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Isaiah 40:22 and the shape of the earth

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Published: 11 August 2016 (GMT+10)

The first line of Isaiah 40:22 reads, “It is he [i.e. God] who sits above the circle of the earth.” Some have argued from this that Scripture teaches the earth to be a flat disc, rather than a globe. However, even if the original Hebrew is correctly understood to refer to a circle, this doesn’t necessarily indicate something flat; a sphere appears as a circle when seen from above—and indeed from whatever direction it is viewed. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the word translated ‘circle’ might be better translated ‘sphere’.

The Hebrew word in question is khûg (חוּג) which is also found in Proverbs 8:27 where, in many Bible versions, it is translated ‘vault’. For example, the New American Standard Bible reads, “Clouds are a hiding place for Him, so that He cannot see; and He walks on the vault of heaven.” Clearly ‘vault’ carries the sense of something three-dimensional and is given as the primary meaning of khûg in the well-known Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon.1 In modern Hebrew, a sphere is denoted by khûg, along with kaddur, galgal, and mazzal.2 In Arabic (another Semitic language), kura means ball and is the word used in the Van Dyck-Boustani Arabic Bible (1865) to translate khûg in Isaiah 40:22.

A case can also be made from modern European terms denoting sphericity. Philologists have discovered a number of Indo-European words that appear to be related to Semitic words, whether of shared origin or having been borrowed in the distant past.3 While there is no specific evidence confirming a link in the case of the Hebrew word khûg, it may be significant that, in Indo-European languages, there are similar-sounding words that definitely refer to a spherical object, examples being kugel (Middle High German), kula (Polish), kugla (Serbo-Croatian) and gugā (their Proto-Indo-European root).4,5,6

wikimedia.org bible
Hebrew-Latin polygot Bible edited by Benedictus Arias Montanus and first printed in 1528. This uses the Latin word globus to translate the Hebrew word khûg in Isaiah 40:22. 

Various sixteenth century Latin Bibles indicate that medieval scholars understood khûg in Isaiah 40:22 to refer to the sphericity of the earth. For example, Santes Pagnino translated this sphaera, and Benedictus Arias Montanus and François Vatable globus. The seventeenth century Giovanni Diodati Bible also used globus and the eighteenth century Dutch Hebraist Campeius Vitringa used orbis.7 More recently, the Spanish Jerusalem Bible used ‘orb’ and the Italian Riveduta Bible ‘globo’.

Conclusion

While most modern Bible versions translate khûg as ‘circle’, a good case can be made that ‘sphere’ was the sense intended by the original Hebrew. Historically, scholars have often taken this view, preferring the Latin words sphaera, globus and orbis. The recent preference for ‘circle’ may have arisen from the belief that people living in Isaiah’s time were too primitive to realise the true nature of the earth. This would seem unlikely, however, as Job 26:7, probably written several centuries before, states that God “hangs the earth on nothing,” indicating that the ancient Hebrews had quite a sophisticated understanding of cosmology.

Everyone is in agreement that khûg carries the sense of roundness, and common usage makes clear that this can refer to either a two or three dimensional geometry. Hence, it cannot be argued that Isaiah 40:22 clearly teaches the earth to be a disc. Moreover, even if khûg does refer to a circle here, this doesn’t necessarily indicate flatness as a globe appears as a circle from whatever direction it is viewed.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Brown, F. et al., Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic, Hendrikson Publishers, USA, p. 295, reprinted January 1999 from the 1906 edition; biblehub.com/hebrew/2329.htm. Return to text.
  2. Ben-Yehuda, E. and Ben-Yehuda, D, Hebrew Dictionary, Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster), USA, p. 252, 1961. Return to text.
  3. Levin, S., Semitic and Indo-European: The Principal Etymologies, vol. 1, John Benjamins, USA, 1995. Return to text.
  4. Buck, C.D., A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 907–8, 1949. Return to text.
  5. López-Menchero, F., Proto-Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, indo-european.info/indo-european-lexicon.pdf, 2012. Return to text.
  6. Proto-Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, Asociación Cultural Dnghu; dnghu.org. Return to text.
  7. John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, footnote to Isaiah 40:22; biblestudytools.com. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
John Z., Canada, 15 August 2016

Excellent article; it cleared up a small but significant problem for me. Ironic that the modern translation versions use the term circle rather than sphere.

Michael B., United States, 13 August 2016

Job 26:7-10

He stretches out the north over empty space;

He hangs the earth on nothing.

He binds up the water in His thick clouds,

Yet the clouds are not broken under it.

He covers the face of His throne,

And spreads His cloud over it.

He drew a circular horizon on the face of the waters,

At the boundary of light and darkness.

I have these verses and an image of earth from space as my "wall paper" on my PC. In the image it clearly shows the region where day meets night and it draws a circle on the waters as this boundary encircles the earth.... all of which is hanging on nothing.

