“The Poetry of Creation”

Daniel J. Boorstin, an accomplished historian, writes that “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.”[1] Early observers of earth’s landscape and the heavens that were beyond their grasp put forth theories of design that were picturesque but woefully inaccurate if taken literally. A survey of ancient cultures, from Babylon to China, reveals a great number of fanciful descriptions about the structure of the cosmos. “All who leave the earth go to the moon,” declared an Upanishad, an ancient Hindu text, “which is swallowed by their breath during the first half of the month.”[2] Another theory proposed that the world sits on the back of four giant elephants balancing on a turtle swimming in a sea of milk! Still another suggested that the world was held up by an angel standing on a bowl of rubies supported by a cow standing on a fish swimming in the sea with sand at the bottom. The most famous depiction of ancient cosmology is that of Atlas supporting the heavens and the Earth on his back.

Did these ancient cultures really mean to suggest that elephants, turtles, and a giant Greek strong man held up the world? I doubt it. Poetic descriptions of the unknown are common literary devices to portray the wonder of unexplainable things. They are never meant to be taken literally. Now it’s possible that later generations forgot the true meaning of the descriptive stories and turned them into fact, but even this is unlikely. The Bible has many poetic sections that were never meant to be taken literally. The Book of Job is a good example. God’s description of creation is obviously poetic (Job 38:4-11). Should this bother Christians? Not at all. The grandeur, beauty, and wonder of creation cannot be expressed with mathematical formulas. God knows best how to describe only what He can create.


[1] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Random House, 1983), 86. [2] Quoted in Boorstin, The Discoverers, 87.