Friday, January 20, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology II

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

See part I here

In chapter 2, Greenwood starts to layout the historical, cultural, geographical, and literary context in which the biblical texts should placed.  He begins by defining the term "Ancient Near East," (ANE) a term used by modern scholars to describe a geographical area (roughly what is thought of as the middle east today) and a time period ending with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E.

Greenwood then goes on to discuss the numerous monumental historical discoveries over the past two centuries that have opened up the ANE to scholarly inquiry.  Among these discoveries were the Rosetta Stone (allowing scholars to decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics), the discovery of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and the subsequent efforts to decipher the ancient form of writing, These discoveries opened the floodgates for long lost ancient literature from Israel's ancient neighbors.  It was quickly noted that these ancient texts bore striking similarities to long known biblical literature.

Greenwood cautions against two extreme responses to this new treasure trove of material.  On the one hand, he wants to steer clear what what he calls "parallelomania," a overestimation of the literary connection between biblical literature and other texts from the ANE.  On the other hand, he warns against ignoring this material altogether. Instead, he advocates for a position that sees the literature of the ANE informing a cultural "milieu" which the ancient Israelites shared with their neighbors. Therefore, it is not that the biblical flood narrative was "copied" from the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis (a Babylonian flood narrative with many similarities to the Noah epic in Genesis 6-10), but rather, that both cultures, ancient Israel and Babylon, shared the same cultural context and had similar worldviews. Therefore, this newfound material becomes invaluable for reconstructing the historical, geographical, cultural, and literary context against which one can read the biblical narrative.

The rest of chapter 2 gives the non-biblical evidence for the three tiered universe introduced in chapter one.  Greenwood uses a number of primary texts and artifacts that depict this three tiered universe from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Canaan.  He takes up the tiers in the order: earth, heavens, and seas.

For the inhabitants of the ancient near east, the earth is a flat disc surrounded by water all around, both above and below. There is also the underworld, which is the ultimate destination of all humans after death. There is no return from the underworld. The earth either floats on the cosmic ocean, or is supported by solid pillars.

The heavens refer to everything above the earth including the sun, moon, stars, and birds.  The heavens are also best described as a physical dome that acts as a roof to the earth and holds back the cosmic ocean that resides above the heavens.  There are upper and lower heavens.  The lower heavens are the visible heavens, the sun, moon, stars, and the firmament or dome.  The upper heavens are the abode of the gods.

Finally, the seas can be divided into freshwater and salt water.  All of the seas are connected to the oceans of the deep, and are often feared. Waters represent chaos and are often depicted as sea serpents. Waters also reside above the heavenly firmament, and the firmament contains gates or windows that are periodically opened by the gods, producing rain, snow, and hail.

In all, Greenwood makes an impressive case from ancient texts and artifacts, that the inhabitants of the ancient near east viewed the universe as a three tiered cosmos made up of the earth, the heavens, and the seas.  This, then is the context in which the ancient biblical texts should be placed in order to engage in responsible biblical interpretation.  It is also a context that is vastly different than our modern conception of the universe.  This can cause problems for modern interpreters who think that the bible describes the world "as it is."

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