(Blame Origen.)

Few things in Christian mythos1 are as ingrained in our tradition as the idea that demons lead previously righteous lives as angels. Ignoring for a moment that “angel” isn’t necessarily a category of creature2, the origin of demons is significantly more complex3. I highly recommend the book “Demons” by Dr. Michael S. Heiser for this reason, because he explores the cultural and historical context in great detail.

I’ll try not to belabor the point too much in this post, keeping it within relatively finite constraints (a first for me?!), but I do wish to spend some time exploring the (truncated) history of demons in their biblical context.

The brief version: It is my opinion that there is a difference between the demons that Jesus cast out, demons as generalized evil entities, and fallen angels. The demons Jesus cast out are specifically unclean spirits. Demons, as a separate category of entity, possess (pun) a distinct pedigree owing strictly to the divine (that is, the rebelled against Yahweh at some point). Fallen angels happen twice in different contexts, once in Genesis 6:4 and once in Revelation 12.

The long version: It’s complicated and owes itself to both linguistic and cultural challenges.

Demons in the Old Testament

Usually, but not always, readers will first encounter demons in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 32:17:

They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never dreaded.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Dt 32:17.

However, the word English Bibles translate here as demon was not generally conceived of as something we might consider demons4 in accordance with the NT—specifically as having the ability to possess people. The word, shedim, is instead a territorial entity of sorts connected to the “shedu’s of Babylon and Assyria” (DDD, p. 235). The link to our modern concept arises partially from Paul’s use of daimonion to translate Deut. 32:17 in 1 Corinthians 10:20 somewhat generically, but if we examine the Hebrew directly, we see a very different connection:

יִזְבְּחוּ לַשֵּׁדִים לֹא אֱלֹהַ אֱלֹהִים לֹא יְדָעוּם

Literal (Lexham Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible): [They] sacrificed to the demons [shedim], not God [eloah], [to] gods [elohim] [they had] not known.

Elohim, as used in this context, refers to an entity other than God. This may come as a surprise5 to some readers—but in this passage there is a clear connection in the Hebrew writer’s thinking that shedim were a category of elohim. If Yahweh is Elohim (rather an elohim), this removes shedim from the pool of what we might consider “demonic” entities if we view them through a New Testament lens. However, this argument does not address the possibility that demons are fallen angels and could, instead, reinforce it if we ignore the greater contextual evidence. We’ll get to why this is an impossibility shortly.

Shedim make one last appearance in the OT texts by way of Psalm 106:37 where they are the focus of child sacrifice. I mention this for one specific reason: The demons of the Old Testament were occasionally treated the same as gods and received sacrifices (elohim is sometimes translated in English as “gods”). In the New Testament, diamonion are usually viewed as unclean spirits rarely associated as the recipients of sacrifice (1 Cor 10:20)—and only in Revelation 9:20 are they mentioned as receiving worship6. New Testament demons (more precisely the unclean spirits) have little crossover with the demons of the Old Testament. Linguistic artifact? Perhaps. Most probably, however, this is an indication of a growing generalization of the word that would later become “demon.”

Back to the Old Testament: The translation “demons” appears one other time in Leviticus 17:7:

So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Le 17:7.

These creatures, the sair or seirim, often translated as “goat demons” or “wild goats,” that reside in the desert wilderness appear to have some connection to Azazel7 and the Leviticus 16 scapegoat. A deeper study into the nature of some of these entities may be explored in a future post, but it is out of scope here.

Demons in the New Testament

In the specific context of the New Testament, diamonion are mostly associated with possession, insanity, and sometimes physical ailments. The most important clue as to their identity arises in Luke 11:24 (and its parallel passage Matthew 12:43): According to the Lukian account, this passage follows on the heels of Jesus’ interaction with the scribes and Pharisees who had accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul. In describing how Jesus possessed such authority, he goes on to explain these demons as unclean spirits (akatharton pneuma).

This is our main indicator leading us toward the concept of demons as entities that can possess and torment humans.

