Maybe the Earth Was Flat After All

One of the first posts on this blog was about an online conversation I had about past belief in a flat earth. Since then I have learned more about ancient middle-eastern cosmology, and how it affected the way things were presented in the Old Testament. I have recently re-read the original post, and while I stand by much of the things I said, there is a need to update it to reflect what I have learned since then.

herman
Thanks to my friend Herman I have looked into this issue from a different perspective and have changed my mind on certain aspects, but not on others. Though I now think that the ancient Hebrews had a flat earth cosmology, I’m not convinced that was the case in the New Testament. After all, Eratosthenes of Cyrene had measured the circumference of the earth rather accurately some 200 years before Christ, and Rome had spread Greek philosophies throughout its empire. I haven’t found anything in the New Testament to suggest otherwise.

In the past year or two I have been studying some of Michael Heiser’s books, podcasts, and YouTube videos. I find some of his work rather far-fetched, though interesting. Since he writes for Logos Bible software I tend trust his Hebrew scholarship. It seems like he has pretty solid credentials for knowing the language, background, and mindset of people at that time and place.

This image, posted by Heiser, shows their cosmology model;

Ancient Hebrew Cosmology

So, it appears that they did believe in a flat earth. Does that mean that we can’t trust anything in the Bible? Since their cosmology was wrong does that mean that we shouldn’t believe their historical writings, or their philosophy, or theology? Since God spoke to them on their level, in a way they could understand, does that mean he didn’t know any better himself?

Let’s assume you answered yes to any or all of these questions. Let’s also apply that reasoning to other aspects of history.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the greatest minds in history. His work on understanding gravity, the laws of motion, optics and mathematics were revolutionary and advanced science in ways unheard of. Much of modern science can trace its foundation back to his work. Did you know that Newton also studied alchemy? In fact, it is thought he wrote more on that subject than on any other. He spent much effort in attempting to discover the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, things that would get him laughed out of any society of scientists nowadays, but were completely acceptable areas of research in his day. Since we are so much more enlightened today should we dismiss his entire body of work because a good portion of it would be considered fantasy?

Did you know that the death of the father of our country, George Washington, is thought to have been, at least partially, attributed to the practice of bloodletting? That he became ill and insisted on the procedure himself? At that time bloodletting was an accepted way of curing disease. It is likely that Thomas Jefferson, the writer of our Constitution, also accepted the practice. Does that mean that the Declaration of Independence is suspect and should not be trusted, now that we know more about medicine?

Of course not. You judge their work on the merits of the work itself. What does alchemy have to do with gravity? What do leeches have to do with the Constitution? Nothing. On that same standard what does cosmology have to do with the Bible? Is it a book of physics or mathematics? Does it present the scientific method?

The Bible is a collection of books on theology, history, philosophy, wisdom, morality. It teaches about the human condition and our place in the world. It doesn’t teach any particular cosmology, though it does reference common beliefs of the time in order to present other types of truths. If God would have mentioned aspects of quantum mechanics no one at the time would have had the foggiest notion what he was talking about. I actually find it encouraging that we do not have to reach any pinnacle of understanding before God can communicate to us. It is rather arrogant to assume that we have it all figured out now, that we don’t have any false assumptions today. It is comforting that he will meet us where we are in order to teach us what we need to know about him and our purpose.

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8 Comments

  1. Brad Cooper

     /  September 2, 2018

    Also, the windows or floodgates of heaven: Is this literal or figurative language? I think it is quite easy to show that it is figurative. It is only used a half dozen times in the Old Testament. Two of those times are in 2 Kings 7 (verses 2 and 19): “The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?” “You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha, “but you will not eat any of it!” The officer had said to the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?” The man of God had replied, “You will see it with your own eyes, but you will not eat any of it!”

    2 Kings 7:2‭, ‬19 NIV
    https://bible.com/bible/111/2ki.7.2-19.NIV

    Did ancient people really believe that rain was released through windows in a dome as Heiser claims? The answer is given to us quite vividly earlier on this same book (as 1 & 2 Kings are really two parts of the same book): “And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’ ” Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.”

    1 Kings 18:41‭-‬45 NIV
    https://bible.com/bible/111/1ki.18.41-45.NIV

    Obviously, the ancients knew that rain came from clouds….clouds that moved with the wind….and NOT some windows fixed in the dome of the sky.

    Also note that here is another instance when someone climbs to the top of a mountain.

    Reply
  2. Brad Cooper

     /  September 2, 2018

    I just found this very interesting article related to the topic as I thought researching Mount Olympus (the mythological home of the Greek gods) might shed some light on this subject. Indeed it does.

    http://kiwihellenist.blogspot.com/2018/04/ancient-greeks-climbing-mount-olympus.html?m=1

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comments! I get to talk more! I usually try to keep my blog posts under 800 words.

      I grant all of the things you have brought up. I’m not vested in the cosmology issue. The purpose of this post wasn’t to defend any particular model, though I now want to research that model and see where it originated.

      What I am claiming is that I am open to the possibility that the worldview of these ancients was different than ours. What I am asking is does that matter? Does that claim infringe on the inspiration or inerrancy of the text?

