Home > Genesis 1, The firmament > THE BIBLE AND COSMOLOGY by Dr. R. Laird Harris


December 11, 2014

Dr. R. Laird Harris (1911-2008) was Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological
Seminary. He served as chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation which produced
the New International Version. He was co-author of Theological Wordbook of the Old
Testament. In the article below, he takes issue with some aspects of an article on biblical
cosmology in The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 5. (1962) pp. 11-17.

We are all aware that in this modern age the idea is widespread that the
Bible is in irreconcilable conflict with science. The Bible is assumed to
have been worsted in the conflict between Genesis one and evolution. The
miracles of the Bible are supposed to be unscientific and those who believe
in the cosmology of the Bible are often regarded as pre-Copernican erratic
boulders on the landscape, left over after the modern glaciers of science
have done their work.

Actually some of this conflict is due to misconception of the Bible’s teaching
and its relation to scientific theory. The question of miracle, for instance,
is a philosophical, not a scientific one. Even in the matter of biological evolution
the conflicts, I believe, are not as sharp as is sometimes supposed – especially
if extremes of scientific dogmatism on the materialistic nature and animal origin
of man are avoided.

The idea is widespread, however, that the Biblical cosmology is hopelessly
dated. As no one now believes the world to be flat, so no one can
believe the Bible any more. Even among theologians who should know better,
remarks are made that we can no longer believe in the Biblical picture
of a three-storied universe. Bultmann adopts this position. He assumes
the irreconcilable conflict. Then he asks if we should attempt to make the
sacrificium intellectus and believe the Bible in spite of the facts. Finding this
alternative impossible, he proceeds to advance the demythologizing theories
for which he is famous. There is a failure to realize that there is a third
alternative – that the Bible properly and honestly interpreted may be believable
after all. Bultmann was quoted somewhat to this effect by Grounds in
a recent E.T.S. Bulletin:

The world-view of the Scripture is mythological and is therefore
unacceptable to modern man whose thinking has been shape
d by science and is therefore no longer mythological. Modern
man always makes use of technical means which are the result
of science. In case of illness modern man has recourse
to physicians, to medical science. In case of economic and
political affairs, he makes use of the results of psychological,
social, economic and political sciences, and so on. Nobody
reckons with direct intervention by transcendent powers… man
acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are
comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the
universe. He does not acknowledge miracles because they do
not fit into this lawful order. When a strange or marvellous accident
occurs, he does not rest until he has found a rational
cause. The contrast between the ancient world-view of the Bible
and the modern worldview is the contrast between two ways of
thinking, the mythological and the scientific. [1]

This view is deeply entrenched in the modern mind. In a recent book,
Theories of the Universe, edited by Milton K. Munitz, T. Gomperz speaks
of “the immemorial delusions fostered in the name of religion” during
the Middle Ages. [2] And in the same volume, after excoriating and ridiculing the
theologians of the early and medieval church, J. L. E. Dreyer says that from
Constantine to Dante “had been a long and perfectly stationary period… For
centuries men had feebly chewed the cud on the first chapter of Genesis.” [3]

But we can hardly object to the ridicule of the secular scientist when the
Biblical picture has been so grievously distorted by destructive criticism. It
is modern Bible students who have travestied the Biblical picture, parallelled
it to Babylonian nonsense, then informed a secular public that the Bible is
not believable by a modern mind.

Thus The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics outlines the Biblical
cosmology thus “Originally there was chaos and darkness peopled with
dragons and monsters. Then Yahweh battled with the deep, rushing upon
it with wind, while the astral deities shout for joy. Finally after the cosmic
victory (similar to Marduk’s fight with Tiamat) Yahweh “spreads out a firmament
above resting on pillars, provided with windows through which the
waters may be let down upon the earth. Beneath, upon the great void,
he spread the earth, a dwelling place for living things, under which is the
sea or abyss (Tehom). In this abyss as also in the heights above still dwell
great monsters…” [4] No I must confess that if this is the Biblical cosmology
I must seek refuge in some neo-orthodox mysticism or Bultmannian
demythologization. I fear, however, that what we need to do is not to demythologize
the Bible, but Hastings Encyclopedia. Destructive criticism has
sold the world a shabby substitute for the Biblical cosmology. We need to
re-emphasize the Biblical teaching. The foolish notions of a three-storied
universe or a flat square earth or a geocentric universe are not Biblical. And
we need to say so as loudly as possible.

