Watchtower's View of Science

Alan Feuerbacher


Part 1: Astronomy

Alan Feuerbacher


This booklet sets out examples from Watchtower publications that illustrate the following claims:

1) The Watchtower Society takes a dim view of science when it points to conclusions different from the Society's interpretation of the Bible.

2) When science supports the truth of the Bible, the Society uses the information to show that the Bible is an inspired book.

3) When science does not support the Society's interpretation of Bible, the Society obscures or omits information that should be brought into consideration.

4) The Society's writings show a lack of understanding of certain scientific matters.

Like the Stars of the Heavens in Number

The Society often makes use of Genesis 22:17 to prove the Bible's inspiration. In this scripture God says to Abraham:

I shall surely multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens and like the grains of sand that are on the seashore.

A short article on page 25 of the April 8, 1988 Awake!, says concerning this scripture:

The Bible is scientifically correct in comparing the number of stars in the heavens to the billions of grains of sand on the seashore. However, that stars number into the billions was apparently unknown in ancient times.... How, then, does one explain the Bible's remarkable accuracy in making this comparison? One explanation would be that the Bible is "inspired of God."

This conclusion, that the Bible is saying that the number of stars in the heavens is on the order of the number of grains of sand on the seashore, is unwarranted. First, the writer states no numbers to show the Bible is making a scientifically correct comparison. How, then, can he claim it is accurate? What is it accurate with respect to?

A far more likely meaning of the comparison is simply that the number is large by everyday standards (which for the average person means any number larger than 100), and in particular, is uncountable by virtue of the difficulty of the counting. An earlier scripture than Genesis 22:17 shows that uncountability is the main idea. Genesis 15:5 says:

He now brought him outside and said: "Look up, please, to the heavens and count the stars, if you are possibly able to count them." And he went on to say to him: "So your seed will become."

Also, Jeremiah 33:22 says:

The army of the heavens cannot be counted, neither can the sand of the sea be measured.

The actual number of each is easy enough to estimate. Astronomers conservatively estimate there are about one hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and probably about one hundred billion galaxies comparable to our own in the observable universe, for a total of


stars. Note that this could easily be far too low, as the estimate only takes into account what astronomers can actually see or reasonably estimate is out there, and there is nothing to indicate how large the universe actually is.

To estimate the number of grains of sand in the sea, let's make a few assumptions. First assume that the sand is at the sea coasts, and the sea coasts cover one percent of the earth's surface. Then assume that the sand covers that surface to a depth of ten meters, and every sand grain has a volume of one cubic millimeter. We simply use the formula for the volume of a sphere, V = 4/3 . PI . R3.

The mean radius of the earth is 3,982 miles, or 6,408,421 meters. Let this radius in meters be R. The volume of a spherical shell 10 meters thick at the radius of the earth is V = 4/3 PI [R3 - (R - 10)3], which works out to be about 1015 (1,000,000,000,000,000) cubic meters. There are 109 cubic millimeters in one cubic meter. Multiply that by the volume we just found and take one percent; we get about 1022, the same as we got for the number of stars:


So, making reasonable assumptions, we find the number of stars may indeed be comparable to the number of grains of sand in the sea! This seems to be a remarkable accomplishment.

Note, however, the following quote from Revelation 20:7, 8:

Now as soon as the thousand years have been ended, Satan will be let loose out of his prison, and he will go out to mislead those nations in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war. The number of these is as the sand of the sea.

By any reasonable estimate, the number of people misled would not be over about ten billion. Comparing this to the numbers derived above, we find that they differ by a factor of one trillion.

Therefore, if you insist that the Bible is being literal when it uses the sand of the sea to represent any number of people on the earth, you must admit that the Bible is in error by a factor of at least a trillion.

If you don't want to admit that, then you must admit that the Bible is using poetic license when it compares a quantity to the sand of the sea or to the stars of the heavens.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to justify using Genesis 22:17 as an indication that the Bible is "inspired of God." Genesis 13:16 again confirms this use of poetic license in God's words to Abraham: "if a man could be able to count the dust particles of the earth, then your seed could be numbered."

Poetic license does not constitute scientific proof, even if it sometimes produces an interesting correlation between our rough estimates and selected verses in the Bible.

Star Differs from Star

The September 22, 1984 Awake! article "Telescopes and Microscopes -- Have Their Revelations Undermined or Strengthened Your Faith?" claims that the Bible is shown to be inspired by the statement of 1 Corinthians 15:41, where the apostle Paul says:

The glory of the sun is one sort, and the glory of the moon is another, and the glory of the stars is another; in fact, star differs from star in glory.

Under the subheading "Star Differs From Star" the article quotes this scripture, and then asserts that it shows the apostle Paul must have been divinely inspired in order to make the statement "star differs from star in glory," since "to the casual observer most stars look alike, except perhaps for their difference in brightness."

