Does the Bible Teach a Flat Earth?
[Editor’s Note: AP auxiliary writer Dr. Rogers serves as an Associate Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He holds an M.A. in New Testament from FHU as well as an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Hebraic, Judaic, and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.]
Earlier this year, basketball star Kyrie Irving drew headlines for advocating a flat Earth.1 The sports media lampooned Irving for several days until he finally admitted he was wrong.2 While Irving initially defended the “science” behind his claim, many others defend the flat Earth position because of what they read in the Bible. But what does the Bible really say about the shape of the Earth? For those with a high view of Scripture, the Bible stands as an unquestioned authority. If the Bible teaches the Earth is flat, then we must believe it, regardless of what pseudoscience says. Indeed, a number of theorists insist a spherical Earth is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Are they correct?
Respect the Genre
Flat-Earth theorists marshal a number of biblical passages to defend their assertion (e.g., Joshua 10:12-13; 1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalm 93:1; 96:10; 104:5). One notices instantly that almost every passage cited in favor of the flat-Earth position occurs in a poetic context.3 To be responsible readers of the Bible, we must respect the genre of literature we are reading. Poetry is to be read differently than prose; it is more expressive, emotional, and metaphorical. In fact, taking biblical poetry literally would, in some cases, pervert clear scriptural teaching elsewhere, leading to the belief that there are many gods instead of one God (Exodus 15:11; Psalm 86:8), that humans are really gods (Psalm 82:6), that thunder is the voice of God (2 Samuel 22:14), that God slays sea monsters (Psalm 74:12-14), and that God has wings (Psalm 61:4). Obviously, these passages cannot be understood for what they literally say. So, a common-sense understanding of how poetry functions prevents us from making erroneous interpretive deductions. To insist that metaphorical language must be interpreted literally is to contradict the original authorial intent.
Respect the Audience
In addition to respecting the author’s intent, we must also respect the audience’s understanding. We often hear cosmic complexities expressed in phenomenological language. In other words, the world is explained as it appears on Earth, or in terms we can understand. Even today, we speak of the Sun “rising and setting,” even though virtually every fourth-grade science student knows that, scientifically, this is not the case. Thus, it should not surprise to find the Bible speaking in similar terms (Genesis 28:11; Joshua 10:13; the Hebrew idiom is the Sun “going”). We also describe rain as falling from the sky even though the truth of the water cycle is basic to any elementary ecology. So also Scripture describes rain as though it is contained in a storage compartment above the sky (Genesis 1:7; Psalm 148:4). For God to teach modern scientific astronomy and meteorology to an ancient Hebrew audience would do little good. We know God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), and He always speaks truth (Titus 1:2), but He condescends to express truths in terms humans can understand (e.g., Job 38-41). To hold the Bible’s language to modern scientific standards is a failure to appreciate the original audience of Scripture. The authors were divinely inspired, but the audience was not.
Is the Earth Flat? What the Bible Says
So how do these considerations relate to the shape of the Earth? Despite the preceding qualifications about reading and interpreting Scripture, we cannot locate a single verse in the Bible that teaches the Earth is flat. Neither in prose nor in poetry, neither by means of phenomenological language nor metaphor, do we find Scripture communicating a flat Earth. The flat-Earth theory is an interpretive deduction, usually based on poetic hyperbole. But is a flat Earth even an accurate interpretive deduction? As we will see, it is far from obvious that the Bible teaches the Earth is flat.
Isaiah 40:22: A Flat-Earth?
The golden text for a spherical Earth is Isaiah 40:22: God “sits upon the circle of the earth.” It has been long argued that a ball must be intended, for God could not possibly sit atop something flat. Of course, such a literal reading ignores the poetic context and the obvious anthropomorphism. However, flat-Earth theorists point out (correctly, we may add) that the Hebrew term for “circle” (חוג,chūg) does not necessarily refer to a sphere. Instead, they say, the term refers to a disc, thereby communicating a flat Earth. Indeed, the ancient Greek translation renders the term γῦρος (gūros), or “ring.” Further, the term “on” (על, ‘al)can also be translated “above,” without implying contact with an object (e.g., NASB, ESV). So this passage does not necessarily communicate a spherical Earth, but neither does it imply a flat Earth.
