King James Bible
Thou hast set all the borders of the earth
The Bible teaches that the earth was “flat and circular sitting on pillars with a rotating solid sky dome overhead which carried the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars and allowed water to leak through ‘windows of heaven’ or sluice gates to form clouds and rain.”1 If the claim is true that the Bible teaches such a primitive cosmology, then nobody should believe that it originates from God nor follow its precepts. So, let’s look at what the Bible really says about the heavens and the earth and whether the atheists’ claims are valid
The king seeing all the earth
- “Daniel 4:10-11. In Daniel, King Nebuchadnessar “saw a tree in the midst of the earth [whose] height thereof was great reaching unto heaven, and the sight thereof [was] to the end of all the earth”. Only with a flat Earth could a tall tree be visible from “to the end of all the earth” — this would be impossible on a spherical earth.
Theological rebuttal?: The strength of Daniel 4:10-11 as an argument for a flat Earth is considerably lessened by the fact that this part of the Book of Daniel recounts a dream experienced by the Babylonian king during a fit of madness. Thus, it does not necessarily refer to an actually existing tree or make any statements about real cosmology. This fact would seem to indicate that biblical literalists do not know how to read the Bible properly. This rebuttal also ignores that the New Testament claims that the Devil showed Jesus the entire world from the top of a mountain, which would not be possible on a spherical Earth:
Jesus seeing all the kingdoms
- Matthew 4:8: “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world”
- Luke 4:5: “And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.”
Theological rebuttal again: The strength of using Matthew and Luke as flat Earth claims is lessoned by the fact that “Kingdom” is a human construct. If you classify all the places on Earth you can’t see from that particular location as “Not Kingdoms” such as barbaric tribes and non-monarchies, it can be fitted within that description. However, how the devil knows those places are not ruled by Kings (Again, the concept of “King” is also a human concept) is not exactly clear.
The earth is a circle
- Isaiah 40:22: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” — Indeed, this quote is used to prove that Bible claims that the Earth is spherical. Some scholars point out that Isaiah never uses the Modern Hebrew word for sphere Kaduranywhere. It is not clear whether this is relevant, seeing as the interpretation of the word Kadur in the Bible is disputed.
- Isaiah 11:12 “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”
- Revelation 7:1 “And after these things I saw four angels standing on four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” — As with the Daniel quote, this cannot be taken literally; the events described in Revelation are a series of visions, rather than an accurate description of the world. Another interpretation of this verse is that four corners of the earth don’t refer to literal four corners but to cardinal directions, which is further supported by the description of the four winds which are commonly referenced by their cardinal direction.
1 Chronicles 16:30: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.”
Psalm 93:1: “Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm …”
Psalm 96:10: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable …”
Psalm 104:5: “Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken.”
Isaiah 45:18: “…who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast…”
‘Four Corners’ Flat Earth claims
- Isaiah 11:12 “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”
- Revelation 7:1 “And after these things I saw four angels standing on four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” As with the Daniel quote, this cannot be taken literally; the events described in Revelation are a series of visions, rather than an accurate description of the world. Another interpretation of this verse is that four corners of the earth don’t refer to literal four corners but to cardinal directions, which is further supported by the description of the four winds which are commonly referenced by their cardinal direction.
From N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals
(University Press of America, 1987), chapter 13.
Copyright held by author
Author’s Note: Full bibliographical information for references will be supplied at a later date.
Until then please check the full bibliography of the hard copy of God, Reason, and the Evangelicals.
The Vault of Heaven
The vault of heaven is a crucial concept. The word “firmament” appears in the King James version of the Old Testament 17 times, and in each case it is translated from the Hebrew word raqiya, which meant the visible vault of the sky. The word raqiya comes from riqqua, meaning “beaten out.” In ancient times, brass objects were either cast in the form required or beaten into shape on an anvil. A good craftsman could beat a lump of cast brass into a thin bowl. Thus, Elihu asks Job, “Can you beat out [raqa] the vault of the skies, as he does, hard as a mirror of cast metal (Job 37:18)?”
Elihu’s question shows that the Hebrews considered the vault of heaven a solid, physical object. Such a large dome would be a tremendous feat of engineering. The Hebrews (and supposedly Yahweh Himself) considered it exactly that, and this point is hammered home by five scriptures:
Job 9:8, “…who by himself spread out the heavens [shamayim]…”
Psalm 19:1, “The heavens [shamayim] tell out the glory of God, the vault of heaven [raqiya] reveals his handiwork.”
Psalm 102:25, “…the heavens [shamayim] were thy handiwork.”