Unsurprisingly, the background and cultural context of the Old Testament is required for further understanding—after all a substantial portion of Leviticus is devoted to a discussion of uncleanness, either as ritual uncleanness, defilement, or an unholy union. This is key: Uncleanness is unholy and something that has been defiled in some capacity. Therefore, if a spirit is unclean, it, by necessity, had to be defiled—such as through an unholy union.

If we turn back to Genesis 6:4 (“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (ESV)) we are presented with one possible explanation. The sons of God (bene Elohim) impregnated human females, who bore them children, and created the nephilim—often associated with the giant clans. In Jewish tradition (repeated in Second Temple period literature like 1 Enoch 6), the spirits of the nephilim, being formed from an unholy union of fallen divinity and human flesh, were cursed to wander the Earth after the destruction of their physical bodies (DDD, p. 238). If true, this might explain their desire to possess human bodies; their own flesh was destroyed in the flood, and by Joshua’s conquests afterward, so their natural proclivities would be toward gaining control of that which they previously lost.

Hence, the demons of the New Testament. No angels here!

An “Origen” Story

As I alluded to at the start of this post, the myth of demons being once proud angels originated (“origenated?” …sorry, I couldn’t resist!) with Origen of Alexandria. To wit: “Origen tells us that the Church had no clearly defined teaching on [the demons’] genesis; his view was that the Devil, after becoming apostate, induced many of the angels to fall away with him; these fallen angels were the demons” (DDD, p. 238). It is surprising that the earliest of theologians and one of the most prolific writers of the early church would come away with such a conclusion. Granted, our body of understanding has greatly increased since this period in church history, but Jewish traditions behind texts like Enoch were known to Origen and his contemporaries. It is possible, then, that Origen’s views of these works as uninspired may have influenced his understanding. Unfortunately, it is this understanding, despite his own admission toward a lack of provenance or textual support, that ossified in church tradition.

It should be noted that nowhere in the Bible are angels explicitly mentioned as both a) having “fallen” and b) being demoted to or associated with demons. Indeed, texts like Revelation 12:4-6 and Jude 13 suggest somewhat ambiguously that members of the heavenly host entered a state of rebellion as fallen stars or other similar celestial phenomenon (a phrasing commonly associated with being cast out of heaven but parsed very differently by the modern reader because of our understanding of the cosmos). Since none of these connections ever make mention of demons we must conclude that fallen heavenly beings are ontologically distinct in function and origin from diamonion. For example, later in the Revelation 12 account, these angels are still referred to as angels. Apparently, John considered God’s angelos and the Devil’s angelos to serve similar purposes—but different masters—perhaps owing to their origins as members of the heavenly host with specific duties or functions.

It’s worth backing up a little to mention that the story of the heavenly transgression in Genesis 6:4 and 1 Enoch 6 appears via somewhat indirect references in the New Testament alongside the punishment of certain fallen angels (1 Peter 3:19; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6, 13). Perhaps more accurately, these beings are referred to as sons of God in the Genesis parlance. Notably for our case, these fallen angels (or sons of God) are not only described by the NT authors as angels, not demons, they are also described as being bound in chains of gloomy darkness. Given that 2 Peter is the only place in the Bible where the Greek root tartarus is used, it is plausible that Peter was drawing on Greek mythology to make a point: In the Greek cultural understanding, those titans who rebelled against the gods were condemned to tartarus and bound in chains of gloomy darkness. On the other hand, one has to consider which came first: Peter’s referencing a familiar story to convey the idea of eternal punishment for spiritual beings who transgressed; or, instead, was Greek mythology based upon an earlier, shared cultural knowledge, perverted by the worship of foreign gods, that itself was born from the seed of a divine transgression eons prior?

Therefore, it is a misnomer that demons are the angels who transgressed. Instead, those angels were condemned and bound in chains! Demons may certainly be other entities or the wandering spirits of long-dead nephilim, but they are certainly not connected with fallen members of the heavenly host! Both Testaments use the concept of “demon” somewhat interchangeably with what appears to be a distinct category of entities entirely and completely separate from angels who have rebelled against God, but English translations obscure the ontological distinctions of those beings mentioned in the Old Testament while muddying the waters in the New Testament. Further, as far as angels fallen from alignment with Yahweh, it seems the Most High reserved special punishment for those beings who transgressed the heavenly domain to be bound in chains of gloomy darkness. Demons, on the other hand, are free to wander the Earth regardless of their specific origins (shedim, unclean spirits, etc).

