Greg Beale On Biblical Cosmology, Part 1/2

A common reason for people to discount any notion of biblical inerrancy is the problem of Genesis 1-2 and modern science. A common claim is that the author(s) of Genesis borrowed mythological beliefs about the cosmos that are clearly incompatible with modern scientific knowledge. Ergo, the bible is not without error and cannot be inerrant.

Greg Beale has two chapters on the Old Testament and biblical cosmology in The Erosion of Inerrancy. They are definitely worth the price of the book so I’m including his conclusion to whet your appetite. I think he shows that we can still take a robust and honest view of Genesis 1-2 without having to jettison a document as dear as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (which Beale endorses).

Conclusion

Many of the purported socially constructed, mythological expressions of the cosmos reflected in the Old Testament are better understood as descriptions of the way things appeared to the unaided eye or are related to a theological understanding of the cosmos (including the unseen heavenly dimension) as a temple. Of course, there will be some portrayals hard to understand and categorize, but most of the portrayals seem to fit rather well into these two categories, the phenomenological and the theological, as well as into other kinds of figurative categories. How does this conclusion relate to our main theme of biblical authority? Some scholars and students of the Bible have found the Old Testament’s conception of the cosmos to reflect an ancient mythological view that clearly contradicts a modern scientific perspective. The purported ANE belief of a solid dome over the sky with water above and below is considered incompatible with how scientists today understand the earth and the sky and the outer space above the earth. The same could be (and has been) said about the description of the heaven having windows or the earth having foundations, pillars, footings, or being a flat disk. Consequently, as we have seen, these biblical expressions have been taken as inaccurate and erroneous. But we endeavored to show that most of the Old Testament portrayals of the world, sometimes taken to be at odds with the modern scientific view, should not be taken in a woodenly literal manner as anachronistic ancient mythological images or as naïve ancient scientific descriptions. Rather, such portrayals should be understood as theologically charged and ultimately part of Israel’s theology.

Cosmic temple language in the Old Testament certainly does not attempt to give a scientific view of the cosmos, but it does convey a theological view of the world and universe being God’s massive temple. Thus, the cosmic descriptions of the Old Testament do not pose problems for believing in the absolute authority of Scripture, since they are not contradictions of modern science nor are they mythological beliefs nor naïve scientific portrayals that cannot be held today.

I would contend that the view of the cosmos as a temple is one that we as modern day Christians also hold. Indeed, if we believe the Bible is authoritative and if our analysis has been correct, we are bound to believe that the cosmos is a temple. Other cosmic descriptions not related to temple portrayals are probably just ways of describing the world as it looked to the eye, much as we do today, neither of which are attempts to give scientific descriptions. Thus, while it is obvious that God did not reveal to biblical writers a textbook on scientific views of the world and universe, there are some figurative and even literal phenomenological descriptions that are easily understood and even shared by modern readers. Nevertheless, some significant overlaps between Israel’s and her neighbors’ unique cosmology may seem strange to us today. A significant number of these are expressions about parts of the cosmos being parts of a huge cosmic temple in which Israel’s God dwelt. As we have observed, it is interesting that both in the ANE and Israel there are numerous clear expressions of temples being modeled after the cosmos, implying that the cosmos itself was a temple. While there are some straightforward statements in the ANE that the cosmos was a temple, they are not as numerous. Note the Enuma Elish VI, 113 concerning the building of Marduk’s temple:

“He shall make on earth the counterpart of what he brought to pass in heaven.”

Such clear statements appear also in the Old Testament, though not as numerously (e.g., Genesis 1; Ex. 25:9, 40; Dan. 2:31–45), as well as in the book of Revelation (Rev. 21:1–22:5). One reason for fewer portrayals of the cosmos as a temple in the ANE may be that the pagan religions were polytheistic; it might have been awkward to portray the world as multiple temples for multiple deities. But since Israel was monotheistic, such a portrayal was easier, though why there are not more Old Testament descriptions of the cosmos as a temple is not so clear.

