Peter Enns assumes there was a dominant world-picture or cosmology in the ancient Near East, and Paul Seely published several articles advocating the idea that the earth is a flat disk and the sky a solid dome in Westminster Theological Journal.
In a comment on an earlier post, Steve Hays has drawn attention to an essay that also appeared in WTJ by Noel K. Weeks,”Cosmology in Historical Context,” WTJ 68 (2006): 283–93.
This essay demonstrates that it is impossible to maintain that there was a universal world-picture held by all people in the ANE, that the world-picture Enns assumes in the graphic to the left from this post cannot be conclusively constructed from Enuma Elish, and thus that Enns and others are assuming their conclusions when they speak of, among other things, all people in the ancient world thinking the earth was a flat disk floating on the waters or that there was a solid dome over the earth [Enns writes: “The biblical writers thought the earth was a flat disk. . . . Likewise, the Bible speaks of the sky overhead as a dome.”].
Some highlights from the essay by Weeks (footnotes deleted):
It is common to proclaim this or that element of Scripture as a reflection of views or practices of the time. The confidence with which this is said conveys to the reader that recovering what was generally believed or done at the time is easy. Often that is far from the case. If we are dealing particularly with the OT, then the problem is greater because of the lack of extra-biblical material from Palestine. One passage may be illuminated by another passage of Scripture, but it could be argued that both passages are reflections of common views of the time. Ideally, we need copious documentation external to the biblical text and rarely is that the case. Externally written material from Palestine that will illumine things such as cosmological beliefs is non-existent. The resort to Ugaritic material to fill the gap left by the lack of Palestinian material brings its own problems of being certain that Ugarit is fully representative of Palestinian beliefs and practices. Mute archaeological findings may somewhat fill that gap but material remains speak to a limited range of issues. The course of argument from mute archaeological findings to abstract beliefs is so problematic as to be not worth considering (284).
Is a distinction between the Cosmological and theological demonstrably part of the common conceptions of the world in which Scripture originated? The answer is an unambiguous negative! That distinction is a modern one and thus is part of what we bring to the past. It looks very much like a popular version of Kant’s distinction between the noumena and the phenomena. So an interpretation of the biblical text in which such a distinction is foundational involves an element of eisegesis, no matter how much the user may intend to put Scripture in its context (285).
Yet, one must concede a certain attractiveness to this distinction between the physical and the religious. It forms a way in which difficult passages of Scripture may be dealt with while the “theological” truths are apparently still maintained (286).
The force of Seely’s argument depends upon there being a uniform pre-modern belief. All that is needed to undermine the argument is an example of a different belief, preferably from a culture close to ancient Israel. The culture contemporary with the writing of the OT that gives us the most information about cosmological beliefs is Mesopotamia.
Since Seely published his views, a comprehensive review of Mesopotamian cosmology has appeared in Wayne Horowitz’s Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Significant Mesopotamian evidence exists in a text which shows a drawing of land surrounded by a circular ocean. In reference to this drawing, Seely does not mention that the map also shows regions beyond the sea. Horowitz is undecided whether these regions are islands or larger landmasses. Whatever the case, the drawing is not evidence for a simple picture of the earth as land surrounded by a circular ocean. We might postulate that the Mesopotamians believed that the landmass on which they lived was surrounded by sea, but that they also knew that theirs was not the only land (286).
Yet, there is not a consistent belief that below the solid surface was a watery Apsu. Building texts describe the foundations of a building being placed on the underworld or the surface of the underworld. The roots of mountains also go down to the underworld. Further complicating the picture is a text where the gods dig a ditch for the sea with a plough so that the sea would actually rest on the earth’s surface. These varying pictures should warn us that there is not a simple, uniform physical picture being presented (287).
Having discussed the details of Enuma Elish, Weeks writes:
What this examination shows us is that one can form a physical and geometric model if one is selective in what one chooses to quote from Enuma Elish, but not if one takes each passage that should be relevant. This situation raises a fundamental issue. Was the author thinking in terms of a physical and geometric model? For modern thinkers cosmology primarily implies a physical model. In trying to abstract the cosmology of an ancient text, we naturally look for what physical model we can extract. By selective quotation, we can obtain such a model. Yet, if all the details will not fit a physical and geometric picture, are we engaging in correct exegesis? (289–90).
On the raqia as a solid dome:
Seely argues that there is a common pre-modern conception of the sky as a solid dome. Hence, the writers of the Bible must have been thinking of the firmament of Gen 1:6-8 as solid. His primary argument from the biblical text itself rests upon the meaning of raqia. The root has the sense of stamping or beating out something. Seely’s view has been contested by J. P. Holding who points out that the raqia is called heaven (Gen 1:8). Birds fly in heaven (Deut 4:17) and God is enthroned in heaven (Ps 11:4), so it cannot be conceived as a solid structure. Seely attempted to deal with this in his original article by saying that heaven is wider than the raqia. However, the proof texts that he cites for that proposition are all texts which show that heaven is not solid. Thus, they prove that heaven is wider than the raqia only if we accept the point at issue that the raqia must be solid; therefore, a non-solid heaven cannot be completely synonymous with the raqia. This is a clear example of assuming the point at issue (291–92).
In other words, I am willing to confess ignorance as to the import of raqia. Since the expectation that a physical model must have been primary in the mind of the author leads in the wrong direction in other cases, I am reluctant to assume that it is primary here. In the case of the Mesopotamian text with a three-tiered heaven, the necessity of three heavens arises from the need to accommodate various gods. The biblical text has no such need; therefore, a greater indefiniteness about the arrangements of the heavens is not surprising. If the argument for a uniform pre-modern mentality is spurious, as I believe it to be, then Seely’s case really rests on one word. I think that is an insufficient basis for determining biblical cosmology (292).
G. K. Beale has shown that the arguments Peter Enns makes about the use of the OT in the New are based on a selective use of the evidence, and Beale has also demonstrated that Enns is reductionistic about how the Biblical authors appropriated ideas from their contexts. This article by Weeks, in my judgment, shows that those who hold the kinds of views on which Enns bases his theological program have rushed to judgment on the basis of cultural eisegesis and a selective appropriation of the available evidence. What can be known, however, will not support the weight of these conclusions. In addition to all this, Enns is trying to synthesize Christianity and evolution.
Proverbs 18:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21 apply here.