Friday, 29 April 2011

The meaning of "expanse" in Genesis 1. Part 5

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Seely's second and third essays cover slightly different topics than the expanse per se. The second essay is on the water above the expanse and the third on ancient views of the earth and seas.

In Seely's second essay "The Firmament and the Water Above Part II: The Meaning of 'The Water above the Firmament' in Gen 1:6-8" from The Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992) (pdf) he discusses the waters above the expanse. Though I disagree with his conclusions he makes a few valid points. I am not going to discuss the waters above in this series so I will just say that I think much of my disagreement here relates to his emphasis on other cultures. Interestingly, Genesis is somewhat unique here anyway,
Among scientifically naive peoples, who have universally believed in a solid firmament, only a very few seem to have a concept of an ocean or of water being stored in bottles above the firmament. We must beware of arguing from silence, but the vast majority of primitive peoples evidence no belief in a body of water existing above the firmament.
As I previously said, I think Genesis is primary so there is much less to learn from other cosmogonies concerning the interpretation of Genesis than Seely thinks there is.
There are also, of course, obvious differences between the two accounts both materially and even more so in their contrasting theologies. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Genesis is dependent upon Enuma Elish. Nevertheless, the two accounts are both ancient Near Eastern documents containing some very similar concepts and there may well be some genetic connection between them. Consequently, Enuma Elish is an important historical document for shedding light on the concepts employed in Genesis 1. This is particularly true with regard to nontheological matters wherever a parallel clearly exists between the two accounts.
If they are both dependant on a common source perhaps; but even if this were the case, if Genesis is essentially edited narrative and Enuma Elish is mythologised history and speculation then the latter is less helpful in interpreting Genesis than vice versa.

Seely's third essay is "The Geographical meaning of 'Earth' and 'Seas' in Genesis 1:10" Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997). Again he discusses views from other ancient cultures. He describes an ancient view of the earth as flat with an inverted bowl forming the sky. I find this comment interesting,
Scientifically naive peoples everywhere regularly conceive of the earth as a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc. There are rare exceptions; but, in no case have they thought of the earth as a planetary globe. The human mind, as clearly evidenced by prescientific peoples, just naturally defines the earth as flat-until informed otherwise by modern science. Even pre-adolescent children in modern Western societies think of the earth as flat until informed otherwise by modern science.
Which raises 2 questions. Why does Seely think that the view of children has much relevance? Children think the world is flat because it appears so, but the concept of a large globe appearing flat locally is an easy concept to teach them.

The other question is: How did people centuries prior to the scientific revolution know that the earth was a globe? He acknowledges this later in his essay but 500 BC can hardly be considered contemporary with modern science. It is possible that astronomy was somewhat different in the millennia before Christ to what Seely suspects, and many ancient cosmogonies may reflect a loss of knowledge rather the earliest knowledge.

Most of the rest of the essay does not concern the expanse directly. This comment from Seely on the meaning for the Hebrew word raqa` is interesting. "Expanse" is the Hebrew raqiya` which is derived from raqa` as mentioned in the first post.
The exact relationship of the earth to the waters is expressed by the preposition `al. The preposition cal usually means "upon" and that is the first meaning given for it in both KB and BDB. Further, the other meanings of `al all flow out from the meaning "upon." Thus the first thing BDB says about the preposition ‘al is that its meaning is "upon, and hence ... [then follows a list of its other meanings]." The meaning, "upon," therefore, is an appropriate translation of `al in a text like Ps 136:6 where the immediate context does not lead us to any other meaning. The meaning "upon" is also the one most often chosen by modern translators of this verse including the translators of the NIV, even though Harris was a major editor of the NIV. The Hebrew invites this translation, and there is no contextual reason to translate the verse differently.

Unfortunately, the only time the verb raqa` is used with the preposition `al in the OT is in Ps 136:6. But, raqa` has a close synonym, namely (iii, radad) which also apparently means "beat" or "spread out;" and, this synonym is used with the preposition `al in I Kgs 6:32 where it describes overlaying the cherubim with gold plating: "he spread out the gold over or upon (`al) the cherubim." It seems very probable, therefore, that the synonymous phraseology in Ps 136:6 (especially in the light of Isa 40:19 which uses raqa` in the sense of "overlay") means that the earth is spread out over or upon the sea. As gold overlays the cherubim in I Kgs 6:32 so the earth overlays the sea in Ps 136:6.
I think that thru-out these 3 essays Seely gives too much weight to primitive cosmologies. While they have some similarities to each other, they differ from each other in several places. In which case differences may exist between them and the ancient Hebrew cosmology.

1 comment:

  1. It seems he's made the leap here .. raqia can refer to the crust of the Earth.

    On the flat-Earth discussion - I find it impossible to believe that any people group could believe in a flat Earth unless they had superstitious reasons to do so. There are far too many easily observed facts that counter the idea of a flat Earth.

    ReplyDelete

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