Thursday, 1 May 2014

More on early Jewish views on cosmology and their implication for literalism

Rabbinic cosmology as Moshe Simon-Shoshan points out was a "dynamic synthesis of biblical texts, ancient Mesopotamian traditions, classical Greek scientific theories and methods, and the rabbis' own original speculations." [1] Recognising this is important in order to differentiate between biblical and non-biblical sources. However, there is no doubt that the Biblical contribution makes sense only when viewed against the ancient Near Eastern view of a flat world covered by a solid firmament. This cannot be stressed enough as it is the key to understanding why both YEC (literal) and OEC (strong concordist) readings of the creation narrative are untenable.

Simon-Shoshan observes that while one cannot find in the Biblical and Mesopotamian cuneiform texts comprehensive cosmological views, they are in agreement on the basics of a flat earth covered by a solid firmament:

"Neither the Bible nor the cuneiform literature in our possession contains a systematic account of the structure of the cosmos. However, cosmological information is scattered throughout both canons. In the Bible, we find this information in the creation accounts of Genesis 1-3, and in numerous other brief references found mainly in the prophetic, poetic, and wisdom traditions. Our knowledge of Babylonian cosmology similarly draws on cosmogenic sources such as the so-called Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, as well as mythic accounts of heavenly journeys and astronomical and astrological texts.
There is a fundamental agreement between the various cosmological models found in the Bible and cuneiform literature. All of them seem to posit a flat, probably disk-shaped world. The heavens are made out of a solid material. They are either disk-shaped, hovering over the hearth, or dome-shaped, completely enclosing the surface of the earth, Above the heavens is the celestial ocean, which is the source of rain. Above that lies the abode of the divine power or powers. The earth rests on a second great reservoir, below which, presumably, is the underworld. [2]
Unsurprisingly, the rabbinic cosmological view is deeply indebted to both sources:
The rabbis clearly inherited their fundamental understanding of the heaven from their Ancient near Eastern predecessors. Like their biblical and Mesopotamia predecessors, the rabbis viewed the heavens as a solid object spread out over the Earth. The rabbis referred to this solid part of the sky using the biblical term raki'a, commonly transmitted as "firmament." They alternatively described the firmament as either a dome (kippah) or as a great tent pitched across the earth. [3] 
Absent from the Bible is any reference to heliocentrism. Given that there is no recorded evidence of a heliocentric cosmology prior to Aristarchus of Samos (3rd c. BCE), any attempt to dismiss the geocentric cosmology in the Bible as merely phenomenal language is illegitimate. Certainly, the fact that the rabbis accepted geocentrism argues against any attempt to deny the reality of this geocentric view. Simon-Shoshan continues:

The rabbis' position, that the sun and other heavenly bodies pass under the earth at night is well attested in ancient Caananite and Babylonian mythologies as well as in classical Greek mythology. It makes sense that the ancients, on seeing the sun descend below the horizon, would have assumed that the sun continued its circular trajectory under the earth throughout the night, re-emerging on the eastern horizon in the morning. [4] 
While there is evidence of a minority view among the rabbis which postulated evaporation of water from the ocean as the source of rainclouds, Simon-Shoshan notes that the majority view was that rain came from the water above the firmament. The idea that waters existed above the firmament is of course one that is Biblical in origin:
R. Joshua believes that the rain comes from the water that is suspended above the firmament. The clouds ascend to the firmament, where they received water from above. Later, they deliver this water to the earth. This would seem to be the mainstream position among the rabbis, as it is often referred to elsewhere in rabbinic literature without challenge. It is hardly surprising that this belief was widespread among the rabbis. Rainfall is consistently portrayed in a similar manner throughout the Bible and other Ancient Near Eastern literatures. [5] 
Arguably, the consonance between the Biblical and Babylonian cosmologies (hardly surprising given both the shared world view of both cultures and the polemical element behind Genesis 1) goes a long way to explaining how the rabbinic cosmology was essentially Babylonian:

The Talmud consecutively relates two disputes between the Jewish and gentile scholars concerning matters of astronomy. The first is with regard to the celestial sphere which encompasses the earth, and the constellations:
The Rabbis taught: The Sages of Israel say that the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it], and the scholars of the nations say that the sphere revolves [around the earth] and the constellations are fixed [within it]. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b)
As we shall later demonstrate from both general history as well as the interpretations of the Geonim and Rishonim, the view of the Sages of Israel was that of ancient Babylonian cosmology. They believed that the earth is a roughly flat disc, and the rest of the universe is a hemispherical solid dome fixed above it. The stars move around the surface of this dome; hence, “the [hemi]sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it].” [6]  
The ancient Babylonian cosmology held by the Jewish sages appears in many places in the Talmud, such as in the following discussion: 
It was taught in a Beraita: Rabbi Eliezer says, the world is like an exedra, and the northern side is not enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it bends back and rises above the firmament. And Rabbi Yehoshua says, the world is like a tent, and the northern side is enclosed, and when the sun reaches the northwestern corner, it circles around and returns on the other side of the dome, as it says, “traveling to the south, and circling to the north…” (Eccl. 1:6)—traveling to the  south by day, and circling to the north by night—“it continually passes around, and the wind returns again to its circuits” (ibid.)—this refers to the eastern and western sides, which the sun sometimes passes around and sometimes traverses. (Bava Batra 25a-b)
Maharsha explains that Rabbi Eliezer follows the sages of Israel and Rabbi Yehoshua follows the gentile sages. However, it appears that this is not exactly correct. Rabbi Eliezer’s view is indeed consistent with that of the sages of Israel, but R. Yehoshua is not saying that the sun passes below the earth at night, in a circular route; rather, he is of the view that the sun moves horizontally along the northern edge of the celestial dome. This is consistent with how others present the view of the Babylonian cosmology. Severianus, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), wrote that the earth is flat and the sun does not pass under it in the night, but travels through the northern parts “as if hidden by a wall.” [7]

It is important to avoid projecting the evolved rabbinical cosmology back into the Bible partly because one does not find a systematised cosmology in the Old Testament, partly because the rabbinical cosmology is syncretic. However, the ease with which the biblical data could be integrated in a cosmology in which both genocentrism and a solid firmament feature strongly is a telling argument against any special creationist assertion that such features are absent from the Bible. They are not, and their presence is lethal to any concordist reading of Genesis.
Source: Rationalist Judaism


1. Moshe Simon-Shoshan, “The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God – A Study in Rabbinic Cosmology.” B.D.D. (2008) 20:67-96 
2. ibid, p 70
3. ibid, p 72 
4. ibid, p 82 
5. ibid, p 86 

7. ibid, p 6-7