Cosmology and Cosmogony in the Ancient Near East—Psalm 104

Cosmology (from the Greek kosmos, “world,” and logia, “discourse, study”) refers to the science of the origin, development, and structure of the universe. We can define cosmology as “a conception of the world and universe, possibly thought of as a cognitive map of the Earth in relation to various celestial bodies and other features.” Cosmogony (from Greek kosmos, “world,” and gonos, “that which is begotten”) refers to any account of the origin or creation of the universe. While cosmogonies focus on the origin of the universe or world, cosmologies deal with the function, structure, and changes of the present and observable universe.

Biblical Creation Account

The first chapters of the Bible introduce us to biblical cosmology and cosmogony. According to Genesis 1 and 2, God is the source and origin of the universe. The biblical text uses the verbs bārāʾ (“shape, create”), ʿāśāh (“do, make”), and yāṣar (“form, fashion”) to describe God’s creative activity. The biblical creation of this earth begins with darkness, water, and the Spirit of God. Both darkness and water are characteristic pre-cosmic components of other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts (such as the Mesopotamian creation myth Enuma eliš). Unlike the gods in some of the ancient Near Eastern creation myths, according to Genesis 1, God creates out of nothing (ex nihilo). By contrast, Enuma eliš describes Marduk conquering the primordial goddess of saltwater, Tiamat, and using her corpse to form the universe.

Biblical Cosmic Geography

Biblical cosmological concepts appear throughout Scripture with no single passage providing a complete, systematic overview of the subject. While the texts in which we find these concepts differ in time, place, author, genre, and purpose, together they offer clues into the Hebrew understanding of the universe.

Scripture consistently makes clear that God is the sole creator and ruler over the whole universe (i.e., Exod. 20:11; Neh. 9:6). The biblical creation account presents three different regions of the universe/world: heavens/sky, earth/land, and sea. Other passages name a place under the earth, sheol, as the realm of the dead (Num. 16:33, 1 Sam. 2:6). The heavens (Heb. šāmayim) have two parts—although the division is inferred rather than explicit—with birds flying across (literally “before the face of”) the expanse of the heavens (Gen. 1:20), close to the earth, and the celestial bodies set in the heavens higher above the earth (Gen. 1:17). Finally, presumably above the planets and stars, is God’s throne and dwelling place (1 Kings 8:49, Ps. 11:4, Isa. 66:1). Some scholars have speculated that the ancient Hebrews conceived of heaven as a solid dome over a flat earth, but the biblical evidence does not support this idea.

Ancient Near Eastern Creation Accounts

The ancient Egyptians constructed their own cosmogonies, producing several creation myths. Despite some significant differences, like the Genesis account, they describe creation as beginning peacefully with one god from whom all things emanated. The Egyptian creation accounts also emphasize transitions from unity to duality, just as Genesis marks the separation of the light from the darkness, the waters from the heavens, and the sea from the land. Unlike the Genesis account, the Egyptian myths deify the cosmological elements such as the earth and sky, making them into individual gods and goddesses responsible for various natural phenomena.

The Mesopotamian cosmogonies differ significantly from the biblical creation account as they are full of conflict. The seven-tablet Babylonian epic of Enuma eliš (Ee) depicts the primordial universe and the creative acts of Marduk. In the primordial universe, all that existed were the saltwater goddess Tiamat and the freshwater/subterranean water god Apsu. The god Ea (Enki in Sumerian) defeated Apsu and Marduk, Tiamat. Marduk then fashioned the universe from Tiamat’s body, assigned the gods to their cosmic stations, and ordered them to build the city of Babylon.

The Genesis creation of man from dust finds a distant parallel in the Sumerian myth Enki and Ninmah, which describes Ninmah as pinching off clay and creating human beings (albeit defective) from clay. While the biblical creation account specifies that God intentionally created humanity in His image, Enki and Ninmah engage in their creative activities during a drunken revelry. Their creation resulted in humans bearing various physical maladies, which explains congenital disabilities. Similarly, the Akkadian, Old Babylonian epic Atraḫasis describes the creation of mankind from the corpse of the god We-Ilu. The goddess Nintu added We-Ilu’s “flesh, blood and intelligence to clay” and created seven men and seven women. In Enuma eliš, Ea forms man out of the blood of the rebellious god Qingu (Ee VI.33).

