The Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe

Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe.png
Diagram representing features in the early Hebrew conception of the Universe


The Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe

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Knowledge, ordinary as well as well as scientific, is possible only when facts are grouped under hypotheses or theories, which are mental reconstructions arrived at by reflection upon the suggestive materials brought to us through sensation. When an interpretation satisfies all conscious minds capable of grasping it and at the same time accords with the body of interpretations already accepted by the race, then only is it properly to be received as truth. An interpretation satisfies us of its objective reality most fully when with the passage of time and the consequent addition of many new facts to be harmonized, the interpretation still suffices and cannot be put aside. But for every interpretation which thus remains sufficient in the light of the ever accumulating experience of the race and thereby becomes recognized as truth or law, hundreds and hundreds must be discarded. The history of progress in any field of knowledge is largely an account of outgrown hypotheses, of interpretations that were either mistaken or that were, at best, but partially true. Yet, it should never be forgotten, many of these outgrown hypotheses were the best that could have existed under the conditions among which they were formed and that they may have served most uesful purposes,—for hypotheses that prove false are only less useful than those which persist as true. At best, human knowledge is provisional and must remain throughout provisional. No man really possesses the truth, while others have their back to the light and stand contemplating mere shadows.

Truth, then, cannot be given to us from without; we attain it, make it ours, only as we work it out and build it up within our minds. Evidently, too, the nature and degree of truth reached by us must depend intimately upon the interpretations accepted by the people among whom we live and received by us in our social heritage and upon the additional facts of our own personal experience. We can construct truth no higher than the suitability and amount of materials in our mental possession permit. Or, what comes to the same thing, we can comprehend no truth for the representation of which to thought the terms of knowledge already in our possession are insufficient. We perceive truth no faster than we gain experience, and hence "a man is saved no faster than he gets intelligence."

As an illustration, let us consider the conception of the Divine. Here it appears clearly that the shifting ideals of men have ever been reflected in their thoughts concerning God; and that at no time has the conception of God risen higher than the-highest ideals existing at the time in other phases of life. With the growth of the race has gone steadily on in parallel strengthening and broadening in our conception of the power, love and justice of God. Our own ancestors, as well as all other peoples in their early developments, felt that they must have a god for each household. The greater gods, numerous though they were, were believed to be too busy with the priests and kings to have time for ordinary human beings. To the early Hebrews, Jehovah was God of their tribe only, their special protector, the fighter of their battles against other peoples. It was a big step when after Christ's work men were able to conceive God as a God to all peoples and races, as a God primarily of love and justice toward all mankind and not of vengeance. But the conception of power in God was limited like the world of the people of Euorpe for many centuries. The idea that there could be two continents was opposed and ridiculed on the ground that God could not watch more than one. Likewise for a long time it was inevitable that the world should be regarded as the center of the universe and the sole inhabited place. The idea that there might be other worlds inhabited and under the control of God seemed absurd,—seemed unthinkable. Only as through the studies and thought of Aryan peoples we have been brought to perceive the immense power in Nature, have we been able to realize this Nature as the continuous handiwork of God and to conceive God as the All- Enfolding, All-Upholding Intelligence as well as the One in whom the Hebrews saw dominantly the attributes of Ruler and Father.

It should be clear, then, that if we would truly understand and appreciate the literature preserved to us from the past, we must place ourselves, so far as possible, in the world in which the writer lived and thought and must guard constantly against reading into his words meanings which are developments of later years or, it may be, centuries. Those who in the reading of the Old Testament thus fail to gain at the outset some understanding of the world in which the early Hebrews lived and of the conceptions which they held, understand but imperfectly and, of necessity, fail very largely in estimating justly the value of the books. For, assuredly, it is only as We perceive the, constant" growth, the consistent evolution, in the Bible and recognize in it the progressive unfolding of the divine—the spiritual and divine in the Hebrew-race that it has its highest meaning for us and can teach and stimulate us. It is the progressiveness in the Bible that gives it life; its errancy in many matters that represent merely the accepted views of the day and people do not weaken but, properly understood, should strengthen the value which it may have for us. The true power, inspiration and leadership in the prophets of which it gives record stand out fully and clearly only as we appreciate the limitations of knowledge and belief belonging generally to their times.

Much misunderstanding of biblical passages has arisen and continues to arise through failure of readers to consider or properly to grasp the conception of the universe which prevailed among the Hebrews and neighboring peoples down even to the time of Christ and later. What this conception was appears clearly not only from numerous isolated passages scattered through the books of the Old Testament but also, and much more clearly, from detailed and more or less connected descriptive accounts that have come down to us in Hebrew writings of the second century B. C. Not a little light, too, is shed by the beliefs among related peoples which in particular cases have been preserved to us, as especially those found in records of ancient Babylon. In the present article the aim is briefly to review these early Hebrews' ideas of the universe.

