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Cosmogony (in the Bible)

COSMOGONY (IN THE BIBLE)

This concept, which might more accurately be termed Biblical cosmography, is the Biblical concept of the physical world.

The Israelites borrowed their notions of the structure of the universe from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. They conceived of the world as a sort of two-story edifice with a basement, i.e., the heavens and the earth as the two stories and nether world as the basement, the respective abodes of God, man, and the dead. This universe was most often referred to as "the heavens and the earth." The ground floor was the earth, thought to be a generally flat plane set upon the surface of the waters and supported by solid foundations sunk well into the subterranean depths [Ps 17 (18).16; 23 (24).2; 135 (136).6]. It is not clear whether the Israelites represented it to themselves as a disk or as a rectangular plane. (Is 11.12 speaks of the "four corners" of the earth.) The surrounding ocean and the subterranean waters that fed the earth's springs and streams were thought to be one body of water. Above the first-floor complex was spread the firmament, a solid vault whose main purpose was to support the heavenly waters that provided rain in due season. Upon these waters Yahweh had built Himself a palace, from which He ruled the world [Ps 103 (104).3; 28 (29).10]. Finally, in the nethermost regions of the universe (i.e., those most remote from Yahweh) lay sheol, the dark and uninviting land of the dead [Jb 11.8; see dead, the (in the bible)].

This image of the world, though quite ingenious, was based only on primitive observation. Much in it was deduced through analogy with human architecture, and some of it was postulated by theological beliefs (e.g., the existence of Sheol). Many of the Biblical passages that contribute to the reconstruction of this world image are poetic in nature, not always consistent with one another, and particularly vague in matters of detail. Israelite cosmogony is then a popular, unscientific concept of the universe, not essentially different from that shared by Israel's neighbors. If in time past the general tradition of the Church tended to accept these data as inspired for their own sake and, consequently, as sharing in the infallibility of divine truth, this was partly because of an imperfect understanding of the doctrine of inspiration, and partly because of the fact that the Biblical view was not seriously challenged until the 16th century. Unfortunately, by this time tradition had hardened and a generally stagnant scholasticism failed to appreciate the true value of empirical method and argumentation. The Galileo controversy is an example of such a failure (see galilei, gal ileo). Since, however, the Bible never intended to treat ex professo of cosmology or astronomy, it was without basis that Biblical concepts in these fields were utilized to combat scientifically established theories.

Bibliography: h. schwabl and j. duchesne-guillemin, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) suppl. 9 (1962) 14331589. a. konrad, Das Weltbild in der Bibel (Graz 1917). a. deimel, "Enuma elis" und Hexaëmeron (Rome 1934). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 428429.

[l. f. hartman]

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