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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Does the Bible Really Describe the Earth as Flat?

What the Bible Actually Says About the Shape and Support of the Earth

The Bible is not a science textbook nor was it intended to be. It is, however, a book of truth, and truth can stand the test of time. (John 17:17) The accuracy of the Bible has not been threatened by scientific discoveries. In fact, when it touches on matters related to science, it is completely free from ancient “scientific” theories that proved to be mere myths.

So when it comes to the actual shape of the earth, Isaiah 40:22 describes the earth as seen from above as being spherical. The Douay-Rheims Bible reads:

"It is he that sitteth upon the GLOBE of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as locusts: he that stretcheth out the heavens as nothing, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." (Some Bibles say "Circle" or "Sphere".)

Skeptics point out that many Bibles refer to the circle (instead of "globe") and automatically assume the word translated here "circle" (in Hebrew: chuwg) conveys the concept of a flat, circular, pancake-like earth. However it must be noted that the Hebrews had no separate word for a three-dimensional circle ("sphere") thus the word covered a circle both in its two AND three dimensional sense. Since this is indeed the shape of our planet seen two dimensionally from above - as the context of the verse indicates, globe/sphere are both acceptable and scientifically accurate.

(Some have claimed that the Hebrew word "duwr" is a word for sphere. However, when taking into consideration Isa. 29:3, we see that in this case "duwr" equals a circle (or to encircle) and not a ball. Therefore, the writer's decision in Isaiah 40:22 not to use duwr is not proof positive that he meant (flat) circle and not a sphere.)

Additionally, before our scientific age, people concluded that something must have been holding the earth up. One ancient myth had the earth being placed on the back of four gigantic elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. However, the Bible accurately states that the earth is suspended in space without any visible means of support. "He...hangeth the earth upon nothing." (Job 26:7)

What About Certain Scriptures That Some Point to as Indicating that the Earth is Flat?

Most of the verses given as 'flat earth' examples are simply poetic language and are not scientific statements. Even today (in our scientific age) people refer to "sunrise" and "sunset" (even though we know that the sun doesn't literally go up and down). And it would be hard to read a love poem without hearing that someone would go to the "ends of earth" for someone they love.

Yet some Bible critics seem to exist in a world without the usual figures of speech. The fact is that the Bible is full of poetic figures of speech (employing various linguistic tools such as similes, idioms, etc.) Let's examine these supposed 'flat earth' Scriptural examples (Mt. 4:8; Dan. 4:11; Rev. 7:1; Job 38:12-13 and Isa. 11:12) and see that they are obviously just poetic language and/or visions and were not to have been meant to be taken literally.

Matthew 4:8

The Bible often refers to people being "shown" things in a vision. Matthew 4:8 is such an instance where Jesus is "shown" all the kingdoms of the world. Now even if the Bible was extolling that the earth was flat here, it would still be physically impossible with the human eye to see nations and kingdoms literally thousands of miles away. In order to "see" China or the Incas in what came to be known as South America from a desert in Palestine Jesus would still have to have been given a vision. So since we are talking about a "vision", why would one aspect of it have to be considered literal?

Daniel 4:11

Another vision that is clearly symbolic is found at Daniel 4:11:

"The tree grew up and became strong, and its very height finally reached the heavens, and it was visible to the extremity of the whole earth."

Can a literal tree really "reach the heavens"? Again, even if the Bible was hinting that the earth was flat here, it would still be physically impossible for the human eye to see this tree "to the extremity of the whole earth." And again, since we are talking about a "vision", why would one aspect of it have to be considered literal?

Revelation 7:1

"After this I saw four angels standing upon the four corners of the Earth, holding tight the four winds of the Earth, that no wind might blow upon the Earth or upon the sea or upon any tree." (NWT)
This verse is another vision in a book filled with symbolism. Revelation 7:1 refers to angels standing at the “four corners” of the earth and is obviously a symbolic reference to the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. This expression cannot be taken to prove that the Hebrews understood the earth to be square. The number four is often used to denote that which is fully rounded out, as it were, just as we have four directions and sometimes employ the expressions “to the ends of the earth,” “to the four corners of the earth,” in the sense of embracing all the earth. (Compare Ezek. 1:15-17 and Luke 13:29.)

Job 38:12-13

"...take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it"

Clearly Job is using poetic language to portray the image of a cloth being "shaken" of debris or some other unwanted element. In this symbolic sense, "edges" mean extremities; the point being that no part of the "cloth" escapes being shaken. Even today we have singers that will go to the "ends of the earth" for their love. Few people have a problem understanding that they mean that they would travel as far as possible to prove their love.

Isaiah 11:12
"He [God] will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth."
Does this verse try to literally convey the idea that the earth is square? No. The Hebrews had words to convey the idea of an angle or a geometric corner such as ziovyoh and paioh/krnouth. But the word used here is kanaph which conveys the idea of extremity. Clearly, Isaiah 11:12 is figuratively referring to the four cardinal points (language not uncommon today). This verse clearly is speaking about gathering people from the furthest point in every direction.

Recommended Related Articles:

What Is the Shape of the Earth? (ip-1 chap. 30 pp. 398-415; Watchtower Online Library)

Shape of Planet Earth (rs p. 58-p. 68; Watchtower Online Library)

Reasons to Trust the Bible - #4 Scientific Accuracy (g 11/07 p. 8; Watchtower Online Library)

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