ANE Cosmology: Heavens, Land, Sea

This is not to confuse what we know about current cosmology but rather get into the mindset, which is exegetically necessary, of the Ancient Near East. We must adapt backward, in a sense, or rather, historically so that we take Historical Exegesis and apply it where we can in order to gain a better and more direct perspective on certain passages.

Observing the world from an earth to universe perspective, the ancients of ANE deduced that they— whether in Alexandria, Babylonia, or Canaan or anywhere else— were at the center of the cosmos, a cosmos composed of three levels that contained: heaven, earth, and seas. For these ANE viewers, the earth was a flat disk, which either floated on the cosmic sea or was supported by foundational pillars. Within the bottom of the earth lay caverns and catacombs and tunnels, the dark realm of the dead, as well as subterranean rivers, chthonic deities, and demons. Suspended over the earth was a vaulted ceiling supported by pillars, tent poles, or lead ropes. This “firmament” separated the heavens below from the heavens above, both of which composed the heavenly tier. The lower heavens were occupied by the celestial bodies, while the upper heavens belonged to the divine. Besides separating the lower and upper heavens, windows in the firmament also regulated the flow of rain, hail, and snow from the watery reservoirs above. The waters surrounded the earth, formed oceans, and were the source of springs, rivers, streams, and lakes. These cosmic waters together constituted the seas. Together, the three tiers— heavens, earth, and seas— provided the basic structural model necessary for explaining the entire cosmos.

As pointed out in our Linguistic Exegesis of Genesis the first creation account in Genesis is bracketed together by the use of inclusio— a type of literary bracketing— namely, the merismatic phrase, “heavens and earth” (Gen. 1: 1; 2: 4a), used by the author of Gen. 1 as a reference to “the totality of cosmic phenomena.” The nature of this early cosmos is expressed by the phrase tōhû wābōhû, “formless void,” meaning it was “unproductive and empty, uninhabited,” or “nonproductive, nonfunctional, and of no purpose.” The earth was unable of being naturally productive because it was engulfed in the cosmic sea, the Deep (tǝhôm). In these first verses of Genesis, the vision of the universe includes the entirety of an uninhabitable sphere (earth) as buried in a dark abyss, which only God can bring to life and productivity. At this point, the universe is merely one tier: sea.

On day 2 of creation, the upper tier— the heavens— was created. God separated “the waters from the waters” (Gen. 1: 6) by placing a dome (rāqîaʿ) in the heavens. The word rāqîaʿ occurs just seventeen times in the Hebrew Bible. At its etymological basis, the verbal form of the root rqʿ refers to the “hammering” of metal (e.g., Exod. 39: 3; Job 37: 18; Jer. 10: 9), a thought that is supported by both the Septuagint (stereōma = firmness) and the Vulgate (firmamentum = something held strong), which treat the rāqîaʿ as a solid framework or structure. Found almost exclusively in so-called Priestly texts, the rāqîaʿ forms the rigid ceiling from which the temple lamps (mǝʾōrôt) hang.

Luis Stadelmann concludes, “The impression most likely left on the modern mind by a survey of these ancient ideas about the shape of the firmament is that of a solid bowl put over the earth, like a vault or heavenly dome.”

When God set the rāqîaʿ in place, some of the waters were pushed upward, thus separating “the waters from the waters” (Gen. 1: 6), presumably creating a bubble of air beneath the canopy of the dome which we’ve discussed in greater detail through our Linguistic Exegesis on Genesis. The firmament is thus given the name “heaven” (šāmayim).

The third day of creation involved the gathering of the watery deep which was below the firmament “into one place” to reveal the first land. The gathering of these waters into one place only makes sense if “one place” stands “in contrast to an implied ‘every place’ when the waters covered the whole earth.” 30 With the taming of these primordial waters, God has consequently created earth. At the conclusion of day 3, then, the cosmic structure is in place: heaven, earth, and seas. This tri-part structure is confirmed when humanity is given charge over the inhabitants of each cosmically categorized or ordained creature: beasts of the earth; birds of the heaven (šāmayim); fish of the sea (Gen. 1: 28).

Citations; Notes; Credits

  1. Nahum Sarna, Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989), 5. In light of the obvious merism, Scott B. Noegel (“ God of Heaven and Sheol,” Hebrew Studies 58 [2017]: 119– 44) has recently argued that ereṣ (“ earth”) is best understood in Gen. 1: 1 as the netherworld, a common connotation of the word in the Semitic world, including in the Hebrew Bible.

  2. David T. Tsumura, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood: An Introduction,” in “I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1– 11, ed. R. S. Hess and D. T. Tsumura (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 27– 57, here 33.

  3. John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns: 2011), 141.

  4. On the earlier predominant view that the preordered state represents chaos, see Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (London: SCM, 1985), 223– 24; Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton: A Religio-historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12, trans. K. William Whitney Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006); Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, rev. ed., trans. J. H. Marks, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 51. 23. Gen. 1: 6, 7 (3 ×), 8, 14, 15, 17, 20; Pss. 19: 1 (19: 2 MT); 150: 1; Ezek. 1: 22, 23, 25, 26; 10: 1; Dan. 12: 3. 24. The word is also attested in the Phoenician text KAI 38: 1 as the substantive mrqʿ, referring to an object made of beaten gold. Herbert Donner and Wolfgang Röllig, KAI 1 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2002), 9.

  5. On the interpretation that rāqîaʿ refers not to a solid dome but to the expanse of sky, see Randall W. Younker and Richard M. Davidson, “The Myth of the Solid Heavenly Dome: Another Look at the Hebrew רקיע (rāqîaʿ),” in The Genesis Creation Account and Its Reverberations in the Old Testament, ed. Gerald A. Klingbeil (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2015), 31– 56. 26. Gen. 1: 6– 8, 14– 15, 17, 20; Pss. 19: 1 (19: 2 MT); 150: 1; Ezek. 1: 22– 23, 25– 26; 10: 1; Dan. 12: 3. 27. Jeffrey L. Cooley, “Psalm 19: A Sabbath Song,” VT 64 (2014): 177– 95, here 185– 86.

  6. Luis Stadelmann, The Hebrew Conceptions of the World, AnBib 39 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970), 60. 29. See Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: From Adam to Noah (1944; repr., Jerusalem: Magnes, 1961), 31– 32.

  7. Greenwood, Kyle R.. Since the Beginning: Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 through the Ages (Kindle Locations 1091-1128). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.