Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Does the Bible teach a flat earth?

When you talk to people who are skeptical of the Christian faith and of the Bible, what kind of objections are raised? Do they attack the Bible's historical reliability? Its scientific accuracy? Its inerancy? In my experience, the most common objections have been in the areas of scientific reliability. Some people say that the Bible can't be trusted because "science" has proven that the earth is billions of years old. Others get more specific and ignorantly accuse the Bible as being inaccurate when it speaks of things such as the sun standing still (a.k.a. Joshua's long day) or the "four corners of the earth." And this is because they believe that if Christians are to be consistent, then they need to take the Bible "literally."

So what do you think? Imagine this scenario; what if someone came up to you tomorrow and asked you this question,

skeptic: So, you believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, correct?

you: Well, yea.

skeptic: So do you take the Bible literally?

you: of course.

skeptic: Do you believe in a flat earth?

you: lol, are you serious? Of course not.

skeptic: Then what do you do with all the verses that talk about the "four corners of the earth," such as Isaiah 11:12, Revelation 7:1, and 20:8?

So what would you do at this point? If the Bible speaks of the four corners of the earth, and you claim to take the Bible literally, wouldn't that mean that you, too, must believe that the earth is flat? Fortunately, there is an answer to this objection:

skeptic: So, you believe that the Bible is the innerant word of God, correct?

me: yep, sure do.

skeptic: okay, so this must mean that you take the Bible literally, do you not?

me: well, it depends on what you mean by that. I prefer to make the claim that I read the Bible plainly. Or in other words, I read the Bible as the original authors would have intended it. You see, the Bible is a work of literature, and an ancient work at that. So we must take into consideration that the authors would have written in various genres, such as poetry, historical narrative, allegory, etc. This means that some passages might speak in purely historical terms, such as "Then Samuel died; and all Israel gathered together and mourned for him, and buried him at his house in Ramah." (1 Samuel 25:1). But other times, passages will use a more metaphorical approach in order to get a point across, such as, "I am the vine, you are the branches," in John 15:5. Obviously, the author isn't trying to tell us that Jesus has limbs with leaves growing out of them. So how do we know when the Bible is speaking metaphorically or literally? Context, context, context. Just as in other works of literature, the author will often indicate whether or not he is writing poetry, allegory, or history. We have to pay attention to the context.

skeptic: alright, I can see how that approach might be legitimate. So let me ask you another question. Do you believe in a flat earth?

me: of course not.

skeptic: then what do you do with all the Bible verses that speak of the four corners of the earth?

me: I interpret those passages in light of their context. The word translated "corners," is the Hebrew word, Kanaph. Kanaph is translated in a variety of ways. However, it generally means "extremity." It is translated "borders" in Numbers 15:38. In Ezekiel 7:2 it is translated "four corners" and again in Isaiah 11:12 as "four corners." It is translated in Job 37:3 and 38:13 as "ends." Regardless of the various ways kanaph is translated, it makes reference to EXTREMITIES. The Greek equivalent in Revelation 7:1 is gonia. Gonia literally means "angles, or divisions," just like how we divide a map into quadrants as shown by the four directions. But lets say that God intended the language to mean a literal corner or end, rather than an extreme. If He had, any of the following Hebrew words could have been used:

1. Pinoh is used in reference to the cornerstone.
2. Paioh means "a geometric corner"
3. Ziovyoh means "right angle" or "corner"
4. Krnouth refers to a projecting corner.
5. Paamouth means "square."

If God wanted to convey the idea of a square, four-cornered earth, the Hebrew word paamouth should have been used. Instead, the Holy Spirit selected the word kanaph, conveying the idea of an extremity. It is doubtful that any religious Jew would ever misunderstand the true meaning of kanaph. The Book of Isaiah describes how the Messiah, the Root of Jesse, shall re-gather his people from the four corners of the earth. They shall come from every "extremity" to be gathered into Israel.

"And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And His resting place shall be glorious."
It shall come to pass in that day
That the LORD shall set His hand again the second time
To recover the remnant of His people who are left,
From Assyria and Egypt,
From Pathros and Cush,
From Elam and Shinar,
From Hamath and the islands of the sea.
He will set up a banner for the nations,
And will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
And gather together the dispersed of Judah

Skeptic: okay okay, I see where you are going. But you can't get away from the fact that the word "corner" is used in the English translations. Why would the translators do this if it didn't refer to a literal corner?

me: Its the same reason modern astronomers will speak of the sun's "rising and setting." You wouldn't accuse them of scientific inaccuracy now would you? Obviously not, because they are merely using the earth as a reference point and describing the sun in language of appearance. In other words, when the Biblical authors used the word "corners," they were trying to get a point across, much like someone today would say, "During WWII, men from the ends of the earth came to fight the battle." Hopefully no one would accuse this person of believing in a flat earth would they? Certainly not, because they are merely using "ends" to indicate far distances.

skeptic: well, I see how this might not have been a reasonable objection after all. But i have another question concerning dinosaurs. Now honestly, do you really believe...

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