Reading Genesis Like An Ancient Man

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1 ESV)

Genesis has been a controversial book for many because it deals with a somewhat controversial subject: the question of origins. Christians don’t disagree on the notion that God created the universe — it is the “how” question that gets all the fuss.

As a result, apologists from both camps: Young Earth Creationists on one hand and Theistic Evolutionists on the other have been debating the subject for quite some time already. One says Genesis 1 should be interpreted literally, another says it allows for other meanings than is derived from a plain reading of the text.

Both, however, fundamentally agree on one assumption: that the biblical descriptions of the cosmos correspond to modern scientific explications of what constitutes the universe.

Now I wouldn’t discuss either view here because, for the most part, they actually miss the point. They have neglected one crucial aspect of biblical interpretation: context.

By interpreting according to context, or historical context for that matter, it is imperative that we put ourselves in the shoes of the biblical authors. Among others, this would include asking questions like, “How did they understand the world in front of them?” In short, we must understand their “cosmology.”

In using the term cosmology, I refer to how people view and understand the physical world — the cosmos (that is, the universe) and how it operates. Contrary to assumptions of both apologetic camps, the ancient world had a different cosmology than what we have today.

It’s surprising that although this should’ve already been a well-established fact in historical studies, apologists and most readers still hold on to the presumption that the ancient world possessed the same science we have today. That modern scientific concepts of the universe appear much later in human history is an indisputable fact.

To put it simply, in the world of the biblical authors, the universe that they know of is the universe they see. Even the modern concept of “the universe” is imbued with anachronistic ideas absent to the ancient reader. An anachronism is word or idea imposed on an older setting or context which hadn’t existed back then. Forcing modern science to an ancient text is one of the most blatant anachronisms in the study of the Bible.

Before we had images of planet earth from outer space (and by the way, the ancients had no concept of an “outer space”), and before modern circumnavigations of the earth proved theories about its shape, generally speaking, the world they know is simply the world they see: the land, the sea, and the skies (i.e., the heavens). A spherical earth would make no sense both in the cosmological and practical level — everyone back then knows they’re walking on flat surface.

So if one would show a picture of this,

Planet Earth from outer space. Source: NASA.

to an ancient Israelite living in say, the 8th century B.C., he wouldn’t have a clue as to what that is! This is not the Earth that they know of.

Moreover, it is quite problematic when we use the term “earth” in biblical literature. When we say Earth, we mean exactly that image above — a body of land and water, spherical in shape, floating in space (revolving) around the Solar System, etc. But these concepts aren’t known to the ancients.

The word that we use to translate earth is in Hebrew ארץ erets, but this only means “land,” and should be, in my opinion, translated this way all across the biblical text. Unfortunately, because in some passages Bible translators opted for the word “earth” instead of “land” (they’re not being consistent in translating this word), it endorses an anachronistic reading of the text.

For example, we read in Joshua 1:11,

Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.’

The word for “land” here is the word erets, and it is here aptly translated “land,” for Joshua wasn’t commanding the people to take possession of the earth, but a particular land — the land of Canaan.

That’s the same word we find in Genesis 1:1 when God is said to create “the heavens and the earth.” The word “earth” here should be translated “land,” not merely on lexical grounds (as showed earlier) but also on the basis of context. What do I mean by this?

For attentive readers of Genesis 1, they would notice that the earth, or rather, the land, only starts to appears in verse 10.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth (erets), and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:9–10)

This is one reason scholars take Genesis 1:1 as a summary, or we would say, a prelude, to the creation story in the succeeding verses. Other than that, there are grammatical reasons why verse 1 should be treated as a relative clause. For example, the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translation has it, “When God began to create heaven and earth —” I won’t bog you down with these for the moment. Suffice it to say, looking at the original Hebrew helps us refrain from taking the text anachronistically.

To give another example (among many) of how the biblical authors perceived the world in an ancient cosmology, we find this passage in the book of Job,

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding… On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,” (Job 38:4, 6)

Here God speaks to Job, exhorting him to answer difficult questions about the world. As context, Job began to question God’s acts: he knew God was sovereign, and that he ultimately willed his sufferings. But Job was contesting his innocence, for it seemed that God had altogether rejected him. For Job, God was being unfair by inflicting all these pain and not giving him an answer.

