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A rather common accusation made against the Bible in Skeptical circles is that it teaches a view that promulgates a "flat earth" and contains other primitive cosmological/natural data like a solid, domed sky. Here we will have a look at some of the verses commonly used to assert this position.
We begin with a bit of groundwork. It should be understood that the Hebrews, like all ANE cultures, obviously lacked the scientific terminology we use to describe things today. We should not expect descriptions of "tectonic plates" or of "molten lava". On a lesser scale, we will find that the Hebrews lacked key words which would have been most useful in describing cosmological phenomena.
Furthermore, we will not address certain words and verses that use "phenomenological" language - i.e., sunset, sunrise, or references to sun and stars moving. As we still use such terms today, in spite of hundreds of years of "knowing better", it should not reflect badly upon the use of such language in the Bible. Moreover, it is absurd and childish to expect the Hebrews to invent new words when everyone else was using something like "sunrise" to describe the phenomenon.
Next, we should note that it is the burden of the critic to show in any given instance that any reference is to the entire earth. This is not merely arbitrary, for the same critics will at once assume (rightly) that the Hebrews were unaware of e.g., the Americas, and probably many lands beyond their immediate vicinity. The Romans referred frequently to the oikoumene, and this, while sometimes mistaken by amateurs to mean the whole earth, actually refers to the Roman Empire, and conceptually refers to the habitable world as it was known. In a similar way, when the OT refers to the "land" or "earth" it should first be presumed that some concept like oikoumene, or some limited area of land, is in mind, such as the land area upon which the peoples lived -- and it is the critic's burden to disprove this first, before assuming that the "whole" earth is in mind.
Finally, we might add that we're not arguing here that individual Hebrews (such as the Bible authors) did have knowledge that the earth was spherical, though some do argue in that vein, and it is hardly conceptually impossible. Rather, per my article linked below, we are saying that the language used was equivocal and inspired to be so used. Critics who argue that the Hebrews should have created a unique word for "sphere," for example, are simply being childish. Ancient languages had only a few thousand words at most, in contrast to a modern, technical language like English that has many specialized fields to describe and can have upwards of a million words. The nature of an oral society was such that there could be no significant growth in language or vocabulary, and quite frequently, languages in pre-literate cultures lack specific words for very basic concepts.
Now to the verses in question. We will use the KJV as our English cite-source for the most part here, since it is the one most commonly used by skeptics in this arena.
A Heavenly Stretch
Some descriptions of the sky in the Bible indicate to Skeptics that some sort of solid mass is involved. I have dealt with many of these cites in an article written for the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal. An item here on the idea of a "solid sky" is also relevant.
Let's look at what's left:
Jer. 10:12 He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion.
Note that "world" here is the Hebrew tebel - see below for more on this.
Is. 40:22 It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in...
Do these imply a physical dome of some sort? Actually, it is not possible to determine one way or another, for the Hebrews (like many cultures of this time) lacked a word-concept of infinite physical space. With that in mind, we may ask how they would describe the sky as it exists, and metaphor is the most probable choice.
We surmise that the sky as a "stretched" space or object comes as close to capturing "infinity" as one can without the word-concept.
But is there any less ambiguous assertion about the sky? Some note verses like this:
Ps. 150:1 Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.
The word here which we render "firmament" is:
7549. raqiya', raw-kee'-ah; frm H7554; prop. an expanse, i.e. the firmament or (apparently) visible arch of the sky:--firmament.
Indications are, however, that this raqyia is not the solid structure that "firmament" implies; see the linked article above.
Circle the Planet
Is. 40:22 It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in...
Job 26:10 He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end.
Prov. 8:27 When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth...
Skeptics will assume from these verses a concept of a flat, circular, pancake-like earth. In each case, the Hebrew word here is exactly the same: chuwg.
And here is where we alert the reader to another key word-concept that is missing in Hebrew: There was no varying word for a "sphere" - a three-dimensional circle. It is not that the Hebrews or anyone else lacked the concept of sphericity (for obviously, they could conceive of it plainly when, for example, they ate pomegranates for breakfast), but that they simply did not create a second word for it.