In actual fact, many stars do not look alike to the naked eye, as anyone can see outside brightly lit city areas. In the constellation Orion the star Betelgeuse looks quite red, while the star Rigel looks bluish-white. The September 1992 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine said on page 266:

The stars that fill the sky on a dark night differ not just in color, as even a casual observer may notice. Although the multitude of dim stars appear merely white or gray to the naked eye, the brighter ones -- as well as the planets -- offer subtle and varied colors that can make for fascinating study. The most conspicuously colored stars were recognized at least 4,000 years ago and have been described consistently throughout the world ever since.

Color is even more apparent in the "stars"1 the ancients called "wanderers," which we now know to be planets. Saturn looks yellowish; Mars is reddish. The ancient Greeks, in fact, associated Mars with the god of war precisely because of its red color.

The Awake! article acknowledges that even a casual observer can see that star differs from star in "brightness." But the ancients were not casual observers. On the contrary, they were intense observers of the stars, and could see that the stars were different from one another in "glory."

The article asserts that use of the word "glory" implies not only color and brightness, but any other physical property the star possesses -- in particular those not observable with the naked eye, such as density, size, and the fact that pulsars flash. This is stretching a point. The scripture mentions only "glory," not a list of physical properties. The claim that "glory" means anything other than the physical appearance observable with the naked eye has no basis whatsoever.

My last statement relates to the interpretation of the original Greek word "doxa," which is translated "glory,"2 and the meaning of the English word "glory." Strong's Concordance3 gives the basic meaning of "doxa" as "glory"; other translations of the word can be dignity, praise, honor, and worship. The English word "glory" has connotations of praise, honor, distinction, renown, resplendence, magnificence, beauty, brightness, splendour, eminence, grandeur, illustriousness, notability, etc. Applied to sun, moon, and stars, the meanings "resplendence," "splendour," and "brightness" are most to the point, as none of the other connotations make sense. The Jerusalem Bible, for example, uses "brightness." The New English Bible uses "splendour" and "brightness." The Aid book also acknowledges these other meanings4 in a reference to 1 Corinthians 15:41, where it says God "has richly ornamented his creation with color, variety and majestic magnificence."

The point the apostle Paul is making is that there are many types of creation, which he refers to as bodies, both physical and spiritual, and they all differ in their properties. The idea he seems to be trying to get across is that a resurrected, spiritual body is different from a physical body. To illustrate that, he says, there are differences in the flesh of mankind and various animals, differences between earthly and heavenly bodies, and in particular, differences between the various heavenly bodies, i.e., sun, moon and stars. Since he uses the difference between these bodies as an illustration, he is in effect saying "A resurrected spiritual body is different from a physical body, just as you can see for yourself that the sun differs from the moon in resplendence, both of which differ in turn from the stars; in fact star differs from star in resplendence."

The Aid book confirms this interpretation on page 393, under the subtitle "The 'New Creation'":

A plant that rises from a seed in the ground is a new body differing from the seed itself in appearance. Similarly, those resurrected to heavenly life have a resurrected body that differs from the fleshly body planted in death. Each one of them, already called a "new creation" in union with Christ, is resurrected as a new creature with a spirit body in the heavenly realm.

The above cited connotations of "glory" show that the word has a vague meaning. The Awake! article capitalizes on that vagueness in attempting to attribute more meaning to the Bible's use of the word than can be justified. The context in which the word is used suggests that the intended meaning is simply "resplendent physical appearance." Since anyone can see for himself that the sun, moon, and stars differ in their "resplendent physical appearance," and since 1 Corinthians 15:41 does not specifically mention other physical properties of stars, the scripture cannot be used as proof of divinely given knowledge. Hence the article incorrectly uses the scripture to prove its point.

The Statutes of the Heavens

The September 22, 1984 Awake! article "Telescopes and Microscopes -- Have Their Revelations Undermined or Strengthened Your Faith?" claims that the Bible is shown to be inspired by the statement of Job 38:31, 33, where God asks:

Can you tie fast the bonds of the Kimah constellation, or can you loosen the very cords of the Kesil constellation? Have you come to know the statutes of the heavens, or could you put its authority in the earth?

The article asserts this scripture supplies knowledge that could only have come through divine inspiration, because at the time the scripture was written, it was not known that "statutes" governed the movements of heavenly bodies. The way in which this subheading is written either shows a great deal of ignorance of astronomy on the part of the writer, or is a deliberate attempt to confuse the reader through ambiguity, or both.

First, a constellation is not a collection of stars that move together as one body in space. It is, rather, an arbitrary configuration of stars that are grouped together from the point of view of an observer on the earth. Present day constellations are, for the most part, the same as the ancient Greek designations, and are named after a mythical figure, animal, or inanimate object. The stars in a constellation may happen to be physically close to one another in space, as in the Pleiades star cluster, but most often are not associated at all, except that they happen to lie in about the same direction as observed from the earth, and are contained in what astronomers call the Milky Way galaxy. An observer in another part of the galaxy would observe a different pattern of stars having no particular relation to the pattern observable from the earth, and would not see most of the patterns we call constellations.

