“In the first place, it is plain that a rift through the solid earth of the Babylonians would as effectually carry engulfed men into the underworld as would a somewhat shorter rift through the upper half of the hollow disklike earth presented us by Whitehouse and Schiaparelli.
In the second place, if Sheol was really believed to be an enormous cavern in the bowels of the earth, reached in Korah’s case by an extemporized entrance, where was the ordinary and normal entrance for Korah’s countrymen in general? Barbarians have been known to point out cave-mouths supposed by them to lead to an underworld, but no biblical writer has a hint respecting any such earth-piercing path divinely provided for all ghosts descending to Sheol. Granting the existence of such a path, where was its upper end, its entrance gate? In the territory of which tribe was the uncanny rift, the rendezvous of all the newly dead? If it was beyond the bounds of the Holy Land, to what unhallowed heathen land were the pious and unpious ghosts of Israel compelled to journey in search of the tunnelmouth through which they could hope to reach their long home and be gathered to their fathers? Such questions need no answer; they belong to a world utterly foreign to Hebrew thought.
Possibly someone will deny the need of any such tunnel in the case of ghosts, and claim that according to Hebrew belief the disembodied spirit in the moment of its disembodiment received power to penetrate the soil and the unrifted rock overarching the Sheol cavity. But this is to go quite beyond the evidence. Nowhere do the biblical writers claim or imply that solid material barriers impose no limitations upon the free movements of a disembodied human spirit. Furthermore, in case the soil and every part of the solid earth were as freely traversable by disembodied human spirits as the present supposition implies, the need of any cavern for the assembled and assembling spirits in the heart of the earth would be quite done away. Matter-filled space would be as available as any other.
In the third place, the most ancient known pictures of a human soul after separation from the body represent it as winged, and birdlike. Illustrations in Egyptian art are numberless. Babylonian texts imply the same representation. In perfect accord with this idea are the words found in the psalm traditionally considered the oldest and most impressive in the Bible, the ninetieth, wherein we read that our fleeting life is soon cut off, but as soon as it is cut off “we fly away.” Verily, wings were a strange equipment for penetrating the geologic strata beneath our feet!
Finally, if we may trust the exegesis of the apostle Paul, his countrymen, like the Babylonians, considered a passage across the ocean the same thing as a descent to the deep abodes of the dead. A comparison of Deut. 30. 11-13, with Rom. 10. 6-8, shows that he interprets the one transit as the perfect equivalent of the other.
Passing now from negative considerations to the question, What view of the universe was held by the writers of the Old and New Testament? six points of fundamental import should be noted:
First. Inasmuch as the Hebrews were younger kinsmen of the East Semites and their tribal territories in Canaan long under earlier Babylonian influence, and inasmuch as their earliest calendrical terms and adjustments, such as the names of the months, the beginning of the year, etc., were of Euphratean origin, there is a strong antecedent probability that their astronomic and cosmologic ideas also were directly or indirectly derived from the Babylonians (or from the ancestors of both peoples[Exactly my point. They got it from Noah. -DS]), and corresponded to the Euphratean.
Second. The Hebrew use of a plural term for the heavens, sometimes intensified to “the heaven of heavens,” precisely corresponds with the immemorial Babylonian usage, and implies in the thought of the Hebrew writers a plurality of heavens. Professor Salmond, after a recent reexamination of the whole question, wrote: “In view of the evidence, the most reasonable conclusion is that the conception of the heavens which pervades the Old Testament and the New (not excepting the Pauline writings, though Saint Paul mentions only the third heaven and Paradise) is that of a series of seven heavens.”
Third. The biblical references to the “four corners 0f the earth,” and cognate expressions, imply a conception of the earth corresponding in this particular to the BabyIonian as above interpreted. Even the “New Earth” in the Apocalypse is in the form of a foursquare terraced city, whose length and breadth and height are equal (Rev. 21. 16).
Fourth. The Old and New Testament passages that contrast the depth of Sheol or Hades with the height of the heavens, and those which speak of “The Kingdom of the Heavens,” or of Christ as having “passed through the heavens,” or of him as being “made higher than the heavens”—not to speak of others—acquire a new interest and a new pertinency the moment they are interpreted in harmony with the cosmological views first discoverable among the ancient Babylonians, but later—with only trifling modifications—current in the teachings of all the historically known Hellenic astronomers.