  1. I use the term “mythos” rather deliberately. It isn’t intended to deride certain beliefs: Rather, I intend its use in the context of a greater mythological construct that is itself detached from the text. Specifically, views that are based on church tradition and are unsupported by scripture are, in my opinion, part of Christian mythos because they appeared as distinct units separated from those that were inspired by God. Christian mythos therefore is something later contrived that may (or may not) be based on scriptural truth. ↩︎
  2. Taken on its own, the term “angel” (angelos in Greek or mal’ak in Hebrew) simply represents an ontological construct—a typological or categorical term that indicates a job or function. See: Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, First Edition. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 24. ↩︎
  3. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2d ed. Ed. Karel Van Der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. Van Der Horst. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub., 1999), 235-240. Abbreviated in this post as “DDD.” ↩︎
  4. An over-generalization which I’ll explain in a moment. ↩︎
  5. Contrary to the teachings of tradition, elohim is, like angel, an ontological term. Refer to a reverse interlinear for Exodus 20:3, 20:7; Deut 32:8, 32:17; 1 Sam 28:13; Pss 82:1, 82:6 for examples of this use. ↩︎
  6. See also: Acts 17:18 “Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of [daimonion].'” The use of daimonion in these passages likely illustrated its use generally as an unclean spirit but also to agents of the Devil (1 Cor 10:20-21; 1 Tim 4:1). We may examine the process of this evolution in more detail in a future post. ↩︎
  7. Michael S. Heiser, Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 26. ↩︎

Continuing from our previous installment regarding Ray Comfort’s pamphlet “Scientific Facts in the Bible,” I feel it necessary to tie this in with some remarks made in part 1. Specifically, I want to address this idea that somehow Biblical cosmology infers, predicts, or requires the existence of a spherical Earth. To put it briefly: It doesn’t. However, that’s not a particularly satisfying answer, and it’s much more difficult to appropriately ruffle some feathers with two words than it is with an entire essay (more words implies more opportunity to nitpick—in both directions).

In this post, I’ve decided to continue prodding at Comfort’s next truth claim:

The Earth is Round

Isaiah 40:22 (written 2800 years ago): “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth.”

The Bible informs us that the earth is round. Though it once was commonly believed the earth was flat, it was the Scriptures that inspired Christopher Columbus to sail around the world. He wrote: “It was the Lord who put it into my mind […] There is no question the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit because He comforted me with rays of marvelous illumination from the Holy Scriptures…” (from his diary, in reference to his discovery of “the New World”).

Ignoring Comfort’s rather flamboyant suggestion that Columbus was somehow inspired by the Holy Spirit to “prove” the truth of a spherical Earth—a myth already dispelled among maritime explorers by the 15th century. Columbus’ motives were instead more accurately described by his efforts to find a shorter route to the Indies with the comparatively minor caveat that the Americas happened to be in his way. Indeed, if we examine the full and complete quote that Ray Comfort mysteriously editorialized to serve his own purposes, we discover that Columbus’ motives were, in fact, driven by exploration rather than pursuit of truth:

It was the Lord who put it into my mind, (I could feel His hand upon me), the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies […]

But where does Isaiah 40:22 come to play?

It turns out that this passage is probably retroactively interjected into Columbus’ writings—who merely stated instead that:

For the execution of the voyage to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps.
It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied […]

Columbus never clarified precisely which of Isaiah’s prophecies he had in mind, and his proclivities toward apocalyptic thinking suggests, instead, that financial motives were likely in his sights—a faster, more direct trade route to the Indies could have helped fund efforts in the Middle East to hasten whatever eschatological end he believed to be true. Isaiah is apocalyptic literature after all, and it’s doubtful that any singular passage alleged to discuss the shape of the Earth was of any concern to Columbus. If the Earth’s general shape was well known by the time Pliny the Elder wrote his Natural History why would Columbus feel the need to “prove” already incontrovertible facts? It would be akin to claiming Elon Musk felt a need to demonstrate the truthfulness of Newton’s laws of physics.

