The Flat Earth Controversy
A Biblical World View And One Man's Quest For Truth
© 2015 by Rob Skiba


Pillars of the Earth

Many like to point to the book of Job as a source for supporting the model of the Earth allegedly floating in the nothingness of space.

To promote this idea, they use one verse cherry-picked from Scripture:

Job 26:7 He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.

They'll say, "See! Job is saying that the earth is hanging/suspended/floating in nothingness. This proves the earth is floating in space." But is this verse really saying that?

The word used for "nothing" is "belimah" and it likewise finds only this one singular reference in the whole of Scripture.

So, we can't even get a second textual witness for this idea. Yet, Scripture says (over and over again) that we need two to three witnesses to establish truth (for instance: 2 Corinthians 13:1). So, where are the confirming witnesses in Scripture for the notion that the Earth is suspended in nothingness? There are none. But what if that's not what Job was saying anyway?

If I were to say, "I am in want for nothing" you would understand this to mean that I do not want anything. In other words, I lack no thing. Even the dictionary confirms this:

Likewise, if I were to say, "There is nothing you can do for me." you would understand that there is not anything you could do. So, could it be that when Job spoke in chapter 26 verse 7, he is really saying "The earth is not hung on anything"? In other words, Job knew that the world is not "hung on anything" but rather it is set on pillars! Indeed, just a few verses later, he recognizes that Heaven is also set on pillars!

Job 26:11 The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof.

In his cosmological worldview, the heavens were attached to the earth, which was itself set on pillars:

So, if Job had the above understanding, he certainly could not have been saying that the Earth is suspended (as a ball) in empty space. Furthermore, if we assume the notion that he had a contrary view to the above depicted cosmology, we end up having Job contradicting himself. After all, he was also the one speaking earlier in Job chapter 9, where we find him saying...

Job 9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.

In confirmation of this, in Job 38, it is YHWH Who is speaking there (as a very powerful second Witness) and He likewise conveys the idea that the Earth is set on a "foundation" - rather than hanging from anything. So, in other words, He confirms that the Earth is hung on no-thing, but rather it is set on something.

Job 38:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
2 Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
5 Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Later in Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, we get more details concerning this foundation...

1 Samuel 2:8 He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them.

2 Samuel 22:16 And the channels of the sea appeared, the foundations of the world were discovered, at the rebuking of the Lord, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.

1 Chronicles 16:30 Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved. 

Psalm 18:15 Then the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

Psalm 75:3 The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved: I bear up the pillars of it. Selah.

Psalm 93:1 The Lord reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the Lord is clothed with strength, wherewith he hath girded himself: the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.

Psalm 96:
9 O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.
10 Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously.
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof.

Psalm 102:25 Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.

Psalm 104:
Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
8 They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.

Jonah 2:6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.

The last one from Jonah uses a different word. It uses the Hebrew word "beriach," which while not being a pillar, still conveys the same basic imagery of a shaft or a pole:

The word for "pillars" in Hebrew is "ammud":

These "ammud" pillars are the foundation upon which the earth is set. Speaking of the word "foundation," that comes from the Hebrew word, "yasad":

So, how can a the earth be "hanging from nothing" yet still be set on a firmly placed foundation - with a "corner stone" no less (Job 38:6)? That makes no sense.

Perhaps one of the most easily understood usages of this concept of pillars as a foundation is given to us in the story of Samson...

Judges 16:

23 Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand.

24 And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us.

25 And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars. 26 And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them. 27 Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport.

28 And Samson called unto the LORD, and said, O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. 29 And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. 30And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life. 31Then his brethren and all the house of his father came down, and took him, and brought him up, and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the buryingplace of Manoah his father. And he judged Israel twenty years.

We all remember the story. The house had a roof, set on pillars. Samson pushed aside the two main pillars and it all came down. The same word for pillars (ammud) is used here, conveying the same thing: Something set on a foundation pillars. This is how the ancient Hebrews understood the Earth - and indeed, as pointed out in several of my YouTube videos, this was also the view of the entire Ancient Near East.

Taking a more scholarly approach to the above issue concerning Job 26:7, Robert Schneider of the Berea College wrote an on-line article for The American Scientific Affiliation, also noting that the idea of the Earth floating in the nothingness of space was foreign to Job:

Job 26:7--Empty Space or Whatnot?

Yamauchi concludes his article with: "Note the remarkable concept given in Job 26:7." Let us turn now to this other passage. Here is how the NRSV renders this verse:

He stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing.

