Invasion of the Bible Snatchers: Ray Comfort’s ‘Scientific Facts in the Bible’ – The Circle of the Earth

To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.


Next in his Scientific Facts in the Bible, Ray Comfort claims that the biblical authors knew the earth was round at a time when most believed it to be flat. He quotes from Isaiah 40:22 which, he claims, was “written 2,800 years ago,” and says, “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth.” Then Comfort writes, 

The Bible informs us that the earth is round. At a time when science believed the earth was flat, it was the Scriptures that inspired Christopher Columbus to sail around the world. He wrote, “It was the Lord who put it into my mind…There is no question the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit because He comforted me with rays of marvelous illumination from the Holy Scriptures…” (From his diary, in reference to his discovery
of ‘the New World).[1]

Does the text of Isaiah 40:22 support Comfort’s claim that the “Bible informs us that the earth is round”?

Literary Contexts

Isaiah 40:1 opens up a new literary section of the book of Isaiah, one commonly referred to as “Second” or “Deutero-Isaiah.” Scholars have long recognized that chapters forty through fifty-five have distinctive themes and different style than what precedes them in chapters one through thirty-nine.[2] Whereas First Isaiah (i.e. chapters one through thirty-nine) closed with a narrative of the arrival of Babylonian envoys to Jerusalem and the warning of Isaiah to Hezekiah that the Judean kingdom’s end was on the horizon, Second Isaiah opens with hope and comfort, a message of salvation that Jerusalem “has served her term” and “her penalty is paid” (v. 2). Beginning in v. 12, the author extols Yahweh’s great power and might. He is the one who “has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span” (v. 12) before whom “the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales” (v. 15). Yahweh is supreme and there is none like him (v. 18). 

In v. 21, a series of “true questions expecting an answer”[3] are posed to Judah: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” Here the author wants his audience to recall what they know to be true: “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; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (vss. 22-23). That is, Yahweh is king over all the world and not just Israel. He was in charge when the people were in exile and he is in charge now as he promises their return. His vantage point, v. 22 tells us, is from “above the circle of the earth.” But what does that mean?

The word translated as “circle” in most English translations is ḥûg, a substantive that appears only three times in all the Hebrew Bible. It is derived from the verb ḥûg which is used but once in all the Hebrew Bible in Job 26:10 where Job tells his less than helpful friends that God “has described a circle [ḥōq-ḥāg] on the face of the waters, at the boundary of light and darkness.” Here, coupled with the word ḥōq (i.e. a decree or statute), the Qal perfect ḥāg refers specifically to God’s action of establishing boundaries, specifically “the boundary between light and darkness,” i.e. the horizon.[4] Earlier in the book of Job, Eliphaz says to his infirmed friend, “Thick clouds enwrap [God], so that he does not see, and he walks on the dome of heaven [ḥûg mayim],” or, as Robert Alter renders it, God walks “on the rim of the heavens”[5] (Job 22:14). The language recalls the activity of the Satan who in Job 1:7 and 2:2 is described as “walking up and down” on the earth. God, as a divine being in the heavens, does not walk on earth but instead paces along “the vault or firmament of heaven, pictured in Gen 1 as a thin but solid covering” which “thus separates God from his creation.”[6] So ḥûg speaks of the skies above which appear vaulted and circular. Finally, in Proverbs 8:27, Wisdom recalls her presence with God at the beginning “[w]hen he established the heavens…when he drew a circle [ḥûg] on the face of the deep.” Here, as in Job 26:10, the reference is to the horizon which encircles the primordial waters of chaos and establishes a boundary for them.[7]

With this information in hand we return to Isaiah 40:22. As noted above, the language is one of supremacy: God is seated so high above the world that “its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,” i.e. small and insignificant. Thus, the divine perspective is lofty, separated spatially and morally from the creation with its socio-political concerns. The ḥûg does not describe, then, a spherical world but that world’s “circle,” i.e. the sky above that world which separates the divine and human domains, upon which, Job 22:14 tells us, God walks and above which, Isaiah 40:22 declares, he sits enthroned.[8] Comfort has misread the text.[9]

Conclusion 

Time and again in Scientific Facts in the Bible Comfort has shown a willingness to ignore context and language in favor of forcing an interpretation upon the biblical texts that is foreign to their authors. Such eisegetical maneuvering undercuts the message of these texts and diminishes the contributions their authors make to the biblical conversation. Comfort would do well to leave exegesis for the exegetes and stick to whatever it is at which he excels. But given that he excels at misreading the Bible, perhaps that isn’t great advice. 


[1] Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Living Waters Publications, 2016), 7.

[2] For an overview, see Robert J. Clifford, Fair Spoken and Persuading: An Interpretation of Second Isaiah (Paulist Press, 1984), 9-69.

[3] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Old Testament Library (Westminster John Knox Press, 1969), 55. 

[4] John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, NICOT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 366.

[5] Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books – Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 95.

[6] David J.A. Clines, Job 21-37, WBC vol. 18a (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2006), 559.

[7] Alter, The Wisdom Books, 231. 

[8] See the discussion in John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, NICOT, Kindle edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), location 1150-1165.

[9] But even if the text referred to the shape of the world, nothing indicates that it is spherical. As John Walton points out, in ancient cosmic geography the world was perceived as a flat disk and a circle is a flat disk. See John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Baker Academic, 2006), 171-172, 172n35. 


Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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