I believe that the need to discuss this is especially great today because
there is strong current interest in cosmology. We hardly realize it, but in
the lifetime of many of us a cosmological revolution almost as great as the
Copernican has taken place. I refer to the discovery of the expanding character
of the universe, made by Hubble in 1924. This discovery, apparently
unchallenged, emphasizes both the enormous size and antiquity of the universe
and though it nowhere conflicts with Biblical statements it is popularly
supposed to bring into question the possibility of God’s creating a structure
so vast or if He did, to question the likelihood of His caring for puny man.
The God of the Bible is apparently now discovered to be both too small
and too big. This planet is now supposed to be one of literally billions.
Life is supposed to be an accidental event here and assuredly occurred
accidentally also on numerous other planets. Man is but an evolutionary
development of this accidental occurrence – a microscopic incident on this
cosmic speck that we call the earth. Religion is a delusion, morality a convention,
life itself a physico-chemical complex. With these ideas fed to us
as the last word of science it is no wonder that an existential hopelessness
has engulfed us. It is hard to find meaning in a life-situation such as this.

But is this our true situation? Is the Bible by all this discovery hopelessly
outmoded so that its teaching is untrue and therefore irrelevant? What does
it say?

First, as to generalities, the Bible does not say that the universe is small.
On the contrary, it repeatedly affirms the puniness of man. We need only
to refer to such passages as Psalm 8, “What is man, that thou art mindful
of him?” or Psalm 104:25, “this great and wide sea wherein are creeping
things innumerable,” or Genesis 15:5, “Look now toward heaven and tell
the stars if thou be able to number them.” The Bible nowhere says how vast
the universe is. It only says that God is vaster. And yet here is the marvel
– he has respect to the lowly. And evidently his laws that hold the worlds
in space also direct the electrons in their alleged orbits. He apparently is
a big enough God to direct “the stormy wind fulfilling His word” which has
the force of many atom bombs, and at the same time to “exalt the horn
of his people… even of the children of Israel… Praise ye the Lord!” (Ps.

As a matter of fact, the world of the ancients was not limited to a few
square miles. Genesis 10 mentions cities and tribes in Asia Minor, on the
Persian Gulf, in Ethiopia, and Southern Arabia, Greece across the water,
and Tarshish, possibly in distant Spain. Solomon likely had traffic with India.
Sargon of Accad in 2300 B.C. ruled from Persia to Egypt. The Persians
ruled from India to Ethiopia. From India to Gibraltar is over 4000
miles. Egypt and Ethiopia together were not far from 1000 miles long. The
ancients knew a considerable amount of geography through war and commerce.
And in the reaches of the Mediterranean Sea, which is longer than
the South Atlantic Ocean is wide, there was plenty of room for a sailor of
David’s day to feel man’s insignificance. True, the reaches of interstellar
space were not yet dreamed of, but still the sky was known to be not a
little thing. Mountains up to 17,000 feet border Mesopotamia. High mountains,
vast seas, long rivers, thousands of miles of caravan route – all these
were known in Bible days. And the Bible insists man is tiny in regard to the
universe around him.

With regard to a geocentric universe the Bible simply does not speak.
The center of interest in the Bible is man, or, more accurately, man in relationship
to God. God is the center of all things, but not at the physical
center. The physical center is just not given. The Bible indeed refers to the
diurnal course of sun, moon, and stars even as we do, using the language
of observation – the heavenly bodies rise or “go out,” they make their circuit
across the sky, they “go in” or enter the western sea at the close of the
day. But how they do this is nowhere said. Later writings had the bodies
guided by angels. The Bible simply says the bodies serve their purposes at
God’s command. For all the Bible says, they could travel in circles, ellipses,
or straight lines. The solar system could be geocentric, heliocentric, or
something else and not contradict the Bible. Indeed it is well to remember
that the ancient Greeks had deduced our solar system rather accurately.
Aristarchus in about 280 B.C. advanced the heliocentric system. Eudoxus
had argued that the sun was much larger than the earth. Eratosthenes by
spherical trigonometry measured the earth’s circumference to an accuracy
of 10%. All this advance was swept away by the Ptolemaic theories of the
second century B.C., against which Copernicus later rebelled.

It is true that many in the early Middle Ages, before the rediscovery of
Aristotle, claimed Biblical support for the idea of a flat earth. Does not the
Bible speak of the “four quarters of the earth” (Rev. 20:8) and frequently of
the “ends of the earth”? True, the Bible does so speak. So did the king of
Assyria and others who claimed to be the “kings of the four quarters.” But
the terminology need not disturb us. The same kings who use this language
knew well that there were other lands under other kings. The expression
probably refers more to four directions than four divisions. The Hebrews
took their directions from a position facing eastward. The right was South,
the left North, in front was East and behind was West. The Egyptians did
likewise from a position facing up the Nile. The right was West, etc. These
four directions were adopted for convenience and possibly come from the
four directions of our bodily parts. We could perhaps divide directions up
into nine parts, but four coordinates are convenient and used in modern
geography. They prove nothing concerning conceptions of the ancients as
to the shape of the earth.

