Saturday, June 16, 2007

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 4: Pentateuchal Portraits – Genesis 1c

The opening verses of Genesis 1 parallel Enuma Elish in the following points: the existence of primordial waters (viz., no creation ex nihilio), the association of the primordial waters with chaos, the creation of order out of the aqueous chaos, and the bounding of the waters by the firmament-rakia. At this point it is evident that the composer of Genesis 1 completed this narrative against the backdrop of cosmogonies akin to Enuma Elish.

Genesis 1:14:17 reads:

יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם,
לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה; וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים,
וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים.
טו וְהָיוּ לִמְאוֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ
הַשָּׁמַיִם, לְהָאִיר עַל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיְהִי-כֵן.
טז וַיַּעַשׂ
אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים: אֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל,
לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם, וְאֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה, וְאֵת
יז וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם,
לְהָאִיר, עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

14 And spoke Elohim, let there be lights in the firmament-rakia of the heavens to divide between the day and between the night. And let them be for signs, for seasons, for days, and for years. 15 And let them be for lights in the firmament-rakia of the heavens to light upon the earth—and it was so. 16 And made Elohim the two great lights—the great light to rule the day; the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And gave to them Elohim, in the firmament-rakia of the heavens, to light upon the earth.

Further evidence of the ontologically polemical objective of this narrative is the nomenclature used to designate the sun and the moon. Instead of using the common Semitic and biblical terms “shemesh” (sun) and “yareakh” (moon), the author uses the generic germs “greater light” and “lesser light.” The more common designations were in vogue as appellations for pagan deities. This circumlocution establishes an obvious referent for the modern-day reader. This referent is the context of Israelite monolatry and ancient near-Eastern cosmology. Thus the reader will understand that the text speaks to ancient (most likely post-6th century exilic) exigencies and not to questions that the modern-reader burdens the text with (e.g., the “Prank medium”, vapor canopies, white holes, creationism, etc.).

It has been suggested that vaulted-heavens model of the firmament-rakia creates an internal contradiction in Genesis 1. The argument poses that the “mobility” (apparent or otherwise) of the sun, moon, and stars in the “firmament of the heavens” necessitates that the firmament-rakia is a non-solid or gaseous substance (or lack of substance). If the text posits a solid vault, then, the reasoning goes, the heavenly bodies would not be able to orbit.

The text above states that the “lights” are placed “in the firmament-rakia.” The preposition “in” is a judicious translation of the Hebrew preposition. It would have been obvious to the ancient reader that the heavenly lights were placed in as in “on the face of” or “inside” the firmament-rakia. The ancient reader would not have perceived a contradiction in this passage; rather, she would have envisioned (as the ancients did) a solid vault into which the heavenly bodies were fixed.

The modern reader may envision an internal contradiction in this passage only because she is reading the text with her biases present. She is aware that there is not a solid vault over the Earth and that the sun, moon, and stars are suspended in the fabric of gravitational relationships. When reading this passage against an appropriate context (sitz im leben) the reader understands that the heavenly lights are fixed into the solid firmament-rakia. In the ancient cosmologies, the firmament-rakia itself orbits the earth.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 3: Pentateuchal Portraits – Genesis 1b

An essential aspect of exegesis is recognition of a text’s sitz im leben. Sitz im leben can be loosely defined as “context.” The term is German for “situation in life” or “life setting.” In exegetical endeavors the modern reader of ancient texts is apt to read modern-day questions, issues, perspectives, etc. into the text. A reading that retrojects modern-day exigencies into an ancient text is eisegesis—interpretation reflective of the reader’s own ideas or biases rather than true to the authentic reading of the text. Eisegetical readings abuse texts by stealing or covering up the meanings most authentic to an ancient text.

Disciplined consideration for a text’s sitz im leben is one means through which the modern-day reader can avoid abusing the text. Attempts to construct scientific ideas on the basis of Genesis 1 are certainly eisegetical abuses. Such uses of Genesis exhibit little or no consideration for its sitz im leben and hence for how the ancient Hebrew reader would have understood the text. Additionally, through eisegetical excess, such scientific ideas are not based on the text itself; rather, they are based on a select, idiosyncratic, highly-contingent *interpretation* of the text. Through jettisoning an authentic sitz im leben, such readings are guilty of eisegesis.

