a field of battle between two divine wills. It envisions instead a royal-priestly power beyond all powers, enthroned over the world understood as a holy place similar to a sanctuary.13
Although the first chapter of Genesis does have some significant differences from the creation accounts in Job or the Enuma Elish, it has a number of familiar elements. God creates the heavens and the earth, but no mention is made of creating the waters we see him moving across in verse two. The Hebrew word for the “deep” in the verse is tehom, which some scholars have associated with Tiamat, based on the Akkadian (tamtu) and Ugaritic (t-h-m) words for sea. Walter Kaiser points out the seemingly obvious, that “a personified Tiamat who is a mythical antagonist to Marduk never even comes close to being behind the notion of tehom in Genesis 1:2″,14 and yet we’ve just seen that there are some traditions of Yahweh battling sea-monsters within the Bible. It’s not much of a stretch, it would seem, to imagine that tehom may be a reference to competing cosmologies of the time, even if the word itself is demythologized in the narrative.
Genesis 1:3-5 describes the creation of light and time, paradoxically before the sun is made (v. 16). God separates light from dark and thereby establishes evening and morning, the first day. This understanding of things might make sense in the cosmos of the ancient world, where the earth is like the stage piece for the lower half of a theatrical stage, but we now know that time is not so distinct from space. What exactly a day means if there is no sun for the earth to revolve around is unclear, perhaps even senseless.
Next, God creates an “expanse” and separates the waters “below” the expanse from the waters “above” it. He calls this sky, or heaven. In the King James translation, the expanse is called the firmament, from the Hebrew word raqia’. This word comes from the root word raqa, which is typically used in the Old Testament to mean the act of pounding out, spreading out, or beating out something into a flat surface. In Jeremiah 10:9 and Exodus 39:3 it is translated in the context of beaten silver and hammering out sheets of gold. It occurs in Job 37:18, where the author says that God spread out the skies, “hard as a mirror of cast bronze”. (NIV) God places lights in the firmament, according to Genesis 1:14-19, including the sun and moon, and declares that they are to mark the signs, seasons, days, and years. Psalm 148:4 commands the highest heavens and the “waters above the skies” to give praise to Yahweh, and Genesis 7:11 notes that these waters were unleashed from the “floodgates of the heavens” to cause Noah’s flood.
The firmament of Genesis holds back the primordial waters beyond the sky just as the Babylonian firmament does. In the Enuma Elish, Marduk pulls down a bar and orders guards to keep the waters of Tiamat sealed behind the vault of the sky. In this vault he sets the stars and constellations. We also saw this concept of a firmament in Egyptian and Homeric mythology, where it is likewise depicted as a hard surface of some sort, restraining the heavenly waters. Other Bible verses refer to “pillars of heaven” (Job 26:11, 2 Samuel 22:8), “pillars of the earth” (Job 9:6, Psalm 75:3, 1 Samuel 2:8), and the “beams of [God’s] upper chambers” set on the waters above the sky (Psalm 104:2-3). Ecclesiastes 1:5 claims that the sun rises, sets, and then “hurries back to where it rises,” paralleling the Homeric picture mentioned by Wright above.
We have looked at two creation stories from the Hebrew Bible, in comparison to a small handful of creation myths from neighboring cultures of the time. It certainly seems the case that the ancient Israelites did, in fact, accept a prescientific cosmology not unlike that of their contemporaries. The evidence is so overwhelming, observes Ed Babinski, that even conservative Christians like Wheaton Professor of Old Testament John Walton feel they can no longer ignore the writing on the wall:
The Israelites [like the nations around them] did not know that stars were suns; they did not know that the earth was spherical and moving through space; they did not know that the sun was much further away than the moon, or even further than the clouds or high-flying birds. They believed that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of the deity as well as hold back waters.15
However, there is yet one more area of interest that may contribute to the picture of Judeo-Christian cosmology in antiquity, and for that we will turn to consider some of the New Testament as well.
