Ancient Israelite Cosmology
Cosmology and the Birth of Judaism
Note for new readers: I don’t just write about politics. If you’re expecting to see a discussion of how cosmology in the Levantine highlands of 1200BCE relates to the modern political situation, you will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you are interested in some bits of history and a break from politics, you’re in the right place!
Ben Stanhope is writing something about Near Eastern cosmic geography. (He won’t say what yet, but I’m excited!) In the process, he’s drawn a wonderful picture of the cosmic world of the ancient Israelites — one which I’ve put a small piece of below. But this title hides some even more interesting history: it’s not merely an “ancient Israelite cosmology,” but the cosmology of the western Levant — the area which is today most of Israel, Lebanon, parts of Syria and Jordan — in roughly the period from 1200BCE-800BCE.
This was a place at the junction between the eastern world of Mesopotamia and the western world of the Mediterranean, where a great many ideas were mixing and forming. Around 1250BCE, the Dorian invasions from Asia reached Greece; in 1184BCE, Troy fell. Mediterranean Europe soon entered a dark age from which it wouldn’t emerge until around 750BCE, but the refugees from that area (known as the “Sea Peoples”) triggered political upheavals around the entire region. Wars on the coasts, in particular, pushed many people in the Levant in to the northern highlands, the hilly region whose southern part is the Golan Heights — and it was in that region that Judaism first emerged, not as a completely novel religion, but as a natural part of the spectrum of local beliefs, among people closely situated in that political context.
First, let’s get situated so you’ll know the places we’re exploring. Here’s the world of the Western Levant around 900BCE, three hundred years after the Sea Peoples showed up. The cosmologies we’re talking about are the ones which were popular in the Phoenician states, and the places which would ultimately become Israel, Judah, and Aram, and are at least similar to ones in Ammon and Moab. (The Philistine states were settled almost entirely by the Sea Peoples, and had much closer ties to Egypt; they had a rather different religious world, too.)
Judaism first emerged in the highlands which are roughly the north and east of what became Israel on this map, around 1100BCE. If you were living there at the time, the giant metropolis that dominated everything was Tyre, a central hub of the Phoenician world. People’s politics were often dominated by what they thought of the place — friend or foe, protector or competitor. The people who fled from the coast to the highlands during the Sea People invasions were no friends of Tyre, or any other coastal cities, at all; they saw them as having betrayed their people. However, they had a great deal of language and culture in common; a Hebrew speaker can generally understand Ugaritic (the language of Ugarit, a town just north of Byblos on this map which was destroyed during the invasions) from cognates, the languages being about as close as French and Spanish are today.
(Incidentally, if you want to understand what I’m about to go into in depth, I highly recommend Mark S. Smith’s The Early History of God, probably the best book on the emergence of Judaism.)
So let’s walk around Stanhope’s map of the cosmos a bit, and we’ll spot some interesting things.
“The waters above” is a poetic kenning for “the sky.” This is reflected linguistically as well, with the Hebrew word for sky (שָׁמַיִם, “shamaim”) very likely a degenerate form of a compound noun, “sham-maim,” “there-water.” (An alternative etymology makes it the dual of “there,” although I’ll be damned if I can tell you what that would mean.) Relatedly, the word for “Sun” is שמש, “shemesh,” “there-fire,” and these words are similar in all regional languages.
“The great deep” and the chaos dragon are both holdovers from older Akkadian and Sumerian ideas, which are highly prevalent in the earlier strata of the Bible (pretty much everything from the beginning up to and including the Flood narrative, apart from the family history, has close relatives in the library at Nineveh). This older cosmology has the world separated into layers of sea, earth, and sky, with characteristic monsters of each who gods like Marduk are said to have tamed: לוויתן (“Leviathan”) for the seas, בהמה (“Behema”) for the earth, and זיז (“Ziz”) for the sky. All three of these appear in Hebrew sources as well, now tamed by God, of course.
The afterlife of Sheol is described as a dry, dusty place, where the souls of the dead wander aimlessly.
This is tied to the history of the idea of “God” in Judaism. ca 1200BCE in the slightly more southern regions of the Western Levant, the prominent local pantheon was led by El (“the bull”) and his consort Asherah. “Yahweh” appears as a local god further north, as a young, heroic god — very similar in many ways to the later Mithras. The gradual fusion of these two groups found Yahweh first joining the pantheon, then being seen as its leader, then syncretized with El (and partially Asherah, although the history of that is messier; she also continued to be worshipped independently, including among Jews, for quite some time to come, something which particularly annoyed Jeremiah; cf. Smith’s book for more details on that), and ultimately syncretized with the entire pantheon, which was now alternately referred to as “Yahweh,” “El,” and “Elohim” — the latter being W. Semitic for “the gods,” but now being treated as a singular proper noun despite its plural suffix.