Water by the Hebrews was regarded as the foundation of all things else. It was to them the truly elementary substance. Before the earth was formed, it was supposed that water alone existed in space. At creation the earth took shape in a great watery expanse, termed by the Hebrews, Tehom, the Great Deep. To Tehom various epithets were applied; such as, "waste and void," "the deep" and simply "the waters," the two latter appearing, for example, in Genesis 1:2: "And darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."[1]

Like other primitive peoples the Hebrews very naturally thought the earth flat. They imagined it to have been formed primarily as a disc-shaped body upon or in the midst of the waters of Tehom or the Great Deep. "The earth is Jehovah's…… ) for he hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the floods"' (Psalms 21:1, 2). At first the earth was involved by the waters of the Great Deep and hence dry land could not appear, as was supposed, until the waters were held back from the surface of the disc in some way. This was accomplished through the formation of the firmament.

The Hebrew word which in our Bibles is translated by the Latin firmament is Rakia, a word referring ordinarily and primarily to a metallic plate, to metal beaten out thin or into sheet-like form. The Hebrews applied this term to the sky because they sincerely believed that it was a material vault of metallic character, that it was, in very fact, a firmament. It was this strong metallic vault that, in their idea, kept back the waters of Tehom from the earth and made possible the gathering together of the remnant waters into the seas and the appearance of dry land. Thus were waters thought of as rolling above the sky or Rakia as well as beneath the earth, from which becomes clear the meaning of Genesis 1:6, 7: "And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters; and let it divide the waters from the waters."

"And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so." Also Psalms 136:6: "Praise him ye heavens of heavens and ye waters that are above the heavens." After the formation of the Rakia or firmament the next step in the creation ensued in natural order as recorded in Genesis 1:0: "Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so."

Both the waters above the firmament and those beneath the earth were believed by the Hebrews in common with the Babylonians and other neighboring peoples to be inhabited by certain great monsters, among which that known as Rahab and one called Leviathan seem to have been most prominent. Many of the peoples about the Hebrews made images they worshiped. It was this practice against which was directed the command recorded in Exodus 20:4: "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the waters under the earth."

In the depths of the earth was Sheol, the abode of departed spirits, to which there are many ref- For example we read in Amos 9:2: "Though they dig into Sheol thence shall my hand take them; and though they climb up to heaven,, thence will I bring them down." Also in Numbers 16:30: "But if Jehovah make a new thing, and the ground open its mouth, and swallow them up with all that appertain to them, and then go down alive into Sheol; then ye shall understand that these men have despised Jehovah." Sheol was regarded is a place without cheer or joy, a place of darkness and confusion," even to the land of darkness and of, the shadow of death;
The land dark as midnight,
The land of the shadow of death, without any order,
And where the light is as midnight." (Job 10:21, 22.)

In the earlier times Sheol was regarded as the place appointed for all mortals after death irrespective of any moral distinctions. Social and civic distinctions, however, were thought to be preserved; kings still sat upon thrones and every man was gathered unto his own tribe and family. Thus it corresponded rather closely to the Greek Hades. This view prevailed up to the second century B. C, when a religious significance began to be attached to the place. The belief became prevalent that in Sheol people were segregated according to moral merit, the good going into one division arid the wicked into another, and that they remained here only temporarily, as in a place of waiting. With the development of the dictrine of resurrection for the righteous, Sheol came to be regarded, naturally, as the abode of the wicked only, first as their temporary abode, and finally as their ultimate destination. Thus the place finally came to have the significance of Hell as used in later times.

From the waters of Tehom or the Great Deep channels, it was believed, led up through the earth to its surface. Through these passes water rose and appeared as springs and fountains. These were termed by the Hebrews tehomoth, which is merely the diminutive of Tehom and correspondingly means offshoots of Tehom, etc., the word in the English Bible being rendered most commonly as the "fountains of the deep." "On the same day were all the fountains of the deep broken up" (Genesis 7.11).
"When he made firm the skies above,
When the fountains of the deep became strong" (Proverbs 8:28).

The firmament or sky, termed by the Hebrews, as we have already mentioned, Rakia, was regarded as composed of metal and as forming a strong arched vault. The vault was supported at the limits or "ends" of the earth upon scripture are what are referred very high mountains, which in to as the pillars of heaven, as in Job 26:11:
"The pillars of heaven tremble
And are astonished at his rebuke."

