52 Day 3 according to ancient cosmology

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas” (Genesis 1:9-10).

When, from the perspective of our modern cosmology, we picture land emerging from the sea, we understand this to occur by the land increasing in elevation. An undersea volcano will eventually form an island, for example, if it grows high enough. The process is driven by gravity: Water flows downhill, and so if the hill is high enough, with a sufficiently large catch-basin at the bottom, the top will be dry.

But the Genesis account does not appeal to gravity. That is, it says neither that the land was raised, nor that the sea was made deeper. The waters were simply “gathered together”—pushed to one side, out of the way. The proper analogy to draw is to something that happens when one is making a white sauce in a large flat skillet. Once it thickens, it can be pushed to one side with a swift movement of the spatula, momentarily revealing the dry bottom of the pan. The only difference is, in the Genesis account, the waters stay put when moved aside.


Other Old Testament accounts of creation confirm this understanding. Psalm 33:6-7 says, for example, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea as into a heap; he puts the deep into storehouses.” (This is an alternative translation that the NIV suggests in a footnote; it’s cited here to show the parallel with the Old Testament passages cited next, which use the same term.) The “heap” in question truly is a wall of water. This is seen clearly from Exodus 15:8 and Psalm 78:13, where the term describes how the Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites to pass through, and Joshua 3:13 and 16, where it describes how the Jordan River’s upstream flow heaped up to allow the Israelites to enter the promised land. God thus commands the waters into what is, to us, a gravity-defying position, not just temporarily at the time of the exodus and conquest, but durably at creation itself.

Other Old Testament creation accounts appeal to God’s power and command as the force holding back these walls of water:

I was there when he set the heavens in place,
When he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
When he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
And when he marked out the foundations of the earth. (Prov. 8:27-29).

Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb,
When I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness,
When I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place,
When I said, “This far you may come and no farther,
Here is where your proud waves halt”? (Job 38:8-11)

The same force is understood to be at work in Genesis 1, since it is at the command of God that the waters are “gathered together.”

This is another case in which we can share the phenomenological viewpoint of the Genesis author through intentional naïve observation. If we take a walk by the seashore, we will recognize that the waters indeed appear to be higher than the earth (an optical illusion that results from a distortion of perspective), as if they had been pushed back off its surface. And the tides and waves that arise incessantly appear to be waters trying to reclaim the earth. But each time, they retreat back to within their boundaries.

The idea of waters being pushed back into a pile at the edge of the land does not square with what we understand about gravity, but if we can nevertheless grasp the notion in our minds, we will be well on our way to appreciating the observational perspective from which the Genesis creation account is actually written. Only when we achieve such an appreciation can we understand the implications for us today of the fact that the passage is written from this perspective.

One thought on “52 Day 3 according to ancient cosmology”

  1. One aspect that is challenging for us to simulate today is that the ancient reader accepted what we call the phenomenological understanding as being what was really there, while we know too much to think that. I think we should try to forget our understandings from modern science as best we can when reading Scripture, doing this is somewhat counterintuitive. But your book helped me with this, thanks.


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