Monday, February 27, 2017

Old Testament Cosmology

I've been working on a project on ancient Near Eastern cosmic geography (which I can't say much about right now) and thought I'd share a diagram I've been working on. Of course, all of the features in ancient Israelite cosmology also have their counterparts in the texts and drawings of surrounding civilizations so the cited passages are just a small representation of our source material for reconstructing the ancient conception.

The geek stuff:
This illustration draws on the attempts of previous scholars, including Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis: the Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1966), 5. Incorporating the iconography of Leviathan and the seraphim is an idea I owe to Othmar Keel’s illustration in Altorientalische Miniaturkunst (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1990), 15. Foremost of all, I have benefited from a graphic entitled “Ancient Hebrew Conception of the Universe” produced by Karbel Multimedia for Logos Bible Software (2012), which has been recently published in the excellent NIV Faithlife Study Bible: Intriguing Insights to Inform your Faith, ed. Barry, Mangum, Brown and Heiser (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). An excellent survey orientation of Israelite cosmology among biblical linguists has been written by John R. Roberts, “Biblical Cosmology: The Implications for Bible Translation” Journal of Translation 9.2 (2013), 1-53.

On the heavenly serpents of ancient Israelite religion shown in the upper register of this illustration (the seraphim), s
ee Philippe Provençal, “Regarding the Noun שרף in the Hebrew Bible,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29.3 (2005), 372; Othmar Keel, Jahwe-Visionen und Siegelkunst: Eine neue Deutung der Majestatsschilderungen in Jes, Ez 1 und 10 und Sach 4 (Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1984), 102, 104, 109; William A. Ward, "The Four-Winged Serpent on Hebrew Seals." Rivista Degli Studi Orientali 43.2 (1968), 135-43, and the T. N. D. Mettinger entry “Seraph” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible ed. K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter Willem van der Horst (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 743.


  1. Hey, Ben. Very nice. But it would help to make the "circle of the earth" actually look circular rather than, as it appears right now, square!


    1. I disagree. I like this idea. It gets away from a spherical concept of the entire cosmos, which is mostly things above and below the dome of earth.

  2. That would be also be wonderful. To make the world round I believe has something to do with the fact of the shape our pupils are. If you draw a picture on graph paper inside an outline of a circle and then use a fish eye lens to capture a shot it will appear 3dimensional .

  3. I have an idea for another representation I'd like to discuss with you.

  4. A Branch from a Wild Olive TreeMay 12, 2017 at 2:33 AM

    Ben, do you agree with this interpretation?

  5. Great stuff. Have you seen my piece, "The Cosmology of the Bible" ?
    Let me know if you want to read the whole article, send me your email.