Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology, Part 3

In this post, we will discuss and place the remaining three days of creation of Gen 1:1-19 in an ancient Near Eastern context.  I will try to be brief, and I will try to move quickly.  I will be referring to this graphic throughout the post:

Gen 1:6-8 narrates the second day of creation and reads: 
And God said, 'Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.' So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
In this brief passage we come across an intriguing detail that we often overlook:  God separates the "waters from the waters."  When I came across this detail of creation while growing up, I attributed it to a mistranslation from the Hebrew text or to an ancient person's misunderstanding of why the sky appears blue.  As it turns out, neither of my childhood hypotheses were true (though the second could have possibly yielded credence to why the ancients believed what they believed).  I eventually learned that we view the universe very differently today than an ancient person would have several thousand years ago.

The picture posted above gives us a glimpse into how an ancient perceived reality.  In relation to our account of creation in Genesis, the ancient world believed a primordial water to pre-exist creation.  It is for this reason that God's spirit hovers above the "deep" in Gen 1:2 just after the creation of the heavens and the earth.  God's creation of the earth was, according to an ancient mindset, the creation of a disc-like firmament that was set amidst these primordial waters.  So at the advent of this second day of creation, the earth existed with water below it, water around it, and water above it.  In Gen 1:6, when God creates a dome to separate the waters, we arrive at the picture posted above:  a living space with water above (the sky) and water below (oceans, rivers, seas, etc).  If we continued to explore the waters below the disc-like firmament, we would eventually run into pillars that keep the firmament from sinking back into the primordial water.  In Hebrew, the word for pillar is amud, and it is amongst these pillars (or just above these pillars, depending on which ancient Near Eastern culture you are reading) that Sheol / the Underworld exists.

As for the water above the dome, a type of heaven exists ("heavens" in Hebrew literally means "sky") wherein God / the heavenly court open and close types of windows in order to release rain upon the earth.  Just as pillars held the earth, so too pillars held the heavens.  God and the heavenly court exist above this level of primordial water.  As a side note, our understanding of the primordial waters of creation as existing both above and below the earth within the ancient Near Eastern understanding of the cosmos impacts our reading of the story of Noah and the Flood:
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. (Gen 7:11)
The waters that flooded the earth were the primordial waters both below and above the dome that God had created on the Second Day.  Our reading of Noah, therefore, should understand the flood as a specific act of de-creation wherein God reverses the act of creation in Genesis.

The remaining two days of creation further reflect the ancient Near Eastern cosmology as discussed above.  On the Third Day, God gathers the waters that remain within the dome, and God fashions with them seas and waterways, from which spring forth vegetation.  On Day Four, God sets the stars, the moon and and the sun upon the dome to give light to the earth.  (It is interesting to note that the creation of light and darkness occurred prior to the creation of the stars, the moon, and the sun.  Possibly another discussion for another post.)

As in yesterdays post, the purpose of historically examining Genesis is not to debunk faith but instead to elucidate items of interest that allow us to visit the culture from which the Genesis text originated.  The above account of creation (as found in Genesis) is not native to the Hebrew people but shared with ancient Israel's neighbors and also with ancient Israel's predecessors.  Key elements of difference exist, however, between the Genesis account of creation and the other ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation.  In Genesis, God purposefully speaks creation into existence, and God does so alone.  (There is strong literary evidence that suggests God had a heavenly court, but the text appears clear that God alone serves as the divine, heavenly authority.  See Gen 1:26.)  I would like to propose, therefore, that instead of getting hung up on the similarities between Genesis and other similar creation accounts from the ancient Near East, we should celebrate the differences between these similar accounts.  For it is in the differences that we meet the unique and creative God of Genesis who creates from a relational desire to know intimately creation.

In the upcoming days I will try to write a little about my upcoming trip and get the travel portion of my blog going.  I think in the next post we will discuss the infamous "James Ossuary," which surfaced in 2002 and was heralded as a type of game-changer in biblical studies.  Since 2002, however, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has declared the ossuary a forgery and the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, is facing a wide array of criminal charges.  Golan's trial is about to reach its conclusion, which means that the James Ossuary will likely reappear in the news fairly soon.  So, until next time, feel free to comment or ask any questions below.