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Cosmological World

wurld, koz-mo-loj’-i-kal:

1. Terms and General Meaning

2. Hebrew Idea of the World

3. Its Extent

4. Origin of the World--Biblical and Contrasted Views

5. The Cosmogony of Genesis 1--Comparison with Babylonian and Other Cosmogonies

6. Genesis 1 and Science


1. Terms and General Meaning:

2. Hebrew Idea of the World:

Two errors are to be avoided in framing a representation of the Hebrew conception of the world.

(1) The attempt should not be made to find in the Biblical statements precise anticipations of modern scientific discoveries. The relations of the Biblical teaching to scientific discovery are considered below. Here it is enough to say that the view taken of the world by Biblical writers is not that of modern science, but deals with the world simply as we know it--as it lies spread out to ordinary view--and things are described in popular language as they appear to sense, not as telescope, microscope, and other appliances of modern knowledge reveal their nature, laws and relations to us. The end of the narration or description is throughout religious, not theoretic.

3. Its Extent:

4. Origin of the World--Biblical and Contrasted Views:

From the first there has been abundant speculation in religion and philosophy as to how the world came to be--whether it was eternal, or had a commencement, and, if it began to be, how it originated. Theories were, as they are still, numberless and various. Some cosmogonies were purely mythological (Babylonian, Hesiod); some were materialistic (Democritus, Epicurus--"concourse of atoms"); some were demiurgic (Plato in Timaeus--an eternal matter formed by a demiurge); some were emanational (Gnostics--result of overflowing of fullness of divine life in "aeons"); some were dualistic (Parsism, Manicheism--good and evil principles in conflict); some imagined endless "cycles"--alternate production and destruction (Stoics, Buddhist kalpas); many were pantheistic (Spinoza--an eternal "substance," its "attributes" necessarily determined in their "modes"; Hegel, "absolute spirit," evolving by logical necessity); some are pessimistic (Schopenhauer--the world the result of an irrational act of "will"; hence, necessarily evil), etc.

5. The Cosmogony of Genesis 1--Comparison with Babylonian and Other Cosmogonies:

No stronger proof could be afforded of the truth and sublimity of the Biblical account of the origin of things than is given by the comparison of the narrative of creation in Ge 1-2:4, with the mythological cosmogonies and theogonies found in other religions. Of these the best known, up to the time of recent discoveries, were the Babylonian account of the creation preserved by Berosus, a priest of Babylon in the 3rd century BC, and the Theogony of the Greek Hesiod (9th century BC). Hesiod’s poem is a confused story of how from Chaos came forth Earth, Tartarus (Hell), Eros (Love) and Erebus (Night). Erebus gives birth to Aether (Day). Earth produces the Heaven and the Sea. Earth and Heaven, in turn, become the parents of the elder gods and the Titans. Cronus, one of these gods, begets Zeus. Zeus makes war on his father Cronus, overthrows him, and thus becomes king of the Olympian gods. The descent of these is then traced. How far this fantastic theory, commencing with Chaos, and from it generating Nature and the gods, has itself an original affinity with Babylonian conceptions, need not here be discussed. It hardly surpasses in crudeness the late shape of the Babylonian cosmogony furnished by Berosus. Here, too, Chaos--"darkness and water"--is the beginning, and therefrom are generated strange and peculiar forms, men with wings and with two faces, or with heads and horns of goats, bulls with human heads, dogs with four bodies, etc. Over this welter a woman presides, called Omorka. Belus appears, cuts the woman in twain, of one half of her makes the heavens, and of the other the earth, sets the world in order, finally makes one of the gods cut off his head, and from the blood which flowed forth, mixed with earth, forms intelligent man. That Berosus has not essentially misrepresented the older Babylonian conceptions is now made apparent through the recovery of the Babylonian story itself.

In 1875 George Smith discovered, among the tablets in the British Museum brought from the great library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (7th century BC), several on which was inscribed the Chaldean story of creation, and next year published his work, The Chaldean Account of Gen. The tablets, supplemented by other fragments, have since been repeatedly translated by other hands, the most complete translation being that by L. W. King in his Seven Tablets of Creation in the Babylonian and Assyrian Legends concerning the Creation of the World. The story of these tablets, still in many parts fragmentary, is now familiar (see Religion of Babylonia and Assyria). Here, too, the origin of all things is from Chaos, the presiding deities of which are Apsu and Tiamat. The gods are next called into being. Then follows a long mythological description, occupying the first four tablets, of the war of Marduk with Tiamat, the conflict issuing in the woman being cut in two, and heaven being formed of one half and earth of the other. The 5th tablet narrates the appointing of the constellations. The 6th seems to have recorded the creation of man from the blood of Marduk. This mythological epic is supposed by many scholars to be the original of the sublime, orderly, monotheistic account of the creation which stands at the commencement of our Bible. The Babylonian story is (without proof) supposed to have become naturalized in Israel, and there purified and elevated in accordance with the higher ideas of Israel’s religion. We cannot subscribe to this view, which seems to us loaded with internal and historical improbabilities. Points of resemblance are indeed alleged, as in the use of the Hebrew word tehom for "deep" (Ge 1:2), cognate with Tiamat; the separation of heaven and earth (Ge 1:6-8); the appointing of the constellations (Ge 1:14-18), etc. But in the midst of the scanty resemblances, how enormous are the contrasts, which all writers acknowledge! Gunkel, e.g., says, "Anyone who compares this ancient Babylonian myth with Ge 1, will perceive at once hardly anything else than the infinite distance between them. There the heathen gods, inflamed against each other in wild warfare, here the One, who speaks and it is done" (Israel und Babylonien, 24). One can understand how these wild polytheistic legends could arise from corruption of a purer, simpler form, but not vice versa. The idea of a "deep," or chaos, must have preceded the fanciful and elaborate creation of the woman-monster, Tiamat; the distinction of sky and earth would go before the coarse idea of the cutting of the woman in two; and so with the other features of supposed resemblance. Professor Clay has recently shown reason for challenging the whole idea of the borrowing of these myths from Babylonia, and declares that "it is unreasonable to assume that the Hebrew tehom is a modification of a Babylonian pattern ..... To say, therefore, that the origin of the Marduk-Tiamat myth is to be found in a Nippurian version, originally known as Ellil-Tiamat, is utterly without foundation" (Amurru, 50). Much more reasonably may we adopt the hypothesis of Dillmann, Kittel, Hommel, Oettli, etc., that the relation between these Babylonian legends and the Biblical narratives is one of cognateness, and not of derivation. These traditions came down from a much older source and are preserved by the Hebrews in their purer form (see the writer’s POT, 402-9).

