This is a continuation of examining "Heaven in a Worldview." We will begin today by examining the ANE and arguing the Ancient Israelite worldview fit within this conception. Heaven was "up" and Sheol was "down." This was clearly spatial and referred to both as "places."
II. A Spatial Dimensions to Cosmology and Eschatology in the Ancient Near East [ANE], first century Judaism and the Bible.
A. The Ancient Near East
1. It is generally recognized by Old Testament scholars and scholars of the ANE that ancient civilizations had a hierarchical cosmology. There are basically three levels to the earth, although some are more complex. There is the earth’s foundation which holds the earth up by pillars. Under the earth is “sheol” or the grave or some kind of underworld. This is surrounded by ‘the waters’ or ‘the deep’ or ‘lower waters’. Then there is the earth. Above the earth is a “dome” of “firmament” or “expanse” it holds up the waters that are above but also has doors or floodgates which allow, when opened, the rain to pour down. The mountains are generally seen as part of the structure that holds up the sky. Under this dome, the sun and the moon pass across their journey. Above the waters in the sky, on top of it all is heaven or the heavens. Heaven is seen as the dwelling place of the gods and the heavenly council of hosts.[i] From above it all is the throne of the god or gods. Cosmic struggles in heaven often overspill onto earth. Mountains are access points to the gods so that temples and altars are often placed at high points. The structures of ancient temples also mirror this hierarchical structure of the world, as one moves inward it is analogous to moving upward into the heavenly realm.
2. This cosmology is standard to the ANE despite difference in their creation stories. We will not explore the differences here but it is generally recognized the ancient Israelite view of the world participated in this same structure. One notable difference however is that creation in Genesis 1 did not involve chaoskampf, divine struggle with chaos, the deep, the sea, or between the gods.
3. Mesopotamian Cosmology. “In the opening tablet of Atrahasis, the great gods divide the universe between them, with Anu going up to heaven, Enlil (apparently) residing on earth and Enki (later called Ea) going down to the Apsu, the lower waters. A threefold division of the universe between the same three gods is found in Enuma Elish 4.137-146. Here, after forming the heaven and earth out of Tiamat’s body, Marduk settles Anu in heaven with three hundred of the Anunnaki…”[ii] Later Babylonian texts divide heaven into three realms.[iii]
4. Egyptian Cosmology. Egyptians held to three plates, the plate of the sky, above the earth, the plate of the primeval waters below the earth and below this is the underworld.[iv] Egyptians believed that one could ascend upward into heaven. “Now let the ladder of the god be given to me, let the ladder of Seth be given to me, that I may ascend on it to the sky and escort Re as a divine guardian of those who have gone to their doubles.” [Pyramid Texts 1:166] “Hail to you, daughter of Anubis, who is at the windows of the sky, the companion of Thoth, who is at the uprights of the ladder! Open my way that I may pass.” [Pyramid Texts 1:93][v]
B. The Old Testament
1. It is generally recognized by Old Testament scholars that Israelite’s had this same basic structure of the world.
So for example, “The usual Hebrew way of expressing the idea of “the cosmos” is the expression “the heavens and the earth” or its reverse (Gen 2:4). Occasionally a fuller phrase is used, such as “the heavens and the earth…and all their multitude” (Gen. 2:1), or “heaven and the heaven of heavens…the earth with all that is in it” (Deut. 10:14). These phrases suggest a structured reality with parts that are separated from, but related to, each other. This would be in accord with the wider ancient Near Eastern worldview that envisaged the cosmos as a series of “layers,” the basic ones being the heavens, the earth and the lower waters. Such a threefold “layering” of the cosmos is found in the commandment against idolatry: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4 NRSV; cf. Deut 5:8).”[vi]
We see this same hierarchical view in Jonah 2 as Jonah goes cries from ‘the depth of Sheol’ and goes ‘into the deep’ with ‘the seas’. The great deep engulfs him (Jonah 2:5). He descends to the roots of the mountains with the earth’s bars (2:6). He fears he will not look upward to the Holy Temple and yet his prayers go into the temple (2:4,7). Given the close association between the Temple on Mt. Zion and the heavenly temple, which we will elaborate below, we do not have to choose between “is Jonah looking to the earthly temple, or towards heaven,” to look towards the former was to look towards the later.
