The earth according to the biblical writers

The earth according to the Biblical writers

The Biblical writers perceived the earth as a flat disc consisting of a single continent surrounded by, and floating on a single body of water. It was divided into four corners, or quarters. By no coincidence these exact same descriptions of the universe are found throughout the ancient near east and Mediterranean, implying that the biblical writers shared a common view on cosmology.

In Daniel 4 we are told that a tree grew at the centre of the earth, according to King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Daniel then tells him that the tree represents Babylon, his kingdom. This biblical passage appears to lend credence to the Babylonian belief that Babylon was the ‘Navel of the earth’, or very centre of it. It is, of course impossible for a sphere to have a precise centre on it’s surface. It is also impossible for a tree to be seen to the ends of the earth (or for the earth to have ends for that matter), as in Daniel 4:10, on a spherical earth, for the curvature of the earth would prevent such a thing.

In Genesis 1:10, God calls the dry land earth. Whilst the Hebrew word ‘Eretz’ can refer to ‘land’ as well. The context of Genesis 1 indicates that it is speaking of the earth mentioned alongside the heavens in Genesis 1:1. The fact that it is paired with the heavens makes it clear that Genesis 1:1 is referring to (what we would now call) the planet earth, not dry land. The implication being that the writer of Genesis 1 saw the earth as consisting solely of an area of dry land, as was the general belief in Ancient times.

Proverbs 8:27:

“When He established the heavens, I was there, When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep”.

Whilst it is true that Ancient Hebrew had no word for sphere. Only by cherry picking the word “circle” can we say this is a reference to a spherical earth, or even equivocal language. The rest of this verse is far more consistent with the ancient views of the earth as a flat disc in the midst of water, than of a spherical earth floating in space. The most desperate conservatives claim that a ‘circle’, a two dimensional shape cannot truly exist, so it makes the most sense that this verse (and Isaiah 40:22) is referring to a sphere. However, the Israelite’s neighbours in Egypt and Mesopotamia saw no issue with using the word ‘circle’ to describe the earth as a flat disc. If the vacuum of space was in mind the Hebrew words ‘Tohu’, meaning emptiness, or ‘Shamayim’, meaning heavens, would have been more appropriate than ‘Tehom’, a word which consistently means deep water. Furthermore, earth is not ‘on the face (surface) of space’, it is in space. However, ancient peoples saw the earth as floating on the surface a vast sea, which is far more consistent with this verse.

Most if not all ancient peoples in the near east and Mediterranean believed this. In Mesopotamian cosmology it was called Abzu, in Egyptian cosmology it was called Nun. This sea was seen as encompassing the earth. The earth was both surrounded by the sea from its sides and from below. It was seen as the origin for rivers, streams and underground springs. Ancient Greek texts speak of Okeanos, the world encircling sea, and Homer mentioned that the sea was the source of underground water sources. The Bible likewise both states and heavily alludes to such a body of water. In Genesis 1:10, the waters below the heaven are gathered into ‘one place’. Implying that they all make up a single body. Likewise the Molten Sea ordered by Solomon in 1 Kings 7 is analogous to the Apsu in Mesopotamian Temples, which represented the single body of water which the earth floated on. This is how the rivers can return to their source in Ecclesiastes 1:7, if all the water on earth was part of a single body; it does not necessarily imply advanced knowledge of the water cycle.

The idea of the earth being surrounded by sea is alluded to elsewhere in scripture:

“His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:10) (Sea to sea is seen as analogous to the whole world, implying the earth is completely surrounded by sea)

“When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” (Jeremiah 10:13)

“The islands have seen it and fear; the ends of the earth tremble. They approach and come forward” (Isaiah 41:5)

The sea was also seen as being below the earth as well. In Psalm 24:1-2 it is said that God ‘founded the earth upon the seas’. The context of Psalm 24:1 makes it clear that it is referring to the whole world floating on the sea. So it cannot just be referring to the underground source of Noah’s flood as conservative JP Holding alleges. The similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern subterranean oceans also cannot simply be coincidental. In Deuteronomy 33:13 it is said that the Lord will bless his land with dew from above and with the deep waters that lie beneath. Pairing the subterranean waters with waters from the sky above is common throughout ancient near eastern literature. Here is a line from the Ugaritic epic of Aqhat:

“No dew. No rain. No welling up of the deep”.

Surely the similarities between the biblical waters under the earth and similar concepts such as the Mesopotamian Abzu cannot just be coincidental as JP Holding wants us to believe.

What does this mean for scripture?

At first this may seem like a problem for Christians. Why would the word of God contain such a primitive cosmology? However, consider that the original biblical audience would not have understood God if he used such advanced scientific concepts as we know today. If God spoke of the earth as being a ball floating in space which orbits the sun, the Israelites may have viewed God as a deceiving creator unworthy of worship, for to them this would obviously not have been true. In order to get his message to spread, God would have had to use the language of the time.

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Enjoyed your essay. One thing that struck me was that as herders, they were dependent on springs for their water supply, making it seem as though the ground must be surrounded by water, as it comes to the surface, as times far from any visible source.
I agree that God had to speak to ancient people in ways they can understand, but how to we then cope with that ancient imagery with our learned knowledge of the structure of nature? It seems that most of the problems addressed on this site relate to reading something into the scripture that simply is not there.

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