Models of the Biblical Cosmos, Part 1

[A note to the reader.  This post is authored by AMW, not Steve.]

I have been having a debate with Arv Edgeworth on the scientific merits of the Deluge narrative from Genesis, chapters 6-9.  You can read our ongoing debate on the comment thread here.  While most of the discussion has been around the scientific questions, it has become apparent to me that the Scriptural side of the debate is important as well.  In fact, I suspect that for most folks on the creationist side of the evolution/creation debate, the Scriptures are the very heart of the debate.  If the first three chapters of Genesis had never been written, most evangelical Christians would be more than happy to accept the existing orthodoxy of the biological sciences.

I originally planned to post what follows as a comment, but it turned out that I just have too much to say.  If brevity is the soul of wit, I’m a dunce at heart.  Nevertheless, Steve has been kind enough to let me hijack his home page so I can share my thoughts.  Because this post is going to be long I’ve decided to put it into an outlined format.  Theological discussions (and debates in general) can have a tendency to roam hither and yon and get out of control if one isn’t careful, so I think it’s important that I keep my arguments neat and orderly.  Here we go.

1. Road Map and some Background

In numerous comments Mr. Edgeworth has used Psalm 104 to argue that the Bible teaches there were no mountains before the Flood of Noah (i.e., the “Deluge”).  I have briefly noted that Psalm 104 can also be interpreted as a reference to the creation story, rather than the Deluge, but I have yet to seriously defend this claim.  In this post, I will argue that the Bible does not describe his model of the cosmos.  I intend to lay out and support four arguments.  First, that the translation of Psalm 104:8 is equivocal, and may refer not to the raising of mountains and lowering of valleys, but to waters traversing mountains and valleys, and that this is a more sensible reading.  Second, that Psalm 104 is more properly interpreted as referring to creation than to the Deluge.  Third, that even reading Psalm 104 as a reference to the Deluge there is Biblical support, in that passage and others, for mountains to have been a feature of the antediluvian earth.  Fourth, that a straightforward reading of the Bible suggests that the earth was not radically altered by the Deluge.

In an upcoming comment, I will argue that the Bible’s descriptions of the universe are drawn from the Ancient Near East (ANE) model of the cosmos, which is very different from what we can observe through modern science.  The fact that it does so should guide us in Biblical interpretation, and discourage us from reading the Bible as though it were meant to teach us science.

One final note.  In my quotations of Scripture below, the NASB is used unless otherwise noted, and all emphases are my own.

2. Psalm 104, Creation and the Deluge

Mr. Edgeworth’s argument from scripture (in this forum at least) rests on Psalm 104:6-8, which reads: “You covered [the earth] with the deep as with a garment; the waters were standing above the mountains.  At your rebuke they fled, at the sound of your thunder they hurried away.  The mountains rose; the valleys sank down to the place which you established for them.” On the basis of these verses he argues that the Bible teaches that prior to the Deluge, the earth was relatively flat (on a local scale), with shallow oceans and hills, but no mountains, and no ocean trenches.  He backs up this claim with the statement that Genesis makes no mention of mountains in the creation week, and the ark coming to rest on the mountains of Ararat are the first time mountains are mentioned in that text.  I offer four arguments against this interpretation.

2.1 The ambiguous translation of Psalm 104:8

Psalm 104:8 looks pretty cut and dried in the NASB translation.  The mountains rose, the valleys sank down.  The ESV translates the relevant passage in the same way.  The NIV, on the other hand, translates verses 7-8 as, “But at your rebuke the waters fledthey flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.”  The NIV is not alone in interpreting the Hebrew to say that it was the waters that moved, and not the mountains and valleys.  The KJV, NRSV and Young’s Literal Translation all download Looney Tunes: Back in Action download Alien Autopsy give complimentary translations.  The reason for this disagreement among translators is simple: the underlying Hebrew phrase is cryptic.  In Hebrew, the phrase translated “the mountains rose, the valleys sank down” consists of four words, which literally say, “[they are ascending] [the mountains] [they are descending] [the valleys].” (Phrases in brackets represent a single Hebrew word; interlinear translation is available here.)  The obvious question is, does “they” refer to the mountains and valleys, or to the water that was covering them?  I believe that the latter interpretation is stronger.

The NASB/ESV translations demand one of two uncomfortable readings.  First, you can take the “they” in verse 7 to refer to the waters, (they hurried away), then the “they” (in the Hebrew) of verse 8 to refer to the mountains and valleys (they rose and sank), and finally for the “they” in verse 9 to refer to the waters again (they may not pass over their boundary).  Alternatively, you can take all of the uses of “they” to refer to the mountains, in which case you must read verse 9 as saying that God set a boundary that the mountains and valleys may not pass over to cover the earth.

