“The Deep” in Scripture

© aliencat | stockfresh.com

© aliencat | stockfresh.com

In the Mach 2014 issue of the science journal Nature Pearson et al. presented evidence from which they concluded that the origin of the Earth’s water was deep in the mantle of the Earth. The excitement was over the accidental discovery by Pearson and his co-authors of the presence of a mineral called ringwoodite within a diamond that been expelled from deep within the Earth’s mantle by a violent volcanic eruption. The researchers were looking for a way to date the diamond when they discovered a small piece of ringwoodite enclosed in the diamond. In a Live Science article, Pearson said: “It’s actually the confirmation that there is a very, very large amount of water that’s trapped in a really distinct layer in the deep Earth.” He indicated the volume of water deep within the Earth’s mantle approaches that of the mass of water currently present in all the oceans on the surface of the Earth.

Read the Live Science article if you are interested in more information on how the researchers got from the presence of ringwoodite in a diamond to the conclusion of all that water deep beneath the Earth’s surface. It was the first time that the mineral has been discovered on the Earth’s surface in “anything other than meteorites,” because it only forms under extreme pressure, like what exists at about 320 miles deep below the Earth’s surface. Then Christian media outlets like Christianity Today reported that the discovery confirmed the Bible’s explanation of where water on the Earth came from. “The Holy Bible is clear about water on Earth coming from below the ground.” But where did the waters below the ground come from?

The answer offered by Andre Mitchell for Christianity Today went on the say the book of Genesis tells us how God created the earth as a water-covered sphere and then separated the waters to create the Sky. He then gathered together the waters under the Sky to let dry land appear, which he called Earth (Genesis 1:2, 6-11). Further biblical support for this was noted by Mitchell to be found in the Flood account, where “the fountains of the great deep” broke open and covered the entire Earth with water (Genesis 7:11).

Writing for BioLogos, Brad Kramer commented that explanations like that given in Mitchell’s Christianity Today article stem from well-meaning but misguided efforts to show that the Bible is divine revelation, since it contains scientific information that the authors could not possibly have known without divine revelation—such as the presence of water with the equivalent mass of all the oceans 320 miles below the surface of the Earth. The issue Kramer points to is one where Christians, raised within a culture rich in the knowledge and evidence of modern science, will sometimes unconsciously impose their scientific worldview onto the Bible and its interpretation.

For Christians, the purpose of the entire Bible is first and foremost to reveal Christ. Therefore, it ultimately draws its authority from the fact that it truly speaks of God and his Son. Suggesting that the Bible’s authority rests on its scientific accuracy adds an artificial middleman to this chain of authority, wherein the Bible first speaks truly of science, and therefore is trusted to speak truly of Christ.

We can wander far into the weeds of disagreement over how to interpret Genesis one, but here I want to limit our discussion to idea of the deep. Kramer observed that young earth creationists and old earth creationists seem to share a similar approach to biblical authority and interpretation. While they disagree on exactly what the Bible reveals scientifically, “they agree that the Bible is full of science prophecies that can be used to convince skeptics of the Bible’s authority.” So by this interpretive and apologetic method, a person with a modern scientific worldview can be shown where the Bible contains references to scientific knowledge that could only be from a divine source.

Referencing a quote by Richard Bube, a theistic evolutionist, Kramer referred to the idea of “arbitrary inerrancy,” within this shared method of interpretation. In his essay, “A Perspective on Scriptural Inerrancy,” Bube said the term “arbitrary” meant that inerrancy had to be maintained and defended against arbitrary criteria. In other words, biblical inerrancy itself had an all-or-nothing sense:

Oftentimes conservative theologians have spoken out in defense of Scriptural inerrancy as if there were only one kind of inerrancy imaginable-a kind of all or nothing inerrancy. They argue that the Scriptures are either completely inerrant in every way and with respect to every criterion for inerrancy which may be applied, or they are not inerrant at all.

