A Response to William Lane Craig on Hebrew Cosmology: Here's Your Evidence

In the first half of this podcast, William Lane Craig responded by name to my earlier blog post where I’ve argued that he misrepresented a passage in the Swiss Egyptologist Othmar Keel’s book on biblical cosmology. I think that post stands on its own. This one will cover some actual evidence for biblical cosmology.

For those who don’t know, I’ve written a book largely on ancient Hebrew cosmology in its cultural context that rocks out on electric guitars (errr... in a scholarly way), have tracked everything I can find in scholarship on the topic now for several years, and I believe along with the overwhelming majority of Hebraists, Egyptologists, and Assyriologists that the biblical authors believed in a tri-part universe with a literal underworld and solid sky dome upholding a heavenly ocean over the earth.

This blog post will be one of the better references available on the internet on ancient cosmology because it shares a lot of newer or little-known important sources on the topic that don't currently get circulated in the popular biblical cosmology "debate."

Although I’m going to be criticizing Craig, I’m actually a big fan, and he’s a big reason I chose to become unemployable with a seminary Philosophy degree out of high school. I’m sure Craig owns many leather-bound books, and his house smells of rich mahogany. Alas, this is a case where wild Bill Hitch-block is treading into my research areas and making overconfident claims that I know just ain’t true. 

I've literally been waiting for this debate since
And that’s like, totally not cool man.

Tons of theologians find the Bible's ancient Near Eastern cosmology offensive to their beliefs about the Bible’s inspiration (which I think is overdramatic of them, but whatever), so they feel compelled to fight this consensus by fixating on all the ambiguities and limits in our knowledge about the specific details of ancient cosmology (and there are tons; I don’t argue the ancients had a unified view on the details, and early Rabbinic sources point-blank admit it). I don’t know if Craig himself is motivated by theological hang-ups, but as a “minimal facts” approach kinda guy what exactly does wild Bill believe about these core features?

Talk is cheap, and I hate when people don’t get to the point, so I’d better cough up a helping of some of the evidence so people can see I’m not bluffing.

The earth was seen as a flat disk surrounded by an ocean ring 

Illustration of the Babylonian Map of the World Tablet and its
reconstruction (referencing Finkel). 

Exhibit A: For the flat disk of the earth, we have the Babylonian Map of the World clay tablet where a scribe in the ballpark of the biblical classical period actually illustrated and labeled the earth disk using a literal compass to inscribe it. It’s surrounded by the Mesopotamian cosmic sea ring labeled the Marratu--“bitter river.” Irving Finkle, the world’s most famous Assyriologist and the curator of this tablet at the British Museum (his scholastic prowess practically oozing from that dreadfully iconic beard of his) agrees with this assessment (Finkel 263) as does Keel—one of the top experts in biblical iconography (Keel 21-2).

Keel points out this illustration is conceptually paralleled in the Bible where Prov 8:27 and Job 26:10 both use a verb related to a compass to describe God’s “inscribing” the earth “circle on the face of the waters” or Isaiah’s language of God “sitting over the circle of the earth” (40:22). A flat earth is the most natural way to make sense of Job 26:10’s language of God “inscribing a horizon on the face of the waters as a boundary between light and darkness”--the “boundary” being the flat horizon line where the sun rises. Comparison with the Babylonian Map also explains why Genesis 1:9 says the waters gathered “to one place” so that the earth could appear. 

The Babylonian Map has an ocean-ring called the “Bitter River.” Keel (21) pointed out that Psalm 24:2 refers to this same concept since it cosmically parallels the sea with an earth encompassing river. It says God has founded the earth, “upon the seas, upon the rivers established it” [כִּי־הוּא עַל־יַמִּים יְסָדָה וְעַל־נְהָרות יְכֹונְנֶהָ] Psalm 72:8 reads, “Let him dominate from sea upon sea, and from the River upon the ends of the earth [ומנהר עד אפסי ארץ].” This is undoubtedly exactly why the Ugaritic texts call the chaos serpent counterpart to Leviathan the interchangeable titles “Prince Sea” and “Judge River” throughout the Baal Cycle—not unlike the chaoskampf language in Psalm 93.3-4 where Yam “Sea” is paralleled with the “waves of the rivers” neharot).  

As proposed in a Brill volume on Leviathan, one of Leviathan’s cross-cultural Semitic titles [aqallathon nachash] emphasizes his “wreath shape” and this might be comparable to the uroboros iconography of the Egyptian chaos serpent Apep (Korpel, de Moor, 7). The implication would be that Leviathan and the Ugaritic Yam both represent this cosmic sea-river ring. Horowitz, the author of the leading study of Mesopotamian cosmology also points out that this cosmology is parallel again to the Etana legend which tells of how the ancient Mesopotamian monarch was carried upwards by an eagle and was shown the earth from the sky, whereupon he describes the earth as a garden encompassed by sea like an “irrigation ditch” in the shape of an “animal pen.” (63) 

Images enlarge when you click on them.

