Biblical Conception of the Universe

Robyn Banks


To the Hebrews writing the Bible, the universe comprised:

1. A solid dome of Heaven above the Earth, and resting on the Earth on the 'circle' of the horizon,
2. A flat Earth, and
3. The waters of the deep and Sheol below.

Biblical Conception of the World:

1. Waters above the firmament
2. Storehouses of snows
3. Storehouses for hail
4. Chambers of winds
5. Firmament
6. Sluice / windows of heaven
7. Pillars of the sky
8. Pillars of the earth
9. Fountain of the deep
10. Navel of the earth
11. Waters under the earth
12. Rivers of the nether world

The mainstream Bible commentaries and Bible dictionaries are agreed. It is only apologetic works which try to defend the Biblical writers as having the same knowledge about the Universe as we do today.

Achtemeier, Paul J (Ed) The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1996):

“The Hebrew universe. The ancient Hebrews imagined the world as flat and round, covered by the great dome of the firmament which was held up by mountain pillars (Job 26.11; 37.18). Above the firmament and under the earth was water, divided by God at creation (Gen 1.6, 7; cf Pss 24.2; 148.4). The upper waters were joined with the waters of the primordial deep during the Flood; the rains were believed to fall through windows in the firmament (Gen 7.11; 8.2). The sun, moon, and stars moved across or were fixed in the firmament (Gen 1.14-19; Ps 19.4, 6). Within the earth lay Sheol, the realm of the dead (Num 16.30-33; Isa 14.9, 15).” (p339)

- “The Hebrew term raqia’ suggests a thin sheet of beaten metal (cf. Exod. 39.3; Num 17.3; Jer 10.9; also Job 37.18)… Job 26.13 depicts God’s breath as the force that calmed (or ‘spread’, ‘smoothed’) the heavens. Luminaries were set in the firmament on the fourth day of creation (Gen 1.14-19). Rains were believed to fall through sluices or windows in its surface (cf. Gen 7.11).” (pp338-339)

Freedman, David Noel (Ed) Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000):

“Firmament – A thin sheet, similar to a piece of beaten metal, that stretched from horizon to horizon to form the vault of the sky. In the Hebrew cosmology, the universe consisted of three parts: the waters above, the earth below, and the waters beneath the earth (cf. Exod.20.4). Job 37.18 describes God as spreading out the heavens and making them “as hard as a mirror of cast bronze” (cf LXX stereoma, suggesting an embossed or hammered-out bowl).

The firmament (Heb raqia; Lat firmamentum) serves to separate the waters above from the waters below (Gen 1.6-8), its primary function being to prevent the waters above from crashing down upon the earth below and flooding the world. However, small holes in the firmament permitted the occasional release of water in the form of rain (Gen 1.14-18). In Ezekiel’s chariot vision the firmament appears as an expanse over the heads of the creatures which looked like sparkling ice; above the firmament is a throne of sapphire. (Ezek 1.22-26).” (p461-462)

Myers, Allen C (Ed) The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987):

“Hebrew Cosmology. To the ancient Hebrews the earth was the centre of the universe. Above it were the sky and the heavens, and below it were the Underworld, or Sheol, and the waters (eg. Exod 20.4; Ps 24.2; 136.6). (Though at times the Hebrews did cite only heaven and earth as composing the universe (eg. Ps 124.8), actually they held to this tripartite concept (eg. Phil 2.10). The earth, with Canaan at its centre (Ps 74.12), was believed to be one mass of land (cf the ‘ends of the earth’ (Ps 65.5) or its ‘four corners’ (Isa 11.12)) surrounded by an ocean. It rested on pillars (1 Sam 2.8; Job 9.6; Ps 75.3) or on firm foundations (Ps 104.5; but cf Job 26.7).” (p298)

“Firmament. (Heb raqia; Vulg Lat firmamentum, from LXX Gk stereoma ‘foundation’). The expanse of sky or heaven (Gen 1.8) separating the water below (rivers, seas, subterranean waters) from the waters above (precipitation). In ancient Israelite cosmogony the firmament may have been viewed as a dome or curtain (cf Ps 104.2) of beaten metal (cf Heb rq ‘beat out’; Job 37.18) from which were suspended the stars and planets (Gen 1.14-17). Rain and other heavenly blessings could pour down upon the earth through windows in the firmament (7.11; 2 Kings 7.2; Ps 78.23-24).” (p383)

“From time immemorial, ancient people must have been aware that water existed above and below the earth. It descended from above in the form of rain and it could be obtained, if one were willing to dig deep enough, from the depths of the earth. It descended from above the earth. In many ancient Near Eastern societies this apparent paradox was explained by the story of the primordial battle between the hero-god and the dragon of chaos. In the Babylonian version, the victorious Marduk splits the body of the female Tiamat. Then he creates the earth from her body, placing the earth in the womb of chaos below the waters of heaven and above the waters of the deep (cf Heb t’hom ‘the deep sea, ocean’; Akk tiamtu ‘Tiamat’).