Genesis 1 is composed in the rhetoric of soft polemical diatribe. It is written against the backdrop of antecedent polytheistic cosmogonies. The exigency of the composer was not that of 21st century Creationism in any of its flavors. Rather, the composer sought to provide a morally and religiously monotheistic, non-idolatrous reworking of existing myths for the desired goal of religious purity and functional etiology. To posit any other goal is to eisegetically abuse the text in the interest of modern exigencies.

Genesis 1:6-8

ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם, וִיהִי מַבְדִּיל, בֵּין מַיִם לָמָיִם.
ז וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ, וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ; וַיְהִי-כֵן.
ח וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ, שָׁמָיִם; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שֵׁנִי.

6 And spoke Elohim, let there be firmament-rakia in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.
7 And made Elohim the firmament-rakia to divide between the waters from below the firmmanet-rakia and between the waters which [were] from above the firmmanet-rakia—and it was so.
8 And called Elohim to the firmament-rakia, “heavens.” And there was evening and there was breaking, day two.

The reader will recall that the ancient Sumerian-Babylonian cosmology, like that in Genesis 1, began with the victory of the hero-god over the waters of chaos depicted in the dragon Tiamat. The hero-god of the Sumerian-Babylonian cosmology divides the dragon of chaos in two. Each half is used to hold water-symbolic of primordial chaos-at bay. Likewise, in Genesis, Elohim gains victory over the primordial waters, no doubt through an unmentioned combat with the watery chaos dragon. Such a combat is not specifically mentioned in this text, though other biblical portraits of creation do depict such a combat. Consider Psalm 74:12-14 for an example:

"You divided the sea by your strength; by your power you cleaved the sea-monster in two, and broke the dragon's heads above the waters; you crushed the many-headed Leviathan…"

Through conspicuous refusal to mention the dragon deity (other than the reference to T’hom-Tiamat in vs. 2), the author of Genesis 1 realizes that the reader, in her sitz im leben, is more than likely familiar with antecedent cosmologies. As a result, the author assumes that the reader will inject her meanings into the hegemony that Elohim gains over the waters.

With new-found hegemony over the original aqueous chaos, Elohim divides the waters. In so dividing the waters, the text specifies the purpose for the firmament-rakia: to hold the waters (chaos) in place. The author identifies the localities of the waters: above the firmament-rakia and below the same. To the ancient reader the hegemony of Elohim over chaos is described through the construal of the firmament-rakia. This same reader understood the firmament-rakia as a solid structure that vaulted the observed heavens.

Verse eight identifies the firmament-rakia as heavens-shamayim. In so doing, the author and reader understand that the solid structure of the firmament-rakia is also called heavens-shamayim. It is unnecessary and eisegetical to read modern ideas of heavens as “open space” into this passage.

Pictoral Model of an Ancient Hebrew Concept of the Cosmos

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 2: Pentateuchal Portraits – Genesis 1a

The reader will notice that the term “biblical cosmology” is not used in the singular. The author finds that it is tenuous to assume that the biblical authors envisioned an identical model of the cosmos. Though the models of the cosmos found in the biblical texts contain commonalities, not every portrait is comprehensive. Some portraits focus on only one constituent of the cosmos while others reflect on a more complete construal. Hence, the author will focus on the explicit cosmological aspects of a given passage before addressing implicit connections.

For the reasons described above, the author has chosen to deal individually with texts that describe the cosmos. Though a systematic, biblical study could be done of “biblical cosmology” with fruitful results similar to those in this study, the author prefers to focus on each portrait individually. Patterns will emerge through systematic reflection on each portrait, and the author aspires to make connections so as to benefit the cognition of the reader.

The Genesis 1 creation narrative contains numerous convergences with pre-biblical Sumerian-Babylonian and Canaanite creation traditions. Some of these parallels are of the utmost importance as the exigency of Genesis 1 is likely found in these polytheistic creation myths. Genesis 1 is polemically directed to combat polytheistic cosmogonies through literary reworking and anesthetization of existing polytheistic creation myths.