I’ll avoid covering the Egyptian stuff here that Keel’s Symbolism of the Biblical World book discusses. The Egyptians depicted the earth and sky in a couple shapes, and I don’t want to be misleadingly simplistic. However, we can simply note in passing that the cover of Keel’s Biblical Cosmologies book shows the 300s BC lid of the Sarcophagus of Wereshnefer that depicts the disk of the earth surrounded by a ring of ocean labeled the “great ring” not unlike the Babylonian Map illustration.

So, for crying out loud, does William Lane Craig agree with the experts and the excellent evidence that the Bible assumes an essentially flat earth encompassed by a river-like ocean? He astonishingly doesn’t. What is the alternative you’d propose Craig? Were ancient people so devoid of curiosity that they just never asked the question? The specialist in Babylonian astronomy Mathieu Ossendrijver has confirmed directly that Babylonian earthly cosmology was indeed flat, and I don't know why we shouldn't infer this same explanation for the biblical evidence (Panaino 20). It's not like the biblical authors would have believed convoluted later Hellenistic theories that the earth was a globe with people presumably living on opposite sides upheld by some invisible force.

Theologians often don’t realize that this issue isn’t safely constrained to abstract, distant discussions of Iron Age civilizations. The features of cosmology, especially the firmament, I am discussing here were pretty directly discussed in early Rabbinic sources, were a point of controversy for centuries as Semitic populations of Christians were butting heads with Hellenistic science, as well as in the Quran and its Syriac Christian context—who were still explicitly discussing and believing core aspects of this traditional ancient Near Eastern cosmology right up to the seventh century AD! Here's a free paper by Yale's Near East guy about this.

For the nerds, my book chapter covering some of this is also now available as a PDF here. I got so tired of repeating its content, that I just caved and made it freely available.

The firmament and waters above 

Evidence the heavens were conceived as a bowl 

One of those abominable parts of my diagram that the Philosopher Gospeler called a “monstrosity” *sobs quietly* is my depiction of the heavens as a bowl. En garde. Good news for me, the inglorious secret about biblical scholarship is that triumph rarely corelates with whoever is packing the biggest brains. Rather, it favors whoever is irresponsible enough to dump the most free time into an obscure niche of research—a competition of who has the most dismal social life. So, unless Bill has been neglecting his family and ministry for months, he probably isn’t aware of the good evidence basis for the bowl firmament I've collected in the Near East.

Here’s seven:

1) We have a Phoenician text from Cyprus that uses a cognate of the Hebrew word for firmament (raqia) for what is likely a golden bowl or platter (מרקע mrqa) (Brown-Driver-Briggs 955-6). The Akkadian ruqqu (first hit in CAD) for a metal bowl or cauldron is undoubtedly related and neatly dovetails with associations to hammered metal just as the verb and noun forms typically do in the Bible. 

2) The Luwian (Hittite) hieroglyph for heaven CAELUM is literally a bowl (e.g. its depiction as a starry bowl being upheld by gods at Yazilikaya where the relief is actually even labeled “heaven” and “earth”) and appears likewise as a self-designating term for bowl on silver bowl inscriptions (Almansa-Villatoro 77). 

3) The Egyptologist Almansa-Villatoro points out that the Aegean poet Sappho point-blank calls the sky a bowl (whatever that's worth) (77). 

4) The Egyptian hieroglyph for sky is typically a flat roof. However, it is bowed into a bowl shape with the winged sun taking the same curvature in the top register of the funerary stele that took over in Egypt during Isaiah’s period, and it is justified to interpret Hebrew cosmology in light of Egyptianized iconography (especially in the form of the curved winged sun disk as a symbol for the sky) because Phoenician mediated Egyptianized iconography dominates Hebrew art preceding the reign of Josiah. 

5) A bowl shape seems a plausible interpretation of Job 22:14’s language of God “walking on the vault [lit. “circle] of heaven” to use the ESV rendering. 

6) There was a common tendency in the Near East (e.g. Egyptian, Phoenician, and Persian) to relate the heavens to the concave interior of an egg shell mythologically (e.g. see Panaino 41). 

7) The Great Hymn to Shamash (lines 154-5) says the heavens are a “vessel” like a “seer’s bowl.” KAR 25 ii.16 says the heaven of Anu is “the incense bowl of the gods.”

Contrary to Craig's assurance to the flock the solid dome model is “outdated” and “garish,” I think the evidence is pretty darn reasonable.