The only direct parallel to the language of Isaiah 40:22 is Job 22:14. Here God poetically “walks on the circle [חוג, chūg] of the heavens.” Most modern English translations render the term commonly translated “circle” as “vault” in this context (e.g., ASV, RSV, ESV, NIV). A vault provokes images of the Earth having a rounded top, as though a bowl. In other words, the Earth is conceived (albeit poetically) with a convex lid. Why “circle” appears in English translations of Isaiah 40:22 and “vault” in Job 22:14 is beyond my understanding, although the NKJV is consistent in both.4 The term חוג (chūg) is used in both passages, and should probably be translated identically. And a convex “vault” is probably the better option than “circle.”
Ancient Near Eastern thinkers typically conceived of the Earth as having a bowl-shape, with a solid, convex top (Job 37:18) that was covered by water (Job 26:10).5 God poetically “engraves a vault” (חק חג, chōq chāg) over the Earth, perhaps indicating the horizon, or perhaps referring to the bell-shaped vault over the top of the sky (Job 26:10; Proverbs 8:27). The point is that God separates the Earth from the store place of water (cf. Genesis 1:7), and thus carves out a channel above the sky to contain it. Again, these passages occur in poetic contexts, and it can be dangerous to impose a literal meaning on figurative language, as we have discussed. Unlike God, Job’s friends did not necessarily have a perfect scientific understanding, and are, in any case, speaking hyperbolically in Hebrew poetry. Their words simply reflect a popular expression of God’s complete sovereignty over nature. Nevertheless, one thing is sure: there is no thought of a flat Earth anywhere. The “circle of the earth” is a metaphor to be sure, but not even metaphorically is it understood as flat.
It should be noted that the Hebrew Bible does not have an equivalent for the term “sphere,” which in modern Hebrew is the loanword ספירה (sefîrāh). The word “ball” (דור, dūr) occurs in English translations in Isaiah 22:18, but it is clear from Isaiah 29:3 (the only other place the noun occurs) that it refers to a “roll” of items that have encircled a central object. A related verb form is found one other time in the Bible to describe stacked and perhaps “bound” wood (Ezekiel 24:5). In other words, the shape of such an object is beyond the scope of the term. So, the authors of the Hebrew Bible simply lacked the vocabulary to describe a perfectly round object. We cannot expect them to say what they did not have the words to communicate.
Joshua 10:12-13: The Sun Stands Still
Flat-earth theorists also cite the interruption of the Sun to “prove” their theory. The passage reports, “The sun stopped [דמם, d-m-m] and the moon stood still [עמד, ‘-m-d] until the nation avenged its enemies.... The sun stood still [עמד, ‘-m-d] in the middle of the sky and did not hurry to go about an entire day” (Joshua 10:13). Flat-earth theorists, who apparently also defend a geocentric model of the solar system, argue this passage certifies their position. They argue that, according to the standard heliocentric model, the Sun’s standing still would not interrupt the day at all. The Earth, heliocentrists argue, revolves around the Sun. In order for the Bible and the heliocentric model to be true, the Earth would need to pause its rotation on its axis in order for the Sun to appear to stop. But the Bible does not say the Earth stops; it says the Sun stops. Therefore, flat-earth theorists, adopting a geocentric model, argue the Earth must be fixed, and the Sun revolves around it.6
This reasoning violates one of the principles we have discussed: a failure to account for the audience’s understanding. Joshua was not written to Israelites in outer space. From the point of view of those on Earth, the “day” (or “daylight,” the Hebrew יום, yōm meaning both) was extended. Since a day is measured by the Sun, the Sun must have stopped its “going” (בוא, bô’). Indeed, it appeared to them that “the sun stopped in the middle of the sky.” This is a clear use of phenomenological language, and it simply means this day was unusually long. Daylight was halted miraculously so as to allow God’s forces more time to conquer their foes. This is the simplest explanation, and was virtually uncontested until recent times.7 But even if this passage is used to defend a geocentric model of the Universe (wrongly, I believe), Joshua 10:13 still has no bearing on the shape of the Earth. Flat-Earth theorists will need to look elsewhere for evidence.
The “Immovable” Passages
A number of biblical passages assert the immovability of the Earth (e.g., 1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalm 93:1; 96:10; 104:5). These are often proposed as an “obvious” rationale for the Earth being flat. But they do not bear the weight loaded upon them. None of these passages necessarily implies a flat Earth, and even if they might be cited as evidence for geocentricity, note that each of them occurs in a poetic context. If we were to hold Bible-believing flat-Earth theorists to the literal implications of these passages, they would have to insist the Earth neither orbits the Sun nor rotates on its axis. And if the Earth is fixed immovably and permanently, God could never destroy it, for its dissolution would violate its immovability (2 Peter 3:10). But, of course, these poetic passages are not intended to be taken literally.