Harold R., Australia, 12 August 2016

The recent resurrection of a flat earth belief is very strange, it's hard for me to believe that it's not a weird joke, but some on the internet seem serious about it. But today it is a very simple thing to test. If Oleg calls or Skypes me in Australia from the Ukraine at the 12 midday, I could show him that its is currently 10 pm and outside it is dark and night time. The sun is on the other side of the Earth.

For anyone who thinks people in bible time thought the Earth flat, try google ‘Eratosthenes’ the greek mathematician who first accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth around 240 BC.

And thank you for the article which answered my own questions around the translation of the word khug. Very informative.

Editors responds

Yes, as a multinational ministry, different offices have this problem when trying to set up phone or Skype meetings with each other. For example, it’s evening in the USA when it’s morning in Australia.

Also, to demonstrate curvature in the vertical direction, we challenge Oleg to try to see the Southern Cross. We doubt that he could, even with the most powerful telescope. But our Australian, New Zealand, and South African colleagues manage just fine. However, they just can’t see the North Star no matter how far north they look.

Terry D P., Australia, 11 August 2016

Even the ancient Greeks used geometry to measure the radius of the circle of the earth quite accurately.

Craig B., South Africa, 11 August 2016

I would like CMI to do a REAL study on this. I have spent the last year at least researching this topic and I have un-subscribed to your publications due to your brushing off of this topic. The reason you have brushed this off is because if the earth is NOT in a heliocentric system then a large portion of what you teach will be wrong!

Be honest and consider you will stand before Yahweh being answerable for what you taught as biblical truth.

Many of your articles and writer put serious effort and research into topics but you brush this off with lite-research like this article.

My challenge to you and our family's subscription and willingness to buy your productions hangs in the balance, let alone your answerability.

Dominic Statham responds

I would like to assure you that we do take these issues seriously, as can be seen from the other articles which are listed just before the references section.

I am more than willing to listen to others when they present an argument from the Bible and have, as a result, often stood apart from the crowd. However, I do not find the Scriptural arguments for a flat earth and geocentrism at all convincing. Moreover, to me, the science pointing to a spherical earth and heliocentrism are unanswerable.

As Christians, we are called to be fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:10) and to seek the praise of God over that of men (John 12:43). However, we are not called to be fools per se. When Christians argue for a flat earth/geocentrism this will just be used by our enemies to discredit the Bible and the Christian faith.

Phil K., United States, 11 August 2016

The only reason skeptics want to interpret the word circle as "disc" is to reinforce their belief that religion is responsible for the flat earth paradigm. This satisfies their "religion vs. science" dogma.

Eddie C., United States, 11 August 2016

I want to personally thank you for this article. It prompted me to look for more articles on creation.com and I found "The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism". This subject is especially important to me because I have a very close relative who has recently accepted the flat earth to be true and scriptural. I have tried to convince him that propagation of the flat earth story is a sort of psychological attack against the authority of the Bible.

Youtube is filled with flat-earth videos all of which purport to have evidence supporting this view. Some are aerial pictures from weather balloons showing a flat horizon, some are of a cityscape that should not be visible from a certain distance. It actually seems like there are a lot of people that are being drawn into this. The most significant danger is that when they believe the earth is flat, nearly everything has to become a conspiracy. You have to believe the entirety of modern astronomy to be completely made up. You also have to believe that hundreds of thousands of people are in on the cover up. This includes many Christians and creationist such as Col. Jeff William who I believe is currently aboard the International Space Station, which flat-earthers must believe is a fake. It really is a very lonely belief and can lead to a very paranoid outlook in life.

I applaud CMI, ICR, and AiG for actively refuting the flat earth position and proving it not to be based on any serious reading of scripture.

Geoff C. W., Australia, 11 August 2016

If "people living in Isaiah’s time were too primitive to realise the true nature of the earth", so much the better. It would underline the fact that the Scriptures are inspired as God stated that the earth is a sphere (or these days at least, an oblate spheroid - just showing off - need to work on my humility a bit).

Oleg D., Ukraine, 10 August 2016

It's a paid article. Isaiah 22:18 used word “ball”, what is דּוּר (dûr). If Hebrews didn't saw any difference between ball and circle, they would use same word. But they don’t.

Just look at the horizon. See any curves?

The editor responds

Words can have semantic overlap and a simple word study demonstrates this here. The same word דּוּר (dûr) is even used in the same grammatical context, i.e. כַּדּ֕וּר kaddûr in Isaiah 29:3—“And I will encamp against you all around.” Are we to understand that the army besieging Jerusalem formed a dome over the city?

We note, too, that in Latin, we have orbis, sphaera and globus all with basically the same meaning.

When ships disappear over the horizon, we lose sight of the hull first then the mast. In ancient times, before telescopes were invented, the same effect could be observed by sailors coming into land and seeing the hills before the beaches. This is because the earth is spherical. See also Dr Jonathan Sarfati's article, The flat earth myth.

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