      What I am proposing is that the cosmology of ancient middle-easterns has no bearing on the nature of the truth that the Bible presents. I consider it adiaphora, if I understand that term correctly. Maybe to better illustrate my thoughts I should bring up a different kind of example.

      In Genesis 30 we get the account of how Jacob got even after Labin tricked him. Labin agreed to give Jacob all of the spotted or black sheep and goats as wages. Jacob placed sticks with white streaks peeled in the bark in front of the healthy white animals as they were drinking, thereby causing all the healthy animals to be born spotted and the feeble as white.

      Of course, wouldn’t we all.

      The text doesn’t say that God told him to do it that way. I think the most likely answer is that God simply honored the way the man chose to do it. Jacob could have been thinking about a local herder superstition, a nursery rhyme reference, a play-on-words or pun, almost anything. The point is that it had nothing to do with modern knowledge about genetics, but God worked through that scientific ignorance in order to bless Jacob, which was the whole point anyway.

      So my question is, does their cosmology, whatever it was, fit into the stripped sticks category?

      Reply
  3. Brad Cooper

     /  September 3, 2018

    Larry, Somehow my first comment never made it into the comment section.

    Reply
  4. Brad Cooper

     /  September 3, 2018

    But concerning your latest comment:

    Well, the ancients certainly did not know everything that we know about the universe or genetics. But did they all really believe that the world rested on a giant turtle? No. And certainly they did not think of the world according to the model Heiser presents, as has already been shown. More importantly there was not a monolithic view of cosmology held by everyone in the ANE world–anymore than there is now.

    Most notably, what we find in the Bible is directly opposed to many ideas held by the ancients. For example, most ancient peoples seemed to believe that the stars were eternal and some even seemed to think they were gods. The Old Testament Scriptures have a very different view: They had a beginning (Genesis 1) and they will have an end: “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.”(Psalm 102:25‭-‬26 NIV). They are not eternal nor immortal. This by itself is a very different view of cosmology than any other ancient views that we know of. I believe that this difference of understanding came from the inspiration of the Creator himself.

    As for Jacob, it is difficult to say what is going on there. Perhaps God honored him in spite of his simple-mindedness and brought things to pass supernaturally. That is a possibility. But I think it is more likely that Jacob had observed something in all his years as a shepherd and was using it to trick Laban. We are still learning a lot about genetics, but one of the most recent advances is in the field of epigenetics. It is now known that environmental factors can influence genetics. And that may in fact be what he had observed. But we just don’t know.

    But the real issue here is not what ancient people believed about things but what the Bible teaches about them.

    Reply
    • No, I don’t believe they all believe the world rested on the back of a giant turtle. I don’t see how you could even reconcile that with monotheism. It is evident that there were many different views through history of the nature of the physical world.

      It looks like we are agreeing in different ways. The passages you have shared about creation and the Creator are the very types of truths I am saying the Bible speaks to. Things about final purpose and ultimate authority. That’s really not what I mean by cosmology. I’m thinking about the nuts-and-bolts, physical, Newtonian type of cosmology. How things work.

      It’s the 2-house thing. You can describe a house by listing its materials, the labor hours to build it, its electrical system, dimensions and specifications. You could also describe a house by way of its color scheme, the way the morning sun strikes the breakfast table, the neighborhood, shared memories. Either way is a completely valid way of describing the house.

      I say the house-as-a-home way is better than the house-as-a-building way of representing the biblical viewpoint.

      I think you’re reaching there with the epigenetics thing. As far as I know this hasn’t been repeated, but how would I know? If that technique worked, wouldn’t it be common knowledge by now? Wouldn’t it still be in use? I think it makes more sense as a one-off thing, like a talking donkey and a floating axe-heads. I think it was another example of God making a straight line with a crooked stick.

      I think it is important to know what ancient peoples believed. A good example would be the law codes of their neighbors. Without knowing the horrendous penalties prescribed in some of them, you would not be able to fully appreciate the superiority of the Jewish Laws, even though we may look down on them in our “enlightened” era.

      Reply
  5. Brad Cooper

     /  September 3, 2018

    Since my first comment did not show up, I will re-paste it here:

    Larry, Heiser seems like a nice guy and some of his work may indeed be quite valuable. Certainly his thoughts on the divine council are worth pondering and investigating. But his repeating of 19th Century liberal nonsense about the cosmology of the ANE world deserves a healthy dose of caution. In fact, it is quite easy to debunk some of the things he says.

    For example, he believes that the ancients revered mountains as the dwelling of the gods because they were inaccessible to the ancients. He thinks that they have only become accessible in modern times. But that is completely bogus.

    The mountains of the middle east are not comparable to Mount Everest, etc. The second tallest mountain in the middle east is Mount Damavand in Iran (ancient Persia). The first woman who climbed it (a badminton athlete) successfully climbed it without any experience or equipment and just a few friends. Novices are routinely guided to the summit in about 5 days. It is about 2/3 the height of Everest. But more importantly, it is much higher than the rest of the mountains of the middle east. But most important of all, the Scriptures record individuals climbing these mountains they revered so much: Abraham as an old man climbed one to sacrifice Isaac. Moses climbed Mount Sinai at 80 and Mount Nebo at 120. Jesus climbed mountains to find solitary places to pray and also climbed the mountain where he was transformed. And I could go on….

    Reply

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