A Response To Answers In Genesis On Biblical Cosmology

(RiderOnTheClouds) #1

This is a response I wrote Answers in Genesis’ response to Paul Seely’s article: ‘Geographical Meaning of “Earth” and “Seas” in Genesis 1:10’ by James Patrick Holding.

Normal font is my writing

Bold is AiG

Italic is Seely

"Following this statement is an impressive and informative list proving that several early ‘scientifically naïve’ societies thought either that the earth was flat and/or was surrounded by water on all sides, upon which the land floated. Seely determines from this data that:

Within its historical context, therefore, the conception of the “earth” in Gen 1 is most probably that of a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc. In addition the Hebrews were influenced via the patriarchs by Mesopotamian concepts and via Moses and their time in Egypt by Egyptian concepts. It is, therefore, all the more historically probable that the writer and first readers of Gen 1 thought of the earth as a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc.

Being a scientifically naive people, it is probable that like other scientifically naive tribal peoples the Hebrews thought of the earth as being surrounded by a circular sea and floating upon that single surrounding sea.

“Seely appears to be assuming that ‘scientific knowledge’, i.e. the conclusions of modern science, is the only source of true knowledge. And, amazingly for an author in a Reformed theological journal, Seely seems to be forgetting that Scripture is propositional revelation from God and therefore is also a source of true knowledge—in fact, it is the ultimate and final source of such knowledge!”

And no text anywhere in the Torah even comes close to revealing the knowledge that the earth is round. Holding’s claims (which rather arrogantly attempt to reveal Absurdity in Seely’s claims) here are quite frankly absurd. Absolutely anything can be rationalised in this way. If a connection with God means that the Israelites knew the earth was round, why stop here? Why not say they also had knowledge of nuclear power? Or cloning? Or robotics? Holding has completely and utterly failed to disprove Seely’s point here. In fact, the only way he could disprove it is by finding a clear statement in the Torah that the earth is spherical. Since no such verse exists, it is therefore most rational to assume that since they lived before it was discovered the earth was a sphere, Moses and the original Israelites assumed the earth was flat, having no reason to think otherwise. (Just admit it)

"The programmatic text for this section is Genesis 1:10:

And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.

By itself this verse tells us virtually nothing about the nature of the earth and seas. It is so equivocal that one may read into the text either a flat earth or a round one. It is worthwhile to remind the reader of one point made in our earlier article, that it is just as much possible that the many pagan parallels cited by Seely are just as easily read to be distortions of the original and correct information about the nature of the earth. In other words, they could have misread the message and forced an interpretation upon the data just as Seely has done! Nevertheless, Genesis 1:10 certainly does not indicate in and of itself a flat earth."

Yes, yes it does Holding. The waters under the heaven, meaning of course ‘all’ the waters under the heaven are gathered into one place and called seas. This presumably includes the waters below the earth (which will be explained later on. By saying the waters under the heaven are part of a single cosmology called seas, the author of Genesis 1 is perfectly describing Ancient cosmology. As Seely points out in his article, Ancient cultures didn’t differentiate between the waters below the earth and the seas, and neither does the Bible in Genesis 1:10 and Psalm 24.

Holding also places this assertion in a footnote:

" 1. Whether it does accord with the conception of a single continent is another matter, one not necessarily in conflict with a creationist paradigm. See Wieland, C. and Batten, D., Interview with plate tectonics expert Dr John Baumgardner, Creation 19(3): 40–43, 1997; Batten, D. (ed.), Ham, K., Sarfati, J. and Wieland, C., The Answers Book, Ch. 11, Answers in Genesis, Brisbane, 1999, Q&A: Plate Tectonics. "

But Holding ignores the fact that what Seely is arguing is that the writer of Genesis 1 defined ‘the whole earth’ as being dry land, and therefore not a spherical planet. This idea is further strengthened by 2 Peter 3:5, which appears to be referring back to Genesis 1:9-10. The dualism of the heavens and the earth here (as in Genesis 1:1) suggests that the earth in question is the whole earth.

As for the claim that Pagans could have been distorting the message, this is a poor argument. It is equally possible that all other creation stories (including Genesis 1) are corruptions of the Enuma Elish, or The Egyptian creation myths, or the Islamic creation narrative. The point is that this argument gets you nowhere and cannot be used as a framework.