Isaiah 45:12, “I, with my own hands, stretched out the heavens [shamayim] and caused all their host to shine…”
Isaiah 48:13, “…with my right hand I formed the expanse of the sky [shamayim]…”
If these verses are about a mere illusion of a vault, they are surely much ado about nothing. Shamayim comes from shameh, a root meaning to be lofty. It literally means the sky. Other passages complete the picture of the sky as a lofty, physical dome. God “sits throned on the vaulted roof of earth [chuwg], whose inhabitants are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the skies [shamayim] like a curtain, he spreads them out like a tent to live in…[Isaiah 40:22].” Chuwg literally means “circle” or “encompassed.” By extension, it can mean roundness, as in a rounded dome or vault. Job 22:14 says God “walks to and fro on the vault of heaven [chuwg].” In both verses, the use of chuwg implies a physical object, on which one can sit and walk. Likewise, the context in both cases requires elevation. In Isaiah, the elevation causes the people below to look small as grasshoppers. In Job, God’s eyes must penetrate the clouds to view the doings of humans below. Elevation is also implied by Job 22:12: “Surely God is at the zenith of the heavens [shamayim] and looks down on all the stars, high as they are.”
This picture of the cosmos is reinforced by Ezekiel’s vision. The Hebrew word raqiya appears five times in Ezekiel, four times in Ezekiel 1:22-26 and once in Ezekiel 10:1. In each case the context requires a literal vault or dome. The vault appears above the “living creatures” and glitters “like a sheet of ice.” Above the vault is a throne of sapphire (or lapis lazuli). Seated on the throne is “a form in human likeness,” which is radiant and “like the appearance of the glory of the Lord.” In short, Ezekiel saw a vision of God sitting throned on the vault of heaven, as described in Isaiah 40:22.
According to The Jewish Encyclopedia:
The Hebrews regarded the earth as a plain or a hill figured like a hemisphere, swimming on water. Over this is arched the solid vault of heaven. To this vault are fastened the lights, the stars. So slight is this elevation that birds may rise to it and fly along its expanse.The Copernican Revolution of the 16th century led to reconsideration of these matters. In 1554, John Calvin proposed that “firmament” be interpreted as clouds. “He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere,” wrote Calvin. Genesis had to conform to popular prejudice regarding cosmology, or it would not have been accepted
The main reason why skeptics have said the Bible endorses dome cosmology comes from the King James version (KJV) translation of the Bible. Here is the KJV translation of Genesis 1:6-8:
And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. (Genesis 1:6-8)
The word “firmament” implies a solid material, coming from the Latin word “firmamentum,” from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. The Latin word firmamentum has the meaning of a “support,” or “prop.” However, the original Hebrew word, raqia,8 which Jerome translated into the Latin word firmamentum, is not nearly as specific. Raqia comes from the Hebrew verb raqa, which means “beat,” “stamp,” “beat out” and “spread out.” Occurring 11 times in the Old Testament, raqa has the meaning to “stamp one’s feet” (twice), stamp something with the feet (once), spreading metal (four times), spreading out the earth (three times), and spreading the sky or the clouds (once).9 So, the verb raqa does not necessarily refer to the beating out of a solid object, but to a spreading out process, whether the object be solid or not.
The Hebrew noun raqia is used 17 times in the Bible. Eleven of those instances occur in 7 verses from Genesis 1.10 Five instances of raqia occur in Ezekiel’s visions11 – once referring to the expanse (or extent) of the angels’ wings and the other four referring to something that appeared to be like a gleaming crystal, although it is never identified as being a solid object. Two others occur in the Psalms,12 once referring to the expanse as described in Genesis (also written by Moses), and the second referring to the mighty expanse of God’s power.12 So, raqia itself does not always refer to a solid object.
Genesis 1:8 says that God Himself defines what the raqia is, saying “God called the expanse heaven.” So, the so-called firmament is nothing more than heaven itself and does not comprise a separate structure. This fact is further emphasized in Genesis 1:20, where God says, “… let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.”10 Obviously, birds cannot fly through a solid structure, clearly indicating that raqia is not a solid object.
Pillars of heaven
In the book of Job, Job is talking to his four “friends,” and eventually to God Himself. During one of these long discourses, Job talks about God’s creation, referring to the “pillars of the heavens.” Skeptics say that the pillars hold up the solid dome firmament above the earth. However, before deciding exactly what these “pillars of the heavens” are, we should look at the verse in context:
- He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. (Job 26:7)
- He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. (Job 26:8)
- He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it. (Job 26:9)
- He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness. (Job 26:10)
- The pillars of the heavens quake, aghast at his rebuke. (Job 26:11)
As one can see, Job comes up with some rather remarkable insights into the nature of the earth. He says that the earth is suspended over nothing and that the clouds carry water and have weight, yet do not fall to earth. In the context of the passage, it is clear that the “pillars” are the mountains, which quake at God’s rebuke. Whereas the Quran says the earth is like a carpet13 that is held in place by the heavy mountains, described as being like tent pegs,14 so that it won’t move or shake,15 the Bible associates the mountains with shaking16 and says that, instead of placing the mountains on the earth, God caused the mountains to rise up.17 So, it is pretty obvious that these pillars aren’t holding anything up, but are merely free-standing pillars, similar to those found in Solomon’s Temple.18
A COMMON COSMOLOGY OF THE ANCIENT WORLD
Many evangelicals believe in “detailed inerrancy,” which means that the Bible, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, is “without error in all that it affirms” and contains “propositional true truth where it touches the cosmos and history.”(1) This in all probability was not the position of historical Christianity and many evangelicals themselves reject this position.
