[It is] he that sitteth above 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; (ASV)
This verse is sometimes cited by apologists as evidence of the Bible's supernatural inspiration: that Isaiah knew the Earth was spherical, something he "could not have known except by supernatural means".
Actually, it indicates exactly the opposite. Various ancient peoples knew the Earth was a sphere (most notably the Greeks: Eratosthenes calculated its circumference with remarkable accuracy in 240 BC), but the ancient Hebrews were not among them. While the Bible never actually declares "the Earth is flat", it consistently alludes to the flat-Earth cosmology described in more detail in the Book of Enoch: a flat disc covered by a solid dome (the "Firmanent" of Genesis 1:6, with the "waters of Heaven" above it) to which the stars are attached. It should be noted that, while Enoch is not considered "canonical" by Christians, he is nevertheless endorsed as a "true prophet" in Jude 1:14.
Given the context, "circle" could refer either to the disc of the Earth or the dome above it. The Hebrew flat-Earth cosmology is further indicated by the tent analogy (tents are pitched on a flat surface, not wrapped around a sphere). Some apologists claim that the Hebews had no word for "sphere" that they could have used instead: this is incorrect, the Hebrew duwr ("ball") is used in the same book, in Isaiah 22:18. When confronted by this, the usual defense is that this word can't really mean "ball" because it's also used to describe an army surrounding a town (Isaiah 29:3), and armies don't form a spherical shell: however, this usage is similar to English words such as "envelop" which could be used in this context, metaphorically "wrapping up" an object (which, in a non-metaphorical context, would make a ball). --Robert Stevens 12:00, 3 Nov 2005 (CST)
Response to Con piece: "Introducing a strawman argument through reference to 1 Enoch..." - ironically, this is itself a strawman argument. The Hebrew flat-Earth, solid-sky cosmology is consistently supported thoroughout all Hebrew and early-Christian literature, from Genesis to Revelation and in extra-Biblical texts too, and was a variant of the Sumerian/Babylonian cosmological model they inherited. 1 Enoch merely provides more details, and it isn't the only book to do so: for instance, 3 Baruch elaborates on the Tower of Babel story, with the tower-builders reaching the underside of the Firmament dome and attempting to drill through it.
Biblical references to this cosmology (specifically, the notion of a solid Firmament with Heaven above it) include the creation of the Firmament in Genesis 1:6; God opening windows in the Firmament in Genesis 7:11 to let water rain down, and closing them again in Genesis 8:2; the construction of a tall tower to reach Heaven in Genesis 11:4; celestial warehouses for snow and hail in Job 38:22, the sky as a strong crystalline material in Job 37:18 and Ezekiel 1:22; the sky as a tent in Isaiah 40:22; stars as small objects attached to the Firmament (which can fall off) in Daniel 8:10, Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:25, Revelation 6:13, Revelation 8:10, Revelation 9:1 and Revelation 12:4 (apologists sometimes claim that these "falling stars" are meteors, but the swipe of a dragon's tail dislodges one-third of all the stars in the sky in Revelation 12:4).
The heavens are "rolled back like a scroll" in Revelation 6:14: however, as stars are apparently still being knocked off the Firmament in subsequent verses, it's unclear which layer is being removed at this point.
The authors of the Jewish Encyclopaedia understand the issue:
- "The Hebrews regarded the earth as a plain or a hill figured like a hemisphere, swimming on water. Over this is arched the solid vault of heaven. To this vault are fastened the lights, the stars. So slight is this elevation that birds may rise to it and fly along its expanse." --Robert Stevens 04:14, 23 Jan 2008 (CST)
The understanding of the verse is gained by taking it simply and exactly as it reads. We are told that God sits above the earth and from the perspective of being above the earth, the earth appears as a circle. To emphasize distance and perspective, we are told that the inhabitants are as grasshoppers. One need only go to that height at which people appear as grasshoppers and describe how the earth would look. That is the way in which the verse should be taken.
Introducing a strawman argument through reference to 1 Enoch contributes nothing to the understanding of Isaiah nor does it establish an error in the account.
This claim of errancy begs the question: if the majority of the human race in the 7th century BCE believed the earth was flat and had four corners, how did Yesh'yahu [Isaiah] know it was a circle? How does Iyov (Job) know that it hangs on nothing (Job 26:7)? How can a circle that hangs on nothing be disqualified from being an orb if your frame of reference is outer space? An orb which hangs on nothing in the middle of a tent [finite universe with edges] describes our current understanding of cosmology tolerably well many years before the Greek enlightenment.
So it is acceptable to use a metaphor of an army "enveloping" a city, but it is not acceptable to use a metaphor "windows of heaven" of the place where rain comes from? I see. --jjmarkka 09:16, 11 Nov 2005 (CST)
Well, if he "sitteth" above the circle of the earth, then the earth has an upside and a downside. Ask the Australians, which side is which. --FreezBee 11:47, 19 Jun 2006 (CDT)