The Hebrew Conception of the Universe

Kyle Essary shares a short non-technical paper on why he doesn’t find illustrations of the alleged Hebrew conception of the universe helpful. Well worth the read. Here’s a PDF if anyone wants to save the file.

B”H

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8 thoughts on “The Hebrew Conception of the Universe

  1. Interesting thoughts from Kyle. Although it made me wonder if we as 21st century readers would have such difficulty getting into the mind of the biblical authors to understand how they viewed the observable universe wouldn’t that difficulty extend to the rest of the Bible?

    Btw I’m reminded of how limited my view of the world was growing up. I don’t even remember when I stopped thinking hell was actually a place physically under us. I assume I’m not alone in that.

    Honestly I think the illustration of how people in the ANE saw the universe is probably more right than wrong or at least more right than the alternatives.

  2. I definitely think that it’s impossible for us to get “behind the text” into the mind of the author in most situations. For me, the meaning of the author is found in the meaning of the words, since we can’t get much further than that level. Furthermore, confessionally, I think that there is a divine authorial intent beyond the intended meaning of the human author. Thus, I think the proper interpretation of the seed in Gen. 3:15 is in reference to Christ, although the author surely didn’t know this to be true when writing it.

    I also think this critique could be extended to include much of the topics that are only mentioned off-hand in the Bible. As for topics more directly discussed and covered I think things can become rather clear. For instance, we can debate quite a bit about the meaning of covenants, but we can state some things with a great amount of certainty in regards to the nature of ANE covenants, and especially those in the Bible, because the data is much more readily available and its a topic that is directly addressed. The types of questions this illustrations seeks to answer just don’t see to be questions the Bible is interested in answering.

    I don’t know if it’s an accurate illustration or not. I think the terms are debatable, and honestly I don’t have any good reason to think that the ancients thought about these questions like we think about these questions. I think the typical “man on the street,” probably just had a phenomenological experience of the world and was satisfied with those terms for describing things. Our categories for thinking about certain things just weren’t around back then (and I don’t mean this in any sense of chronological snobbery…for the most part I think we just have more information, but are probably similarly intuitive, intellegent and the rest).

    Oh, and Hell’s not directly under us somewhere? Prove it. (kidding of course).

  3. “I definitely think that it’s impossible for us to get “behind the text” into the mind of the author in most situations. For me, the meaning of the author is found in the meaning of the words, since we can’t get much further than that level.”

    Is that just the BIble or everything including modern authors?

    Not sure my “mind of the biblical authors” was the best choice of words since it brings up all sorts of hermeneutical debates that I didn’t have in mind but that you may interpret as me taking a specific position on. In fact I’m not sure what you mean when you talk about the mind of the author.

    I think the main thing I wonder is, if a biblical author describes the sky like its a solid dome, what reason do we have for believing that they don’t think it is actually a solid dome? If they talk about the sun rising what reason do we have for not thinking they actually believe the sun rises and sets. If we read how they describe the world and we can see how they would see the world without the benefit of 21st century understanding (it makes sense to see the world that way without the benefit of astronomy and geology or whatever), then are we really reading our 21st century understanding back into the Bible?

    ” I think the typical “man on the street,” probably just had a phenomenological experience of the world and was satisfied with those terms for describing things. ”

    Why do you think the typical man on the street was like that? Why not think that most people were much more interested in nature (many of them worshiped it after all) and discussed it vigorously? Is it possible you are reading your modern experience back into that world?

  4. The mind of the author topic is way too big, but personally I largely think its inaccessible ancient or modern, but that’s not too big of a big problem for interpretation.

    I think the typical man on the street probably believed that the sun rose and set. That’s what I believed until I was told otherwise. They probably had no idea that it was so far away, etc. I think they were extremely interested in nature and what made the crops grow. These are phenomenological though. I describe it as I experience it. I think this is the primary mode of thought for people in ancient times, as well as people today until modern categories are added to their worldview.

    My problem comes whenever we start adding more specifics. The point of the paper is that the illustration is taking phrases that are not common in the Bible and are not in the context of describing a cosmology in order to create a cosmology. It’s something like I’m reading a WWII novel and trying to reconstruct their understanding of baseball from sports analogies that the characters make.

    Do I think the raqiya was a solid dome? I am completely agnostic on this one because both sides make good arguments. Was “the deep” a pool of primordial, magic waters below everything, or was a it a thinly veiled reference to Tiamat, or was it just a refence to the fact that water can be found if you dig far enough? I have no idea…as such, I’d rather just come to terms with the fact that Hebrews saw the world differently than I do. How they saw it? No idea. Does that meant that the meaning of Genesis 1 is unavailable to us? Not at all, because those aren’t what the text Is trying to convey.

