I have recently been working through Genesis 1 in my devotional times and I have had cause to revisit the ancient cosmology of biblical Israel. No big surprises here but, as is well known, the cosmos of the biblical text is one in which the earth is flat (though, in some versions, circular, like a round table top). Above the earth is a giant, solid dome (the "firmament") that keeps the chaotic waters above the earth at bay. The sun, moon, and stars are located this side of the dome. So during the flood — the only time in the Bible when rain fell from beyond the firmament, through the floodgates of the heavens (rather than from clouds) — we need to understand that the rain came from the other side of the sun, moon, and stars! It was a partial undoing of DAY TWO in Genesis 1.
I wonder why fundamentalists are so keen to believe in a literal seven-day creation and yet do not campaign against space flight (in case someone crashes into the sky-dome and cracks it) or organize recruitment drives for the Flat Earth Society. If you really want to use the Bible to derive cosmology then it seems the way to go.
Of course, fundamentalists realize that such views are simply not live possibilities, even for people with as firm convictions as they have. So they argue that the world in the Bible is not flat but actually spherical (Wow! How could biblical authors know that! Proof of inspiration!) and that the firmament is not a solid sky-dome but something else (what the something else is will vary depending on who you talk to). Alas, the arguments used to support a spherical earth in the Bible don't work while the flat earth case is very strong. The same goes for the sky-dome: the case for a solid dome is very strong (as evangelical scholar Paul Seeley demonstrated some years ago in a couple of articles in the Westminster Theological Journal) and the case against is, at best, weak (despite Greg Beale's attempt to defend it in an otherwise very good article on Temple Cosmology).
So the dilemma remains: if one wants to be a thoroughbred fundamentalist one really ought to believe that the sky is solid (with heaven the other side of it) and that the earth is flat (with Sheol/Hades literally below it). As an aside, I wonder how many fundamentalists would be so keen on "Big Oil" if they thought they might accidentally drill down into Hades!
Speaking for myself, I agree with the likes of Aquinas and Calvin that God accommodated himself in his communications with humanity. Perhaps God was not interested in correcting the ancient science of ancient Israel — he had bigger fish to fry. But I am inclined that God does not merely speak through Genesis 1 (and other biblical texts) in spite of its ancient cosmology but, in fact, precisely in and through it. That opens up a whole interesting conversation ... for another time.
- Robin Parry
- Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).