It doesn’t make sense. And this is before we even get into our discussion of biblical cosmology.

As a refresher from part 1: biblical cosmology is a “three-tiered” cosmology containing the heavens, the Earth, and sheol surrounded by a cosmic sea of chaos. Earth (and in some passages, heaven) is held up by pillars sunk into the cosmic waters as its foundations and protected from the waters above by an expanse that separates the creation (heavens and Earth) from the waters below. A careful reading of Genesis 1 reveals this cosmology—though it is not without certain irony that most literalists wave this away1. Given that we also know Israelite cosmology did not deviate from that of their neighboring cultures, it should be no surprise God worked with the knowledge base they had.

But, let’s assume (momentarily) that Comfort is correct and that Columbus had Isaiah 40:22 in mind when he penned those words in his autobiography. What, then, did Isaiah intend to convey when God inspired him to write “It is he who sits above the circle (khûg) of the earth?”

As mentioned in part 1, the idea of a circle, pillars, or a boundary between light and dark conveys two concepts in ancient Near Eastern cosmology. The first is the existence of a boundary between the living and the dead2. Thus, the “circle of the Earth” would comprise the embodied, material aspect of created order (the land of the living, so to speak), over which God sits. The second is the rather obvious notion that God sees everything from his vantage point. God isn’t literally sitting in a chair as if watching Monday night football—God exists outside of time—but the idea that he is sitting upon his throne from a vantage point that affords him visibility into all things we do (seen and unseen) is consistent with other parts of scripture. Isaiah just happens to illustrate this thought using knowledge that would be familiar to his readers. If we examine the rest of the passage, this thinking becomes clearer:

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in […]

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 40:22.

Notice the parallel structure of this passage from Isaiah. First, God is described sitting from his vantage point over the Earth. Next, in bold, it describes his view of Earth’s inhabitants. Then it shifts back to God and his ability to manipulate the created order. Finally, it parallels the second clause with the intended purpose (“like a tent to dwell in”) for God’s work. Earth is paralleled with heavens; the inhabitants are paralleled with the heavens’ purpose for them, above. Interpreting this passage through a modern lens makes little sense with the surrounding context—Earth is confined to a boundary (the “circle” or khûg) over which the heavens are spread “like a tent.” Familiarity with the Israelite three-tiered cosmology is key to understanding passages like this one3.

In his expanded works, both the Evidence Bible and various educational videos he’s produced based on this material, Comfort attempts to defend his view by claiming that the Hebrew (khûg) isn’t merely a circle but a projection of a sphere. There are some exegetical problems with this view besides the cultural underpinnings that make this argument untenable. First, khûg absolutely does mean “circle;” or, more specifically, “to inscribe a circle” such as with a compass when paired with its verbal form. Second, biblical Hebrew does, in fact, possess a word for “ball” but it is never used in connection with biblical cosmology. One has to wonder why this might be—perhaps it is because Israelite cosmology viewed the Earth as a disc structure that could be inscribed upon the face of the waters like a circle?

If we examine the other four passages (there are five in total) where this word appears, we have greater clarity as to a) how the word khûg is used and b) what the biblical authors had in mind when they used it.

Starting with Job 22:14 we read (I’ll include verse 13 as well for reasons that I’ll explain shortly; verse 14 is in bold):

But you say, ‘What does God know? Can he judge through the deep darkness? Thick clouds veil him, so that he does not see, and he walks on the vault of heaven.’

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Job 22:13-14.

The ESV (and others) translates khûg in this passage as “vault of heaven.” A literal reading might be “He walks about on the circle (or dome) of heaven.” Taking this noun to infer a spherical structure, like the Earth, doesn’t work in this context: Heaven isn’t a sphere. Arguably, “dome” doesn’t work either because contextually, khûg representing a boundary or spiritual layer rather than a literal circle, sphere, or physical structure makes significantly more sense in the context of the Word itself.