The inerrantists cannot decide which “science” to use to prove that the Bible is without error about cosmological matters. Following the lead of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, writers for the Moody Bible Institute contend that the Bible is completely compatible with current theories about the evolution of the universe over billions of years. (2) On the other hand, we have “fiat creationists,” like those from the Institute for Creation Research, who reject cosmic evolution and maintain that the universe is less than 10,000 years old.
Throwing intelligent light on the question are the evangelical writers of the New Bible Dictionary. An author warns us that the Genesis account “must not be confused or identified with any scientific theory of origins. The purpose of the biblical doctrine, in contrast to that of scientific investigation, is ethical and religious….The whole is poetic and does not yield to close scientific correlations….Genesis neither affirms nor denies the theory of evolution, or any theory for that matter.”(3) Evangelical J. J. Davis concurs: “Evangelicals have generally come to adopt the position that the Genesis accounts of creation are primarily concerned with the meaning and purpose of God’s creative work and not with precise scientific details of how it was accomplished….We look to the science of genetics to answer the scientific question of when human life begins and to the Bible for revelational answers concerning the value and purpose of human life.”(4) Of course these evangelicals are correct in disclaiming any scientific foundation for the cosmology of the Old Testament.
I believe, however, that there is more than just poetry in the biblical creation account. In what follows I argue that we should take the Hebrew cosmology as a prescientific attempt to understand the universe. Parallel accounts in other ancient mythologies will be the principal evidence I offer. One of the first problems we have is that there is no word in Hebrew for the Greek kosmos. Kosmos was first used by Pythagoras, who is said to be the first Greek to conceive of the universe as a rational, unified whole. Such a notion is crucial to the scientific idea that things operate according to law-like regularity. For the Hebrews the universe is not a kosmos, but a loose aggregate held together and directed by God’s will.(5) If God’s will is free–this is an assumption threatened in some evangelical doctrines of God–then the results of such a will are not predictable events. This is why the biblical idea of creation can never be called “scientific,” and why “scientific creationism” will always be a contradiction in terms.
The firmament is the sky, conceived as a solid dome. According to Genesis, KJV, as rendered by many translations, God created the firmament to separate the “waters above” the earth from those below. The word is anglicized from Latin firmamentum, which appears in the Vulgate, a late fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible. The word, “firmamentum,” may be translated “support”, “strengthening”, or “prop”.
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day. The word “firmament” is first recorded in a Middle English narrative based on scripture dated 1250. It later appeared in the King James Bible.
- THE FIRMAMENT AS THE DOME OF HEAVEN
The most striking feature of the Old Testament world is the “firmament,” a solid dome which separates “the waters from the waters” (Gen. 1:6). The Hebrew word translated in the Latin Vulgate as firmamentum is raqia’ whose verb form means “to spread, stamp or beat out.” The material beaten out is not directly specified, but both biblical and extrabiblical evidence suggests that it is metal. A verb form of raqia’ is used in both of these passages: “And gold leaf was hammered out…” (Ex. 39:3); and “beaten silver is brought from Tarshish” (Jer. l0:9). There are indeed figurative uses of this term. A firmament is part of the first vision of Ezekiel (1:22,26), and the editors of the evangelical Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament cite this as evidence that the Hebrews did not believe in a literal sky-dome. It is clear, however, that Ezekiel’s throne chariot is the cosmos in miniature, and the use of raqia’ most likely refers to a solid canopy (it shines “like crystal”) than to a limited space.(6)
The idea of the dome or vault of heaven is found in many Old Testament books, e.g., “God founds his vault upon the earth…” (Amos 9:6). The Hebrew word translated as “vault” is ‘aguddah whose verb form means to “bind, fit, or construct.” Commenting on this verse, Richard S. Cripps states that “here it seems that the ‘heavens’ are ‘bound’ or fitted into a solid vault, the ends of which are upon the earth.” We have seen that raqia’ and ‘aguddah, whose referent is obviously the same, mean something very different from the empty spatial expanse that some evangelicals suggest.
In the Anchor Bible translation of Psalm 77:18, Mitchell Dahood has found yet another reference to the dome of heaven, which has been obscured by previous translators. The RSV translates galgal as “whirlwind,” but Dahood argues that galgal is closely related to the Hebrew gullath (bowl) and gulgolet (skull), which definitely gives the idea of “something domed or vaulted.” In addition, Dahood points out that “the parallelism with tebel, ‘earth,’ and ‘eres, ‘netherworld,’ suggests that the psalmist is portraying the tripartite division of the universe–heaven, earth, and underworld.”(8)
Some evangelicals claim that the Bible contains at least three references to a spherical earth (Is. 40:22; Job 22:14; Prov. 8:27). But this is just wishful thinking and an obvious imposition of modern cosmology on the Hebrew world-view. The Hebrew word hug used here cannot be translated as sphere (which is rendered by a different word), but must again be interpreted as a solid vault overarching the earth. Therefore I follow the Anchor Bible translation of Is. 40:22: “God sits upon the dome of the earth.” Job 22:14 says that God “walks on the vault (hug) of heaven,” again suggesting something solid. Hug can also refer to the circular perimeter of the sky-dome: “He drew a circle (hug) on the face of the deep…and made firm the skies above” (Prov. 8:27-28).
