Pages 2-5: summer 1990
A REPLY TO "THE FLAT-EARTH BELIEF OF BIBLE WRITERS"
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 writ-
ers 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 Fried-
man? 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 supernatu-
ral 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 extraordi-
nary 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 talk-
ing about when he mentions "reputable Bible scholars." He is talking about
scholars who do not believe in the inerrancy or infallibility of the scrip-
tures. 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
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 estab-
lished 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 recog-
nized 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 Nebuchad-
nezzar 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 remem-
ber, 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, capacious-
ness.... 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 alti-
tude 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 interpreta-
tion 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 Pales-
tine (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 treas-
ures 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 power-
ful) 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 Analyti-
cal 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. Swin-
dler 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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