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.
- 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. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