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The Ancient’s Guide to the Galaxy: How the Israelites Viewed God and the Universe

hebrew cosmology

God chose a specific time, place, and culture to inspire people to produce what we read in the Old Testament: the ancient Mediterranean and the ancient Near East of the second and first millennia BC. Understanding the worldview of this culture can lead to more faithful understandings of Scripture on our part, especially when it comes to understanding how the Israelites viewed God and the universe.

Old Testament Cosmology

“Cosmology” refers to the way we understand the structure of the universe. The biblical writers’ conception of how the heavens and earth were structured by God represents a particular cosmology.

The Israelites believed in a universe that was common among the ancient civilizations of the biblical world. It encompassed three parts: a heavenly realm, an earthly realm for humans, and an underworld for the dead. These three tiers are reflected in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod 20:4).

The Heavens

We find an Israelite understanding of the heavens in Genesis 1:6–8, which describes it as an expanse, with waters above and below: “And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse (רקיע, raqiaʾ) in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ . . . And it was so. And God called the expanse (רקיע, raqiaʾ) Heaven.”

The sky, thought to be a solid firmament, separated the waters above from the waters below: “When he established the heavens, I [Wisdom] was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep” (Prov 8:27–28).

The firmament dome surrounded the earth, with its edge meeting at the horizon—“the boundary between light and darkness” (Job 26:10). It was supported by “pillars” or “foundations,” thought to be the tops of mountains, whose peaks appeared to touch the sky. The heavens had doors and windows through which rain or the waters above could flow upon the earth from their storehouses (Gen 7:11; 8:2; Pss 78:23; 33:7).

God was thought to dwell above the firmament, as described in Job 22:14: “Thick clouds veil him so that he does not see, and he walks on the vault of heaven.”

The Earth

The earth sat upon the watery deep. The “waters below” speak not only to waters that people use but also the deeper abyss. Thus, the earth was surrounded by the seas (Gen 1:9–10), having arisen out of the water (2 Pet 3:5). The earth was thought to be held fast by pillars or sunken foundations (1 Sam 2:8; Job 38:4–6; Psa 104:5).

The Underworld

The realm of the dead was located under the earth. The most frequent term for this place was Sheol (שאול; Prov 9:18; Psa 6:4–5; 18:4–5). The word for “earth” (ארץ, ʾerets) is also used—the graves dug by humans represented gateways to the Underworld. In Job, the realm of the dead is described in watery terms: “The dead tremble under the waters and their inhabitants. Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering” (Job 26:5–6).

Jonah’s description is perhaps the most vivid. Though in the belly of the great fish, Jonah says he is in the Underworld: the watery deep “at the roots of the mountains,” a “pit” that had “bars” that closed forever (Jonah 2:5–6).

Becoming familiar with the ancient Near Eastern worldview can help us interpret the Old Testament. By understanding the Israelites’ concept of cosmology, we have a better idea of their perceptions of God.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Written by
Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He has a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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Written by Michael S. Heiser