Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Solid Heavenly Dome of Israelite Cosmology: A Response to Younker and Davidson

Most Semitists believe ancient Israelite religion believed the sky was a solid dome which retained a celestial ocean above it from flooding the earth--in parallel with the Mesopotamians and Egyptians. However, Younker and Davison's popular 2011 journal article, "The Myth of the Solid Heavenly Dome" challenges this consensus. In the following presentation, I present several disagreements I have with their work and lay out a brief case in favor of ancient belief in the solid heavenly dome.

1] 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). I have also fruitfully consulted an excellent survey of Hebrew cosmology by John R. Roberts, “Biblical Cosmology: The Implications for Bible Translation,” Journal of Translation 9.2 (2013), 1-53.

2] Randall W. Younker and Richard M. Davidson, “The Myth of the Solid Heavenly Dome: Another Look at the Hebrew רָקִיעַ RĀQIA,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 1 (Andrews University Press, 2011).

3] Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, Mesopotamian Civilizations 8 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1998), 262.

4] Andrew Steinmann, Proverbs: A Theological Exposition of Scripture, Concordia Commentary (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2009), 211.

5] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 284.

6] Greenwood (Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science [Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press], 153) draws our attention to this passage in Luther’s Works, Volume 1: Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5, trans. George V. Schick, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 26.

7] Ibid., Luther’s Works, 42-43.

8] James H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigripha: Volume One Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1983), 665.

9] Younker and Davidson, “Myth of the Heavenly Dome,” 129

10] Sanhedrin 109a. Epstein, Hertz, and Simon, trans., The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin. Sanhedrin II (London: Soncino, 1935), 748.

11] Wilfred Shuchat reproduces this and other similar passages in The Creation According to the Midrash Rabbah, ed. Raphael Posner (Jerusalem: Devora, 2002), 159.

12] My translation

13] J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 175.

14] R. H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudoepigrapha of the Old Testament, Volume Two, Biblical Apocrypha Series (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2004), 304.

15] Trans. Moshe Simon-Shoshan, “‘The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God…’: A Study in Rabbinic Cosmology,” Bekhol Derakheka Daehu 20 (2008), 83.

16] Ibid.

17] Ibid., 72-3.

18] H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Complete in Ten Volumes. Translated into English with Notes (New York: Soncino Press, 1983), 105.

19] Simon-Shoshan “Heavens Proclaim,” 88.

20] Hymn to Aton from the period of Amenhotep IV. Quoted in Wright, Early History of Heaven, 11.

21] Ibid., 12. Originally from a hymn to Ra prefixed to the Book of the Dead.

22] Ibid., 12-13. Coffin Text §74 and 761.

23] James P. Allen, “The Celestial Realm,” in Ancient Egypt, ed. David P. Silverman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 114-15.

24] On the iconography of the Egyptian firmament see James K. Hoffmeier, “Thoughts on Genesis 1 & 2,” 45. See Wright, The History of Heaven, 10. Also, James Atwell’s mention of it in “An Egyptian Source for Genesis 1,” Journal of Theological Studies 51 (2000), 456.

25] Othmar Keel and Silvia Schroer, Creation: Biblical Theologies in the Context of the Ancient Near East, trans. Peter T. Daniels (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 81-82.

26] According to Batto, “The temple is not just the earthly building in Sippar but also Shamash’s rests on ‘the heavenly ocean,’ symbolized by the wavy lines underneath (‘Apsu’).” Bernard F. Batto, In the Beginning: Essays on Creation Motifs in the Ancient Near East and the Bible, Siphrut 9 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 9. Slanski translates the epigraph as Sin, Shamas and Ishtar, “sit upon the face of the apsu.” Kathryn E. Slanski, “Classification, Historiography and Monumental Authority: the Babylonian Entitlement ‘narus (kudurrus)’” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 52 (2000), 110. I have elected to render her transliteration “apsu” as “heavenly ocean” in accordance with the translation given by the British Museum holding the artifact. Registration number 91000, www.britishmuseum.org/collection. British Museum, 2017. Accessed Jun 5, 2017.

27] “The world in the map is portrayed as a disc, and we can therefore assume that the world itself was generally visualised in the same way at the time the map originated.” Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (New York: Double Day, 2014), 263.

28] Jason Lisle, Taking Back Astronomy: The Heavens Declare Creation and Science Confirms It (Green Forest: Master Books, 2006), 28.

29] I’m indebted to the linguist Charles Loder for showing me the entry for the verb in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary 17.1. ed. Martha T. Roth et al. (Illinois: Oriental Institute, 1989), 20.
30] Younker and Davidson, “Myth of the Solid Heavenly Dome,” 146.

31] Wright, Early History of Heaven, 99. See also Ulla Koch-Westenholz’s comment in, Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination, The Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies 19, (Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press), 21.

32] Kevin Van Bladel, “Heavenly Cords and Prophetic Authority in the Quran and Its Late Antique Context,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 70.2 (2007), 225-46. www.jstor.org/stable/40379198.

33] Ibid., 225.

34] Efthymios Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization, trans. Susan Emanuel, (John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2011), 27.

35] Edward Hamilton Gifford, trans., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume VII Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wallace (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 52.

36] Younker and Davidson, “Myth of the Heavenly Dome,” 127.

37] Edward Adams, “Graeco-Roman and Ancient Jewish Cosmology,” in Cosmology and New Testament Theology ed. Johnathan T. Pennington (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 7.

38] Paul Seely, “The Geographical Meaning of ‘Earth’ and ‘seas’ in Genesis 1:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997), 235.

39] Simon-Shoshan, “the Heavens Proclaim,” 71

40] Michael S. Heiser, “Genesis and Creation: Old Testament Cosmology” YouTube video, 1:13:21, church lecture, posted by “HaibaneXIII” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSG2s17VooQ&t=2435s.


  1. This is fascinating stuff. I'm currently reading up on Quranic cosmography and there is some good evidence that they indeed saw the earth as flat, with the heavens as a dome above them. You might be interested in the following article: Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, “The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself,” Arabica 63 (2016).
    Also according to C. Cullen, “A Chinese Eratosthenes of the Flat Earth: A Study of a Fragment of Cosmology in Huain Nan Tzu 淮 南 子,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 39 (1976), the Chinese continued to believe in a flat earth until the sixteenth century, when they came into contact with European astronomy (brought to them by Jesuit scholars)

  2. Great stuff, Ben! . . . I sure wish you would present this in PRINT form. It is extremely hard to digest everything as you present it, here, with audio saying a LOT . . . yet I want to read the TEXTUAL EVIDENCE that is sliding by as you speak.

    Have any plans for some kind of book or something? Maybe a series of papers?

    THANKS SO MUCH for doing all this amazing work.