by Betty Jackson
What does “the circle of the earth” mean in Isaiah 40:22? To be a questioner is a good thing. However, one must begin answering biblical questions with the foremost questions:
1. Does God exist?
2. Is the Bible inspired?
3. Is the Bible verbally inspired?
4. Can the Bible be trusted?
Is the Bible verbally inspired? Paul answers the question in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is God breathed.” As the Word came from God, it is verbally inspired. That does not mean that every “translation” is a good one. When there are problems with certain texts, it requires some effort to ferret out the truth.
Can the Bible be trusted? Can we believe the biblical account of creation—that it took place in six days? (Exodus 20:11.) Can we believe the Bible when it records that Jesus was a miracle worker–even raising the dead and was himself resurrected after three days in the tomb? Absolutely! Evidence for its inspiration abounds. If one does not trust the Bible, finding out what it teaches on any subject is going to be a confusing effort. Neither will approaching it with dark glasses of bias help one professing to be a truth seeker.
Now, what does the “circle of the earth” mean in Isaiah 40:22? Does it refer to the shape of the earth? If not, what does it mean?
What sources are available to determine what the phrase means? Indeed, some sources are totally unreliable (e.g. Dan Bratcher, a Nazarene, whose own church has disciplined him by “stripping him of his Phd.” and those among us who have similar liberal leanings of discounting scientific accuracy or foreknowledge in the Bible). Once you determine that a “scholar” has no respect for the miraculous or the verbally inspired Word, you will be quick to recognize the motive behind his interpretation or so-called translation of a passage such as Isaiah 40:22. Adding to the difficulty is the common practice of some commentators of lifting “interpretations” from one another.
The Hebrew word for “circle” can be looked up on the internet by the most inexperienced student of biblical words (Cf. http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/view.cgi?number=02329). Specialists in the Hebrew language say there are only a few passages that contain a form of this word: Job 22:14; Proverbs 8:27; Isaiah 40:22; Isaiah 44:13 and a verbal form in Job 26:10.
One must recognize that the recording of the events in Job’s life was by inspiration, but not everything said by various people in that book is inspired. Eliphaz was not inspired when he berated Job, accusing him of all kinds of sin, thus bringing suffering upon himself and his family. So one must be very careful when making arguments from the book of Job for support. The question must be asked when quoting from the narrative about Job: who was speaking, and was that person an inspired prophet? Obviously all the statements made by God to Job are right and scientifically accurate. It is important in understanding what the word “circle” means that we not look to a statement made by Eliphaz (an uninspired man) to define the phrase “circle of the earth,” by “vault of heaven” in Job 22:14. Those two phrases do not necessarily mean the same thing, though the word “vault” and the word “circle” are from the same Hebrew word.
Upon what sources then can we rely to understand the phrase “circle of the earth” in Isaiah 40:22? First the translators of most English versions translated the Hebrew word (gwx - transliterated to chuwg) by the word “circle” (rather than “vault” [arch] as some commentators ascribe to it). The number of scholars involved in those works is great. It is obvious that they agreed upon the meaning of the word. The same word or form of it is translated circuit or compass. The last considered translation possible is the word “vault.”
Some argue that the word “circle” does not have reference to the sphericity of Earth, but to the horizon. They cite Proverbs 8:27 which seems describe the horizon. The statement in Isaiah 40:22 does not speak of the horizon over the deep (ocean), but instead the “circle of the earth.” However, even if this should be true, ancient scientists surmised that the earth was round because of the horizon! (e.g. Stabo and Ptolemy at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth.)
Others interpret the verse as having to do with the hemisphere or “vault of the heavens” around the earth. The response has been made that that is a possibility “though not so good” (Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, ed. J. Skinner. 1906. London, UK: Cambridge University Press. p.11).
Some translate “circle” by the word “dome.” What does the word “dome” imply? Certainly, a curvature. It is interesting that many of the more liberal minded commentators choose to interpret the Hebrew word as vault and/or dome. Brother Coffman rightly stated, “Certainly the passage is compatible with the fact of the roundness of the earth” (James Burton Coffman Commentaries, Isaiah, James B. Coffman. 1990. Abilene, Texas:ACU Press, Abilene University. p. 380-381).
Arguments are even made that “circle” cannot reference the shape of the earth because it suggests roundness instead of sphericity. Isaac Asimov, an atheist/humanist, wrote a booklet that apparently was designed for young people, titled: How We Found Out The Earth Is Round. He used the word "sphere" interchangeably with the word "round." (Cf. http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/earthpix.pdf) Mr. Asimov, a biochemist professor, who wrote textbooks, had no problem with describing the world as "round.” There is no need for Christians to be apologetic for Isaiah’s use of the word “circle.”
Renowned creationist, Henry M. Morris wrote, “The word ‘compass’ in Proverbs 8:27 and the word ‘circle’ in Isaiah 40:22 are both translations of the same Hebrew chuwg, an excellent rendering of which is ‘circle.” It could well be used also for ‘sphere,’ since there seems to have been no other ancient Hebrew word with this explicit meaning (a sphere is simply the figure formed by a circle turning about its diameter.” (The Biblical Basis for Modern Science.1984. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. p. 274.)
Paul Steidl, who holds an M.S. degree in astronomy, considered Isaiah’s description of the shape of the earth to be accurate. (Cf. The Earth, The Stars and The Bible. 1979, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. p. 19.)
Brother Coffman also stated, “We are somewhat annoyed by some writers who hasten to explain to us that this has no reference to the earth’s being a sphere, because Isaiah, of course, could not have known that. Do such writers not know that it was not Isaiah who declared this, but God gave the words through Isaiah?” (Ibid.)
The argument that Isaiah’s statement for “the circle of the earth” as a reference to the roundness (sphericity) of the earth stands as credible. It is valid regardless of whether it is translated circle, dome, horizon, or vault.
Critics of the Bible are eager to take issue with any passage that shows scientific accuracy or foreknowledge. Isaiah 40:22 is one of those verses that the atheistic community ridicules. One such atheist, Dawn Huxley, states,“Earth is not a circle but a sphere.” She says, “Isaiah is actually describing the Earth as flat and circular, with a dome-shaped tent (sky) covering the land.
Note the specific definition by Wikipedia: “A sphere is an object shaped like a ball” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphere_(disambiguation). Again, another source defines the word as “a round object; geometry: a three-dimensional shape that looks like a ball”
The fact is the earth is an “oblate spheroid.” According to Thomas Elkins, an Earth Science teacher, “One of the most important things to remember about the Earth's shape is that it is only very slightly oblate.” (emphasis mine) He further points out that, “The Earth is so close to being a perfect sphere that when viewed from any point in space the Earth appears spherical.”
The idea that since the Hebrew word translated “circle” does not give the technical information about the exact shape and size of the earth, thus cannot be used to show the scientific accuracy of the Bible is pressing the word beyond its purpose.
Pictures taken of Earth from space show that it certainly can be described as a circle, round or a sphere. When we view that beautiful harvest moon, it appears to be a golden ball, though it is not an exact circle. We don’t say, “Look at the moon, that beautiful yellow lemon!” In fact, what we see looks more like a circle than a sphere.
Let us not be afraid of the atheists who demean the Bible. We can be assured that Isaiah’s statement did reference, in general, the shape of the earth.
Elkins, Thomas. Earth Science High School teacher
The Blue Marble – Nasa Image