  5. “The point of the paper is that the illustration is taking phrases that are not common in the Bible and are not in the context of describing a cosmology in order to create a cosmology. It’s something like I’m reading a WWII novel and trying to reconstruct their understanding of baseball from sports analogies that the characters make.”

    I thought the analogy was helpful at first but then I remembered cosmology is not like baseball. Baseball is a game that appeared at a particular time and place in recent history. Cosmology is basically how people see the world and the wider universe and that seems to be something basic to all humanity, that we all live in the world and see it a particular way based on how we experience it .Not that all humanity sees the world the same, they don’t, but living in and experiencing the world is a common experience to mankind like love, marriage, family and death and if we could gain an adequate understanding of how people in the ANE saw those other things then I think we could also gain an adequate understanding of how they saw their world (cosmology) and not just have to be agnostic about it. Even if the texts we have might not be meant to address those things primarily it’s possible we could still learn a lot by the things they do say and in comparison with the other texts we find in the surrounding culture and throughout history.

    “I think the typical man on the street probably believed that the sun rose and set. That’s what I believed until I was told otherwise. They probably had no idea that it was so far away, etc.”

    Most people still don’t have any idea about how far away the sun is or other planets. It’s mind boggling. The scale of just our solar system is crazy. If found this description from NASA of the scale to be fascinating. I wish it would have mentioned Pluto as well.

    “One way to help visualize the relative distances in the solar system is to imagine a model in which the solar system is reduced in size by a factor of a billion (109). The Earth is then about 1.3 cm in diameter (the size of a grape). The Moon orbits about a foot away. The Sun is 1.5 meters in diameter (about the height of a man) and 150 meters (about a city block) from the Earth. Jupiter is 15 cm in diameter (the size of a large grapefruit) and 5 blocks away from the Sun. Saturn (the size of an orange) is 10 blocks away; Uranus and Neptune (lemons) are 20 and 30 blocks away. A human on this scale is the size of an atom; the nearest star would be over 40,000 km away!”

    http://heasarc.nasa.gov/docs/cosmic/solar_system_info.html

  6. Have you seen this one? http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120312.html I could play with it for hours.

    This is a good conversation, and I don’t think we’re that far off from each other. You’re right about baseball. I just picked something random. But let’s take a WWII novel and try to reconstruct their cosmology. They talk about sunrise, and about marching from sun up to sun down. They have a marching song that mentions fighting for freedom to the ends of the earth. They talk about the sky being blue and about seeing a rainbow that stretched from one side of the earth to the other. What can we really learn from those statements? Such statements, that are so common in our everyday speech, songs, and even much technical and legal literature are not literal. I doubt anyone in WWII believed that the earth had literal sides, or that there was an end to the earth…hopefully that analogy works better.

    Most of the time, I think about things phenomenologically as well and use common speech. If I stop and think about it, I know differently and could construct a personal cosmology based on what I’ve read in science books…but I wouldn’t talk like that or even think like that most of the time.

    I know you’re a Barr fan and ever since I read Semantics ten years ago or so (and Silva afterward), I’ve thought of it in relation to this illustration…or at least the sketch one that was commonly used before Logos made this really nice one. One of his big critiques is constructing a “Hebrew mind” or a “Greek mind” and then reading the text back through this construct that he would argue is impossible to reconstruct. Biblical theology is hard (and it should be). It’s hard to accurately find, follow and accurately represent themes across books, authors, editors, cultures, nations, etc. even when those themes are directly mentioned. Thus, it’s significantly harder to reconstruct an image within the “Hebrew mind,” from texts that may only mention it non-specifically and may only be mentioning it figuratively speaking (as the soldiers in the WWII novel).

  7. Wow that scale of the universe link was amazing. I should have gotten into astronomy.

    I still wonder whether you are cutting off the branch you sit on by saying we can’t know what people from the ANE (and the Bible) thought about the world and universe (even if not exact and fuzzy around the edges) by the statements they make in their various texts. It seems this agnosticism would possibly extend to many other areas that you wouldn’t want to have to claim agnosticism about in terms of the Bible (love, family, marriage, death, etc.)

    The thing about appealing to statements as being purely phenomenological is that people think what they see matches reality, unless given a compelling reason to think otherwise. We can see why phenomenological statements about the world in a WWII novel might not reflect what people of that time accurately thought about the universe because we know they had access to more accurate information. The same can’t be said of people in the ANE. I don’t see any reason to think their descriptions of what they saw concerning the world didn’t accurately reflect what they thought was reality.

    Funny you mention Barr. I’m reading him right now. The Bible in the Modern World. Never get tired of him.

    Thanks for the good discussion Kyle.

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