The NIV/KJV/NRSV translations, on the other hand, have a very natural reading.  The uses of “they” all refer to the waters which covered the earth.  In that case, the waters ran up the mountains and down the valleys either to be gathered in one place (creation week) or to return to the sea (the Deluge).  Moreover, this translation is harmonious with other verses in scripture (e.g., Proverbs 8:29, Job 38:7-11) wherein God is said to have fixed the boundaries of the seas at their creation.  On this reading, of course, we would understand the mountains to be pre-existing features of the earth’s geography.

2.2 Creation Week vs. the Deluge

In order to determine what events verses 6-9 are referring to, we have to look at the context of the entire Psalm.  Psalm 104 is essentially a litany of the works of God.  The psalmist recounts a number of the things God has made, then lists some of the ways in which God sustains his creation, and gives him praise for this.  Notice that verse 2 states that God covers himself with light, and stretches out “heaven like a tent curtain.”  These compare favorably with the first two days of the creation week, in which God created light and separated the upper and lower waters.  Verses 3 and 4 seem to embellish day two, with God building chambers on the upper waters, using clouds as a chariot, the winds his messengers and so on.  Verses 5-9 move on to the earth; God’s foundation of it, and removal of the waters from it, which compares favorably with the third day of the creation narrative.

Psalm 104:10-35 does not strictly follow the chronological order of days four through six of the creation week, but it contains their elements.  God causes the grass and vegetation to grow (verse 14) and planted the cedars of Lebanon (verse 16).  He created the moon and showed the sun its setting (verse 19).  Verse 25 says that the animals of the sea, are among his works.  Verses 11 – 24 discuss various land animals, birds, and mankind.  All in all, the impression on the reader is one of God’s creative and sustaining power.  Reading the Deluge account into the middle of all this seems out of place and strained.

In addition to the general context, notice that in verse 7, the waters are said to have fled at God’s rebuke.  This suggests that the psalmist is saying that the recession of the waters was due to a verbal prompting from God, and that it happened quickly.  Genesis 1:9 fits both of these criteria: “Then God said, ‘Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear’; and it was so.” According to Genesis 1:10-13, God had enough time left to create the entire plant kingdom before the day was over.  In contrast, consider Genesis 8:1-14, which recounts the end of the Deluge.  In that account, God does not speak, or rebuke, but simply sends a wind and restrains the waters from the sky and sea from continuing to inundate the earth.  It takes more than seven months for the waters to recede and the ground to thoroughly dry.

Contrary to the above, there are two textual bases for looking at Psalm 104:6-9 as referring to the Deluge.  The first is that in verse 6 the psalmist says that God covered the earth with water, which could be read to correspond to the advent of the flood waters.  To this, I respond that the psalmist could easily be read to be crediting God with the primordial condition of the earth as covered in water.  Genesis 1 tells us simply that the earth was covered in the waters, while the psalmist may be going back a step further in time and adding that this was because God made it so.

Second, verse 9 says that the waters will not return to cover the earth, which compares favorably to God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 9:11.  To this I will simply respond that the psalmist is not engaged in a strict recitation of the creation week.  Much of the Psalm is dedicated to extolling the ongoing providence and protection of God.  Hence, verses 10-11 credit him with sending forth springs for the beasts of the field, verses 14-15 credit him with causing grass and vegetation to grow, so that man can eat and make wine, etc.  Verse 9 may therefore be read as the first in a list of ways that God cares for his creation.  Thus, it echoes the sentiments of Genesis 9:11, but it is not necessarily linking that sentiment to the events described in Psalm 104:6-9.

2.3 The Mountains in Psalm 104, Genesis and Elsewhere

Even if we were to conclude that Psalm 104:6-9 refers to the Deluge, it need not follow that the psalmist is giving us an account of the origin of the mountains.  As I showed in 2.1 above, the most natural reading of verse 7 is not that mountains and valleys were formed, but that the waters flowed over the existing geological features.  But even if we reject this reading, it is inescapable that at some point during the Deluge, the floodwaters are said to have completely covered existing mountains, not just hills.

The most obvious evidence comes from the Psalm itself.  Verse 6b clearly states that “the waters were standing above the mountains.”  (NASB, emphasis added.)  Thus, if we read verse 7 to say that the mountains rose and the valleys sank, this can only be seen as an accentuation of the existing geological formations, not the creation of mountains and valleys de novo.  But even more important than the disputed verses in Psalm 104 is the undisputed account of the Deluge in Genesis.  In Genesis 7:19-20 the author states that “The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered.  The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered.”  (NASB, emphasis added.)  Here we clearly have the waters of the Deluge covering mountains.  The most straightforward reading of the text is that the mountains were pre-existing; but even if we accept that they were formed during the Deluge, the text clearly indicates that these recently-formed mountains were covered by the flood waters.