The Old Testament acknowledges this basic understanding of the universe, or cosmogony, but modifies it in the light of Israelite monotheism) the creation account, Gen 1.1-10; the flood account, 7.11; cf Exod 20.4; Deut 4.18; 2 Sam 22.14-17; Job 26.5-13; Ps 104.3-6; 136.6; 148.4-7; Jer 10.11-13; Amos 9.5-6; jonah 2.2-6). So the ‘waters of heaven,’ or cosmic waters, are the waters above the earth held back by the firmament. Rain falls when God oepns the flood-gates in the firmament (Gen 7.11; 8.2; RSV ‘windows’). The sky is blue (the colour of the ocean) because the waters can be seen through the transparent crystal firmament (cf. Ezek 1.26, which pictures God as seated above the firmament on a throne the colour of lapis lazuli (blue or turquoise) – the colour of deep water and the sky.” (pp1046-1047)

Freedman, David Noel (Ed) The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992):

“On the whole, Israel shared the world view of the ancient Near East. The earth was perceived as a flat expanse, seen either in the image of a disk or circle upon the primeval waters (Isa 40.22; Job 26.10; Prov 8.27; cf. ‘circle of the heavens’. Job 22.14) or of an outstretched garment spanning the void (Job 26.7; 38.13). According to HH Schmidt (THAT 1.230-31), these two images, present also in Mesopotamia, derive from different but compatible conceptions of the cosmos which are intertwined without tension in the OT. References to the earth’s (four) corners/rims/hems (‘arba’ kanepot ha’ares; Isa 11.12; Job 37.3; 38.13; cf Isa 24.16_, its end(s), border(s), edges (qeselqesot; Job 28.24; Ps 135.7; Isa 5.26; 40.28; 41.5, 9; Jer 10.13; 51.16), combinations of these images (Jer 49.36; also Ps 48.11 – Eng 48.10; 65.6 – Eng 65.5), its ends (where it ceases: ‘apse [ha]’ares; Deut 33.17; 1 Sam 2.10, etc) its boundaries (Ps 74.17), or its remotest parts (Jer 6.22; 25.32; 31.8; 50.41) depict the vast expanse of the earth and its outer limits, rather than a firm conception of its shape. T Boman (1960: 157-59), has pointed out that naming the outer limits of any area includes the whole area, so that the above terms function almost as synonyms for ‘earth’, ‘world’. The modern concept of an infinite or open-ended universe was not known in the OT; on the contrary, heaven and earth were though to be sealed together at the rim of the hoirzon to prevent the influx of the cosmic waters (Stadelmann 1970:43).

In contrast to this preoccupation with the earth’s outer limits, a center or navel of the earth (Heb tabbur) is mentioned only once (Ezek 38.12; cf Judg 9.37; Jub 8.19). L Stadelmann (1970:147-54) suggests that Jerusalem (cf Ezek 5.5), and possibly Bethel at an earlier time (cf Gen 28.10-12, 17-18), were considered in this light, in keeping with the views of many ANE and other peoples that their central sanctuary or capital city represented such a center. However this theme is not prominent in the Old Tetsament; that Jerusalem, as the center of worship of the universal God, held a position of central prominence (Isa 2.2-3 = Mic 4.1-2) is a theological rather than acosmological observation.
Over the earth and its surrounding sea(s) arches the firm vault (or firmament. Heb raqia’ (Gen 1.6)) of (the) heaven(s). Together, heaven and earth make up what we would call world, universe, cosmos (Gen 1.1; 2.1, 4; Exod 31.17; Ps 102.26 – Eng 102.25; Isa 48.13; 51.13, 16 and often). Occasionally, earth alone seems to enhance the whole cosmos (eg. Isa 6.3; 54.5; Zeph 1.2-3, 18(?)). The vault of heaven rests on the earth (Amos 9.6; cf. 2 Sam 22.8: ‘the foundations of the heavens’ = the earth) which in turn is firmly set on pillars (1 Sam 2.8) or foundations (Isa 24.18; 40.21; Jer 31.37; Mic 6.2, etc). The foundations are associated with the ‘heavens’ (2 Sam 22.8) or the ‘world’ (Heb tebel; 2 Sam 22.16 – Ps 18.16 – Eng 18.7). The verb yasad ‘to found’ is used with reference to God’s founding of the earth (Job 38.4; Ps 24.2; 102.26 – Eng 102.25, etc).

