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The Shape of the Cosmos

a) Introduction

From Genesis 1 we get a glimpse of the structure of the cosmos according to one major biblical text. The cosmos is:

In a number of places we read that the continuation of that ordering process is the responsibility of humans (Ps. 8) or specifically of the King (Ps. 72). Ordering as the act of creation is something that extends into the sphere of human life.

The preceding picture gives us some sense of the way the world was physically understood.

b) Governance of the Cosmos

In other ANE religious texts (e.g. from Ugaritic in Syria, and Mesopotamian traditions) we see clearly the structures that govern the cosmos.

In Ugaritic texts a divine council stands at the head of the cosmos. The creator, the patriarchal figure of El presides over it. The divine council is the place where decrees are proclaimed which affect the destiny of humans, the order of creation, and the distribution of power within the cosmos. The council establishes human kingship, determines and proclaims the moral and legal order of society, decides victory and defeat in war, and controls human affairs. It is an expression of a complex distribution of power in the cosmos. The notion of a council itself is a political model drawn from human experience. A similar picture of the way the gods operate lies behind the story in Mesopotamian creation story Enuma Elish.

There is evidence for a notion of a divine council in the OT, e.g. Ps. 82:1-2. Also see Ps. 29:1-2; Isa. 6:1-13; Job 1:6ff; 1 Kgs 22:19ff etc.

Changes in the divine council in the OT from that in the ANE:

c) Other Gods.

For the greater part of Israelís history there was a sound belief that other gods existed as well as YHWH. Occasionally these other deities are seen in the context of the divine council, although they have the position of lesser courtiers. In Ps. 82 and Deut. 32:7-8 the other gods are given jurisdiction over the other nations while Israel is the nation YHWH takes for himself. These other gods possess a degree of power of their own otherwise they would not be seen to constitute the threat to YHWH 's people that they are (see Deut. 4:19 and 29:25-26). Nevertheless, their power is inferior to YHWH's (note Ps. 82, 1 Kings 18 and Exodus 7-11). At other times these gods are pictured in contexts of subservience to YHWH (Ps. 29).

Not until the time of exile (after c. 550 BCE) and specifically in Deutero-Isaiah (e.g. Isa. 44:6-8; 45:14; 20-23 etc., cf. Jer. 10:12-16) do we first get an argument that other gods are nothing if not actually non-existent.

d) Revelation.

Human access to decrees of the divine council was vitally important in the ANE. Human conformity to divine order ensured blessing and prosperity. Such beliefs were present in Israel too. For example, in 1 Kings 22, Jehoshapat, king of Judah, and an unnamed king of Israel consult the prophets to see if they should go to war against Ramoth-Gilead. It was vitally important to know if YHWH would give them victory or not.

In the ANE (esp. Babylon and Assyria) people used a variety of methods to determine divine knowledge: haruspexy, necromancy, belamancy, astrology, consultation of prophets and seers etc. In Israel, most of these techniques were frowned upon (Deut. 18:9-12) but practised (2 Kgs 13:14-19; 1 Sam. 28:3-14). The exception was prophecy. Some prophets received royal patronage (see 1 Kings 22 mentioned above) while others were barely tolerated (Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19 or Amos in Amos 7). But even prophecy was treated with a great deal of caution in Israel (Deut. 18:9-22; 13:1-5; 1 Kings 13). The true prophet was in some traditions the one who has stood in the divine council and heard the legitimate word of YHWH (Jer. 23:18-22, cf Isa. 6; Isa. 40:1-11).

e) Life and Death.

The aim of all creation is the establishment of shalom - the rest or peace of God and all creation. It is the establishment of the divine order and sovereignty with chaos kept in its place. Evil or chaos in various cosmic, political, social, and personal manifestations, is never totally abolished in the structure of things in the OT. It is kept at bay by the decree of YHWH. When that decree is reversed, chaos, evil or death prevail and life in its various dimensions can be withdrawn (Ps. 104:27-30).

Douglas Knight (quoted in Miller, J.M. The Old Testament and the historian. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976, p 68):

"YHWH created the world according to his sedaqa, "righteousness," a principle of moral and cosmic orderliness similar to the Egyptian macat. When sedaqa prevails, the world is at harmony, in a state of well-being, in salom. An act of sin in the religious sphere or injustice in the social sphere can inject discord and shatter salom. It then takes a decisive act of mispat, "justice," to restore the salom and reestablish the sedaqa. This mispat is not, as in our judicial system, an impartial judging between the violator and the injured party. Rather, it is an act of partiality which is not concerned simply to punish the guilty but to restore the victim to full participation in the community. Only when all deserving persons enjoy the fulness of life in the community can sedaqa reign. World order is thus not a static concept, an essence which exists impervious to all else. It is predicated directly on full moral behaviour in the social world, and YHWH is perceived to be its protector par excellence."

An example of the image of shalom is life enjoyed in its fullness, see Zech. 8:3-8.

H. Wallace
January, 2007.