If some respond by saying that all of this is just poetry, I believe that they are incorrect for at least three reasons. There are many poetic images of the sky and heaven, but the common thread which connects them is the idea of a solid dome. In Isaiah 34 God is threatening the nations, and at verse four he will make “the skies roll up like a scroll” (and presumably causing a deluge like Noah’s). Job is put in his place by reference to God’s mighty deeds: “Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?” (37:18). At Isaiah 40:22 the real “dome of the earth” (AB) is followed by the poetic “he stretches out the heavens like a veil; he spreads them like a tent to dwell in.” One of the psalmists also uses this simile: “God has stretched out the heavens like a tent” (Ps. 104:2).
The second and most conclusive reason for taking the Hebrew solid heaven literally is that such a view was all over the ancient world of the time. We agree with evangelical Joseph Dillow that we must use the doctrine of “sharable implications,” which means that we cannot impute to authors knowledge or experience which they could not possibly have had. Dillow is wise enough to reject violations of this principle like Harold Lindsell’s claim that Job 38:35 anticipates wireless telegraphy; but he still believes, and this proves troublesome, that the “Bible does provide a perfectly sound basis for understanding not only religious truth but also physical processes.”(9) Contrary to C.S. Lewis’ claim (see epigraph), the Hebrew world-view was not a uniquely chosen one; and as the Hebrews were only religious, not scientific innovators, we can assume that they borrowed much from their neighbors.
The ancient Egyptians thought that the sky was a roof supported by pillars. For the Sumerians tin was the metal of heaven, so we can safely assume that their metal sky-vault was made out of this material.(10) Dillow cites this fact without realizing what this must mean for the Hebrew view and his principle of sharable implications. In Homer the sky is a metal hemisphere covering a round, flat, disc-like earth, surrounded by water. The Odyssey and the Illiad speak alternatively of a bronze or iron sky-vault.(11) For the ancient Greeks Anaximenes and Empedocles, the stars are implanted in a crystalline sky-dome. At Genesis 1:17 the stars are “set in” (as if implanted) in the firmament.
In Celtic mythology the father god’s skull is the dome of heaven, which echoes the Aryan idea that the sky evolved from the head of the cosmic man Purusha and therein dwelled the earliest Vedic gods (Rig-veda 10.90.14,16). The fear of Chicken Little comes from this ancient cosmology: when Alexander asked the Celtic leaders what they feared most, they answered that they were afraid that the sky would fall on their heads. In Manichean myths the sky was made from the skins of defeated demons, echoing themes from the Babylonian Enuma Elish.(12) In Zoroastrianism one finds a spherical earth, but one still enclosed in a celestial shell of first stone then shiny metal.(13) In the Finnish Kalevala the sky is made of the finest steel; and the ancient Tibetans not only had a spherical earth surrounded by an iron heaven, but also knew, amazingly enough, that the earth’s diameter was about 7,000 miles.(14)
The final evidence I draw from rabbinic accounts. In Nachmanides’ commentary on the Torah, he quotes from the ancient rabbis: “The heavens were in a fluid form on the first day, and on the second day they solidified.” Another ancient rabbi said: “Let the firmament become like a plate, just as you say in Ex. 39:3.” Nachmanides himself describes the firmament as “an extended substance congealed water separating” the waters from the waters.(15) Apart from the congealed water thesis, a modern Jewish Bible scholar agrees with this interpretation: “raqia’ suggests a firm vault or dome over the earth. According to ancient belief, this vault which held the stars, provided the boundary beyond which the Divine dwelt.”(16) As far as I can ascertain, the idea of a spherical earth did not enter Jewish thought until the Middle Ages. Simeon ben Zemah Duran (1361-1444), for example, states: “This round world suspended in space and has nothing to rest on except the breath of Torah study from the mouths of students–just as a man may keep something up in the air by the blowing of his breath.”(17)
- THE PILLARS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH
If we disengage ourselves from our own world-view, we can appreciate the internal logic of the Hebrew cosmology. If we are threatened by watery chaos from all sides, then a solid sky would be needed to hold back these ominous seas. If the sky is a solid dome, then it will need pillars to support it. Furthermore, if the earth is a flat disc floating on “the deep,” then it would make sense for it to have some support to hold it in place. One finds the idea of physical supports for heaven in most ancient mythology. One Vedic poet writes of a god “by whom the awesome sky and earth were made firm, by whom the dome of the sky was propped up”; and Varuna “pillared both the worlds apart as the unborn supported heaven” (Rig-veda 10.121.5; 8.41.10). The cosmology of the ancient Arabians was a little more advanced. Here we find a solid sky-dome which Allah holds up by an act of will (Surah 2.22). That God “raised up the heavens without pillars” (Surah 13.2) reveals at least two assumptions: (1) that there was something solid to raise up; and (2) earlier views used actual supports and not Allah’s direct will.
