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Sunday Bible verse

November 20, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

There’s a silly anti-evolution letter in the paper today. Rather than take it apart, I want to look at a Bible verse he quotes at the end:

Religion does not change, and it shouldn’t. When scientists were teaching that the world was flat, the Bible was telling us, “He is seated on His throne above the sphere of the earth.”

This is very interesting to someone who often sees atheists claiming the Bible teaches a flat Earth. This would seem to throw that right out the window. So, where does this verse come from? Isaiah 40:22. Sort of. You see, no one actually translates that verse with the word “sphere.” It’s actually “circle.” Apologists claim that it literally means “sphere.” Does it actually mean that? Not according to this article, found on the ASA’s (a Christian science organization) site:

The critical line in Hebrew reads (transliterated and omitting vowels): hyshb ‘l hwg h’rtz, which my colleague Dr. Robert Suder translates: “the one dwelling on the circle/horizon of the land.”14 A survey of Hebrew lexica and theological wordbooks15 yields much information about the key word hwg (chûgh).16 According to K. Seybold, its root appears six times in biblical Hebrew, and it is clear from its usage in context that it has a specifically geometrical meaning, that is, “a circle, as drawn with compasses.” In Job 26:10 and Prov. 8:27, chûgh is used with choq, meaning “to inscribe a circle.”17 This nominal infinitive form also appears in Job 22:14, where it denotes “the circle of the heavens” (shamayim), and in Isa. 40:22a, where it denotes “the circle of the earth” (haarets). Sir. 43:1218 uses chûgh in describing the rainbow. Finally, in Isa. 44:13, mechûghah, a hapax legomena (a form used only once), means “a compass,” i.e., that simple instrument people my age used to draw circles in high school geometry class.19

All but one of these contexts are cosmological, and in fact four of the five uses of chûgh occur in creation hymns. Isa. 40:22a describes God as sitting/ dwelling above “the circle of the earth” which God laid out–with a compass, as Job 26:10 and Prov. 8:27 suggest, for the latter verses describe the act of inscribing the circle that fixes the boundary between the earth and the deep, the circle that also marks the boundary between light and darkness.20 The context also suggests that in Isa. 40:22a, the earth (‘erets) which is encircled refers not to the earth as that part of the creation distinct from the heavens (Gen. 1:1)–as the creationists cited above seem to interpret it–but to other meanings of earth: as “the dry land” (Gen. 1:9-10), and at the same time, it appears, as “the ground on which people and things stand,” for “its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.”21

He goes on to point out that in the LXX the verse wasn’t translated using the Greek word for sphere.

So then, it certainly seems flat to me. Other verses imply a flat Earth as well. Some of them can be found here.

But what of the first part of Sherlock’s statement? Does that verse date to times before people believed in a spherical Earth? It’s not actually clear. Isaiah 40 dates from somewhere between the sixth and second century BCE. This site has a chronology of flat and spherical Earth beliefs. It appears that the first person to believe in a spherical Earth was Pythagoras in 500 BCE. By the middle of the second century, it appears to be fairly common. In the middle of that time period, we have Aristotle arguing for a spherical Earth. So we certainly have some scientists arguing for a spherical Earth in what as best we can figure is the period of Isaiah’s compilation.

This is all fairly pointless, really. I don’t view the Bible’s flat Earth verses as important except in the context of refuting literalism. But it’s fairly obvious that claiming the Bible is scientifically accurate is ridiculous.

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