Lady Taperet’s funeral stele in the Lourve here, 22nd to 25th dynasties.
Daniel Sarlo's Hebrew cosmology
diagram. See PDF key here.

One part of my diagram that I now know I certainly did get wrong was my placement of the "windows of heaven" that brought the Great Flood in the upper reaches of the raqia-firmament. I've conversed a bit with the Semitist Daniel Sarlo, and I think he has shown beyond doubt in his new JANER article through biblical and Northwest Semitic parallels that the windows of heaven were actually conduits in the raqia connected with a vast well of freshwater called הַמַּבּוּל מַיִם under Yahweh's mountain palace on the eastern horizon. I really love his cosmology diagram too and think his work merits more attention as we await his dissertation publication.

It’s actually really obvious that heaven is solid in the Bible, like really obvious

It’s continually surreal to me that Christians have a hard time accepting that the ancients believed the sky was solid since they should have intuited this from hundreds of places in their bedside Bibles.

Atrahasis III. 3 implies the Anzu bird brought forth the great flood by tearing the sky open with his talons. In Enuma Elish IV. 135-141, when Marduk creates the sky from Tiamat’s corpse, heaven is made of the same substance as the earth it is divided from and is “set up” “to roof” (shamamu) the earth like a building and is “stretched out to prevent her waters from escape” (see comments in Rochberg, Path of the Moon, 344). We have statements that the skies can’t sustain the weight of Marduk’s hand. Egyptian sources mention the possibility of the sky falling if not supported by the gods.

The Bible has the sky resting on mountain “pillars” with God “walking” on it in Job. It “shakes” and has “foundations” in 2 Sam 22:8 that shake when the earth does as well as “ends” (Isa 13:5). The raqia-heaven “shows his handiwork” in Psalm 19:2. Don’t forget “angels of God” apparently come and go on earth by means of a “ladder” (or ziggurat steps?), “set up on the earth with the top reaching to heaven.” Isaiah says the stars will fall like leaves and the sky will “roll up like a scroll” at the eschaton (but that's a vision so it doesn't count, right?). The heavens are like a tabernacle tent covering (Isa 40:22). For good measure, educated Royal Quarter Judahites were apparently into the whole solar-God chariot concept at the Temple in 2 Kgs 23:11 before kill-joy Josiah banned it. I’m too lazy to go pulling up all the technical citations unless someone makes me, but in the Gilgamesh Epic, it is said the mountains at the edge of the world lean against the surface of the sky and temples are often said to touch or nearly touch heaven. Nearly every ANE culture references the separation of the sky from the earth at creation—implying it’s solid in parallel with the earth’s material it was severed from. In Sumerian legend, An “carried off” the sky, and it’s separated with a copper cleaver in Hittite myth. We are told Marduk “inscribed” the stars on its jasper surface.

So yeah Craig, there’s tons of mythology and metaphor going on here. Guilty as charged. But give me a break. Those mythologies and metaphors clearly favor a solid firmament and make the most sense in a context where people didn’t believe in an atmospheric cosmology. By the way, probably most Christians in history took the solid firmament passages in the Bible literally since it was implied by the Aristotelian hard crystalline spheres model that held clout up into the Renaissance. In fact, in my research, I’ve been hard pressed to find any ancient civilizations proposing an atmospheric heavenly cosmology outside of niche Chinese philosophy centuries after the death of Christ. 

The Waters Above 

Craig’s mischaracterization of Rochberg’s research 
The Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q Genesis fragment discussing the
separation of the "waters above" by the raqia.

Craig says he’s read up on Babylonian astronomy and in both his replies has brandished the Assyriologist Francesca Rochberg’s 2004 book The Heavenly Writing. He takes her study (which actually doesn’t have much in it on cosmic geography), as evidence that Babylonian astronomy was “anti-realist” and “didn't try to provide any sort of physical cosmology.” (How convenient!) According to Craig’s summation of Rochberg’s work:

"In other words, ancient Babylonian astronomy was purely instrumentalist in its orientation. It only focused on making accurate predictions. It didn't have a physical model of the cosmos or of the heavens. There was no part of it.... Babylonian astronomy wasn't a physical interpretation of the way the world was."

This is a frustrating and unfortunate presentation of Rochberg’s conclusions. Similar to how Craig spun a quote from Keel’s book, he is here implying to his impressionable audience that this respected specialist supports his framework of fringe skepticism and ancient apathy about material cosmology. 

