We can find insight into the biblical worldview of the universe through Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which mocks the outlook of the self-absorbed New Yorker. The buildings of central Manhattan are shown in sharp detail, but that detail fades with interest. Beyond the Hudson River to the west is a featureless “Jersey” and a rectangular United States with a few scattered state labels. Beyond that is the Pacific Ocean and a couple of distant countries. That’s it.
We get a corresponding view of the universe in Genesis. According to its Bronze Age view of science, God created the sky as a vault to separate the saltwater sea above from the earth below and the freshwater sea beneath that. This is Sumerian cosmology, which the Judean priesthood probably learned while in exile in Babylon during the 500s bce. We see this pre-scientific cosmology again in the flood story, where water comes from above and below because of the two hidden seas: “All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”
In the Genesis creation stories, we read that on the fourth day, “[God] also made the stars.” In the original Hebrew, this phrase is just a single word. One word is all the Bible has to say about the 99.9999999999999999999999999% of the mass of the universe that’s not the earth. According to the Bible, all that is just a blue watery dome over Mesopotamia with little lights to guide us at night.
In the spirit of the New Yorker drawing, imagine a biblical version, a myopic “View of the World from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem and the rebuilt Temple would be in sharp detail in the foreground. Looking east, we’d see the Jordan River valley and the Dead Sea, and beyond that, boxes labeled Moab and Ammon, the Syrian Desert, and then Persia. At the horizon, we’d see the edge of the water dome that covered the world to make the sky. High up in that dome, we’d see the sun, moon, and tiny stars.
The Bible is a human document, and its perspective was that of superstitious, pre-scientific men.
You could say that this was a natural view for a primitive people and that they could grasp no more, but these people 2500 years ago weren’t fundamentally different from us. They had the same mental capabilities. The science in the Bible isn’t dumbed-down for simple people, it’s wrong. If we can understand and marvel at the view of the universe provided by modern science, so could they.
Many Christians today list all sorts of extraordinary qualities of God—new qualities that the authors of Genesis couldn’t have imagined. They say he’s infinite, beyond time, omniscient, and omnipotent. But the God that is said to have created our universe with 200 billion galaxies is not the God of Genesis who created Mesopotamia.
We have an awesome view of the universe today—from the aurora borealis to Saturn’s rings to distant nebulae—but we get that from science. Read the Bible honestly, and you’ll only find a cartoon universe that is a snapshot of Bronze Age thinking.
Continue to chapter 4.
Image credit: Wikimedia, public domain
God created the sky as a vault to separate the saltwater sea above from the earth below: Genesis 1:6.
“All the springs of the great deep burst forth”: Genesis 7:11.
“[God] also made the stars”: Genesis 1:16.
99.9999999999999999999999999% of the mass of the universe that’s not the earth: That’s not a made-up number. The mass of visible matter (only) in the universe is 6×1051 kg, while the mass of the earth is 6×1024 kg.
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