THE HEBREW MEANING OF “EARTH”
One should note that it is the burden of the critic to show in any given instance that any reference to the Hebrew word eretz automatically is a reference to the entire earth. The Heb. eretz also translates as land, e.g. the expression eretz Yisrael means “The land of Israel.” The word in Latin is oikoumene. The Romans referred frequently to the oikoumene as the Roman Empire, or habitable world as it was known. In a similar way, when the Bible refers to the “land” or “earth” it should not be overlooked that some concept of oikoumene, a limited area of land, is in view. There is no justification to impose in every instance that the entire Earth as a planet is in mind; or in the case of a “flat earth” mentality, that every single square inch of surface area of both land and sea is intended.
THE “ENDS OF THE EARTH” PHRASE
The term, ‘ends of the earth’ appears often in the Bible.” Every sentence in the Bible is different. The Hebrew alphabet was derived from pictures, or pictograms. Hebrew vocabulary depends upon word pictures to both denote and connote meaning. We also use picturesque language when we communicate. If I say, “I’m so hungry I can eat a horse,” it is implied that horse is a metaphor. But, it’s still a literal fact that I have worked up a great appetite. Also, when people employ the word, “hungry,” they are misspeaking. Hungry actually denotes starvation and lack of food, such as the conditions in Third World countries like are found in Africa. We’re not really hungry when we say we are. We are using the connotation of a word instead of what the word “hungry” denotes.
There are many different ways to interpret a literary text. For example, one could impose a literal meaning, or one can draw the plain meaning face value from the text. The text reads in Psalm 91:4, “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.” A literal interpretation would require one to deduce that God is a bird, perhaps a mother hen sitting in a nest. But, a plain meaning reading of the text speaks of protection, nurturing, and caring for those who have a relationship to God as being a heavenly father. So, which fact is it that is to be conveyed?
The verse at Job 38:13 speaks of the earth being taken by the physical ends in such a manner “That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it?” Job is a book classified as wisdom literature and poetry. The Earth does have such physical properties in that it is a magnet, and emits a magnetic field. The axis of rotation has two ends, the South Pole and the North Pole. One end has a positive charge, and the other negative.
The Bible mentions the phrase “ends of the earth” elsewhere, such as the following: Deuteronomy 13:7, 28:49, 28:64, 33:17, Psalm 2:8, 22:27, 48:10, 59:13, 61:2, 65:5, 72:8. There are two different Hebrew words being used here in this set of verses. The first three verses listed employ the Hebrew word, qatseh. The Heb. qatseh does not only translated into “end,” but also means “extremity.” While it is awkward to think of an “end” of a sphere, it is perfectly valid to refer to the extremity or surface area of a sphere, which is what the Hebrew word denotes. The Heb. qatseh also is used in the Bible to reference the whole of something, in this case eretz, which is Hebrew for “Earth,” which also translates as “land.” So, the expression “end of earth” is the closest English strict translation from the Hebrew qatseh eretz.
These listed verses could speak of a certain whole, such as an island, coastland, continent or any parcel of real estate that is included within extremities of a larger territory. Finally, the Heb. qatseh also refers to time. Time is infinite just as a sphere is infinite, and yet we set arbitrary limits onto time just as we do with land masses. For example, there’s the universal timeline which arbitrarily runs through Greenwich, England, and is the measure from which all the time zones of the globe are calibrated from.
The other Hebrew word for “end” is used at Deut. 33:17, and also means extremity in the sense of finality. As per the previous discussion on the Hebrew meaning of the terms, the “ends of the earth” is not any sign of a flat earth in the Bible.
Critics point out that Job 11:9 states in reference to heaven and hell’s measurements, “Their measure is longer than the earth, And broader than the sea.” The Bible can easily be mocked here with the question, “How long is a sphere?” There is no length in a sphere. Skeptics argue that a flat two-dimensional object would have a length, but not a sphere. However, just as a flat 2-D disk has length in that it has a radius, diameter, and circumference, so likewise a sphere has a radius, diameter, and circumference as well.