Insofar as verse 13, we have a hint of the chaotic cosmic waters through the author’s use of “deep darkness.” Although not specifically tied with the darkness of Genesis 1, this word, arafel, does indeed appear in parallel with God’s complete otherness and detachment from humankind like we see in passages such as Exodus 20:21 (“The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness (arafel) where God was”) and 1 Kings 8:12 (“The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness (arafel)). Taken in parallel with verse 14, we can understand from this context that the “vault (khûg) of heaven” cannot imply anything other than a boundary—a place of otherness where God lives, separated from us.

There are three other passages in the text where khûg appears: Job 26:10, Proverbs 8:27, and Isaiah 44:13. We covered Job 26:10 in part 1, albeit briefly, but the same idea is conferred here and in Proverbs 8:27—God inscribes a circle on the face of the waters, or the deep, which serves as a boundary between one part of the created order and another. Consequently, I won’t belabor the point here.

However, Isaiah 44:13 presents an illustration for how one might create a khûg:

The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 44:13.

The word here is mekhûgah, or compass. A compass is a tool used to inscribe circles; a khûg is a circle, or a product of a compass. Spheres cannot be drawn in 3D space with a compass4.

Should this still remain an insufficient argument to prove that biblical cosmology did not necessitate a spherical Earth, we do have one last avenue through which we can better our understanding: The LXX.

The LXX translators, perhaps unwittingly, provide a narrow window into the past through which we can peek and gain extra insight into how they understood the text. In three of these passages, Job 22:14, 26:10 and Isaiah 40:22, the Greek word gryos (circle; ring) is used in place of khûg. In Proverbs 8:27, aphorizō (to mark off) is used instead; in Isaiah 44:13, metron (a measure; rule) appears in place of compass. Thus, to the Septuagint’s translators (at least in part of the LXX tradition), the two outlying passages never imply a contextual divergence of khûg in favor of a spherical structure or object. Indeed, I would argue that, to the LXX translators, the “circle of the Earth” did not delineate physical dimensions.

Put another way: Isaiah 40:22 almost certainly cannot be used as a spherical Earth proof text.

While I don’t have the data to prove it, I suspect that the most significant driving force behind scientific concordism within the church today is its misguided effort to somehow “prove” the inerrancy of scripture by perverting the ancients’ understanding of the world around them to make it palatable to the modern reader. Does the Bible have to project an understanding of cosmology congruent with our own in order to retain its status as inerrant and infallible? Of course not! The idea itself is preposterous and absurd, illustrating the intensity of the modern church’s navel-gazing whilst turning a blind eye to the ancient Near Eastern context in which scripture was written. Is it so impossible to imagine that the God who created the cosmos, who picked a specific culture at a specific point in history, who condescended himself in order to explain the nature of his created order in a way they might understand, would go so far as to not impart a modern scientific understanding into their words—something they would never be capable of understanding, much less transmitting? Why would he insert veiled references to discoveries that would only surface thousands of years later specifically to gratify the 21st century reader? He had no need to!

The irony that this sort of textual divination is performed most commonly by factions within Young Earth Creationism who pride themselves on a “literal” reading of the text is not lost on me.

I recognize that God’s providence is such that he can accomplish (or preserve) anything of his choosing. Nevertheless, I find it a bit odd to consider for a moment that scripture must necessarily appease our understanding of the cosmos as moderns, through our scientific lens. And for what purpose? What if our science changes? What if we have so married our scientific thought into the Word of God that we’re left with a situation where both have to be “wrong” because we misapplied scripture toward something it was never intended to explain? The real danger behind scientific concordism is that it risks marring the perception of inerrancy with the text; by applying a human understanding (imperfect and limited) with the word of God (perfect and transcendent) we most certainly do create this risk.

The simplest explanation in my eyes is to view scripture through its own lens: To read it as closely as I am able in its original context as an early Israelite might. Doing so requires shedding the burdens of a 21st century reader whose biases necessitate a modern cosmology.

