Down Here on Earth—Traversing

(This essay is a response to Robin Parry’s book The Biblical Cosmos and originally appeared on syndicate.network)

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In Jerusalem, when you look across the Ophel (that slope going up to the Temple Mount) toward the Mount of Olives, you cannot see what is behind it. The Mount of Olives confronts you as this intimidating hill to the east, now stippled all over with the stone tombs of the righteous. How can one know the shape of the Levant, the plunging valley that leads to the Salt Sea, the lush agrarian valleys of the Jordan and Jezreel, or the hill country that slowly flattens into the Negev desert? Google Earth® gives us the quickest access to such information. But I wasn’t asking about information. I asked, “How can one know?”

The ancients and moderns—until very recently—had no God’s-eye view of this land. They knew it the same way that I knew my childhood neighborhood: by traversing it. Difficult to imagine, the terrain east of the Mount of Olives descends precipitously over one thousand meters, morphing from semi-arid into raw desert. Though roughly at the same latitude, no one would quibble if I said, “I went up from Jericho to Jerusalem.” That is, no one would quibble who has traversed it.

I have lived briefly in Israel and I regularly travel there. When teaching undergraduates about the Hebrew Bible, I cannot help but notice that in their embodied imaginations and theology, they naturally want to take a God’s-eye view of Scripture. Topographical and theological maps are helpful. I even require students to memorize and recite maps. However, I find myself saying, “If we were there right now, I would point over to X and you would see Y and then this would make much more sense.”

The fact that Jerusalem is within eyeshot of Bethlehem brings us out of abstract spaces and concepts into the world of attestation from the ground up. The grounded fact that Joshua’s military advance was in direct line of sight to the people of Jericho certainly should inform our reading of Rahab’s words, “The fear of you all has fallen upon us and all those who dwell in the land melt away before you” (Josh 2:9). Even the remoteness and remarkable daintiness of the hamlet of Nazareth in the days of Jesus bleeds hues into the watercolor of our understanding about the conflict he encounters on his way to Jerusalem.

All of this is to say that the biblical literature works from the ground up. Literally and literarily, our prime ancestor is given the title “Dirtling” (adam) because he was taken from the dirt (admah). The radical promise of land from YHWH to Abram (Gen 15:7–21) is so specious that he doubts YHWH’s veracity or intentions saying, “How can I know that I shall possess it?” After all, it was a land equivalent to the Fertile Crescent, or what Abram would have called “the known world.” In the background of this weird cultic oath is the fact that Abram has personally traversed the entirety of that land promised to him, from Ur to Haran through Canaan and down into Egypt. He has walked from the Euphrates to the Nile (Gen 15:18) and he knows it!

From the perspective of Scripture itself, seeking to “know what God knows” may estrange us from God’s plan of revelation through the cosmos. Instead, we get biblical stories concerned mostly with “seeing what the prophets are trying to show us.” In that spirit, Parry is our prophet, dragging us down to the ground, pointing at the heavens shoulder to shoulder with the ancient Israelite, and asking us to imagine a world where we do not know what is over that mountain until we traverse it.

I have two basic concerns that I will cover in four points below. My two unresolved areas of concern are probably more my problem than Parry’s burden, but those concerns are representative for what I regularly hear from Christians when first encountering the ancient Near East parallels and cosmic leanings of Israel. The first concern regards the ontological nature of the Hebrew cosmos and God’s relationship to it. Specifically, how direct is God’s plan for creation when it comes to communicating to Israel? Is the cosmos just the material that God is stuck working with, or is it specifically orchestrated by the Creator? And, how can either view be justified by the biblical literature? Second, what did the Israelites think of their own cosmography? Much like we think of scientific theory in the throws of revolutionary science today, did ancient Semites think of their cosmography as a tentative understanding (á la Thomas Kuhn)? In other words, how seriously did they take their own view?

Though important to begin the task, Parry does not want us to stay down merely at the ground level and cosmopolitan perspectives of the universe.

I propose that this biblical view was not merely a phenomenological perspective on how things appear from our location on the surface of the earth; it was also a means of divine communication. (197)

This raises, for me, the question of God and the cosmos—whether God is revealing through the world as he found it or founded a world in order to communicate with humanity. If the cosmos is accidental and God is just excellent at accommodating his plans to its shape and structure (i.e., accidental accommodation), then that would be at odds with a final view of Israelite cosmography (i.e., that they viewed their own cosmography as definitive or final). Or, if Israel’s cosmography is final (i.e., final cosmography) and God’s creation is exactly as he intends it for his ends (i.e., created accommodation)—including how he uses creation to establish the concepts necessary for apt theology—then the final cosmography would be out of sorts with our understanding of the universe, an understanding that has modified appreciably over the millennia. Some combination of God’s use of creation and Hebrew cosmography must jive better than others.[1] It is unclear to me, though I have intuitions which are hinted at in The Biblical Cosmos, which arrangement Parry would find most acceptable. It may be that some other arrangement better captures his understanding, and I would be appreciative to hear it.

