Monday, January 28, 2008

Ancient Cosmology: Quick Guide

Imagine if you had never been told that Earth is a globe that rotates and revolves around the sun. You would likely never figure that out. In fact, Copernicus, just over 500 years ago, through observations, showed the Sun as the center of the solar system, not Earth. Copernicus shattered what seemed to be common sense.

Just going by your common sense observations, what would you see? You would see Earth that is flat. You look up and see a big blue dome that stretches to the horizon. By day, a ball of fire moves across the dome. How does that happen? At night another lesser light moves through the dome. And what are all of those white dots at night? You can see them through the dome. They move in patterns. Who moves them? What are they?

The above image is taken from Michael Palmer's web page in the
syllabus for his Religion 103 class,
"The History and Literature of the Bible."

What holds up this dome? Probably the mountains at the edge. What holds up Earth? Perhaps pillars underneath. From where does the rain come? It appears like outside the dome is water and below Earth is water. On occasion, the spouts are opened and water flows down from the dome and up from Earth. What if it never stopped raining? The space between Earth and Dome would fill up with water. That would be scary. Everything would drown. What if you could build a tower tall enough to reach the dome? That would be awesome! You could reach the dome and talk to the gods. The ancients with variations saw their world--earth and heaven (sky-firmament-dome) in that way. Genesis 1 now makes sense:
6And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
The "waters" are the whole of existence itself. Elohim makes a living space holding back the waters above the dome from below Earth. In the earlier Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, Marduk does the same thing Elohim does. Except in the Babylonian myth, it is even more "mythological" in that virtually everything is personified. Marduk defeats Tiamat (a personification of the watery chaos) and splits her carcass in two. Half of Tiamat's carcass becomes the dome and the other half Earth. The Babylonians and the Hebrews saw the same physical universe (the dome above and the earth below holding back waters) but they had a different mythology to explain its origins.

Obviously, Genesis 1 has nothing to say to us about the physical creation of the universe as we see it today. However, it can inform us theologically. For example, what is the difference between a god who violently creates Earth and Sky by defeating a chaotic monster versus a god who speaks and it is done and "it is good?"

Later in the
Enuma Elish, Marduk creates humans. He creates them from the blood and bone of his enemy, Kingu. These humans are created to be slaves to the gods. What is the difference theologically between and understanding of humanity this a creation of violence enslaved to the forces of the universe and between an understanding of humanity that is the creation of a god who creates humanity in the image of god, and declares humanity good?

For more detail about this, here are some websites:
Hebrew Astronomy, Biblical Cosmology, and Council for Secular Humanism. From the Biblical Cosmology website here are some wonderful quotes from Martin Luther who struggled with the Bible and the new cosmology of Copernicus who he calls "an upstart astrologer". I will close with these:

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483–1546) began the protestant reformations with his sincere attempts to interpret the exact meanings of Biblical scripture. Likewise, he made sincere attempts to grasp a Biblical understanding of astronomy.

  • "Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters... It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night... We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding." --Martin Luther.
  • "...the whole firmament moves swiftly around, every moment thousands of leagues, which, doubtless, is done by some angel. `Tis wonderful so great a vault should go about in so short a time." --Martin Luther.
  • "People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth." --Martin Luther.

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