The Hebrew Universe

The above diagram of the Hebrew Universe is from James L. Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 6th ed.,(Harcourt, 1994), p. 512. It is not to be used without giving him proper credit. This is the first time it's been placed on the web. Click on it to enlarge it.

The ancient Hebrews viewed the universe much like their contemporaries. There is some disagreement with the sketchy details we have in the Bible itself. But they had contact with Babylonia (Abraham came from there); Egypt, the Canaanites (whom they fought with), and other nations around them. It’s not likely they would have described the universe totally different from them, except that God created it all. (See Genesis 1:6; 7:11; Job 37:18; Isaiah 40:22; Psalms 19:4-6; 78:23-24; 104:2-4; II Kings 7:2; Amos. 9:6).

According to the Harper's Bible Dictionary, “The ancient Hebrews imagined the world as flat and round, covered by the great solid dome of the firmament which was held up by mountain pillars, (Job 26:11; 37:18). The blue color of the sky was attributed to the chaotic waters that the firmament separated from the earth (Gen. 1:7). The earth was thus surrounded by waters above and below (Gen. 1:6,7; cf. Psalms 24:2; 148:4, Deut. 5:8). The firmament was thought to be substantial; it had pillars (Job 26:11) and foundations (2 Sam. 22:8). When the windows of it were opened, rain fell (Gen. 7:11-12; 8:2). The sun, moon, and stars moved across or were fixed in the firmament (Gen. 1:14-19; Ps. 19:4,6). It was also the abode of the birds (Gen. 1:20; Deut. 4:17). Within the earth lay Sheol, the realm of the dead (Num. 16:30-33; Isa. 14:9,15).”

See also Edward T. Babinski: “Evolving Interpretations Of the Bible’s ‘Cosmological Teachings”, and Conrad Hyers Genesis Knows Nothing of Scientific Creationism: Interpreting and Misinterpreting The Biblical Texts, and Frederick E. Greenspahn Biblical Views of Creation.

For an Evangelical scholar who agrees that what the ancients believed about the days of creation and the shape of the cosmos was indeed based on pre-scientific modes of thought, see Genesis by Dr. John H. Walton (NIV Application Commentary, 2002). [See also the Anchor Bible Dictionary entry “Cosmogony, Cosmology”].


John W. Loftus said...

Since the ancients and the author of Genesis 1 had such a completely outmoded view of the universe, it cannot be used by believers to tell us anything about the purported creation of that universe. With such an ancient cosmology, today's believers cannot harmonize Genesis 1 with modern science, for there is no science in Genesis 1 that needs harmonized. Genesis 1 is based upon myth, storytelling, and an ancient conception of the universe. There is nothing scientific about it.

Daniel said...


Someone burn him! Genesis is the history of the world, as told by, eh, Moses! And he was told by, eh, God! Like in 1400 BC!

Genesis doesn't need to be harmonized with science, because Genesis is tru science, silly. Any of the "so-called science" that disagrees with Genesis disagrees with YHWH!

Therefore, God exists.

Professor Doktor Matthias Flay said...

I'm always fascinated with the willingness of the Christian to say that all of his forebears were utterly wrong. The Rapture, sola scriptura, modern astronomy, all can be absorbed into Christianity without consequence, as though the beliefs that defined the faith for over 1000 years were nothing.

Has there ever existed a body of believers that was actually right? That actually understood the way things really were? That didn't have to rely on modern science to show them how reality works? Have there ever existed believers with whom modern Christians can agree with intellectual honesty?

For anyone who wants an understanding of how evolution works, just take a look at Christians. Heresy becomes the mainstream. Over time, the faith is unrecognisable as historical Christianity....

Anyway, great post. The ever-changing face of Christianity is always a great topic.

beepbeepitsme said...

Great image. It goes a long way to explaining christianity's obsession with heaven and hell.

John W. Loftus said...

Probably the best single book that shows what I'm getting at is by Howard J. Van Till, The Fourth Day (Eerdmans, 1986). This is not an atheist publication, but a Christian one, so surely an informed Christian should not be afraid of buying it or in reading it.

Daniel said...

I know Van Till a little bit because he's a Christian evolutionist, at least to some degree. I know that his conclusions are based on modern astronomy and astrophysics, so persons who are YEC would reject it outright.

Indeed, although the cosmological "solution" presented by Humphreys for distant starlight (and other old earth problems) is fraught with issues (namely, the scarce understanding of "white holes", and their instability, which Humphreys violates as he posits it existed for 6000 years), Steve Hays and others would much more readily accept the shoddy science of the ICR and AiG than that by the global community.

Interestingly, Steve told me that he doesn't think the sun was created on day 4, which is in direct contradiction to a literal reading and to every creationist I know (just read this)).

But, this does help Steve out in the difficulty of believing that the ancient peoples really meant that the sun was created after plants, (think, -180C, or so) and the possibility of a diurnal cycle (morning and evening).

Anyway, I just thought I'd comment that informed Christians wouldn't be "afraid" necessarily, but they would be no less likely to trust the evidence that Van Till relies upon to make his arguments than they are the atheist, when an atheist relies upon the same evidence.

Matthew said...


Good job! I believe that the Hebrew Bible really does teach the cosmology that you have presented here. I have listened for years by Christians of explanations of how this was not in violation of modern astronomy. The wackiest interpretation comes from Hugh Ross who insists on reading the Bible like a scientific document, with it's very own built-in scientific reference-frame perspective. I am convinced that Ross is following in the footsteps of Galileo who I blame as having started this whole Bible-science conflict.