Some may cite in reply here the KJV version of Is. 22:18, "He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country: there shalt thou die, and there the chariots of thy glory shall be the shame of thy lord's house." The Hebrew word here, however, is duwr. This word no more exclusively indicates sphericity than our other word, for it is used by Isaiah elsewhere thusly:
Is. 29:3 And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee.
Obviously, the soldiers could not camp in the shape of a sphere around the city. This word appears to be making a statement about a circular pattern rather than giving reference to a given shape. In Ezekiel it is actually used (24:5) to refer to something being burned, probably inside a circle of wood or a heap of wood. Skeptics would surely find no satisfaction in the use of this word to refer to the earth and assume that it meant "circle" as they do with chuwg, for it is clear that it is not used exclusively of a sphere, and one can readily suppose Skeptics would simply assume that someone using the word duwr to describe the earth meant something like the way it is used in Is. 29:3, and still declare an error.
A related desperate appeal is that a related modern Hebrew word does mean a "ball". However, this proves little if anything, for modern usage has very little bearing on usage more than two thousand years earlier. Modern languages evolve constantly, and one would first have to prove that the modern word evolved with the ancient understanding in mind. Note as well that since it is related, not the same word, this is as much as admitting that duwr itself does not mean (simply or exclusively) "sphere", for otherwise, there would have been no need to "evolve" a modern word. What it boils down to: While a sphere is a duwr, it is not the only thing that is a duwr, so it would not be sufficient for the absurd precision-demands of modern Skeptics, who would simply assume that the text is saying that the earth is in the shape of a circle, as in Is. 29:3.
All that said, it is not even clear that chuwg refers exclusively to the shape we call a circle. The word indicates boundaries being set, but nothing contextually demands a perfect circular shape. In Job 22:14, it refers to a "circuit" or route walked by God, and there's no particular reason why this should or should not be a circle. Altogether, the word is used only 3 times in the OT, and not once does the context clearly demand a shape of any particular regularity; and a root word in Job 26:10 describes the encompassment of "waters" -- without further description. There's no basis for connecting the word to a modern "compass", and although LXX translators may have chosen the word for a simple circle, it is irrelevant that they did so, since their choice was governed by their own cosmological views. We may add the "earth" in Is. 40:22 is erets (more on this below). Isaiah's reference, per above, should be understood to refer to the oikoumene, or the shoreline of the day, not the "whole" earth.
I've newly applied some social data to this section, and a new version appears in the July 2011 E-Block. I also have a YouTube vid here:
Long and Broad
Here is a verse that comes up for critical review:
Job 11:9 The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.
This is supposed to indicate a measurable earth with "length" - but "earth" here is 'erets, and in light of the fact that a fixedly measurable body like "sea" is used in parallel, we are justified in reading 'erets here in its less "global" sense -- in rather, the oikoumene sense.
Is. 42:5 Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:
The word "spread" here is taken to mean a flat earth. But it also says that God "spread" that which "cometh out" of the earth - i.e., the plants and animals. Does this mean that the plants and animals are flat, too? Obviously not.
The word here (raqa' - related to the word used for the sky, above) therefore indicates creative formation, not shape.
Journey to the "Center" of the Earth
Ezek. 5:5 Thus saith the Lord GOD; This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her.
Some will cite this verse which is translated in some versions as saying that Jerusalem is in the "center" of the earth - which is said to fit in with a flat earth. But that particular translation has a few bugs in it. The word here for "midst" is tavek. "Countries" is the word 'erets again. "Nations" is gowy. Finally, the word "round" is cabiyb.
The implication here seems far more political and religious than geographical, especially when we consider that the book of Ezekiel then goes on to condemn Israel for adopting the practices of the "countries" ('erets) all around them. (Thus some translations will now say that Jerusalem is "most important" rather than using words which indicate a geographic connotation.) Of course, this also coheres precisely with the idea of the oikoumene.
