How some things in the bible only make sense if you understand the cosmology of the writers

Look straight up at the sky. The top of that huge, beautiful crystalline dome extends out in all directions and then meets the horizon, where it is propped up by mountains and the rest of the land: all God’s work and His creation, illuminated by the lights He has provided. You can’t fall off the side, but you may – if you travel far enough in one direction – touch the edge of the sky.


The problems with a literal reading of the creation story in the biblical book of Genesis are well-known. Creationists, it turns out, have gotten almost everything wrong, from the age of the earth to the order of creation. But the mostly irrelevant creation-evolution debate misses the appeal and simplicity of what the Genesis creation story describes, and declines to learn from it what the authors and readers of Genesis actually believed about the cosmos.

The primitive cosmology in the bible is no indictment of the books or their authors; it can only be expected. Those authors lived before the era of modern science, and understood very little about how the cosmos really is (and even what it really is). The authors of the Old Testament believed the earth was one-of-a-kind, rather than just one of an incomprehensible number that we know it to be today. They believed it was flat, rather than round (Hellenistic astronomy, with its theories of a spherical earth and planets in space, hadn’t taken hold yet). And, this being the case, many things in the bible make sense only to readers who believe in a flat earth.

The best example may be the idea of a ‘firmament’ contained in the Old Testament. From the Hebrew word raqia, the word derives from the root raqa (רקע), “to beat or spread out”, in the sense understood to ancient people of hammering out a bowl from a lump of metal. The firmament was, according to Gesenius’s Lexicon:

‘…spread out like a hemisphere above the earth, like a splendid and pellucid sapphire, to which the stars were supposed to be fixed, and over which the Hebrews believed there was a heavenly ocean.’

The stars affixed to a solid dome? An ocean above it? Well, we’re a little ahead of ourselves. Now that we know what the word means, let’s look at how the firmament plays a part in the Hebrews’ understanding of the world.

‘In the beginning,’ a pre-existing God creates a formless watery earth and ‘the heavens’. This doesn’t make much sense to us, but since anything that was not land was water, ‘formless and void’ may have seemed an obvious place to begin. He then creates light (but not yet the sun, which we know today to be our only source of heat and light), and he separates the light from the darkness and calls it ‘day’ and ‘night’ (all of this, mind you, without a rotating earth to allow it).

Then, he creates the raqia:

‘And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.’

We now have a solid expanse or canopy (made of what material it doesn’t say, though the book’s readers had lively debates about the subject), with water above it and water below it. The story then makes it clear that the water below the firmament is the sea:

‘And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.’

We now have a flat earth – with both water and land – and a dome above it holding back more water above that. God then goes about putting vegetation on the land, so we don’t hear about the firmament again until Day Four, when God attaches some lights to it:

‘And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth…’

One was the sun, the other the moon; one for day, the other for night.

Of course we now know that the moon is not a light, but merely happens to reflect it. We also know that the sun is merely the closest star, that the sun is not unique, that the stars we see are the suns of other planets like ours. We know that the sky is not solid but open to space, and that looking up from the ground entails not looking at a dome overhead, but entails looking into the vastness of the rest of the universe. Possession of details like that would have required scientific discovery, or – dare I say it? – divine revelation.

(Another famous problem with the Genesis account is having the stars appear in the sky immediately, since we now know that they are millions and billions of light years away, and therefore impossible to see unless they’d been there for millions and billions of years already. Think of what knowledge the story’s authors were deprived of, and how shocked they would have been to suddenly acquire it!)

The concept of the flat earth covered by a solid dome was not unique to the authors of Genesis. Many scholars believe it was the standard, default belief across all cultures. P.H. Seely writes:

‘They had no reason to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as the earth itself. … [N]aive peoples around the world from the Pacific Islands to North America, from Siberia to Africa, have perceived the sky as a solid inverted bowl touching the earth at the horizon. Nor is this common conception of a firmament merely myth, metaphor, or phenomenal language. It is an integral part of their scientific view of the universe.’

And so the Hebrews shared the same cosmological ideas as the rest of the Ancient Near East, including Egypt, Babylonia, Canaan, etc. whose writings also reflect the fact.

The flat earth and firmament is also the assumed cosmology in the rest of Scripture.