It is not surprising then that one finds biblical references to the “pillars” or “foundations” of the heaven and earth. In Job we find that “the pillars of heaven tremble, are astounded at God’s rebuke” (26:11). In 2 Samuel we also find that God’s anger makes “the foundations of the heavens tremble” (22:8). God’s fury also affects the pillars of the earth: “Who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble?” (Job 9:6); and “the foundations of the world were laid bare at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils” (Ps. 18:15). There seems to be a little confusion about where the pillars of heaven are located. Generally, in the Bible and other ancient literatures, distant mountains were the most likely candidates. But in one passage at least we find that Yahweh has “laid the beams of his heavenly chambers on the waters” (Ps. 104:3), i.e., the watery chaos surrounding the flat disc of the earth.
In the Old Testament God is portrayed as a cosmic architect. Isaiah asks: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span?” (40:12). In Proverbs Yahweh “drew a circle on the face of the deep…and marked out the foundations of the earth…” (8:27-29). God challenges Job with the famous question: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…Who determined its measurements…or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone…” (38:4)? Continuing the same theme, the psalmists ask: “Who placed the earth upon its foundations lest it should ever quake?” (Ps. 104:5, AB); and observe that “when the earth totters…it is God who will steady its pillars” (Ps. 75:3, AB). Finally, in 1 Sam. 2:8 we find that “the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world.”
Joseph Dillow responds to these passages generally by saying that these are figures of speech or phenomenological language. Specifically, he points out that the Hebrew word used may indicate pillars which support nothing, but this certainly does not preclude the “pillars of heaven” from doing so. Dillow weakens his argument considerably when he admits that “the ‘pillars of the earth’ are simply mountains, even though long ago the Babylonians, and perhaps, the Hebrews, considered them as supports for a metallic sky dome.”(18) Dillow believes that Moses wrote the Pentateuch and he gives no credible argument why he should have viewed the cosmos differently than his pagan contemporaries. As we have shown above, the intellectual environment of the priestly writers would have still favored a solid heaven in need of support. Why should the Hebrews, who had no special expertise in ancient science and who borrowed heavily in other areas, have had a view different from other ancient peoples’? As we shall see in a later section, Dillow claims that Moses accepted the ancient idea of the “ocean of heaven.” It would appear certain that he would also have accepted a sky-dome to support such a body of water. The logic of such a cosmology is expressed well by a Vedic poet: “Water is up there beyond the sky; the sky supports it” (Aitareya Upanishad I.2).
- THE WATERS ABOVE AND BELOW
In her new translation of the Rig-veda, Wendy O’Flaherty says that the ancient Hindus believed that “the earth was spread upon the cosmic waters” and that these primeval oceans “surrounded heaven and earth, separating the dwelling-place of men and gods….”(19) After the sky fell in on the Celts, the next event they feared was that the seas would come rushing in from all directions.(20) In the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, the sky is made from the body of Tiamat, the goddess of watery chaos. The victorious god Marduk splits “her like a shellfish into two parts: half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky, pulled down the bar and posted guards. He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.”
In Genesis 1:1 we find the linguistic equivalent of Tiamat in the Hebrew word tehom (“the deep”), and the threat of watery chaos is ever present in the Old Testament. Evangelical F. F. Bruce agrees that “tehom is probably cognate with Tiamat,” and Clark Pinnock admits that Yahweh also “quite plainly…fought with a sea monster” and that the model of the battle is a Babylonian one.(22) The psalmists describe it in graphic terms: “By thy power thou didst cleave the sea-monster in two, and broke the dragon’s heads above the waters; thou didst crush the many-headed Leviathan, and threw him to the sharks for food” (Ps. 74:13-14 NEB; cf. Job 3:8; Isa. 27:1).
The firmament separates the waters from the waters, so that there is water above the heavens (Ps. l48:4) and water below the earth. The Second Commandment makes this clear: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…”(Deut. 5:8; cf. Ex. 20:4; Is. 51:6). The lower tier of this three-story universe is identified as water in other passages: “God spread out the earth upon the waters” (Ps. 136:6); and “he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers” (Ps. 24:2). If the waters below the earth are simply springs,(23) then one would have a hard time making sense of the prohibition of making images of the mostly microscopic creatures found in such waters. The biblical authors are definitely thinking of the great fishes and monsters of “the deep” itself. The fertility goddesses of the land and the seas were Yahweh’s principal rivals.
