Job & the Spherical Earth

Job 26.7

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

Job 26.7 is a verse many Christians point to in order to substantiate the idea of a spherical earth orbiting around the sun. The ESV, above, uses phrases like 'the void' and 'hangs on nothing'. It certainly sounds like the book of Job predicted the discoveries of modern astronomy centuries before anyone else could. That would be an amazing bit of scientific prognostication for the ancient Israelites. 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. It's a fact that th earth is not flat, but the ancient biblical authors did think it was.

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 the ancient Near Eastern milieu. I suggest the following paraphrase of Job 26.7 to help illuminate the full meaning of the verse (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.