The firmament as a solid object is confirmed in Job: ‘Can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?’ (Job 37:18), and in Ezekial: ‘Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a firmament, sparkling like crystal, and awesome.’ (Ezekial 1:22). It was regarded as a beautiful feat of engineering (as it is, in a way), and they told God they appreciated it: ‘The heavens are thy handiwork.’ (Psalms 102).

That the Jewish people continued to believe the sky was solid until many hundreds of years later is evident in many things they wrote. For example, the book of Enoch – one of the many books rejected from the bible by some Jews and Christians, but quoted in the New Testament – talks about windows in the firmament which opened and closed for the sun and moon to rise through, and others which opened to allow some of the water above to fall as rain. (This may not be surprising considering the book of Ecclesiastes’ opinion that ‘The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.’ The sun, of course, doesn’t move anywhere, least of all through windows in a solid dome, but they could never have known that. I love the author’s rather sweet idea that the sun is hurrying back to the other side of the sky after it disappears after sunset, like an actor on a Broadway stage in ‘first position’!) Other biblical books use the literal word ‘windows’ to describe rain, too. Genesis 7:11 says Noah’s Flood started that way: ‘The floodgates of heaven were opened’ (the literal translation: ‘lattice windows’).

There are lots of other examples of firmament talk in many pieces of ancient literature.* The Apocalypse of Baruch speculated as to whether it was made of clay, copper or iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7). In fact, all the theories and arguments about it were getting so much that it began to irk one of the early Christian church fathers, St. Augustine, who said that too much time was being spent on the subject. He responded that people needed to be satisfied with knowing that the sky is ‘solid’ and ‘constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the waters below’ (ACW 41.1.61).

Water was not the only thing above the firmament, of course. Heaven, including the throne of God, was up there too. This makes some sense of the story of the Tower of Babel. And what was the point of it? To build a tower so high it would ‘reach unto heaven’ (Genesis 11). The audacity! God thought this was such an ambitious scheme that he decided to scatter the people and confuse their languages so they wouldn’t try it again:

‘And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down†, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ (Gen 11)

The idea is clear: the people had gotten too close to God, ‘which art in heaven’ (above the sky). Other ancient Jewish literature talks about the ability of the people, if they could get close enough, to hammer their way through it. God put an end to that little notion, by scattering them.

And where would he scatter them? ‘Upon the face of all the earth,’ which is a handy way to say it, especially if your earth is as flat as a pancake (like the ‘face’ of a clock). The phrase ‘to the ends of the earth’ are also used many times and fit their old-world cosmology. To a modern-day person, the phrase only makes sense metaphorically. A round planet has no literal ‘end’ (let alone the plural thereof). But it made perfect, literal sense to a person who believed in a flat earth with a dome over the top of it, as the Hebrews did. (Today, we would say something like ‘all over the earth’ to mean a similar thing, or would repeat ‘to the ends of the earth’ because of our familiarity with the bible.)

One particular reference to the ends of the earth is especially interesting, in the book of Daniel. It was poetic rather than literal, but still reflects the cosmological ideas of its author:

‘The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the ends of all the earth’ (Daniel 4:11).

If a modern author were writing this, they would use a different metaphor. For the author of Daniel, a tree that reached the firmament of heaven (rather than into the upper atmosphere or into space), and which could be seen from every ‘end’ of the earth made sense as a metaphor because his readers understood that visual. Readers today need to remember the cosmology of the author, because nothing on a round earth – no matter how big – can be seen from all of its surface! A flat earth permits line of sight. And this little observation helps us with a couple of other verses. Matthew, for example, describes the devil taking Jesus up a huge mountain, and what do they see?

‘Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them’ (Matthew 4:8).

From a single mountain, he could see all the world! Either this mountain was attached to a spacecraft orbiting the earth, or he wasn’t seeing ‘all’ the kingdoms of the world! If the writer of Matthew didn’t know by then that the earth is round, the verse would make perfect, literal sense. And if he did know that the earth is round – many had heard of the theory by that time – perhaps his story was intended to call the older cosmology (which would have been known to all his readers) to mind. It should be obvious that the stories of Jesus’ temptations are metaphorical, with a non-literal ‘devil’ (which is how I would advocate reading much of the bible). Still, it seems certain that nobody in the modern age would write such a metaphor this way, since our knowledge that even the highest mountain wouldn’t provide a view of the whole world is engrained in us as a result of the cosmology we’re taught from a young age.

And we’re not done with line-of-sight. Just like the tree that could be seen from the whole earth, Revelation says that when Jesus returns, he will be seen from everywhere:

‘Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him…’ (Revelation 1:7).