Craig is probably unaware Rochberg’s 2011 book In the Path of the Moon contains a chapter entitled, “A Short History of the Waters Above the Firmament.” In this chapter, she sides pretty emphatically against Craig’s denialism and agnosticism about the limits of our knowledge he is touting in the name of her other book. Rochberg point-blank compares Mesopotamian texts that refer to the heavens as stone to the biblical raqia--which she identifies as a solid “vault” and hammered “plate” (Path of the Moon, 347). She also agrees with Horowitz in endorsing the consensus that the Enuma Elish legend has the heavens retaining a literal sea over the earth like Genesis 1:6-7, and she even proposes that the Akkadian literary phrase šupuk šamê--literally “base of heaven” may be the “firmament”--“the idea of a cosmic feature to function as a barrier between the heavenly waters above and the earth below” (Path of the Moon, 344). 

To clarify, I ain't kvetching on Craig for picking and choosing what he agrees with in Keel and Rochberg’s books. He's a grown man. I’m faulting him for misrepresenting to the public where these scholars actually stand on what we can know and reasonably say about Mesopotamian and biblical cosmic geography. Keel and Rochberg are square in the consensus against his views, and he has implied the opposite to his evangelical listeners. I highly doubt Craig does this out of malice. It’s probably just a side effect of him being a professional apologist with a busy schedule frantically trying to be decently read on literally hundreds of obscure topics with only time to specialize in a few.

The Egyptians and the waters above 

James P. Allen, the former president of the International Association of Egyptologists, can probably be considered a leading authority on Egyptian cosmology considering he wrote THE book on it (Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts--free digital version of the book here). He compiles and exegetes the main primary sources on ancient Egyptian cosmology and discusses the Egyptian literal sky ocean and cosmic void in probably half of his text commentary sections--comparing the hieroglyphic references to it directly to the raqia and waters above in Genesis 1:7 at the opening of the book (e.g. the discussion on pg 4-7, 14, 17, 20).

One can track plenty of similar extended discussion in Victoria Almansa-Villatoro's killer recent 2020 paper in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. This one comes with the sexy title: “The Cultural Indexicality of the N41 Sign for bj3: The Metal of the Sky and the Sky of Metal.” See also the NewScientist piece on the paper here if you want an easier paywall to get around. Almansa-Villatoro argues from primary texts and linguistic data that the Egyptians believed the sky was metal, retained water, and meteorites that the Egyptians collected were interpreted by them as chunks of the sky—probably why they called iron “metal of heaven.” 

In the above image I've quoted where Keel argues the heavenly sea is labeled on the Map of the Cosmos on the Sarcophagus of Wereshnefer. Anyone who doubts this can read this free article on the topic by Silva Zago in Le Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale that discuses the technical hieroglyphic data and wades into plenty of parallel primary source discussion of the Egyptian heavenly ocean vault. The evidence trail is pretty merciless. Plus, all that Arabic, French, and Hieroglyph Unicode made me feel like Howard Carter in a bowtie just having it open in my web browser. Here's a snippet from the conclusion:

"In ancient Egypt, the sky was imagined as a body of water, an interface between the outer cosmos and this world. Early on in funerary literature, the aquatic nature of the celestial vault, personified by the goddess Nut, was encapsulated in the words used to designate it, among which qbḥw occupied a preeminent role. As was shown above, this enigmatic designation, usually translated as “cool waters”, does not simply indicate the sky, but also the cosmic waters of the firmament lying outside the created world, and belonging in the primordial ocean Nun."

Those who follow my work (like my just-published Sheffield Phoenix paper) will know that royal Jewish art of the biblical classical period was remarkably Egyptian dominant and intelligently informed--making Egypt a perfectly sensible place to look for context into the Bible's cosmology.

Why the “waters above the firmament” in Genesis 1 aren’t rain clouds 

I haven’t found anywhere where William Lane Craig has specifically exegeted the “waters above” in Genesis 1:6-7 besides identifying them as rain clouds in conjunction with the water cycle. Besides the fact that this explanation doesn’t fit the context of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Rabbinic interpretation which all assume there is literally an ocean over the sky, this interpretation also doesn’t make a lot of sense of the fact that the Priestly author in Genesis 1 says the sun, moon, and stars were set “in” the raqia-firmament (ברקיע v.15). If the luminaries are set in the raqia and the waters above are specified in the same passage as “above the raqia” (המים אשר מעל לרקיע v. 7), then Craig’s interpretation of the waters above as rain would tend to imply that the Priestly author must have thought rain clouds came from higher up in the sky than the sun, moon, and stars. I don’t find this explanation of the biblical “waters above” a reasonable alternative to the heavenly sea idea. 

As an aside, if anyone cares, here’s also an Assyrian seal possibly depicting the waters above the heavens that I haven’t seen recognized yet in any other studies on biblical cosmic geography. You’re welcome. BioLogos, call me already.