On a dark night one may observe the so-called "Great Nebula in Andromeda" as a blob of light in the constellation Andromeda. While this nebula is part of the constellation Andromeda, it is actually another galaxy outside the one in which our earth is located; it is not physically associated with any star in the constellation. To an observer on the earth the constellations appear to move in orbits around the earth because of its rotation, just as the sun and moon do.

Second, the Kimah and Kesil constellations mentioned in Job may be respectively the constellations Pleiades and Orion. However, it is not known with certainty to which groups of stars they refer. It is possible to argue, as Awake! has, that the reference in Job 38 to "the bonds of the Kimah constellation" proves the writer of Job was imparted divine knowledge; otherwise he could not know the constellation was bound together. If the Kimah constellation is what we today call the Pleiades, a star cluster, one would be right. But if one used the same argument about "the cords of the Kesil constellation," and if the Kesil constellation is what we today call Orion, then one would be wrong, since many of the stars in Orion are farther from each other than they are from the earth; they are in no way bound together. Alternatively, one could argue that these references -- that constellations are collections of stars moving together in the heavens -- prove the book of Job is not divinely inspired, because: (1) If "heavens" refers to outer space, then the reference to a constellation moving through space is wrong because a constellation is hardly ever composed of a single cohesive group of stars, but is almost always a group of unrelated stars moving in unrelated directions. (2) If "heavens" refers to the sky as observed from earth, then the reference to a constellation moving through the sky is just what all ancient peoples observed, namely, the sun, moon, and stars appear to move around the earth. Hence, the reference shows nothing as respects divine inspiration.

Third, the reference to "statutes" in Job 38:33 does not show divine inspiration. One can argue that since the Hebrews and certain others worshipped Jehovah as the creator of heaven and earth, it's only natural that their writings would refer to Jehovah as having statutes governing heaven and earth. After all, He had statutes governing everything else.

Finally, the Awake! article has no basis for stating that "gravitational forces are the 'bonds' holding stellar constellations -- such as Kimah -- together," since in general, "stellar constellations" are not collections of stars held together by gravity. Neither has the article any basis for stating that the Bible's reference to stars' orbits applies to stars' orbits around the center of the galaxy -- Job refers only to bringing "forth the Mazzaroth constellation in its appointed time" or to "conducting" the "Ash constellation" in the heavens -- these are evidently references to paths in the sky above, not outer space.

The Circle of the Earth

The scripture Isaiah 40:22 is often cited as evidence that the Bible is correct when it touches on scientific matters. The scripture says:

There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth, the dwellers in which are as grasshoppers, the One who is stretching out the heavens just as a fine gauze, who spreads them out like a tent in which to dwell.

Awake! of September 22, 1981, page 25, says concerning this scripture:

In the eighth century B.C.E., Isaiah wrote of Jehovah "dwelling above the circle of the earth." The Hebrew "hhug," translated "circle" can also mean "sphere," as Davidson's "Concordance" and Wilson's "Old Testament Word Studies" show. Hence, Moffatt's translation of Isaiah 40:22 reads: "He sits over the round earth."

The November 1, 1977 Watchtower said on page 646:

A scientist, or an individual interested in science, may be quite surprised to learn, that some 2,200 years before men in general accepted the fact that the earth is round, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote [the words of Isaiah 40:22].

The most extensive discussion I've been able to find on the Bible's use of "circle of the earth" is in the December 22, 1977 Awake! which said on page 17, after quoting Isaiah 40:22:

The Hebrew word here rendered "circle" also may be translated "sphere." (A Concordance of the Hebrew and Chaldee Scriptures, by B. Davidson) Interestingly, regarding "circle" in this verse, the Scofield Reference Bible says in a marginal note: "A remarkable reference to the sphericity of the earth."5 Moffatt's translation reads: "He sits over the round earth," and the Catholic Douay Version says here: "It is he that sitteth upon the globe of the earth." Of course, the inspired Word of earth's Creator would properly indicate that the earth was round, though the ancients in general thought it was flat.

The ancients in general may have thought the earth was flat, but that doesn't mean much. Even with all the knowledge available today, the majority of Americans believe that astrology is a valid science. The point is what the real scholars believe -- that will tell the state of scientific knowledge.