The problem, as Robert Price and Reginald Finley have pointed out in a paper on the subject, is that appealing to the "langugae of appearance" is special pleading: you can make just about any ancient sacred text infallible and inerrant by invoking such a language. There is, however, no evidence that the ancient Hebrews believed that a built-in scientific reference-frame method is implicit in the Hebrew Bible or anywhere else.

Thus to say "Well, from the standpoint of someone on the earth's surface, the sun really does rise and go down"- it assumes that the writers deep down inside knew that the language they were using was not scientifically accurate but had to use a language to accomodate their readers.

The fatal flaw I always find in this reasoning is that accomodations of this sort are always deceptive! Anyone coming to the text and reading it for the first time in the ancient world, already believing beforehand that the earth is flat, or disc-shaped, or that the sun revolves around the earth, will merely have their mistaken misconceptions reinforced by the language. The "language of appearance" argument is deceptive.

What ancient Hebrew scribe, reading Genesis 1:2, would think "Okay, Moses is shifting his frame of reference, from the outer universe to the surface of the waters and so everything else from this point on in the chapter, must be understood as viewed from the newly-established reference point of the waters's surface"? Oh, please!

This argument reminds me of an old argument used by creationsts centuries ago, who argued that dinosaur bones were intentionally created by God with the intent purpose of testing people's faith. The problem is, however, that people who are not Christians, who have never heard the gospel, if they discover and date the bones, will flunk a test that was meant for believers. Who would buy into an argument unless they were stubbornly sold to some recent-creationist understanding of Genesis that somehow didn't allow for the existence of dinosaurs?

Who would buy into the "language of appearance" nonsense if they weren't so stubborn and desperate to salvage the Bible from the scrutiny of modern science?


John W. Loftus said...

Thanks Matthew. You've said this before and I'm glad you chimed in here too.

Another fact is that the OT people thought they were closer to God when they went up on a mountain top. Why? It's best explainable by this diagram I produced here. They thought they were literally getting closer to God, that's why.

Lately I've been wondering what the ancient Hebrews thought about God too. We were created in God's "image," Genesis says. What does that mean? I know what Christians think it means today, pretty much. But throughout the OT we see God having arms, legs, a mouth, eyes, etc. This picture reminds me of Leonardo's painting when God created man. The Mormon's believe God has a body.

Language of appearances, eh? I wonder just what the ancient Hebrews believed about God. Such a study needs to be done. I am almost sure that their conception of God changed over the centuries, from a polytheistic god with a body, like other polytheistic gods and goddesses, to the monotheistic spiritual God of Christians today.

ZAROVE said...

IN several other threads in this Blog, we see a common thught. "What if the Christians are wrong in their assumptions". Often, this turns into insistance that the Christian is clealry wrong, and the beelif of Christianity must be false.

In one thta I recently posted in, Traditional Theism is attacked base don the PResumption that a Traditional Theist (really Christian) beleives the whole Universe was created for man.

I beleive, MR. Loftus, that you also authoried that post.

And here we are again.

And , you make the same mistake. You are telling others what they beleive and why, only now, you tell it to the dead.

I understand that you can find numerous Internet sites, and even Academic books, that advace this claim, but I can show you numerous old Academic books that made spacific claims that later where proven false upon new disvcovereis.

Outside of the Tanahk, we have little in regard to Hebraic Culture from the Ancient world, and thus must rely upon the writtings within it to accomodate our interest in what they beelived.

Thus it is not outside of prudence to check the Scriptures to see what they saw, and to understand what they thoguhtof their world.

On the othe hand, the world you describe that you claim in this psot the Hebrews held was never really described int he Tanahk.

Rather, you take numerous verses from desperate soruces, scattered throghout the Tanahk, and paste them togather to create a composite view.

This Composite view is also baise din favour of proving smehow that the Bible is false. ( This is a Blog abotu Debunking Christianity, after all.)

May I venture to ask, why shoudl I belive that the Hebrews saw the Univers eint he way you claim they did?

Many fo the verses you cite are clealry parts of greater works, which woudl emloy figures of speech and other literary devices,a nd others cudl eaisly be intepeted a diffent way. ( And I don't mean that as reinteprtign the Bibel to suit modern Sicnece, before I am so accused.)

It seems the mole of the Hebraic Universe is form fitted to suit your expectaitosn of it as a Primitive, and wrong, idea about the Cosmos, and later you find Verses to support this theory, rather or not the Author had intende dhtis or not.

I find the modle of the Hebraic Universe you present Dubious, and do not think that one shoudl see it as a modle they did hold, and as a fact, but only as Speculaiton.

Speculaiton, I may add, with remarkabely weak evidence.

david said...

You (Professor Doktor Matthias Flay) need to be careful about scientific triumphalism...

Has there ever existed a
school of scientific thought that was absolutely right? That actually understood the way things really were? That wasn't inspired by religious belief to seek and discover how reality works? Have there ever existed scientists with whom modern scientists can agree with intellectual honesty?

I think the answers to these questions are quite similar for both scientists and Christians

Mathew_JB said...

[QUOTE] I know Van Till a little bit because he's a [b]Christian evolutionist[/b] [UNQUOTE]
hmmm I smell an oxy moron... I know im out-educated here, by all you athiest profesors, and im still in school, but a lot of people claim to be Christians but are not. You see in the news with Catholic Preists abusing young boys, they obviously do not have a relationship with God. People think if someone says they are a Christian, they are. But the way to see if someone is a true beleiver, you see how they act. Like the wind, you say how is it real? You cant see it but you can see the effects. The same with God, you cant see him but you can see his effects, i have witnessed personally miricles of healing, people healed of cancer after they stopped treatment. Im not here to say "your all stupid" coz of course you people arent stupid. i just dont want people to let their ego blind them.