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Question: How did the authors of the Bible view the earth and the universe?
The standard reference work, the Anchor Bible Dictionary writes:
The variety in date, origin, and scope of the Hebrew Bible's cosmological materials means that achieving a single, uniform picture of the physical universe is hardly possible. Still, sufficient overlap does obtain between the many accounts of the universe, however these may vary in their details, to allow for a few generalizations. The earth on which humanity dwells is seen as a round, solid object, perhaps a disk, floating upon a limitless expanse of water. Paralleling this lower body of water is a second, similarly limitless, above, from which water descends in the form of rain through holes and channels piercing the heavenly reservoir. The moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth. This structure is the familiar "firmament" (raqiya) of the priestly account, perhaps envisioned as a solid but very thin substance on the analogy of beaten and stretched metal. Though some texts appear to convey a picture of a four-storied universe (Job 11:8-9 or Psalms 139:8-9), the great majority of biblical texts assume the three-storied universe so clearly assumed in other, ancient traditions. Thus, the Decalog's prohibition of images specifies "heaven above," "earth below," and "water under the earth" as the possible models for any such forbidden images (Exodus 20:4). If we understand the common term "earth" (erets) as designating at times the "underworld," then the combined references in Psalms 77:19 to heaven, the "world" (tebel), and the "earth" ('erets) are another appeal to the universe as a three-storied structure (for other texts where 'erets may refer to the underworld, see Stadelmann 1970: 128, n. 678). Clearer reference still to the same structure is to be found in Psalms 115:15-17, where we find grouped together "the heaven of heavens," "the earth," and the realm of "the dead" (cf. Psalms 33:6-8 snf Proverbs 8:27-29).
The curving, solid structure which arches over the realm of humanity is sometimes called a "disk" or "vault" (hug; Isaiah 40:22, Proverbs 8:27). That which allows the heavenly abyss to water the earth are occasional interruptions in this solid structure, openings called variously windows, doors, or channels. In some texts, that which suspends the habitable earth above the underworld's waters (see 1 Samuel 2:8 for another reference to these rivers) are pillars or some such foundational structures. These seem envisioned in Job 38:4-5; Psalms 24:2; 104:5; Proverbs 8:29, and elsewhere. Finally, the realm beneath the arena of human activity is not only imagined as one of watery chaos but also given the specific designation "Sheol" (she'ol), usually translated "the underworld." In the different elaborations upon just what one should imagine Sheol as including, again there is little consistency. At times, Sheol is personified, with a belly or womb and a mouth (Jonah 2:3-Eng 2:2); Proverbs 1:23; Proverbs 30:16; and Psalms 141:7), while at others Sheol is rather more architecturally portrayed (Isaiah 38:10; Job 7:9-10; Job 14:20-22; Job 17:13; Job 18:17-18), as a dark and forgetful land or city (Stadlmann 1970: 1666-76).
- Anchor Bible Dictionary, at 1:1167-68, s.v. "Cosmogony, Cosmology."