The ends of the earth mean no more. To begin with, the word “earth” in
Hebrew is quite ambiguous and often means the country. Thus the Messiah’s
reign from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth (Ps.
72:8 and Zech. 9:10) applies specifically to Palestine and is reminiscent of
Solomon’s reign “from the river even unto the land of the Philistine and at
the border of Egypt” (2 Chron 9:26). In short the phrase is a general one
and means often just distant extremities. Thus the Gentiles come from the
ends of the earth (Deut. 33:17). Nebuchadnezzar ruled to the end of the
earth (Dan. 4:11, 22). Jacob, God’s servant, was taken from the ends of
the earth (Isaiah 41:9). The Israelites were to abhor the idols of the people
near-by and unto the ends of the earth (Deut. 13:7). The Israelites if
disobedient were to be scattered from one end of the earth even unto the
other (Deut. 28:64). Obviously all these instances (and there are others)
are very general. They speak of distant territories without any regard to
the shape of the earth. Similar expressions are used of God’s governance,
of the sun’s course, of the Lord’s praise and creatorhood. Different Hebrew
words are used, but nowhere is any specification given about the earth’s
shape. Even Isaiah 40:22, speaking of the circle of the earth, is perhaps
not to be pressed beyond reference to the circular horizon of observation.
Now as to the details of cosmology, it is alleged that the Bible pictures
Yahweh as in a fight with the primeval chaos in which the monsters of Rahab,
Leviathan, Behemoth, and Tehom are vanquished. There is just a
hint of truth in this representation. The fight of the Lord with Rahab and
Leviathan is mentioned in various poetical passages (Ps. 89:10; 74:13, 14;
Isa. 27:1; Job. 26:12, 13; Isa. 51:9). But this is not parallel to the Babylonian
fight of Marduk with Tiamat from whose body Marduk fashions the
heaven and the earth. Rather Leviathan is the mythical monster mentioned
in Ras Shamra and pictured on an old seal as having seven heads. It and
probably also Rahab is symbolic of Satan, with whom God is in implacable
combat. Just as composite and unreal symbols are used in Ezekiel, Daniel,
etc. of earthly kingdoms and heavenly beings, so Leviathan is used of Satan
and he is so denominated in Revelation 12. But these highly figurative
references tell us nothing of cosmology, though the Hastings Encyclopedia
(loc. cit.) refers to Isa. 27:1 as referring to the Leviathan in the waters above
the firmament causing eclipses. Where the author gets this reference to
eclipses is mysterious. It is not in the Biblical text!

The thrust of this dragon conflict motif is said to be found in Genesis 1:2.
Here the Bible is said to be dependent on the Marduk-Tiama tmyth, for
the Hebrew word “deep” is Tehom, cognate to Tiamat. Note, however, that
in Genesis there is no personification or creation resulting from a battle.
The differences from the Tiamat myth are basic. But especially bad is the
suggestion that Tehom comes from Tiamat. Tiamat, an Accadian noun,
has no guttural letter “h” in the middle. Hebrew maintains the gutturals in
Hebrew words, but would not have one in “Tehom” if it were borrowed from
the Babylonian. Rather obviously the influence is vice versa. “Tehom” is
probably old Semitic for “ocean.” The Babylonians personified the ocean
into Tiamat. The Hebrew creation account uses the word “ocean” for the
primeval cosmic stuff.

“Tehom” is used some thirty-six times in the Old Testament. It is used
in Jonah (2:5) of the Mediterranean sea and in Psalm 107:26 of the sea
in general, with ships upon it. Seven times in Exodus and the prophets
it refers to the crossing of the Red Sea. Twice in the flood narrative the
fountains of the great deep are said to be a source of the flood. Here the
ocean is probably meant. In Job 28:14; 38:16; 38:30; and 41:32 seas and
lakes are meant, as context and parallelism show. In Ezekiel 26:19, the
deep is likely the sea which threatens to drown Tyre. In Ezekiel 31:4 and
15 the reference is likely to the waters of the Egyptian Delta. In all, about
half the references of “Tehom” clearly refer to seas and lakes.

