Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Cultic imagery

As is his wont in rummaging through the trash can for crumpled criticisms the Christian faith, Loftus has posted a diagram of the three-decker universe.

There are a couple of elementary problems with his analysis:

1.The picture of the three-decker universe is cobbled together by gleaning isolated verses all over the OT without respect to genre, and then fusing them as if they were ever meant to be Gerry rigged in such a wooden and arbitrary fashion.

2. It disregards the use of cultic symbolism, wherein the world is figuratively depicted as a cosmic temple or tabernacle.

As James Jordan points out:


We have to realize that the Bible pictures the earth as a house, as in Job 38:4-6. Moreover, the Bible pictures the earth as an altar, with four corners, in Revelation 7:1; 9:13-21. All of this goes back to the Garden of Eden, which had four rivers flowing out of it to water the whole earth, headed for the "four corners." The word for ‘corner’ in Hebrew is kanaf, which literally means ‘wings.’ The cherubim have four wings (Ezekiel 1). The garment worn by each Hebrew male was to have four wings or corners, so that his garment was analogous to a house or tent that he carried with him at all times (Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:12; Haggai 2:12).

What this gives us is a series of analogous models: The Garden of Eden is like a house, and they are like an altar, and they are analogous to the human person (who is the temple of the Spirit), etc. For an extended treatment of this subject, see the discussions in my book Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World.

So, when the Bible uses language that indicates that the earth is flat, that it has ends, and that it has corners, we are to understand such language in its Biblical context. And that Biblical context is the house-model of the world, seen in the glory cloud, the Garden of Eden, the Tabernacle, the Temple, the holy land, the entire earth, the human body, the clothing of the human body, the cherubim, etc. We are not to try to stretch this language to answer cosmological questions that it was not intended to address.



This is also explored in some detail by Meredith Kline in his Kingdom Prologue. Free copies are available online. Cf.



  1. There are ways that we can determine that an image in scripture probably isn't meant to be interpreted as literally as John Loftus has suggested. In addition to the genre of the documents and individual passages, which Steve has mentioned, we can compare passages within the documents that use different imagery when describing the same object. Loftus cites the pillars of Job 26:11. Pillars are mentioned in Job 9:6 as well. But compare Job 9:6 to Job 26:7. Is the earth on pillars or on nothing? The reason why both images can be used is because literal pillars weren't in view in Job 9:6.

    And while Loftus cites Job 26:11 for the pillars, the same verse goes on to refer to how those pillars are "amazed". So, does Loftus want us to believe not only that the ancient Hebrews thought that pillars held up the heavens (pillars they were unable to see), but also that they considered those pillars living beings who could be amazed?

    Some of you may remember that, about two months ago, Loftus told us that Job 26:7-13 is about "God fighting [monsters] in order to create the universe". See the following article I wrote in response to him at the time:


    If you search the archives of Loftus' web site and this web site, you'll find example after example of such exegesis by Loftus. A recent example is his claim that Job 2:3 has God saying that He makes people suffer for no good reason. Yes, those ancient Hebrews not only thought that God fought monsters in order to create the universe, but they also thought that God causes people to suffer for no good reason.

    He claims that the ancient Hebrews believed in a flat earth, but there were many authors in ancient times who either referred to the earth as spherical or commented that they didn't know what shape the earth is. The Christian writer Athenagoras, for example, repeatedly refers to the earth as spherical (A Plea For The Christians, 8, 16). Theophilus of Antioch, another Christian writer, comments on how the shape of the earth is unknown (To Autolycus, 2:32). Both men wrote in the second century, less than a century after the death of the apostles. Yet, there are references in the New Testament to the corners of the earth and other such concepts that critics claim represent a false view of the world. In reality, ancient Hebrews like the author of Job and the New Testament authors often used poetic language that they didn't intend to be taken as highly literal descriptions. That's why men like Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch could view the earth as spherical or be agnostic on the shape of the earth, yet see no need to reconcile such a view with scripture. We often use such language today ("sunrise", "sunset", "corners of the earth", "pillars of the earth", etc.).