Somewhat ambivalent is the structure in the place of the sea(s) or water(s), the deep, and the underworld. The seas can be spoken of as a familiar reality, in which the fish and other water creatures swarm (Gen 1.20, 22, 26, etc) and on which humans move in ships (Ps 104.25-26; 107.23; Prov 30.19; Ezek 27.9). As such, the sea forms part of the earth, ie., the flat surface below juxtaposed to the heavens above. A transitional position between earth and the surrounding sea is occupied by the islands or coastlands (Heb ‘iyyim; Isa 24.14-16; 41.5; 42.4, 10). Elsewhere in the OT the sea(s) or water(s) take on the character of a third cosmic realm in addition to heaven earth, the extension of the cosmic chaos waters surrounding everything…

The underworld is often spoken of as part of the earth, a lower cavern, grave, pit (called in Heb Sheol) where the dead lead a shadowy existence; it can even be referred to simply as ‘earth’ (1 Sam 28.13; Ps 71.20; 106.17; Isa 29.4). In other texts, Sheol is treated as a separate cosmic realm besides heaven and earth (Job 26.5; Ps 139.8; Amos 9.2). The OT conception of the world, then, is basically bipartite (heaven and earth), variously extended to a tripartite cosmos (heaven-earth-sea, or heaven-earth-underworld). Although certain later books and sections (Job, Proverbs 8, several postexilic Psalms, Isaiah 24-27; 40-55) are more explicit in their cosmological descriptions than the earlier documents, the general view of the cosmos does not show any significant change or development throughout the OT period.” (p245-246)

Browning, WRF Dictionary of the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996):

“Hebrew cosmology pictured a flat earth, over which was a dome-shaped fimrament, supported above the earth by mountains, and surrounded by waters. Holes or sluces (windows, Gen 7.11) allowed the water to fall as rain. The firmament was the heavene in which God set the sun (Ps 19.4) and the stars (Gen 1.14) on the fourth day of the creation. There was more water under the earth (Gen 1.7) and during the Flood the two great oceans joined up and covered the earth; sheol was at the bottom of the earth (Isa 14.9; Num 16.30.” (p136)

Stuhlmueller, Carroll The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996):

“Ancient Israel imagined the earth to be a flat disk (Isa 42.5) ersting on a foundation or pillars (Job 9.6). It is surrounded by the ocean (Pss 24.2; 136.6). It has four corners (Isa 11.12; Ezek 7.2; job 37.3; 38.13) and an edge (Isa 24.36) or ends (Isa 40.8; Job 28.4; Ps 48.11; Jer 6.22; 25.32). It also has a center or navel (Ezek 38.12). Except for the implication that Jerusalem is the earth’s center, ancient Israel’s view of the world did not differ from that of other ancient Near Eastern peoples.” (p234)

Here's a few excerpts from a monograph on the topic, as well: Stadelmann, Luis I J, SJ The Hebrew Conception of the World – A Philological and Literary Study (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970):

“Another idea, particularly noteworthy because it concerns the horizon as the boundary between earth and heaven, more clearly indicates how the heavenly dome was linked with the earth. This boundary between earth and heaven was expressed by hwg smym (Job 22.14) or hwg h’rs (Is 40.22). Literally hwg denotes a circle. It is worth noting that this term is used in cosmogonic context: ‘He [God] marks a circle on the surface of the water; As the boundary between light and darkness.’ (Job 26.10)… the horizon prevents the world from being flooded by the primeval waters by holding the sky and the earth firmly together. From the above-quoted scriptural texts we conclude that the ancient Hebrews conceived of the horizon not only as the boundary between heaven and earth, but also as the link between the dome of heaven and the surface of the earth. ” (p42)

The Firmament of Heaven
“… the imagery behind the verb nth suggests both the stretching out the heaven in the form of a cloth and the pitching a tent… the ancient Hebrews regarded heaven as the site of a building in which God dwells and in which the storehouses of rain, hail and snow are erected.” (p44)

“In the sky are located the storehouses ‘wsr [wt] rendered thesauros [ous] by the LXX, containing windes, snaow and hail (Ps 135.7; Jer 10.13; 51.16; Job 38.22). The residence of God was provided with ‘lywt “upper or roof-chamber.” (Ps 104.3). The elastic imagery wherein heaven is God’s abode or a support of the primeval waters above which God resides, appears in several scriptural references. Thus, Yahweh built his royal palace on firm pillars in the rolling waters of the celestial sea above the canopy of heaven (Ps 104.3). Another passage suggests that God’s upper chambers were built in the sky itself.” (pp44-45)

“Two essential factors for explaining this phenomenon played their part, namely, the ability to conceive of an ocean for the necessary water supply and the ability to relate the periodic rainfall to grills or sluices in the firmament which were opened at intervals to let the water pass through. This idea, that naturally suggests itself to men through their observation of rainfall, is found, though in diverse forms, among many peoples in ancient times. The ancient Hebrews believed that the firmament was punctured at intervals by ‘rbwt, the “windows of heaven” (Gen 7.11; 8.2; 2 Kings 7.2, 19; Is 24.18; Mal 3.10).