Sittin' in the Corner
For this objection we'll be crossing the Testaments. Let's start with the OT:
Is. 11:12 And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
Some will cite this as evidence of a flat, SQUARE earth - which is a little odd, after it is argued so often that a flat, CIRCULAR earth is in mind! But let's look at this word "corners": kanaph. "Earth" is our familiar word 'erets, so the same constraints apply as above. But what about "kanaph"? It indicates compass points: Note how it emerges elsewhere --
Gen. 1:21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
Ex. 19:4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.
The word can also refer to clothes:
1 Sam. 15:27 And as Samuel turned about to go away, he laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle, and it rent.
...and in a few places, it is translated "ends". But the reference to "four" kanaph, and the application to wings (of birds, cherubim, etc.), along with reference to the specific nations which the Israelities are to return from in the verse previous (Is. 11:11), make it far more likely exegetically that this word indicates compass points.
We should note, however, one often-cited exception:
Job 38:12-3 Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place; That it might take hold of the ends (kanaph) of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it?
However, "earth" is again 'erets - so one cannot say whether it is indeed meant in a global sense here. Even so, this is manifestly metaphorical: One does not suppose that this suggests that the light itself actually picked up the earth and snapped it around like a towel. We may suggest that the "end" here might refer to the artificial dividing line between night and day.
But now to a NT cite:
Rev. 7:1 And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
Once again, it is likely that we are dealing with compass points, owing to the reference to the winds. The word here is gonia.
This word is used only 9 times in the NT, and it does refer, for example, to street corners (Matt. 6:5) and to cornerstones (Mark 12:10). But the context, the reference to the "four winds", supports the idea of compass points. (And once again, this is a phrase we STILL use, so we cannot really be that critical.)
Foundations and Pillars
There are a few words that indicate to Skeptics that the earth is on top of some sort of supporting system. Let's start with "foundations" -
Ps. 104:5 Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
2 Sam. 22:16 And the channels of the sea appeared, the foundations of the world were discovered, at the rebuking of the LORD, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.
Job 38:4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Zech. 12:1 The burden of the word of the LORD for Israel, saith the LORD, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him.
We have selected these verses as samples, for they encompass the entire range of words used for "foundation(s)" in reference to the earth. Now let's consider each word in the Hebrew.
Ps. 104:9 uses this word: makown. This word, used only 17 times in the OT, has the connotation of a living place or "home". For example:
Ps. 33:14 From the place of his habitation he looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth.
Clearly this has nothing to do with physical foundations.
2 Sam. 22:16 uses mowcadah. This word occurs only 13 times in the OT. Here is how it is used in places where the earth (or heaven) is not referenced:
Deut. 32:22 For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.
Ps. 18:7 Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth.
Is. 58:12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
Jer. 51:26 And they shall not take of thee a stone for a corner, nor a stone for foundations; but thou shalt be desolate for ever, saith the LORD.
Clearly we have something of a mixed bag here. We have something that can be seen as physical, obviously, but we also do not have anything to indicate exactly how this mowcadah acts as a "foundation" for the items in question. (By the way, "earth" in the relevant verses is mostly that vague 'erets, and in a couple of places tebel.)
Job 38:4 uses yacad. This word seems inclined to the idea of "foundation" in both an abstract "beginning" sense and a physical "building" sense. Note how it is used elsewhere:
Ex. 9:18 Behold, to morrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now.
Josh. 6:26 And Joshua adjured them at that time, saying, Cursed be the man before the LORD, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn...
1 Kings 5:17 And the king commanded, and they brought great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones, to lay the foundation of the house.
1 Chr. 9:22 All these which were chosen to be porters in the gates were two hundred and twelve. These were reckoned by their genealogy in their villages, whom David and Samuel the seer did ordain in their set office.
So here, a "physical" idea is possible - but not necessary. Finally, here is Zechariah's word: yecuwdah. This word appears only 5 times in the OT, 3 times in Zechariah. Here are the other cites:
Ps. 87:1 A Psalm or Song for the sons of Korah. His foundation is in the holy mountains.
