What does the Bible really say about the origins of the universe? The biblical authors had a completely different framework for this question than we do. When we expect the Bible to settle our debates, we close ourselves off from understanding the text as they intended it. In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they kick off a new series on Genesis 1-3, beginning with a look at ancient cosmologies.
When you fly on a plane, you’re going not to an ancient time but to another culture. When we open the pages of the Bible, we are doing both. We’re going to another culture in another period of history. One easy way of summarizing the modern debates and why there are so many different views is that they result from people not treating Genesis 1 and 2 as ancient texts. It comes from a desire to read an ancient text as if its language is addressing our modern ideas and categories for talking about cosmology. An ancient text can communicate things that address a modern audience, but that’s very different than reading an ancient text as if it was written in the modern age.
In part one (0:00-8:15), Tim and Jon begin discussing a new series exploring ancient cosmology, looking closely at Genesis 1-3, chapters which they reference at some point in almost every other BibleProject series.
When we read the Bible as one story that leads to Jesus, we find that Genesis 1-3 prepares us for the rest of the story. The themes presented in these opening pages repeat throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
Tim and Jon will focus on the issues that would have concerned the original authors, rather than contemporary creation and evolution debates. When we come to the Bible primarily to settle contemporary debates, we’re predisposed to not understand the context of its words.
In part two (8:15-12:30), Tim and Jon discuss a basic but often overlooked fact: the Bible is an ancient text.
Any act of communication—verbal, non-verbal, written, or visual—carries meaning based on its particular language and its historical and cultural context. An ancient text can address things that are valuable to a modern audience, but we should never read an ancient text as if it were written for a modern audience.
In part three (12:30-20:00), the team borrows principles from communications theory to read the Bible effectively. Namely, because reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience, we have to step into a different cultural worldview to understand it.
Effective communication requires a body of agreed-upon words, terms, and ideas, a common ground of understanding. For the speaker, this often requires accommodation to the audience by using words and ideas they will understand. For the audience, if they are not native to the language and cultural matrix of the speaker, this means reaching common ground may require seeking out additional information or explanation. In other words, the audience has to adapt to a new and unfamiliar culture.
(John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 2006, pages 19-20)
Language and cultural values change over time. The original cultural context of the Hebrew Bible authors determines the meaning of the words and genres they employed.
The Bible is designed to be studied, not merely read. (That’s why, for thousands of years, Jewish children have grown up studying and reciting it––it is meditation literature).
In part four (20:00-27:00), Tim and Jon shift their focus from ancient words to ancient cosmologies, the second key to understanding the Hebrew Bible.
Ancient cosmologies are narratives about the origins and nature of the universe (coming from the Greek words “cosmos” and “logos”). Genesis 1 and 2 form an ancient Hebrew cosmology.
Ancient Near Eastern cosmologies do not intend to describe the physical and material process by which the universe came into being. Instead, their primary purpose is to address basic worldview issues: Who are we? Where are we? Why are we here? Who are the gods?
The Bible’s creation narratives are not in dialogue with modern scientific ideas about world origins, but they are in dialogue with ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite cosmologies.
The framers of creation in the Bible inherited a treasure trove of venerable traditions from their cultural neighbors. Instead of creating their accounts ex nihilo [out of nothing], the composers of Scripture developed their traditions in dialogue with some of the great religious traditions of the surrounding cultures, particularly those originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as those of their more immediate Canaanite neighbors.
(William Brown, Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford University Press, 2010)
The biblical authors, carried along by God’s Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), wrote the story of the Bible using commonly understood language for their time and culture. (As an example, we commonly talk about the concept of the “atom” as the building block of the universe. This is part of a shared contemporary Western understanding of the cosmos).
In part five (27:00-end), Tim and Jon conclude by considering the ancient Near Eastern understanding of the physical construction of the solar system, which was drastically different from our own.
While today we know the center of the solar system is the sun and that Earth revolves around it, ancient people thought Earth was at the center. It’s all too easy to scoff at cosmologies that seem primitive or rudimentary to us. But if we want to understand and appreciate the Bible in depth, we have to develop an understanding of ancient words and ancient Near Eastern cosmologies.
Show produced by Dan Gummel, Zack McKinley, and Cooper Peltz. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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