The Mesopotamian sun god tablet and biblical cosmology

How scholars perceived a solid sky that wasn’t there


Adapted from Tom-L, CC BY-SA 4.0
Figure 1.: A false cosmology alleged to be the ‘early Hebrew conception of the universe’. It portrays an ‘upper sea’ suspended over a flat earth, held at bay by a solid ‘sky roof’.

In discussions of Bible/science issues with non-believers, one is likely to encounter the allegation that Scripture presents a false picture of the heavens, rooted in ancient ignorance. According to this trope, the author of the creation account believed that the sky had a solid ceiling—the ‘firmament’ of Genesis 1:6—which restrained a heavenly ocean—the ‘waters above’ of Genesis 1:7 (see figure 1). This interpretation fails for several reasons that have often been overlooked.1,2 Nevertheless, even some evangelical scholars claim that the biblical authors were simply reflecting widespread, prescientific views of their time, as shown by texts and artifacts from the ancient Near East.

One such artifact that has been widely used to support these claims is the Shamash (sun god) tablet of Babylonian King Nabu-appla-idinna (figure 2). This inscribed limestone tablet, created around 850 BC, was commissioned to celebrate the reinstallation of Shamash’s statue in his temple in the ancient city of Sippar (southern Iraq), where the tablet was discovered in the late 19th century. It has been asserted that the Shamash tablet depicts a heavenly scene that proves the Mesopotamians believed in a ‘solid sky’ and an ‘upper sea’ (figure 3). However, it turns out this tablet has been badly misinterpreted. The art does not depict a scene in the heavens at all, and it should not be used as evidence that Genesis affirms a bogus cosmology.

Heather BattenShamash-tablet
Figure 2: Shamash tablet in the British Museum

A sampling of ‘solid sky’ claims

Below, the correct understanding of the Shamash tablet will be explained. But, first, consider how scholars have perpetuated the mistaken view. For instance, J. Edward Wright stated:

The depiction on this tablet … shows Shamash enthroned as king in heaven. The wavy lines at the bottom of this scene indicate water, and beneath the waters is a solid base in which four stars are inscribed. These waters, then, are the celestial waters above the sky.[ref.] This tablet depicts the god Shamash enthroned as king in the heavenly realm above the stars and the celestial ocean.3

John H. Walton featured a full-colour photo of the tablet on the cover of his book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Inside, he similarly wrote:

The Shamash plaque is particularly informative as it shows worshippers who, though physically in the earthly temple, view themselves before Shamash’s heavenly throne. The heavenly waters are beneath his feet and the stars are shown in the sky across the bottom of the picture. … The waters above (held back by the sky) are represented iconographically …4

Kyle Greenwood, too, advanced this faulty interpretation.

One clear depiction of the upper heavens is found on a kudurru [boundary stone] of the Kassite king Nabu-apla-iddina … The Mesopotamians thought of the upper heavens as a physical realm above the upper waters. Its floor was solid, enabling its residents to stand, sit or otherwise conduct their affairs. Matters in the upper heavens paralleled matters on earth, such that when a king presented himself before the altar of Shamash in that god’s temple, it was as if he were standing before the throne of the god above the firmament.5

Natritmeyer, CC BY-SA 4.0Shamash-tablet-in-detail
Figure 3: Detail of the Shamash tablet

Relocating Shamash

The analysis of these scholars might seem convincing at first blush, and they do correctly interpret many elements in the scene. They are right to see the wavy lines as water, for example, and the four circular icons beneath the waters are indeed stars. Given the presence of stars, the temptation to place this scene in the heavens is understandable. However, it should not be forgotten that a common belief among ancient Near Eastern peoples was that the sun and stars travelled to the underworld when they descended beneath the horizon. So, the water above these stars need not portray a sky ocean. In fact, the accompanying Akkadian text on this tablet makes it clear that it does not. The inscription explicitly states that these waters belong to the Apsu—a term that Mesopotamians used to describe waters on the earth, associated with the underworld.

Old Testament scholar John W. Hilber corrects the common misunderstanding.

On this tablet, iconography and text combine to show the sun-god in relation to the underworld waters (named in one of the captions as the Apsu).[ref] The wavy lines are often wrongly interpreted as the ‘heavenly ocean.’[ref.] However, the Akkadian term apsu is not used for any waters other than the deep ocean, the Abyss of the underworld god, Ea, or things related to these, such as temple water basins.[ref.] Interpreted correctly, the iconography depicts Shamash emerging from his activity in the underworld waters at sunrise …6

Professor of Sumerology Christopher E. Woods likewise points out:

In the Mesopotamian mythopoeic conception of the cosmos, the stars were believed to reside in the Apsû … or more broadly in the netherworld, during the day, only emerging via the eastern horizon to traverse the heavens at nightfall.[ref.] Thus, as the upper portion of the relief pays tribute to the reappearance of the Sun-god and the glorious daylight that he brings forth, the bottom of the relief depicts the stars within their proper day-time abode, the Apsû.7

Implications for biblical cosmology

Despite the superficial plausibility of the theory that the Shamash tablet presents a heavenly scene, the inscription demonstrates that no ‘sky roof’ or ‘upper sea’ depictions were intended. If the Mesopotamians believed in such things at all, the proof is not to be found on this artifact. So it certainly should not be used as support for the idea that the Bible writers embraced these cosmological blunders.

None of this is meant to suggest that the ancients had a perfectly accurate understanding of the universe. The idea, incorporated into the Shamash tablet, that the sun and stars travelled beneath the earth and into the underworld is wrong. Yet, whether or not the biblical authors personally believed in any of the incorrect cosmological ideas of their contemporaries, it is interesting to see how such scientific mistakes are completely sidestepped by Scripture. The Bible does not say that the sun and stars ever visit the underworld, but simply remains silent about where they go after they set (Ecclesiastes 1:5). Thus, even when Israel’s neighbours did embrace false ideas about cosmology, the Bible writers were not obligated to follow them into error. Indeed, they did not since Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), which entails that no falsehoods were incorporated into the text, as the Holy Spirit ensured (2 Peter 1:21).

But the fact that the Shamash tablet is innocent of several errors scholars once attributed to it weakens their argument that Genesis contains these same mistakes. Bible-skeptics ought to learn a lesson here and not be so quick to accuse the Scriptures of sinning against science.

Published: 16 March 2023

References and notes

  1. Halley, K., The ‘windows of heaven’ are figurative, J. Creation 35(1):111–116, April 2021. Return to text.
  2. Halley, K., No, the Bible doesn’t teach that stars were glued to a canopy, creation.com/stars-canopy, March 2023. Return to text.
  3. Wright, J.E., The Early History of Heaven, Oxford University Press, pp. 36–37, 2000. Return to text.
  4. Walton, J.H., Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 168–169, 2006. Walton did repeat some of this material with revisions in a later book to express a more circumspect position. He wrote, “The waters above (held back by the sky) may be represented iconographically in the Mesopotamian Shamash plaque …” (emphasis added) in Walton, J.H., Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, p. 92, 2011. Return to text.
  5. Greenwood, K., Scripture and Cosmology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, p. 61, 2015. Return to text.
  6. Hilber, J.W., Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation, Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, pp. 64–65, 2020. Return to text.
  7. Woods, C.E., The sun-god tablet of Nabû-apla-iddina revisited, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 56:78, 2004. Return to text.