Friday, May 6, 2011

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology, Part 1

"Is Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker?" our professor asked with a smile on his face. With hesitancy, our class slowly replied in unison, "Yes."

What sort of veracity does this question hold for our study of ancient Near Eastern cosmology? Well, to put it simply, everything. When we approach the question, "Is Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker?" we make an instant, subconscious decision. We decide to answer the question from the perspective of an "insider" of the Star Wars universe. We do not muddle our answer with questions of historical fact. We answer the question as if the Star Wars universe was our own universe, and we act correctly in doing this.

To answer this question as an "outsider"--as an unbiased observer--we would miss the entire point of the question. An "outsider" might begin by saying, "Well, Star Wars is fictional and therefore no one could truly be anyone else’s father." With this first pulling upon the thread of historical fact, the entire woven structure that comprises the tapestry of the Star Wars universe unravels. The creators of Star Wars did not create the Star Wars universe to be experienced as outsiders, for outsiders only wish to discover truth based upon their chosen criteria. The creators of Star Wars, however, created Star Wars to be experienced by insiders—to be experienced by those are able to empathize with the figures of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. To make their pain the pain of the insider and to make their joy the joy of the insider.

If you are not a fan of Star Wars, substitute any series with which you feel a connection. Maybe Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia. These literary and visual worlds, deemed fictional by outside observers, cause real emotion within us. We experience these worlds as members of those worlds. We celebrate with Frodo, we suspect Snape, and we mourn for Aslan. The "insider" does not waste time questioning historical fact like the "outsider." What happens in these worlds is true and real, for what happens in these worlds affects who we are both as an insider and as an outsider.
Similar to the question concerning Star Wars, let us now turn to the ever-popular / annoying-question-that-children-ask, "How did we get here?"

We will transpose or understanding of "outsider" and "insider" to the Jewish and Christian creation account of Gen 1. Creation myths are a very prevalent phenomenon in many, if not all, religions of the world. Several different creation accounts exist in the Hebrew Bible alone. (See Prov 8:22-31 and Job 38.) For the purposes of this post. We will limit ourselves to the creation account found in Gen 1:1-19. Genesis 1:1-19 (NRSV) can be found below:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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.

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
Over the course of the next several days, we will individually examine each day of creation found within Gen 1:1-19 in order to elucidate our understanding of the Genesis account of creation in relation to our understanding of ancient near eastern cosmology. I have posted a picture below that I will be using to help explain the ancient near eastern understanding of creation.  I hope it whets your appetite of what is to come. If you have any questions or criticisms, please feel free to post below.