2. In Genesis 1 we see the basic ANE view as God creates the heavens and the earth. The Spirit hovers over 'the deep.' There is an expanse/firmament that is spread. God then enters his rest which is associated with a ‘Temple’ in the ANE and sitting with the divine council in the heavenly.[vii] It is YHWH’s enthronement.[viii] Heaven is YHWH’s throne and the earth his footstool (Isaiah 66:1).[ix] Of course, the heavens do not ever “contain” God (1 Kings 8:27). Eden is created as a sub-temple for where Adam and Eve might rule as vice-regents whereas God rules over all creation (heavens and the earth) from the heavens. Thus, the language of Adam’s creation is kingly and royal grant language but is a microcosm of the God whose image he bears.[x]
“This idea that God built the cosmos to live in is not merely (or at all) an invitation to intimacy. The arrangements in this home indicate that there is appropriate distance between humanity and God.” So for example, the clouds cover and hide God’s throne as well as his appearances on earth (citing Ex. 19:16; 24:15-16; 40:34-35). From heaven YHWH looks down onto earth (Psalm 113:5-6; Genesis 11:5, after they decide to built a mountain to heaven). “’The heavens are heavens for Yhwh, but the earth he gave to human beings’ (Ps 115:16). Yhwh is like a seminary professor who welcomes students to live in her house and gives them the first story to live in as they wish (with implicit constraints), but keeps a room or two for herself on the second story. But the students, like the servants of a great house, always have the freedom and security of looking to the professor in her private rooms when they feel the need to do so (Ps 123:1-2)” [John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Volume 1 Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 86].
3. In Israel, the temple had a structure the mirrored the universe. The temple sanctuary was a microcosm of a larger cosmology. One would progress inward to the heavens (the holy place) and then into the throne of God (the holy of holies) which mirrored the same tiered structure of the universe.[xi]
“Temples in the Ancient Near East also generally exhibited the same three-part structure as found in Israel’s temple, often with the similar symbolic significance: outer court = the visible sea and earth where humans live; an inner court inside a building = the visible heavens (and also garden terrain); and a holy of holies = the dwelling of the god.”[xii] Thus, “Jewish tradition…also reaffirms the truth of Psalm 78 and Exodus 25, that the earthly temple corresponded in some significant manner to the heavens, especially a heavenly temple.”[xiii]
4. Mt. Zion and the temple are intimately connected and it fits perfectly within the view of the ANE.
Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson writes, “The cosmic mountain is a kind of fulcrum for the universe; it is on the line to which all the regions of the universe are referred, and it is somehow available to each of them. The base of the mountain lies in the chaotic underworld, and its head reaches into the heavens. On it, messages can be passed from heaven to earth and vice versa. It is the prime place of communication between the transcendent and mundane reality. Consider, for example, the account of Isaiah’s great vision of God enthroned in Isaiah 6:1-8. The relevant point about this justly famous passage is that it occurs in the Temple, in other words, on the cosmic mountain Zion. Isaiah is privileged actually to see the divine council, YHWH and his attendants, in session. The within the holiest room in the Temple, the sanctum sactorum (dĕbîr), was though to be either the throne or footstool of the deity…The earthly Temple is thus the vehicle that conveys the prophet into the supernal Temple, the real Temple, the Temple of YHWH and his retinue, and not merely the artifacts that suggest them. This Temple is an institution common to the heavenly and terrestrial realms; they share it.”[xiv]
Levenson continues latter with words that sound like they were plucked right out of Hebrews: “In short, what we see in Jerusalem is simply the earthly manifestation of the heavenly Temple, which is beyond localization. The Temple on Zion is the antitype to the cosmic archetype. The real Temple is the one to which it points, the one in “heaven,” which cannot be distinguished sharply from its earthly manifestation. Thus, when Moses is to construct Israel’s first sanctuary, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, he does so on the basis of a glimpse of the “blueprint” or “model” of the heavenly shrine which he was privileged to behold upon Mount Sinai (Exod 25:9, 40). This notion of the revelation of a heavenly model or blueprint (tabnît) to the moral Temple builder has deep Near Eastern roots.”[xv]
5. Other Biblical References:
a. God is described as the God of heaven.
Genesis 24:7 7 The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me,
b. God calls or blesses people from heaven.
Genesis 21:17 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.
Genesis 22:11 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I."
c. The way God blesses people is associated with this tiered structure of the universe:
Genesis 49:25 25 by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
d. Jacob’s seeing the ladder descending and ascending into heaven is standard within the ANE worldview:
Genesis 28:12-13 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.
e. Concerning Sheol, it is clearly “down”:
Genesis 37:35 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, "No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." Thus his father wept for him.
Genesis 42:38 38 But he said, "My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol."
Genesis 44:29-31 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.' 30 "Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy's life, 31 as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.
Numbers 16:30 30 But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD."
Deuteronomy 32:22 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
f. God’s activity of assisting the poor and raising them up, or bringing the humble low is associated with the tiered structure of the universe:
1 Samuel 2:6 6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
1 Samuel 2:8 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world.
1 Samuel 2:10 10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed."
g. God is both in heaven and with the humble person:
Isaiah 57:15 15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.
h. Heaven is the throne of God.
1 Kings 8:30 30 And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
1 Kings 8:34-36 34 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them again to the land that you gave to their fathers. 35 "When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, 36 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance.
2 Chronicles 30:27 Then the priests and the Levites arose and blessed the people, and their voice was heard, and their prayer came to his holy habitation in heaven.
Psalm 2:4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Psalm 11:4 The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD's throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test, the children of man.