The above Awake! article acknowledges the fact that the earth was known to be spherical by some ancient scholars:

When did men first suspect that the earth was round, not flat? In the days of Christopher Columbus? No. Earlier than that! Irving Robbin wrote: "To believe that one could sail to the East by sailing west, one must also believe that the earth is a sphere. A Genoese sea captain name Christopher Columbus believed this, but he was not alone. He was not alone by many centuries, for as far back as 500 B.C., a Greek scholar, Pythagoras, asserted that the earth was round. A Norwegian textbook written in 1250 not only said the same thing, but also gave the reasons for the varying climates of the earth, the angle of the sun at different times of the year and the prevailing winds. Not all ancient knowledge had been lost -- it was just out of favor for a while."

Pythagoras lived about 540 to 500 B.C.E. Much earlier, however, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, of the eighth century B.C.E., indicated that the earth was spherical.

So scholarly Greeks as far back as the sixth century B.C. believed that the earth was a sphere. Other Greeks besides Pythagoras had something to say about the shape of the earth. Aristotle, in the fourth century B.C., offered three proofs that the earth is a globe: (1) ships leaving port disappear over the horizon; (2) as one travels to the south, stars that are not visible in Greece appear above the southern horizon; and (3) during an eclipse, the earth's shadow on the moon is visibly curved.6

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek Aristarchus, in his On the Size and Distances of the Sun and Moon, used geometric arguments to try to establish those values. While the values were wrong due to limitations in making the necessary measurements (Proposition 15 derived the ratio of the diameters of the Sun and Earth as between 19:3 and 43:6; he derived a distance to the Sun of 18-20 times the distance to the Moon), the basic ideas were sound.

In the third century B.C., the Greek Eratosthenes actually measured the diameter of the earth. Hearing that the sun shone directly down a well at Syene (now Aswan) at noon on the summer solstice (the longest day of the year), he measured the angle between the sun's rays and a plumb bob he lowered down a well in Alexandria, some six hundred miles north of Aswan, precisely at noon. Using simple trigonometry, he calculated the diameter of the earth to be about 8,900 miles, remarkably close to the true value of 7,964 miles.

The Greek astronomer Hipparchus had worked out by about 150 B.C. the distance to the Moon by trigonometric methods, and found it was sixty times the earth's radius.7 The earth's radius is about 3,964 miles, and sixty times that is 237,840 miles. The true figure is about 238,900 miles, a remarkable agreement.

Ptolemy, in the second century A.D., invented a conical map projection to compensate for the roundness of the earth: "When the Earth is delineated on a sphere, it has a shape like its own....". Propositions 19-21 in Book V of the Almagest contain a geometrical argument yielding a distance from the earth to the sun of 1,210 terrestrial radii (4,800,000 miles). While this is small by a factor of 20, it gives a solar parallax of less than 3 minutes, below the limit of observational accuracy at the time.

In the fifth century B.C. Anaxagoras, according to Plutarch and other ancient writers, taught the correct explanation of Moon's phases.

The Greeks knew many things that apparently other ancient peoples didn't, but recent research shows, remarkably enough, that they got much of their knowledge from even more ancient peoples. An interesting example of this was the discovery reported in the New York Times of January 8, 1950 that the ancient Sumerians were familiar with what later became known as the Pythagorean Theorem:

Baghdad, Iraq. The discovery here two months ago that school boys of the little Sumerian county seat of Shadippur about 2000 B.C. had a "textbook" with the solution of Euclid's classic triangle problem seventeen centuries before Euclid has resulted in a summons from the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities to United States archaeologists.

There is evidence that clay "textbooks" of the schoolboys of Shadippur contain an encyclopedic outline of the scientific knowledge of their time, which will necessitate a sharp revision of the history of the development of science, and, accordingly, of the story of the development of the human mind....

Even now, the famous clay tablet on which the basic geometrical problem was presented about 4000 years ago is so clear that it takes a layman back to the days when he puzzled over his own geometry test. Not a line of the drawing is faded in the baked clay nor is a word of the text, which only cuneiform specialists can understand. The chief cuneiform expert.... says that the presentation of the famous solution of the problem is tinged with algebraic concepts that appeared even later than Euclid in the development of Western mathematical science.

Besides this tablet, there is another, presenting a catalogue of mathematical problems. According to experts now studying the material, it suggests that mathematics reached a state of development about 2000 B.C. that archeologists and historians had never imagined possible....

Recent discoveries of cuneiform writing seem to indicate the Sumerians knew the earth was spherical. Any people associated with the Sumerians or the civilizations derived from them would likewise have some of their knowledge. This obviously applies to the Israelites, as well as the Greeks. When the book of Isaiah was written is controversial among Bible scholars, and is unprovable. Therefore one cannot use the purported date Isaiah was written to prove anything. One can only use it as part of a body of evidence.

