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   Print Edition: 1990-2002


A Reply to "The Flat-Earth
Belief of Bible Writers"
by Jerry McDonald


1990 / May-June



The claim was made by Adrian Swindler (Winter Issue, pp. 9-11) that the writers of the Bible believed and wrote in the Bible that the earth was flat. Mr. Swindler used several passages to prove his contention on this matter. In this article, I intend to review those passages and show what the Bible writers were really saying in them.

First, I want to quote Mr. Swindler's article concerning Bible scholars: "That the Bible contains mistakes in every area mentioned by Mr. Tillett is a truth widely recognized by reputable Bible scholars," (emphasis JM). I would like to ask a question: "What reputable Bible scholars take this position?" Is Mr. Swindler referring to men such as Ian Wilson and Richard Elliott Friedman? If so, then Mr. Swindler refers to scholars (and I use this word with hesitation, realizing that anyone can be called a scholar) who believe in higher criticism. I often wonder why these "scholars" even bother to call themselves Bible believers! Why not just disregard the Bible completely and become atheists? Higher criticism does away with miracles and the supernatural happenings mentioned in the Bible. By the time "higher critics" get through with the Bible, it becomes just an ordinary book. To do this, they completely disregard the evidence in favor of the Bible's being an extraordinary book. Maybe Mr. Swindler could tell us which reputable scholars who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible believe that it contains mistakes in all of the areas mentioned by Mr. Tillett. Now we know what Mr. Swindler is talking about when he mentions "reputable Bible scholars." He is talking about scholars who do not believe in the inerrancy or infallibility of the scriptures. No reputable Bible scholar who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible would take the position that there are mistakes in the original autographs of the Bible.

Now let us deal with the passages that Mr. Swindler produced to show that Bible writers believed the earth was flat. The first passage was Psalm 24:1-2: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods." Is there anything in this passage that would make anyone think the earth was flat? Absolutely not! In commenting on these verses, Albert Barnes says, "The word used here--tebel--is a poetic word, referring to the earth considered as fertile and inhabited--the habitable globe..." (Barnes on the Old Testament, Psalms I, p. 215). In the Hebrew dictionary of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, we see the same meaning for this word: "... the earth (as moist and therefore inhabited); by extens. the globe; by impl. its inhabitants..." (p. 122). Does this sound as if the psalmist was saying that the earth is flat? He used a word that recognized the earth is round, a globe. Barnes continues: "As the earth appeared to be surrounded by water, it was natural to speak of it as founded also upon the waters.... The earth has been elevated above them, so as to be a residence for animals and for men," (p. 218). This passage does not teach that the earth is flat; rather it teaches that the earth is round because of the usage of the word tebel.

The next passage Mr. Swindler used was Daniel 4:10: "... I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great." When one reads the context of this verse, it can be easily seen that this was one of Nebuchadnezzar's visions. There is nothing in this verse to indicate that the writer thought the earth was flat. Why could Nebuchadnezzar not have seen a vision of the round earth and a tree in the center of it? The tree had reference to himself, and the vision was showing that he would become great and powerful and then he would fall. Mr. Swindler thinks this passage proves a flat-earth concept because verse 11 says, "... and the sight thereof (was) to the end of all the earth." We need to remember, however, that this was a vision, a dream, and many things are possible in visions and dreams that are not possible in reality. For example, in a dream I once had, some dogs were chasing me, and I came to a tree that was higher than I could climb, so I jumped and landed in the top of the tree. Now we all know in reality that I cannot just jump and land in the top of a tall tree, but in the dream this was possible. So what would have kept it from being possible for Nebuchadnezzar to see a tree in his dream standing in the center of a round earth and it be so tall as to be seen by all the earth? Nothing! This was a dream, and the rules of dreams do not coincide with the rules of reality. The meaning of the tree's being seen from the ends of the earth was only as Mr. Barnes says: "It could be seen, or was visible in all parts of the earth. The Greek here for sight is xutos, breadth, capaciousness.... The vision which Nebuchadnezzar had here, of a tree so conspicuous as to be seen from any part of the world, was one that would naturally be applied to a sovereign having a universal sway," (Barnes, Daniel I, p. 250). There is nothing here to prove that this writer had a flat-earth concept.

The next passage Mr. Swindler used was Matthew 4:8: "Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them." Mr. Swindler said, "The only plausible reason for the 'very high mountain' was that the altitude would make it possible to see the ends of the earth. Only on a flat earth would this be remotely possible." Where does Mr. Swindler get the idea that the word world in this passage refers to the whole earth? In the Bible, the word world refers to many things. In John 3:18, it refers to the people on the planet. In 1 John 2:15-17, it refers to the wickedness of men. In Luke 2:1, the word refers to all of the provinces of the Roman Empire. So why does Mr. Swindler think that the word world in Matthew 4:8 refers to the whole planet? Because without that interpretation there would be no way to prove his point. However, let us place a different interpretation on the verse. Dungan says: "Rule 7. The proper definition of a word may be used in the place of the word. If the trial be made in this way, and the definition is wrong, the sense of the passage will be so destroyed as to make it apparent. It need only be stated that the true meaning of a word will give the same sense that the word would give," (Hermeneutics, pp. 188-189). So let us substitute another word in the place of the word used in Matthew 4:8 and see if it makes any sense. "Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of Palestine (the world), and the glory of them." Now, what would be so hard about that? Barnes says that "we need not suppose that there was any miracle when they (the kingdoms) were shown to the saviour," (Barnes, Matthew and Mark, p. 35). If, however, the word world does refer to the whole earth in the passage, we need to remember that Satan had the power to perform supernatural happenings. It is possible as H. Leo Boles said that "the devil may have had supernatural power and presented Jesus with a mental vision of 'all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,'" (Commentary of the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 102). We do not know from the context if Jesus literally saw the kingdoms of the earth in a vision or the actual power and the glory of these kingdoms. (See Boles' commentary for an extensive explanation of this, pp. 102-103.) The context does not bring this out. This passage does not necessitate or even imply a flat-earth concept.

