Biblical Cosmology

How the universe appeared to Biblical writers

© 1996 by Robert C. Moler

This article is a teaser for the society program this month. It's a break from the usual December program about the Star of Bethlehem. If you want to here and see it again, I will be giving that program at the Festival of the Trees at the Dennos Museum December 2nd at 2 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. However since the Star of Bethlehem is in the Bible I will be covering that too.

I embark on this topic with a certain amount of trepidation. The Bible expresses the core of the Christian faith. The first five books of which is the Torah, the law of the Jewish faith. Within these two great faiths there are various denominations that interpret the Bible differently. I hope not to get into those matters, because for the purpose of this article and the program I will take the Biblical passages at face value. I will also attempt to keep Biblical quotes in context.

The first chapter of Genesis pretty much states the cosmology of the Bible. So before getting to it, lets define what cosmology is. According to my Webster's dictionary it is the branch of metaphysics dealing with universe as a systematic order. I will stick to that rather than the scientific definition. And before you haul me away, the definition of metaphysics is the branch of philosophy dealing with the first principles of things.

Science as we know it and the scientific method are rather new inventions, dating back to Galileo and others back to the 17th century. Part of the problem that grew between science and religion early on was the Church's acceptance of the Greek view of the universe, a pagan one, put forth by Aristotle and Plato. Astronomical study pretty well ceased with the publication of the Almagest by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD.

Some aspects of the universe described in Genesis are what you'd expect in the pre Copernican world. It is geocentric or earth centered. The sky is a dome over the earth. In the first creation account the dome of the sky separates the waters: "God said: 'Let there be a vault in the waters to divide the waters in two.' And so it was. God made the vault and it divided the waters above the vault from the eaters below the vault. God called the vault heaven." This vault is called the firmament in some translations. And the firmament is firm, that is solid, supporting the waters above. As Psalm 104 states about God and his abode in heaven: "You build your palace on the waters above". The waters below lie on the earth and below the earth. The stars, sun and moon move on the dome. The planets are not specifically mentioned, but supposedly included as stars. However the time keeping functions of the sun and moon are stated. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, with corrections to keep it synchronized with the sun to roughly emulate a tropical year.

While the general geocentric cosmological view of the Hebrews appears to resemble their neighbors there is an important difference. To the Hebrews, as stated explicitly in Genesis, the heavenly bodies were creations of God, like everything else. They were not or did not represent greater or lesser deities as did the other nations. In the 4th chapter of Deuteronomy Moses warns the Israelites about creating graven images and also says "When you raise your eyes to heaven, when you see the sun, the moon and the stars, all the array of heaven, do not be tempted to worship them and serve them."

Other than demonstrating the greatness of God, as can be seen in the 8th, 19th and 104th Psalms the references to the heavens are rather sparse and generally not theologically significant. However there is one Biblical reference that Copernicus correctly feared. What was it?

What is the only star mentioned in the Bible? No not the sun. What constellation is mentioned? Star cluster? All these are mentioned in the same passage, by the way.

The answers to these and more will be forthcoming at this December's meeting.


Questions? Comments? Send Email to me at bob@bjmoler.org

Uploaded: 11/27/96