The Cosmology of the Ancient Israelites

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Keith Leong completed his Master of Studies in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford recently. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral.




2 October 2016

The Cosmology of the Ancient Israelites

The doctrine of creation has been a rich source of reflection and worship for Christians. The notion that God created the universe from nothing and sustains it continually, placing in it the laws necessary to produce everything we can observe today – from the movement of the tiniest sub-atomic particles to the evolution of the largest clusters of galaxies through cosmic time, from the endlessly complex intricacies of the human brain to the wonderfully labyrinthine workings of global ecosystems – can only lead to awesome wonder and worship.

Yet while all believers would affirm the fact of God’s creation, more recently, some have also argued that the creation narrative in the scriptures must be read literally.[1] They might say that the scriptures univocally teach that God created the universe from nothing in six 24-hour periods several thousand years ago. This is sometimes called the young earth model of creation.

These same believers might argue that, since the scriptures are inspired by God (II Timothy 3:16), all that they convey must be literally true.[2] However, the reason the scriptures have been understood to possess the status of divine inspiration is the belief that they are a witness to God’s self-revelation to His people in the person, work and teaching of Jesus Christ. It is in this sense that we should affirm and defend their unity and coherence. And as we have seen in the Galileo article – as this article also hopes to convey – this understanding of inspiration should not extend to univocal literalistic readings of scripture.           

In what follows, this article hopes to show that the creation narrative in Genesis and parts of the Old Testament, if taken literally, relate to us a cosmology that differs from other parts of the Old Testament, from the emphases of the New Testament, and even more so from the picture of the world we hold as true today.

Consequently, since particular pictures of creation, if taken literally, evolve throughout scripture – which itself indicates that its foundational principles lie in the theological affirmation of the fact of God’s creation rather than in specific literal details about the means – we are not obligated to believe literally in a young earth.  

This opens us up to exploring more nuanced approaches to how modern science and scripture should relate to each other concerning creation and free us to appreciate the infinite mysteries of the cosmos and the ineffable creative power of God who makes it all possible.

Let’s begin with the idea of creation from nothing. The Genesis narrative relates to us that, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (NRSV).[3] As we can see, there is little in his opening line that compels the idea of creation from nothing. Instead, the rest of the chapter offers the idea of God shaping primordial, or pre-existent matter: the chaotic waste or void present in the image of darkness and water in the second verse sets the background to the subsequent divine creative activity.  

Traces of this image of God subduing pre-existent disordered matter, understood to be the forces of chaos, have been identified and used with great theological effect in the wisdom and prophetic literature. These include Job 9:13; 26:12-13; Psalm 74:13-15; 89:9-14; 104:1-30; Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-11; Ezekiel 29:3-5; 32:2-8; Habakkuk 3:8-15; Zechariah 10:11. This watery chaos is sometimes personified as a dragon or monster variously named “Behemoth”, “Leviathan”, “Nahar”, “Rahab”, “Tannim”, or “Yam” who must be subdued.[4]

The idea of creation from nothing rather than from defeating and shaping pre-existent watery chaos became important during the Babylonian Exile when the remaining people of Israel were separated from the land, (see II Kings 24-25) and in their sojourn increasingly saw God as a universal being through whom all creation originated. This idea can be found in the writings composed shortly before and during the 2nd Temple Period, between 516 BCE and 70 CE, after the majority of the Jewish people return from exile at King Cyrus’ edict (see Ezra), and until the destruction of the 2nd temple by the Roman authorities (see Matthew 24:1-2; Luke 21:5-6). They include Isaiah 40:25-28; 45:7 and verse 7:28 in the intertestamental work of II Maccabees, the Wisdom of Solomon 1:14; 19:6; and Sirach 18:1).[5]

The corresponding notion of wisdom as a means through which God shapes the universe in Proverbs 8:22-31 (see also Wisdom of Solomon 8:4-6) seems to have combined with the above development and become influential precursors to the New Testament affirmations of God creating the universe from nothing through Christ, the Logos (or reason), in John 1:3, I Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16 and Hebrews 1:2.[6] Since then, creation from nothing, or creatio ex nihilo has become a staple affirmation of classic Christian doctrine throughout history until today.

But as we have seen, there is no one understanding of creation that was univocally testified in scripture. The scriptures reveal the contextual nature of their cosmological ideas in response to their authors’ external circumstances and the apologetic purposes and novel theological reflection they occasioned, no doubt ordained and inspired by God in His own time.