Like the poetic oracles of the prophet who proclaimed the words of Isa 40:22, the Book of Job contains some of the most powerful and affecting verse in the Old Testament. And Job 26:7, a couplet with a subject-verb-object-preposition-object arrangement, exemplifies an important feature of Hebrew poetry, its parallel structure. Here is the verse in a consonantal transliteration, followed by Suder's literal translation:

nth tzphn 'l - thw tlh 'rtz 'l - bly-mh

[He] stretches Zaphon upon chaos, suspends the land upon what (not)?

Perhaps picking up on Yamauchi's reference, Walter Kaiser writes in his article on belíimâ: (from belíi and mâ: "not-aught"): "Found only in Job 26:7. The Lord 'hangs the earth upon nothing' (RSV), a remarkable vision of the earth being supported in space by the power of God."40 It is this notion of the earth hanging in space that perhaps has encouraged creationists like Eastman and Morris to claim that this verse also refers to a spherical earth, although there is nothing that indicates plainly what shape of the earth the poet had in mind. I shall contend that interpreting Job 26:7 is a far from simple matter, and that its meaning is shrouded in mystery. The question is, can the mystery be penetrated?

The ambiguity that characterizes this poetic hymn verse begins in the first line with "Zaphon," which some translators retain in English (NRSV, JPSV, Marvin Pope41) while most render it as "the north" (Geneva Bible followed by KJV and NKJV; NAB, NJB); the REB reads "the canopy of the skies" and the NIV reads "the northern skies."42 The Hebrew sapôn is of uncertain etymology, but in the Canaanite tablets unearthed at Ugarit in 1927, Zaphon is described as the mountain of the ba'alim. It has been identified with Mt. Casius in northern Syria. Zaphon as mountain is found in other passages of the Old Testament: in the derision song of Isa. 14:4-20, Zaphon is identified with the mount of assembly of the gods in the north (v. 13); and in the praise psalm 48, Zion the mount of Yahweh is called (v. 2) "peak of Zaphon."43 Sapôn also came to mean "the north" as a compass point or geographical location.44 It was probably with this interpretation in mind that the LXX used the Greek word for "north," boréan; and both the Old Latin and the Vulgate usedaquilonem, the Latin equivalent. Likewise, many English versions have used "the north." Since heaven and earth are often coupled in creation hymns, some translators have interpreted sapôn here to mean "the heaven."45 W. H. Schmidt opines that it is difficult to imagine a mountain being "stretched out,"46 and there are those passages in Isaiah in which God is said to "stretch out" the heavens (40:22b; 42:5; 44:24). Still, there is little consensus among translators as to its meaning.

In the next line, there is a remarkable image: God "hangs (or, suspends) the earth upon nothing." What does "hang" mean in this context, and what meaning of "the earth" is to be understood? The Hebrew word tâlâh here means "hang" in the sense of "hang something on something," e.g., upon a peg (cf. Isa. 44:23-24; Ezek. 15:3).47 The meaning of "earth" ('erets) here seems somewhat ambiguous: it may refer to the earth as the other part of a bipartite creation,48 but it may refer also to the earth as "the land." The combined words may remind one of Job 38:12-13, where God commands the dawn to "take hold of the skirts of the earth" (NRSV) and shake the wicked out of it.49 Does the poet by this metaphor suggest that the earth is to be imaged as a garment, not hanging down, perhaps, but spread out? No certain answer can be given, I think.

The crux of this remarkable couplet, however, lies in the words that end each line. In the first, God "stretches Zaphon over tohû," and in the second he "hangs the earth upon belíimâ." In the parallelism that characterizes Hebrew poetry, the same thing or concept is often repeated using a different word or phrase, so it may be that belíimâ in some way repeats or develops the notion intended by tohû. I shall review the various meanings of these terms, then examine how they have been rendered.

The first, tohû, harks back to the tohûwabohû of Gen. 1:1, where the earth, i.e., the other part of the creation besides the heavens, is described as "formless and empty." HELOT refers specifically to Job 26:7 in giving "nothingness, empty space" as meanings. A. H. Konkel, citing the same verse, reads tohû as "nothingness, void, emptiness."50 The word that concludes the second line is a hapax legomena composed of belíi and mâ.51 Mâ functions both as an interrogative and as an indefinite pronoun, meaning "What?" "How?" or "aught."52 Belíi, meaning "not," is a negative used primarily in poetry; rather than negating something it conveys the sense of "without something."53 Kaiser renders belíima as "not aught."54 But might mâ have an interrogative rather than an indefinite force here, as in Suder's translation? Is the poet asking "what?"

