Job & the Spherical Earth

Ancient Cosmology

Job 26.7 is a verse many point to in order to substantiate the idea of a spherical earth orbiting around the sun. The English Standard Version reads:

He stretches out the north over the void
and hangs the earth on nothing.

'The void'. 'Hangs on nothing'. It certainly sounds like the book of Job predicted the discoveries of modern astronomy centuries before anyone else could. However, between misleading translations and a handful of cultural ideas being alluded to in so few words, a modern astronomical model is not an accurate interpretation of the text.

The North

The most immediately problematic element of the text is the emphasis on 'the north'. While the synonymous parallelism of the verse does somewhat restrict us on how far we can read this in any direction, this specification of 'the north' should get more attention than it tends to receive. The Hebrew behind 'the north' is the term zaphon, with no definite article.

In Isaiah 14.13, the king of Babylon boasts that he will rise to heaven.

'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly, on the heights of zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.'

Psalm 48.2 praises the glory of Jerusalem:

beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, on the sides of zaphon, the city of the great King.

Job 37.22 (cf. Ezekiel 1) describes the glory of God:

Out from zaphon comes golden splendor; around God is awesome majesty.

While the word zaphon can be translated as 'north', especially when used in conjunction with the word for 'south', we find in these circumstances it is not being used for a general direction, but for something else.

In biblical texts, various mountains are associated with revelations from God, or with God's majesty. In two overlapping exodus traditions, Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb are the mountain where God revealed himself to Moses, and where he gave Israel their law code (Exo 19.18; Deut 4.15). God is also described as having revealed himself from Mount Seir and Mount Paran (Deut 33.2; Judg 5.4; Hab 3.3). In broader Near Eastern culture, the mountain associated with the gods was Mount Zaphon; it was the domain of the divine.

When those texts in Isaiah 14, Psalm 48, and Job 37 are read as referring to Mount Zaphon as opposed to merely 'the north', everything clicks into place: the king of Babylon boasts that he will ascend Mount Zaphon to appoint himself king over creation; Jerusalem is set on Mount Zion, figuratively resting in the shadow of Mount Zaphon; God's glory is revealed from his domain on Mount Zaphon.

The term zaphon in Job 26.7 should be read in the same way: 'He stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth on nothing'.

Stretched Out

The verb used here, 'to stretch out', is frequently used to describe God 'stretching out' heaven in his act of creation (e.g. Jer 10.12; Isa 40.22; Zech 12.1; Psa 104.2; Job 9.8). The use of this verb reinforces the identification of zaphon as the heaven-analogous Mount Zaphon.

The Void

The Hebrew term here is tohu, found in several places in the Hebrew scriptures, sometimes in conjunction with the term bohu. It is found first in Genesis 1.2, where the earth is described as 'tohu and bohu'. Along with Genesis 1.2, it is used a handful of times to describe the world before God shaped it (Jer 4.23; Isa 45.18).

However, it is frequently used to describe location, with a meaning of 'desolate' (e.g. Deut 32.10; Job 12.24; Psa 107.40). It is also used to describe objects, as 'worthless' or 'vain'. Its meaning is not of a 'void', as in the emptiness of space beyond earth's atmosphere.

In ancient Israelite cosmology, the universe's initial state of non-creation was 'desolate and waste' (tohu and bohu), depicted as a primordial ocean of chaos, called 'the deep' or 'the sea'. (See more on this here.)

The earth was desolate and waste, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

For Job 26.7 to use tohu in this context, the author is not describing the present, but the past; he is not telling us something part of the universe as it currently is (i.e. the presently-existing 'outer space'), he is telling us about what the world was like prior to God's act of creation. In the midst of the primeval 'desolate' state of non-creation, God created his own domain, Mount Zaphon.

Nothing

Per the parallelism we noted before, the second line is essentially restating the concept being conveyed by the first line, that God created the world: whereas God created Mount Zaphon in the midst of the desolate non-creation, so he 'hangs the earth on nothing'.

The issue here is the Hebrew word translated as 'nothing', beliymah. This word is found only here in all of the Hebrew bible. While the Greek translation of Job does turn this into the word 'nothing' (οὐδενός), whatever beliymah's literal, etymological translation may be, its actual meaning is defined by its parallelism with 'desolate' (tohu). In other words, beliymah likewise describes something about the uncreated 'desolate' world before God acted to create; it does not describe something in the present state of creation.

