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Divine Cosmology in Canaan

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Religious cosmologies are ways of explaining the history and evolution of the universe based, at least in part, on the acceptance of principles that cannot or need not be justified on the basis of accepted scientific arguments. Most frequently, such theories begin by positing the existence of a gods (or god) who created and/or maintain(s) the universe. Some religious cosmologies have their basis in the teachings of particular religions or religious texts, whereas others are more general reactions to the perceived difficulties in explaining the entire universe without the actions of a planning / coordinating intelligence.

Historically, there have been three main Western belief systems that describe the shape, layout and movements of the earth, as well as the moon, sun and the rest of the universe:

  • The ancient, pre-scientific Pagan view, found throughout the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. 
  • The earth-centered view, which was developed by the ancient Greeks, and was generally accepted educated persons by the 3rd century CE. It survived until after the time of Copernicus (1473-1543 CE).
  • The modern view, which is a refinement of Copernicus’ beliefs of 1543 CE.

Pagan, pre-scientific cosmology in the Middle East. Sumer was one of the world’s first civilizations; it may have actually been the first. Its beginnings can be traced to a collection of farming villages circa 5000 BCE in what is now southern Iraq. It lasted for about three millennia, until finally collapsing after an attack by the Amorites circa 2000 BCE.
 
The Sumerians developed their concept of a multi-layered universe. “The boundary between heaven and earth was a solid (perhaps tin) vault, and the earth was a flat disk. Within the vault lay the gas-like ‘lil’, or atmosphere, the brighter portions therein formed the stars, planets, sun, and moon.”  Variations of this belief spread across the Middle East and Mediterranean regions.

“The physical universe as the ancients perceived it was small, much like a sphere half filled with water, upon which floats the flat disk of the earth. There was water everywhere else — above the heavens, around the earth, and below, flowing around the under-world…This is known as the three-story universe: heaven above, the earth in the middle, and the underworld below.” [1]

To the Babylonians, their chief city, Babylon, was at the center of the world. The Sumerians saw Nippur at the earth’s center. For the Greeks it was Delphi. For the ancient Israelites, and some later Christians, it was Jerusalem.

The Earth was believed to be circular and more or less flat, much like a dinner plate. Columns of mountains around the edge of the Earth held up a rigid dome (vault or sky canopy) which formed the sky. The sky was assumed to be relatively close to the earth – a few thousand feet or so in the air. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:2-9) relates how ancient people living in a plain in the land of Shinar decided to build “a tower whose top may reach unto heaven.” A later text (3 Baruch 3:7) describes how the Tower was eventually built. The builders reached the underside of the sky and attempted to pierce through the metal surface with an auger [2].

Above the dome were the “superior waters,” or “the waters which were above the firmament” as mentioned in Genesis 1. Vents or floodgates in the in the sky canopy could be opened to allow the water to pour down to earth in the form of rain or snow. It was through these gates that the water was poured to cause the flood of Noah, and fire and brimstone were poured to exterminate all life in Sodom and Gomorrah. There were also drains in the earth that allowed water to flow under the earth. Also in the underworld was a massive cavern which the ancient Israelites called “Sheol.” This was the home of the dead where people went after death to live a sort of shadowy, lifeless existence, isolated from God.

The sun, moon, planets and stars were all pushed by supernatural beings across the underside of the dome of the sky each day. Heaven was seen as being located above the superior waters. God was originally viewed as being in a larger-than-human body, who resided in Heaven, seated on a gigantic throne.

Ancient Semitic Cosmology. According to the pantheon, known in Ugarit as ‘il, (‘ilm = Elohim) or the children of El (cf. the Biblical “sons of God”), supposedly obtained by Philo of Byblos from Sanchuniathon of Berythus (Beirut) the creator was known as Elion (Biblical ?l ‘Ely?n = God most High), who was the father of the divinities, and in the Greek sources he was married to Beruth (Beirut = the city). This marriage of the divinity with the city would seem to have Biblical parallels too with the stories of the link between Melqart (Melkart) and Tyre; Yahweh and Jerusalem; Chemosh and Moab; Tanit and Baal Hammon in Carthage. El Elyon is mentioned as ‘God Most High’ occurs in Genesis 14.18–19 as the God whose priest was Melchizedek king of Salem.

From the union of El Elyon and his consort was born Uranus and Ge, Greek names for the “Heaven” and the “Earth”. This closely parallels the opening verse of Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning Elohim gave birth to the Heaven (Shemayim) and the Earth (Eretz)”, and this would appear to be based upon this early Canaanite belief. This also has parallels with the story of the Babylonian Anunaki (i.e. = “Heaven and Earth”; Shamayim and Eretz) too.
In Canaanite mythology there were twin mountains Targhizizi and Tharumagi which hold the firmament up above the earth-circling ocean, thereby bounding the earth. We learn from W. F. Albright for example that El Shaddai is a derivation of a Semitic stem that appears in the Akkadian shadû (”mountain”) and shadd?`û or shaddû`a (”mountain-dweller”), one of the names of Amurru. Philo of Byblos states that Atlas was one of the Elohim, which would clearly fit into the story of El Shaddai as “God of the Mountain(s).” Harriet Lutzky [3]  has presented a hypothesis that Shaddai was an attribute of a Semitic goddess, linking the epithet with Hebrew šad “breast” as “the one of the Breast”. The idea of two mountains being associated here as the breasts of the Earth, fits into the Canaanite mythology quite well. The ideas of pairs of mountains seem to be quite common in Canaanite mythology (similar to Horeb and Sinai in the Bible).

The appearance of “high places” or “holy places” in early Biblical tales (until the centralization of the cult in the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem by Hezekiah and Josiah). Certainly the idea of the “Lords of the Mountain” (Ba’al Hermon and Ba’al Zephon) suggests that there are twin gods mentioned here in the north also. These twin Gods, located on the Eastern and Western extremities are probably the homes of Shachar (the Rising Sun) and Shalim (the setting sun), sons of Asherah and El, known as the “beneficent gods”.

Hebrew Bible-based Cosmological Chart

NOTES:

[1] Gregory Riley, “The River of God” Harper San Francisco, (2001). P. 22.
[2] Ibid., pp. 27-28.
[3] Harriet Lutzky,  “Shadday as a Goddess Epithet”, Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 48, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 15-36

 

Source: 
http://theophyle.wordpress.com
Author: 
Theophyle
Original Date: 
May 23, 2009
Book: 
ANE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Ancient Near East
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