The Bible never makes concordance with modern cosmology a requirement—and neither should we.

  1. Depending on the individual’s view of modern cosmology and their methods of concordance with scripture, some take the approach that the “waters below” represent the waters internal to the Earth and link this in some capacity to the deluvial waters from Genesis 6. While the precise composition of Earth’s internal structure cannot be known and there very well may be substantial deposits of water beneath the crust, the idea of a spherical object floating through space upon which we live within a narrow band of habitability was a concept alien to the early Israelite author of Genesis. Moreover, creationists have debated a variety of ideas—from precisely how these waters were divided to whether they were actually composed of water or not, and if so, whether the water present in extraterrestrial deposits were inferred by the Genesis creation account or otherwise. It’s amusing that the simplest answer—the idea of a chaotic, cosmic ocean, shared with other creation accounts contemporaneous to the Bible—is the most often overlooked. ↩︎
  2. Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Job 9:6. ↩︎
  3. Although Sheol is not mentioned in this passage, it should be noted that there is ample evidence that the Hebrew erets is occasionally used interchangeably with the “underworld.” For an argument in support of this view, see Scott Noegel’s paper God of Heaven and Sheol: The “Unearthing” of Creation. ↩︎
  4. I have occasionally seen the argument that a circle is a 2D projection of a sphere, which is true, but I would suggest the idea of 3D-to-2D projection is well outside the understanding of your typical early Israelite from 700-500BC and a textual anachronism. ↩︎

In his pamphlet Scientific Facts in the Bible, Ray Comfort extracts a select assortment of seemingly hard-hitting truths from his Evidence Bible that illustrate, in my opinion, poor exegesis of the underlying text. More correctly, his efforts to impose 21st century scientific thought onto a text produced thousands of years ago isn’t simply poor exegesis, it’s eisegesis—that is, he’s attempting to assert truth claims that the text itself does not make. I take specific issue with this, because asserting that the Bible makes a claim it does not is intellectual dishonesty.

I’m going to address his first claim in this post. Ray Comfort writes:

Earth’s Free Float in Space

Job 26:7 (written 3500 years ago): “He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing.”

The Bible proclaims that the earth freely floats in space. Some in ancient times thought that the earth sat on a large animal. We now know that the earth has a free float in space.

Biblical cosmology is quite similar to the cosmology of its surrounding cultures (no magical beast of burden required, despite Comfort’s assessment). Namely, it operates on the assumption of a three-tiered cosmology: Heaven, earth, and sheol (the grave, underworld, etc). Throughout much of the biblical text, the earth is assumed to be disc suspended within the cosmic waters of Genesis 1 atop cosmic pillars. Job 26:7 may be something of an outlier—if you ignore the context of the rest of the chapter and the rest of Job—in that the earth is no longer seen by the time of Job’s writing as suspended upon these mystical pillars.

Specifically, I mean that verse 11 reads “The pillars of heaven tremble […]” where we once again receive this imagery that things are suspended in the cosmic domain by such pillars.

I don’t wish to get too distracted by the emphasis on pillars (more on that in a moment), however, so let’s examine the question Comfort is presenting as fact: Does Job 26:7 present evidence that the Bible explained the force of gravity before its discovery?

No. It does not.

The clue may come from the first half of the passage “He stretches out the north (tsaphon) over the void (tohu).”

In Hebrew, “tsaphon” means north, but it’s also the name for Mount Zaphon which was considered in Ugarit as the “‘sacred mountain’ […], the high heavens where the gods meet in assembly and, in Ugaritic literature, where Baal’s house is.”1 In Psalm 48:1-2, we see Mount Zion compared to this location2 suggesting some polemic quality may be at play.

Thus, if Yahweh is able to “stretch out” the high places of pagan religious thought over the “void,” and demonstrate his power over all creation, what then IS this void (tohu)?

To answer this question, we have to return to Genesis 1:2:

“The earth was without form (tohu; formless, wasteland) and void (bohu; empty).”

