Old Testament Cosmology—Paul Seely
I recently read three excellent articles by Paul H. Seely:
1. "The Firmament and the Water Above, Part I: The Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6–8." The Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 227–40
2. "The Firmament and the Waters Above, Part II: The Meaning of 'The Water Aove the Firmament' in Gen 1:6–8." The Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992) 32ff. (www.thedivinecouncil.com/seelypt2.pdf)
3. "The Geographical Meaning of 'Earth' and 'Seas' in Genesis 1:10." The Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997) 231–55.
Seely comes from a Reformed evangelical background but, in these articles, he is reacting against creation science attempts to read modern scientific cosmology from the Bible. He demonstrates convincingly that the biblical authors presupposed an ancient cosmology and not a modern one.
Seely's goal is to read the cosmology of Genesis 1 in its ancient historical context.
In the first article he argues that the "firmament" (raqia') in Gen 1:6–8 is not the atmosphere but the sky conceived of as a solid dome over the earth. He shows both from the ancient world conceptual background and from the exegesis of the text that the sky was thought of as solid. He blows alternative views out of the water. To my mind his case is a slam dunk.
In the second article, he argues that the waters above the firmament are not rain clouds but rather a vast cosmic ocean that was believed to be on the other side of the "firmament" (i.e., beyond the sun, moon, and stars). In the beginning there was one vast cosmic ocean but God divided it in half—half is what we know of as the sea (but see later) and the other half is above the firmament. Again—his case is, in my estimation, a knock down case.
The third article argues
(a) that the "earth" in Genesis 1 was thought of not as a globe but as a flat disk.
(b) that this single-continent "disc world" is surrounded by and sits upon a vast primal ocean (the other half of which is thought of as above the firmament.
Now clearly such a cosmology is scientifically incorrect. Even the most fundamentalist among us do not believe that:
- the earth is a flat disk
- the sky is solid
- there is an ocean above the solid sky (beyond the sun, moon, and stars)
- that there is a primal ocean of water under the solid land we live upon
And, if we expanded the OT cosmic geography we'd discover other things that we no longer literally believe but which OT authors did (e.g., that the dead descend into sheol literally under the ground, that heaven is literally up beyond the waters above the firmament, etc.)
All this raises issues for the notion of biblical inspiration and it is no wonder that many evangelicals try to get out of them by arguing (unsuccessfully in my view) that this biblical language is simply metaphorical or phenomenological (describing how things appear rather than how they actually are).
Now Seely's own view is that God spoke through biblical writers but accomodated himself to their worldviews. So God revealed certain truths about creation to ancient people but he did so in terms of the way in which they conceived the cosmos. For instance, God revealed to them that it was Yhwh, the one God of Israel, who made everything (not the gods of paganism). God was not interested in communicating astronomy, geology, biology, cosmology, to Israel so he simply communicated truths (which remain true) in terms of ancient science.
I think that there is much truth in this approach. However, it is in danger of reductionism. The danger is that we say that God revealed himself to Israel in spite of their faulty cosmology. Our job is to strip off the ancient science and distill the pure revelation which we still affirm.
I want to say that God did not reveal himself in spite of the ancient cosmology but through the ancient cosmology. Whilst it is impossible for us to inhabit the cosmos in the way that ancient Hebrews did (it is scientifically naive) we can still inhabit the cosmos in a way that is deeply informed by their cosmology.
Ancient cosmologies were very much to do with the meaning, purpose, and function of the cosmos. Their ways of thinking of the universe saw it as "enchanted" and meaning-full. I tentatively suggest that God is actually affirming the meanings embedded in their naive cosmology. Thus whilst we cannot affirm biblical cosmology at a scientific level we can affirm it at the level of meaning.
To take one example. Biblical writers saw the earth as literally at the centre of the cosmos. In terms of science, this is simply mistaken (although perfectly sensible as a common-sense description of the world as we actually see it). However, the mythic cosmology may still be held to be correct in affirming the centrality of earth in the divine purposes (and many of the current debates on the fine tuning of the universe are contemporary ways of affirming something similar in a post-Copernican cosmos). The biblical cosmology is not to be thrown out but is a means by which God can reshape the way that we see the cosmos. I think that there are all sorts of things like this that we can learn from biblical cosmologies even though we don't take them scientifically.
I am suggesting that our job as Bible readers is not to say what the apostles and prophets said (that would require us to join the flat earth society). Rather, echoing Barth, we must say what we must say in light of what the apostles and prophets said. We must not simply cast aside ther husk of biblical cosmologies but rather learn from them how to reenchant the cosmos and how to inhabit "our" cosmos biblically.