Several of the references naturally are figurative and obscure and could
bear various interpretations. But there are a few that refer to subterranean
waters. The clearest is Psalm 78:15 which refers to the water gushing
from the rock smitten by Moses. Again in Deuteronomy 8:7 Palestine is
characterized as a land of springs and depths flowing from the hills. In
view of the above evidence it would be hazardous indeed to suppose that
the Hebrews believed in a subterranean ocean. They may have wondered
where springs came from and may even have imagined a connection with
the ocean. The fact is that there are vast amounts of water underground
and such springs as at Banias are the source of a regular river. But the
Bible gives no suggestion of a connection of this underground water with
mythology or an underworld or a sea on which the earth floats or any such
thing. The “Tehom” basically means the ocean and lakes and gives us no
real clue to any cosmology.

But what shall we say of the waters under the earth? This phrase seems
only to be used in four places. In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 4 and 5
it is used in the second commandment. There the earth is distinguished
from the seas – not from any subterranean waters. A little reflection will
show that these passages all refer to the ordinary seas and lakes. The
commandment forbids making images of things in heaven – birds, stars,
etc; in earth – animals, men, etc.; and in the waters under the earth –
obviously the abode of fish. Indeed Deuteronomy 4:18 specifies that fish
dwell in waters under the earth. The phrase clearly means waters below
the shoreline. Fish cannot be caught in an unvisited subterranean world as
any fisherman knows!

In Psalm 136:6 the reference to the earth above the waters is a reference
to the record of creation of the earth in Genesis 1:10. As waters below the
earth refer to waters below shore line, so the earth above the waters refers
to land masses above the shore line. That surely is all.

The firmament, according to Hastings Encyclopedia, is a solid stone supported
by pillars. The basic meaning of firmament – “raqia” – is “expanse.” It
is used very little outside of Genesis one and Ezekiel one, in which passage
it refers to the platform supported on the heads of the cherubim on which
the divine throne stood. The firmament in Genesis 1 apparently means the
visible expanse of the sky. As Orr said, the “vault of the heavens in which
clouds hung and through which the sun travelled, had probably for the Hebrews
associations not very different from what it has for the average mind
of today.” [5] No Bible text teaches that the firmament of heaven is solid or
holds anything up! Note that the heavens are also said to be like a curtain
or scroll that may be rolled up (Isa. 34:4; 40:22).

We turn now to the expression, “windows of heaven.” The more common
word for window is hallon which, by the way, consisted merely of an
opening in a wall. There were no sashes to be opened and shut and apparently no
shutters either, at least not usually. The lesser used word is ‘arubbah, used
in the flood story and in the siege of Samaria account. There the sceptical
officer asks the prophet Elisha if barley would be so plentiful if the Lord
would make windows in heaven (notice, make, not open, windows). The
word is also used in Malachi 3:10 where the prophet promises blessings
through windows opened in heaven. The word is used again in Ecclesiastes
12:3 as a figure for the eyes. In Isaiah 24:18 trouble and anguish
are apparently pictured as coming through windows of heaven. Only twice
does the word refer to openings in dwellings.

It is clear that the use of this word gives no indication that the Hebrews
believed there was a “firmament provided with windows through which the
water may be let down upon the earth” as Hastings Encyclopedia has it. Of
the four mentions of such windows, only one is connected with rain and this
not a normal rain. Nor was the source of the flood rain said to be above the
firmament; it was just “rain from heaven.” As J. Orr remarks in his valuable
article on “World” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, [6] the
Bible makes it abundantly plain that rain comes from the clouds in the air
which is simply a matter of common observation (cf. Jud. 5:4; 1 K. 18:45,
etc.). The Bible does not teach that the waters above the firmament, of the
creative process in Genesis 1, are the source of rain water coming through
windows in the firmament today. The last item of the Hastings Encyclopedia
catalogue is the pillars upholding the firmament. Such pillars of the earth
or firmament are spoken of perhaps four times in Scripture. In 1 Samuel
2:8 Hannah in her song of praise exclaims that the pillars of the earth are
the Lord’s and He hath founded the earth upon them. Job 9:6 and Psalms
75:3 also speak of the pillars of the earth in highly poetic passages. In Job
26:11, similarly, the pillars of heaven are mentioned. It is as foolish to base
a cosmology on such passages as it would be to take seriously our words
“bowels of the earth.” Actually, Job 26:7 says that God hangs the earth
upon nothing.