A possible depiction of the cosmic waters on a
Mesopotamian seal (in Ziffer's paper "The Imagery of the Shrine")

The Solidity of the sky 

Job 37: “Can you spread out the skies as hard as a cast metal mirror?” 

I presume the sky in Hebrew cosmology was hard, in part, because, besides that being the emphatic meaning of the Septuagint term for the raqia (stereoma) in its 16 extant occurrences in Greek literature (some nerd ran that database search here), Job 37:18 says: “Can you like [God], spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?” Apologists typically dismiss this passage by taking it to refer to God spreading out the clouds, not the sky. However, the verb typically refers specifically to beating out metal and certainly does here where the context is pounding out a bronze plate. It doesn’t make sense to compare the hardness of clouds to metal. Likewise, Clines points out that the “spreading” of clouds is an ongoing and daily occurrence that would tend to imply a repeated, ongoing action of the verb (David J. A. Clines, Job 21-37. Word Bible Commentary 18A [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006], 882). However, ancient mirrors were only “spread out” by hammering during their initial manufacture after casting. It therefore makes superior sense that the verb refers to a single past action—the initial creation of a rigid firmament as almost all translations imply.

Ezekiel 1 also figures the firmament (raqia) as a “crystal-colored” platform upon which God’s throne rests. In my book, I was stumped as to why ancient sources will flop between saying the sky is metallic or crystalline stone, but my reading of Panaino’s recent book lends me to speculate metal and stone were probably considered overlapping categories in the ancient mind since metal is harvested from ore. We see the same switching between the sky being referred to as stone or metal in Middle Persian texts. Without getting into the details (Read the Kingsley paper cited at this link if you want those. Also discussed in Panaino 96-7), Ezekiel 1 has some remarkable parallels to the Babylonian text KAR 307 (also referred to as VAT 8917) which says directly that the heaven "is saggilmud stone" supporting Marduk’s throne--probably involving the same types of stones as Yahweh’s throne in the Ezekiel vision. 

Ezekiel 1 is a Babylonian polemical text, so it’s superior to assume its raqia heavenly crystalline platform of the enthroned God should be conceived just as solid as the Babylonian parallel of Marduk’s enthronement over a stone heaven.  

Craig’s argument that the existence of planets refutes the sky dome model 

In his response to me, Craig raises the following objection to the existence of a solid firmament in biblical and Mesopotamian cosmology:  

“The ancient Babylonians understood the motion of the stars and of the planets and the sun and the moon. The planets would wander across the sky so that they would cross the path of the fixed stars as they rotate across the sky. Well, that sort of view is impossible to reconcile with the idea that the heavens are like a hard inverted bowl over the earth resting on its surface at the horizon. There’s no way that you can get planets moving across the path of the stars if this is supposed to be some sort if a cosmology based upon a hard stellar surface.”   

It’s pretty common knowledge the planets were seen as autonomous gods in Mesopotamia (e.g. Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing, 18, 142): “The gods who keep changing their positions” as MUL.APIN II words it. Since the planets were animated by deities (or even devices like a system of cosmic winds and cords in Persian thought), their movements independent of the stars were never, or almost never seen as incompatible with a solid firmament in ancient cultures. So I find this stock objection of Craig’s strange coming from someone who is claiming to know the literature. It also tends towards contradicting the scribal performance language of Marduk engraving [eseru] (Horowitz 14-5) the stars on the lower heaven in Babylonian texts. 

I've put my money where my mouth is on this point and have surveyed some 50 ancient cultures in my book appendix arguing belief in a solid firmament is almost an ancient human universal (despite the fact that these cultures usually know planets exists). Again, some Semitic populations believed in a solid sky dome right up into the Quranic period.  

Almost universally, traditional people observe that all the constellations move in unison and are presented with two common sense explanations: 1) The stars must be imbedded in a solid firmament, or 2) The earth itself moves. Since it’s apparent that the earth doesn’t seem to move, they typically conclude the stars are attached to a solid firmament that moves (how this might work in relation to the fact that ancient Near Eastern texts typically have the sky resting on mountain “pillars” is unclear. I'm not off-hand aware of sufficient ancient data to do more than speculate.) Even the Greeks thought the stars were imbedded in a solid crystaline sphere.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Craig’s objection here, however, is that we flat-out have several pesky Neo-Assyrian texts that state: 1) the heavens are stone, and 2) the constellations are “drawn” on their surface (KAR 307:30-33) (Horowitz 4): 

"The Upper Heavens are luludanilu-stone. They belong to (the god) Anu. He settled the 300 Igigi (gods) inside.  