The real question here is, Did Isaiah really say the earth is spherical? This hinges mainly on what the original Hebrew word translated as "circle" in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures meant. The above citations from Awake! indicate that the original word "hhug" could mean either "circular" (a plane round figure) or "spherical" (a 3-dimensional round figure). If the original word could mean either a flat circle or a sphere, then both the original general usage, and the specific context of the scripture, must be used to determine the real meaning. Of course, if the real meaning cannot be determined conclusively, then the scripture cannot be used to prove that the writer of Isaiah had divine knowledge. By going to several Hebrew concordances we can find out the primary meaning.

Strong's Concordance8 gives several meanings for the Hebrew word chuwg (apparently the transliteration from Hebrew to English varies), translated as "circle" at Isaiah 40:22. Here are the applicable entries, minus the Hebrew letters:

2329. chuwg; from 2328; a circle: -- circle, circuit, compass.

2328. chuwg; a prim. root [comp. 2287]; to describe a circle: -- compass.

2287. chagag; a prim. root [comp. 2283, 2328]; prop. to move in a circle, i.e., (spec.) to march in a sacred procession, to observe a festival; by impl. to be giddy: -- celebrate, dance, (keep, hold) a (solemn) feast (holiday), reel to and fro.

A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament9 gives similar renderings:

chuwg; noun; vault, horizon; of the heavens, sea and earth.

chuwg; verb; draw round, make a circle.

A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language10 gives:

chuwg; noun; circle, circuit, horizon.

chuwg; verb; to make a circle, to move in a circle.

Note that in the above references the English words for chuwg all refer to plane figures. Paraphrasing Webster's dictionary, a circle is a flat ring. A circuit is a line, often circular, encompassing a boundary; the space within such a boundary; or a route traveled around a boundary. A compass is a boundary or circumference, a circumscribed space, or a curved or roundabout course. Again, the English words all refer specifically to plane figures. They are not synonyms for "round," which can refer to either 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional objects. The words from the related chagag also refer to things that are intelligible only in the sense of a plane figure, such as moving in a circle. As the publications quoted earlier say, the original Hebrew word may also mean "sphere," according to two other concordances, so the English renditions are apparently not exact. But the fact that the majority of concordances refer to "circle," and have no references to "sphere," shows that "circle" is the primary meaning, and "sphere" is secondary. The best that can be said is that "sphere" cannot be ruled out.

In any case, "circle" is probably the best translation. Otherwise, why would most translators not use a different word, a prime example being the New World Bible Translation Committee? This committee said in the foreword to the New World Translation, that they "feel toward [God] a special responsibility to transmit his thoughts and declarations as accurately as possible." If the New World Translation has been translated correctly, then "sphere" is an incorrect rendering.

What about other references to the shape of the earth in the Bible? Nowhere does the Bible explicitly state the shape of the earth, so let's see what a few scriptures say, to get the general flavor.

In the New World Translation Daniel 4:10-11 relates Nebuchadnezzar's dream:

"'Now the visions of my head upon my bed I happened to be beholding, and, look! a tree in the midst of the earth, the height of which was immense. The tree grew up and became strong, and its very height finally reached the heavens, and it was visible to the extremity of the whole earth.'"

The word "midst" means "middle" or "center." Therefore, other Bible versions say "a tree in the middle (or center) of the earth." This verse says the tree was visible to the extremity of the whole earth, and therefore paints a picture of a flat, circular earth. The tree stood in its center and had its top in the heavens so as to be visible from all over the earth. This would be impossible on a spherical earth.

Daniel 4:10-11 describes a vision given to Nebuchadnezzar by God, and the Society says it is a major prophecy of the Bible. Why would God give a prophecy of such importance by giving Daniel an incorrect picture of the shape of the earth? If Daniel had a mental picture of the earth as a sphere, and the vision pictured the earth as a sphere, what part of the earth could be called the center? How could a tree of any height be visible to its extremities? If Daniel had a mental picture of the earth as a sphere, and the vision pictured the earth as a flat circle with the tree in its center, would not Daniel and his readers have been confused? The logical conclusion is that Daniel's mental picture and the vision were consistent, and therefore the scripture suggests the picture the Bible writers had of the shape of the earth. It suggests a flat, circular area large enough to hold all the kingdoms known to the Bible writers, with the heavens a hemispherical vault nestled down over the earth, not unlike the picture of Greek mythology. If you say this scripture is just using picturesque language, then the same can be said of Isaiah 40:22. The Interpreter's Bible argues similarly:11

.... the ancient Oriental conception of the world tree.... was commonly conceived of as being on the navel of the earth, and so in the midst of the earth. In those days the earth was thought of as a disk, with the heavens as an upturned bowl above it; thus the tree is pictured as growing in the center of the land mass of this disk and extending upwards until its top touched the vault of heaven, in which case, of course, it would be visible from any point along the edge of the land mass.

This picture in Daniel is further strengthened by the account of the Devil's tempting Jesus. Matthew 4:8 says:

Again the Devil took him along to an unusually high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.