Swindler's next passage was Job 38:22: "Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail?" Again, I find nothing in this verse to necessitate or imply the flat-earth concept. Barnes says, "The simple appeal to Job here is, whether he could explain the phenomena of snow and hail. Could he tell how they were formed? Whence they came? Where they were preserved and how they were sent forth to execute the purposes of God? The idea is that all that pertained to snow was distinctly understood by God and that these were facts which Job did not know of, and which he could not explain," (Barnes, Job II, p. 202). How does this necessitate or even imply a flat-earth concept?

The next passage was Psalm 104:3, 13: "Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind.... He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works." Here Mr. Swindler really stretches the imagination to get the flat-earth concept. How in the world does this teach a flat-earth concept? Would it be impossible for God to dwell above the earth and cause it to rain upon the earth and the earth still be round? IF so, then it would be impossible for the rain to fall on a round earth! Quite ridiculous! This merely means that God made his abode above the earth and that he is the giver of the rain and all good gifts. Nothing here necessitates or even implies a flat-earth concept. When the space shuttle goes into outer space, we speak of it as being above the earth. Does this mean that we have a flat-earth concept? No! And it does not mean that the psalmist had a flat-earth concept either.

The next passage was Genesis 1:6, 7: "And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so." How do these verses show that the writer thought the earth was flat? They do not! Again Mr. Swindler stretches the imagination to try and prove his point. Here Mr. Swindler used a translation that uses the word dome in the place of firmament or expansion. The only problem with the word dome being used here is that people think of a dome as a bubble that covers something flat. The word expansion or firmament, however, is a much better translation. This expansion or firmament surrounds the whole earth. Leupold says that it is "an air space encircling the earth," (Leupold on the Old Testament, Genesis I, p. 59). What this does is to keep the waters on the earth and the waters (mist, fog, rain, etc.) above the earth apart so that the sun can shine and we can live upon it. Without this expansion, we could not live on the earth. How does this necessitate or even imply a flat-earth concept? It does not!

The next passage was Job 38:12-14: "Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place; that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it? It is turned as clay to the seal; and they stand as a garment." Mr. Swindler said, "Notice also that the KJV refers here to 'the ends of the earth.' This would indicate a flat earth, since there are no ends to a globe." We who today know that the earth is round will say such things as, "That person would follow you to the ends of the earth," yet we realize that the earth has no literal ends. What is so difficult about understanding this passage? Does this phrase necessitate a flat-earth concept? No! Does it even imply it? Not unless our language today implies such. Mr. Swindler, like so many others today, will do anything possible to prove that the Bible was not inspired by God, even if it means that they neglect the fact that the Bible speaks in figures of speech in many places. They refuse to allow the Bible to speak in such a way that man can understand. Why?

The next passage was Job 28:7: "He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing." How does this passage necessitate or even imply a flat-earth concept? It does not! Mr. Swindler says that Job was wrong in verse 11: "The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof." Does this necessitate the flat-earth concept? No! Barnes says, "That is, the mountains, which seem (emphasis JM) to bear up the heavens," (Barnes, Job II, p. 46). Is there anything difficult about this passage? No! Does it necessitate or imply a flat-earth concept? No! He is speaking poetically here. What is wrong with that?

The next passage was Isaiah 14:13: "For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north." Here the king of Babylon was merely placing himself above what he ought to be. He envisioned himself as being as powerful (if not more powerful) than God and reigning in heaven. Now, as for his concept of the earth's shape, I do not know what that was, but rest assured that the Bible writer here was not teaching the flat-earth concept. He was merely showing the king of Babylon what his concept was of where he would be reigning. It says nothing at all about the shape of the earth.

The final passage was Isaiah 40:22: "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." The word for circle in this passage is the Hebrew word khoog, which, when in its masculine form as it is here, means "a circle, a sphere," (The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, p. 249). Therefore, this verse does deal with the shape of the earth; it shows that the earth is a circle or a sphere. It says that God dwells above this sphere or circle and the inhabitants of this earth are as grassphoppers in his sight. This verse does not teach or even imply the flat-earth concept.

In order for Mr. Swindler, Mr. Till, and others of the agnostic/atheistic belief to discredit the Bible on this and other subjects as well, they must go to faulty translations, place misinterpretations upon passages, and show pictures from dictionaries about what some thought about the earth's shape. However, they cannot discredit these verses, because I have shown that none of the verses that Mr. Swindler brought up teaches or even implies what Mr. Swindler, Mr. Till, and others of their belief say that they do.

Mr. Till says he is not sure of his position, and I assume that Mr. Swindler takes the same position. Mr. Swindler seems to be sure, however, that the Bible is not inspired or inerrant. I wonder why? Mr. Swindler said, "The Hebrews were inspired by nothing more than their political and religious motivations." I wonder how Mr. Swindler knows that this is true? I wonder how he can be so certain? I have taken his article apart, point by point, and have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that his belief is false.

I must insist, therefore, that Bible believers still believe in the inerrancy of the word of God.

(Jerry McDonald's address is 97 Florence Street, Sullivan, MO 63080.)
 



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