Conclusion

Based on the above information, Job 26.7 is not depicting a spherical earth flying through space around the sun. It is instead fully in step with the cosmology understood throughout that time and place. I suggest the following paraphrase of Job 26.7 to help illuminate the full meaning of the text (especially when read in parallel with Genesis 1.2 and the various texts mentioned above):

God stretches out Mount Zaphon over the desolate deep,
and fixes the earth upon the surface of the waters.

A Primer on the Vocabulary of 'Hell'

Toward Clearer Translations

Imagine writing a book about nuclear power, in which you repeatedly mention 'Hiroshima', 'Chernobyl', or 'Three Mile Island', though you do so without directly explaining what each of those is. In the course of writing you assumed your readers would understand what you meant by these references. Then, as your book was brought into another language, the translator decided to render all three of those place-names with just one word: 'Radiation'.

Translating all three of those place-names as 'Radiation' would be a disservice to your book, as it could only result in a distorted interpretation of your intended meaning. Chernobyl is not the same thing as Hiroshima is not the same thing as Three Mile Island; they conjure up vastly different pictures of nuclear destruction, because they have their own historical contexts. The reality is that actually identifying 'Hiroshima' or 'Chernobyl' by their own names reveals something much more tangible, real, and nuanced than a vague mistranslation like 'Radiation'.

This is the case with the word 'Hell'.

A Crash Course on the Revelation

A Simplified Apocalypse

This is written to be a fairly brief guide on the Revelation's images and symbolism. There are two extreme interpretations of the book. On the one side, John's vision is treated to have dropped straight out of heaven, meant to read 'literally' (which is rarely ever the case). On the other, John's visions are taken as a psychedelic trip thanks to mushrooms or somesuch thing (even though he condemns 'drug-magic' in the book) and has no real meaning. Then there's the handful of major views found between those extremes.

The academic approach is that, as with any book in history, John's can be understood if we search hard enough in his wider context. In this case, sources or parallels to nearly all of the Revelation's imagery can be found in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature from his time or earlier. The choice of the symbolism is deliberate, top to bottom.

Despite the appearance of this article, this crash course does not set out to explain every single item of the Revelation's symbolism, but only the most significant or noteworthy parts. It's not as long as it looks.

Genesis: Babylon

Genesis 11.1-9

The passage in question here, the last of the series of 'myths' that have been strung together in Genesis 1-11, is perhaps the most misunderstood by general readers for two reasons. The first reason is a simple ignorance of ancient Near Eastern culture. The average reader has only a cursory knowledge of Mesopotamian religious culture, so no one is really to blame for that. The second reason is a baffling translation choice, which in my opinion places the blame squarely on that of the translators.

The story is familiar: after the flood, the people of the earth gather into one city, where they intend to build a tower to escape another flood. God intervenes, and as humanity scatters across the earth the tower remains unfinished.

Genesis: Nations

Genesis 10

The 'Table of Nations' is actually built from two separate genealogical sources. These can be easily distinguished by the way the text alternates between two verbal patterns in how offspring are introduced. When split apart, we have a mostly 'Completed' table on one side, and a 'Fragmented' table on the other. It is apparent that the latter table was inserted into the former as a supplement; it would not have been fragmented originally, but only because the entire thing was not included.

Genesis: Vineyard

Genesis 4-9

In Genesis 4, Cain's descendant Lamech is not a minor character. He brings with him a heavy dose of numerological symbolism.

Lamech said to his wives: 'Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.'

Mind you, Lamech is the seventh generation in this list.

Genesis: Noah

Genesis 6-9

The story of Noah may have been based on a distant memory of historical events, but the story readers find belongs to the same mythic genre as Genesis 2-4, since it purports to tell us of a long lost age of the world, a world before the waters crashed down and brought everything to an end.

Popular hypotheses are that the 'global flood' story found across ancient Near East mythologies goes back to regional floodings of Mesopotamia from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, or perhaps from a cataclysmic flooding of the Black Sea region. Whichever the case, that flood persisted in the form of a world-encompassing deluge, through which a one man escaped with his family and animals on a boat.