"Seely’s next assertion concerns the biblical understanding of the relationship between the land and the sea. In his words:

In every pre-scientific cosmology which I have seen that mentions the sea, the earth is described as circular, floating in a circular sea …

The Bible, Seely insists, preserves this inaccuracy. His first citation for proof is explained thus:

As to the shape of this one collection of seas, various OT references show that the Hebrews conceived of it as circular. Prov 8:27b, speaking of creation, says that Wisdom was present “When he (God) inscribed a circle on the face of the Deep”. Job 26:10 similarly says, “He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters as a boundary of light and darkness”.

Our answer here is the same as it was previously: there is no specific Hebrew word for sphere; hence these cites are equivocal. They could refer to either a pancake-like shape or to a globe."

But as any reasonable person without Presuppositionalist bias can tell, these are NOT equivocal. Only (and I mean only) by cherry picking the word circle (as Holding clearly does) can we say this even ‘could’ be a reference to any modern day view of the earth. For the earth is not on the face of water. These passages are far more consistent with ancient views of a flat earth in the midst of water than of any modern day perception of the earth. Holding’s argument consists of the same fallacious reasoning which he falsely attributes to Seely’s arguments. He starts with the assumption that the Bible must be inerrant, then perceives to ignore any evidence which contradicts this, due to the presupposition that the bible cannot contain errors.(And the assumption that a highly inaccurate cosmology is a problem for scripture. As I shall explain later on no such problem exists)

"Seely continues:

The bronze hemispherical (or cylindrical) sea which was set up in the temple courtyard in 1 Kgs 7:23also seems to indicate by its shape that the earthly sea was conceived of as circular. For although a circular water container would not be unusual, this basin of water could easily have been called simply a basin or laver, as was the case with the simpler original (Exod 30:18). Instead, it was called a sea (yam). This name “sea” for the laver parallels the name of the laver which was set up in Babylonian temples and called apsu, the word for the water surrounding and under the earth.

This is all very interesting, and goes far in proving that perhaps Solomon or his priests had such conceptions of the world, but in terms of proving that this is the teaching of the Bible itself, it accomplishes nothing. It has no more effect than quoting the words of Nebuchadnezzar and Elihu."

Holding fails to take into account that in his previous claim, he asserted that Proverbs 8:27 could be referring to a spherical earth. But 1 Kings 7:23 shows that Solomon clearly had similar cosmological views to his neighbours of a the earth surrounded by, and floating on the sea, and hence by implication flat. So the likelihood that Proverbs 8:27 (written by Solomon) is referring to a spherical earth is very low. Furthermore, this definitely shows us that in spite of Holding’s protests at the start of the article, the Ancient Israelites definitely had similar archaic views on the universe to the surrounding nations.

"This argument by Seely has somewhat more strength:

The biblical picture of the earth surrounded by a sea seems to be reflected in several different phrases used in Scripture. Rudhardt introduces us to one of those phrases. After noting that in the cosmographies of many people waters “make up a vast expanse, in the middle of which lies the earth, like an island”, he goes on to say that these surrounding waters “may be divided into two oceans, on either side of the world”. … The phrase which he thereby introduces is “from sea to sea” as found in Ps 72:8 and Zech 9:10b, both of which describe the geographically universal rule of the coming Messiah as being ׏from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth”.

The context of these verses which are clearly speaking of the geographically universal rule of the Messiah over all nations on earth (Ps. 72:9–11; Zech 9:10b; cf. Ps 2:8 and Mic 5:4) implies that the phrase “from sea to sea” is a reference to the “two oceans on either side of the world” which enclose within their grasp the entire earth, the two oceans “in the middle of which lies the earth like an island”. The phrase “from sea to sea” refers to two specific bodies of water, but not to these bodies of water just in themselves but as representative parts of the “two oceans on either side of the world”. This understanding of the phrase is strengthened by the fact that in Mesopotamia where a universal sea was understood to be surrounding the world, the phrase “from the lower sea to the upper sea” [both understood as parts of the sea surrounding the world] denotes the entire known world.