Is. 28:16 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation (muwcad!): he that believeth shall not make haste.
Zech. 4:9 The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it; and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto you. (Zec. 8:9 similar)
There is probably not enough here to go on. Zechariah's word-choice in 12:1 may have been influenced by the parallel and equally-spaced usages in his book rather than by any notion of what the physical structure of the earth was.
These words offer no necessary proof - much less sufficient detail - to assume the idea of an earth with unmoving roots.
But what about our other word, "pillars"? In most cases where a pillar is referred to (as in a building) one of two words is used: matstebah or 'ammuwd. The latter word IS used by Job in reference to "pillars" of the earth and of heaven (9:6, 26:11) - but note the context of the verses:
Job 9:5-10 Which removeth the mountains, and they know not: which overturneth them in his anger. Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble. Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars. Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea. Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south. Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number. Lo, he goeth by me, and I see him not: he passeth on also, but I perceive him not.
Job 26:11 The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof.
In both cases we are dealing with a situation that is charged with poetic indications (pillars that can be "astonished"?) and we are obliged not to read things too literally. (Same also, Ps. 75:3.) That leaves one verse, 1 Sam. 2:8 -
He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them.
"Pillars" here is yet another word, matsuwq, and it is used only TWICE in the OT, here and 1 Sam. 14:5 --
The forefront of the one was situate northward over against Michmash, and the other southward over against Gibeah.
Here, it seems, there is no indication of physical pillars necessary at all (see also note on this verse above). At the very least the data is insufficient to decide one way or another. At the very worst it is simply a quote of the belief of Hannah, Eli's mother.
In the end, this is all exemplary of what I call the equivocal language of the text, which was used in such a way as to be open to being interpreted according to whatever preconceived notions a reader might have had.
Ps. 103:12 As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
A minor point on this verse - it is sometimes alleged that this indicates a flat earth, for on a globe, east does meet west. The Hebrew terms here - mazrach and ma'arab - are equivalent to saying, "the rising" and "the setting", so that it is essentially like our "sunrise" and "sunset". Obviously, we still use this sort of phenomenonological language today, so this verse can hardly be criticized on the same basis.
Even so, it is a bit tricky to assert that abstract concepts like "east" and "west" are like physical objects that can meet around a globe and come to a grinding halt. One would suggest that they could proceed around the globe infinitely since they have nothing to run into.
As a side note, we should consider the verse previous to this one:
Ps. 103:11 For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.
So then - this reckons as a parallel to the next verse; and since the idea the Psalmist is putting across is that God's mercy and forgiveness are INFINITE, this seems to argue for an infinite distance along the earth - which would work either on a globe OR on a flat earth (after all, east and west don't stop at the edge, either) - and for an infinitely high sky, we might add.
Finally, we note this passage:
Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them...
This verse in Matthew by no means implies a flat earth, nor a monstrous mountain large enough to oversee the earth. Indeed, I have always thought that the trip to the mountain was a psychological ploy by Satan -- indeed, given what we know of the honor and shame dialectic of that social world, it fits as the premise of an "honor challenge" by placing Jesus in a pre-eminent position -- and that the showing of the kingdoms was accomplished by means of projecting images of some sort, as on a computer screen.
Indeed, this is suggested by the parallel verse in Luke 4:5 -
The devil led him up to a high place, and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.
However, as anyone who has climbed mountains knows - and the writer of Matthew surely knew, if he lived in the area around Judaea, as Matthew did - the higher up you go, the smaller things down below get, by your perspective. So it seems unlikely that (even if he did believe it a flat earth, personally) Matthew's offering is not compatible with a globe.
Note that even on a flat earth, a high mountain would be a very poor place to observe the kingdoms of the world "in their glory." Furthermore, if Matthew was implying that a mountain existed from which all the world was visible, then obviously, the mountain would be visible from all parts of the world. It is ludicrous to suggest that Matthew believed such a mountain existed.