And so the Lord answers him, but indirectly. He begins by narrating the awesomeness of creation, and then asks Job about his contribution to, and knowledge of, the created world. Special mention is given to things that are beyond human knowledge, and so we come to verses 4 and 6.

The question posed is not only difficult — it is impossible to answer. But the reason it is impossible is only because the cosmological worldview of ancient people were primitive, and the simplicity of their knowledge forbade them from fully understanding the world — at least, in a scientific sense. The ancients lived in a world shrouded in mystery.

Now back at those verses. Do you see how it makes little sense if you try to conflate modern science with an ancient text? First off, as previously, “the earth” here should be translated “the land.” If it meant earth as we mean it today — a spheroidal mass of land and water — how in the world (pun intended) would a “foundation” make any sense? Moreover, verse 6 speaks of its “bases” being “sunk” and its “cornerstone” being laid.

If we read our modern notions of the earth into this text, it wouldn’t make much sense. For one, the earth doesn’t have anything to sink into. We now know that the ocean beneath, as deep as it gets, still ends with the seabed. But this scientific fact isn’t privy to ancient people.

If Job had the mind of a modern man, he could have answered God simply: “The earth doesn’t have foundations, bases, or cornerstones.” But he doesn’t. For the ancients, like any house or building, the land must also have something on which to rest its foundations on: and for practical reasons. Since the land is stable and doesn’t keep shaking, it must have been firmly set on something. But what is this “something?”

In the ancient world, waters were believed to be underneath the land. For example, in Exodus 20:4 we read,

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

The command assumes a tripartite vertical division of the cosmos. The heavens up above, the land in the middle, and the “waters” under it. What it’s basically saying is that no idol should be made of anything up the heavens above to the watery depths beneath — encompassing the whole of domain of living creatures (cf. Genesis 1:20–27). But this tripartite division shows one thing: that below land is water.

This is one reason why in biblical texts death is occasionally associated with the sea. Revelation 20:13 speaks of “the sea” which “gave up the dead who were in it.” Since the seas eventually connect to the deep waters beneath the land, and a person who dies is said to have his soul descend to a place underneath the earth, the association becomes apparent.

In the ancient world, when a person dies his soul is said to descend into what in Hebrew is called שאול Sheol. Most English translations translate this word as “grave” (e.g., KJV, NIV). This basically refers to the underworld, the olden concept of the “place of the dead.” Since Sheol is geographically proximate to the waters beneath the land, and these waters naturally connect to the visible seas, it is no wonder that at times we find these two concepts spoken of hand in hand. To give one example, the story of Jonah:

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.” (Jonah 2:2–3 ESV)

Notice how Jonah speaks of being in the “belly of Sheol,” and simultaneously, in “the deep, [in] the heart of the seas.” Although one might argue that the use of Sheol here is merely metaphorical, it isn’t hard to conceive that Jonah considered the deep to which he was plunging into as though it was, at least poetically, the underworld — the place of the dead. That he was actually down underneath the sea just strengthens the metaphor.

This, in my opinion, would shed light on the New Testament use of the Jonah story as pattern for the death and resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 12:40). Jonah’s descent to the deep was symbolically a descent to Sheol (i.e., death) because of, if you allow me to term it, its “relative geographical equivalence.”

Going back to Job, it now makes sense how God’s question becomes hopelessly difficult. The foundations must be laid somewhere, but they don’t know where exactly. They know the waters were very deep, but as to how deep is beyond their knowledge. It’s practically infinite to the ancient man.

Hence, it is a mystery for Job, and for ancient peoples! But that mystery is only a mystery when it is structured in a worldview that adheres to an ancient form of cosmology. It is not a mystery to modern science.

In approaching the biblical text, one must embrace, for the sake of interpretation, the cosmological worldview ancient people had. From that starting point, we can then derive eternal truths from God’s word, truths which develop from, though ultimately independent of, the cosmology of the ancient world. At the end of the day, it is God’s word that matters. And if we believe that God is truth, we should allow Scripture to speak for itself.

Having set the stage for a proper understanding of an ancient text like Genesis, we are now ready to look into the very first verse, which will be my next post, God willing.

Biblical Studies, Theology, Comparative Religion, etc.

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