International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. Terms and General Meaning
2. Hebrew Idea of the World
3. Its Extent
4. Origin of the World
5. The Cosmogony of Genesis 1
6. Genesis 1 and Science
1. Terms and General Meaning:
The Hebrews had no proper word for "world" in its wide sense of "universe." The nearest approach to such a meaning is in the phrase "the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1 , etc.). Even this, in a physical reference, does not convey the modern idea, for the earth is still the center with which heaven and the heavenly bodies are connected as adjuncts. It is here, however, to be remembered that to the Hebrew mind the physical world was not the whole. Beyond were the heavens where God's throne was, peopled by innumerable spiritual intelligences, whose hosts worshipped and obeyed Him (Genesis 28:12; Psalm 103:19-21 , etc.). Their conception of the universe was thus enlarged, but the heavens, in this sense, would not be included in the "world." For "world," in its terrestrial meaning, several Hebrew words are used. The King James Version thus occasionally renders the word
In the New Testament a frequent word for "world" is
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. (2) On the other hand, the error is to be avoided of forcing the language of popular, often metaphorical and poetic, description into the hard-and-fast forms of a cosmogony which it is by no means intended by the writers to yield. It is true that the Hebrews had no idea of our modern Copernican astronomy, and thought of the earth as a flat surface, surmounted by a vast expanse of heaven, in which sun, moon and stars were placed, and from whose reservoirs the rain descended. But it is an exaggeration of all this to speak, as is sometimes done, as if the Hebrews were children who thought of the sky as a solid vault (Genesis 1:6-8; Job 37:18 ), supported on pillars (Job 26:11 ), and pierced with windows (Genesis 7:11; Isaiah 24:18 ), through which the rains came. "The world is a solid expanse of earth, surrounded by and resting on a world-ocean, and surmounted by a rigid vault called the 'firmament,' above which the waters of a heavenly ocean are spread" (Skinner). The matter is carried farther when elaborate resemblances are sought between the Hebrew and Babylonian cosmogonies (see below). Such representations, though common, are misleading. Language is not to be pressed in this prosaic, unelastic way. It is forgotten that if the "firmament" or "heaven" is sometimes spoken of as a solid vault, it is at other times compared to a "curtain" stretched out (Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22 ), or a "scroll" that can be rolled up (Isaiah 34:4 ); if "windows" of heaven are once or twice mentioned, in many other places there is a quite clear recognition that the rain comes from the clouds in the air (Judges 5:4; Job 36:28; Psalm 77:17 , etc.); if the earth is sometimes spoken of as a "circle" (Isaiah 40:22 ), at other times it has "corners" and "ends" (Isaiah 11:12; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 37:3; Psalm 19:6 , etc.); if sun, moon and stars are figured as if attached to the firmament - "fixed as nails," as one has put it - "from which they might be said to drop off" (Isaiah 14:12 , etc.), far more frequently the sun is represented as pursuing his free, rejoicing course around the heavens (Psalm 19:5 , Psalm 19:6 , etc.), the moon as "walking" in brightness (Job 31:26 ), etc. The proper meaning of the word
3. Its Extent:
The ideas formed of the extent of the world were naturally limited by the geographical knowledge of the Hebrews, and expanded as that knowledge increased. At no time, however, was it so limited as might be supposed. The TABLE OF NATIONS (which see) in Genesis 10 shows a wide knowledge of the different peoples of the world, "after their tongues, in their lands, in their nations" ( Genesis 10:20 , Genesis 10:31 ). The outlook to the West was bounded by the Mediterranean ("great sea," Numbers 31:6; Ezekiel 47:10 , etc.), with its "islands" (Genesis 10:5; Isaiah 11:11 , etc.), to Tarshish (Spain?) in the extreme West. To the North was the great empire of the Hittites (Joshua 1:4; 1 Kings 10:29 , etc.). North and East across the desert, beyond Syria, lay the familiar region of Mesopotamia (Aram-Naharaim, Psalm 60:1-12 , title), with Ararat (Genesis 8:4 ) still farther North; and, southward, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the ancient and powerful empires of Assyria and Babylonia (Genesis 2:14; Genesis 10:10 , Genesis 10:11 ), with Media and Elam (Genesis 10:2 , Genesis 10:22 ), at a later time Persia (Esther 1:1 ), farther East To the Southeast, between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, lay the great peninsula of Arabia, and to the West of the Red Sea, Southwest of Canaan, the mighty Egypt, Israel's never-forgotten "land of bondage" (Exodus 20:2 , etc.). South of Egypt was Ethiopia. Of more distant peoples, India is first mentioned in Esther 1:1; Esther 8:9 , but trade with it must have been as early as the days of Solomon. On the dim horizon are such peoples as Gomer (the Cimmerians, North of the Euxine Genesis 10:2; Ezekiel 38:6 ) and Magog (Genesis 10:2; Ezekiel 38:2 the Scythians (?)); probably even China is intended by "the land of Sinim" in Isaiah 49:12 . In the apocryphal books and the New Testament the geographical area is perceptibly widened. Particularly do Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Italy, with their islands, cities, etc., come clearly into view. A list like that in Acts 2:9-11 of the representatives of peoples present at the day of Pentecost gives a vivid glimpse of the extent of the Jewish religious connection at this period (compare Acts 8:27 ff).
4. Origin of the World
- B iblical 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.
In contrast with these conflicting, and often foolish and irrational, theories, the Biblical doctrine of the origin of the world stands alone and unique. It is unique because the view of God on which it rests is unique. According to the teaching of the Bible, from its first page to its last, God is a free, personal Spirit, one, omnipotent, holy, and the world originates in a free act of His almighty will (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 33:9; Hebrews 11:3; Revelation 4:11 , etc.), is continually upheld by His power, ruled by His providence, and is the sphere of the realization of His purpose. As against theories of the eternity of the world, accordingly, it declares that the world had a beginning (Genesis 1:1 ); as against dualism, it declares that it is the product of one almighty will (Deuteronomy 4:35; Isaiah 45:7; 1 Corinthians 8:6 , etc.); as against the supposition of an eternal matter, it declares that matter as well as form takes its origin from God (Genesis 1:1; Hebrews 11:3 ); as against pantheism and all theories of necessary development, it affirms the distinction of God from His world, His transcendence over it as well as His immanence in it, and His free action in creation (Ephesians 4:6; Revelation 4:11 ); as against pessimism, it declares the constitution, aim and end of the world to be good (Genesis 1:31; Psalm 33:5; Matthew 5:45 , etc.). To the Old Testament doctrine of the origin of the world the New Testament adds the fuller determination that the world was created through the agency of the "Word" (
5. The Cosmogony of Genesis 1
- C omparison 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 Genesis 1 through 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 3century 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
The superiority of the Gen 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 Genesis 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 (Genesis 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
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'World (Cosmological)'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/w/world-cosmological.html. 1915.