The Bible has a Glass Ceiling

How ancient near-eastern cosmology can change the way we read and understand scripture

Have you ever wondered where all the water came from for Noah’s flood? Or how the tower of Babel’s builders expected to reach into heaven? Or how many rungs there would need to be on Jacob’s ladder?

In this infographic we see how the Bible describes humanity’s place in the universe, and how this unexpected revelation helps us to break free of modern preconceptions that limit our understanding of the Bible’s message. Rather than undermining our faith, this peculiar subject helps us develop a credible and robust approach to scripture.

Note: the rest of the post will make more sense if you’ve read through the infographic first.

Instead of delivering an extended commentary on the infographic I’d like to use this accompanying post to narrate my own exploration of ancient near-eastern cosmology, through discovery, incredulity, acceptance, and adoption. This is not because I think the graphic exhaustively covers every nuance of the subject, but because I believe it is more important to address the pastoral concerns that arise from what may be a significant shift in world view.

My aim is to keep the graphic as concise, accessible, and self-contained as possible, so if you do wish to explore the subject more deeply, the foot of the graphic contains references and related resources for further reading.

The Bible says what now?

For such a profoundly surprising concept, the glass ceiling (or to give its proper name: “firmament”), doesn’t need a string of disparate passages or complex word studies to explain: a pencil, paper, and Genesis 1 will suffice.

The proposition is simple. Creation day two describes waters separated to form two bodies; the water “above” and “below”, or sky and seas respectively. Day four explains that the sun, moon, and stars are set in the firmament, the waters above. Day five notes that the birds fly across the face of this firmament.

I was first introduced to the concept of the firmament as a teen1. Though I didn’t know the source at the time, much of what I was taught was based on the writings of Morris and Whitcomb2, who used the same proposition to describe a water canopy above the atmosphere which provided the source of water for Noah’s flood. The fact that the sun, moon, and stars were apparently in that canopy was noted, but never really explained.

When I was later reminded of these passages as an adult I already had a mental model that recognised the “waters above”, firmament, or canopy as a legitimate interpretation of the text. The realisation that upset my expectations was that the ancients pictured the sky as a solid dome over a flat earth, and that this was why the sun, moon, and stars are described as being set in the firmament. In other words, Genesis 1 was not describing physical creation.

You cannot be serious

Coming to terms with such a significant change in perspective is not easy. It can be simplified considerably by avoidance; invalidating, disregarding, or ignoring the difficult conclusion. This is particularly tempting where matters of faith are concerned, and especially hard when significant time, effort, and reputation has been staked in ground that can no longer sustain the assumptions laid upon it.

The first fact I wanted to establish was the meaning of “firmament”, which some translations render “expanse”. Could this simply mean atmosphere, or outer space?

A little reading helped clarify matters. I had a tendency to think of this expanse as a cross-section of the earth and atmosphere (i.e. top to bottom), rather than a spread-out roof (i.e. side to side, the expanse above you as you lay on the ground and look up). In the latter context, “expanse” makes more semantic sense and fits the idea of a vaulted heaven.

But couldn’t the “waters above” just be clouds? This would permit a more material and rational reading of the creation narrative.

Hebrew has perfectly good words for clouds3 which aren’t used in Genesis. I would also expect that the “waters above” would be assigned the name “clouds” rather than “heaven”, if that is what they were. And finally, the luminaries are not in the clouds. The popular idea that such a description is true from an observational perspective ignores the fact that this is simply not observationally true; the sun, moon, and stars are still visible on cloudless days.

Eventually I concluded that the most honest translation is the NRSV, which renders the word for firmament explicitly as “dome”. Having withstood some initial scrutiny, it was time to take the idea of a cosmic ocean more seriously.

Actually… that makes a lot of sense

You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.

Psalm 104:5–6 (NRSV)

Once you’ve learned a new word, it seems to crop up everywhere – the concept of the firmament is the same. While the infographic covers some of the more recognisable allusions to ancient near-eastern cosmology, they pop up throughout scripture with surprising regularity.

Frankly, this should not be surprising. The famous “blue marble” photograph of Earth was only taken in 1972, and though we moderns may tend to think of “earth” and “planet” as synonymous with that mental picture, to an iron age civilisation the cosmos was smaller; it was articulated experientially and contextualised through narrative legend.

The idea of a spherical earth has origins earlier than many people realise, with gradually developing complexity and awareness4. Even so, the Bible firmly inhabits the ancient world, and is little concerned with communicating scientific principles. Certainly, nobody revolutionised cosmology after reading scripture and concluding that it taught a spherical earth.

Seeing the widespread adoption of a pre-scientific world view through the Bible raises the prospect that this may be a deliberate narrative strategy, leveraging poetry, figure, and common observational language to describe the cosmos.

I’m not entirely sure why this is sometimes advanced as an objection to accepting a pre-scientific world view in the text, because in my mind that’s rather the point: the Bible’s authors described the cosmos in ways that may not be material, but are meaningful. As the quote goes:

All models are wrong, but some models are useful.

