Friday, March 19, 2010

Set me as a seal upon thine heart

I’m going to briefly comment on two things that John Walton said in his latest response to Vern Poythress:

“A solid sky is not a matter of appearance, but of deduction from a series of observations.”

There are basically two problems with this claim:

i) Walton takes for granted that raqia denotes a solid dome. However, a number of standard commentaries and monographs either define the term more broadly or view it as a poetic figure of speech, or phenomenal description. Cf. C. J. Collins, Genesis 1-4 (P&R 2006), 45-46, 264; V. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17 (Eerdmans 1990), 122; B. Waltke, Genesis (Zondervan 2001 62; G. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word 1987), 19-20.

Now Walton is, of course, at liberty to disagree with their interpretation. But if he’s going to make a case for his own position, then he can’t treat his construction of raqia as a given. He has to interact with opposing views.

ii) More to the point, his interpretation strikes me as hermeneutically naïve. For even if the term does, in fact, denote a solid dome, this doesn’t mean that Gen 1 intended to teach its audience that the sky was a solid dome. It doesn’t even mean that Gen 1 took that for granted, as an unquestioned cultural assumption.

For there is still the question of whether that imagery is literal or figurative. And what his puzzling about Walton’s interpretation is that his own “cosmic temple” paradigm raises that very issue.

For if Gen 1 is depicting the world as a cosmic temple, then we’d expect the use of architectural metaphors to cue the reader.

I’d also add that Gregory Beale, in The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (Crossway 2008), chaps 6-7, has made a strong case for viewing this picturesque description as figurative imagery which foreshadows the tabernacle.

“If the revelatory focus is the functions, we do not need to validate the description of the material cosmos (in either of his two material categories) any more than we have to validate thinking with our blood pumps (believed by the Israelites and in the ancient Near East and affirmed in the Bible)…Locating cognitive processes in the heart and other organs is not a matter of appearances.”

Walton will need far more argumentation go make that go through.

i) Even with our modern knowledge of neuroscience, we continue to use these anatomical figures of speech. So why should we assume that this was anything other than a literary convention in Biblical usage?

ii) It doesn’t require any advanced knowledge of neuroscience to know that cognitive function is correlated with the brain rather than the heart, liver, intestines, &c. Surely people in the ANE were aware of the fact that head-injuries could result in cognitive impairment.

iii) But I’d also add that when other organs or vital systems malfunction, that can have a mood-altering effect. Try passing a kidney stone and find out whether or not that interferes with your mental concentration.

iv) There is also the quite ironic risk of anachronism. When we use words like “heart” and “liver,” does that mean the same thing to us as it would have meant to an ancient Israelite? Does our terminology really correspond to their knowledge of internal anatomy? Isn’t there a danger that Walton is unconsciously mapping his modern knowledge of human physiology onto Biblical descriptors, then faulting them because they don’t match? But if there is a mismatch, isn’t that due to his anachronistic comparison? Why assume the referents are the same? Did ancient Israelites have much experience dissecting human cadavers?


  1. I'm not exceedingly acquainted with Walton's position, though I have sat in on a few of his lectures on Genesis 1.

    Regarding his reading of raqia, I think this arises from his consideration of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology and how he sees that reflected in Genesis. If other cultures around that time understood the sky as a solid dome, Walton's argument goes, then it's likely that the original audience of Genesis did as well, and since the text makes no attempt to revise or challenge that understanding, Walton argues that it's best understood in that fashion.

  2. Ryan,

    I wonder what the evidence is for ANE cosmology believing the sky was a solid dome. I haven't read anything on it, so I'm just speculating, but is there some clear evidence that they believed the sky was a *solid* dome (for example some ANE text explaining that nothing can pass through it due to its solidness) or is this an assumption from "dome-like" language? For example, a canopy in many senses is solid and "impenetrable," but in other senses the word doesn't designate anything solid or impenetrable (such as a forest canopy).

    In this latter sense, it's not inconceivable to me that someone would describe the earth's atmosphere in this canopy or dome-like sense and maybe even picture it with an arch drawn over the land. In fact, if I were explaining it to my six year old nephew, I might do such a thing, without intending to convey that the sky itself is solid.

    Any resources you could point me to on the nature of the ANE belief on this matter would be helpful. Again, I'm just wondering whether we are saying "ANE people believed the sky was a solid dome" because they saw some cave drawing of an arch over the land or whether they are saying this because there is some ANE text which seeks to describe the properties of the sky.