Psalm 103:19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Psalm 123:1 A SONG OF ASCENTS.To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Isaiah 63:15 15 Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.
Isaiah 66:1-2 Isaiah 66:1 Thus says the LORD: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? 2 All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
(See also Matthew 5:34-35, 23:21-22; Acts 7:49; Rev. 4:9)
i. The Lord is above the heavens, clearly denoting the realm of the sky (see diagram):
Psalm 113:3-6 3 From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised! 4 The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! 5 Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, 6 who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
j. The heights of the heaven often becomes analogy a metaphor. This makes the best sense when understood in light of the tiered structure of the universe.
Psalm 103:11 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
Isaiah 55:9 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
k. In summation, “Alongside this conception [the sky and air as ‘heavens’] is the OT belief that heaven is the habitation of God (1 Kings 8:30; Ps 14:2; Is 63:15) and of angels (Gen 28:12; 1 Kings 22:19; cf. Is 6:2-3). Heaven either contains God’s throne (Ps 103:19; 1 Kings 22:19) or functions as the throne itself (Is 66:1). It cannot, however, contain him (1 Kings 8:27). Given this close association, he is referred to as the “God of heaven” (Gen 24:3; 2 Chron 36:23; Ezra 1:2; Neh 1:4) who hears from his lofty abode both to judge the ungodly (Gen 19:24; 1 Kings 8:32) and to help his people (Ps 102:19-20 [MT 102:20-21]; 113:5-9; 1 Kings 8:30-52). Heaven, therefore, is the source of many blessings (Gen. 49:25; Deut 33:13; 1 Kings 8:35). Since God is understood to be “above,” he is sought there in prayer, often with upstretched hands (Ex 9:29; 1 Kings 8:22).”[xvi]
l. While our treatment of verses has certainly not been exhaustive and it in fact a mere random smattering, all these references, along with countless others, can be understood within the ANE culture and affirm the existence of a ‘place’ called heaven where God dwells on high.[xvii] We invite the reader to do a more detailed study of these verses in context, but our treatment here is sufficient to affirm the Ancient Israelite believed in heaven as part of the tiered universe. We trust we have not said anything here that is not commonly recognized by serious Biblical scholars and scholars of the ANE.
a. Rather than denying heaven is a place in favor of only the earthly, the ANE worldview and the Hebrew OT within that worldview affirms that heaven is a place. It is a created place where YHWH has set His temple so that He might rest/rule over all creation. Yet YHWH is a God who continually condescends so that His dwelling place might be with man. We will see this is the hope of redemption as the tabernacle comes down from heaven to fill the New Creation with the new heavens and new earth.
b. Thus, “the Hebrew Bible is capable of affirming God’s heavenly and his earthly presence without the slightest hint of tension between the two: YHWH is in his sacred Temple, YHWH’s throne is in the heavens. (Ps 11:4)” (Levenson, Sinai and Zion, 140). This is the balance between transcendence and immanence. The Bible affirms both without eliminating either or placing the two against each other. Platonism and other forms of thought would have us favor transcendence over immanence, and it seems Doug Pagitt along with many other philosophies would have us affirm immanence over transcendence. Must we choose? Me genoito. The answer to immanence or transcendence is a resounding “Yes”.
c. The belief in ‘heaven’ as a place within the ANE and Ancient Israel should be clear testimony enough that such belief is not “Platonic.”
In our next post, we will continue by examining the evidence from first century Judaism and the New Testament. Part 3
[i] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2005) p. 54 has a very clear diagram, clearer and better than the one we will provide below.
[ii] E.C. Lucas “Cosmology” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 133.
[iv] Ibid., 134.
[v] J. Edward Wright The Early History of Heaven (Oxford, 2002) 22.
[vi] Lucas “Cosmology” 137.
[vii] J.H. Walton “Creation” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 161. G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004) 60-66.
[viii] Walton “Creation” 165.
[ix] Walton “Creation” 165.
[x] Beale, The Temple, 81-121.
[xi] R.E. Averbeck, “Tabernacle” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 817.
[xii] G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004) 54. See the whole chapter for a defense of the cosmic symbolism of temples in the ANE, the OT, first century Judaism and the NT. The book as a whole is a wonderful treatment of ‘temple’ as a theme of Biblical theology and is to be highly recommended for reading.
[xiii] Ibid. 32.
[xiv] Jon D. Levenson Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Harper Row, 1985) 122-23.
[xv] Ibid., 140.
[xvi] J. Lunde “Heaven and Hell” Dictionary of the Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1992) 307.
[xvii] I’m sure someone will accuse this as proof texting. I would point out that I am not offering an exegesis of these verses, simply establishing veracity that the Ancient Israelites believed in heaven as a place and this was best understood within the ANE context. I would submit that any exegesis that handles these verses and in the end concludes heaven is not described as a place in the Bible is at best reductionistic and at worst blind to the plain evidence of the text itself. I am not attempting here a ‘systematic theology’ of heaven.