CONVEYING A SPHERE HEBRAICALLY
Those who refute the credibility of the Bible highlight Isaiah 40:22 to be a reference to a circle, and therefore the Bible is in error for characterizing planet Earth to be a flat, two dimensional object. Critics claim according to these scriptures, the earth is disk-shaped like a CD. This criticism is unfounded because it is an attack not on the original Hebrew, but against English translations of a Hebrew word. If one desires to engage in a technical analysis of Isaiah 40:22, they need to discuss the Hebrew word, which is chuwg.
To suggest the Bible promotes a flat earth is false and unsupported rhetoric. In fact, it is essentially an ad hominem attack on the Bible. As mentioned, the Hebrew word is chuwg. In the Old Testament era there was no varying Hebrew word for a “sphere.” Ancient Hebrew had very limited vocabulary, and the same word had multiple definitions. Obviously ancient peoples were aware of the concept of spherical shapes in that they ate pomegranates and formed spherical objects of clay on a potter’s wheel. The stones used for sling shots were undoubtedly spherical in shape for aerodynamic purposes.
Consider the Hebrew word duwr used at Isaiah 22:18, “He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country: there shalt thou die, and there the chariots of thy glory shall be the shame of thy lord’s house” (KJV). Obviously, the Hebrew word duwr refers to a sphere in this instance. But, in other uses, duwr has a second meaning, such as at Isaiah 29:3 “And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee.” The Assyrian soldiers would not camp in the shape of a sphere around Jerusalem. In this instance, duwr refers to a circular enclosure.
Just as duwr has no exclusive meaning as to a two or three dimensional item, neither does chuwg. In Job 22:14, the Hebrew chuwg refers to a “circuit” or route walked by God.
Bible translations and commentators have interpreted Isaiah 40:22 to be a sphere. For example, the classic Bible scholars translated chuwg as “a sphere” or “the globe” (John Gill). Pagninus rendered chuwg as “super sphaeram.” Montanus Vatablus interpreted chuwg as “globum,” and Vitringa translated chuwg as “super orbem telluris.” Source: http://bible.cc/isaiah/40-22.htm. All of these readings in Latin and various languages depict chuwg as a sphere. Moreover, the Douay-Rheims Bible translates Isaiah 40:22 as follows: “It is he that sitteth upon the globe of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as locusts: he that stretcheth out the heavens as nothing, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.”
Take another example. Job 26:7 states, “He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, [and] hangeth the earth upon nothing (KJV).” Here, the only reasonable meaning that can be drawn from the text is that of a typical planetary or celestial body that is suspended in space without any props other than gravity. It would be ridiculous to require this to be some floating disk that is levitating, when the ancient astronomers were already aware of celestial bodies like the sun, moon, stars and the planet Mars, that they already had ascribed Semitic and Arabic names for them.
In the case of Isaiah 40:22, the verse goes on to read as follows, “… And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.” The Hebrew word for “curtain” also translates as “thin veil.” Notice the universe being described as a fabric, which is characteristic of how gravity pulls celestial bodies together. A number of passages at Job 9:8; Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; Zechariah 12:1, use this image with a verb that means to “pitch” or “stretch out” a tent (ESV). This is exactly the way that modern day astronomers and cosmologists describe the universe. Gravitational pulls cause the universe to have the properties as if it were a fabric. Consider this model:
In conclusion, there is no basis whatsoever to attack the Bible with accusations that it holds to a flat earth worldview. While it might be argued that its authors were unaware of science, and that subsequent translations into other languages display some degree of ignorance to cosmology, there is no content in the original Hebrew that is inaccurate. In anything, the ability the Bible displays in referencing topics in cosmology correctly with the degree of precision it discusses such subjects in light of modern empirical data is remarkable.