Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology

Yesterday I read John Walton’s Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns 2011). This is the scholarly version of his The Lost World of Genesis One.

Walton has written on these themes fairly often, so there’s a certain sense of déjà vu in reading his new monograph. I don’t like to repeat myself, but to the extent that he repeats himself, some of my criticisms will be repetitious.

i) However, before we get to that, the new book does have some useful material. For instance (146-52), he defends the traditional rendering “Spirit of God” rather than “mighty wind,” which is popular among some modern, liberal translations of Gen 1:2.

ii) Unexpectedly (155-61), he denies the common claim that raqia denotes a solid dome. He argues that raqia denotes empty space. A spatial buffer or airy cushion between earth and sky.

He still believes that Hebrews carried over the ANE conception of the sky as a solid dome, but he associates that with the Hebrew word for “sky” rather than raqia.

iii) A basic problem I have with his general analysis, and this is true of other works which take the same approach, is a methodological flaw. OT scholars and other scholars in cognate disciplines (e.g. Egyptology, Assyriology, Sumerology) emphasize artistic and textual representations of the world. The meaning of words. Coins, pottery, reliefs.

That’s fine up to a point, but that needs to be counterbalanced by another consideration. For we need to project ourselves into the physical world in which ancient people actually had to live and survive. What was the world like which they experienced on a regular basis?

Ancient people didn’t live in paintings or texts. They had to live in the real world, just like us.

It’s important not to reconstruct an ancient cosmography purely from texts and artifacts that’s clearly at odds with the external world which the ancients actually perceived.

iv) Walton says:

Similar views of the structure of the cosmos were common throughout the ancient world and persisted in popular perception until the Copernican revolution and the Enlightenment. These ancient perceptions were not derived from scientific study (modern scientific techniques, of course, were not available to the ancients) but expressed their perception of the physical word (89).

The problem with this claim is that Walton fails to consistently apply that criterion. Rather, he attributes certain views to them in spite of what they could or did perceive. For instance:

What kept the sea from overwhelming the land (88)?

This assumes ancient people thought there was some natural barrier, like a seawall, that kept the ocean in place. But is that realistic?

Ancient peoples of the Levant lived on the Mediterranean coastline. Suppose you walk down to the beach, where earth and sea meet. There you stand, right on the shoreline. What do you see? Is there something that keeps the sea from overwhelming the land?

Well, there’s nothing like a retaining wall. The beach is almost level with the water. Indeed, that’s the definition of sea level.

The only thing that keeps the sea from flooding the land is the fact that the dry land is generally higher than the ocean. The difference in elevation may be gradual, or there may be cliffs. But it doesn’t require an artificial cosmography to account for that phenomenon.

Hasn’t Walton ever gone for a walk along the beach? The seaboard isn’t fundamentally different in modern times. It doesn’t require modern science to see how the ocean and a coastal plain (for instance) match up. That’s something you can see for yourself, using your own eyes.

In general, people believed that there was a single, disc-shaped continent (88).

Did they? Weren’t ancient mariners in a position to know that wasn’t the case?

Take the Levant. Take the Mediterranean. Instead of the sea surrounding the land, you have the land surrounding the sea.  Ancient Mediterranean sailors were certainly acquainted with the general shape of the Mediterranean Sea in relation to the general shape of the surrounding landmasses. The sea didn’t encircle the land; the land encircled the sea.

Scholars like Walton bury their heads in ancient texts and facsimile drawings. They don’t pull their heads out of books to see what the ancients inevitably saw.

Precipitation originated from the waters held back by the sky and fell to the earth through openings in the sky (88-89).

Really? But surely that’s not what ancient people actually observed. For instance, take the common phenomenon of rain clouds on the horizon. The rest of the sky is clear. You can see the clouds releasing sheets of rain, against the background lighting. 

Also, it’s not uncommon to observe the cloudbank approaching the observer. As it passes over the observer, it deposits rain.

So rain isn’t seen coming directly from the sky, through sluice gates in a solid dome. Rather, the rain clouds are distinct from the sky. You can see clear sky above the clouds and around the clouds. So the rain is clearly localized in the clouds.

Not only is this something ancient people were in a position to see from time to time, but we have a literary description of this very phenomenon in Scripture:

41 And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” 42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. 43 And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. 44 And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man's hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” 45 And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel (1 Kgs 18:41-45).

v) Walton says:

The stars of the Egyptian sky were portrayed as emblazoned across the arched body of the sky goddess, who was held up by the god of the air. In another Egyptian depiction, the Cow of Heaven was supported by four gods who each held one of her legs. She gave birth to the sun every day, and the sun traveled across her belly and was swallowed up by her at night (89).

And did they portray the world that way because that’s how the world appeared to them when they looked up at the sky? Have you ever seen that?

Mesopotamian imagery refers to “breasts of heaven” through which rain comes (92).

And is that because ancient Mesopotamians could see heavenly breasts emitting rain? That might be a great adolescent fantasy, but it’s hardly empirical.

vi) Walton says:

Finally, the earth was believed to be undergirded by pillars… (97).
Metaphors such as locks, bolts, bars, nets, and so on were used to express the means by which the sea was kept in its place (97).

Why does Walton admit that these are metaphors, but act as though the ancients thought there were literal sluice gates in the vault of heaven or literal pillars supporting the land?

And, of course, it’s not as if people living on the coast saw locks, bolts, bars, or nets keeping the sea from overflowing the land.

vii) Walton says:

Another perception in the ancient world is that a great tree stands in the center of the world, sometimes referred to as a “World Tree” or a “Tree of Life.” The idea that a cosmic tree is at the center of the world is a common motif in the ancient Near East…The tree is often flanked by animals or by human or divine figures (96).

Biblical texts that share some of these ideas are Daniel 4 and Ezekiel 31 (96n271).

And was that depiction based on observation? Did the ancients actually witness a cosmic tree at the center of the world? Keep in mind that Walton also says:

As previously mentioned, from a sociopolitical perspective, it was commonplace for peoples of any area to see themselves and their land or their capital city as being located at the center of the earth (95).

So if they took the cosmic tree literally, then that would be readily observable. They would live within eyeshot of the cosmic tree.

But, of course, no one had that experience. So this must be an intentionally symbolic depiction of the world. And if the cosmic tree was symbolic, why take other types of imagery literally? Walton isn’t consistent.

viii) Walton says:

Often, the transition from the precosmic condition to the activities involved in creation is the separation of heaven and earth (35).

Keep in mind, though, that in Gen 1, separation has an addition function, for it prefigures different types of cultic separation in the Mosaic law.  So that’s not a carryover from ANE cosmology.

ix) Walton says:

The raqia and the sehaqim are pieces of ancient cosmic geography that have been rendered obsolete by modern cosmic geography because we have learned, through science, of the evaporation/condensation cycle (160).

Isn’t 2 Kgs 18:41-45 an example of the evaporation/condensation cycle?


  1. 1 Kgs 18:41-45
    Also, Ecc 11:3 and 1:7 seem to suggest the hydrologic cycle.

  2. Why would observation and methodology trump theology and story as epistemological tool for pre-modern people?

    1. Are you referring to modernity or ancient observation? Likewise, are you referring to Walton's book, or to my review of his book?