The World as It Was Found or the World God Founded?

First, Parry fleshes out some epistemological claims than don’t usually occur in an introduction into ancient cosmology. In essence, he advocates at points for thinking about theology from the ground up, from their perspective. That is not a bad thing! Indeed, I am praising him for this. In light of the disclosure above, it should be obvious that I was impressed with what Parry does in the short space of two hundred pages.

By ground-up theology, I mean that he begins with earth-bound thinking and how it lands diverse cultures in similar cultic practices and ideas. In the chapter “A Land Down Under,” Parry helps us to understand the depth of Sheol, quite physically; our death puts us at greater material distance from the realm of YHWH in the heavens. In “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” the idea of a mountain being the one natural place that brings us closer to the heavens explains why nations in flat terrain (e.g., Mesopotamia and Egypt) built mountain-shaped structures (e.g., ziggurats and pyramids) and those in mountainous regions (e.g., Canaan and Israel) do not need to build (e.g., high places and the temple). The physicality, the groundedness, of the biblical authors creates a theological purview that must engage the world around it.

This approach values the life and perspective of ancient Israelites and their various cults and cultures through the centuries and in situ as fundamental for understanding the themes pervasive in the canon. The earth and life on the face of it creates the categories through which Israel theologizes. But this supposition generates questions about the nexus of creation and history that I want to probe more below. For instance, does God create rivers with an additional metaphorical feature for use in the psalms and eschatological literature? Or, does our encounter with rivers provide the construct that God can use analogically to reason with us (e.g., Psalm 1)? More broadly, is creation a classroom set up by God (created accommodation), or, is creation where we happen to be and through it, God can sufficiently convey meaning (accidental accommodation)? As Karl Barth famously said (for a different reason), “God may speak to us through Russian communism or a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog.”[2] He goes on to say that just because God can communicate through such events, it does not require us to take such communiqués as authoritative for our proclamation of reality.

And so, creation would have to be of a certain kind in a particular order to fulfill the ways in which the biblical authors use it to convey prophetic proclamation. Otherwise, God may be merely clever with his use of the natural world as an accident of creation to speak to humanity through Israel. If God is in the business of this kind of extreme accommodation in his revelation, which entails an accidental view of creation, why should we treat any of it as anything worth proclaiming more than a dead dog? Parry begins an answer in part 4, but I believe he stops short. What I intend to probe below would most likely require its own section in the book.

Second, now that we are down here looking at things from the ground level, what are we to make of the relationship between the cosmos as created and the cosmos as it appeared to ancient Hebrews? Two parallel examples are worth considering here: natural language and the uniqueness of biblical ethics.

Is Hebrew the language of YHWH or is it the natural language of Israel and therefore YHWH speaks Hebrew in order to speak to Israel? Of course, Islam has taken a definitive stance on this. Allah speaks Arabic and thus the true Qur’an can only be written in the holy language of Allah. Is all of creation to be viewed similarly, like a natural language from below? The implications for natural theology, or a theology of revelation writ large, stem directly from the answers to questions like these.

I am inclined to think that the use of trees in Eden, bows in the flood account, livestock for sacrifice, mountains for worship, and a human as the final sacrifice are not mere accommodations to our ground-eye view of the world. In the case of creation and cultic ceremonies, the connection between the historical act and the use of created items doesn’t appear arbitrary. Unlike our rituals today, biblical covenant ceremonies did not have arbitrary symbols. The bow set in the sky directly related to both the waters of the flood and the violence of a weapon used by YHWH to cleanse the earth. The irony of the temple being built on the shortest hill around Jerusalem—it is immediately surrounded by higher hills—cannot be missed while reading about the plans of the Babel in Genesis 11. Unlike wedding rings, graduation gowns, and mortgage signings, biblical ceremonies do not appear to be mere social constructions of ritual, but embedded in the structure of the cosmos itself as it would have appeared to the ancients and moderns until recently. Parry gets at this where he discusses the role of Eden in the tabernacle/temple, among other places.

I remember hearing a Templeton lecture by a renowned American Roman Catholic biologist (i.e., he had appeared on The Colbert Report) who claimed rather easily that if we could “rewind the tape” on evolution, we might have come up with squid-headed bi-pods running the planet instead of humans (or something like that). When I pushed on that point, asking if “Jesus” would have been a squid-headed bi-pod, he doubled down on his claim, saying, “Of course.” In this move, he is taking the accidental accommodation approach to theology from the ground up. The Son can pour himself into whatever form creation happens to take because creation is (almost entirely) accidental to God’s purposes.

