Astronomy, III

III. Physiography.

1. The Circle of the Earth:

It has generally been assumed that the Hebrews considered the earth to be a vast circular plain, arched over by a solid vault--"the firmament"--above which were stored, as if in cisterns, the "treasuries" (Job 38:22) of the rain, snow and hail, and some writers have even attempted to express this supposed conception in diagrammatic form. One of the best of these attempts, reproduced below, is given by Schiaparelli, in his Astronomy in the Old Testament.

But this assumption is in reality based more upon the ideas prevalent in Europe during the Dark Ages than upon any actual statements in the Old Testament. The same word (chagh) used in the Old Testament to express the roundness of the heavens (Job 22:14) is also used when the circle of the earth is spoken of (Isa 40:22), and it is likewise applied to the deep (Pr 8:27). Now it is obvious that the heavens are spherical in appearance, and to an attentive observer it is clear that the surface of the sea is also rounded. There is therefore no sufficient warrant for the assumption that the Hebrews must have regarded the earth as flat.

(1) The Earth a Sphere.

Certain astronomical relations were recognized very early. The stars appear as if attached to a globe rotating round the earth once in 24 hours, and this appearance was clearly familiar to the author of the Book of Job, and indeed long before the time of Abraham, since the formation of the constellations could not have been effected without such recognition. But the spherical form of the heavens almost involves a similar form for the earth, and their apparent diurnal rotation certainly means that they are not rigidly connected with the earth, but surround it on all sides at some distance from it. The earth therefore must be freely suspended in space, and so the Book of Job describes it: "He stretcheth out the north over empty space, and hangeth the earth upon nothing" (Job 26:7).

(2) The North Stretched Out over Empty Space.

Here the "north" signifies the northern circumpolar constellations and the writer recognized that they stretch out beyond the utmost confines of the earth; so that he was not under any impression that the heavens rested upon the earth, or were borne up by mountains. The celestial sphere surrounded the earth entirely, but at a distance from it; between the two there was "empty space." Some commentators have indeed claimed that Job 26:10, "He hath described a boundary upon the face of the waters, unto the confines of light and darkness" is equivalent to a statement that the circumference of the terrestrial plain extended to the place where sea and sky met. But no man of intelligence can, at any time, have supposed that the sea horizon marked the dividing line between day and night, and the meaning of the passage is correctly given in the King James Version, "until the day and night come to an end"; in other words, the waters of the sea will be confined to their appointed place never again to overflow the earth so long as the succession of day and night shall continue (compare Ge 8:22; 9:15).

(3) The Corners of the Earth.


2. The Pillars of the Earth:

erets, "the earth," is in general the surface of the earth, the dry land inhabited by man and beast. Hence "the pillars" of the earth (Job 9:6) are the rocks that bear up that surface, for as has been shown, it was quite clear to the author of the Book of Job, and to the primitive astronomers, that our world was unsupported in space. For "Vault of the Earth" see EARTH, VAULT OF.

3. The Firmament:

(1) The Hebrew Conception.

Above the, spherical earth was stretched out the "firmament" (raqia`) made on the second day of creation to "divide the waters from the waters" (Ge 16:1-16). To the Hebrews the "firmament" was the apparent void above, in which clouds float and the lights of heaven pursue their appointed paths. The word raqia`, by its etymology, suggests an expanse, something stretched, spread or beaten out, as when Isaiah (Ge 40:22) says that the Lord "stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." But the Greek word stereoma, by which the Septuagint rendered raqia`, gives the meaning of a firm and solid structure, and our translators have carried out this same idea in their English rendering of "firmament."

(2) The Alexandrian Conception.

In this however the Septuagint simply expressed the astronomical science of their day as accepted in Alexandria, where the doctrine of a succession of solid crystalline spheres, each carrying a planet, held currency. But in order to express the Hebrew idea, raqia` should be rendered "expanse" or "space"; it corresponds to the "empty space" of Job 26:7. This "expanse" was appointed to divide "the waters which were under the expanse, from the waters which were above the expanse"; and it has been argued from this that the upper waters must have been regarded as being enclosed in a watertight reservoir, furnished with sluices or floodgates, which could be opened to allow the rain to fall.

4. The Windows of Heaven:

Thus in the account of the Flood, "the windows of heaven" are said to have been opened. But, 'arubbah, "window," means a network, or lattice, a form which can never have been ascribed to a literal floodgate; and in the other passages where "the windows of heaven" are mentioned the expression is obviously metaphorical (2Ki 7:2,19; Isa 24:18; Mal 3:10).

5. Rain:

Further the numerous other references to rain connect it with the clouds, as "I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain" (Isa 5:6), or in the Song of Deborah, "The clouds dropped water" (Jg 5:4; see also Ps 77:17; 147:8; Pr 16:15; Ec 12:2). The fantastic idea of solidly built cisterns in the sky furnished with sluices has no warrant in Scripture. So far from any such crude conception, there is a very clear and complete account of the atmospheric circulation. Elihu describes the process of evaporation, "For he draweth up the drops of water, which distilll in rain from his vapor, which the skies pour down and drop upon man abundantly" (Job 36:27-28).

6. Clouds:

Jeremiah and the Psalmist repeat the description, "He causeth the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; he maketh lightnings for the rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasuries" (Jer 10:13). By the foreshortening that clouds undergo in the distance they inevitably appear to form chiefly on the horizon, "at the ends of the earth," whence they move upward toward the zenith. Thus God "calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth" (Am 9:6); and thus "All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again" (Ec 1:7). Other references to the clouds in the Book of Job reveal not merely observation but acute reflection. "Dost thou know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge?" (Job 37:16) indicates a perception that the clouds float, each in its own place, at its own level, each perfectly balanced in the thin air.

7. The Deep:

(1) Meaning of the Word.

Tehom, "the deep," means moving water, and hence the ocean, which is represented as being essentially one, exactly as we now know it to be by actual exploration--"Let the waters Under the heavens be gathered together unto one place" (Ge 1:9). And the earth is stretched out "above the waters" (Ps 136:6; 24:2). That is to say that the water surface lies lower than the land surface; and not only so, but, within the substance of the earth itself, there are subterranean waters which form a kind of ocean underground. This also is called in Eze 31:4 the "deep," tehom; "The waters nourished it, the deep made it to grow." But in general tehom denotes the sea, as when Pharaoh's chosen captains were drowned in the Red Sea, "The deeps cover them" (Ex 15:5). Indeed the word appears to be onomatopoetic derived from the "moaning" or "humming" of the sea; whilst 'erets, the "earth," seems intended to represent the "rattle" of shingle, "the scream of a madden'd beach dragged down by the wave."

(2) The Babylonian Dragon of Chaos.

In Ge 1:1-31, tehom denotes the primeval waters, and the resemblance of the word to Tiamat, the name of the Babylonian she-dragon of Chaos, has led some commentators to ascribe a Babylonian origin to this chapter. It need hardly be pointed out that if this resemblance proves any connection between the Hebrew and Babylonian accounts of creation, it proves the Hebrew to be the original. The natural object, tehom, the sea, must have preceded the mythological personification of it.


Maunder, Astronomy of the Bible; Astronomy without a Telescope; Schiaparelli, Astronomy in the Old Testament; Warren, The Earliest Cosmologies, 1909.

E. W. Maunder

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