Some evangelicals claim that the author of Job believed that the earth was suspended in empty space: “The shades below tremble, the waters and their inhabitants. Sheol is naked before God. He stretches out the north over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing” (26:5-7). The first thing that can be said here is that the context is not one of God’s creation (which comes next at vv. l0-l4 following the cosmology above), but one of God’s threat of destruction. Second, none of the ancients, except for possibly the Greek atomists, had any notion of empty space. The Hebrew words for “void” and “nothingness” have parallel uses in many Old Testament passages and generally refer to a watery chaos (Gen. 1:1; Jer. 4:23; Is. 40:17, 23). Therefore we must conclude, as does Marvin H. Pope, that Job does not have the Pythagorean notion of the earth suspended in space.(24) Oceans, not empty space, surround the Hebrew world.
Although it sounds odd at first, the rabbinic idea that the sky-dome was made of congealed water makes eminent sense in terms of creation out of watery chaos. This doctrine, and not creatio ex nihilo, is the prima facie implication of Genesis 1:1; and the scholarly consensus is that this initial impression is indeed correct.(25) Hebrews 11:3–“that which is seen was made out of things which do not appear”–has been used for centuries as the main scriptural support for creation out of nothing. G. W. Buchanan has now shown that this was very tenuous indeed: “The author’s concern for the unseen was not primarily that which was invisible or intangible, but that which was future, that which had not yet happened. It was a concept of time rather than of substance or essence.”(26) One passage is never mentioned in arguments for creatio ex nihilo: “Ages ago I Sophia was set up…before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths (tehom) I was brought forth…”(Prov. 8:23-24). Here there seems to be a clean break with previous creation models: watery chaos is not a coeternal substance along with Yahweh and Sophia, his co-craftsperson.
Creatio ex nihilo represents yet another parting of the ways between process and evangelical views. The process theologians of course reject God as absolute power and support Whitehead’s own version of creation out of chaos. In contrast to all traditional views, the process God does not create the universe at one point in time nor does this God create it continuously throughout all time; rather, God prepares “initial aims” for an essentially self-creating universe. This brilliant and unorthodox separation of “creativity” from God gives sufficient independence to the world so that certain devastating implications of creatio ex nihilo are avoided. Specifically, I have argued elsewhere that such a doctrine of creation leads to the unavoidable imputation of all evil to God. See www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/305/3dp.htm. Sec. E.
There is yet another problem with creatio ex nihilo. With regard to theological language, its proponents have only the via negativa, for as William T. Jones has phrased it, “God’s creativity and man’s have nothing in common but the name.”(27) In contrast some process theologians follow the via eminentia, so that the term “creativity” is used univocally for both God and creatures. Charles Hartshorne expresses this crucial aspect of a process doctrine of creation well: “Creativity, if real at all, must be universal, not limited to God alone, and it must be self-creativity as well as creative influencing of others.”(28)
- DILLOW’S VAPOR CANOPY THEORY
In his book The Waters Above: Earth’s Pre-Flood Vapor Canopy, Joseph C. Dillow discusses at great length the possibility that the biblical view presented in the preceding section (with some exceptions of course) was indeed a fact before Noah’s Flood. Although Dillow rejects the hermeneutical excesses of the detailed inerrantists, he still remains squarely within this view. In his book Dillow takes great pains to point out the errors of apologists who have interpreted the heavenly oceans as a figure of speech or as a way of portraying water-filled clouds. Dillow argues persuasively that the Bible makes a clear distinction between clouds and the waters of heaven and concludes that the “cloud” interpretation is “clearly impossible.” Dillow also firmly establishes that the celestial waters are above the sky and not just in the atmosphere. Dillow believes, without good justification, that Moses corrects much of the cosmology he inherited from others, but “one of the things he does not correct is the notion of a literal liquid ocean placed above the atmosphere.”(29)
Dillow elaborates: “In view of the principle of sharable implications… the only other possible meaning of the text would be of a literal liquid ocean. It is clear that the Hebrews were aware of the literal liquid ocean concept from the surrounding myths why not also a metallic sky-dome?, and that they were aware of clouds as a source of water.”31 He does concede, however, that the vapor canopy he proposes was beyond Hebrew experience and knowledge.
We have neither the space nor expertise to consider Dillow’s long detailed, scientific defense of the vapor canopy theory; instead, we shall propose some criticisms from the standpoint of biblical hermeneutics and comparative religion. One point, however, in the area of science should be made. Without a solid skydome, Dillow must resort to divine intervention in at least two ways: God must support the waters of heaven from Creation to Noah and must also change them from their original liquid state to the hypothesized vapor. Dillow’s use of divine miracles does not make it likely that his vapor canopy theory will be seriously considered in scientific circles. Dillow himself admits that an “entirely different set of natural laws would have had to have been in operation for such a state to have been maintained.”(32) Dillow and other creationists, in one fell swoop, have destroyed the very possibility of genuine science.
Since the alleged celestial ocean was drained during the Deluge, one would not expect to find reference to it after this time. But Psalm 148:4 clearly refers to “you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens”; Job speaks of the “waterskins of the heavens” (38:13); and when God “utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens” (Jer. 10:13). It should be emphasized that God “established them the heavenly waters forever and ever” (Ps. 148:5). Dillow cannot accept the standard conservative interpretation of clouds, so he must embrace the celestial ocean here too. He cautions us not to take “forever” too strictly, because from the biblical perspective, God can always change what he has created: “So the fact that these waters are described as lasting forever does not necessarily mean that the temporary water of heaven theory cannot be meant.”(33) Needless to say, I do not find Dillow convincing, and I still maintain that Psalm 148:4 and the other passages cited above must be interpreted in terms of a permanent reservoir of water.