If we put these two together, do we have a notion resembling tohûwabohû, something that is akin to "formless and empty"? Does belíimâ reinforce and make stronger the meaning of tohû, the author expressing more intensely the sense of nothingness and emptiness over and upon which God "stretches" and "hangs"? Such an interpretation, and the parallelism evident in this couplet, might, in turn, lead the reader to take "Zaphon" literally, referring not to the northern skies but to the mountain that rests upon the earth to the geographical north and which might be understood as an earthly dwelling place of God, so that the whole couplet refers to the earthly part of the creation hung and stretched out over the mysterious "not-anything."

In 1560 and 1611, the heavens
were understood to consist of a series of concentric spheres filled with the element aether;
there was no such concept as "empty space," at least not one acceptable to the great majority of the educated.

Kaiser remarks that while it would be improper to impose twentieth-century cosmological knowledge on this creation hymn, "it is nonetheless striking that 26:7 pictures the then-known world as suspended in space. In so doing, it anticipates (at the very least!) future scientific discovery."55 Comments like this as well as renderings of tohû as "empty space" might give encouragement to creationist interpreters of this verse. Before assessing this translation, let us see what tradition offers.

The LXX translators appear to have understood these two words to be equivalent, for they rendered both by the Greek neuter form oudén, "nothing," using in the first line the accusative singular oudén, in the second the genitive singular oudenós, both with the same preposition, epí, "upon" or "over," which may express the concept of place with either grammatical case, and in particular with the accusative can convey the meaning of "extension over a place."56 In the Old Latin versions, we find tohû rendered as nihilum, belíimâ asnihilum in aerem.57 In the Vulgate, Jerome, relying on the Hebrew, renders the first with the neuter accusative vacuum, the second with the neuter accusative nihilum.58 Both words are introduced by the same preposition, super, "above, over, upon." The basic meaning of vacuum is "not containing or holding anything, empty." Jerome evidently thought that it conveyed the meaning of tohû better than the nihilum of the Old Latin. The latter word has the basic meaning of "not anything, nothing," thus to Jerome conveying the sense ofbelíimâ.59

The ancient translators seem to have attempted to render the Hebrew as literally as they could. Twentieth-century translators offer a variety of readings. Belíimâ is rendered as "nothing" (NIV, NKJV, NRSV, Pope), "nothingness" (NJB), "nothing at all" (NAB), "the void" (REB), or "emptiness" (JPSV), all introduced by the prepositions "over" or "upon." Tohû is variously translated as "the void" (NJB, NRSV, Pope), "chaos" (JPSV, REB), or "empty space" (NIV, NKJV, NAB).

I think the translation "empty space" is rather problematical. It is instructive to examine the difference between the readings of the KJV translators and their modern revisers. Instead of "empty space" (NKJV) the former, following verbatim the Geneva Bible, translatedtohû as "the empty place." Here is the entire couplet:

He stretcheth out the North (KJV, north) over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.

The difference is telling to anyone familiar with the world-picture that prevailed in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Reformation translators still lived in an Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmos, whether or not any of them had become Copernicans. Aristotelian science dominated the universities. In 1560 and 1611, the heavens were understood to consist of a series of concentric spheres filled with the element aether; there was no such concept as "empty space," at least not one acceptable to the great majority of the educated. While it had come under serious criticism by some Renaissance philosophers, Aristotle's concept of Place (tópos) still held sway. For Aristotle, everything in the Cosmos exists in a Place, which he defined as the "containing vessel" of a thing. The inner sphere of the revolving heavens constitutes the containing vessel of the earth, and likewise, within the domain of the earth each thing's place "must need be ... the limiting surface of the body continent--the content being a material substance susceptible of movement by transference." In his exposition of this difficult concept in the Physics, Aristotle goes on to argue specifically against the existence of the Void, a central component of Epicurean atomism.60

While the word "space" is attested in English as early as the fourteenth century, it is not used to convey the notion of physical or astronomical space, certainly not the absolute space of Newton or the relative space of Leibniz, before the middle of the seventeenth century.61 Because of its association with atheism, the concept of the Void also was not popular; atomism needed a "baptism" by theoretical physicist Pierre Gassendi in the 1650s to render it respectable enough to be incorporated into a world view acceptable to Christian thought.62 The Protestant translators in Switzerland and England would not have understood the concept implied in the "empty space" of their latter-day revisers.

The translation "empty space" invites a popular interpretation based on a modern cosmology,
not on the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, and it lends encouragement to readers, whether creationists or not, to see in this passage in Job an "anticipation" of a modern concept.

