ANE and Modern Cosmic Geography

In his book, entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, John Walton explains that cosmic geography involves how people view the world they live in with a special interest on its form and functioning. People living in the present day have a cosmic geography that has been developed throughout the centuries by various scientific processes and discoveries. According to the present cosmic geography, humans live within a planetary solar system which is part of one of many galaxies that make up the universe. This planetary solar system revolves around the sun, and a moon revolves around planet earth. In view of this basic present cosmic geography, Walton points out that humans are relatively minuscule compared to the immensity of the universe.[1] Furthermore, this cosmic geography centers on the physical and the material while highlighting the uniformity based on the operating “physical properties and laws of motion.”[2]

Walton explains that the ancient world had a cosmic geography, and if one aims to understand the civilizations of the Canaanites, Babylonians, Egyptians or Israelites, then he or she should understand ANE cosmic geography. According to Walton, most of the ANE had a three-tiered view of the cosmos with the earth in the middle, the heavens above and the netherworlds below. They believed that the sun and the moon moved on similar spherical plans taking turns across the earthly sky and then into the netherworld. The earth was viewed as floating, with the support of pillars, on the cosmic waters. These cosmic waters were thought to be held back by the sky, and so precipitation was viewed as leaks from the sky.[3]

While ANE cosmic geography had a physical and material understanding of the cosmos, it was primary a metaphysical construct. In other words, what mattered to the ANE people is the role and function of the ANE gods. The physical world did not define existence or importance, but rather it was a tool used by the gods in order to achieve their purposes.[4] Walton explains the ANE context by writing, “To describe creation is to describe the establishment of the functioning cosmos, not the origins of the material structure of substance of the cosmos. Material substance had relatively little importance or relevance to their understanding of the world.”[5]

Therefore, in view of the differences of the present cosmic geography and the ANE cosmic geography, the “science” (e.g. cosmology, cosmic geography, astronomy) depicted in the Hebrew scriptures reflects the ANE understanding with some variations in order to account for Yahweh’s purposes and relationship with his storied people. Interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures should refrain from reading into the text modern science’s emphasis on physical laws, properties and structures. This would not have been the intended meaning of the writers. Readers should expect the Hebrew scriptures to reflect the purposes of Yahweh within the ANE contextual setting. Yahweh has specific relational purposes that guide his speech acts, so what one finds in Genesis for example is part of the scripted Theo-drama where Yahweh (the divine playwright) speaks and acts his part concerning beginnings, origins, covenant relationships and redemption.

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 165 [2] Walton, Ancient, 165. [3] Walton, Ancient, 166-167. [4] Walton, Ancient, 167. [5] Walton, Ancient, 181.

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