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The Bible: A Glimpse Into Mesopotamian Cosmology.

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August 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

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The Bible: A Glimpse Into Mesopotamian Cosmology

       In order to understand the significance of the information in the Bible on how Hebrew people viewed the shape of the earth, it is often helpful to compare the cosmologies of other Mesopotamian and Pheonician cultures. When we compare Hebrew cosmology with their neighbors we find that all of them share a flat earth cosmology in some form or another. Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmology differed considerably from those who would come after them. It was not until Plato, a Greek philosopher, some time in the 4th century would propose the idea that the earth is spherical in shape which would bring to a close thousands of years of flat earth worldview.

Flat Earth in the Egyptian Worldview:

       In this diagram we can see how the Egyptian people understood the shape and function of the cosmos. In the Egyptian cosmology the sky goddess Nut is stretched over the earth god Geb, who is laying down on a flat plain; his body is positioned so as to mimic the hills and mountains.The sky is dome shaped and full of stars (not unlike the “firmament” we read about in the Bible). Nut is said to swallow Ra the sun god every evening which ushers in the night and give birth to Ra in the morning which ushers in the day. (The biblical equivalent is that the dome shaped firmament is said to contain the sun which moves through it “like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber” (Psalm 19:5). It is also comparable to the Babylonian cosmology in which the sky goddess Tiamat, who is shaped like an oyster shell, has constellations placed inside of her).

Flat Earth in the Babylonian Worldview:

       In this map from the 7th century we can see the city of Babylon which was thought to be in the center of the the disk shaped world. The world was thought to have been encompassed by a great salt sea. Notice the circle around the world? This is what the Hebrew people would refer to as the “circle of the earth“. It is clear by this map that the earth was thought to be a flat disk with the city Babylon in the “midst”, or middle of the world. (When we consider that the Hebrew people spent a great deal of time under both Egyptian and Babylonian imperialism it makes perfect sense why we will find a similar cosmology in the Bible. Babylon is an important feature in what is known as the Oral Histories of Genesis (first 11 chapters).

Flat Earth in the Hebrew Worldview:

       ”(The earth) is changed like clay to the seal, (features) stand out like (folds in a) garment”Job38:14

These are the types of clay tablets that the biblical author of the book of Job is comparing to the earth in the passage above. A limestone cylinder, or seal, is rolled over wet clay slab which leaves an impression onto the clay. The face of the clay is “changed” by the rolling of the cylinder. The clay, which in this passage is being compared to the earth, is flat, especially compared to the seal, which is circular. One would think that if the world was thought to be round the author of Job would have compared the earth to the circular seal, not the flat clay.

 

       ”[It is] he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof [are] as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:” Isaiah 40:22

 

What Isaiah is doing here in this passage is using a common Hebrew activity to compare how God works with the cosmos. Imagine sitting inside of a tent; maybe there are a few grasshoppers in there with you. With the flap closed it might be dark inside of the tent; any holes in the canvas would appear as stars in the night sky, little pin holes of light shining through from outside. The ground you would be sitting on is FLAT, grasshoppers all hoppin’ around.. The analogy of a tent for the sky is beautifully tangible. To Isaiah and his audience, sitting in a tent would be the perfect analogy for God sitting on the flat earth under the curtain He stretched out of the sky for a tent. 

       The “circle of the earth” being described by Isaiah is the same circle that encompasses the world in the Babylonian cosmology, it is the circumference of the flat, disk shaped earth. Creationists often use this scripture to support the idea that the Hebrews had a special revelation into the modern scientific fact that the earth is round, claiming that the word circle in this passage means sphere. This is simply not the case. Though English Bibles often mistranslate Hebrew words (sometimes in order to fit a creationist worldview so that creationists will buy their Bibles; top selling book of all time) circle in this passage is translated correctly. Circle literally means circle, not sphere. Apparently, the Hebrew people, the Babylonians and the Egyptians all shared similar ideas about the shape of the cosmos and the shape of the earth.

        In the book of Daniel we read a story of how the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and calls upon the Hebrew prophet  to interpret the dream. Daniel tells the king that a tree in the center of the world represents the king of Babylon and that it grows so high that it can be seen even from the ends of the earth. Now, according to the map of Babylonia the ends of the earth are the edges of the earth that meet the great salty ocean. The circle of the earth surrounds Babylon so that if a tree grew tall enough from the center of the world it would be seen from anywhere along the circumference. This would only be possible if the earth were thought to be flat; indeed, it would be impossible for a spherical earth to have “ends“. If the world was understood to be a sphere, how could a person on the opposite side of the planet see the tree. This passage tells us “all the world” can see the tree. The known world must have been understood to be flat.

       The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth:Daniel 4:11

        Daniel does not appear to consider the cosmology of Nebuchadnezzar an issue of contention; Mesopotamian ideas were wide spread and Babylonian cosmology was taken for granted by the Hebrews. Daniel seems to naturally affirm the kings perception of the shape of the earth and Babylons place within it, except that the tree of Babylon is now prophesied to be cut down to the stump.

