In the Bible, we can see that God accommodated the beliefs of his people even though they didn’t reflect reality. One example of this is that we find an ancient cosmology (a flat earth, a protective dome on top of it, and an ocean of water above it) in the Bible. In this article, you can read why this is good news and what can we learn from that ancient cosmology.
What is accommodation?
“Accommodation presupposes that God’s knowledge and divine realm exceed human understanding” (Sturdevant, 2016:Accommodation). Therefore, “God does reveal Himself to man in accordance with the creaturely capacities with which He has endowed him.” (Bromiley & Sweet, 1979–1988:26).
To communicate, then, God must adapt such truths for the capabilities of the human mind. This could even mean using a human misconception of the divine if it would reveal an important idea (Sturdevant, 2016:Accommodation).
Hence, the term ‘accommodation’ may be defined as the principle or law according to which God adapts his self-revelation to the capacities and limitations of created intelligences (Wilis, 1906:15).
Hilber phrases it beautifully when he defines accommodation as “God has ‘come down’ to the level or capacity of humanity to make himself understood” (2020:84). For this article, I define ‘divine accommodation’ as the way God adjusts the presentation of his revelatory truth to accommodate the limitations and fallen condition of humans (Boyd, 2017:400).
Many theologians throughout history, such as Philo of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and Calvin (Sturdevant, 2016:Accommodation) have believed in God accommodating his revelation to human limitations.
The cosmology of ancient Near Eastern people
In his book, Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation Hilber states that “all Scripture is an accommodation by the mere fact that God speaks to people in languages that are linguistically and culturally conditioned” (2020:84). In this context, he mentions that the “Babylonian Talmud affirms that ‘the words of Torah are in the language of the sons of man’” (:86).
Throughout his book, Hilber focuses on the accommodated cosmology which is found in Genesis 1. He explains that the cosmology of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) people included belief in:
(1) a three-tiered universe (with a physical, underworld realm);
(2) an earth-sun system wherein the sun moved around a flat earth that is fixed in relation to a sub-terranean body of water; and
(3) an extension of cosmic waters (a reservoir) beyond the atmosphere into the heavenly realm (:82).
In the Old Testament, God accommodated this inaccurate cosmology, which explains why verses can be found in the Old Testament that reflect ANE cosmology.
Cosmology in the Old Testament
A three-tiered universe
Old Testament cosmology has three tiers: the heavens, the flat world, and the under-world (Sheol). Many scriptures locate Sheol “deep within the earth” (Parry, 2014:77). It is below (Dt 32:22; Ps 86:13; Is 7:11) and associated with dust and worms (Job 17:16; Is 14:11) (Parry, 2014:78). That is why Korah and his fellow rebels were swallowed by the ground (Nm 16:32) and why the spirit of Samuel needs to be brought up (1 Sm 28:11, 13, 15).
A flat earth
“The biblical earth, like that of the other cultures in the ancient world, was not a globe but was flat” (Parry, 2014:17). The phrase “the ends of the earth” (Is 41:9; Jer 16:19; Job 28:24) points toward such an understanding. The flat earth explains as well how it is possible to see the tree from Daniel’s vision from anywhere in the world (Deut 4:11). Pillars (Ps 75:3; Job 9:6; 1 Sam 2:8) stabilize this flat earth and keep it from shaking. This is affirmed by the immobility of the earth that is found in the Old Testament (1 Chr 16:29–30; Ps 93:1; 96:10).
A geocentric cosmos
“The biblical cosmos was geocentric–the sun, moon, and stars went around a fixed earth” (Parry, 2014:21). It was understood that the sun moves and not the earth (Ec 1:5; Ps 19:4-6; 50:1). In the battle with the Gibeonites God made the sun and the moon stand still (Jos 10:12–14).
Cosmic waters beyond the atmosphere
In the beginning was only a Body of hostile water. God created the cosmos by separating this body of chaos water (Gn 1:6–7). Some water stayed under the firmament and some water was gathered above the firmament (Gn 1:7). These ‘waters above’ are not clouds nor ‘the atmosphere’ but rather a vast sea above the sky, beyond the space now inhabited by the sun, moon, and stars. What kept these oceanic waters at bay was the ‘firmament’ (Hebrew: raqîa)–a solid sky dome holding back the life-threatening waters (Parry, 2014:94). The flood story is presented as the undoing of creation. The chaotic waters that God banned above the dome and under the earth are released and they immerse the earth again in chaos (Gn 7:11-12). The belief in a solid sky dome was common among ancient Sumerien, Hittite, Egyptian, and Babylonian people (:94) and probably among the Israelites (Job 22:14). Beyond this solid skydome, the Israelites assumed oceanic waters (Ps 148:4; Jer 10:12–13).
How can God-breathed texts include inaccurate facts?
I believe that the books of the Bible are divinely inspired and therefore authoritative for the Christian life. How does this view fit together with the fact that inaccuracies, like a flat earth or a cosmic sea above the sky, can be found in the Bible?
2 Tim 3:16–17 states that all scripture is God-breathed (read what that means HERE). For me, that means that—in some way—God is the ultimate author behind the texts we have in the Bible. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is inerrant or infallible. It means that it is the spirit of God who makes the Bible alive for us and uses it to teach us everything we need to know.
I believe that God did not dictate the text of scripture word-by-word to the authors. Instead, the authors wrote down their experiences with God and how they understood God and the situation through their worldview. I’m not dogmatic about this, but I think this means that even when the authors wrote down views about God that don’t reflect how God really is, or when they wrote down some facts inaccurately, conditioned by their worldview, God did not stop them. He always influenced them towards truth, as much as they were able to grasp, but he did not download the truth into their brains thereby erasing all their wrong beliefs.