The firmament is referred to in Job 37:18 as follows:
"Canst thou with him spread out the sky,
Which is strong as a molten mirror?"

And in Exodus 24:10 it is compared in appearance to sapphire: "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet, as it were, a paved work of sapphire stone." For it was believed that God had his mansions built in the waters above the heaven or firmament and resting upon it, so that he actually walked upon the latter and from the height looked down over the entire earth. "Who stretcheth out the heavens like a curtain;
Who layeth the beams of his Clambers in the waters." (Psalms 104:2, 3.)

"It is he that buildeth his chambers in the heavens and hath founded his vault upon the earth." (Amos 9:6.)

"Thick clouds are a covering to him, so, that he seeth not;
And he walketh on the vault of the heavens." (Job 22:14.)

Doors opened from the chambers through the firmament, and the reference in the following passage is to them in a literal sense:
"Yet he commanded the skies above,
And opened the doors of heaven,
And he rained down manna upon them to eat." (Psalms 78:23, 24.)

The firmament or Rakia was not commonly regarded as being at any excessive height above the surface of the earth even at its highest part, and it is, hence, easy to understand how Jacob could have dreamed of the ladder that reached from earth to the portal of heaven so that angels ascended and descended upon it. (See Genesis 28:12). Likewise, with this in mind, we can readily conceive how the thought of building a tower that should literally reach to heaven could exist among these peoples. "And they said, Come, let us build a city, and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven." (Genesis 11:4).

In the upper portion of the firmament were windows which could be opened and closed. When opened, of course, water of the upper seas poured through alarm, but never yet has it failed and fell down upon the earth, thus giving rain. Many of the heavy rains upon the earth were regarded as resulting in this way from the opening of these windows. The torrents that led to the great flood were supposed to have been brought about in this way as we read in the following passage: 'On the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of the heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights." (Genesis 7:11, 42). "When he closes the windows of heaven and withholds the rain and dew from descending on the earth on your account, what will ye do then?"

At each of the four "ends" of the earth were supposed to be three portals through the firmament, making thus twelve portals in all, through which from special chambers, issued the winds and storms, etc. From one of the three doors in the east side or "face" of the heaven, the southermost, came forth destruction, drought, heat and certain rains; from the middle one came forth "rain and fruitfulness and prosperity and dew"; while from the northermost issued "cold and drought." Through the eastermost of the three portals in the south came a "hot wind," through the middle one "fragrant smells and dew and rain and prosperity and health"; while through the third were supposed to issue "dew and rain, locusts and destruction." Through the eastermost of the three portals in the north came forth "dew and rain, locusts and destruction"; from the middle one came forth "in a direct direction rain and dew, and health and prosperity"; and through the third "cloud and hoar-frost, and snow and rain, and dew and locusts." Finally through the northermost portal in the west issued "dew and rain, hoar-frost and cold, and snow and frost"; from the middle one "dew and rain, prosperity and blessing," and from the third came forth "drought and destruction, conflagration and death."

The sun, moon and stars were believed to move beneath the firmament and in contact with its under surface. Hence, we can readily see why in the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis these heavenly bodies are represented as not having been created until the fourth day, after the firmament was set in place. The dry land of the earth had appeared and had given rise already, indeed, to the vegetation. It should be noted that the sun was thought of as set in the firmament as the sign and "ruler" of the day but that it was not in any sense connected with the cause of day. Night is mentioned in Genesis as having been separated from darkness upon the first day; and day and night ahd entered upon their alternation before any of the heavenly bodies had been formed. By many the sun was believed to roll across the vault of the firmament in a chariot which, was driven by the wind. It was represented that in the eastern side or the face of the firmament there were six doors or portals through which the sun entered from chambers outside the vault, and that in the western side of the firmament there were also six portals. For thirty days the sun passed through the first portal and at evening, after traversing the sky, passed out through the corresponding opening in the west. At the end of the month the sun entered by the second portal; and so on until the sixth had been reached after passing through which for a month it returned to the fifth, and so on in regular succession back to the first again. Thus were explained the north and south movements of the sun and the accompanying changes in relative length of night and day, etc., from month to month throughout the year. The moon entered the left through the same portals as the sun; while above and at the sides of the six portals were many smaller windows furnishing passage to the stars. The heavenly bodies, after passing out through the openings in the west, returned to their chambers in the east by way of the north. The laws supposed to regulate in detail the movements of the heavenly bodies came finally to represent a complex system.RALPH V. CHAMBERLIN

  1. Quotations from the Bible in the present article are from the text of the Revised Version.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1967, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.