Just as importantly, the Genesis account gives us no ground to believe that changes in the earth’s topology were responsible for the recession of the waters.  Genesis 8:1-14 recounts the drying of the land.  Notice that in verse after verse the author states that the “water subsided,” the “water receded”, the “water decreased,” the “water was dried up” and the “water was abated.”  (NASB, verses 1, 3, 5, 7 and 11 respectively, all emphases added.)  No mention is made of ocean floors dropping, valleys sinking, or mountains rising.  The wind sent from God and the shutting of the “fountains of the deep” and “floodgates of the sky” are the only causes given.

But the Biblical evidence for antediluvian mountains goes beyond the Deluge account and Psalm 104.  For instance, Moses refers to “the ancient mountains” (Deuteronomy 33:15) and in Habbakuk 3:6 the prophet declares that at a look from God, “the perpetual mountains were shattered.”

Perhaps more importantly, in at least two Biblical passages the authors link the mountains with the creation of the world.  In Psalm 90:2 the psalmist says, “Before the mountains were born or you gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”  In Proverbs 8, wisdom is presented as a female assistant to God.  In verses 8:24-26 she says, “When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.  Before the mountains were settled, before the hills I was brought forth; while he had not yet made the earth and the fields, nor the first dust of the world.”  Moreover, when the mountains are discussed, they are never referred to as the result of a cataclysmic event, but as the handiwork of God, or a natural part of the created order.  They are said to have “foundations” (see Deuteronomy 32:22 and Psalm 18:7), or “roots” (Jonah 2:6).

2.4 The Unchanged Creation

The reader who comes the Deluge account looking for evidence of a massive reordering of nature will be sorely disappointed.  God’s stated purpose in sending the flood is clearly limited to wiping out life from the earth (Genesis 6:17) and that is all that the account claims that he accomplished (Genesis 7:21-23).  The means by which he did it are said to be (in addition to normal cloud rainfall) the “fountains of the great deep” and the “floodgates of the sky,” both of which would have been understood by ancient near east readers as literal, pre-existing structures.  (I will discuss this in more detail in a later post.)

As noted in 2.3 above, Genesis 6-9 gives no indication whatsoever that the features of the earth changed significantly during the Deluge.  The floodwaters come, they recede, Noah and company disembark from the ark, and life goes on more or less as normal.  The only explicit changes are the addition of the rainbow to the clouds (Genesis 9:13-14) and the addition of meat to the list of foods that God will allow man to eat (Genesis 9:3).  Neither the narrator nor Noah remark on any newly raised mountains, a sudden change in temperature, all the strange sedimentary deposits, the disappearance of a vapor canopy, or any other radical change in the natural order.

In fact, so minor have any physical changes to the earth been that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers appear to have been unaltered.  Genesis 2:10-14 refers to four rivers that flowed through the Garden of Eden.  They are the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.  Notice that all four of them are said to flow in the present tense, suggesting that all four were assumed to still be extant at the time of authorship.  But even if we assume that the Pishon and Gihon (which are not known to currently exist) had dried up by the time of writing, there are explicit postdiluvian references to the Tigris and Euphrates.  In Daniel 10:4 the titular character says that “On the twenty-fourth day of the first month … I was by the bank of the great river, that is, the Tigris…”  Genesis contains three postdiluvian references to the Euphrates; as one of the boundaries of Abraham’s possession of land (Genesis 15:18), as a barrier through which Jacob crossed when he fled Laban (Genesis 31:21), and as the water source for a city or region called Rehoboth (Genesis 36:37).  And besides this, the Euphrates is referenced an additional 26 times in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Revelation.  Surely we would expect that the rasing of mountains, lowering of valleys, and laying down of thousands of feet of sediment would wipe something as insignificant as a quartet of rivers from the face of the earth.  But the text never suggests this for any of the rivers, and explicitly contradicts it for two of them.

3.0 Concluding Remarks

There is simply no credible argument that the Bible supports the notion of radical natural changes as a result of the Deluge.  One passage, questionably translated and read out of context suggests the possibility of changes in the heights of mountains and the depths of valleys.  A thorough reading of the Genesis account of the Deluge, Psalm 104 and many additional passages rebuts even this modest hypothesis.

In my next post I will endeavor to lay out an alternative model of the Biblical cosmos, and explain why I think it does a better job of fitting in with the whole of scripture and the notion of a static world, even in the face of a global flood.

Thoughts and comments (critical and otherwise) would be much appreciated; especially from Mr. Edgeworth.

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