Re: Does the Bible teach a flat earth?

From: Peter Ruest (
Date: Sun Dec 22 2002 - 01:06:35 EST

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    Paul Seely wrote:
    > Peter wrote,
    > <<The verb "chug" is used in Job 26:10 for "marking (a
    > circle?)", "He (God) marks out bounds on the face of the waters for a
    > boundary between light and darkness" (and the only way a circular
    > "boundary between light and darkness" "on the face of the waters" can be
    > understood is to have a spherical earth, not a flat one!)>>
    > The ancients with their belief in a flat earth had no problem making the
    > horizon, which is a circular, the boundary between light and darkness. The
    > sun simply comes up over the horizon to give light, and goes back down below
    > the horizon to give darkness, going from west to east beneath the earth at
    > night to come up again in the morning. As it is written, Ecclesiastes 1:5
    > "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth
    > down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth."

    I don't claim to know exactly what the ancients believed. All I'm saying
    is that the Hebrew language (as others also) is flexible enough to often
    accommodate different interpretations.

    Above, I just pointed out one of the conceptual difficulties with the
    flat-earth interpretation. Either the horizon forms the "edge" of a
    flat-earth ocean, as the "boundary between light and darkness", but then
    it cannot lie "on the face" (i.e. the upper, visible surface) of this
    ocean. Or the horizon lies "on the face" of the ocean, but then it
    cannot form that "boundary". And, strictly speaking, if the light is
    emanating from the sun, and the sun arises and sets _beyond_ the
    flat-earth ocean's edge, it illuminates either the upper or the lower
    aspect of the ocean, together with that edge, which then cannot properly
    be called the boundary between light and darkness. Not to speak of the
    problems of ships or fish falling off the edge...

    As for Eccl. 1:5, this is evidently a poetical and phenomenological
    formulation. In everyday speech, we moderns use similar formulations,
    although we know the "correct" geometry. You can't draw any cosmological
    conclusions from this. By itself, the formulation of Eccl. 1:5 is
    completely uncommitted to any particular shape of the earth. Or are
    moderns who talk of sunrise and sunset flat-earthers?

    > << And Job 26:7 says, "He spreads out the northern [skies] over empty space;
    > he
    > suspends the earth over nothing" (NIV), or "spreading-out north over
    > empty-space suspending earth over not what" (Kohlenberger Interlinear).
    > How one is to fit this into a three-storey cosmology eludes me, whatever
    > the precise meaning of the mysterious terms used. >>
    > The verse is not as clear as it could be; but, it is quite compatible with a
    > flat earth. The flat earth was understood to be "founded" upon the sea Psa
    > 24:2. This raised the question which was also raised in other societies that
    > believed a flat earth was floating on the sea, How can the earth stay on top
    > of the water? that is, why doesn't it sink? Some societies answered the
    > question by saying a turtle or fish were under the earth supporting it.
    > Others said it was suspended by ropes or a cable which came down from the
    > solid sky. It is not clear which view Job is rejecting, but his answer is
    > that nothing supports it, whether from above or below. It is kept from
    > sinking solely by God's power.

    This just shows that the flat earth floating on the ocean is not without
    its conceptual problems, even for the ancients. The view(s) Job was
    opposing came from outside the biblical realm. Therefore we can't
    conclude that the biblical writers had the same question of how the
    earth could stay where it is without any material support. I am not
    arguing for any views of other societies. All I'm claiming is that Job's
    formulation is even more compatible with the modern view which also
    knows of no material support (such as turtles or ropes). But whatever
    Job's views were about the shape of the earth, his words, in themselves,
    certainly don't _require_ a flat earth.

    > This is not a novel interpretation of the
    > verse. It is found in the ancient Targum to Job, which reads, "He erects the
    > earth over the waters without anything to support it." This same
    > understanding is found in the Fourth Book of Ezra or II Esdras *(Latin
    > ending) 16:58 which reads, "He has confined the sea in the midst of the
    > waters and by his word he has suspended the earth over the water."
    > [See The Targum of Job, The Targum of Proverbs, The Targum of Qohelet
    > (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991) 62; Cf. N. H. Tur-Sinai, The
    > Book of Job (Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1967) 381; II Enoch 47:5 as
    > translated by F. I. Andersen in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha I (Garden
    > City: Doubleday, 1983) 174; Cf. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews 1
    > (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968) 59