The superiority of the Ge cosmogony to those of other peoples is generally admitted, but objection to it is taken in the name of modern science. The narrative conflicts, it is said, with both modern astronomy and modern geology; with the former, in regarding the earth as the center of the universe, and with the latter in its picture of the order and stages of creation, and the time occupied in the work (for a full statement of these alleged discrepancies, see Dr. Driver’s Genesis, Introduction).

6. Genesis 1 and Science:

On the general question of the harmony of the Bible with science it is important that a right standpoint be adopted. It has already been stated that it is no part of the aim of the Biblical revelation to anticipate the discoveries of 19th-century and 20th-century science. The world is taken as it is, and set in its relations to God its Creator, without consideration of what after-light science may throw on its inner constitution, laws and methods of working. As Calvin, with his usual good sense, in his commentary on Ge 1 says, "Moses wrote in the popular style, which, without instruction, all ordinary persons endowed with common sense are able to understand. .... He does not call us up to heaven; but only proposes things that lie open before our eyes." This of itself disposes of the objection drawn from astronomy, for everywhere heaven and earth are spoken of according to their natural appearances, and not in the language of modern Copernican science. To this hour we use the same language in speaking of the sun rising and setting.

The further objection that modern knowledge discredits the Biblical view by showing how small a speck the world is in the infinitude of the universe is really without force. Whatever the extent of the universe, it remains the fact that on this little planet life has effloresced into reason, and we have as yet no ground in science for believing that anywhere else it has ever done so (compare Dr. A. R. Wallace’s striking book, Man’s Place in the Universe). Even supposing that there are any number of inhabited worlds, this does not detract from the soul’s value in this world, or from God’s love in the salvation of its sinful race. The objection drawn from geology, though so much is sometimes made of it, is hardly more formidable. It does not follow that, because the Bible does not teach modern science, we are justified in saying that it contradicts it. On the contrary, it may be affirmed, so true is the standpoint of the author in this first chapter of Gen, so divine the illumination with which he is endowed, so unerring his insight into the order of Nature, that there is little in his description that even yet, with our advanced knowledge, we need to change. To quote words used elsewhere, "The dark watery waste over which the spirit broods with vivifying power, the advent of light, the formation of an atmosphere or sky capable of sustaining the clouds above it, the settling of the great outlines of the continents and seas, the clothing of the dry land with abundant vegetation, the adjustment of the earth’s relation to sun and moon as the visible rulers of its day and night, the production of the great seamonsters and reptile-like creatures and birds, the peopling of the earth with four-footed beasts and cattle, last of all, the advent of man--is there so much of all this which science requires us to cancel?" (Orr, Christian View of God and the World, 421).

Even in regard to the "days"--the duration of time involved--there is no insuperable difficulty. The writer may well have intended symbolically to represent the creation as a great week of work, ending with the Creator’s Sabbath rest. In view, however, of the fact that days of 24 hours do not begin to run till the appointment of the sun on the 4th day (Ge 1:14), it seems more probable that he did not intend to fix a precise length to his creation "days." This is no new speculation. Already Augustine asks, "Of what fashion these days were it is exceeding hard or altogether impossible to think, much more to speak" (De Civ. Dei, xi.6, 7); and Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages leaves the matter an open question. Neither does this narrative, in tracing the origin of all things to the creative word of God, conflict with anything that may be discovered by science as to the actual method of creation, e.g. in evolution. Science itself is gradually coming to see the limits within which the doctrine of evolution must be received, and, kept within these limits, there is nothing in that doctrine which brings it into conflict with the Biblical representations (see Anthropology; Creation; EVOLUTION; also the writer’s works, God’s Image in Man and Sin as a Problem of Today). Whatever may be said of the outward form of the narrative, one has only to look at the great ideas which the first chapter of Genesis is intended to teach to see that it conveys those great truths on the origin and ordering of things which are necessary as the basis of a true religious view of the world, no matter to what stage knowledge or science may attain. This chapter, standing at the head of the Bible, lays the foundation for all that follows in the Biblical view of the relation of God to the world, and yields the ground for our confidence that, as all things are created by God and dependent on Him, so everything in Nature and providence is at His disposal for the execution of His purposes and the care and protection of His people. The story of creation, therefore, remains to all time of the highest religious value.


See articles "Earth" in Smith’s DB and in EB. The other works mentioned above may be consulted. A valuable extended discussion of the word "Firmament" may be seen in Essay V of the older work, Aids to Faith (London, Murray), 220-30.