What if creation itself is The Accommodation, imbued with everything that will make the history of humanity physically, and hence, conceptually coherent at various stages of human exploration? What if ancient understandings of wind and water offered them sufficient analogues for their conceptual world, and it had to be so in every running of the tape of history? In other words, their concepts of the cosmos couldn’t have been otherwise given the state of God’s work in the world and human exploration. If that is the case, then what the biblical authors thought about their cosmography matters. It does not matter so much as to how well their ancient view comports with modern scientific view, but that it comports to reality as they experienced it.

The history of science warns us that our current views will inevitably become quaint and ancient as well. Hence, our present understanding of science cannot the norming norm, a point that Parry appears to lose sight of at spots in the book. Rather, what matters is how rigidly the biblical authors believed that they were conveying the nature of reality to current and future audiences.

This whole rant sprung from the analogy of natural languages. Language is now believed to be contingent on local terrain for its use of vowels, melody, and hardness of consonants.[3] The “acoustic adaptation” of languages to local environs, if correct, either roots God’s language itself in the ground or makes God himself the linguistic accommodationist. I think Parry (and I) would prefer the accommodation view, but the question then becomes: how much accommodation and how much providence? Or, how do accommodation and providence co-vary here? It is now obvious that I am leaning toward created accommodation over accidental accommodation.

The other analogy I want to posit is that of the uniqueness of Hebrew ethics. It has been a matter of some debate as to how differentiated Hebrew ethical schemes were among their peer cultures in the ancient Near East (ANE). It’s safe to say that the ethics of Torah were distinct in modest ways, at the very least, and perhaps more radically pronounced on some topics. In his forthcoming book, Jeremiah Unterman explores discrete sectors of ethical thinking in the Hebrew Bible that we take for granted (even supposing they are products of Western thought!), ethical thinking that stood in stark contrast to other cultures in the ANE.[4]

The treatment of foreigners and persons on the fringe is one way in which the Hebrew Bible contrasts with its neighbors. Whether these ethical practices of hospitality to émigré were regularly practiced in Israelite society or not (and the biblical texts seem to suggest not), they were a standard that the prophets and later leaders appealed to in order for Israel to live long in the land of Canaan (e.g., Neh 5). Repentance is another category that Unterman explores deftly. He notes that if one has capricious gods who act foolishly and unpredictably, as did the Babylonian pantheon, how would one ever know when they’ve violated some moral order for which they need to repent? Repentance entails a concept of divine stability, which was a rare cultic notion in the ANE.

I raise these examples to say that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament offer critiques and a distinct way of thinking/acting in relation to the human cosmos that is ritualized into Israel through their sacramental theology. Yet, Parry seems to suppose (and maybe I missed his cues here) that the ancient Hebrews were the kind of folk who fall in line with whatever cosmologies du jour surrounded them. They certainly have no qualms with following a distinct ethical philosophy. Yet, when it comes to the material cosmos, they are conceptually conformist? I suspect that Parry would want the similarities with other cultures to entail some sort of implicit critique as well. I would like to hear more on this.

Third, a view of accidental accommodation through creation presupposes something that will pose a problem for some. It seems to suggest that ancient life, cultic structure, and theology derives entirely from grounded concepts and lacks an account of modification. Regarding what I am calling “grounded God-talk,” Parry says:

Now, of course, we still retain this language of the sun rising and setting and have no trouble using it in everyday conversation. We are simply speaking about how things look from where we are standing. . . . Biblical authors too were simply talking about how the world appeared to them from observation. (22)

Like the biblical authors, today’s theology must deal with the world as it appears to us. However, our view of the cosmos is not stable either. We tend to think of our assumptions about the cosmos as transitory, ready to be usurped by revolutions in science. We have good reasons for such tendentiousness. Like the Ptolemaic, Copernican, Galileon, Newtonian, and Einsteinian descriptions of the physical world, we assume that the cosmos will eventually appear different to future generations because of new and more powerful explanations provided by the scientific enterprise.

In this sense, I would like to pull Parry and the rest of us down between today’s ground-eye view and the ancient one. Did the biblical authors believe that they were describing the world (final cosmography), or the world as it appeared to them (tentative cosmography)? This seems like a potential pitfall in our thinking about what the biblical authors thought they were doing. Of course, this is a larger task than called for by the thesis of The Biblical Cosmos, but I would certainly like to hear Parry’s understanding of this.

Do the biblical authors offer signs that evince a transitory understanding of reality (i.e., tentative cosmography)? For instance, would the authors of Genesis or Job affirm, “and that’s how the world is,” or, “that’s how it seems to be, to the best of our understanding”? If yes to the latter, then Parry’s goal appears to be mutually aligned with the biblical rhetoric under what he calls “A Step in the Right Direction” (166). If no, then it seems we have a problem in the nature of revelation. Let’s assume for the final point of this response that the biblical authors think that their view is the stable and correct grasp of reality (final cosmography), though I have intuitions otherwise.