    As I am arguing for an influence of divine inspiration on the choice of
    formulations used by the biblical writers, I don't particularly care
    about extrabiblical opinions, which were not divinely inspired. And all
    of these sources are late, perhaps even very much later than Job,
    raising the possibility that they imposed on Job their own particular
    views, without much relevance for a meaningful interpretation of this

    > <<Nor can we validly claim they believed it to be flat. And even if they
    > did, the biblical texts they wrote don't require a flat-earth
    > interpretation.>>
    > How then can a sphere be "founded" upon the seas (Psalm 24:2)? The Hebrew
    > word "to found" (yasad) which is used in Ps 24:2 means to lay down a
    > foundational base for a building or wall (I Kgs 5:17 [31]; 7:10; 16:34; Ezra
    > 3:10-12) or to set something upon a foundational base (Cant 5:15; Ps 104:5).
    > In either case the object founded sets directly upon the object upon which it
    > is founded. It is easy to see the ancient Near Eastern view of a flat earth
    > founded on the sea in Psalm 24:2. I think a flat earth _is_ required. I do
    > not see how a spherical earth can be said to be setting directly upon the sea
    > as a foundation.

    I agree that "yasad" usually means "to found" (otherwise "establish",
    "ordain", etc.). In 11 of 43 occurrences, it is said that _the earth_
    was "founded", and always in a poetical context, where too dogmatic an
    interpretation is often questionable. Ps. 24:2 is the only case where
    the earth is said to be founded upon the seas. In Ps. 104:5, it is said
    to be founded on an apparently solid base, not an ocean. But usually, no
    specific foundation is mentioned. Apart from Ps. 24:2, the central
    thread seems to be the sure establishment of the earth for human
    habitation by the Lord, without any specific cosmological implications.

    But how about Ps. 24:2? Do we have to conclude from this exceptional
    description that the earth was conceived as lying on top of the sea? A
    passage from David's psalm of thanksgiving (just as poetical as Ps. 24),
    2 Sam. 22:16, gives an interesting alternative: "The valleys of the sea
    were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at the rebuke of
    the Lord, at the blast of breath from his nostrils" (NIV). In this
    description, the waters of the sea are removed, as if they were blasted
    away by a tremendous storm, so that the "foundations of the earth"
    _below_ the sea can be seen, the valleys on the sea floor. Here, the
    foundations of the earth are solid and different from the sea, so that
    the earth is _not_ conceived as lying on the sea. Which of these two
    images represents the "cosmology of the Bible"? I think none of them -
    both are poetical pictures saying nothing about the shape of the earth.
    There is no "cosmology of the Bible", apart from incidental descriptions
    of reality, usually in anthropomorphic form, so that everybody
    understands it. By the way, the word "yam" ("sea") is not only used for
    the ocean, but also for lakes like the "Sea of Chinnereth" (Gennesaret)
    and the "Sea of Reeds" (through which the Israelites marched), the Dead
    Sea, the designation "west" (and even "south"), and the bronze "molten
    sea" in front of the Temple.

    Of course, a spherical earth need not be supported by a sea, because
    there is no sea "unterneath". At whatever time a person accepted a
    spherical earth, he would no longer think of it being supported by the
    sea (cf. Job 26:7)! I think saying "a flat earth _is_ required" is
    overstating one's case.

    > <<Does the Bible teach a flat earth, as your argumentation suggests, or
    > does it teach a spherical earth? I think it does neither. But what _is_
    > formulated in the Bible is _at least_ as easily harmonized (compatible)
    > with the latter view as with the former. But this fact is often swamped
    > by the penetrance of the falsely so-called "assured results" of the
    > historical-critical method.>.
    > The understanding of earth in the OT as flat is derived as it should be from
    > the grammar and the biblical and historical context. A flat earth fits
    > various passages in the OT like a hand to a glove. Not because the Bible
    > teaches a flat earth, but because God has accommodated his revelation to the
    > science of the times. The reason some reject this is because they have an
    > ultimate commitment to a particular view of inspiration which simply will not
    > allow the Bible to say such things.
    > Paul

    How about turning this around? "The reason some reject this
    [harmonization] is because they have an ultimate commitment to a
    particular view of inspiration which simply will not allow the Bible to
    say such things". As I already wrote to Bob Schneider, I have a
    different concept of accommodation, which I think is more flexible.


    Dr. Peter Ruest, CH-3148 Lanzenhaeusern, Switzerland
    <> - Biochemistry - Creation and evolution
    "..the work which God created to evolve it" (Genesis 2:3)

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