So, from the sky. And yet – despite the indisputable fact that anything coming down from the sky would be impossible to see from everywhere upon the surface of the earth – everyone, all over the world, will be able to see him, simultaneously? This would have made plenty of sense to an author who believed the earth to be flat, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense to modern people who know the earth is round, and that beyond our atmosphere is space.

Speaking of which, where is Jesus coming from? And where did he go to? That’s right: heaven! You know, that place up above the firmament in the sky? In the gospel of Mark, he is ‘received up’ into heaven. Because, heaven – not space! – is ‘up’. In the gospel of Luke, he was ‘carried up into heaven’. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is described like this:

‘And when he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.’ (Acts 1)

Many a 21st-century child, upon hearing this story, might ask where Jesus went after he was obscured by cloud. Did he burn up in the atmosphere? Did he make it through the atmosphere into space, and go rocketing through the cosmos to some undisclosed location? What if there were no cloud that day? Would he just have gotten smaller and smaller to the observers below? What if it had happened in the age of satellite imagery and airplanes? Would people have pointed and wondered what it was, like a holy UFO? Did he simply disappear after a while, in which case, couldn’t he have done so without the Superman theatrics? The biblical authors clearly thought they had explained it well enough. But their account doesn’t make sense to someone with a modern cosmology; only to someone who believes in a finite sky.

A word about the literal and non-literal in the bible. There is a widespread idea in evangelical Christianity – not only held by creationists – that the bible should usually be read in its most obvious, literal way (that a ‘childlike faith’ is sufficient and that anybody could pick up the bible and understand it). Yet Scripture contains all kinds of literature written across many hundreds of years for all sorts of reasons to a variety of audiences. Some verses are literal, some metaphorical, some poetic. Those who want to prove the truth of the bible need to distinguish what kind of truth it imparts. Clearly scientific truth is not its strong suit!

In the case of the ascension of Jesus (and by extension the resurrection), the story makes more metaphorical sense than literal sense, in my opinion. Christians today believe in heaven as a spiritual place, rather than a physical place above the sky. Yet they still hold on to the belief that Jesus rose physically from the dead (that the story is meant literally) – his disciples touched his body (to prove he wasn’t a ghost; does this mean they believed in ghosts?) – and that his physical body, with its gall bladder and spleen and skin cells and reproductive organs and sinuses and teeth and accompanying bacteria, went soaring into the upper atmosphere. (Why so, if heaven is spiritual rather than physical? And where did that body go? Why did he need it in the afterlife, if the rest of us won’t need ours?)

It adds up to a quaint picture of the cosmos that was believed by people who lived a long time before proper science. These were our early attempts to explain everything around us. Over time, we came to realize that the earth is round rather than flat. And that there are other planets like our own, spinning in harmony in solar systems much more beautiful and complex and jaw-dropping than anyone in biblical times could have imagined. And that we are actually stranded on a remote suburb in the corner of a rather minor galaxy out of billions of such galaxies: a universe that is bigger and more intimidating and more mysterious than we could ever have dreamed. And that most of what makes up this universe is so intimidating and mysterious that we can’t measure it, and call it ‘dark matter’ to denote the fact.

In the face of those humbling truths, the writings of the ancient Hebrews convey a rather comforting, charming idea: that our flat, domed little world is the center of everything that exists.

John Wright


NB- I’m really quite delighted with my graphic above and am thinking of making a T-shirt out of it.

* Two of my favorites are in the book of Revelation, when a dragon’s tail knocks a bunch of the stars off the firmament. There are also some stars that randomly fell off it to earth. (Although these were in the context of dreams rather than reality, the dreams had the context of the cosmology of the time. We know that the idea of a spherical earth had likely taken hold in most of the Ancient Near East by the time Revelation was written, but we also know that the idea of the firmament – with small celestial bodies attached, such as stars – was still very much the standard model.) And, taking ancient cosmology to a whole new level, the book of Chronicles describes the earth as firm and immovable and its having ‘foundations’ and being held up by ‘pillars’. (We don’t know how much of this was meant literally.)
† “Let US go down” is a clue to the polytheism (or, more accurately, henotheism) of early Judaism – they believed in many gods of which Jehovah was the greatest; there are fossilized remnants of this belief throughout the Old Testament. But that’s a discussion for another day!