Understanding biblical numbers and stories

Articles about the Holy Bible

How did the authors of the Bible view the earth and the universe?

The authors of the Bible believed that the moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth

The standard reference work, the Anchor Bible Dictionary is cited below. We've added headings to aid in comprehension and navigation:

Diagram of the early Israelite view of the world. Note the underworld ("hell" = sheol) under the earth, and the rigid dome with "windows" through which God can allow rain or other blessings to fall.

The variety in date, origin, and scope of the Hebrew Bible's cosmological materials means that achieving a single, uniform picture of the physical universe is hardly possible. Still, sufficient overlap does obtain between the many accounts of the universe, however these may vary in their details, to allow for a few generalizations.

Overall shape of the earth

The earth on which humanity dwells is seen as a round, solid object, perhaps a disk, floating upon a limitless expanse of water. Paralleling this lower body of water is a second, similarly limitless, above, from which water descends in the form of rain through holes and channels piercing the heavenly reservoir.

The "firmament"

The moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth. This structure is the familiar "firmament" (raqiya) of the priestly account, perhaps envisioned as a solid but very thin substance on the analogy of beaten and stretched metal. Though some texts appear to convey a picture of a four-storied universe (Job 11:8-9 or Psalms 139:8-9), the great majority of biblical texts assume the three-storied universe so clearly assumed in other, ancient traditions.

Three "levels": heavens, earth, and underworld

Thus, the Decalog's prohibition of images specifies "heaven above," "earth below," and "water under the earth" as the possible models for any such forbidden images (Exodus 20:4). If we understand the common term "earth" (erets) as designating at times the "underworld," then the combined references in Psalms 77:19 to heaven, the "world" (tebel), and the "earth" ('erets) are another appeal to the universe as a three-storied structure (for other texts where 'erets may refer to the underworld, see Stadelmann 1970: 128, n. 678). Clearer reference still to the same structure is to be found in Psalms 115:15-17, where we find grouped together "the heaven of heavens," "the earth," and the realm of "the dead" (cf. Psalms 33:6-8 snf Proverbs 8:27-29).

Windows of heaven

The curving, solid structure which arches over the realm of humanity is sometimes called a "disk" or "vault" (hug; Isaiah 40:22, Proverbs 8:27). That which allows the heavenly abyss to water the earth are occasional interruptions in this solid structure, openings called variously windows, doors, or channels.

Pillars of the earth

In some texts, that which suspends the habitable earth above the underworld's waters (see 1 Samuel 2:8 for another reference to these rivers) are pillars or some such foundational structures. These seem envisioned in Job 38:4-5; Psalms 24:2; 104:5; Proverbs 8:29, and elsewhere.

The underworld

Finally, the realm beneath the arena of human activity is not only imagined as one of watery chaos but also given the specific designation "Sheol" (she'ol), usually translated "the underworld." In the different elaborations upon just what one should imagine Sheol as including, again there is little consistency. At times, Sheol is personified, with a belly or womb and a mouth (Jonah 2:3-Eng 2:2); Proverbs 1:23; Proverbs 30:16; and Psalms 141:7), while at others Sheol is rather more architecturally portrayed (Isaiah 38:10; Job 7:9-10; Job 14:20-22; Job 17:13; Job 18:17-18), as a dark and forgetful land or city (Stadlmann 1970: 1666-76).[1]

Does the biblical story of Peleg describe the separation of the continents?

Related article:Peleg
Summary: There is no serious biblical scholarship that reads these verses as implying a rapid drift of the continents—partly because such an idea would have been utterly foreign to writers in that time period. So what does it mean?

What’s the best way to understand the ages of pre-Flood patriarchs scientifically?

There is no consensus among biblical scholars as to how to interpret these ages. Scholars have generally separated the interpretation of the ages into three camps: the literal view, the symbolic view, and the blended view.

The literal view seeks to understand every age as literal historical, the symbolic view seeks to understand why the biblical authors might have used these ages to represent perhaps power or prestige, and the blended view seeks to find somewhere in the middle for their interpretation.[2]

What’s the best way to understand the Tower of Babel scientifically?

By all indications, we can believe that something happened. Though we should probably be aware that exaggerations very likely exist in the account

The science behind the Tower of Babel can be separated into two questions

  1. Was there a tower that could reach the heavens?
  2. Were languages actually confused?
    The Ur Ziggurat. Many Biblical scholars have argued that these types of ziggurats could have been the Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible. This is one proposed location.

Both of those questions are addressed in this excellent article by Michael Ash who cites Hugh Nibley:

Last week I began discussing the Jaredites and the Tower of Babel, and how the story might be reconciled for those who believe that science and religion do not necessarily conflict. Some people, for instance, believe that the story of the Tower of Babel falls into the realm of fantasy rather than history. There are historical indicators, however, that suggest that the story is a myth in the scholarly sense.