III. Divinity From Above
One thing that has long fascinated me about the landscape of modern Christianity is how strangely passive even some of its most literal-minded interpreters are when it comes to some of the geographical implications of the Bible. Luke 4:5 has the devil showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” from a high mountain in Judea. Matthew 28:2 describes an angel “coming down from heaven” to roll away the stone from Jesus’ tomb. In three of the four gospels, Jesus is said to ascend up into the sky following his resurrection. Though today it has become taboo to think that hell actually exists beneath the surface of the earth – and it’s even becoming increasingly unacceptable to see hell existing in some other plane of reality – the notion that God and the divine are somewhere above the clouds has been rejected only in the strictest sense. Heaven may not be on the other side of the sky, but the language expressing this antiquated belief persists in modern times.
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 makes better sense on the flat earth cosmology outlined above than it does under our current understanding of the cosmos. The passage states that God “came down” to see the tower being constructed, its builders intending it to reach the heavens themselves. God determines to confuse them by changing their languages, so construction will cease, but the reason given for his disapproval is particularly intriguing. Instead of citing their arrogance or ignorance in attempting such a feat, God’s concern is that “now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” Is it not impossible for them to accomplish their goal with only outer space beyond our atmosphere? In the story, it’s as if God fears what could happen if the humans below actually manage to reach heaven.
Many other passages in the Hebrew scriptures reference God descending to earth from above. Exodus 19:20 says, “The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.” 2 Samuel 22:10 reads, “He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet.” “Part your heavens, Lord, and come down,” pleads the psalmist (Psalm 144:5). A number of New Testament verses also speak of a parting or opening of the heavens, as though doors must be open to allow something or someone to pass through (Matthew 3:16-17, John 1:51, Acts 7:56, Acts 10:11). Once again, this makes more sense on a three-tiered cosmological model than on our present view of the universe. Why is the one true god descending from the sky, as pagan deities did, giving the impression that the divine realm is quite literally above the sky?
In an attempt at answering the question, Christian apologist J.P. Holding says of the Tower of Babel story:
In these verses, what we have is not an indication that God is not omnipresent/omniscient, but a choice bit of satire/irony at the expense of man… Men thought their tower was spectacular; but the writer wants us to view it as so unspectacular, puny and irrelevant that an omnipresent God didn’t notice it until He came closer.16
Clever as this explanation might seem, it does not really take into account the numerous other instances already cited of God descending to earth or ascending back into the clouds, where there are no discernibly vain endeavors of men to be satirized. It is more an eisegetical interpretation than an exegetical one, too. It’s doubtful Holding would sympathize with the suggestion that the ascension of Jesus was a bit of satire on the part of the gospel authors. Perhaps Jesus just went into hiding and died a second time. This is an admittedly far-fetched scenario, but it illustrates the point that we have no more reason to accept Holding’s explanation for Babel then we have to accept this explanation for the ascension.
One might object that God simply approached the Israelites and early Christians in the way he knew they would be able to understand his authority. After all, how should we expect a divine being to reveal itself to us? Granted, this objection carries some weight, but the expectation is not that God should have revealed himself in a manner that satisfies our modern thinking, yet would have been lost on the ancients. The gospels mention Jesus appearing suddenly in rooms and walking through walls, and angels are occasionally referred to as if they materialize somewhere, like Scotty beaming a member of the Starship Enterprise down to an alien world (of course, in this case the Enterprise usually is sitting in space above the planet). These means of divine disclosure at least do not involve the misleading implication that the abode of God is just on the other side of the crystalline sky. Even a clarification from God in the text that there are other worlds and stars beyond the boundaries of our sky could have gone a long ways.
Alas, what we have in the Bible is something else. The textual evidence combined with the historical context makes a strong and compelling argument that the biblical cosmos is not significantly different from the cosmologies of other ancient cultures, and in that respect it is no more scientifically compatible than they are.
IV. A World Beyond Our Dreams
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
-Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
The cosmos of the Bible is a far cry from the one that we know today. Science has shown the universe to be an incredible 13.8 billion years old, and to be constantly expanding in size.17 Evolutionary Biology tells us that we share ancestry not just with many of our fellow human beings, but with some of our fellow animals as well.18 Through studying Chemistry and Astrophysics, we have learned that the raw materials in our bodies were forged inside the cores of long dead stars, that we are, as Carl Sagan put it, made of starstuff. We have discovered within each of us microscopic structures and organisms that let us do what we do and be who we are, like a little universe of its own. In the grand scheme of things – paraphrasing Neil deGrasse Tyson from his Cosmos series – every person and event we’ve ever heard of, all the kings and battles, the migrations and inventions, the wars and loves, everything in the history books has just taken place in the last 14 seconds of the cosmic calendar. We are but a tiny speck on a pale blue dot, floating in a vast sea of space and time.