Robin Parry enforces that the “biblical books were written by ancient people in ancient contexts, and we need to give space to hearing them as such” (2014:Preface). Old Testament scholar Peter Enns further expounds this concept, stating that
“in the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them” (2014:23).
Greg Boyd argues
“that because God supremely values authentic agape-love relationships, and because he does not want to dehumanize people, he relies on influential rather than coercive power to accomplish his purposes. For this reason, I submit, God had to accommodate his self-revelation to the spiritual state and cultural conditioning of his people in the ages leading up to Christ. Only gradually could God change people’s hearts and minds so that they could receive more and more truth about his true character and about his ideal will for them” (2017:The Theological Interpretation of Scripture).
Agreeing with Boyd, Enns, and Parry, I suggest that divine accommodation is the reason why we find an ancient cosmology in the Old Testament and a growing revelation throughout the Bible of who God is, and what his true will is.
As humanity—or an individual—makes progress, God can offer deeper and more complex truths in His self-revelation. Such progressive revelation, as understood by early Christian authors, culminated in the incarnation of Christ
Accommodation and communication
God, in his God-breathed word, adapted his communication to the understanding of his listeners. He stooped down to their worldview and met them where they were at. Boyd believes that “God has always been willing to stoop as far as necessary to enter into solidarity with, and to further his historical purpose through, his fallen and culturally conditioned people” (2017:84).
Hilber concludes his studies on divine accommodation in Gn 1 as follows
Accommodation allows for the adaption of language for the purpose of explicating and implicating the informative intention without affirming the full encyclopedic range of ideas about cosmology associated with the utterance used (2020:152).
Following the logic of relevance theory, as proposed by Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson, Hilber interprets God’s accommodation as an attempt to reduce the processing effort, the amount of energy the listener needs to process and understand what is being said (e.g. being confused about the details how God created), in order to communicate the informative intention, the message the speaker wants to communicate (e.g. God is creator), as clearly as possible to the listener (:152).
Why is ancient cosmology in the Bible good news for us?
God stooped down and accommodated ancient beliefs in order to meet the ANE people at their level. This is a beautiful reminder that God wants to meet every individual where they are at in life. God always comes down to our level to meet us within our limitations and our cultural conditions. But he doesn’t stop there. He continually wants to reveal more truth to us so that we can exchange wrong beliefs with truth and grow in seeing the world through his eyes.
So, what can be learned from divine accommodation?
Communication should be receiver-focused. Receiver-focused communication means that the speaker considers how his words might be understood by the listener, and then tries to communicate the informative intention in such a way that it makes sense to the listener. The sender of the message should assume the burden of communication (Dodd, 1995:15). By minimizing the processing effort for the listener, the informative intention is communicated more clearly. Minimizing the processing effort could mean, for example, neglecting details that are irrelevant with regard to the informative intention. Or, it could mean to accept that incorrect details are communicated in order to not distract from the main message, the informative intention, that is supposed to be communicated. Making use of concepts and ideas from the worldview of the listener, even if they are incorrect, is one more way to reduce the processing effort and to maximize the understanding of the informative intention.
We see this principle in action in the life of Paul. When Paul came from his travels back to Jerusalem (Ac 21:15–26), he did not want to distract the listeners from the Gospel by making them wonder about his loyalty to the Mosaic law (Ac 21:21–24). Therefore, Paul agreed to purify himself in the temple, even though he knew that he wasn’t under the law anymore (Rm 6:14). Paul stooped down and submitted to obey the law of Moses, which he knew he didn’t need to do anymore, in order to not distract the Jews, through irrelevant details, from listening to the Gospel which he wanted to preach in Jerusalem.
Receiver-focused communication was well illustrated by Paul when he was in Athens (Ac 17:16–34) and he realized that his preaching was confusing his audience (Ac 17:18). Seeing this, he decided to choose something familiar to them, the altar for an unknown god, and use it as a starting point for his preaching (Ac 17:23). Not only this, but he went on to quote their own poets (Ac 17:28). Using these elements, he helped reduce the processing effort required of his audience, in order to maximize the informative intention he wanted to communicate: that the God who made everything is Lord over all and that we are responsible to him (Ac 17:24-31).
The ancient cosmology that we find in the Bible helps us remember that God will always stoop down to meet us where we are at. His communication is receiver-focused communication, and so should be ours. God reveals his truth progressively to us according to our limitations and capacities. The more we seek to grow in truth the more he will be able to reveal the truth to us.
Boyd, GA. 2017. The crucifixion of the warrior God: interpreting the Old Testament’s violent portraits of God in light of the cross. Kindle ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Bromiley, GW. & Sweet, LM. 1979–1988. ‘Accommodation’. In G. W. Bromiley ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 1). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
Dodd, CH. 1995. Dynamics of Intercultural Communications. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.
Enns, P. 2014. The Bible tells me so: why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. Kindle ed. Place of publication not identified: HarperOne.
Hilber, JW. 2020. Old Testament cosmology and divine accommodation: a relevance theory approach. Kindle ed.
Parry, RA. 2014. The biblical cosmos: A Pilgrim’s guide to the weird and wonderful world of the Bible. Kindle ed. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books.
Ramm, BL. 1961. Special Revelation and the Word of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Sturdevant, JS. 2016. ‘Accommodation’. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, … W. Widder eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
von Balthasar, HU. 1989. Explorations in Theology: The Word Made Flesh. San Fran- cisco: Ignatius Press.
Willis, JR. 1906. ‘Accommodation’. In J. Hastings ed. A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels: Aaron–Zion (Vol. 1). Edinburgh; New York: T&T Clark; Charles Scribner’s Sons.
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