Leeming (52) explains the Sumerian-Babylonian creation myth contained in Enuma Elish as the victory of order over chaos. In Enuma Elish, the hero-god Marduk combats the dragon goddess Tiamat who represents the chaotic waters of primordial existence. Marduk crushes Tiamat—dividing her dead body in half. Tiamat who was the dragon of primordial watery chaos becomes the vehicle to establish the separation of the chaotic waters. Part of her corpse was used to hold the chaotic waters above at bay while the other half is transformed into the terrestrial abode of humanity and the threshold against the waters below upon which the earth floats.

Contrary to popular assertions of creation ex nihilo, Genesis 1 follows the lead of the ancient cosmologies with the assumption pre-existent primordial water (Beltz, 35). Notice, at no point is there a specific creation of water in Genesis 1. Water is assumed to exist. The Hebrew T’hom (“without form”) of Genesis 1:2 linguistically and thematically correlates with the Sumerian-Babylonian Tiamat. Though sanitized of reference to gods and goddesses, Elohim in Genesis 1 combats the primordial, watery chaos to achieve victory. Creation itself is initiated through separating order out of chaos (darkness and water).

The first act of Elohim in the Genesis 1 creation myth is the separation of light from darkness. This act is followed on day two with the creation of the firmament (Hebrew rakia). The Hebrew word for “firmament” (rakia-- רָקִיעַ) is derived from the root raka. This root means to “spread out by beating” (BDB) or “to beat, stamp, beat out, spread out, stretch” (TWOT). It carries the idea of beating out a solid malleable material such as a metal.

Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) define rakia- רָקִיעַ(“firmament”) as follows:

…the firmament of heaven, spread out like a hemisphere above the earth (from the root [raka]), like a splendid and pellucid sapphire (Ex. 24:10, compare Dan. 12:3), to which the stars were supposed to be fixed, and over which the Hebrews believed there was a heavenly ocean (Gen. 1:17; 7:11; Ps. 104:3; 148:4…

When read against the backdrop of the ancient cosmologies and the literary-etymological etiology of the term rakia- רָקִיעַthe picture of the cosmos portrayed in Genesis 1 becomes a reciprocation of the pre-scientific cosmologies of the ancients—a flat earth with domed heavens.

The next post will develop build upon the Genesis 1 references to the firmament.

Beltz, Walter. God and the Gods: Myths of the Bible, trans. Peter Heinegg. Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.

Leeming, David. Jealous Gods, Chosen People: Mythology of the Middle East. New York: Oxford, 2004.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Biblical Cosmologies, part 1

Surah 2:22 of the Qur’an states,

[Your Lord]…Who made the earth a resting place for you and the heaven a structure…

This passage evidences the pre-scientific cosmology of the Qur’an. It envisions vaulted or domed heavens that consist of a solid structure. Such a picture of the cosmos is common amongst the ancients, and it is readily incorporated by the Qur’an and the biblical authors.

Oddly, if I were writing an article about the scientific absurdities of the Qur’an, most of my Christian readers would take little prodding to convince them of the idea that the Qur’an is lacking with regard to scientific realities. I do ask that my readers consider why it is that they are so willing to accept criticism about a book that nearly one billion religious adherents herald as the precious Word of God while they might be unwilling to countenance the idea that the Bible contains similar, if not more archaic, models of the cosmos.

In the next series of posts, I will develop several biblical portraits of the cosmos. It will become evident to the receptive reader that the biblical portraits of the cosmos are in disagreement and contradiction with the physical or material realities of the universe. How the incongruence between the Bible and science is understood by the reader is her own decision. I have taken this contradiction (and others) as grounds for rejecting the plenary inspiration of the Bible; however, I realize that there are educated, Evangelical [and Jewish] scholars who acknowledge such difficulties yet have developed exegetical paradigms by which to justify the biblical authors’ use of pre-scientific understandings. It must be noted that I have only encountered a handful of Evangelical scholars that are willing to deal with this difficulty. At the end of this series I hope to mention who they are and refer readers to their works about biblical cosmologies.

More as time permits…