Dillow’s response to Psalm 148 is somewhat desperate and in his anxiety he reveals his true hermeneutical colors. He maintains that if he reads verse four as referring to the celestial ocean, he must somehow admit that “not only did the Hebrews believe in a celestial ocean prior to the Flood, but they also embraced the world view of the metallic dome and present existence of the celestial sea held by the Canaanites. The latter view contradicts the inerrancy of Scripture….”(34) It is clear that the grammatical-historical investigation of the Bible cannot maintain its integrity with such an a priori assumption of inerrancy. The editors of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament also embrace a priori inerrancy in their rejection of “gods” as the translation for ‘elohim in Exodus 22:8-9. They state: “This is unacceptable from the point of view of Scripture’s attestation to being God’s Word and its clear doctrine of the existence of only one God.”(35) Dillow and other evangelicals not only make creation “science” impossible but Bible science as well. Some evangelicals prefer to stick to their ideology of inerrancy rather than honor scholarly and scientific methods.
One of the predicted (or “postdicted”) results of the vapor canopy theory is that there would have been more protection from age-inducing cosmic rays and a uniform and stable earthly climate. Dillow contends that this would mean that humans would have lived longer, that there would have been no rain, wind, or storms and that moisture would have been produced by mists and dew. Dillow argues that this type of life and climate is precisely what the Bible and other ancient literatures describe. He quotes from the Persian story of Yima who lived for 900 years and at a time when there were neither cold nor hot winds. He also cites accounts of the Golden Age in Greek and Hindu literature. These halcyon days disappeared after the Flood when the protective vapor layer was removed.
If we turn to the stories of the ancient Sumerians, who are definitely antediluvian, we find that Dillow’s theory is disconfirmed. For example, Enki, a Sumerian water-god of wisdom, is said to have caused life-giving rain to fall and he put the storm-god Ishkur in charge of it.(36)There is also Ninurta, god of the stormy south wind. We can also read of P’an Ku, the primal man of Chinese mythology, whose sweat became earthly rain. As to the extended longevity of the prediluvian patriarchs, ancient historians are well aware of hyperbolic chronologies in Indian literature (especially Jainism) and Near Eastern records. Sumerian kings, for example, had reigns from 18,600 to 65,000 years. E. A. Speiser believes that this mythical chronology was appropriated and partially demythologized by the priestly writers: “The P source, then, did not invent the abnormal life-spans of the Sethite list; if anything, they have been drastically reduced.”(37)
- CELESTIAL CHAMBERS AND THE HEAVEN OF HEAVENS
While it is true that the Hebrews had a rough understanding of the circulation of water vapor and the source of rain in the clouds (Job 36:27, 28), they also conceived of mechanisms in heaven whereby God could directly induce great atmospheric catastrophes. Obviously the clouds themselves could not have held enough water for the Great Flood, so “all the foundations of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Gen. 7:11; cf. Mal. 3:10). This is also further proof that the earth was surrounded by watery chaos. The Old Testament talks about divine “chambers” (heder) in heaven and this notion seems to have been borrowed from Canaanite mythology. Marvin Pope has discovered a direct parallel to the Ugaritic God ‘El who “answers from the seven chambers,” usually through the media of the seven winds.(38)
Significantly, we find that Yahweh “brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Ps. 135:7); and “from the chamber comes the tempest, from the scatter-winds the cold” (Job 37:9, AB). From Amos we learn that God “builds his upper chambers in the heavens” (9:6), and the psalmists speak of God storing “his upper chambers” with water so that he can water the mountains (Ps. 104:3, 13; cf. Ps. 33:7). Job gives us the most detailed account of God’s chambers: “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?” (38:22). We must not forget that “Yahweh is a warrior” (Ex. 15:3) and it is he, for example, who caused the violent storm which destroyed the Canaanite army of Sisera (Jdgs. 5). In the noncanonical Ecclesiasticus we discover that Yahweh has more than storms in his chambers: “In his storehouses, kept for proper time, are fire, famine, disease” (39:29). Dillow argues convincingly that Yahweh’s storehouses of rain are not just clouds or ocean basins; rather, they most definitely have a celestial location.(39)
In the diagram at the head of the chapter, the area above the “ocean of heaven” is labeled the “heaven of fire.” I have not been able to verify this, and it seems that it must be labeled “heaven of heavens” instead. Again various levels of heaven are not unique to the Hebrews for we can read that the Vedic seer conceived of at least “three superior realms of heaven” (Rig-veda 8.41.9). One psalmist clearly distinguishes between the two levels: “You highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens” (Ps. l48:4). This area is exclusively Yahweh’s domain: “The heaven of heavens belongs to Yahweh…” (Ps. 115:16, AB); “To the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens…” (Deut. l0:l4); and “heaven and highest heaven cannot contain thee” (1 Kgs. 8:27). These passages have led to endless speculation about the various levels of heaven. Creationist Henry D. Morris claims that there are three heavens: (1) atmospheric heaven (Jer. 4:25); (2) sidereal heaven (Is. 13:10); (3) and the heaven of God’s throne (Heb. 9:24).(40) The heaven of heavens mentioned above is probably not Morris’ third heaven, because it was created (Ps. 148:4) and it seems that God does not dwell there (1 Kgs. 8:27). Commentators will probably never be able to sort out many of these obscure passages.