Fourth, and stemming from the problem of accidental accommodation, what about the counter-cultural idea of the heaven-earth nexus found in the Hebrew Bible? By this, I mean that Eden was a union of the heavens and earth split in Genesis 3, mended in the tabernacle/temple, expanded through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and awaiting full reunion in the eschaton. But the fact that a nexus between the heavens and earth occurs at all is contentious among their peers, especially if the goal is reunion and restoration of the heavens and earth.

Specifically, the heaven-earth nexus identifies a crucial example of God’s identity being bound in his physical location above humanity (i.e., in the heavens/sky) and his repeated actions to come from the heavens above in order to act on earth below.

The book of Daniel depicts the radical nature of that nexus in the battle between the wise men of Babylon and Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar demands revelation of his dream, the magicians claim with partial correctness, “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh [i.e., in the heavens]” (Dan 2:11). When Daniel comes into the story to save them all from certain death, he affirms their view of the source of such knowledge, but denies the strict separation of the heavens and earth, the gods and humans:

No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. (Dan 2:27–28)

In Genesis, YHWH descends to Babel to see the building project. Jacob first sees the stairway connecting the heavens and earth with YHWH at the top and messengers going up and down between the realms. In Exodus, YHWH descends upon Mount Sinai. He descends on the tabernacle, his throne room being the holy of holies. In Numbers, YHWH descends onto Miriam and Aaron to chastise them for their rebellion. In Kings, the fire of YHWH falls upon the offering of Elijah and not the prophets of Ba’al. And in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit falls upon Mary “from the Most High,” a regularly used title for God from the Hebrew Bible. God’s voice descends from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, and so on.

This regular insistence of YHWH to reveal a connection between these two realms is bizarre in its ANE context. After flying in an airplane as a child, I learned that “the heavens” of Scripture are not the skies of airliners. In this sense, we can agree plainly with Parry where he says, “It is simply not possible for a modern Christian, even a fundamentalist, to believe the cosmos to have the exact physical structure that biblical authors believed it to have” (165). Hence, he claims that we cannot inhabit the biblical world, but he says that we can visit as tourists.

Returning to this matter of the heavens, now that I know the sky does not contain YHWH’s heavens, how is the term “heaven” meaningful? Until recently in human history, the skies were an inaccessible place for humans. God is up there, and for Israel’s sake, he comes down here. If God accommodates the accident of ground-bound Israel by coming down, then he is neither necessarily or ontologically the “Most High” (עליון). Rather, YHWH is only accidentally the “Most High” in because of the way creation turned out and God’s desire to accommodate us. But does God’s ontological Most-Highness, as accidental accommodation, do any work for us today other than to appreciate God’s general willingness to accommodate?

Instead of accidental accommodation and the problems that it entails, what if created accommodation was primarily the construct for understanding God-human relations. In this sense, humans are not created finite and ground-bound as opposed to the infinite and everywhere God. Rather, the man was intentionally created from the ground—the Dirtling—which puts him in a particular spatial relation with the hills and the sky. The human need for oxygen puts them in particular relation to clean air, vegetation, and water. This matrix of physical and social relations also yields analogical schemes with which we can conceptualize God-human relations. In this creationally intentional view, God reveals to humans through divinely orchestrated natural means. However, this revelation is framed and circumscribed by his unnatural descents from the heavens.

Must God descend? Yes, because God created humans with a heavenward orientation toward the skies, which offers the orientation through which he will come down. Until we embed our infants with jetpacks through which they phenomenologically experience the heavens as normative, God’s Most-Highness remains a creationally constructed and correct understanding for us moderns today. It’s not accidental or merely accommodated. Indeed, accommodation may be the wrong term for what I’m describing, though I’m sympathetic to what the term is trying to do.

Along with the ancients, our current cosmography might be correct insofar as it shows deference to our being human and the natural world qua created, even creation in need of restoration. Our theology was created to be down here on earth—traversing.

[1] Final Cosmography + Accidental Accommodation [Untenable]: God is just using the cosmos as he finds it, but then Israelite understanding could equal or trump God’s understanding.

Final Cosmography + Created Accommodation [Untenable]: Our understanding of creation has changed and is now at odds with Final Cosmography.

Tentative Cosmography + Accidental Accommodation [Tenable]: Could be seen as out of sorts with the biblical depiction of God.

Tentative Cosmography + Created Accommodation [Acceptable]: Allows for modification of cosmography and appreciates the ancient view for it’s necessary place in Israel’s intellectual history.

[2] Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1 61.

[3] Emily Underwood, “Human Language May Be Shaped by Climate and Terrain,” Science, November 4, 2015, http://news.sciencemag.org/2015/11/human-language-may-be-shaped-climate-and-terrain.

[4] Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (Lincoln, NE: Jewish Publication Society / University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

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