  3. Ryan,

    As John Byl and Vern Poythress have pointed out, one of the problems with claiming that ancient Near Easterners thought the sky was a solid dome is that such a cosmography cannot account for the relative motion of celestial bodies, as seen by a ground-based observer. Yet ancient stargazer's were aware of that phenomenon. Indeed, the Babylonians drew very accurate star charts based on naked-eye astronomy.

  4. Hi Steve,

    I'm happy to see you've discovered BIOLOGOS, an entire website devoted to discussing Genesis 1 and modern science from a Christian theistic perspective. The site has a number of Evangelical contributors.

    Have you seen this research paper on the site? What do you think?


  5. You ask some good questions. I deal with some of them in a chapter on "THE COSMOLOGY OF THE BIBLE" in a book to be published this April (The Christian Delusion).

    On the matter of the firmament being canopy-shaped, there appears to be more evidence among Egyptian iconography than Mesopotamian or Hebrew literature. The latter two speak of the "circle of heaven" above and the "circle of the earth" below (see the book, MESOPOTAMIAN COSMIC GEOGRAPHY, and also my chapter).

    As for the movement of the stars, anyone can see that they appear to move in a circle each night, with the exception of five "wanderers," or "wandering stars" which modern astronomers later discovered to be "planets" and not stars at all, i.e., Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. (Of the planets that lay beyond Saturn the ancients show no sign of having been aware of them. Uranus was only discovered and named in the post-telescope era by William Herschel in 1781. That goes doubly for Neptune and Pluto that lay beyond Uranus and were discovered much later. None of those last three objects show up on any known pre-Galilean sky charts.)To those five, one must add the two brightest moving objects, the sun and moon, making "seven" heavenly objects that behave in a unique fasion unlike the rest of the objects in the sky that circled round and round. So "seven" was reflected as an important number even in the heavens, as least to the unaided eye of ancient astronomers. The Sumerians and Babylonians identified those seven major heavenly objects with high gods. The ancients imagined that these SEVEN were special, overseeing the earth below. For instance, the Babylonians referred to the "watchful eye" of Shamash, the sun, who notes all things from one end of the earth at his rising to the other end of the earth at his setting. And a prayer to Mars (Nergal) states, "With Sin (the Moon) in Heaven thou perceives all things." There is also a verse in the Bible that mentions "these SEVEN [lights] are the eyes of the Lord which range to and fro throughout the earth" (Zechariah 4:10), which sounds something like ancient notions. [My chapter was too short to include the above information. But it's on my website]

    The modern word, "planet," is from the Greek word meaning "wanderer," because the bright lights that we know today as mars, venus, etc., were considered "wandering stars" to the ancients. They stood out in that they wandered back and forth sometimes in retrograde motions in the sky, while the rest of the lights in the sky moved in a big circle as already mentioned above.

  6. The ancients did not know what lay at the far horizons, except to define the horizon as where the circle of heaven somehow met the circle of earth.

    Neither did they know how the stars moved. It was a mysterious world to them, filled with divine power keeping it activated. One Mesopotamian verse mentioned that Marduk had drawn the stars on the bottom of his heavenly chambers, and perhaps they believed the circle of heaven revolved. Augustine certainly believed it did. Though another Mesopotamian text mentions stars moving. They did not concern themselves so much with how things worked but how marvelous was the power of the gods to do such things, and how they might divine the god's purposes in the stars, or appeal to them up above, via sacrifices, prayers, and dedicating temples to them on earth below.

    Some ancient Mesopotamian astronomy texts spoke of the star being "set" in the sky in the morning, though they knew the stars moved also. Mark Smith mentions such texts in The Priestly Vision of Genesis. Genesis 1 mentions God making and then "setting" the sun, moon, and stars in the firmament (and "above" the firmament lay "waters," the same Hebrew word being used for "waters" of the sea on the earth below). For 1500 years the majority view among Christians was that waters lay above the stars. Augustine and Luther both insisted Christians "must" believe in the existence of such waters.

    There are references in ancient portions of the book of Enoch to heaven as a dome, and/or to the four winds holding up heaven.

    As I said, the Egyptians have some images including a wall-ring image and sometimes spoke of heaven as iron. Bronze and then Iron were the most advanced materials in such ancient ages, so comparing the construction of heaven to say, hammering out a bronze mirror (they didn't have glass mirrors that far back), was like saying that God was so advanced He too must have employed the most advanced materials to construct heaven.

    There are also statements by early church fathers and rabbis concerning the firmament's solidity. I cite examples in my endnotes.