Again the picture is that all the kingdoms of the world could be viewed from a sufficiently high mountain, which is not possible on a spherical earth. If this was not the intended picture, then why was it used? The Devil could have showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world from anywhere at all.

With this picture of a flat, circular earth in mind, note how Isaiah 40:22 makes complete sense:

There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth, the dwellers in which are as grasshoppers, the One who is stretching out the heavens just as a fine gauze, who spreads them out like a tent in which to dwell.

This scripture and the picture of a flat, circular earth with a roof over it also make sense as rendered in other Bible translations. This is typical:

God sits throned on the vaulted roof of the earth. (The New English Bible)

There is nothing in Isaiah 40:22 to conflict with the picture of a flat, circular earth. Other scriptures give a similar picture. Job 22:14 says of God:

.... on the vault of heaven he walks about. (New World Translation)

.... he walketh in the circuit of heaven. (King James)

.... he prowls on the rim of the heavens. (The Jerusalem Bible)

Job 37:18 says the heavens are hard like a metal mirror:

With him can you beat out the skies Hard like a molten mirror? (New World Translation)

Can you beat out the vault of the skies, as he does, hard as a mirror of cast metal? (The New English Bible)

Hast thou with him spread out the sky, which is strong, and as a heavy metal mirror? (King James)

Will you.... Be with him to consolidate heavens strong as a metal mirror? (The Bible in Living English)

Can you help him to spread the vault of heaven, Or temper that mirror of cast metal? (The Jerusalem Bible)

As to viewing the vault of heaven as a thin metal sheet, Isaiah 34:4 mentions:

And the heavens must be rolled up, just like a book scroll. (New World Translation)

.... and the skies will curl back like a roll of paper. (The Bible in Living English)

The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 5, says concerning Isaiah 40:22:12

The earth is conceived as a dome. In Prov. 8:27 the circle (hugh) is the "vault over the face of the abyss" (tehom); in Job 22:14 Yahweh walks upon the vault of the heavens.

Of course, the sky is immaterial. What we perceive as a solid dome over our heads is simply the scattering of blue light from white sunlight. Many other scriptures refer to the earth in connection with a circle, and various translations render the verses in such a way that a picture of a circle, not a sphere, emerges. Many of these scriptures might be viewed as using allegory or poetic license to make a point, not as a literal statement of the shape of the earth or the composition of the heavenly roof. But this is precisely the point about Isaiah 40:22. The book of Job obviously uses both figurative and literal language; any conclusions showing which it is using in any particular case are open to a great deal of argument and will be biased by the prejudices of whoever is making the arguments.

In light of all the scriptures that talk of a circular earth, heavens like a beaten metal mirror that can be rolled up, and the lack of definitive context for Isaiah 40:22 that shows it refers to a sphere, one cannot claim the scripture says the earth is spherical. Therefore Isaiah 40:22 cannot be used to prove that Bible writers were divinely inspired.

The question as to what Isaiah 40:22 actually means illustrates the point that there can be more than one interpretation of what a Bible writer is really saying. Describing wisdom, Proverbs 8:27 in the New World Translation says:

when he prepared the heavens I was there; when he decreed a circle upon the face of the watery deep.

The Interpreter's Bible13 comments:

Vss. 27-31 describe wisdom at the creation of the world. She saw God spread out the firmament like a vault over the earth. She saw the mighty waters of the deep hemmed in at God's command by the great land masses. She was by God's side as he created the universe and the various forms of life that were to inhabit it. Compass or circle: The term probably refers to the "vault" or solid expanse of the sky which, like a dome, rested on the deep....

The Society often refers to Job 26:7, where God is described as "hanging the earth upon nothing." Taking this scripture along with Isaiah 40:22, it can be argued that the Bible writers viewed the earth as a sphere hanging in empty space. But this argument, based on just these two scriptures, ignores the evidence I've considered above.

First, note that in Job 26:7, Job himself is speaking. Later God himself speaks, and in Job 38:6 we get a somewhat different picture, when he says about the earth:

Into what have its socket pedestals been sunk down, Or who laid its cornerstone?

This doesn't sound much like the Bible writer had in mind an earth hanging in the emptiness of space, or he would have phrased the question differently. If you argue that the Bible writer is speaking figuratively or poetically, as does the Watchtower,14 then you have negated your ability to show that the scriptures are talking about the literal configuration of the earth. And that is precisely the point about Isaiah 40:22.

There are other completely different interpretations of Job 26:7. The Interpreter's Bible15 gives one:

he stretcheth out the north over the void.... and hangeth the earth upon nothing (cf. the parallelism between void and nothingness in Isa. 40:17, 23). This amounts to a poetic description of creatio ex nihilo. The northern regions of the earth are connected in a special way with the sojourn of the gods.... Possibly the north designates here the Stella Polaris on which the constellations appear to circumambulate. Although the poet's cosmogony is geocentric, he fully understands that the earth rests upon nothing and receives its stability only from the will of the almighty Creator.