       As Christians we believe that God has shared with us a timeless message of salvation, a theodicy that has endured for thousands of years. It is important, however, that we understand that though the Bible was written “for” us it was not written “to” us. The authors of scripture had an audience and the scriptures were written to them, using symbols and words that were relevant to that audience. Just as God does not use modern English language in the original text to convey message of salvation, (He preferred to use ancient Hebrew language and culture), so too does God use ancient Mesopotamian cosmology as a context to communicate essential theological truths to people of every culture, time and place around the globe. The Bible may not contain a modern cosmology or modern science but it does contain a message that transcends modern science and brings us back to the spiritual dynamics that govern the lives of people in any century.

Biblical sources for the Hebrew cosmology

Earth (eretz)

  • Dan4:10

  • Pro8:26

  • Psa136:6 (He stretches the Earth above the waters, like the diagram)

  • Job11:7

  • Job38:5

  • 1Sam40:21

  • Amos9:6

Pillars of the Earth (tebel)

  • Psa75:3

  • 1Sam2:8

  • Job9:6

  • Psa18:7

Foundations of the Earth

  • Job38:4

  • Pro8:29

  • Isa24:18

  • Isa40:21

  • Isa48:13

  • Jer31:37

  • Psa18:5,7,15

  • Psa8:29

  • Psa102:25

  • Psa104:5

  • 2sam22:8

  • Mic6:21

  • Chr16:30 (fixed earth)

  • Psalm 93:1 (fixed earth)

  • Psalm 96:10 (fixed earth)

  • Isaiah 45:18 (fixed earth)

Fountains of the deep

(It was believed that water would issue from fountains in the bottom of the sea. These fountains are partly responsible for flooding the earth in the Hebrew flood chiasm)

  • Gen7:11,8:2

  • Pro8:24,8:28

Waters above the firmament

(we can distinguish the waters above the firmament from the oceans below the firmament because they are mentioned in close proximity to clouds, rain, storms and the heavens. It was believed that rain came from this reservoir of water up above and would pass through windows (closed with lattice made of thick clouds, as glass windows had yet to be invented Gen7:11)

  • Job26:10

  • Job28:25

  • Eze31:15

  • Psa148:4 (waters above the sky)

  • Psa29:3

  • Psa77:16

  • Amos5:8

  • Amos9:6

The Firmament

(From the root word raqa (but sometimes shamayim, and rarely shachaq) the firmament is like a hand hammered bowl, separating the waters above from the waters below. “Can you beat out the vault of the sky as He does, hard as a mirror of cast metal” (Job 37:18) It has windows and gates in it that allow rain to fall from the vast reservoir of water above. When God comes through the firmament he comes on great storm clouds, which were thought to be a type of lattice over the window in the firmament. It is into this hard, glassy dome that the sun, moon and stars are thought to move in a circle like “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber or a strong man running a race” (Psa 19:5). Ish 40:22 compares the firmament to a tent that God stretches over the earth to dwell in.

  • Gen 1:6,17

  • Gen 15:5

  • Gen 22:17

  • Eze 10:19-21

  • Ish 40:22

  • Job 37:18

Windows and gates of the Firmament

  • Gen 7:11

  • Gen8:2

  • Psa 78:23

Sun, moon and stars in the firmament

  • Gen1:14

  • Psa 19:5

Pillars of heaven

  • 2Sam22:8

  • Job26:11

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Comment on this article:

6 responses to The Bible: A Glimpse Into Mesopotamian Cosmology.

  1. I have to respectfully disagree with most of what you have to say here, in that I believe the Bible can stand up to scientific scrutiny. Nontheless I respect your opinions.

  2. What it is Bitz. All my life I want to know these things. I do imagine a hollow Eath and the nature of the sphere. A coconut rather then a cheery kind of thing. Flat is hard for me to grasp. The Bible mentions a great beast rise up out of the sea. That to me is the industries of man and not a natural beast. The organizations and kingdoms and all that is not flesh and blood. The flesh and blood rides the beast into the pit and leaves it there locked away. For me it is an idea I have about what is written. I am confident that the truth of it all is more durable then our imaginations. But the imagination is awsome and dangerous and can kick the devils ass. The truth will destroy hell and death. The tree of life is many things from the family tree to the cannabis tree, What is figurative and what is what it is. Tree? It is relitive to what we are talking about. As a lumberjack a tree is the live growing mass of the wood and branchy things that die and rot if we don’t do something with them. My sister would think it is something to hang her earings on and could be wood, mettal, plastic or glass… The Bible is so provocative that we seek for understanding. That in it self just blows me away and I love it.

    • Absolutely. I love the subjective nature of our imaginations and our expressions and our ontologies and the human experience, both personal and corporate. I wish I could bring my personal subjective experience into the scripture but I am a scientist, in a way, a theologian,and as such, I feel it is necessary for me to approach scripture interpretation with objectivity. The authors had a specific message. We do well to honor that message absent our subjective emotions towards it. Peace.

  3. Good article it got my attention and I read through most of it.

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