The Middle Heavens are saggilmud stone. They belong to the Igigi. Bel sat on the high [platform] inside,  

The Lower Heavens are jasper. They belong to the stars. He drew [ina muhhi] the constellations of the gods on them."  

In antiquity, jasper included a stone recognized for its similar coloration to the sky (Horowitz 14). For the guy in Asshur who wrote this text and the author of its parallel statement in AO 8196, Craig’s “hard stellar surface” with “fixed stars” was apparently not seen as “impossible to reconcile.”

So, we point-blank have two texts where Mesopotamians say the sky “is x-stone” with the stars “inscribed” on it (whatever that means). AO 8196’s parallel content is mostly scholarly astrological reference and Wayne Horowitz, who is only the world's leading expert on Mesopotamian cosmic geography, interprets it literally (Horowitz 9,15). I therefore think it is irresponsible and pretty ridiculous for Craig to mislead his audience in his response to me with the exaggerated assurance that “there’s absolutely no reason at all to think the ancient interpreted these things literalistically....”

William Lane Craig looking more
like William "Gains" Craig.

In a blog post Craig dismisses these ancient passages as mythological metaphor, in part, because he doesn’t think the ancients would have found a solid firmament coherent to begin with. There are two issues with his claim: First, in a new book on ancient Iranian cosmology, Antonio Panaino takes these Babylonian descriptions of the heavens as evidence contextualizing similar ideas in Middle Persian cosmology where the heavens are also tripart and said to be made of the “substance of metal” or crystal as I’ve previously alluded (Panaino 40 n101, 94-7). The evidence one can supply that these texts are essentially literal probably reverse-contextualizes the earlier Mesopotamian conceptions as literal. Likewise, the Mesopotamian conceptions contextualize the Bible’s solid “crystalline” and “metal” metaphors for the raqia in texts like Ezekiel and Job. 

Finally, Craig’s claim here also doesn’t comport with the fact that the later Rabbinic period texts I conclude with below are pretty darn emphatic about the solid firmament and apparently didn’t get any memos that the existence of planets should have disqualified belief in it, despite the fact that they were culturally downstream of the Babylonian exile and Persia by that point.

Enter the Rabbis

Craig says:

 “I’ve noticed that when you challenge people like Stanhope, they simply appeal to the pictures or to the myths and they don’t address the question, ‘how do you know that ancient peoples interpreted these literalistically?’ They never seem to address that central question.” 

The reason I feel comfortable being so bold in my claims about the literalness of ancient cosmology is, in part, because I’m looking at the Jewish stuff that Christians publishing on this topic almost always ignore. I’m working from the assumption that the rabbis of the Hellenistic period didn’t become scientifically dumber than the Late Iron Age biblical authors. Theologians typically scoff at using these sources on the presumption that they are too late to useful at informing the Bible's context, but I strongly disagree on the grounds that these texts yield interpretative predictive validity that fringe interpretations like Craig's fail to produce.

For example, you can check out this paper by the Bar-Illan University Rabbinic scholar Simon-Shoshan (this one's free access too): “‘The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God…’: A Study in Rabbinic Cosmology."

Simon-Shoshan concludes that texts of the early Rabbinic period reflect earlier aspects of Babylonian and biblical cosmology. Some examples: 

Pesachim 94b of the Babylonian Talmud states (Blidstein 45): 

“The Sages of Israel maintain: The sun travels beneath the sky by day and above the sky by night [i.e. it is hidden above the wall of the firmament]; while the Sages of the nations of the world maintain: It travels beneath the sky by day and below the earth at night. Said Rabbi: And their view is preferable to ours, for the wells are cold by day but warm at night.” 

Here the Rabbis distinguished their cosmological tradition from the Greek model and attribute belief in a solid firmament to their people. How about some other ancient Jewish texts discussing the solid firmament? 

3 Baruch 3:6-8 (Charelsworth 665): 

"And appearing to them, the Lord changed their languages; by that time they had built the tower 463 cubits (high). And taking an auger [i.e. a drill], they attempted to pierce the heaven, saying “Let us see whether the heaven is (made) of clay or copper or iron.” Seeing these things, God did not permit them (to continue), but struck them with blindness and with confusion of tongues…."

 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 109a (Epstein 748):

“Let us build a tower, ascend to heaven, and cleave it with axes, that its waters might gush forth.” 

 Genesis Rabbah 4:5 (Posner 159):

"The thickness of the firmament equals that of the earth: compare, “It is He that sitteth above the circle (Hebrew: chug) of the earth” (Isa 40:22) with, “And He walketh in the circuit (Hebrew: chug) of the heaven” (Job 22:14): the use of ‘chug’ in both verses teaches that they are alike. Rabbi Aha said in Rabbi Janina’s name: [It is as] thick as a metal plate. Rabbi Joshua son of Rabbi Nehemiah said: It is about two fingers in thickness. The son of Pazzi said: The upper waters exceed the lower ones by about [the measure of] thirty xestes [for it is written], “And let it divide the waters from the waters (Hebrew: la-mayim)”…. Our Rabbis said: They are half-and-half [that is, equal]."