While no creation story has survived from Syria or Canaan, Ugaritic myths describe battles among the deities for kingship under El, the father, and progenitor of the gods. Such myths have cosmogonic elements in that they establish a hierarchy of the gods and thus produce order in the universe. In the Baal Cycle, Baal, the weather and fertility god, battles the sea god, Yamm—and, on another occasion, the god of death, Mot—for the second-highest position among the gods. After Baal defeats his adversaries, he becomes king.

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmic Geography

Unlike the Genesis account, Mesopotamian myths do not present their cosmology systematically. In fact, descriptions vary between individual texts. Mesopotamian cosmology depicts the universe as one of descending levels separated by open space: the heavenly dwelling of the gods (Heaven of Anu and Middle Heavens), the sky, the surface of the earth, the subterranean waters of Apsu, and the netherworld. Some texts divide heaven into three parts: Upper (the dwelling of Anu or the 300 Igigi gods), Middle (the dwelling of Igigi or Bel), and Lower (the location of the stars). The floors of each heaven, according to one text, consist of three different kinds of stone so that the stone of the “level” above could be seen from the space below.

Egyptian cosmology likewise features a tripartite division of the cosmos with the sky goddess Nut arched over her brother, the earth god Geb. Re, the sun-god, crosses the sky during the day, then journeys through the netherworld at night to rise again in the east the next morning. The netherworld was the place of the dead—if the deceased was righteous, they ascended from the netherworld to heaven or a special place at the end of the earth.

Hittite texts do not contain a complete creation account, but they do offer cosmological narratives. They refer either to a bipartite (heaven and earth/netherworld) or tripartite (heaven, earth, and netherworld) division of the cosmos. The Hurrian Ullikummi myth references the creation of the world in passing: “When it happened that one cut heaven and earth with a copper knife.” It echoes the duality seen in Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation accounts. A fragment describing the “distribution of heaven and earth among the gods” notes that the “inferior gods” inhabit the earth and netherworld while the “upper gods” lived in heaven.

Ancient Near Eastern writings do not differentiate between physical and mythical landscapes. A clay tablet (BM 92687) known as “The Babylonian Map of the World” or “Mappa Mundi,” found at Sippar, probably dates to the late eighth or seventh century BC. The map and accompanying inscription depict a single, circular continent with identifying markers for Assyria, Babylon, and other important cities/states. An ocean surrounds the continent with several regions or uncharted territories jutting off in triangles beyond the ocean. In addition to listing standard fauna, the accompanying text mentions sea-serpents, the Anzu-bird, the scorpion-man, and the bull-man.

Importance and Conclusion

Cosmologies and cosmogonies established a sense of order by indicating the deities that were in control and their relationship to creation, how time and space functioned, the nature and patterns of the universe, and the location of human beings in the hierarchy of created lifeforms. Also, they often provided legitimacy for the royal family (who, in many instances, were believed to be related to the gods). The biblical cosmology, in contrast, depicts one all-powerful God who does not have to defeat any rivals or enemies to create. The Lord simply spoke the world into existence. He does not make human beings do work that some of the gods refuse to do but created them in His image as His stewards of creation.

Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts featured a cyclic view of history. Not only did they describe the beginning of things but significant events that would repeat themselves again and again. Examples include the Egyptian belief that each sunrise was a reestablishment of ma’at, or divine order, and the Babylonian renewal of the human king’s right to rule at the annual Akitu festival during which participants recited the Enuma eliš.

Numerous examples of cyclical celebrations and festivals also appear in the biblical text. The most notable is the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, the weekly reminder of God’s rest at the end of the Creation Week. However, the overall biblical view of history is linear rather than cyclical. The biblical text begins in Genesis with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1), progresses through salvation history, and ends in the book of Revelation with God’s climactic creation of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1). An angel flying in the midst of heaven reminds the biblical reader to “fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Rev. 14:7).


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The Babylonian Map of the World:

Baal Cycle:

Can add more if needed.