Too Literal?

When I opened up Logos 5 a moment ago I saw the following graphic on one of the homepages:

I’ve seen many graphics like this one over the years and they’re often accompanied by some sort of commentary that tells us how rudimentary Ancient Near Eastern cosmology was. Now I don’t have any stats on this, but personal observation tells me that many of the folks who say this are quite often the same folks who mock young earth creationists for reading the Bible too literally. But as I looked at this graphic I can’t help but wonder if perhaps they’re reading the Bible too literally? What if ANE cosmology is much more sophisticated than it’s given credit for and the folks who suggest that ANE peoples were uninformed are themselves uninformed. Could there be a not so subtle irony here?

BTW, really nice graphic.

B”H

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9 thoughts on “Too Literal?

  1. I don’t really care about the OEC/YEC/TE debates, but I have many problems with this graphic. I’m not really interested in debating people about it (because I know this topic causes many debates), so I’ll probably just post this:

    1. This graphic requires a hermeneutic that wouldn’t be used with other symbols and images in the very same passages from which these passages are taken.
    2. The OT never addresses cosmology in the way that anyone today thinks of cosmology, which is what this graphic is trying to address. It’s trying to say, “You think of a world that looks like this (largely from your science textbooks), but they thought of a world that looks like this.” Then, they make a chart similar to something we might see in a textbook.
    3. At most, the Bible addresses cosmological ideas secondarily, as off hand references or in poetic passages. The problem is that cultures across time have rarely made literal off-hand “cosmological” statements. Sheldon might…but not the rest of us. We say things like, “Good heavens, I didn’t wake up until after the sun rose this morning.” I think we have much better reason to believe that the authors, compilers, editors, etc. of the OT were using language phenomenologically instead of anything similar to language that could be used to make a scientifically (or even an astrologically) shaped chart.
    4. This chart assumes that we can get into the mind of the author(s). We can’t…but that’s for another day.
    5. This chart assumes a large amount of uniformity from texts written along a broad spectrum of time and location. It’s naive to think that a second-millennium Hittite perspective was uniform or even that similar to a 5th century Babylonian one. Even if you don’t hold conservative dating schemes for the OT, critical scholars frequently reference the many conflicts in other aspects of Syro-Palestinian culture, Babylonian culture, etc…so why assume uniformity in this regard?

    So let’s be honest and call this what it is, because it isn’t an “Ancient Hebrew Conception of the Universe.” This is a 21st century reconstruction, created with an agenda. It is possibly based on cosmological ideas interpreted with a literalistic hermeneutic of texts written across vastly different cultures, locations and times. Stated like that, it sort of deflates it’s value, doesn’t it?

  2. I noticed the ‘doors and windows that let in the rain’ in the diagram of the Hebrew universe. I can’t resist quoting a little rhyme by Spike Milligan…

    ‘There are holes in the sky where the rain comes in,
    But they’re ever so small, that’s why rain is so thin.’

    Milligan was completely zany and bonkers, that’s why we Brits loved him so much!

  3. Before we starting talking about “too literal”, can we not do a more robust survey of the following:
    1. How widespread are the references to cosmology throughout the literature of the bible?
    2. Are there instances of cosmological imagery/ references in the bible that disagree with that model? Or do ALL cosmological references seems to be consistent with it?

    I think that if it can be shown that there is a large degree of consensus with respect to cosmological description throughout the text, and that it is widespread (i.e. that it occurs in all/ many of the places where it would be expected to occur) then we can be confident that the model is representative of the common view of cosmology held by those who contributed to the literature.

  4. Hey Phil,
    I’m going to writeup some more specifics on this topic this Friday, and I’ll send it to Nick who can hopefully forward it to you. It should address some of your good questions.

  5. Each day brings new thought that I have never though of before. I spend a year in Genesis 1 to 3 on the beginning of creation and never once saw this type of article about the idea of the universe. This I must look into. Thanks for stirring up my mind.

  6. FREE ONLINE RESOURCES ON BIBLICAL COSMOLOGY

    Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible
    http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper_2.pdf

    Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant
    http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper.pdf

    Links to articles on the firmament by Paul Seely
    http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2010/12/old-testament-cosmologypaul-seely.html

    The Cosmology of the Bible (a chapter in The Christian Delusion), you can “look inside” that chapter at amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Delusion-Why-Faith-Fails/dp/1616141689

    Piece that also leads to a video: “Interpreting Genesis 1, who’s the literalist now?”
    http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2012/09/interpreting-genesis-1-literalist/

    Note, Michael Heiser’s view, per his piece above,is that “What Genesis describes is consistent with all other ancient Near Eastern creation models, and shares the vocabulary and motifs of those other pre-scientific cosmologies. Not a surprise, given God’s own choices about when to produce the material and who would do that.”

    But I think the question remains, namely, how certain can you be that the “choices” he mentioned were “made by God?” Because anyone writing at that time and place would naturally entertain such ancient cosmological assumptions.

    See also John Walton’s book, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology

  7. Hey Ed,
    John Walton’s work is quite overrated in my opinion. He gives talking points to two groups: 1. Those who seek to confront Young Earth Creationists. 2. Those who want to maintain inerrant readings of Genesis (ala in its literary context), but allow for non-historiographical readings of Gen. 1. Outside of these two groups, you will find very few Hebrew scholars commending his work. In fact, whereas many are open to his views, their main criticism is that he just doesn’t make his case convincingly. I agree. I am completely unconvinced by his efforts to read bara’ in a functional manner, even though I would be more than pleased with such efforts as it would support another position that I find interesting (that Gen 1 is largely focused on the formation of the Promised Land, and not all things, but is told through a more global perspective).

    Nobody here would disagree that ancient people viewed the world through different categories than we use today. In fact, there is hardly a uniform perspective within the world today…heck, there is hardly a uniform perspective among physicists on which categories best describe reality.

    Our primary questions are pertaining to whether or not the readings associated with these 21st century reconstructions of ancient cosmology are overly literal readings. Are we forcing a paradigm onto certain texts in order to better fit the construction? I think this is rather obviously so. But if we remove those literalistic readings, do we have enough to construct a cosmology such as the one above? I haven’t been convinced that we do. Did the ancient Hebrew people have different views of reality than I do? Undoubtedly, but the few texts that we have, which are largely from non-historiographical and non-scientific literature do not give us enough to construct what those views of reality looked like with any degree of specificity…much less enough specificity to construct such illustrations as above.

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