The concept of the world in the Old Testament






Msgr. +Samuel Sostre. The Anglican Free Communion

We must be aware that through the bible we are exposed to a conception of the world that is no longer valid. It may have been valid thousands of years ago but science has taught us otherwise. And some theological concepts have arisen from these mistaken conception so we must always be careful when accepting theological beliefs (and I feel uncomfortable saying this) even if they are Biblical.

Many Old Testament writers felt that the earth was flat and that it needed pillars as foundations to make it stable. Although not mentioned directly, the flatness of the world is implied. Nowhere do we see even a hint that they thought the world was spherical and that it was in constant motion. In the song of Hannah we are told:

1 Samuel 2:8. ”the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and he hath set the world upon them”.

Only a flat earth can be set upon several pillars for support. Some people claim that these pillars were actually prominent people upon whom the world depends. But several other biblical verses make it clear that the Bible is talking about solid supporting structures.

Job 38: 4-6. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone?”

Psalms 75:3. “When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm”.

Job 9:6. “He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble”.

Psalm 104:5. “Who laid the foundations of the earth that it should not be removed forever”.

 But when you look at that flat earth from above, is it square, triangular or circular in shape? Isaiah tells us that, at least, he conceived it as circular.

 Isaiah 40:22. “God sits above the circle of the earth. The people below seem like grasshoppers to him! He spreads out the heavens like a curtain and makes his tent from them”.

However, the same author appears to imply that it is square shaped when he states that it has four corners.

 Isaiah 11:12.  “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth”.

Even during New Testament times people believed the world to be flat and to have four corners.

 Revelations 7:1.  “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree”.

And of course, if it was flat the earth had to have an end.

 Daniel 4:11.”The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth”.

The concept of the world at the time also included a very firm heaven (therefore called the firmament). The heavens were constructed as a firm vault. The waters of the world were divided; some being beneath the heavenly vault (our seas, rivers, etc.) and some above it. Therefore, would have expected to find water above the heavens.

 Genesis 1:6-8.  “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.And God called the firmament Heaven”.

Of course, at the time it was intuitively logical to think there were waters in the heavens. If not, how could they account for rain?

And the stars, sun and the moon, when created, were located within the firmament.

Genesis 1:14, 16 14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: 16 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.

In biblical times the earth was also conceived as stationary and could not move.

Psalm 93:1. “the world also is established that it cannot be moved”.

1Chronicles 16:30. “Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved”.

But as the flat earth was stationary and the people saw the sun cross the sky every day, it was logical to think that the sun moved. It moved over the earth in a semicircular path.

Psalms 19:4-6. “The sun’s tent is set up in the heavens. It [the sun] comes out like a happy bridegroom from his bedroom. It begins its path across the sky like an athlete eager to run a race. It starts at one end of the sky and runs all the way to the other end. Nothing can hide from its heat”.

Ecclesiastes 1:5. “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises”.

These verses and the well-known ones in Joshua 10:12-13 were the fiercest opponents Galileo had to face when he discovered that it was the earth that actually moved around the sun and not like the Bible described.

And where did God dwell? The biblical authors assigned Gods living space to the heavens, the firmament; the place with large pools of water above and beneath it.

1 Kings 8:30. …Hear [me] from heaven, your dwelling place….

 Psalms 2:4. The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.

 Matthew 5:16. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

From reading the Bible it becomes apparent that, at least, some authors believed the heavens were divided into three compartments. The first heaven (where the birds fly), the second heaven (where the heavenly bodies are located), and the third heaven, the highest, probably right beneath the waters (where God and the angels live). And the authors may have visualized God’s upper room virtually touching the waters located right above his living quarters.

Psalms 104:3. Who layeth the beams of His chambers in the waters?

And it is apparent (at least to me) that the concept that Paradise is also located in the heavens -actually, the third heaven- comes from Paul and from the following verses:

 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4. I know a manin Christ who was taken up to the third heaven. This happened 14 years ago. I don’t know if the man was in his body or out of his body, but God knows.  And I know that this man [meaning He] was taken up to paradise. I don’t know if he was in his body or away from his body, but he heard things that he is not able to explain. He heard things that no one is allowed to tell”.

In summary, the conception of the world we find in the Old Testament tends to suggest that the world is flat, stationary, cannot move and is supported in place by pillars. The heavens are firm and not gaseous and there are waters above it (not water vapor in the clouds).  The sun, located in the firmament, actually moves in a semicircular fashion across the earth. The concept that the earth was constantly in motion would have been heresy to them. God lives in heaven, beneath the body of waters above his dwelling place. And Paradise, where we are to spend eternity, is also in the heavens (likely the third heaven) also beneath the waters.

In a separate piece we should explore the New Testament concept of a world populated by spirits, many evil and many good, which can cause mental and physical diseases and all sorts of perils.  We should ask, what should we do with those concepts now that we have discovered bacterias, viruses, neoplastic cells, dopamine and serotonin imbalances?