Yet, if these translators breathed an atmosphere that was Aristotelian and had the notion of Place as a part of their world view, they have turned it on its head. No place in Aristotle's world is "empty," but these translators have written "the empty place." What did they mean by "place" here? Specifically, what did they mean by "the empty place"? Were they expressing what to them would seem a paradox? Or were they simply trying to make sense of tohû given its basic meaning and this context, perhaps guided by the ep' oudénof the LXX, with the prepositional sense of "extension over a place"? What they could not have meant by it is the "empty space" of a modern scientific world-picture, and that is what makes this particular translation so problematical. I think it is a good example of how a sincere attempt to render an ancient and puzzling expression into a term comprehensible to a contemporary readership can lead to misunderstanding.63The translation "empty space" invites a popular interpretation based on a modern cosmology, not on the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, and it lends encouragement to readers, whether creationists or not, to see in this passage in Job an "anticipation" of a modern concept. But, to go from an indefinite "emptiness" and "what-not" to "empty space" or "infinite space" (NJB comment) is too big a stretch, too expansive an interpretation. Better, I think, to leave its meaning a mystery, as it seems to have been to the translators who gave us "the empty place" of the 1560 and 1611 versions.

What, then, can we make of Job 26:7? While its sense is hardly plain, one notion it certainly does not convey, I would tell my students, is that of a spherical earth held by the force of gravity in space (Morris). The earth that hangs on nothing is also the earth that rests on "pillars," which tremble when God shakes the earth (Job 9:6), or upon a "foundation" with bases and a cornerstone (Job 38:6). It is also the dry land that God separated from the waters of the encircling deep (Gen. 1:9-10; Job 26:10; Prov. 8:27), that the psalmists describe as "founded ... upon the ocean, set ... upon the nether-streams" (24:1-2, JPSV; cf. Exod. 20:4), the earth which God "stretched out ... above the waters" (136:6 KJV). I see no value in trying to reconcile these many and varied metaphorical images with our own image of a spherical, rotating planet--aside from the fact that these ancients did not think of the earth as a planet. What Job 26:7, indeed the entire creation hymn of which it is a part, does convey, in all of its majesty and mystery, is the presence and power of the One who creates and sustains, and who holds all of the creation under his gaze. The response it calls for is awe, not scientific analysis.

- Robert Schneider, excerpt from "Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth

Unfortunately, just like Dr. Michael Heiser and others, Mr. Schneider provides an excellent analysis of the text, showing precisely how the ancients viewed the cosmos, but then (as usual) he negates all of it - just as many others do - by saying that the Bible is "not a book of science" and therefore we should not judge it by that criteria. Oddly enough, many Creationists would argue that the Bible does accurately teach science in a number of ways, while at the same time, they will dismiss every reference to the nature of the earth, sun, moon and stars, which conflicts with what monkey-man science teaches. Rather, instead, they will try and manipulate the text (as in Job 26:7) to try and force it to, in effect, be the "science" they want it to convey. This seems quite hypocritical to me. And I would say (whether intentionally or unintentionally) they are being very dishonest with the text.

So, which is it? Is the Bible only about "theological messaging" and anywhere that it speaks of the nature of the earth, sun, moon and stars it is always speaking "poetically" and "allegorically"... or does the Creator of the Universe actually know how to accurately describe His Creation to His created beings, who were made in His likeness?

In Schneider's concluding remarks he writes,

The theological truths about creation which Scripture proclaims are not dependent upon the cosmological models in which they are set. In fact, the biblical writers offer believers a valuable lesson for interpreting the doctrine of creation: one can take whatever is the current cosmological model and use it to understand more deeply and clearly God's relationship to the creation. That is what Second Isaiah, the author of Job, and the writer(s) of Genesis 1 did: they conveyed revelations about creation using the "standard model" of the cosmos they shared with their Semitic neighbors, while at the same time challenging and rejecting their theogonies and theologies. And we can do the same.

I'm sorry, but I simply cannot agree with this idea because A) the text was not written for their "Semitic neighbors" and B) the text was Divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit and the Creator would surely know how to accurately describe His own creation to His intended audience - a people who were to be "set apart" from the beliefs of their "Semitic neighbors. So, this really seems like a lame apologetic to me.

Face it folks: The Bible says what it says, and unfortunately, for Christians and Creationists alike, it does not say anything that would in any way support the idea of a spinning, heliocentric globe, suspended in the nothingness of space, inside a galaxy among billions of others in an ever expanding universe. And selecting Job 26:7 as a singular, cherry-picked reference simply cannot be used to contradict the rest of Scripture - which clearly describes the earth as fixed, stationary, circular and flat, with edges, set on pillars, under a dome, within which the sun, moon and stars were placed on Day 4 of Creation.

COMING UP NEXT: Part 7 - Enoch and the Still Flat Earth

SEE ALSO: Enoch's Domed World

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