Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The triple-decker universe

Critics of the Bible like to belabor the triple-decker universe. This overlooks a number of considerations.

1.The Bible employs a double-decker formula (e.g. Gen 2:4) as well as triple-decker formula (e.g. Exod 20:4).

Given this stylistic variety, there is no reason to privilege the triple-decker formula over and above the double-decker formula.

2.Why do Bible writers sometimes depict the world with upper and lower stories? The reasoning is pretty straightforward.

The Bible writers have created a mental space in order to segregate and assign different agents to different dwelling-places.

Unlike fish and birds, men are land-dwellers. So their dwelling-place occupies the horizontal dimension.

The Hebrews also believed in the afterlife. So where so they put the dead? The underworld or netherworld is simply a figurative extension of ancient burial customs, with subterranean crypts.

A classic illustration is Ezk 32:17-32

The Hebrews also distinguish between sea level and what’s below sea level.

Guess what? We moderns do the very same thing.

So they’ve assigned a place for mortals, and another place for mortificats. Where, then, do you put the immortals?

You can’t go down, because that’s already taken by the dead. And you can’t go across, because that’s taken by the living, so you can only go up.

Hence, the vertical axis is the default position for the immortals.

Here there are two options: mountain peaks (Horeb/Sinai, Paran, Seir, Zion) or the sky.

Human beings don’t live above the treelike, so that’s unoccupied, which makes it a place to “put” God or his angelic court.

Likewise, human beings don’t dwell in the sky, so that’s also vacant.

If the Hebrews took all this literally, they wouldn’t assign the immortals to the mountains and the sky alike.

3.Separating the living, the dead, and the immortals is also related to principles of purity and impurity.

Contact with the dead renders a Jew ritually unclean.

Conversely, God is holy, but we are unholy, so direct contact with God is fatal.

Hence, the Hebrews have a compartmentalized universe to mirror profane and sacred space.

4. As I’ve said before, this can be further stylized in the form of a cosmic temple which is the celestial macrocosm of the terrestrial microcosm.

5.What we have in 1-4 is a cultic cosmology, not a literal cosmology.

It takes its point of departure from certain observable features of the physical world from the perspective a land-dweller, as well as the burial customs of the day, and uses this viewpoint as a springboard to create an iconography of ritual purity and impurity.

1 comment: