26 January 2017

The Bible and the Cosmos (4): The End of the Heavens

When the biblical writers use the phrase "the earth," they refer to a landmass, not a planet. Similarly, when they refer to "the heavens," they describe the expanse above the landmass, not outer space.

This can be seen in several passages that describe meteorological features. Numerous bible passages allude to "the four winds" which seem to correspond to the four corners of earth:

"And upon Elam will I bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven, and will scatter them toward all those winds; and there shall be no nation whither the outcasts of Elam shall not come." Jeremiah 49:36

Christian Jews writing in the first century seem to hold similar views. The heavens entend no further than the land mass. This can be seen in two slightly different versions from a sermon by Jesus:

"And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." Matthew 24:31

"And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven." Mark 13:27

Similar imagery is found in Revelation:

"And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree." Rev. 7:1

Several passages referring to other meteorological activity suggest that the heavens extend no farther than the edges or ends of the landmass. For example, Job's encourager Elihu draws attention to the greatness of God in the impressive meteorological displays of nature. He hears the voice of God in thunder and sees God sending out lightning to the ends of the earth:

"At this also my heart trembleth, and is moved out of his place. Hear attentively the noise of his voice, and the sound that goeth out of his mouth. He directeth it under the whole heaven, and his lightning unto the ends of the earth. After it a voice roareth: he thundereth with the voice of his excellency; and he will not stay them when his voice is heard. God thundereth marvellously with his voice; great things doeth he, which we cannot comprehend." Job 37:1-5

Similarly, the Psalmist conceives of the sun's motion in the same way. The sun, like the lightning, reaches the edges or ends of the earth as it completes its circuit.

"Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof." Psalm 19:4-6

The ancient Hebrews, then, seem to have understood the earth as a square or rectangular landmass and heaven as an open expanse above it that extended no more distant that the extreme edges of that landmass. The earth had four corners or sides with four winds that blew from those directions. The most impressive feature of the heaven was not the wind. It was the sun, moon, and stars.

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