The author of Job is not the only ancient writer to speak of the earth hanging upon nothing. The Greek philosopher Anaximander thought that the earth was hung upon nothing. He conceived of the earth as a cylinder, suspended on nothing at the center of the sky, which was a hollow sphere surrounding the earth.16 So the Bible's reference to the earth hanging on nothing is not unique.

The Society argues in the Insight book, under the subject "expanse," that the Bible's use of this word (Hebrew, "raqia") to refer to the heavens is consistent with the Hebrew picture of the earth as a sphere:

Some endeavor to show that the ancient Hebrew concept of the universe included the idea of a solid vault arched over the earth, with sluice holes through which rain could enter and with the stars fixed within this solid vault, diagrams of such concept appearing in Bible dictionaries and some Bible translations. Commenting on this attitude, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia states: "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 O[ld] T[estament]."

As usual, it's not quite that simple. The previous paragraph in the Insight book just got finished saying that the

Greek Septuagint used the word stereoma (meaning "a firm and solid structure") to translate the Hebrew raqia, and the Latin Vulgate used the Latin term firmamentum, which also conveys the idea of something solid and firm. The King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, and many others follow suit in translating raqia by the word "firmament."

The Septuagint was translated by Jewish scholars around 280 B.C. It seems reasonable that they, being Hebrews, knew what the Hebrew concept of the universe was, knew how to translate their own language into Greek, and would not have translated "raqia" improperly.

The Insight book gives what it thinks is the proper rendering:

However, in its marginal reading the King James Version gives the alternate reading "expansion," and the American Standard Version gives "expanse" in its footnote. Other translations support such rendering.

After having looked up for myself the meaning of "expanse" and "raqia" I don't see how Insight can argue as it does. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, "expanse" means

something spread out typically over a wide area: as (a) FIRMAMENT (b) an extensive stretch of land or sea.

The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance gives the translation of "firmament," "raqia" and related words in several entries on page 363:

firmament 7549

7549. raqia'; from 7554; prop. an expanse, i.e. the firmament or (apparently) visible arch of the sky: -- firmament.

7554. raqa'; a prim. root; to pound the earth (as a sign of passion); by analogy to expand (by hammering); by impl. to overlay (with thin sheets of metal): -- beat, make broad, spread abroad (forth, over, out, into plates), stamp, stretch.

7555. riqqua'; from 7554; beaten out, i.e. a (metallic) plate : -- broad.

A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language by Ernest Klein renders raqia:

flattened : 1. metal beaten out thin 2. flattening.

The Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon gives its definitions on page 956:

noun. extended surface, (solid) expanse (as if beaten out; cf. Jb 37:18);.... 1. (flat) expanse (as if of ice,... as base, support.... Hence (Ez 1:22) 2. the vault of heaven, or 'firmament,' regarded by Hebrews as solid, and supporting 'waters' above it, Gen 1:6,7,8...

Ezekiel 1:22 reads, in the New World Translation:

And over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse like the sparkle of awesome ice, stretched out over their heads up above.

The Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh renders the verse:

Above the heads of the creatures was a form: an expanse, with an awe-inspiring gleam as of crystal, was spread out above their heads.

Under the subject "Awe," Insight, Vol. 1, page 222, describes this verse:

Visionary representations of Jehovah's glory had an awe-inspiring impact. The platform of the celestial chariot, above which the prophet Ezekiel saw the glory of Jehovah, sparkled like awesome ice. High above the heads of the living creatures, which were representations of cherubs, this platform was like a translucent expanse, awesome in size and appearance. Through the translucent platform, the representation of what appeared to be a throne of sapphire stone was visible.

See also the picture on page 44 of The Nations Shall Know That I Am Jehovah -- How? The "platform" is clearly illustrated.

These descriptions show that not only the original Hebrew word, but the Society's translation of it into English and descriptions in various of its publications, give the concept of something spread out over an area, typically horizontally, something with a broad, 2-dimensional quality. There is no hint either in the Hebrew or the English of something spread out in three dimensions, as an "open space." Also the words have only a secondary reference to whether or not the thing spread out is solid -- the basic concept is a shape, not a material quality. The Insight book seems to get confused about this, in focusing on the concept of solidity, rather than the concept of being spread out:

While it is true that the root word (raqa) from which raqia is drawn is regularly used in the sense of "beating out" something solid, whether by hand, by foot, or by any instrument.... in some cases it is not sound reasoning to rule out a figurative use of the word.... Thus at Job 37:18 Elihu asks concerning God: "With him can you beat out [tarqia] the skies hard like a molten mirror?".... it is clear that the Bible writer is only figuratively comparing the skies to a metal mirror whose burnished face gives off a bright reflection.