    I think Steve is right about Loftus sifting through the trash can. No doubt, though, Loftus will read Steve in a wooden literal fashion and demand a retraction, since he found the diagram in a book, not in a trash can.

  2. Did you guys even bother to read the links I offered here? You couldn't possibly have read them. Keep spouting off if you want to, but go to those links and read.

    Also, the best single book that shows what I'm talking about is by Howard J. Van Till, The Fourth Day (Eerdmans, 1986). This is not an atheist publication, but a Christian one, so surely an informed Christian should not be afraid of buying it or in reading it. Do so, then let me know. Otherwise, you do not know what you're talking about.

  3. John Loftus,

    You've told us about another book you think we should read, in addition to what you reference in your article. But I was objecting to your argumentation in articles you've posted. How would reading the book you've mentioned in this thread justify the misrepresentation of Job 26:11 in your latest article, for example? If you're going to claim that we shouldn't respond to your assertions until we've read every source you cite, then have you read every source Steve has cited (on this subject and on other subjects you've discussed with him)? You told us to read the latest book you've recommended, then you said:

    "Otherwise, you do not know what you're talking about."

    So, John, have you read every book we've mentioned in our articles responding to you? If not, should we conclude that you "do not know what you're talking about"?

    If the sources you're relying on answer my objections, then you should be able to answer those objections also. So, why don't you explain why I'm wrong in what I've said about Job 26:11, for example?

    In your article, you refer us to a book by John Walton. You tell us that we should read the book for the perspective of "an Evangelical scholar who agrees that what the ancients believed about the days of creation and the shape of the cosmos was indeed based on pre-scientific modes of thought". But that's not the primary issue here. Who denies that ancient people generally had some false views about the cosmos? Surely many Hebrews did, as did other people. And some of the views we hold today probably will be corrected by future generations. The issue of primary importance here is whether scripture (not ancient people in general or ancient Hebrews in general) intended to describe the physical features of the universe in passages like Job 26:11.

    Let's use another example that you cited in your article, 2 Samuel 22:8. The passage is about past events in David's life (2 Samuel 22:1). In other words, David isn't just speculating about things he can't see. He's describing what he experienced. Do you realize how absurd it is to suggest that verse 8 is meant as a description of an actual foundation of the heavens physically shaking because of God's anger? We have no reason to think that any such event occurred in the historical circumstances in question (David's deliverance from Saul). Verse 9 goes on to refer to smoke coming from God's nostrils and fire from His mouth, as well as coals being kindled. So, John, where were those coals? Did David see some physical coals on earth being lit up by fire coming from a physical mouth of God? Apparently, verse 10 means that the sky physically sunk down when David was delivered from Saul. If 2 Samuel 22 is intended as a highly literal description of what physically happened, then why do the accounts of David's life (including his deliverance from Saul) in 1 and 2 Samuel and elsewhere not tell us about these things mentioned in 2 Samuel 22? Why doesn't 1 Samuel, for example, refer to the heavens physically sinking down, a physical mouth of God appearing in the sky to breath fire on coals, etc.?

    You're telling us to read other material, John, but I'd like to see some justification for such an effort, so that I'm not wasting my time. If your sources didn't prevent you from so badly misrepresenting passages like Job 26 and 2 Samuel 22, why should I think that it's worthwhile to read them? Why should I even think that all of your sources agree with you? Your description of what John Walton argues in his book is consistent with what I or any other Evangelical might argue. Maybe Walton says other things I would disagree with, but your description of the book doesn't give me reason to think that reading his book would significantly change my view. Are you saying that John Walton rejects Biblical inerrancy and argues that dozens of Biblical passages (like the ones you've cited) are giving false descriptions of the physical universe? If Walton does hold such a view, then how representative is he of traditional Evangelicalism?

  4. I fear that the 'archaic cosmology' argument is about as old as time. And as easily refuted. Loftus, old chap, one of your own chaps noted that Job is poetic imagery (it might even have been you). Consistency would be nice.

