The Cosmic Geography and Cosmology of the ANE

Why spend the time and effort understanding the cosmic geography and cosmology of the Ancient Near East? Whether we realize it or not, the cosmic geography and cosmology of any culture determines much of its worldview and how it observes and explains the world around them; and it is therefore important to realize that the cosmic geography and cosmology of the ANE “differs from ours at every point.”[1]

First, the cosmic geographical inquiries of the ANE were not concerned with the physical or structural features of the cosmos as much as they were concerned with the function and purpose of the gods. The cosmic geography was predominantly metaphysical. This is perhaps the most important realization for the post-enlightenment reader to bring to their reading and studying of ANE texts and the Old Testament. The several apparently physical expressions regarding the ANE’s cosmic geography were primarily functional, rather than structural or ‘scientific.’

The heavens primarily functioned as the dwelling place of the gods, incorporating different levels for different deities. The sky was believed to be a solid firmament, functioning to separate the heavens and earth, holding back the heavenly waters (those typically poured out in the flood narratives), as well as acting as the “pivotal phenomenon associated with weather.”[2] The celestial bodies – sun, moon, stars, and planets – were entities of the sky, functioning similarly with the distinction of the moon, which played a large role in the ANE calendar. The earth was thought to be a flat disk stylized with cosmic geographical concepts. Politically, they viewed “their own area as the center of the earth.”[3] Cosmically, they envisioned cosmic waters surrounding the disk shaped land mass. Topographically, Babylon noted general locations of the mountains, rivers, canals, and swamp. Theologically, the Egyptian sarcophagus represents several deities connected with cosmic features. Moreover, the Epic of Etana indicates that the earth was understood in mainly agricultural terms, where the land was more extensive than the sea, and having supporting mountains. The netherworld was also an important aspect of the ANE cosmic geography. Each culture differed, while Egypt was perhaps most distinct. Some considered it to be a great city, incorporating various features, but most agreed that it was entered into by death.

Therefore, since the ANE cosmic geography was primarily metaphysical, then its cosmology was also primarily metaphysical. While modern cosmologies are primarily concerned with material substance, the ANE were not first and foremost concerned with such identifications. Their cosmology was centered on their ontological principles, which were defined by a thing’s function rather than its substance. A thing existed when it was separated, given a name, and given a function. In light of this ontology in the ANE, “to create something (i.e., bring it into existence) would mean to give it a function or role within an ordered cosmos.”[4] Walton claimed that this understanding of creation in the ANE brings an important clarification to Israel’s creation account in Genesis. Much like the Akkadian creation terminology, the Hebrew bara’ (create) focuses on “operation through organization and assignment of roles and functions.”[5] Though much of the scholastic swarm around Genesis 1-2 concerns the scientific, material, consequences, given the ANE’s cosmological understanding, “matter was not the concern of the author of Genesis.”[6] The same principle is seen in observing the ANE’s expression of the pre-cosmic condition. Before ‘creation,’ there was chaos, intimating that the pre-cosmic condition “was not lacking in that which was material, it was lacking in order and differentiation” (cf. Genesis 1:2).[7] Creation then brought about order and function, not necessarily material or substance. As mentioned, ‘creation’ (a thing’s coming into existence) was marked by the assignment of name, its separation, and assignment of role or function.

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 166.

[2] Ibid., 170.

[3] Ibid., 172.

[4] Ibid., 181.

[5] Ibid., 183.

[6] Ibid., 183.

[7] Ibid., 185.