While most people think of myths as fables (which is what the word actually means), scholars loosely define myths as culturally-shared narratives that bind, inspire, or help delineate a particular culture. In the academic world, the word myth "is detached from popular associations with falsehood." They equate to "legends," which may or may not be based on actual truths. Myths are often pre-scientific stories used to explain why things are as they are. They may represent "types" or models, or they might exaggerate a real event. They may conflate multiple events into a single story, and they typically make erroneous assumptions based on an incomplete understanding of actual facts.

'The Tower of Babel', Gustav Doré, La Grande Bible de Tours (1866)—one of a series of illustrations created for the extraordinarily successful 19th century French version of the Vulgate Bible.

Anciently, oral and written traditions were not "histories" in the modern sense. While such accounts were often based on actual events, historical accuracy was not a high priority. The main purpose was to share cultural events, heroes and villains intentionally selected to relate specific points. Tales of real events could be molded to help convey the moral of the story.

As detailed in a past issue, while I believe in actual Jaredites, Nephites and Lamanites, I also believe we can better appreciate the scriptures when we realize that ancient societies — including prophets — recorded their narratives according to their own understanding of the world around them.

When we shine the light of science and scholarship on the Tower of Babel, we find some interesting things. First, the word "Babel" comes from an Assyro-Babylonian word that means "Gate of God" and is related to a Hebrew word that means "confusion." It appears that the author(s) of the Babel account are engaging in some word-play to make a particular point about the story. It’s also interesting to note that the book of Ether never mentions "Babel" but simply the "great tower."

In the Bible, we learn that some time after the days of Noah the land of Shinar (modern Mesopotamia) was ruled by the wicked Nimrod. In Genesis 10:9 he’s referred to as a "mighty hunter before the Lord." Early Judaic traditions, however, interpret this as a mighty hunter "in opposition to the Lord." Nimrod’s name, in fact, comes from the Hebrew word verb "let us revolt." Once again, we see Hebrew word-play utilized as a teaching tool. Nimrod was not a hunter of animals but of the souls of men. And according to ancient traditions, Nimrod was responsible for building the Tower of Babel.

In ancient Mesopotamia, from at least 3,000 B.C., we find the construction of ziggurats — stepped temple monuments. Ancient cultures believed that gods resided on the tops of mountains, and this belief was even incorporated into Greek mythology, which taught that Zeus lived atop Mount Olympus. Early prophets, including Abraham and Nephi, went up into the mountains to pray or commune with God. Likewise Moses met God on Mount Sinai. Temples were considered to be man-made cosmic mountains. As Dr. Nibley notes, they are the "‘binding-place of heaven and earth,’ where alone one could establish contact with the upper and lower worlds." The ziggurats of Mesopotamia were temples or towers built to reach the heavens or intended "gates" to God. While Nimrod’s connection to the Tower of Babel can only be inferred from the Bible, other ancient traditions support this inference. According to some of these ancient traditions, Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, acquired (stole — in many legends) the skin garment that God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden. The garment supposedly gave Nimrod great power — God-like power. Nibley wrote:

Now I am not insisting for a minute that the legendary Nimrod ever existed. … I am only interested in the type of thing that happened, and after having examined hundreds of legends from all parts of the ancient world, all telling substantially the same story, I think that anyone would find it difficult, in view of the evidence, to deny that there was some common event behind them. It seems to have been a single event, moreover.

In ancient Judaic thought, Babylon (the ancient city-state of Mesopotamia) represented the wicked while Zion represented the righteous. Since the "priesthood" is God’s power bestowed upon mankind, an imitation God-like power would be a false priesthood and a tower associated with this power would be a false temple. The Tower of Babel, therefore would represent — either historically or mythically — the false temples and priesthoods of wicked men who opposed the true priesthood and the living God.[3]

To learn more about the Tower of Babel

What’s the best way to understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot turning into a pillar of salt scientifically?

There is no consensus as to how to understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife scientifically.

These things are reported as miracles, so it isn't really necessary to create a science-based view of how they came to pass.

There are a number of rock deposits located close to claimed locations of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, since we do not know the actual location of Sodom and Gomorrah, we cannot be sure about the rock/salt deposits that are formed in the shape of pillars at these claimed spots. Wikipedia offers valuable commentary on the historicity of the locations and of the story of Lot’s wife.[4]

A meteor airburst?

Interestingly, recent work in the region where Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have been located has found some intriguing evidence of what may lie behind the story:

At the time of the disaster, around 1650 B.C.E., Tall el-Hammam was the largest of three major cities in the valley. ...