Is this a veiled reference to space? Almost certainly no! In the IVP Bible Background Commentary, the authors write:

“It is the vast trackless waste of primordial waters that is described as the “nothing” on which the earth sits. Evidence for this is that the word describing what the north is spread out on (niv: “empty space”) is the same word that describes the watery cosmic chaos of Genesis 1:2 (niv: “formless”). In Babylonian literature, Shamash is praised as the one who suspends from the heavens the circle of the lands. This was part of ancient perception of the cosmos rather than a covert allusion to modern scientific understanding.”3

Dr. Robert Alter, in his Hebrew Bible: A Translation and Commentary concurs:

“The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means ’emptiness’ or ‘futility,’ and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.”

Combined with the imagery of the cosmic waters in Genesis 1:6-7, we can surmise that the writer of Job most probably had this view in mind: The north was stretched out over these waters, upon which the earth itself was suspended “on nothing” because it was perceived as floating in the cosmic waters of the creation.

We can further support this claim later in Job 26 by the verbiage selected for in verses 12 and 13:

By his power he stilled the sea; by his understanding he shattered Rahab. By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.

Rahab, though often used as an epithet for Egypt, is described in a manner identical to Leviathan in many parts of the OT; in fact, in verse 13, we find a description (“fleeing serpent”) similar to the one that appears in the Ugaritic tablets for Tiamat/Litanu—the latter’s equivalent for this particular sea monster. Given that northwest Semitic cultures all shared this concept of a serpent-like chaos deity that lay in opposition to their respective champions, it is no surprise then that this same entity would appear in Hebrew writings—except that in Israelite culture, Leviathan is itself created (and destroyed) by Yahweh4.

If Yahweh crushes Rahab later in Job and calms the sea it makes little sense to surmise that Job 26:7 is describing a modern cosmology when the author does little to stray from his ancient Near Eastern contemporaries.

Comfort has also apparently made some effort here to ignore phrasing earlier in Job that would appear to be at odds with his assertion that this describes a modern understanding of gravity. In Job 9:6, we read “…who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble.”


In my opinion, the strongest evidence against this claim is in verse 10 which reads “He has inscribed a circle (khoq-khûg) on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness.” I’ll touch on “khûg” in a future post where Comfort asserts a spherical earth cosmology present in the Bible (also incorrect), but for the sake of this particular topic, Israelite cosmology saw that the boundaries of the earth were inscribed (khûg; literally “to inscribe with a compass”) upon the face of the cosmic waters. In the ancient Near East, pillars were often used as boundary markers, and given the euphemistic quality of darkness (“khosek“) in this passage, likely for evil or opposition to good (e.g. Isaiah 5:20), it is possible that the “cosmic boundaries of the earth would be those between the living and the dead.”5

When Job is read in the context of what an ancient Near Eastern reader would expect, it is difficult to extract a modern cosmological understanding from the text. I would argue that, to do so, requires a degree of mental gymnastics that do more to diminish the supernatural qualities of the Bible and reduce the impact of biblical eschatology simply to gratify a 21st century reader’s expectation. I have difficulty with Ray Comfort’s work for this reason—it may make for interesting talking points, but scientific concordism is perhaps more harmful to understanding the Bible in the long term than it is to simply read the word of God as its writers intended.

Think like a first century Jew, not like a 21st century Western reader.

  1. Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Job 26:7. ↩︎
  2. ESV and most others render this as “in the far north;” NET’s translators argue that Zaphon was most likely in view in this passage given the parallel of “peaks” in the text. ↩︎
  3. Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Job 26:7. ↩︎
  4. Although Leviathan is never described as having seven heads, Litanu and Tiamat are. The closest we get is Psalm 74:14 “You crushed the heads of Leviathan,” and it is almost certainly this imagery John draws upon in Revelation with the beast rising out of the sea—with seven heads and ten horns. The chaotic evil that lay in opposition to Yahweh throughout history rises up, one last time, only to finally be slain (Isaiah 27:1). ↩︎
  5. Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Job 9:6. ↩︎