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Ancient world-view

05 June 2015

Anthony Phillips commends a guide to Hebrew cosmology

The Biblical Cosmos: A pilgrim's guide to the weird and wonderful world of the Bible
Robin A. Parry
Cascade Books £17


UNLIKE so much biblical research, Robin A. Parry not only gives a scholarly picture of the biblical authors' ideas, but goes on to show how, despite their stark differences with our own understanding, their writings remain importantly relevant in our own times.

Recognising that biblical books must be interpreted against their historical context, Parry examines the Old Testament understanding of earth including Sheol, the heavens, and the temple, before asking "what God might be saying to us through these ancient biblical cosmologies".

Comparison is made with other ancient Near Eastern concepts, and what is distinctive in Hebrew thought is spelt out. Rightly, that ever-threatening chaos poised to overwhelm the created order, then as now, is emphasised. Parry's arguments are amply backed up by reference to the biblical literature itself.

Of particular interest is Parry's treatment of the temple and the biblical cosmos, the former being seen as a microcosm of the latter, humankind replacing the cult statue in the temple.

Turning to Christ, Parry holds that "the story of the cosmos is fundamentally interwoven with the story of Jesus - he created it and sustains it; he rules it and is present throughout it; and he is the one who bound its destiny to himself in his own body thereby enabling it to share in his own new creation resurrection life". Particular emphasis is laid on the ascension seen as completing Christ's work.

It is, though, the final section on the relevance of the biblical cosmos today which deserves closest attention. Parry believes that God wants to speak to the contemporary world through the insights of biblical cosmology. He appeals to the classical approach of Christian Platonism. God is the source and ground of all that is both immanent and transcendent. He acts both within the world and in history, in natural and historical events alike. He sees humankind as the icon of God, mediating his rule on earth.

Parry fully recognises the importance of metaphor, and notes that "a certain level of pious agnosticism is not inappropriate". Particularly relevant is his plea for the recognition of cyclical time, epitomised in the changing seasons and spelt out in the Christian year. He concludes that we must engage with the natural world "with a loving respect akin to that due to persons".

The delightful drawings of Parry's daughter Hannah which illustrate the text will enchant the reader as much as the author's use of "Jehovah" irritated this reviewer. Notwithstanding, this masterful treatment of a complex subject deserves the widest readership.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King's School, Canterbury.

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