Saul Steinberg’s famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue” mocks the outlook of the self-absorbed New Yorker. Manhattan is shown in sharp detail, but that detail fades with interest. Looking west, beyond the Hudson River is a featureless “Jersey” and a rectangle of land with a few scattered state labels representing the United States. Beyond that, the Pacific Ocean and a couple of distant countries. That’s it. That’s enough.
The Myopia of Genesis 1
And that’s the view we get in Genesis.
God created the sky as a vault to separate the saltwater sea above from the earth below and the freshwater sea beneath (Genesis 1:6). This is from Sumerian cosmology, which preceded the Bible, and which the Judean priesthood probably picked up while in exile in Babylon during the 500s BCE. We see this prescientific cosmology later during the flood story: “All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Gen. 7:11). Water comes from above and below because of the two hidden seas.
Over subsequent days, God’s creative focus narrows as he makes vegetation (Day 3), lights hung in the vault of the sky (Day 4), sea creatures (Day 5), land animals, and then Man (Day 6).
“He also made the stars”—it takes half of one verse, and in Hebrew, it’s a single word. That’s all the Bible says about the 99.9999999999999999999999999% of the universe that’s not the earth.* It’s just a blue watery dome over Mesopotamia holding little stars hung by strings to guide us at night.
“View of the World from the Bible”
Let’s recreate this famous magazine cover as the biblical version. This myopic view of the world would show the newly rebuilt Temple in sharp detail, as well as Jerusalem. Looking east, we’d see the Jordan River valley and the Dead Sea, and beyond that, a featureless Moab and Ammon, the desert, and then Persia. Out at the horizon beyond Persia, we’d see the edge of the water dome that covered the world. High up in the sky, we’d see the sun, moon, and little bitty stars.
The Bible is a human document. Its only perspective was that of Iron Age men.
Maybe the Bible is supposed to be that way
You could respond, of course, by saying that this was a natural view for a primitive people. It was all they could handle. But these people 2500 years ago weren’t fundamentally different from us. They had the same mental capability. If we can understand and marvel at the view of the universe provided by modern science, why wouldn’t God document the modern scientific view?
The God of Genesis was a primitive, stunted god. He’s given a very limited palette to work with. Many Christians today whip up (without justification) all sorts of extraordinary qualities of God—new qualities that the authors of Genesis couldn’t imagine. That he’s infinite, beyond time, omniscient, omnipotent. The Genesis god needed six days to shape his limited earth, while today’s god is said to have created the entire universe with its 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars.
Whatever science comes up with, the Christian response from many quarters is, “Oh yeah—we knew that. Let me tell you how we modify our god concept to adapt.”
Christians quickly co-opt the awe that science gives to add to the majesty of God’s creation—from the aurora borealis to Saturn’s rings to a distant nebula. But if awe is important to modern believers, why not give it to ancient ones?
Science is where awe comes from, not from the Genesis story or the Bible’s assurance that God can move mountains.
If the Bible were from a god, it would look like it.
Atheists read the Bible the way we have to read the Bible:
in the same historical manner with which we read every ancient source.
To do anything else is special pleading.
— commenter vorjack
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/5/14.)
Image credit: Donnie Ray Jones, flickr, CC