More to the point, there is evidence in the Bible that God created the world as a big temple to be inhabited by him and his human images, as priests who would worship him in it. In fact, this view is further enhanced by our earlier examination of proposed parallels between ANE and Old Testament cosmology. There we found varying degrees of evidence that the Old Testament description had overtones of temple imagery, which was not typically the case in the ANE parallels. These exegetical explorations are an initial effort; further analysis may yield more connections linking these Old Testament descriptions to God’s sacred cosmic dwelling place. Though Israel and her neighbors shared some commonalities in their view of the geography of heaven and earth, Israel had a different interpretation of these shared features. The religions of the ancient world identified the various parts of the cosmos with divine powers; the heaven, the sun, the moon, the earth, and the waters were understood to be actual deities. The Hebrews saw God as separate from the parts of the cosmos and as the sole creator and sustainer of them. “Rather than manifestations of the attributes of deity, they were instruments for his purposes,” and I would add more specifically, for the purpose of creating a massive temple in which he could eternally dwell with his worshiping image bearers.

There are, at least, five different ways that the conceptions and literature of the ancient cultures around Israel relate to the Old Testament writers, including the ancient pagan conceptions of temples that do, in fact, exhibit parallels with descriptions of Israel’s temple.

(1) The presence of similarities to ANE myth are sometimes due to polemical intentions or to direct repudiation of pagan religious beliefs and practices.

(2) Others are due to a reflection of general revelation by both pagan and biblical writers, and only rightly interpreted by the latter; the recognition of a cultural bridge does not rule out the providential activity of God within those cultures.

3) In addition, still others have attributed purported ANE mythical parallels in the Old Testament to a common reflection of ancient tradition, the sources of which precede both the pagan and biblical writers, and the historicity of which has no independent human verification, like creation in Genesis 1. Ultimately the parallels spring from an earlier, ancient, divinely pristine revelation that became garbled in the pagan context but was reliably witnessed to by the scriptural writer.

4) Another view is that revelation did not always counter ancient Near Eastern concepts but often used them in productive ways, though still revised in a significant manner by special revelation. Ancient Near Eastern concepts may have contributed to the theology of sacred space in the building of Israel’s tabernacle and temple. Examples include the eastward orientation, the placement of important cultic objects, the designation of areas of increasing holiness, and the rules for access to the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. Accordingly, God often used existing institutions and transformed them to his theological purposes, for example, circumcision and sacrificial offerings, though these examples could also be given for categories 2 and 3 above.

In all four categories, it is common to find similarities at the surface but differences at the conceptual level, and vice versa, especially as divine revelation comes into play in producing different understandings of these surface-level differences. Of course, another option, in contrast to the preceding four views, is that the biblical writers unconsciously absorbed mythical worldviews about the cosmos, reproduced them in their writings, and believed them to be reliable descriptions of the real world and events occurring in the past real world—creation account, flood narrative, etc.—because they were part of their socially constructed mythological reality. Divine inspiration did not limit such cultural, mythical influence. If this is the case, which is unlikely, it would be impossible not to see ANE myths about the cosmos as inextricably intertwined with Israel’s theology, which would be a very difficult predicament for those who believe in the inspiration of Scripture. Also, I think it is improbable to think, as some do, that biblical writers sometimes thought only from the vantage point of their mythological acculturation and at other times expressed only the distinctive theology based on special revelation. More likely, if they unconsciously imbibed the pagan mythological assumptions about the cosmos, then their unique theology would have been mixed with mythological notions. It is likely a modern conception to suppose that the ancient Old Testament writers could think in such a compartmentalized manner. Would they not have thought that everything they were observing and writing about the natural world was God’s creation and, to some degree, a part of their covenantal faith? This distinction seems an artificial imposition onto the biblical writers. Did these writers not have a theistic world and life view that encompassed every nook and cranny of creation?

In sum, in this chapter and the preceding one I have labored to demonstrate that the Old Testament’s view of the cosmos does not pose problems for the modern-day Christian’s trust in the divine authority of the Old Testament. Its cosmic portrayals are not reflections of a naïve, ancient worldview. Many of these depictions are phenomenological and figurative in various ways, as we have discussed. Many also are theological perceptions of the cosmos as a massive temple or parts of such a temple. Such descriptions enhance our theological perception of how God understands the cosmos—it is his temple in which he dwells. If our analysis about the cosmos being a temple is correct for the most part, then we today should have the same theological perspective.