In two previous posts, I examined Dr. Deborah Haarsma’s assumption that the original audience for the Genesis account of creation was the “ancient Hebrews,” and her claims that the ancient Hebrews believed that there was a solid sky dome above the earth. Time constraints have meant a lengthy delay for this third response, so to refresh your memory, here’s the video:
First of all, I’d like to follow up on the point I made in my previous response to this video. When we seek to understand the “ancient Hebrew” descriptions of creation, we are dealing with issues that go much deeper than human understanding of the physical nature of reality. Every human being has a “symbolic” view of the world. It’s not something that we may ever consciously consider, but it is there, nonetheless. Scripture’s symbolic view of the world is that of a three-story house, and because the ancient Hebrew worldview was based in Scripture, this was the “Hebrew” view.
There are the heavens above, the earth below, and the waters under the earth. We can see that symbolic view of the world clearly in passages like Deuteronomy 5:8, the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” In other words, do not make an idol to worship any creature in any part of creation.
Does this mean that the ancient Hebrews actually believed that the universe is literally a three-story house? No, it doesn’t, any more than we actually believe that heaven is somewhere “up there,” and hell is somewhere “down there.” This is a symbolic understanding of the nature of reality. We still speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” and think of the sun as moving through the heavens, even though it is far simpler to describe all planetary motion relative to the Sun, and relative to the Sun, it is the Earth that is doing all the circling.
Consider this related example:
As Christians, we divide the population of the world into two groups, based on the teaching of Scripture. On the one hand we have God’s people – described in Scripture as “wise,” as “righteous,” as “the children of God.” These are the believers. On the other hand, we have people who are described in Scripture as “fools,” and as “the wicked.” These are the unbelievers.
Our concept of humanity is shaped by our understanding of the antithesis – the separation of humanity into two distinct groups – the “seed of the woman,” and the “seed of the serpent” (Genesis 3). This is what we know about these two groups of people, from God’s Word:
Ecclesiastes 2:14 – “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.”
Proverbs 4:18,19 – “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.”
We describe “the wicked” as sightless people, stumbling around in the darkness. They are unable to see, and because of their lack of sight, they are unable to keep from falling. We describe “the righteous” as people who, unlike the wicked, have eyes in their head. The righteous person walks in the light, and so can find his way.
So: do we believe that there are literally two groups of people in the world, one of which is sighted, the other of which is visually impaired? Do we believe that only a specific segment of the population is able to physically see, while the rest of humanity does not have eyes?
Clearly not. But imagine a 25th Century sociologist discovering some of the writings of the ancient Christians of the 21st Century, and interpreting them as though we do believe that one segment of the population is physically blind, and one sighted. Immediately we see that symbolic language, a symbolic construct, that describes a true state of affairs in metaphorical terms, would have to be read in a foolishly literal manner in order for such an error to occur. This is what happens when the claim is made that the people of Israel believed the world was flat, for example.
So when we read about the “three-story universe,” in the Bible, we need to keep this symbolic worldview in mind. The division of the world into three segments is found throughout Scripture. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the world (the “second story” in the three-story universe) is described as being itself composed of three parts – the greater world, the land of Eden, and the Garden of Eden.
In the tabernacle and the temple, this division of the world into three segments is shown symbolically in their construction, as well as in their furnishings and decorations. In the typology and symbolism of Scripture, the heavens, the earth, and the waters below (and the created things that fill each “story”) often stand as symbols. This is an example of a way of understanding the world that does not attempt to scientifically describe physical reality, but rather a mental and symbolic construct of that physical reality.
So before we make claims about what the ancient Hebrews believed about the physical nature of the universe, and what they didn’t believe, we need to understand the symbolic worldview of Scripture, and what the Bible is, and is not, telling us about the actual physical structure of the universe. We should not take the metaphorical and poetic descriptions of the world in a woodenly literal fashion.
Did the ancient Hebrews believe that the world stood on a literal foundation? If you don’t understand the use of figurative language, you might come to that conclusion:
“He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved” (Psalm 104:5).
But then consider this: did the ancient Hebrews believe that these foundations were immovable? Did they believe that they were permanently fixed? If so, how do we deal with passages like this?
“They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken” (Psalm 82:5).
These descriptions use word pictures to make specific points. In one word picture, the foundations of the earth cannot be moved; in the other, the foundations of the earth are shaken. So which of these verses supposedly describes the primitive cosmology of the ancient Hebrews?
The ancient Hebrews’ worldview was shaped by Scripture, not reflected in Scripture. This is an important distinction, and it’s one that is overturned by modern critical scholarship, which views the Bible as the work of men interpreting reality, instead of as the work of God, meant to shape human understanding of reality. Our understanding of the world, too, must be shaped by Scripture. In order for that to happen, we must seek to understand it on its own terms.