It is often stated that the early Hebrews believed in a cosmology that differed greatly from what we believe today.

For example, it is claimed that the Hebrews believed that the sky was a solid dome and the mountains acted as pillars that held up the solid dome. Other references to the "firmament" in Gen 1:7 (and elsewhere) and "vault of heaven" in Job 22:14.

Verses are often cited that use these or similar words but how does one know that these are the proper interpretations of the ancient Hebrew text?

What evidence exists that supports this view that the early Hebrews actually believed the type of cosmology that is often ascribed to these people?

  • Sorry for not including an actual Biblical reference. Vault of heaven is referred to in Job 22:14. So in this verse, is it correct to assume the early Hebrews believed in a solid dome or vault covering the Earth? – psmith4405 Dec 11 '20 at 7:24
  • Thanks for your comment. It is a very serious matter, especially if it influences the way one interprets Genesis 1:1-3 (refer my earlier question posted a couple of days ago) and many other similar Bible passages. – psmith4405 Dec 11 '20 at 8:21
  • Answers will hopefully be able to show evidence whether they actually believed the physical universe was literally within a dome, rather than it being common idiom as the "four corners of the earth" still is in English today! – curiousdannii Dec 11 '20 at 12:08

The concept of cosmology, the study of the universe and how it works including the orbits of stars, planets, etc, is very modern. It arose after the renaissance probably just before the time of Sir Isaac Newton. Because these ideas are deeply ingrained in modern culture, every effort must be made not to read these ideas back into the Biblical text.

The ancients had little concept, if any, of what existed outside of what we now call the atmosphere. A few ancient Greek astronomers came close but they were rare. Most cultures depicted a dome above (or around) the earth on which the stars and planets moved. There was little idea that these were separate bodies moving in a vast open space.

Old Testament cosmology appears simplistic and (probably deliberately) vague. There is the land above which is the heavens. According to Gen 1:7, 8, when God separated the waters below (rivers, lakes, etc.) from the waters above (clouds and source of rain, etc.) the “expanse” or "vault" that separated them was called “heavens”. The heavens (ie, the expanse) were the place where birds flew (Gen 1:20, 2:20, etc.) and the place where the lights of heaven were placed (Gen 1:14).

The New Testament has a more developed cosmology (possibly influenced by Greek philosophy??) consisting of three heavens:

  • The aerial heavens: Matt 6:26, 8:20, Acts 10:12, 11:6, etc.
  • The sidereal heavens: Matt 24:29, Mark 13:25, 31, Heb 11:12, etc.
  • The dwelling place of God (if that is a meaningful phrase): Matt 5:16, 12:50, etc.

The boundaries between these three (modern) usages are often blurred and vague; in some cases they overlapped. For example, Matt 24:35 and Mark 13:31 are vague but probably refers to the aerial heavens.

In Job 22:14 the word translated "vault" is חוּג (chug) only occurs in two other places, Prov 8:27, Isa 44:22 where it is translated "circle" or possibly "horizon". Even in Job 22:14 it could be (and is in some versions) translated "circle". Very little definite material can be deduced from these scant references.

There is also the enigmatic verse in Job 26:7 -

He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth upon nothing.

Given that the ancients almost certainly had no concept of "outer space" (such is very modern) and certainly did not understand that earth was a planet flying through empty space gravitationally bound to the sun, it is difficult to know what to make of this verse - many have tried to read modern cosmology back into it but that would be very unwise.

Barnes observes in commenting on this passage:

Over the empty place - על־תהוּ ‛al-tôhû, "Upon emptiness, or nothing." That is, without anything to support it. The word used here (תהוּ tôhû) is one of those employed Genesis 1:2, "And the earth was wlthout form and void." But it seems here to mean emptiness, nothing. The north is stretched out and sustained by the mere power of God.

And hangeth the earth upon nothing. - It has nothing to support it. So Milton:

"And earth self-balanced from her center hung."

There is no certain evidence here that Job was acquainted with the globular form of the earth, and with its diurnal and annual revolutions. But it is clear that he regarded it as not resting on any foundation or support; as lying on the vacant air, and kept there by the power of God. The Chaldee paraphrasist, in order to explain this, as that Paraphrase often does, adds the word waters. "He hangeth the earth מיא עלוי upon the waters, with no one to sustain it." The sentiment here expressed by Job was probably the common opinion of his time. It occurs also in Lucretius

  • I think you would agree that the writer to the Hebrew people knew exactly what those early Hebrew people already knew and "understood" about that week-one creation. (Heb 11:3): "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." This declaration of that first century Hebraic understanding certainly pre-empts all erroneous post-first-century viewpoints. If the vault originally was a material object--then it would had been inspected and approved like all other material objects. – Bill Porter Dec 14 '20 at 15:27
  • @BillPorter - In Heb 11:3, note the plural, αἰῶνας - "worlds" or "universe". This is not necessarily discussing the creation week. – Dottard Dec 14 '20 at 19:22
  • I'm not sure which other worlds (plural) or universe (singular) they might have had their understanding of? – Bill Porter Dec 16 '20 at 3:20

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