No hades exists beneath the earth, no firmament holds back water above our heads, and beyond the sky is no heaven to which angelic beings may ascend. The world that we inhabit is not like the world of the biblical authors, but it is so much more than we have dreamed, and so much more than they imagined. Choosing to live in a universe of a distant time and place will have consequences for the universe of our time and place. Unlike the ancient Israelites, we possess a variety of means by which we can either harm or aid the population of our planet. Taking a tribal mentality to social issues, dismissing the science on climate change, and clinging to regressive policies based on an outdated model of the world – or even based on things closely associated with it – are all ways in which we stand to do great damage to ourselves and our future.
Like us, the Israelites and early Christians were trying to make sense of their environment, trying to survive, and trying to leave the world a better place as they saw it should be. But they also adapted to changing times. The Israelites broke with their Canaanite past and eventually found their own way forward out of the influence of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Early Christians came to distinguish themselves from Jews, developing their theology in bold new directions. Today there are many who recognize the biblical cosmology as a view no longer tenable in modernity, yet there are also those who refuse this fact, as well as those who maintain vestiges of it without realizing they do. An important and often distressing question is how far the facade crumbles, or ought to crumble, once its “pillars” are removed. Must the obsolescence of the biblical cosmos also imply the obsolescence of the biblical god enthroned within?
Such a large and complex question, though well worth considering, is beyond the scope of this article. For related reading on the subject of the biblical world and its problems, see some of the articles below:
– The Historical Errancy of the Bible
– Origins of the Old Testament
– Origins of the New Testament
– He is Risen? Resurrection Discrepancies
– The Bible Unearthed book review
– Forged: Writing in the Name of God book review
1. Dan Arel, 13 ways Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” sent the religious right off the deep end, Salon.com (Jun. 14, 2014). Retrieved Aug. 2, 2014.
2. Rick Warren, The Bible is Scientifically Accurate, Daily Hope (Feb. 20, 2012). Retrieved Aug. 2, 2014.
3. Raymond S. Nickerson, Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises, Review of General Psychology Vol. 2, No. 2 (1998), 175-220.
4. C. Behan McCullagh, Bias in Historical Description, Interpretation, and Explanation, History and Theory, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2000), 39-66.
5. James B. Pritchard, Archaeology and the Old Testament (2008), p. 185.
6. Scholars contest the representation of Tiamat as serpentine, since the Enuma Elish does not allude to her in such a form. Charles Penglase has noted in his book Greek Myths and Mesopotamia (1994, p. 104) that this association may come from the serpent-monsters Tiamat sends against Marduk in her battle with him.
7. Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (1998), p. 243.
8. Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (1997), p. 37.
9. M.R. Wright, Cosmology in Antiquity (1996, Routledge), p. 38.
10. N.F. Gier, A Common Cosmology of the Ancient World, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (1987). Retrieved Aug. 2, 2014.
11. Jeffrey Russell, The Myth of the Flat Earth (Aug. 4, 1997). Retrieved Aug. 2, 2014.
12. RAHAB, JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved Aug. 3, 2014.
13. Mark S. Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (2009, Fortress Press), p. 185.
14. Walter Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents (2001, InterVarsity), p. 63.
15. John Walton, quoted by Ed Babinski in The Christian Delusion (2010, Prometheus), p. 131.
16. J.P. Holding, Is the God of the Bible Omniscient and Omnipresent? Tektonics.org. Retrieved Aug. 3, 2014.
17. Nola Taylor Redd, How Old is the Universe? Space.com (Dec. 20, 2013). Retrieved Aug. 3, 2014.
18. Evolution 101, Evolution.Berkeley.edu. Retrieved Aug. 3, 2014.