George Booker. Ish.5

However, alleging that the Bible communicates in metaphorical language allows there to be some ambiguity as to whether the ancient authors chose to employ poetic language despite knowing the earth was a globe. This is a clever way to maintain a modern expectation of Biblical inerrancy, which requires the Bible to be scientifically accurate.

Ultimately such an argument becomes self-defeating, because it amounts to saying that the authors wrote in the language, style, and concepts of their day, but knew that both they and their audience held entirely different world views. This belief has to be adopted despite the paucity of evidence showing that this was the case, and the volume of evidence implying that such language and views were common through the ancient world.

If it was ever true, it’s clear that the distinction between poetry and reality was lost at some point in the distant past. In effect it becomes an unfalsifiable claim made in service of a theological goal. It might let me off the hook by allowing me to believe the Bible is, under the surface, scientifically accurate, but I certainly wouldn’t feel honest about it.

Ancient near-eastern cosmology, with its sky-ocean and flat earth, is the best fit for the data found across the breadth of scripture. And this conclusion is not without its consequences.

Investigate everything you believe: if it is the truth, it cannot be injured thereby; if error, the sooner it is corrected the better.

Foreman, J.6

But that means…

The most significant conclusion from this journey of discovery is that the Bible is culturally bound: it was written in a language, to a people, at a time. While it’s meaning transcends those boundaries, the written form must be translated, contextualised, and applied to today’s problems.

Sometimes this is done intuitively. In the famous “meat offered to idols” passage (1 Cor 8), Paul explains how a situation that does not offend the conscience of one individual might cause others to stumble. This principle is commonly applied to modern concerns such as professions, financial arrangements, or television; bridging the historical distance and creating new wisdom in the life of a disciple.

Our education helps with this. Many people know who the Romans were, how they lived, and how they ran their empire. They understand them as an occupying force in Israel, and can relate to the analogy of a soldier’s armour used in Eph 6:11.

But occasionally our education misdirects us. We fail to recognise a statement, allusion, inference, even an entire genre that would be instantly understood by an ancient audience. In doing so, we risk misunderstanding a passage by imposing modern categories and their commensurate expectations on the text, rather than hearing the voice of the Bible speaking from its rich history.

Realising the importance of context in interpretation helps us to develop the humility required to move wisely toward the meaning of the text, more aware of the cultural blinders we all wear. Many difficult subjects benefit from this approach. This isn’t to say that hard topics are all readily concluded through consideration of context, but they are helpfully qualified, framed, and nuanced by it.

As a final word I’d like to acknowledge how mentally exhausting it can be to work through what may be a significant shift in fundamental assumptions about how the Bible works. This journey is not for everyone, and if life is demanding then it may be wise to park a full exploration of its consequences for another time.

It is my hope that this post has helped to demonstrate that although interpretation is a complex field and there are tough subjects to be wrestled with, there are also perfectly credible, repeatable, and consistent approaches that let us honour the Bible without imposing contemporary expectations upon it. There’s no need to be afraid if the Bible no longer quite fits in the mental box we’d made for it: the box was probably the wrong shape anyway, and I imagine everyone will be much better off when they can see and handle scripture without the additional baggage we often bring to it unawares.

Footnotes

  1. Bible Truth (2012) What do we know about Noah and the great flood?YouTube. https://youtu.be/PbT3xo_zZkk?t=332
  2. Whitcomb, J & Morris, H. (1961) The Genesis Flood. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing. US.
  3. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor. Definitions of the word for “clouds” and “firmament” are provided. The wider discussion about whether the firmament is solid, a “skin”, or the atmosphere up to the cosmic ocean is left for the reader to explore (spoiler: probably all three, depending on context!)

    עָב (ʿāḇ): n.masc.; ≡ Str 5645; TWOT 1574a—LN 1.34–1.38 cloud, i.e., a visible mass of moisture suspended in the air, with the function of providing moisture, or shade from the sun, or cover up heavenly objects from view.

    רָקִיעַ(rā·qîaʿ): n.masc.; ≡ Str 7549; TWOT 2217a—LN 1.5–1.16 expanse, firmament, i.e., an area of atmospheric space, either relatively close to the ground or in the upper limit of the sky and heavens … note: though to the modern mind the expanse of the sky is a void of empty space, it is perceived as a “solid” space (hence firmament) and is so a kind of base to hold up highly heavenly objects such as water or a throne.
  4. Wikipedia’s article on the Spherical Earth gives a good introduction to the origins of this model:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth. By describing a flat earth under a vaulted dome, the Bible attests to its own antiquity.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_models_are_wrong
  6. Foreman, J. (1859) Rules of Interpretation and Directions for Investigating the Scriptures, Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come (9.1.180).

Author: Nathan Kitchen

Nathan lives in England with his wife, three children, and a range of unfinished projects. He enjoys his tea with eschatology, apologetics, and plenty of good hermeneutics. He does not have any spare time.