The Geographical Meaning of “Earth” and “Seas” in Genesis 1:10 -- By: Paul H. Seely

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 59:2 (Fall 1997)
Article: The Geographical Meaning of “Earth” and “Seas” in Genesis 1:10
Author: Paul H. Seely

The Geographical Meaning of “Earth” and “Seas” in Genesis 1:10

Paul H. Seely

When a biblical text is interpreted outside of its historical context, it is often unconsciously interpreted in terms of the reader’s own culture, time and beliefs. This has happened more than once to Genesis 1. To avoid distorting Genesis 1 in this way, the serious exegete will insist upon placing this chapter within its own historical context. When we do this, the meaning of “earth” and “seas” in Gen 1:10 is found to be quite different from the modern western notions.

We will look closely at the immediate context of Gen 1:10 and at all the biblical data bearing upon its meaning; but, we must begin by looking at it first within its historical context beginning with what might be called the outer circle of that context, namely, the conception of the “earth” which human beings in general automatically have until they are informed otherwise by modern science.

I. The Scientifically Naive View of the Earth in Tribal Societies

Levy-Bruhl, commenting on the beliefs of scientifically naive tribal peoples, wrote [italics mine], “Their cosmography as far as we know anything about it was practically of one type up til the time of the white man’s arrival upon the scene. That of the Borneo Dayaks may furnish us with some idea of it. ‘They consider the earth to be a flat surface, whilst the heavens are a dome, a kind of glass shade which covers the earth and comes in contact with it at the horizon.’” Alexander similarly spoke of “The usual primitive conception of the world’s form” as “flat and round below and surmounted above by a solid firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl.”1

It is to be noted that in the usual scientifically naive conception of the universe not only is the earth flat, but the sky is understood as an inverted bowl that literally touches the earth at the horizon. Thus for the Thonga, “Heaven is for them an immense solid vault which rests upon the earth. The place where heaven touches the earth is called bugimamusi…the place

where women can lean their [cooking] pestles against the vault.” For the Yakuts “the outer edge of the earth is said to touch the rim of a hemispherical sky.”2

Since the sky is usually thought by pre-scientific peoples to be a solid hemisphere literally touching the earth (or...

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