Again, we can see from this passage that the Rabbis believed the raqia was a literal retaining vault. Rabbi Janina even thought (undoubtedly from linguistic association to hammered metal) that it was as “thick as a metal plate” and we see the common theme that the heavenly ocean was taken as parallel to the earthly seas from which it was separated. Many early Rabbinic texts explicitly interpret the firmament of Genesis 1 as solid. For example, Genesis Rabba 4:2: 

"Our rabbis said the following in the name of Rabbi Hanina, while Rabbi Phinehas and Rabbi Jacob son of Rabbi Bun said it in the name of Rabbi Samuel son of Nahman: When the Holy One, blessed be He, ordered: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,” the middle layer of water solidified and the…heavens… were formed." 

 Rabba 6:8 asks, “How do…the sun and moon set?” The Rabbis disagreed (Simon-Shoshan 72-3): 

"R. Judah says, behind the dome and above it. The rabbis say, behind the dome and below it…. R. Simeon b. Jochai said: We do not know if they fly up in the air, if they scrape the firmament, or if they travel as usual; the matter…is impossible for humans to determine."

 Bava Batra 25a-b in the Talmud (Simon-Shoshan 72-3): 

 "It was taught in Beraita [i.e. oral law]: R. Eliezer says, the world is like an exedra [a type of Greek semicircular architectural recess], and the northern side is not enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it bends back and rises above the firmament. And R. Joshua says, the world is like a tent, and the northern side is enclosed and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it circles around and returns on the other side of the dome, as [Eccl. 1:6] says…."

 Similarly, in Genesis Rabba 4:1, 2 we read:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, roofed over His world with naught but water…. [God’s] handiwork [heaven] was in fluid form, and on the second day, the raqia congealed.” 


Craig would probably claim these sources and the some 24 pages (!) of others Simon-Shoshan exegetes are too late or contaminated by Persian or Greek scientific influence to contextualize the biblical authors. 

Fat chance. 

First, at the very least, we have to admit that the Bible assisted literal interpretations in the minds of these "ancient Israelites." It seems reasonable that the burden of proof would fall on people like Craig to explain why their ancestors should have held a more enlightened "metaphorical" interpretations that just so happen to align with the sensibilities of modern evangelical pastors.

Both biblical, Mesopotamian and Middle Persian texts liken the sky to stone. The Bible likens it to metal like Egyptian texts, and this all comports with later Rabbinic Jews retaining belief in a solid firmament. The Talmud assumes a solid firmament was a Jewish idea when contrasting their views with Greek influence, and we can clearly see the rabbis believed in a heavenly ocean separate from Greek cosmology (later, post-Hellenistic Christians and Jews like Thomas, Basil, Maimonides, Origin, and Luther would have a devil of a time trying to reconcile the "waters above" with the theory of crystalline spheres). Ancient Jews interpreted Genesis 1 to derive the heavenly sea idea, and we also see the purpose of the sky dome was associated with upholding that heavenly ocean in their mind--which accords with the scholarly consensus that Genesis 1:6-7 describes a solid firmament lifting up a heavenly sea, which, in turn, accords with the scholarly consensus that Enuma Elish contains the same idea.

Anyways, buy my book and make me rich. It's what Jesus would want.

Blidstein, Gerald J. “Rabbinic Judaism and General Culture: Normative Discussion and Attitudes,” in Jacob J. Schacter (ed.) Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs (eds.), A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), 955-6.

Charlesworth, James H. (ed.). The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Volume One Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1983.   

Epstein I. (ed.). The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin. Sanhedrin II. H. Freedman (trans.). London: Soncino, 1935.

Finkel, Irving. The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. New York: Double Day, 2014. 

Horowitz, Wayne. Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 1998. 

Keel, Othmar. The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms. Trans. Timothy J Hallett. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1997. 

Korpel, Marjo and Johannes de Moor, “The Leviathan in the Ancient Near East,” in Koert van Bekkum, et al. (eds.), Playing with Leviathan: Interpretation and Reception of Monsters from the Biblical World. Themes in Biblical Narrative 21. Netherlands: Brill, 2017. 

Panaino, Antonio. A Walk through the Iranian Heavens: For a History of an Unpredictable Dialogue between Nonspherical and Spherical Models in the Imagination of Ancient Iran and its Neighbors. Ancient Iranian Series vol 9 (ed. Touraj Daryaee). Irvine: UCI Jordan Center for Persian Studies, 2020.