This then leads to the Christianity Today discussion that Pearson et al. confirmed the Biblical explanation of where water on the Earth came from—the Deep. But a truly modern individual with a scientific worldview would ask, “So then were did the waters below the ground come from?” And he or she would likely dismiss the answer of Genesis one described above by Andre Mitchell, that God created the earth as a water-covered sphere. This would be an example of what Bube meant by arbitrary inerrancy. Pearson et al. confirms the Biblical declaration that surface water on the earth came from beneath the earth. But the answer to the next logical question, where did that water come from, switches to the unscientifically unsatisfactory response that “God did it.”

The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery indicated that the imagery surrounding the word deep in the Bible had five distinct categories, one of which meant “the literal, physical quality of being far below the surface of the ground.” So this sense would fit within the understanding of Genesis 1:2 given by Andre Mitchell. Scriptures where the Hebrew word for deep, tĕhôm, has that meaning are: Psalm 69:2 or Proverbs 20:5. But that is not how the word is used in Genesis 1:2.  Here is the ESV translation of Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The more common sense for tĕhôm (around 30 or 40 references) is how it is used in Genesis 1:2, indicating the ocean or the sea. For the Hebrew people, the sea was a fearsome and alien place of monsters and storms. See Isaiah 51:10 and Psalm 104, especially verses 5-6, and 25-26. Some references to the sea as “the deep” appear to imply an ancient cosmology or ancient explanation for the origin and development of the universe. Some notable examples of where this ancient cosmology seems to be the subtext of a Biblical passage are Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 7:11 and 8:2, in the Genesis account of Noah and the Flood.

The authors of the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery acknowledge the difficulty in untangling the cosmological from the merely metaphoric statements on Scripture. Nevertheless, it does seem that ancient Hebrews saw the ocean as being fed by fountains or springs (Genesis 7:11, 8:2; Job 38:16; Proverbs 8:28). They also seemed to accept a three-tiered cosmology of the universe, with the earth situated in the middle between the heaven above and the deep beneath (Genesis 49:25; Deuteronomy 33:13; Psalm 135:6). And the “deeps” were believed to be the abode of sea monsters and forces of chaos (Psalm 74:13-14).

These and other oblique references suggest that there was one or more ancient worldviews or cosmologies behind these and other Biblical passages. This would reject a hermeneutical assumption that when discussing creation and the cosmology of the “heavens and earth,” the biblical writers were alluding to scientific information that the authors could not possibly have known without divine revelation. If you read Genesis 1 through an “ancient scientific mindset” for “an ancient audience” you avoid what Brad Kramer referred to as a false dichotomy between Biblical truth and its humanity. “If God chose to communicate through and to ordinary people in real human cultures, then we should expect the Bible be written in such a way that reflects the cultural mindset of its original context.”

So a Christian who is trying to be faithful to the authority of Scripture is not required to celebrate the news from Pearson et al.’s research as a confirmation that in the Bible, water on the surface of the Earth came from below ground. Brad Kramer said that biblical references to an underground ocean reflect “an ancient cosmology that is completely, categorically, and irreconcilably different than our own.”

Equating the “great deep” in Scripture with any scientifically detectable underground body of water is to fundamentally misunderstand the ancient world in which it was written.

There is a sense in Scripture when “the deep” references a literal, physical presence of water or some other quality existing far below the surface of the ground. But there is so much more to be found in its Biblical use. It can represent chaos, danger, and evil. Within apocalyptic visions, we see the deep as a combination of sea and earth. The beasts and the antichrist emerge from the deep in the end time (Daniel 7:3; Revelation 11:7).  After the ultimate defeat of Satan and the beast, there is no longer any sea (Revelation 21:1).

From the beginning of Scripture to the end, references to “the deep” and “the depths” are images of terror with associations of danger, chaos, malevolent evil and death. “The deep” is a major negative archetype in the biblical imagination-a place or state of mind or soul that one would wish to avoid but that no one can completely avoid.

For more articles on creation in the Bible, see the link “Genesis & Creation.”