“Clearly, water was believed to exist both above the heaven (cf. Ps 148.4) and inside it (cf. Jer 10.13; 51.16; see also 2 Sam 21.10). The waters above the heaven represent the celestial ocean called mbwl… The waters in the heaven were thought to be stored up in the ‘treasure houses’, either as snow or hail (cf. Job 38.22; see also Is 55.10; Josh 10.11) or kept in the clouds and released to the earth in the form of rain (cf. Gen 8.2; Is 55.10; Deut 11.11), showers (cf. Jer 14.22), or dew (cf. Gen 27.28, 39; Deut 33.28; Zech 8.12; Dan 5.21).

“Heaven… was pictured as a tent. The implication of this view is that the heaven is a dwelling place, while the earth beneath lies under the sky’s protective canopy: ‘Indeed he [God] will treasure me in his abode, after the evil day: He will shelter me in his sheltering tent, will set me high upon his mountain’ (Ps 27.5).” (p52)

“the Hebrews thought primarily of the heaven as the residence of God”

“In the concept rqy’… used to describe the firmament, the function and the shape of the heavenly dome are essentially related. The Hebrew word rqy’ comes from the root rq’ which means “to beat, stamp, expand by beating,” and to spread out”. the meaning of the substantive rqy’ is “extended surface, (solid) expanse.” From this meaning there is derived a second, which the same root rqa’ takes in the Syriac language: this may be expressed by “press down, spread out, consolidate.”
The beaten out expanse of the earth… stands as a partition in the midst of the waters to separate the upper from the lower waters.”

“the Priestly writer conceived of rqy’ as something “solid”. This idea of solidity of rqy’ is conveyed also by Ezekiel in what might be called his Throne-chariot vision:

‘Over the heads of the creatures was the semblance of a rqy’, glittering like transparent ice, stretched above their heads. under the rqy’ their wings touched those on the next [creature]. And above the rqy’ that was over their heads was the semblance of a throne, coloured like sapphire. (Ez 1.22-23, 26). Then I looked and lo! upon the rqy’ that was over the head of the cherubim there appeared the semblance of a throne, colored like sapphire’ (Ez 10.1).


The function of rqy’ suggests, in this context, the idea of ‘pavement, floor, base’. rqy’ is definitely not to be identified with the earth, and it is upon this rqy’ that the throne rests.” (p56)

“An interesting note… is provided by the account of creation where the luminaries are said to have been ‘set’ (ntn is to be taken in the sense of sym), in the rqy’ of the sky.” (p57)

“Despite the limited number of passages which explicitly mention the place of origin of the precipitation, referring either to the heaven (cf the expressions mtr hsmym (Deut 11.11); kpr smym (Job 38.29); tl smym (Gen 27.28) or the storehouses in heaven (cf Job 38.22), it can be safely assumed that the ancient Hebrews actually conceived of an immense ocean located above the firmament supplying water for precipitation. This assumption rests on the usage of specific verbs employed in this context which speak of water flowing nzl, dripping ‘rp, descending yrd and falling npl from above.” (pp120-121)

“the ancient Hebrews conceived of an ocean located above the firmament and related the periodic rainfall to windows (‘rbwt) and doors (dltym) in the firmament which were opened at intervals to let the waters pass through. These, however, are not the only openings in the sky through which the rain was released in due measure. This view of water channels, like irrigation canals, opened on the surface of the firmament, which caused the rain to flow down from all parts of heaven, is confirmed by a poetical passage: ‘"Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt’ (Job 38.25)

“the ancient Hebrews considered the universe on a three-leveled structure. The earth was located between the heaven, the upper part, and the underworld, the lowest part of the universe. The earth was regarded as a vast plain, occupied partly by the sea, partly by continents studded with mountains, furrowed by rivers, and dotted with lakes. The horizon encircling the earth quite naturally suggested the idea of a circular shape to the ancient Hebrews.” (p126)

- On pillars: “Similar to the conception that the heaven was thought to be constructed on pillars, there is abundant evidence that confirms the generally accepted view that the earth is firmly fixed in its place. The idea of the stability of the earth finds expression in the foundations, cornerstones, and pillars upon which the structure of the earth is said to be built.” (p126)

- On the waters of the deep: ‘He suspends the earth on nothing’ (Job 26.7b) “A likely interpretation would seem to be that the terrestrial mass which supports the continents and seas in its upper part is floating in the primeval flood.” (p127)

Whatever the apologetic excuses, it is clear that the major commentaries and dictionaries accept that the Biblical writers conceived of a three-tiered universe