Continuing the discussion from Recent BioLogos Content:
Today, WLC emailed me to highlight precisely this topic in his October newsletter: https://pages.e2ma.net/pages/1787618/10190
He takes Denis Lamoureux and John Walton to task for their representation of the Babylonian world map. This is a worthwhile read.
All the while, I’m ploughing ahead in the study of the historical Adam. Having completed a slew of Genesis commentaries, I’m now reading about the nature of ancient mythology. It is troubling how the ancient evidence is so often misrepresented or misinterpreted. To give just one example, consider the so-called “Babylonian World Map.” In his book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! , Denis Lamoureux writes,
People in the ancient Near East believed that the earth was a circular island surrounded by a circumferential sea. . . . The ancient geographical idea of a sea encompassing a circular earth appears in a map of the entire world drawn by the Babylonians around 600 BC. . . . Ancient Near Eastern people believed that the earth literally came to an end at the shore of the circumferential sea (pp. 92-94).
The Old Testament scholar John Walton makes a similar claim in his Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology , p. 93. Lamoureux provides this reproduction of the “Babylonian World Map”:
On this basis it is argued that the biblical authors similarly believed that the earth is a flat disc which comes to an end at the surrounding ocean.
Is that true? Well, consider what this ancient clay tablet really looks like:
from W. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography , p. 406
Now what do you suppose those triangles represent which are on the other side of the ocean? The cuneiform text on the reverse side of the tablet identifies them as eight regions (not seven, as in Lamoureux’s reproduction) and speaks of traveling to them. They are lands beyond the sea, places like Dilmun [Bahrain], Magan [Persian Gulf Coast including Oman], and Meluhha [Indus Valley], with which Babylon traded. Between and beyond these regions lies uncharted territory. The closing section of the text explains that the earth’s surface extends limitlessly to the north, south, east, and west of Babylon. So to say that the map represents the earth as a flat disc in the midst of a surrounding ocean is a gross misunderstanding.
Indeed, the idea that this diagram is a “world map” is a misnomer. The tablet carries no such inscription. Countries like Egypt, with which Babylon was familiar, don’t even appear on it. If it is a map at all, it is a highly stylized map of Mesopotamia with Babylon near the center (naturally!). Overseas countries lie either in the identified regions or in uncharted territory, which is limitless. The circular shape of the ocean shouldn’t be taken literally. Babylonian seafarers knew that you couldn’t travel by ship from the Persian Gulf (what they called the “Lower Sea”) to the Mediterranean Sea (the “Upper Sea”).
Moreover, it’s not even clear that this artifact is a map at all. Horowitz observes that it is similar to geometrical diagrams in Mesopotamian mathematical texts. According to Horowitz, the map and the text on the reverse side are similar in format to geometric problems that consist of diagrams and procedural instructions in the second person: e.g. , “Draw a line from point A. . . .” Similarly, the “map” can be considered to be a diagram, with the text on the reverse repeating the phrase “where you go.” Such an interpretation would make good sense of the artificiality of the “map”: perfectly circular with a compass hole in the middle and eight symmetrical triangles roughly the same in size, representing regions said to be evenly spaced seven leagues apart.
The further claim that the biblical text also assumes a world geography of a disc-shaped earth surrounded by water is thus unfounded and, given Israel’s familiarity with overseas nations (Genesis 10.1-31), including seafaring peoples and Mediterranean islands, wholly implausible. In fact, according to I Kings 9. 26-28; 10.22 Solomon owned a fleet of ocean-going merchant ships which sailed from the port of Ezion-Geber on the Gulf of Aqaba and plied the waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, so that they would have been familiar with overseas lands.
This is but one example of the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of ancient texts that is all too frequent in the literature. It is a sobering reminder to read secondary literature with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Similarly, it seems that many authors mistake a phenomenological description of the world for a cosmology. I’m not sure, however, that they had a cosmology in the first place. To draw an analogy, I am not sure my three year old son has any “cosmology” either. He probably does not know the earth is a globe, but he also does not think the earth is flat. I’m not sure he thinks in cosmological terms. He appears to understand the world in phenomenological terms, which might easily be mistaken for flat earthism in a cosmological discourse… It seems this is a similar sort of error that might be made at times.
Any how, back to the “map” at hand. WLC questions whether it is a world map, but it seems valid to still call it a map of their world. Right? Regardless, this is somewhat akin to archeologists a thousand years from now discovering a map of Saint Louis, and then concluding from this that we though the world was a flat square.