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Ancient Hebrew Cosmology

November 12, 2012

Nick Norelli shared the image below depicting ancient Hebrew cosmology from the new Logos 5, and armed with anecdotal evidence asks whether persons who reconstruct this cosmology–because they mock YECers–might not be missing a much more “sophisticated” ANE cosmology. Therefore, according to Nick’s math, those who miss this “sophisticated” ANE cosmology are themselves “uninformed.”

James McGrath responded to Nick’s Post and wrote

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 three important points here. First, the reason scholars reconstruct this cosmology is because they have read the relevant primary material!

The reason scholars reconstruct this cosmology is because they have read the relevant primary material!

Just stop and let that sink in for a moment.

Think about it some more.

After reading all of the relevant texts from the time period that discuss cosmological, astrological, and calendrical issues scholars attempt to reconstruct a correlating cosmology that explains the argument in the primary texts. Scholars do not reconstruct this cosmology because they have an axe to grind with YECers, but because it is the best theory to comprehensively account for the data in the primary texts. If you do not understand that simple, simple concept then higher criticism, biblical studies, and academia are not for you.

Second, as James points out, ancient authors “had no way of knowing otherwise.”

And this is where I start to get frustrated with theologians trying to ‘understand’ history and the texts they produced…

Nick suggests scholars are reading the texts “too literally”, and James suggests that a distinction needs to be made, but for me the distinction is not whether it is “too literal” to reconstruct this cosmology, but as James points out: the ancients had no way to know otherwise.

The ancients had no way to know otherwise.

Just stop and let that sink in for a moment.

Think about it some more.

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 many other cultures.

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.

I’m sure that no Christian would suggest that reconstructing of Egyptian cosmology from the relevant texts is reading those myths “too literally”–Ra, and in some cases with the aid of Seth, battle the dragon Apep through the night, and the solar boat comes up on the other side of the world after this battle and the sun shines again. That is merely a reconstruction of their ridiculous speculation because they had no way to know otherwise.

I mean, on the one hand, these people were not ‘dumb’. No one was suggesting the dragon and Ra were battling during the day: they could clearly see there wasn’t a large reptile attacking the sun. But when the sun disappeared? They had no way to know where it was or what was occurring. None! Therefore, priests doing rituals to help Ra defeat Apep so there would be a sun tomorrow seemed like a legitimate option apparently.

But again, this is not reading it “too literally” because there were lots of physical situations they didn’t understand other than cosmology. And here’s the third and most important point: it wasn’t any different for any of their ANE contemporaries.

It wasn’t any different for any of their ANE contemporaries.

Why do people get sick? Demons! The evil eye!

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 natural patterns with very, very poor methods.

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