Robin Parry. The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014.)
Like many conservative Christians of my generation, I was raised as a young earth creationist (YEC). We prided ourselves on taking what we believed to be the most faithful and commonsense reading of the Bible. Other Christians bowed to the idol of “science,” (note the scare quotes). But we prided ourselves in the belief that real science could, in fact, be discerned by reading the whole counsel of God, and that meant a firm commitment to a creation that unfolded in six 24 hour days approximately 6000 years ago.
As Robin Parry demonstrates in his delightful book The Biblical Cosmos, my YEC understanding of things could hardly have been further from the reality. YEC is far indeed from a faithful or commonsense reading of the Bible. And those who are truly consistent in reading the whole counsel of God will soon find themselves grappling with an alien world far stranger than they ever dreamed.
But how does one come to grapple with the strange world described in the Bible? What we need is a tour that takes us through the many ways this ancient world differs from our own. Think of Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven in the Divine Comedy. Now replace that eschatological destination with a tour of the worldview of the biblical writers and switch out Dante’s venerable tour-guides Virgil and Beatrice with Dr. Parry. And with that, we’re ready to embark on our tour of the strange, three-storied cosmos within the Bible.
Taking the Tour
Parry begins in Part I by surveying the flat earth and that mysterious underworld that lies beneath. The tour starts in chapter 1 on the surface of the earth as Parry cites multiple biblical texts that assume the earth is flat and immobile and that it rests on pillars for stability. It stands at the center of creation and every day the sun and moon literally pass above it in the vault of the heavens.
In chapter 2 Parry turns to the sea, a foreboding, chaotic realm inhabited by strange, mythical creatures that would be at home in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Consider, for example, Yahweh’s defeat of the terrifying chaos monsters Rahab and Leviathan (32-37). But the seas are not just out there. They are also above and below the earth. It turns out that in the Noahic deluge, the earth is flooded by two vast seas, one that is usually held safely behind a hard firmament far above the earth, and the other a subterranean sea. When the firmament above and the ground below open up, these raging flood waters break through and threaten to return the earth to something approximating the chaotic state prior to creation (38-39).
In chapter 3 the tour returns to the land as Parry points out the special significance the Hebrews attributed to several aspects of the world including mountains, wilderness, rivers, and springs, as well as to the concept of an Edenic promised land.
Things begin to get even stranger in chapter 4 as we again leave the surface of the flat earth behind for the shadowy underworld of sheol which is located quite literally beneath our feet. This is the realm of the dead, and Parry points out that it is explicitly referenced in a passage like Numbers 16:23-34 which describes an earthquake opening up the earth to consume people. Parry reflects:
“I used to read this story in the light of my modern worldview; I thought that this was simply an earthquake that split the ground under the rebels causing them to fall to their deaths in the crack. But it is clearly more than that. The earth split open and the rebels went down into [sic] alive into sheol, the dead zone. Clearly sheol was thought to be literally under the ground.” (79)
What a strange world! A flat earth with a sea in the sky held up by a hard dome and another sea under the earth, and a dark cavern populated by the dead below that subterranean sea!
As incredible as the journey is thus far, it becomes even stranger in Part II as Parry takes us in the other direction way up into the sky and to the starry firmament beyond. On our first stop, in chapter 5, we journey above the aforementioned sky sea to the vault of astral bodies that lies beyond, including the sun, moon, visible planets, and stars. To the contemporary reader, these are understood to be natural objects composed of rock, dust, and gas. But to ancient peoples, they were divine beings, and for many, proper objects of worship. While the Bible eschews worship of all but Yahweh, nonetheless, biblical writers still appear to ascribe a subordinate divine status to astral bodies: for example, they are recognized as members of Yahweh’s divine council (100; 107); furthermore, they can act on Yahweh’s behalf, as in the case of Judges 5:19-20 where we read of the stars fighting for Yahweh (108).
In chapter 6 we continue our journey upwards as we leave the skies behind altogether and enter into the realm of heaven itself. Yes indeed, the biblical writers understood heaven quite literally to exist above the earth. Heaven consisted of God’s temple (his dwelling place relative to creation), though God was always understood to transcend heaven (1 Kings 8:27). Heaven also is the residence of the divine council — the sons of God (127) — as well as human-like angels and still other strange human/animal hybrid creatures including the cherubim and seraphim (130-32).
The focus of Part III is the relationship between heaven and earth. In chapter 7 Parry examines the role of the temple as a model or “microcosm” of the cosmos with the outer court representing the land and sea, the holy place the sky, and the Holy of Holies heaven itself. And in chapter 8 he summarizes Jesus’ journey through this biblical cosmos, beginning at the right hand of the Father far above in heaven, coming physically down to earth in the incarnation, descending into sheol/hades at his death, and then resurrecting and ascending back to the right hand of the Father. Parry concludes by addressing the difficult topics of Jesus’ present physical place and his future return.
