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"The Circle of the Earth"
Translation and Meaning in Isaiah 40:22

Dennis Bratcher

Isaiah 40:22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;

Some people, for various reasons, take "the circle of the earth" in Isaiah 44:22 to be a reference to a spherical earth. This would mean that the ancient Israelites of the eighth century BC knew that the earth was spherical and not flat. This perspective shows up in arguments from both Young Earth Creationists -1- and from those wanting to argue an absolutely literal reading of the biblical text, usually to support the idea that God revealed modern scientific facts and data to the ancient Israelites.

Engaging those perspectives might prove helpful to many Christians trying to take seriously both the scientific world in which they live and the perspectives of Scripture that come from a world three to two millennia in the past. However before we can begin to engage that discussion, we must come to terms with what the Bible actually says and means, especially within the context of Ancient Near Eastern culture.

It is important at least to consider and try to understand what the Bible says on the level of language and meaning before one jumps to taking single words out of a context to make an apologetic case for a notion or a doctrine. Simply working from a favorite translation that uses certain English words to which we then apply meaning in relation to our modern perspectives, knowledge, and world-view (how we understand the physical world to work) is not good enough. We must try to hear the Biblical text against the background, the literary, cultural and historical milieus, from which it was written.

The Hebrew word that is used in Isaiah 44:22 (חוּג, chug) does not at all imply a spherical earth. The root word only occurs in the Hebrew Bible once as a verb (Job 26:10). In nominal forms, the same root occurs four times, three as the noun חוּג (chug; Job 22:14, Prov 8:27, Isa 40:22), and once as the noun מְחוּגׇה (mechugah; Isa 44:13). This term refers to a "circle instrument," a device used to make a circle, what we call a compass.

Isaiah 44:13 refers to this "circle instrument."

Isa 44:13 The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. [NIV]

The verbal form of the word basically means "to make a circle" or "to scribe a circle."

Job 26:10 He has described a circle on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness. [NRSV]

Most modern translators agree that this "scribing a circle" in relation to the world refers to the horizon of the earth.

NIV: He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.

NLT: He created the horizon when he separated the waters; he set the boundary between day and night.

GWT: He marks the horizon on the surface of the water at the boundary where light meets dark.

Ancient people were very good at observing the physical properties of the earth without necessarily understanding how all of those properties worked. The horizon of the earth is easily seen from any high vantage point or open area as an encompassing circle. This led ancient peoples to describe this "circle" or the horizon as the "edge" or "end" of the earth (Deut 13:7, 1 Sam 2:10, Job 28:24, Psa 48:10, etc.).

The poetic hymn of Proverbs 30:4 uses this "ends of the earth" language to say much the same thing that Isaiah 44:13 says by "circle of the earth" and that Job 26 expresses by saying "he scribed a circle on the face of the waters."

Prov 30:4 Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is the person's name? And what is the name of the person's child? Surely you know!

The other uses of the same Hebrew root reveal a similar meaning.

Job 22:14 Thick clouds enwrap him, so that he does not see, and he walks on the dome of heaven.

Ancient people of 2,000 or 1,000 BC did not have modern scientific knowledge. Yet they developed perceptions of the physical world based on observations. It was certainly not scientific but practical, based on what they could observe simply by looking at the earth and sky.

People of the Ancient Near East, as well as ancient Hebrews and Israelites, conceptualized the world as a large, flat, circular disk anchored in water below (the deep, Prov 8:27, Gen 1:2, 49:25, etc.) by pillars or foundations (1 Sam 2:8, Prov 8:29, etc.). Between the earth and this deep was Sheol, the place of the dead. -2- The earth was covered by a "firmament," conceived as a large solid upside down bowl or "dome" (Job 22:14, 37:18), in which the stars were placed (Gen 1:14-20). Above the dome was also water, which was the source of rain.

Gen 1:7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome.

The dome had "doors" and "windows" to let the waters above fall to the earth (Gen 7:11, Isa 24:18, Mal 3:10, etc.). God was described as ruling the world from his throne above the dome (Psa 33, Psa 113:4-6, Matt 5:34, etc.).

These references are not just isolated anomalies amidst an otherwise scientific grasp of the world. These conceptions are pervasive throughout the biblical narratives, not only in describing the physical world, but extended into metaphorical applications relating to other topics or even simply as ways to talk about the world and God. For example, creation hymns (Psa 33, 104, Hab 3, etc.) evoke these images as a form of praise. Or in the Babel story God must "come down" to see the puny work of humanity (Gen 11:5).

While there are many graphic depictions of ancient cosmology, we need to keep in mind that this was not a pictorial conception, but a functional and descriptive one. It is we in the modern world who tend to want visual imagery and reduce ideas to graphics and charts. Yet for ancient people this was simply a way of expressing what they saw about the operation of the physical world.

Also, we should not conclude that this way of talking about the physical world is what the Bible teaches as a reality, something in which we must believe in order to believe Scripture. Instead, this is the way ancient people talked about their experience of the world in the absence of any scientific knowledge about the processes at work in the world. Certainly we would describe the world today in much different terms. But then we live 3,000 years later in human history with much more knowledge about the physical world, and a different conceptual model and different vocabulary with which to describe the world.

We certainly affirm that Scripture is fully inspired by God (plenary inspiration; see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture). Yet what is interesting is that even with inspiration, God allowed these ancient ways of looking at the world to stand without correction. In other words, God did not reveal modern scientific knowledge to the ancient Israelites, or correct their ancient views of the way the world works. He let them express marvelous truths about God in the language and culture in which they lived. That incarnational dimension of Scripture is crucial for us to understand if we are to hear adequately the important confessions about God and humanity that Scripture expresses.

The poetic Ode to Wisdom in Proverbs certainly seems to confirm this ancient view of the world.

Prov 8:27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 8:28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 8:29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth . .

This supports the idea of the earth as a flat disk with foundational pillars to allow it to "float" on the great deep below the earth. It is a good depiction of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, which the Israelites shared.

So, the "circle" of Isaiah 40:22 refers to the horizon of the earth, which is very obviously perceived as a circle since it can be seen in 360 from most anywhere on earth. In Ancient Near Eastern conceptions, this circle would refer to the flat earth disk, not to a sphere.

Notes

1. Young Earth Creationism is the belief that the earth is only between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. There are several versions, but are usually based on a very literalist reading of the Genesis narratives, including the idea that all of creation occurred within the span of six 24-hour days. [Return]

2. Sheol was not a "place" as much as it was a way to talk about death and burial. While graves and tombs were certainly physical places, Sheol was a way to talk concretely about the abstraction of death. See Sheol, Hell, and the Dead  [Return]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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