Tall el-Hammam’s mudbrick buildings stood up to five stories tall. Over the years, archaeologists examining the structures’ ruins have found evidence of a sudden high-temperature, destructive event—for instance, pottery pieces that were melted on the outside but untouched inside. ...

The researchers concluded that warfare, a fire, a volcanic eruption or an earthquake were unlikely culprits, as these events couldn’t have produced heat intense enough to cause the melting recorded at the scene. That left a space rock as the most likely cause.

Because experts failed to find a crater at the site, they attributed the damage to an airburst created when a meteor or comet traveled through the atmosphere at high speed. It would have exploded about 2.5 miles above the city in a blast 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima. ...

Seconds after the blast, a shockwave ripped through the city at a speed of roughly 740 miles per hour—faster than the worst tornado ever recorded. The cities’ buildings were reduced to foundations and rubble.

“None of the 8,000 people or any animals within the city survived,” Moore adds. “Their bodies were torn apart and their bones blasted into small fragments.” ...

The archaeologists also discovered high concentrations of salt in the “destruction layer” of the site, possibly from the blast’s impact on the Dead Sea or its shores. The explosion could have distributed the salt across a wide area, possibly creating high-salinity soil that prevented crops from growing and resulted in the abandonment of cities along the lower Jordan Valley for centuries. ...

Whether Tall el-Hammam and Sodom were actually the same city is an ongoing debate. The researchers point out that the new study does not offer evidence one way or the other.

“All the observations stated in Genesis are consistent with a cosmic airburst,” says Kennett in the statement, “but there’s no scientific proof that this destroyed city is indeed the Sodom of the Old Testament.”[5]

To learn more about Sodom and Gomorrah
Key sources
  • Stephen O. Smoot, "Abraham and the Stranger at Sodom and Gomorrah: Reading the Bible and Navigating LGBT Identity," Proceedings of the 2021 FAIR Conference (August 2021). link
Wiki links

What is the best way to understand the story of Jonah and the Whale scientifically?

The story of Jonah and the big fish is best seen as a beautiful Hebrew poem—the main point of the story coming in the last four verses in the last chapter

From the Latter-day Saint Bible Dictionary:

The present book of Jonah does not claim to be from the hand of the prophet; it describes an episode in his life and is due to some later writer. The key to the book is to be found in Jonah 3:10–4:11 in the reasons the prophet gives for his flight and unwillingness to preach at Nineveh. The writer is opposing a narrowmindedness that would confine the love of God to a single nation. He shows that Jehovah reigns everywhere, over sea and land; even in the gentile world the minds of men are conscious of sin and prepared to acknowledge that Jehovah is God. The book is a beautiful poem, whether it paints the humanity of the gentile sailors; the mourning of the prophet over the decay of the grass of the field; or the divine tenderness in ministering to the prophet with his imperfect conceptions or in pitying the little children of Nineveh. The story of Jonah was referred to by our Lord on two occasions when He was asked for a sign from heaven. In each case He gave "the sign of the prophet Jonah," the event in that prophet’s life being a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection (Matt. 12:39–41; 16:4; Luke 11:29–30).[6]

Latter-day Saint biblical scholar Ben Spackman elaborates:

Jonah is four short chapters. I’ve done a lot with Jonah in the past, addressing the short book several times, from several angles, including the history question. In brief, if you’re focused on the "whale" instead of the last four verses of chapter 4, you’re entirely missing the point.

[. . .]

Jonah strikes me as very much as a satirical parable, and I explain this in the podcast. But what is ultimately important is the last few verses of the last chapter.[7]


  1. Anchor Bible Dictionary, at 1:1167-68, s.v. "Cosmogony, Cosmology."
  2. Andrew P. Kvasnica, "The Ages of the Antediluvian Patriarchs" 2005 Student Academic Conference, Dallas Seminary <https://bible.org/article/ages-antediluvian-patriarchs-genesis-5. (accessed 19 July 2019)
  3. Michael R. Ash, "Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Is the Tower of Babel historical or mythological?" Deseret News, 27 September 2010. Accessed 29 March 2019. <https://www.deseretnews.com/article/700068940/Michael-R-Ash-Is-the-Tower-of-Babel-historical-or-mythological.html?pg=all>
  4. See Wikipedia "Sodom and Gomorrah" [1] and "Lot’s wife" [2]
  5. Livia Gershon, "Ancient City’s Destruction by Exploding Space Rock May Have Inspired Biblical Story of Sodom," Smithsonian Magazine (22 September 2021). This summary is based on the report found in Ted E. Bunch et al., "A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea," Nature Scientific Reports 11/18632 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97778-3.
  6. See "Jonah"
  7. See "Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 33: Jonah and Micah"