The chaos-dragon of the deeps is one possible representation of Leviathan, this one fairly similar to traditional Mesopotamian representations of Tiamat; we don’t really know how this creature was visually represented out west.
While “Ziz” has mostly dropped from language, incidentally, the other two remain as words: “leviathan” (stress on the final a) is the Hebrew word for “whale,” while “behema” (stress on the final a, plural “behemot”) is Hebrew for a mindless large quadruped, such as a sheep or cow. It also remains a popular insult, in phrases like “yá behemá,” “you mindless quadruped.”
Sheol is an interesting afterlife, in that it is described as a dry, dusty place, where the souls of the dead wander aimlessly. In the cosmology of the time, it was the only afterlife; the ideas of a heaven and hell, reward in the afterlife, and so on, don’t emerge until ca 150BCE, hundreds of years later. What I find particularly intriguing about Sheol is its similarity to the afterlife described in Book 11 of the Odyssey. Homer’s text was first set in writing ca. 750BCE, based on earlier oral texts which were probably at least a century old, making these concepts roughly contemporaneous. We have extensive evidence of trading between Phoenicia (in the Western Levant) and Greece in this time period, ranging from trade goods to the Greek alphabet itself, derived from Phoenician writing during this time period.
There are also interesting linguistic relations: for example, Homeric Greek uses “ζοφών” (zophon) to refer to both “dark, gloom” and “North,” as when ships sail προς ζοφών. Contemporaneous Hebrew uses צָפוֹן (“tzaphon”) for North, an unusual word that has no known linguistic cognates. (The contemporaneous words for other compass directions have much clearer meanings, e.g. “yáma” for West meaning “towards the Sea.”)
So what you’re seeing in this picture isn’t merely an Israelite cosmology, but the cosmology of a place which sat at the junction between the old Mesopotamian world and the Mediterranean, sharing ideas both east and west through its major trading ports of Tyre and Sidon.
As I mentioned above, Judaism emerged in the hill country at a time that this region was very concerned with marking its difference from those nearby metropoles. The Davidic monarchy, around 1000BCE, turned this god — the now roughly-merged pantheon — into a national symbol, a symbol of identity. As a result, many Biblical sources (especially later writers like P, and writers of the histories most of all) spend a lot of time inveighing against people having any relationship to other local religions, such as Ba’al Tzur, “the lord of Tyre.” (Every city had its local place-god, the Ba’al of the place; as Tyre was the major political center of the region, its god was not only a popular one, but its worship was a way to maintain political ties there.) However, this is still well before the emergence of monotheism proper, which happened only after the Babylonian conquest in 776BCE; what’s going on during the time period of the picture below is henotheism, aka monolatry, aka “we have our god, you have your god, and our god can beat up your god.” This meant that complex cosmologies like the one below weren’t seen as at all unusual.
This time period came to an end between 800 and 750BCE throughout the Mediterranean. In Greece, the political structures which would turn into the classical city-states were forming, trade with Phoenicia was being re-established, and writing emerged. In Mesopotamia, a sequence of empires formed and conquered their neighbors; Assyria conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 720BCE, only to itself be conquered by the Babylonians (who also conquered Judah), in turn to fall to the Persians.
This had profound effects for Judaism, as well: after the Battle of Carchemish in 605BCE, Babylon deported Judean elites en masse to Babylon, transferring people from elsewhere in the empire into Judah instead. (This technique of deliberately mixing groups of people up to confuse land ownership and break up the possibility of nationalist revolts was old then, and remains in use to this day; Stalin was a particular devoté of the technique.) Those elites ended up developing a somewhat different religion which was no longer tied to physical locations and temples; modern monotheism emerged there. When Babylon fell to Persia 67 years later, a group of exiles decided to return and resettle their old lands, leading to tremendous conflict. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about what happened next, and if you read them without rose-tinted glasses you’ll see that it was every bit as violent as you might guess.
The ultimate result was this monotheistic second-stage Judaism becoming the politically dominant religion of the area for the next several centuries, with a perpetual internal fight between “isolationists” (represented both by Ezra and by later rulers like the Hasmoneans) and “Hellenizers” who wanted to open ties to the wider world; this axis was deeply tied to later invasions by the Macedonians (under Alexander the Great), the Seleucids, and finally the Romans.
So look at Ben Stanhope’s map carefully. You’re not seeing a map of a single small religion at a single time; you’re seeing how the world was viewed by the people who lived at one of the great international crossroads during a transformative period in history. An afterlife from the Mediterranean west is sitting above a deep populated by a chaos dragon from early Mesopotamia; the “dome of the heavens” will influence both Greek and Christian thinkers in centuries to come. This is a map which was only made possible by sea trade, by land trade, and by the tremendous displacement of people that came with the Late Bronze Age collapse, those wanderers who did everything from fighting Ramses to founding Rome.
Ancient texts are not simply old stories; they are hidden snapshots of daily life.