In closing this chapter, something must be said about the process of “demythologizing.” This word, made popular by Rudolph Bultmann, has become a dirty word among conservative Christians. It is clear, however, that demythologizing happened with the writing of the Old Testament, and it is occurring at another level within evangelical hermeneutics itself. Recall that James Barr’s theory is that fundamentalists take the Bible literally only when it fits the doctrine of inerrancy. They do not hesitate to naturalize biblical events when they must be harmonized with historical or scientific facts. When Dillow claims, and rightly so, that Moses wrote of a sovereign Yahweh completely in charge of a depersonalized nature, he is conceding that the Hebrew writers, as with our example of the Sumerian chronologies, were historicizing myth. But Dillow and other evangelicals are also demythologizers in disguise, for they want us to believe that a heavenly ocean and the flood it caused are facts and not myths. This is demythologizing at its worst and the evangelical rationalists are its champions.
Full bibliographical information for references will be supplied at a later date. Until then please check the full bibliography of the hard copy of God, Reason, and the Evangelicals.
- Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict, p. 48.
- Peter W. Stone and Robert C. Newman, Science Speaks: Scientific Proof of the Accuracy of Prophecy and the Bible. For the same view, see Newman and Herman J. Eckles, Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth.
- New Bible Dictionary, pp. 269/245, 271/246, 272/247.
- John Jefferson Davis, “When Does Personhood Begin?,” p. 41.
- The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 702.
- The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6, p. 731.
- Richard S. Cripps, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Amos, p. 262.
- Dahood, The Anchor Psalms, vol. 2., p. 232.
- Joseph C. Dillow, The Waters Above, pp. 27 ff.
- S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians, p. 113, quoted in ibid., p. 127.
- G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, p. 10. Plato preserves this cosmology with references to the “vault of heaven” and the “heaven above the heaven” (Phaedrus 247).
- S. N. Kramer, Mythologies of the Ancient World, p. 341.
- Ibid., p. 339. See also R. C. Zaehner, The Teachings of the Magi, pp. 33, 39. The earliest accounts, which were of course pre-Iron Age, described the sky “as an empty shell, perfectly round, made of stone passing beneath the earth as well as arching above it” (Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1, p. 132).
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead, pp. 63, 65.
- Nachmanides (Raban), Commentary on the Torah, vol. 1, pp. 33, 36.
- W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 18.
- Excerpted in The Living Talmud, p. 47.
- Dillow, op. cit., p. 39.
- The Rig-veda (trans. O’Flaherty), pp. 32, 29.
- Charles Squire, Celtic Myth and Legend, p. 174.
- Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 67, 2nd col.
- Bruce, “Our God and Saviour,” p. 54; Pinnock, The Scriptural Principle, p. 123.
- See Steven A. Austin, “Springs in the Ocean.”
- Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Job (3rd ed.), p. 165.
- W. R. Lane, “The Initiation of Creation,” pp. 63-73. “Perhaps the belief in ‘creation out of nothing’…is too sophisticated for Isreal’s faith” (Bernhard W. Anderson, “The Earth is the Lord’s,” p. 184.) Anderson cites the best defense of creatio ex nihilo: Walther Eichrodt’s “In the Beginning: A Contribution to the Interpretation of the First Word of the Bible.”
- G. W. Buchanan, The Anchor Hebrews, p. 184. Neidhardt’s claim that the author of Hebrews anticipated unseen atomic particles is unfortunately typical speculation among many evangelicals (quoted in Henry, vol. 1, p. 169).
- William T. Jones, The Medieval Mind, p. 87. Despite Robert C. Neville’s brilliant defense of creatio ex nihilo, he must still admit that “God’s creative power having no medium apart from its product” is a “very peculiar kind of power” (God the Creator, p. 114).
- Quoted in Douglas Browning, “The Development of Process Theology,” p. xi.
- Dillow, op. cit., pp. 49-50.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 51.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- Ibid., p. 108.
- Ibid., p. 106.
- Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 45. Pinnock is the rare evangelical who admits to the existence of Old Testament henotheism (see The Scriptural Principle, p. 123). See references for henotheism on p. 103 above.
- Kramer, Mythologies of the Ancient World, pp. 100, 105.
- E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Genesis, p. 42.
- Pope, op. cit., p. 281.
- Dillow, op. cit., p. 61.
- Henry D. Morris, The Genesis Record, p. 58.