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In the previous installment of “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers” you were introduced to Ray Comfort and his book Scientific Facts in the Bible. As we saw in that post, his first example of a “fact” was anything but a fact. Furthermore, his hermeneutic led to absurdities that were undoubtedly out of sight and therefore out of mind for the notorious evangelist. Today we move on to the next “fact” in his book and, as we will see, it reveals Comfort’s sorely lacking exegetical abilities.
“The Bible Proclaims…”
Comfort quotes Job 26:7 from the NKJV which reads, ” “He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing.” He then writes the following:
The Bible proclaims that the earth freely floats in space. Science once thought that the earth sat on a large animal. We now know that the earth has a free float in space.1
Setting aside the strawman contained in the second sentence,2 it is simply not true “that the earth has a free float in space.”3 Therefore, if Comfort is claiming that the “Bible proclaims that the earth freely floats in space” then the Bible is in error. End of discussion.
But about what is the text of Job speaking? If it isn’t prescient astronomical knowledge then what is it? As the immediate context of the passage makes clear, it is speaking of the cosmic geography as perceived by someone living in the Ancient Near East.
A Creation Story…in Reverse
There is considerable evidence that suggests Job 26:7-13 is a creation narrative told in reverse.4 In many ancient cultures, prior to the creation of land or humanity there was an ancient sea that covered the world. Often the sea is personified with names like Tiamat in the Babylonian Epic of Creation or Yamm in the Ugaritic Baal cycle and it takes a hero to defeat the Sea and bring order to the watery chaos. We see hints of this view in the opening chapter of Genesis as Elohim takes the “formless void” (tohu wabohu) of the earth (i.e. “the land”) that is covered by waters and, by the power of his word, begins to fashion the world (Genesis 1). But in the Genesis story there is no explicit reference to Elohim defeating another deity to bring order to the chaos. Nevertheless, Elohim does need to subdue the chaos and he does by simply speaking.
But the Priestly creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not the only creation story to be found in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, a creation story in Proverbs 8 (vss. 22-31) goes back farther than the one we find in Genesis, before there were even “deeps” (8:24; cf. Genesis 1:2). Yet in that narrative we find Yahweh taking control of the chaotic waters and setting boundaries for it and it isn’t until he sets those limits that the land can appear (Proverbs 8:27-29; cf. Job 38:8-11). The theme of the biblical texts is in line with the view of the Babylonian and Ugaritic tales: at first there was a water chaos that needed to be subdued.
As we return to Job 26:7-13 we can observe some of these elements as well. But as already stated, this is a creation story told in reverse and it begins with 26:12-13. In language borrowed directly from the Baal cycle,5 God is said to have “stilled the Sea [Hebrew, yam],” “struck down Rahab,” and “pierced the fleeing serpent.”6 Having defeated the personified Sea, God is then able to take control of the waters which he does by “describ[ing] a circle on the face of the waters” (26:10; cf. Proverbs 8:27b) and by “bind[ing] up the waters in his thick clouds” (26:8) by which he “covers the face of the throne” (26:9; NRSV, “the face of the full moon”). Then with the chaotic waters controlled, God “stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing” (26:7).
So Job 26:7 is the culmination of the creation story whereby God has defeated the Sea (26:11-13) and taken control of the chaotic waters (26:8-10). But now we need to ask what the text means when it says that he “hangs the earth upon nothing.”
Hanging Upon Nothing
Let’s begin with the verb translated as “hangs.” In Job 26:7 “hangs” renders the participial form of talah, a verb that is frequently used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to execution by hanging or impaling (Genesis 40:19, Deuteronomy 21:22, etc.). That which is hung is the eretz, “earth” or “land” (cf. Genesis 1:9-10). That which the eretz is hung “upon” (Hebrew, ‘al) is beli-ma, “nothing.” There is some debate over what is meant by ‘al-beli-ma. David Clines suggests that ‘al-belima means “without anything,”7 the idea being that the land appears to be entirely unsupported, i.e. it does not hang upon anything. John Walton sees be-lima as nonexistence but only in a functional, not material, sense.8 That is, the earth hangs upon that which has not yet been given purpose. And that which has not yet been given purpose in context are the waters.
Walton’s view certainly fits in with the context of Job 26:7-13. We also see in other biblical texts where the eretz is described as being “founded on the seas” (Psalm 24:1-2) and as being “spread out…on the waters” (Psalm 136:6). In Job 26:5 we read that “the rephaim [NRSV, “shades”] below tremble,” set in parallel with “the waters and their inhabitants.” This reflects the belief that the eretz was akin to an island surrounded by the cosmic sea that was above it (i.e. held back by the dome; cf. Genesis 1:6-8), all around it, and below it.
So what is Job 26:7 describing to us? Well, it is describing how at the culmination of God’s defeat and structuring of the watery chaos he hangs the earth upon the waters as if it were an island. This fits in with the view of many in the ANE, including that of the Israelites.
Bad Science and Bad Exegesis
Comfort’s lack of scientific knowledge led him to undermine his thesis that the Bible was proclaiming “scientific facts” about the nature of the earth in space. The earth isn’t in free float and if Job 26:7 was teaching that then it too was in error. As we have seen, the text simply isn’t about the planet but is instead about the eretz. The text is imbedded in a reverse creation story that is in no way a scientific description of the origin of our world. It is instead a story told by ancient people to explain what they saw all around them. Yes, they were wrong. But Comfort, a man born in the modern era, is simply without any excuse.
His bad science led him to bad exegesis.
1 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters, 2016), 5.
2 Comfort’s assertion that “[s]cience once thought that the earth sat on a large animal” is very misleading. It is true that some cultures believed that the world sat upon a giant tortoise (or turtle) or upon elephants or upon both (as in the The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett). But these weren’t scientific views; they were culturally based views. Consequently, not all cultures viewed the world as being on the back of an animal at all. Some believed in a World Tree while others, including many in the ANE, believed in a world surrounded by cosmic waters.
3 The earth doesn’t “free float” anywhere. It is gravitationally bound to the sun. In fact, nothing in the universe is in “free float” as all objects are gravitationally bound to one another. Gravity, physicist Carlo Rovelli observes, “is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself” (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics [Riverhead Books, 2016], 8). Objects with mass curve space and that is what gravity is. Objects follow the curve.
4 For a very thorough treatment, see Noga Ayali-Darshan, “The Question of the Order of Job 26,7-13 and the Cosmogonic Tradition of Zaphon,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 126.3 (2014), 402-417.
5 See Baal 2.4.25-30 in Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith, editors, Stories from Ancient Canaan, second edition (WJK, 2012).
6 The “fleeing serpent” is mentioned elsewhere by the name of Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1) and makes an appearance as “Litan, the Fleeing Serpent” and “Twisting Serpent” (Baal 5.1.1-2).
7 David J. A. Clines, Job 21-37, WBC vol. 18a (Thomas Nelson, 2006), 622.
8 John Walton, Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns, 2011), 142.
9 From Barry Bandstra, “Chapter One: Genesis 1-11: The Primeval Story.” Accessed 11 October 2018.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.