The same can be said for the three or four-tiered portrait of the cosmos that the ancient Israelites held, either figuratively or literally, based on a rough reconstruction from the relevant cosmogonic descriptions in scripture. These portraits are conveniently described in a number of Bible Dictionaries, one of which may be quoted in full:

The earth on which humanity dwells is seen as a round, solid object, perhaps a disk, floating upon a limitless expanse of water. Paralleling this lower body of water is a second, similarly limitless, above, from which water descends in the form of rain through holes and channels piercing the heavenly reservoir. The moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth.[7]

(See Genesis 1:2, 6-10, 14-18; 7:11; 37:35; Exodus 20:4; 24:9-11; Numbers 16:30-33; Deuteronomy 28:12; Job 7:9-10; 9:6-8; 11:8-9; 26:7-11; 37:18; 38:4, 6, 16, 22; Psalm 24:1-2; 74:13-17; 78:22-23; 89; 104:2-3; 136:6; 148:4; Proverbs 8:27-29; Isaiah 40:22; 44:24; 51:9-11; 66:1; Malachi 3:10; Revelation 4:1. Try readings these verses literally, putting them together in your mind and imagining their visual product. A rough portrait constructed on such a literalistic reading can be found above).     

No Christian today would accept or defend this model of the universe, even though it is described throughout scripture and therefore believed to be true in some fashion, that is, figuratively or literally, by some of the scriptural authors.

It seems that the same thing can be said about the young earth model: it is attested in scripture, inseparable from the model shown above if both are taken literally (since they can both be found in Genesis 1), and believed to be true in some fashion, literally or figuratively (and many contemporary believers would argue only figuratively, including their references in the New Testament, see Craig’s podcast part 12), among some of the scriptural authors. But since this understanding changes in scripture, the important constant that remains is not their literal interpretation but their theological significance.

What this significance is has been dealt with in far more detail elsewhere, but at the most basic level, these multifaceted cosmological narratives throughout scripture each testify to the fact of God’s authority over created or pre-existent matter.

Precise scientific questions concerning the how of creation were not the point. If they were, the Bible would be completely incomprehensible, not to mention irrelevant to the vast majority of its readers throughout history. This was especially true among the New Testament authors, who, as we have seen, were not particularly interested in speculation and brought up cosmological ideas, in part, merely to affirm the pre-eminence of Christ.     

The Church Fathers, including Justin Martyr and Origen, who were not engaging with the deliverances of modern science like we are, did not accept this literal reading of Genesis either. Saint Augustine also wrote that God created the universe all at once, not in six days, and seeded the world with potentialities which unfold over time. Alister McGrath, professor of science and religion at Oxford, has noted that Augustine’s vague approach “reflects his concern that biblical interpretation or dogmatic formulation might become trapped within the matrix of a specific historical or cultural situation. Augustine argued for exegetical openness, rather than precommitment to existing interpretations of Scripture or doctrine, which might turn out, with the passage of time, to be wrong”.[8]

As mentioned in the Galileo article, Augustine also forwarded the idea of “accommodation”. This general interpretive principle was held by a number of theologians, including the Reformer John Calvin in his Commentary on Genesis and Institution of Christian Religion, and the founder of Methodism John Wesley.

Some contemporary theologians and historians of science have also argued that a significant contributor to the rise of modern science in Europe was the pervasive belief that the world is inherently orderly – which was itself derived from the belief that the universe was created by God in a rational fashion – and is, therefore, amenable to fruitful empirical study (see McLeish, Wilkinson and Harrison below).       

To them, this means that contemporary believers should be open to exploring what science can tell them about the nature of the universe without fear, even if the scientific consensus are liable to shift, and discover the sublime mystery and beauty of God’s creative acts through this theologically motivated and divinely sanctioned endeavour and the benefits they may afford for society.

I hope this article has, in turn, also commended this openness to its readers in its exposition on the plurality and contextual nature of the cosmological ideas expressed in the scriptures, their theological value, and the corresponding misstep of believing that they were and must be taken literally.

As a side note, I understand that this is a controversial topic and believers will – rightly so – have strong views on this one way or another. In response, it may be incumbent to say that nobody is compelled to agree with the conclusions made in this article. The goal is to offer a perspective on the creation account in the scriptures that can help students (or anyone else) who are engaged with science and struggling to make sense of this to assess the points made here and hopefully come to see that the young earth model is not a necessary requirement for sincere faith. But for those who have already made up their minds, this apologetic goal will not apply to them and they are free to disagree.