It fits such a conception; but it also fits a modern conception just as easily. Once again, we encounter equivocal language in the Scripture: the size, location, and nature of these ‘seas’ is not defined at all. Indeed, Seely can find only one verse that comes close to making such a definition:

The biblical terms “eastern sea” and “western sea”, especially as used in Zech 14:8, where the context is one of apocalyptic universality, also seem to refer to the eastern and western halves of the ocean that surround the earth.

The context is indeed ‘apocalyptic universality’, but unless these waters also go north and south, they are hardly serving to supply the entire world—even if it is conceived as a disc! The simple fact is that this passage in no way identifies the nature, extent, or size of either sea; but they are easy to identify, and there is no conception here at all that indisputably describes the circular ‘world-sea’ that Seely suggests.
In the only other places where the ‘western sea’ is referred to, it clearly refers to the Mediterranean (Deuteronomy 11:24, 34:2; Joel 2:20); this Seely would probably not dispute."

The apostrophe used after the word disc indicates that this is a failed ‘reductio ad absurdum’. Akkadian texts saw no issue with using the terms ‘upper sea’ and ‘lower sea’ (as Holding ignores without comment) to refer to the World encircling ocean, without mentioning the eastern and western seas. There is therefore no reason why Zechariah 14:8 cannot be a reference to the world encircling ocean.

"References to the ‘eastern sea’ are no more plentiful (Joel 2:20, Ezek. 47:18–19), but the latter passage strongly suggests a body of water that is nearby, namely the Dead Sea — or else, it suggests a very strange sort of border!

And the east side ye shall measure from Hauran, and from Damascus, and from Gilead, and from the land of Israel by Jordan, from the border unto the east sea. And this is the east side. And the south side southward, from Tamar even to the waters of strife in Kadesh, the river to the great sea. And this is the south side southward.

The Dead Sea lies in a position that is right in line with the given locations. If this ‘eastern sea’ is indeed the sort of ‘world-sea’ that Seely proposes, then these borders, as described, run in a perfectly sensible line, except for a sudden and very, very narrow diversion to the east!

The apostrophe at the end suggests that Holding’s argument here is once again a failed reductio ad absurdum. For the Eastern Sea referring to the Dead Sea in the context of Zechariah 14:8 would not make sense. This verse still implies that the earth is bounded by sea, in spite of all of Holding’s protests, due to it’s universal apocalyptic context.

"Seely’s final effort attempts to prove that the Bible teaches that the land of the earth floats upon a sea of water. His verse of concern is Psalm 136:6:

To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth forever.

Notice how Holding uses the term ‘a’ sea. This is more significant than Holding thinks, for it leads to him completely misunderstanding Seely’s point regarding this verse and Psalm 24:2, as we shall see.

We will agree with Seely, against Harris, that this passage does not refer to ‘land masses above the shoreline’. Our agreement with Seely continues through the following:

The exact relationship of the earth to the waters is expressed by the preposition ‘al. The preposition ‘al usually means “upon” …
Unfortunately, the only time the verb raqa is used with the preposition ‘al in the OT is in Psalm 136:6. But raqa has a close synonym, namely radad, which also apparently means ‘beat’ or ‘spread out’; and this synonym is used with the preposition ‘al in 1 Kings 6:32where 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 Psalm 136:6 (especially in the light of Isaiah 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 1 Kings 6:32, so the earth overlays the sea in Psalm 136:6.
The verb, “found” (yasad), which is used in Ps 24:2 means to lay down a foundational base for a building or wall (1 KGs 5:17, 6:37, 7:10, 16:34; Ezra 3:10–12) or to set something upon a foundational base (Cant [Song of Solomon] 5:15; Ps 104:5). With either meaning the most natural meaning of ‘al would be its primary meaning, “upon”. This is confirmed by the three other times that ‘al is used in the OT with the verb “found” (yasad): Cant 5:15; Ps 104:5; Amos 9:6. In all three cases, the meaning, “upon”, is demanded by the context. Ps 104:5 especially demands that ‘al be translated “upon” in Ps 24:2 because just like Ps 24:2it is speaking of the founding of the earth.