Since each passage employs similar language and is applied for the same purpose, we shall examine just one as representative. The relevant part of Psalm 96:10 states, “The world is fixed; it cannot be moved.” Two Hebrew words in particular deserve attention. One is the word “fix” or “establish” (כון, kūn). This term does not fundamentally refer to being fixed in position, but rather to being fixed in permanence. Such can be said of David’s kingdom being “established” forever (1 Samuel 20:31; 2 Samuel 7:16; 1 Kings 2:12), or of cities that are “established” (Habakkuk 2:12). These are acts of intended permanence.
In reference to the physical world, the term is not used of the Earth alone, but of the heavenly bodies as well. The Sun, Moon, and stars “are established” by God (Psalm 8:3), as are the “heavens” (Proverbs 3:19). Does this mean the Bible envisions no movement among the heavenly bodies? If one took these passages literally, he or she would be required to say there are no orbits or movements of any astral body anywhere in the Universe. This is, of course, untrue, for even the earliest astronomers could map the stars and motions of the various heavenly bodies, as they serve to mark “seasons, days, and years” (Genesis 1:14). So, if these poetic passages are pressed literally, the Bible teaches that the Earth and all cosmic bodies are static. Is this what the Bible intends to communicate? Of course not. In fact, Scripture elsewhere affirms the movement of heavenly bodies (Jude 13). The Bible simply means to teach that God has programmed His creation to act according to determined, reliable patterns; in that sense, he has “fixed” the world.
The other Hebrew term, מוט (mūt), is translated “be moved.” Because the Earth does not “move,” it must be flat, right? Well, the term does not fundamentally refer to movement of position. It is the opposite of being “fixed” as expressed by the term כון, kūn. Scripture declares the righteous “shall not be moved” (Psalm 10:6; 21:7; Proverbs 10:30), not meaning, of course, that the righteous are paralyzed, but that they can feel secure in their life. To be movable in this sense is to be insecure, uncertain, and unreliable. The term מוט/mūt is often translated “slip” or “sway” (Psalm 66:9; 123:1), and can be used of poorly constructed objects that are destined to fall (Isaiah 40:20; 41:7).
The meaning of this term with regard to the world is understandable. The Earth is “set” in the sense that it is well-designed and well-constructed, and therefore functions without deviation, exactly as the Maker intended. It is secure, dependable, and reliable. The season for sowing and reaping, consistent rain, the course of the astral bodies—these are all evidence that the Earth is “immovable” in the author’s intended sense. Derek Kidner appropriately observes: “The first and last lines of verse 10 [Psalm 96] make it additionally clear that this is a prophecy of perfect government, not a pronouncement on—of all things!—the earth’s rotation.”8 The “fixed Earth” passages, when taken literally, do not make sense with the rest of Scripture. And even if one presses their literal meaning, they still do not teach the Earth is flat. The “fixed Earth” Scriptures are best read as poetic reflections on a world designed for the flourishing of life.
It seems that the typical passages cited in favor of the flat-Earth theory are drawn from a poetic context, and thus readers must be very careful about taking them literally. However, even if we choose to take every biblical passage literally, we still do not find a clear endorsement of flat-Earth theory. It should also be noted that even the supposed “spherical Earth” passages occur in poetic contexts, filled with metaphor and hyperbole. So, the Hebrew Bible has no official “position” on the shape of the Earth, whether round or flat. Descriptions of the shape of the Earth in the Bible must be classified with the Sun having wings (Malachi 4:2) or God having arms (Exodus 6:6; 1 Kings 5:3). These are obviously metaphors, and few rational readers would press them literally. But again, even if we take poetry literally, and ignore all hyperbole and metaphor in Scripture, we still find no clear statement that the Earth is flat.
1 http://www.nba.com/article/ 2017/02/18/commissioner-adam-silver-all-star-press-conference.
3 See Justin Rogers (2016), “How to Read Biblical Poetry,” Gospel Advocate, September, p. 11.
4 The NKJV has “circle” in both verses, and the KJV has “circuit” in the Job verse.
5 See David J.A. Clines (2006), Job 21-37 in Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Nelson), p. 559.
6 On geocentricity, see B. Thompson and T. Major (1988), “Does the Bible Teach Geocentricity?” http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.asp x?category=11&article=1151.
7 For a history of discussion, see David M. Howard, Jr. (1998), Joshua in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman), 5:238-249.
8 Derek Kidner (1975), Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms in Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP), p. 349.