Lastly, if the reader has questions concerning some of the claims made in this article and their implications (like where this leaves a historical Adam and Eve, the transmission of original sin, the nature of scriptural inspiration etc.), I highly recommend looking into the further reading below.

Recommended Further Reading and Resources:

Ernest Lucas, Can we Believe Genesis Today? (on a survey of the interpretations of the Genesis creation narrative that take modern science into account. A short interview with him can be found here)

William Lane Craig, Creation and Evolution Podcast on his Reasonable Faith Website (highly recommended talks on the relationship between the doctrine of creation and evolutionary theory. Video recordings can also be found here)  

David Wilkinson, God, Time and Stephen Hawking: An Exploration into Origins (on a professional cosmologist and theologian’s reflection on the intersection between creation and cosmological science. His talk on God and the Big Bang can be found here)

Alister McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine (on a theological lens through which we can understand evolutionary theory. His talk on evolutionary theory can be found here)

Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought (on the intellectual history of creation from nothing)

Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science (on the scientific enterprise as a deeply theological undertaking. His short introduction to the book can be found here. His book launch with comments from other scientists and theologians can be found here)

Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (on the relationship between scriptural interpretation and the rise of natural science in Europe. His talk on the      religious origins of modern science can be found here)

Adam Laats, Fundamentalism and education in the Scopes era (on the history of the Fundamentalist engagement with evolutionary theory in America)

For the intersection between biblical and Ancient Near Eastern cosmologies, The Lexham Bible Dictionary is a place to start.


[1] This particular belief returned in the 1980s among conservative American evangelicals, having experienced a hiatus soon after the Scopes Trial in 1925. See Adam Laats’ book in the further reading below.  

[2] It is important to note that the word for “all” “pas” and “and” “kai” in the verse can also mean “every” and “also”, and their grammar also permits a second reading of the effect that: “Every God-breathed writing [is] also profitable…” We may note that, whichever reading was intended, neither one claims that these God-breathed writings must always contain literal and scientifically true statements, or that these writings are the only governing criterion for Christianity. If the latter were so, “only” “monos” would have been a much better option than “every / all”.   

[3] See the NIV 2011 for an alternative and possibly more familiar reading. These alternatives exist for two reasons. The first is because punctuations (and vowel signs) were added to the copied Hebrew manuscripts by the Masoretic scribes quite some time later and it is not clear how the first two verses were originally meant to relate to one another, i.e., is the first a temporal clause relative to the second, or they are separated by a stop? The second is that the inseparable preposition “b” located on the first word “(in)beginning” “bereshit” lends the verse to a temporal clause reading. However, even if the intended translation was not a temporal clause, as the NIV 2011 translators think, creation from nothing would still not be implied. An additional “from nothing”, “min lo dabar” would be required.       

[4] To really understand this, familiarity with the creation narratives of the Israelites’ Near Eastern neighbours which feature such cosmic battles, whose ideas the scriptures borrow for their own apologetic purposes, is necessary. There is no space, however, to go into any detail about that here. For a short introduction, please see Craig’s podcast parts 10 to 12, and the Lexham Bible Dictionary listed below. One should also be able to find them in any good Bible commentary as well.

[5] These intertestamental works formed part of the intellectual and cultural backdrop of Judaism and Christianity in the 2nd Temple Period and beyond (in addition to Greek philosophical influences which are evident in them and in the New Testament), some of which remain a part of the biblical canon in major Church traditions like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.  

[6] As a case in point, this identification of (Lady) Wisdom with Christ is evident throughout the 4th century, when Proverbs 8:22 became the key text in the highly significant and long standing theological debate between Athanasius and Arius concerning whether Christ was coeval with the Father or was His creation.

[7] Robert A Oden Jr, “Cosmogony,” in The Anchor-Yale Bible Dictionary. Edited by D. N. Freedman. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Incidentally, these help to explain some of the visual imagery used in the flood narrative in Genesis, like in 8:2, and the common scriptural trope of depicting bodies of water as unpredictable, chaotic and requiring neutralization by God. See the parting of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus 14-15:21, Jesus asserting authority over the stormy sea in Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41 and Luke 8:22-25, and the imagery of baptism.   

[8] Alister McGrath. Darwinism and the Divine. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011, p. 229. 

About the Author

Keith Leong Photo
Keith Leong completed his Master of Studies in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford recently. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral.
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