Thus far, this is all quite acceptable within a creationist paradigm, as we will demonstrate. Our disagreement begins with this assertion:

Ps 24:2 is saying, then, that God “founded”, that is, firmly placed the earth upon the seas, the seas being a foundational base. The flat earth-continent is resting on the seas. The word “seas” (yammim) reminds us of Gen 1:10b where God called the gathered waters of the tehom “Seas” (yammim); and this again tells us, as did Ps 136:6 that Gen 1:10 is saying that the flat earth-continent was founded “upon” (or on top of) the sea, fixed in place but floating on the sea, in exact accord with the historical meaning.

Once again, Seely has slipped in a premise without warrant. We may agree with the idea of the land being set ‘upon’ the sea, but to say that it ‘floats’ upon that sea is not at all indicated in the text. The biblical description accords with an accepted creationist paradigm that postulates the pre-diluvian existence of the ‘fountains of the great deep’ (Genesis 7:11) which produced most of the water of the Genesis Flood. It would be perfectly proper to have described the land as having been ‘spread out’ over this vast subterranean water source. It would also be perfectly proper for what was left of this water source to continue to be referred in the same terms after the Flood when it would still be a source for underground springs (Genesis 49:25, Deuteronomy 33:13).

Holding’s fallacious presuppositionist bias is once again shown here. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that it is talking about the exact same thing as other ancient cultures. This sea:

⁃	Is below the earth.
⁃	Provides the earth with underground springs.
⁃	Is paired with water from above. (Even in Genesis 7:11, the verse he cites, him citing this verse is in fact counter-productive)
⁃	Is described with the exact same terminology. (Tehowm in Hebrew, Thm in Ugaritic)
⁃	Is not distinguished from the earthly sea. Genesis 1:9-10 implies that it and the sea are a single body.
⁃	As Seely points out in his article (and Holding neglects to answer), all ancient views of a subterranean ocean shared these points.

Move along now, nothing to see here!

Furthermore, Holding’s claim that the bible never says the earth floats on the sea is questionable. This is where Holding’s misunderstanding comes in. For the seas of a Genesis 1:9-10 are ‘one place’, and the land is both founded on the Yammim (Psalm 24:2) and surrounded by the same body on it’s surface. Is this any different from saying that it floats?

"As was the case with Seely’s previous article, we have found that there is no warrant for reading an erroneous conception of the earth into the biblical text. Equivocal language, and a proper understanding of what has been written, demonstrate yet again that, unlike the arguments of the critics, ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35)

In spite of this claim, his (quite frankly abysmal) article has shown that Holding’s only real basis for claiming that this is equivocal language is because to say otherwise would lead to an absurd conclusion which he already presupposes cannot be true, that the bible contains errors. Holding has truly done almost nothing, or at most very little to disprove Seely’s claims. The fact that articles such as this one by AiG are of this quality makes it obvious to me that anyone arguing that the Ancient Israelites didn’t share erroneous views of the cosmos common to their time quite frankly has their head in the sand. They argue this almost purely for emotional, not factual reasons.

However, as for the claim that this somehow breaks scripture. It should not be viewed in this way (and Seely does not claim this). For as I have said before (and quite frankly am tired of saying), God could not have spoken using highly advanced scientific terminology, for to ancient peoples this would have seemed absurd, and they would see him as a deceptive God unworthy of worship. In order to get his message to spread, God would have had to have spoken in the language of his time.

(George Brooks) #2


I wanted to commend you and your efforts to really Ply the Waters (<= yes, I dared this clumsy word-play!) when it comes to understanding the cultural assumptions reflected in your analysis of Genesis 1!

I was particularly impressed with your ability to resurrect the validity of the noun ‘Dome’ in these views. (@Jon_Garvey, take notice! I now release myself from my self-imposed embargo on the term ‘Dome’!)

Your assessment was perfect: how can the motion of the Sun and the Moon (no less all the stars that rotate around the Pole Star) be smooth and steady if they are attached to the Firmament … and if the firmament attaches to the edge of the world like a rectangular box… instead of like a dome-crowned cylinder!

I’m taking notes on much of what you are excavating. I wish you a very long stay here on the volunteer boards of BioLogos!!!

(RiderOnTheClouds) #3


I’ve also changed and improved my post, as you may be able to see.

(Chris Falter) #4

Hi Reggie, your post is very well-researched. However, I am having some trouble in determining who is saying what about whom. You are responding to an AIG response to Seely, so the task of distinguishing the 3 different voices is not easy.