    But today I love everything and everyone. I'm on my way again and the Lord has been good to me!

    76% in Part one: A Distinction! Loftus, old boy, if you were near, I'd kiss that hairy mug of yours!

  5. Sorry, I got emotional there.

    Won't let it happen again.

  6. Let's see then, Joshua never asked God to "stop" the sun in it's path in the sky, and the "floodgates" of heaven didn't open up for the rain to flood the earth. Sheeesh.

    Sure there is personification going on in the Bible as a literary device. Authors do this all of the time, in every age. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs. Does anyone think that wisdom is a person? Oh, that's right YOU probably do!

    And there is anthropomorphism, too. God is described as having nostril's and eyes, and ears. Does anyone actually think God has these things? Oh, that's right, the Mormons do.

    Okay, you have debunked the debunker. But if you are right and I'm wrong, then please tell me how the ancients viewed the cosmos. That's all you need to do. Show me how they viewed the cosmos. Probably no different than us modern people, right? Now that would be a laugh...a real laugh.

    Answer the question. How did ancient Hebrews view the universe. That's what I had written about. Tell us.

  7. Oh, and read Van Till's book.

  8. Oh, and did you know that Socrates was villified in a Greek play called "The Clouds" for believing that rain came from the clouds? Sure, this doesn't describe Hebrew beliefs, but everyone who was anyone knew that rain came as God (or gods) opened the windows of heaven.

  9. Oh, and I don't have to read your sources because of my super intellectual powers. I already know everything. You still have to read all the books I suggested though, a whole set of encyclopedias, and War & Peace by Tolstoi, then maybe you can respond to what I said...

  10. John Loftus wrote:

    "Show me how they viewed the cosmos. Probably no different than us modern people, right? Now that would be a laugh...a real laugh."

    Why are you ignoring what I wrote? Why are you suggesting that I hold a view I just told you I don't hold? I haven't suggested that the ancient Hebrews held views "no different than us modern people". To the contrary, I said that they surely had some misconceptions, as we today surely have some. I also said that the issue of primary importance is what the Biblical documents tell us, not what the ancient Hebrews in general or ancient people in general believed. The apostle Paul, like other ancient people, probably had some misconceptions about how some parts of the human body work. But if he doesn't advocate any of those false views in scripture, then his misunderstandings are irrelevant to Biblical inerrancy. I'm not aware of any advocate of inerrancy who claims that all of the Biblical authors had correct beliefs about every subject related to what they write about in scripture. The issue is what's recorded in the Biblical documents.

    And why should we think that we have a way of documenting the cosmology of every era of Hebrew history? Some people think that Job is the oldest book of the Bible. How do you know when it was written and what every element of the popular cosmology of that society was at the time? You don't know. And since you're the one asserting that there are errors in the text, it's your responsibility to document your assertions. It's not my responsibility to document the popular cosmology in existence when each book was written.

    The readers should notice that Loftus still isn't interacting with much of what I've said about passages like Job 26 and 2 Samuel 22. He makes a reference to Mormons believing that God has a physical body. Apparently, he's suggesting that the ancient Hebrews might have held the same view. But the Mormons aren't the ancient Hebrews. If the large majority of interpreters have historically rejected the Mormon view on this subject, then why should we think that the Mormons (a nineteenth century group) are likely to represent what the ancient Hebrews believed? If Loftus isn't suggesting that the ancient Hebrews held a view like that of the Mormons, then what was his reason for mentioning the Mormons?

    As I explained in my last post, 2 Samuel 22 is describing historical events that David experienced. Any reasonable person reading the passage would realize that David is using highly poetic language. So, how does John Loftus know that the foundation mentioned in verse 8 is supposed to be a reference to a physical foundation of the heavens, like the one in the diagram Loftus posted at his web site? He doesn't know that. He's ignoring other possible interpretations of these passages, and he's reading the passages however he needs to in order to arrive at his desired conclusion.