Fifth. The already noticed equation of an over-sea voyage (Deut. 30. 11-13) and a descensus ad inferos (Rom. 10. 6-8) is no slight indication that in Hebrew thought the relation of the upper to the under world was precisely the same as in the Babylonian. So in Job 38. 16, 17, the uninterrupted passage of the poet’s thought from “the recesses of the sea” to the “gates of death” may well be another indication of this habitual association of the two realms—just as in Homeric thought the realm of Aides ever borders upon that of Poseidon.
Sixth. Philo of Alexandria, the most distinguished contemporary of Jesus among Jewish teachers (born B.C. 20), regarded the universe as made up of the seven concentric planetary spheres, together with the all-including eighth sphere, and the central earth around which all revolved.
On the whole, then, there are excellent reasons for believing that the universe of the Old and New Testament writers, like that of the earliest traceable Semites, was not of the “dish-and-cover” pattern, but rather of the old upright-axled and poly-uranian type. Professor Salmond goes so far as to say, “The evidence is all in favor of the affirmative”—that is, in favor of the opinion that the conception of a series of heavens is found in the Scriptures. Then he adds: “But the evidence which bears out the existence of the idea of a plurality of heavens also favors the idea of a sevenfold series of heavens.” A study of the apocryphal literature only reinforces the evidence. Take for an example the Slavonian “Book of the Secrets of Enoch.” Robert Henry Charles, everywhere recognized as the foremost authority on this newly discovered work, remarks: “The detailed account of the seven heavens in this book has served to explain difficulties in Old Testament conceptions of the heavens, and has shown beyond the reach of controversy that the sevenfold division of the heavens was accepted by Saint Paul, and by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and probably in the book of Revelation.” The ancient apocryphal treatise known as The Ascension of Isaiah describes each of the seven heavens with no less particularity.
Passing to authentic Rabbinical literature we find the counterpart to all this; that is to say, a clear recognition of the sevenfold division of the space below the earth. And, as in the Babylonian conception, so also in the Rabbinical, each underworld as one descends is vaster than the last. And as in the Indo-Aryan conception the south-polar demons spend half the year in darkness and half in the blaze of the sun, so in the Rabbinical the occupants of the lowest hell have as torments alternating heat and cold, each six months in duration. This, of course, helps to identify the location of the Rabbinical Inferno as at one of the terrestrial poles. In all descriptions of such regions we are apt to meet with details and amplifications more or less fantastic, and in the present case they are not lacking. The Jalkut Rubeni, for example, gives the following: “The seven abodes of Sheol are very spacious; and in each there are seven rivers of fire and seven rivers of hail. The uppermost abode is sixty times less than the second, and thus the second is sixty times larger than the first, and every abode is sixty times larger than that which precedes it. In each abode are seven thousand caverns, and in each cavern seven thousand clefts, and in each cleft seven thousand scorpions; each scorpion hath seven limbs, and on each limb are one thousand barrels of gall. There are likewise seven rivers of rankest poison, which when a man toucheth he bursteth; and the destroying angels judge him and scourge him every moment, half the year in the fire, and half the year in the hail and snow. And the cold is more intolerable than the fire.”
It hardly need be added that the heavens of Rabbinical tradition were seven and that “in the Rabbinical point of view, the superb throne of King Solomon, with the six steps leading up to it, was a symbol of the highest heaven with the throne of the Eternal above the six inferior heavens (1 Kings 10. 18-20).'” In the Rabbinical descriptions of the heavens and hells one striking feature has often caused remark. The two regions are said to “adjoin or touch each other” (Jewish Encyclopaedia, ix, 517). But if the abode of God is almost infinitely above our earth, and the abode of the lost as far below, how can the two be said to “join”? In this many writers have found only contradiction and absurdity. A glance at our diagram of the Pre-Babylonian Universe removes every difficulty and reveals entire consistency of thought. By showing that the heavens and hells are simply the upper and nether halves of the earth-inclosing spheres of the universe, the diagram gives optical demonstration that each heaven and each corresponding hell must be in mutual contact at every point of their equatorial junction.
Should any reader desire further light upon this particular world-view, he is recommended to turn to the article entitled “Hebrew Visions of Hell and Paradise,” printed in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, in the volume for the year 1893. Therein the author, M. Gaster, Ph.D., translates for the first time into English a number of ancient texts in some of which Moses is represented as by God’s permission and help making a tour of inspection through the seven heavens, the hells, and Paradise. Wonderful regions are found and beings of incredible dimensions.”
The Earliest Cosmologies, by William Warren, pages 42-52