Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Bible endorses a Flat Earth

Of course creationists argue all of the time that they can’t accept the Big Bang and biological evolution because to do so would mean that they are allowing science to influence their interpretation of “God’s Word”. They contend that ‘TRUTH’ (upper case) is unchanging. That’s why they trust the Bible; its message has not changed. It tends to bother creationists quite a bit when it is pointed out that they are already allowing science to influence their interpretation of the Bible.

The Old Testament (OT) portion of the Bible contains the accounts of the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah as well as some other things that can be disputed by science (such as Joshua 10 which describes the sun stopping in the sky). The OT was written during what is called the “Bronze Age” (from about 3500 BCE to 1200 BCE). The view of the Earth and the Universe depicted in the Bible is the view commonly held at that time. It is quite a bit different from what we believe now.

For example, the Bible teaches the earth is flat. All standard Bible references, all standard mainstream non-fundamentalist Bible scholarship acknowledges this.

"Hebrew cosmology pictured a flat earth, over which was a dome-shaped firmament, supported above the earth by mountains, and surrounded by waters. Holes or sluices (windows, Gen 7.11) allowed the water to fall as rain. The firmament was the heaven in which God set the sun (Ps 19.4) and the stars (Gen 1.14) on the fourth day of the creation. There was more water under the earth (Gen 1.7) and during the Flood the two great oceans joined up and covered the earth; sheol was at the bottom of the earth (Isa 14.9; Num 16.30.” (136)

— Browning. WRF Dictionary of the Bible. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Similar summaries can be found in these sources:

Achtemeier, Paul J (Ed). The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996)

Stadelmann, Luis I.J. The Hebrew Conception of the World – A Philological and Literary Study, p126. (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970)

Stuhlmueller, Carroll. The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p234. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996)

Of course none of this is accurate. How do we know? Science has told us! Space flight wouldn’t be possible if the Earth was “designed” like this. I doubt that anyone alive in the 21st century shares this view of the Earth’s construction.

The claim that the Bible confirms a flat Earth can be found in multiple passages from the Bible. First, let’s look at Daniel 4:10-11. These words are spoken by a king.

“[10]These are the visions I saw while lying in my bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. [11] The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth.”

Only if the Earth is flat is it possible for anything, regardless of how tall it is, to be seen to the “ends of the Earth”. This is simply not possible on a spherical Earth. Clearly the picture below represents the view of the shape of the Earth held by of the author of this passage in the Bible.

Next we read this in Matthew 4:8.

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.”

As in Daniel, “all the kingdoms” cannot be seen anywhere on a Flat Earth.

Finally, Revelation 1:7 has a similar passage with the same sort of problem:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…”

Creationists are well aware that the Earth is not flat. So they will reconcile these passages with their understanding of science in many ways.

One creationist that I debated claimed that the passage from Matthew referred to a dream, though there is nothing in the context of that quote that would make that claim reasonable. Of course, that still leaves the other passages to explain.

Another clever creationist said that the word “Earth” refers, in the original Hebrew, to mean dry land. Therefore it was only required to see to the edge of the oceans. Of course, the Middle East is on a part of “dry land” that extends through Siberia. Nearly half of the Earth’s curvature needs explaining in that case.

A Christian apologetics web page even makes this argument:

“This verse in Matthew by no means implies a flat earth, nor a monstrous mountain large enough to oversee the earth. Indeed, I have always thought that the trip to the mountain was a cheap psychological ploy by Satan -- indeed, given what we know of the honor and shame dialectic of that social world, it fits as the premise of an ‘honor challenge’ by placing Jesus in a pre-eminent position -- and that the showing of the kingdoms was accomplished by means of projecting images of some sort, as on a computer screen![1]

It makes you wonder if Satan had access to the PowerPoint program! There’s probably some Microsoft joke that could be inserted here.

Creationists become apoplectic if told that they are adjusting their interpretation of the Bible based on their understanding of science. So they argue that the Bible does not promote a Flat Earth. Probably the most common argument that people make against the Bible endorsing a Flat Earth comes from the book of Isaiah. Specifically in Isaiah 40:22 we read this:

“He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth…”

They proudly point to the word “circle” in this passage and say something like: “See! I told you so”.

That argument fails for multiple reasons.

First, if the Bible says that the Earth is flat on one place but says that it has a different shape somewhere else, that merely points to a contradiction! It doesn’t necessarily mean that the passage indicating that the Earth is flat indicates something different.

Second, the word “circle” is not necessarily synonymous with the word “sphere”. A dish plate is shaped like a “circle” but does not have the same shape as the Earth.

There is, I’ve been told, no Hebrew word that translates directly into “sphere”. There are ways of determining the intended usage of this word.

The passage under discussion here - Isaiah 40:22 – uses the Hebrew word “chuwg” which, indeed, does mean circle. But it also means “compass” which implies a flat circle.

There is another Hebrew word however that is often used to represent a spherical shape. That word is “duwr” which also means “ball”. Balls surely are shaped like spheres. Moreover the author of Isaiah is familiar with that word. Here is Isaiah 22:18 – “He will roll you up tightly like a ball” – the word “ball” is “duwr” in the original Hebrew. So the author of Isaiah was familiar with the mot commonly used word for sphere. Why didn’t he use that word in Isaiah 40?

Finally, note the phrase “God sits above the circle…” The word “above” implies a top and a bottom. People talk about sitting above a convention floor or a football field. Those are flat things. Spheres don’t have a top or a bottom. If anything, the phrasing of this passage implies a Frisbee shape rather than a spherical shape.

The most likely explanation is that the author of Isaiah felt that the Earth was indeed shaped like a plate or a Frisbee. So despite all of the arm-waving arguments that creationists like to make about the Bible’s view of the shape of the Earth, it seems evident that the authors of the Bible shared the common view of the Earth’s shape held during the Bronze Age – they believed that it was flat!

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