As to the idea that the Old Testament speaks of a cavernous nether world
called Sheol, I have argued previously that this word is simply a designation
of the grave – which, of course, is subterranean. [7] Many times, the A.V.
translates it so. Even when translated hell, it is in parallel with sepulcher
or from the context can be identified as indicating merely the grave. Sheol
was not to the Old Testament believer a nether world of gloomy darkness
as the abode of the dead may have been conceived of by Babylonians and
Greeks. The spiritual heaven and spiritual hell are pictured in the Bible, but
details are not given and we may not overliteralize the descriptions. Interestingly,
in the record of the rich man and Lazarus, the two locations are not
said to be one above the other. The fact is that the critically reconstructed
cosmology of the Hebrews is quite without warrant.

Finally, as to a three-storied universe, the Bible says not a word except
perhaps in the reference to three heavens in 2 Corinthians 12:2. Here
Paul is speaking in practical terms of the heaven of clouds, of stars, and
of God. In this sense there are three heavens, – but it does not follow
that Paul thought of God’s heaven as a top story. Paul knew that God was
not far distant, for “in Him we live and move and have our being.” If the
charge be made that the three storied universe consists of a netherworld,
the earth’s surface, and heaven above, we repeat that the Bible does not
physically locate such an underworld, and the heaven of God where He
dwells is everywhere. If the Old Testament locates God at all, it locates
Him in the holy of holies of the temple, though even here Solomon realized
that the heaven of heavens could not contain Him, much less the house that
he had built. No, the alleged three stories are the result of leaden footed
literalism of modern critics who do not appreciate these figures of the Bible
but instead manufacture problems where none exist. Orr’s article in the
International Bible Standard Encyclopaedia can still stand. Recent views of
the universe may indeed complement the Biblical picture, but no departure
from its plain teaching is required.

A more vital question arises when we ask, what, exactly, is the Biblical
picture of that heaven which is the abode of God and angels. The fact is,
as already stated, that the Bible gives very little definite information about
it. Angels come and go from there at God’s command, but, contrary to
popular belief, they do not fly. They seldom have wings (though cherubim
are so pictured) and often are indistinguishable from men (Gen. 18, etc.).
Angels ascend in the fire of an offering and vanish (Jud. 13:3 – 20). The
angel and accompanying host which spoke to the shepherds in Luke 2 are
universally pictured as in the sky, but the Bible does not state this. As
noted above, the rich man and Lazarus are not said to be below and above
though they always are so represented. The truth is that angels can be right
here unseen to us (cf. II K. 6:17). They are not creatures of the physical
universe. Much abuse has been heaped on the medieval theologians who
argued how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. But I, for one,
have never heard the sceptics seriously consider giving an answer to that
question. It concerns the relation of spirits to the physical universe. And
the relation is not easy to define. We ourselves partake of two worlds, the
spiritual and the physical. The heaven of spirits could be right here and we
not be aware of it, just as we are not aware of radio waves all about us.
It would seem, however, that there is a place in the physical universe
called heaven. Christ’s resurrected body was not pure spirit, He assures us
(Lk. 24:39). Elijah and Enoch were translated bodily. Christ’s resurrected
body was visible and tangible and presumably is still so today, though it
doubtless is independent of the physical limitations of optimum temperature,
sustenance, etc. with which we are so painfully aware. Could we see
heaven from a rocket ship close by? Do Khrushchev’s gibes have some
point that their rocket men looked all around (!) and saw no heaven so
there must not be any? Put it this way, heaven may be in itself visible. But
God presumably guards it well from prying eyes-even rocket eyes. It could
be at a vast distance. It could be on a strange planet or even on a burning
sun. God is not limited by the limitations of this life. The spirit world could
be here and there as well. Spirits may roam the universe without considerations
of velocity even as we, in thought, can roam instantaneously from
star to star. The Bible sometimes speaks of the heaven of spirits as “up”
and Christ ascended apparently to a cloud and then vanished. “Up” as we
now know means “out” somewhere in God’s space. Of which, it seems,
there is plenty.


1. A. Vernon C. Grounds, “Theological Progress and Evangelical Commitment,” Evangelical
Theological Society Bulletin, 4:3 (Nov. 1961) p. 75.

2. Theodor Compera, “The Development of the Pythagorean Doctrine,” in Theories of the
Universe edited by Milton K. Munita, Glencoe, 111.: Free Press, 1957. p. 40.

3.  J. L. E. Dreyer, “Medieval Cosmology,” ibid. p. 137.

4. Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics article on ”Hebrew Cosmology.”

5. J. Orr, International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, article on “World.”

6. Ibid.

7. R. L. Harris, “The Meaning of the Word Shoel” ETS Bulletin, 4:4 (Dec. 1961) pp. 129-185.