The mountain in question was probably Mt. Quarantania, not far from the site where John probably baptized. It commands an incredible view of the Jordan Valley. As an aside, to those who further wonder who gave this account: Jesus was perfectly capable of doing so after the fact to his disciples.
Matthew 24:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Revelation 1:7 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
For more on these passages, see here.
Now there are a few verses some say indicate a close-by sky or a hardened dome in other ways than we have seen and that I cover in my CENTJ article. Here is a twosome from the NT:
Rev. 6:13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
Matt. 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
In each case above it is said that the indication of stars falling to earth suggests a close sky with stars hung from it. But this fails to account for the fact that the Greek word here, aster, was used to refer to any object with the appearance of a star, including meteors - an anachronism which we preserve today in the expression, "shooting star."
At the same time, it is reckoned here and elsewhere that referring to the heavens as being "shaken" indicates a solid dome. But look at the Greekword, saleuo. This word is used of physical objects being shaken, but it is also used of intangible objects:
Luke 21:26 Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.
Acts 2:25 For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved:
2 Thess. 2:2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.
So, it is quite possible to read this verse in Revelation in terms of "disturbed" rather than "shaken" in a physical sense.
There are also a few verses in the OT that are used for this. 2 Sam. 2:28 says, "Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of heaven moved and shook, because he was wroth." Sounds pretty bad, until you read the verses following: "There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: and he was seen upon the wings of the wind..." And so on - quite poetic, obviously far from literal.
Joel 2:10 says, "The earth shall quake before them; the heavens shall tremble: the sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining..." But the Hebrew word here is important: ra'ash.
Note the "field of grain" reference. This is the sort of word that might be used to describe a visual phenomenon like the Northern Lights - it does not necessarily indicate a shaking, solid dome.
Finally, Is. 13:13 says, "Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger." But this is yet another Hebrew word without physical connotations: ragaz. The reference, in line with God's referenced wrath, is more likely to refer to an inspiration of fear than a literal shaking of what is supposedly a solid dome.
Job 37:18 says, "Hast thou with him spread out (raqia) the sky (shachaq), which is strong, and as a molten looking glass?" Techincally, this verse being spoken by Elihu would not be a problem, but we'll add it here anyway. Shachaq is an unusual word that appears only 25 times in the OT, mostly in Job and Psalms, and seems to be a synonym for raqia.
It is also used for the clouds in Isaiah 45:8. Finally, it is best related to Deuteronomy 28:23: "And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron." This verse refers to drought, not solidity.
Genesis 11:4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
This verse was once popular among critics, but not much any more. The words "may reach" are an insertion of the KJV. The reference is now recognized as meaning that the tower was to be dedicated unto heaven, not built to reach it. Of course, even if it did have the other meaning, it only reflects what men "said" at the time -- not that they were right about what they said.
We will add one other passage a reader suggested, chock full of positive data:
Job 26:7-10 He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing. He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent under them. He holdeth back the face of his throne, and spreadeth his cloud upon it. He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end.
26:7 fits gravitational attraction as opposed to an endless stack of turtles. 26:8 matches that water vapor makes up clouds. The throne is taken to be the moon and would describe an eclipse. For 26:10, the boundary between night and day on a spherical earth illuminated by the Sun must be a circle. At the time the book of Job was written there was no theory of gravity, no knowledge of a spherical earth, and no knowledge of water vapor. How did the writer know?
It must be admitted outright that SOME of the items listed here COULD be interpreted as giving a false cosmology - but it is also possible to interpret them other ways. The Bible lacks specifics in this regard (i.e., precise distances and descriptions - as were often offered up by the pagans), and so leaves the answer, "Does the Bible teach bad cosmology?", quite ambiguous in a few places. But for the majority of the cites we have seen, there is no such ambiguity, merely misinterpretation by skeptics and/or poetry. We are justified in our assertion that there is no proof that the Bible teaches a false cosmology.