What do we do with this strange world?
I began this review by noting the failure of YEC to take the biblical text seriously. Parry makes the point as follows:
“as we have seen, this [YEC literalism] does not go nearly far enough. If fundamentalists really were to have the courage of their convictions then we would see membership of the Flat Earth Society boosted significantly. What happens instead is that this is a bridge too far, even for hard-line fundamentalists, and biblical texts are thus reinterpreted to fit with modern cosmology.” (165-66)
Needless to say, the proper response is not to become more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists: a return to the three-tiered universe is not possible for those of us who are familiar with modern science. But then what is the alternative? How should we interpret this bizarre biblical world? Answering that question is the task of Part IV.
As Parry notes, many theologians account for the strangeness of the biblical world by appealing to the concept of accommodation (166-67). Every good teacher accommodates instruction to their students’ level of understanding and that’s what God does as well: he accommodated his message to their ancient near eastern understanding of the world. Once we recognize the three-story universe as an accommodation, we can extricate the enduring message from those ancient trappings.
While Parry agrees that God accommodates, he believes there is more to be learned from the biblical cosmos on its own terms. And so, in chapter 9 he proposes a “third way” to think about the matter, one according to which God reveals “his truth not merely in spite of the ‘wrong science’ but in and through it.” (167) In other words, Parry proposes that aspects of this putatively “obsolete” biblical cosmos may very well retain enduring insights for the contemporary reader.
Over the final three chapters, Parry explores various possible ways that the biblical cosmos may provide revelatory insights into the structure of reality even now. For example, in chapter 10 Parry focuses on insights from the cosmic temple, noting in particular how the temple may ground a renewed Christian Platonic participation. And when he considers the biblical heavens in chapter 11, Parry explores how the spiritual and material may relate to one another by way of the model of stars as having a dual nature both as natural objects in the firmament and divine beings in heaven.
The book concludes in chapter 12 with a survey of suggestive insights based on the biblical earth. For example, Parry begins with the suggestion that the centrality of creation in the Bible may provide a symbolic rebuttal to deflationary secular “pale blue dot” understandings of planet earth and our place within the cosmos. And he concludes the chapter with a rebuttal to reductionism by returning to Platonic participation as a way to envision all creation relating to God.
Debriefing the Tour
So what’s the verdict on this grand tour of the biblical cosmos? Let me begin by getting some criticisms out of the way.
To begin with, while the attempt in Part IV to glean revelatory insights from the biblical cosmos rather than despite it may be the richest and most original part of Parry’s book, I nonetheless thought that he gave short shrift (i.e. 1 page) to the important concept of accommodation. Indeed, I think the book would have been stronger had Parry devoted a chapter to accommodation before turning to developing his third way in the final chapters. (For a much more fulsome treatment of accommodation see Kent Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words (Baker, 2008).)
Second, while Parry offers a relatively comprehensive tour of the biblical cosmos and the points at which it contrasts with our own cosmos, I thought he also should have devoted a chapter in the tour to contrasting biblical and post-Enlightenment concepts of nature, divine action, and miracle. To be sure, he does address these topics later in Part IV (see pp. 172-77). But it seems to me that this material is of sufficient import that it would have been preferable to place it earlier during the tour itself.
Finally, while Parry’s attempt in Part IV to develop a third way that finds revelation in the biblical cosmos is arguably the richest and most original part of the book, it is also likely to be the most controversial. On this score, I’ll note one point of personal skepticism.
When considering the location of Jesus’ resurrection body between ascension and second-coming, Parry offers a speculative suggestion based on the fact that Jesus’ resurrection body is eschatological (i.e. the first fruits of our resurrection):
“Perhaps we can think of Jesus ‘ascending’ into the future, the new age. We could still speak of this in terms of ascending into heaven, in that the new age is one in which heaven and earth are unified, and that environment is precisely the one that Jesus’ resurrection body is fitted for.” (187)
While Jesus’ ascension “into the future” would certainly address the embarrassing detail of needing to locate a physical resurrection body relative to the present cosmos, I simply do not believe that this is a coherent proposal. Parry would need to say much more here to convince me that his highly speculative suggestion is both coherent and orthodox.
I have questions and concerns about several other points that Parry explores in this final section. That said, I agree fully with the validity of his primary goal to find in the biblical cosmos something more than simply accommodation to an ancient people. And many of his specific suggestions are very promising.
To sum up, as I noted at the beginning of this review, I found The Biblical Cosmos to be a delightful book. It is easy to read, biblically and theologically sophisticated, framed by a creative tour motif, and punctuated by the occasional bad pun. The book also includes several handsome illustrations by Hannah Parry that complement the text nicely. In short, The Biblical Cosmos would make a great textbook for a Bible or worldview course. More generally, it would be an invaluable addition to the library of any thinking Christian.
Thanks to Cascade for a review copy of The Biblical Cosmos.