Perhaps you could use the block citation (">") for all the AIG quotes, then within them you could distinguish Seely’s text from theirs by italicization and/or boldface.

Thanks for posting your interesting research. I hope this feedback is helpful to you.

Grace and peace,
Chris Falter

(RiderOnTheClouds) #5

Bold is Holding

Italic is Seely

Normal is my writing

I thought it came out?

(Chris Falter) #6

Then perhaps you could mention that at the beginning of your essay. Bear in mind that your essay reflects good scholarship regardless. :blush:


Nope I found the post interesting but very confusing in terms of who was saying what

As an aside, I think that in our internet blogging, forum skim reading culture posters need to make it easy to identify just what is going on in their posts.

I skim read way too fast and am a huge part of the problem. :slight_smile:

(Peaceful Science) #8

I would just caution to speak with clarity on “errors in the Bible.” There are ways to talk about inerrancy that can make the points here without trigger those in other camps.

There is a coherent doctrine of inerrancy. While you are not saying the Bible has errors, it seems that you are critiquing his insistence on avoiding imputing error on the testimony of Scripture. This is a good interpretive goal. I hope you would agree. This is an appropriate guide to correct interpretation.

One thing that helps is to understand the statement of the doctrine of inerrancy. It is not that there “is no errors” in the Bible. For example, the Serpent tells Eve that “She will not die” if she eats of the tree. Even the most ardent Inerrantists affirm that this an error in Scripture. Rather, the doctrine is that there “is no error in what Scripture affirms,” or in what it “intends to teach us.”

You argument is actually an affirmation of inerrancy too, but taking a better option. You write…

You are articulating here the principle of “accommodation.”

When we identify Scripture using the understanding the people of the time, we can legitimately assert that this is not what Scripture teaches. If it is not the affirmation or teaching of Scripture, than we are not imputing error on to the testimony of Scripture. So this article is an argument for inerrancy. My problem with the AiG article is that it does not consider this option.

The reason I raise this is that “inerrancy” is an important word.

Its proper use aids your argument and it is a strong rhetorical ground. It is called “commonspace” in rhetoric. In this sense, it helps to recover a correct application of inerrancy in your argument, rather than question the “assumption” that the Bible does not have errors.

Not only is this correct on the doctrine they value most, it is also more persuasive.

(George Brooks) #9

@Swamidass, you write:

“inerrancy” is an important word. Its proper use aids your argument and it is a strong rhetorical ground."

“It is called “commonspace” in rhetoric. In this sense, it helps to recover a correct application of inerrancy in your argument, rather than question the “assumption” that the Bible does not have errors. Not only is this correct on the doctrine they value most, it is also more persuasive.”

It’s a nice treatment.

@BradKramer, is there a good treatment in our archives along these lines? If not, perhaps there will eventually be one.

Helping Evoluionary Theists develop a strong and even intuitive sense of a more realistic meaning to the word “inerrancy” is a goal worthy of any group like this one.

Thanks, Swami !!!

(RiderOnTheClouds) #10

Done! Is it easier now?

(Chris Falter) #11

BTW, the Islamic creation narrative came more than a full millenium after all the other narratives under discussion. So it is unlikely that any of the other narratives were influenced by it.

The flow of your essay is easier to track now. Thanks!

Grace and peace,
Chris Falter

(Alice Linsley) #12

Reggie, what I find much more important is the binary feature of the Genesis worldview. It is characterized by binary sets: waters above-waters below, sun-moon, male-female, heaven-earth, Creator-creature. The binary worldview is expressed in aspects of the Law also. Onanism was regarded as a violation of the fixed binary order of creation. The seed that should fall to the earth is the seed of plants, which spring forth from the earth. The seed of man should fall on his own type (the womb), from which man comes forth. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted” (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 A.D. 191).

Likewise the prohibition against mixing types of seeds and types of fibers is intended that human should observe the order of creation and honor the way it is. The prohibition against mixing seeds, fibers, and blood, is a reminder to not confuse the holy and the unholy, or to blur the distinction between life and death, or between life-nurturing actions and life-destroying actions. This is one of the reasons why the Hebrews were not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (forbidden 3 places in Scripture). The mother’s milk is a symbol of what nurtures life.