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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 Job 22:14 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.orgbible
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.

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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