Posner, Raphael (ed.). The Creation According to the Midrash Rabbah. Jerusalem: Devora, 2002.

Rochberg, Francesca. In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy. Studies in Ancient Magic and Divination vol 6 (ed. Tzvi Abusch et al.) Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Rochberg, Francesca. The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


  1. Ben I disagree on the windows of heaven. We do have references to apertures in the heavens that pour out rain in Mesopotamia. They're called 'Teats of the Amber Heavens' in UET 6/1 102:23.

  2. Any thoughts on Craig's new book on Genesis, evolution and a historical Adam? I'm not so much concerned about the science side as I am his theological assumptions (historical Adam + historical fall of original couple = need for Jesus' death) that then shape his failure to consider the presence of ANE myth in the creation stories.

  3. My 76 year old father grew up in a very rural and poor area in mexico and didnt get any science education growing up. No schools at all. He once told me that when he was a young man he believed the sky was solid. I asked him why, and he said that was just what it looked like to him.

    1. Reply from Ben Stanhope

      Reminds me of a passage in the Yanomami Indian Davi Kopenowa’s autobiography (8th chapter):

      “Sometimes, when the sky makes threatening noises, women and children whimper and cry in fear. These are not empty cries! We all fear being crushed by the falling sky, the way our ancestors were in the beginning of time. I still remember an occasion when that nearly happened to us! I was young then.We were camping in the forest, near a small stream that flows into the Rio Mapulaú. It was early in the night. There were no sounds of thunder or lightning in the sky. Everything was quiet. It was not raining and we could not feel a breath of wind. Yet suddenly we heard several loud cracks in the sky’s chest. They came in rapid succession, each more violent than the last, and they seemed very close. It was really alarming!
      Everyone in our camp started to yell and weep in fear: “Aë! The sky is starting to collapse! We are all going to perish! Aë!” I was also scared! I had not become a shaman yet and I anxiously asked myself: “What is go- ing to happen to us? Is the sky really going to fall on us? Are we all going to be hurled into the underworld?” At the time, there were still great shamans among us, for many of our elders were still alive. Several of them instantly started working together to hold up the sky. Their fathers and grandfathers had taught them this work long ago, this is how once again they were able to prevent its fall. Then, after a moment, everything got quiet. Yet I think that this time the sky nearly did shatter above us again. I know it has happened before, far away from our forest, where it is closer to the edges of the world. These distant places’ inhabitants were wiped out because they did not know how to hold it up. But where we live the sky is very high, and more solid. I think this is because we are at the center of the terrestrial layer. But one day, a long time from now, it may finally come crashing down on us! It will no longer want to stay in place. It will come apart and crush us all. But this will not happen so long as the shamans are alive to hold it up. It will lurch and roar but will not break. This is what I think!”

  4. WLC is yoked!!! I hope he's using grass-fed whey!

  5. Hi, Ben! I'm reading your chapter on Hebrew cosmology and i got surprised with your footnote saying that Genesis didn't borrow from the Enuma Elish (i was pretty sure of this connection).
    A few questions:

    .What about the Epic of Gilgamesh?
    .Does the bible as an whole borrow from any ancient myth?
    .Besides Hurowitz's article and Arnold's commentary, what other readings you suggest on this topic?

    Thanks in advance! I'm not a native english speaker, so i apologize by any grammar errors.

  6. Hey, Ben I've been hearing rumors that you've converted to Judaism. Is that true?

  7. I have a question. If God has a throne above the sky, and walks on the pilars... is God a more physical entity than we thought? At least in the oldest traditions of the Bible it seems that Yahweh is as corporeal and tangible as Zeus or Baal (smells, walks, has a back, fights, eats, etc.) What do you think about that? What are your toughts on this?

    1. Benjamin Sommer's book Bodies of God in the World of Ancient Israel deals with this topic in detail. Ancient Near Eastern gods could take on physical forms but possessed divine fluidity. They could be in multiple places at once and were thought to physically dwell within idols as immaterial essences as well as being able to manifest physically in certain places. This is different from ancient Greek religion where the gods are bound to specific geographies and their idols on earth are simply symbolic representations of them.

    2. Thanks for the recommendation, I really like ancient mythology and gods. By the way, in your book you mention that men were mortal in Eden and that they could increase their lifespan by eating from the Tree of Life. That reminds me a lot of the story of Sun Wukong, most of his immortality came precisely from eating divine fruits in Heaven. How common in ancient times is the myth of fruits that can give immortality (of some kind)? Is there any chance that the fruits of life in Eden were peaches?


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