Note that the scripture not only compares the skies to a metal mirror, but alludes to God's creation of the sky by beating it out like a metal mirror.

So, too, with the "expanse" produced on the second creative "day," no solid substance is described as being beaten out but, rather the creation of an open space, or division, between the waters covering the earth and other waters above the earth. It thus describes the formation of the atmospheric expanse surrounding the earth and indicates that at one time there was no clear division or open space but that the entire globe was previously enveloped in water vapor.

Other uses of raqia in the Bible are obviously literal. 2 Samuel 22:43 says:

And I shall pound them fine like the dust of the earth; Like the mire of the streets I shall pulverize them; I shall beat them flat.

Exodus 39:3 says:

Then they beat plates of gold to thin sheets.

Ezekiel 6:11 says:

Clap your hands and stamp with your foot.

To argue that "in some cases it is not sound reasoning to rule out a figurative use of the word" is not at all the same as showing conclusively that a particular instance of use is figurative. Yet this is what the Insight book does. It merely asserts: "So, too, with the 'expanse'...."

There appears to be confusion in the Society's references as to what, and the manner in which, something has been spread out to form the expanse. Is it vertically, with a 3-dimensional quality as the Society implies, or horizontally, as the references I've quoted imply? Either concept may be argued to be consistent with Genesis 1:6, 7:

'Let an expanse come to be in between the waters and let a dividing occur between the waters and the waters.' Then God proceeded to make the expanse and to make a division between the waters that should be beneath the expanse and the waters that should be above the expanse.

Based on the previous references, the picture Genesis gives is of God making a horizontal surface (the expanse, like a beaten out metal plate) in the waters, then lifting up the surface along with the waters above it. In lifting it up, he creates a division between the waters above and the waters left below the surface he has just lifted up. The expanse and the act of making it are one set of things, and the act of making the division is something else. The division is the space between the horizontal surface (the expanse) and the surface of the waters below.

This concept, that the expanse is a broad area, not a 3-dimensional space, is further indicated by Genesis 1:20, which says, ".... let flying creatures fly over the earth upon the face of the expanse of the heavens." The scripture presents a picture of a broad horizontal expanse of sky above one's head with birds flying across its face. That is exactly what you see when you look up and see a formation of geese. It makes no sense to think of the face of a vertical division between earth and sky. Where would the face be?

It does not help to claim that the expanse is the atmosphere -- there is little justification for it other than the Society's picture of what it would like Genesis to say. The Bible itself rules out the interpretation of the expanse as the atmosphere. Gen. 1:14, 17 says "God went on to say: 'Let luminaries come to be in the expanse of the heavens....'.... Thus God put them in the expanse of the heavens to shine upon the earth." Did god put the luminaries in the atmosphere? Clearly not. He made them visible in the face of the expanse, i.e., in the spread out appearance of the sky. No other image fits.

As a side point, in talking about the expanse, the Creation book misquotes Genesis 1:20, when it says17

birds could later be said to fly in "the expanse of the heavens," as stated at Genesis 1:20.

Genesis says nothing about birds flying in the expanse; it speaks of birds flying upon the face of the expanse. There is a critical difference, which Creation notes and duly ignores.

The Bible writers may or may not have viewed the earth as a sphere hanging in the emptiness of space. If they did, it is not significant, because so did Greek scholars, who had contact with the same ancient peoples as did the Hebrews. I don't claim to prove anything from the above scriptures other than that it is clear they are inconclusive in proving or disproving divine inspiration of the Bible.


1 Aid to Bible Understanding, p. 1551, under the article "Star," refers to the Hebrew and Greek words for "star. These terms are applied in a general sense to any luminous body in space, excepting the sun and moon, for which other names are used."

2 The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures, p. 797, Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1969.

3 The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.

4 Aid to Bible Understanding, p. 37, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, NY, 1971.

5 My copy of The New Scofield Reference Bible, 1967 edition, says in the marginal note, "Many hold that this verse alludes to the sphericity of the earth." The original Scofield Reference Bible was produced by a man totally convinced of its inspiration. This reference is no more to be taken at face value in its subjective judgements than the Watchtower Society.

6 Laurie R. Godfrey, Scientists Confront Creationism, p. 290, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1983.

7 Isaac Asimov, Beginnings, p. 238, Walker and Company, New York, 1987.

8 The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.

9 Francis Brown, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament of William Gesenius, p. 295, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988.

10 Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 210, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1987.

11 The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 5, p. 410, Abingdon Press, New York, 1956.

12 The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 5, Abingdon Press, New York, 1956.

13 Ibid, Vol. 4, p. 832.

14 The Watchtower, p. 23, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, NY, December 15, 1991.

15 Ibid, Vol. 3, p. 1094.

16 The Watchtower, op. cit., p. 11, October 1, 1980.

17 Life -- How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation ?, p. 28, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, NY, 1985.