IBSS — The Bible — Genesis 19-13 DAY 3 Circle of the Earth

Hebrew Text

The phrase of Isaiah 40:22, the circle of the earth is very controversial. There are five main views of this phrase. The first interpretation says that the word circle means sphere indicating that the earth is a sphere. This view seems most unlikely since we have all ready seen that the Hebrew word gh means circle, and it seems very remote that it means sphere because of the context, and there is a better Hebrew word for sphere, rwd. In Isaiah 22:18 the word rwd is translated ball. If the LXX translators understood gh as sphere, they would have used the Greek word sfairoeides. Plugging the meaning of sphere into every passage that gh occurs will result in awkward interpretations.

The second interpretation is that the earth is a round flat disk. Although the ancient world thought the earth was round and flat, this phrase seems to refer to the shape the vaulted heavens above the earth from which the inhabitants look like grasshoppers.

The third view, which is set forth by Seybold, is that circle refers to the ring of the ocean that surrounds the earth. This is mainly based on the supposed meaning of the word guros used in the LXX for gwj .

The fourth interpretation is that circle refers to the vault like sky over the earth. This seems to be partly right as well as the next view where circle refers to the horizon. It may be best to combine theses two views so that circle refers to the circle of the horizon that arches up over the earth. From the top of this dome God looks down to see the inhabitants on earth as small as grasshoppers. In the later part of this same verse (Isa.40:22) the heavens are described like a curtain and a tent. There seems to be a descriptive parallelism of the heavens in this poetic verse.

Stadelmann (1970, 42) states that gwj refers to the horizon which was the boundary between earth and heaven, and indicates how the heavenly dome was linked with the earth. In Job 26:10 gwj is the boundary between light and darkness. It is the circular line that separates the light of heaven from the darkness under the ocean and earth. In the ancient world the horizon prevented the earth from being flooded by primeval waters by holding the sky and the earth firmly together (Ibid, 43). In Job 22:14 it seems that the gwj is more than the horizon, and includes the vault of heaven as well. This seems to be the case in Isaiah 40:22 as well. Therefore, gwj is the part for the whole of heaven in certain passages in Job and Isaiah. This would be called Synecdoche of the Part by Bullinger (1968, 640, see also 892).

In Isaiah 66:1 it says, Thus saith the LORD, the heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. The imagery of Isaiah 66 and 40 shows clearly that gwj means the vaulted heavens.

Delitzsch translates Isaiah 40:22 as follows: He who is enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants resemble grasshoppers; who has spread out the heavens like gauze, and stretched them out like a tent-roof to dwell in (Keil and Delitzch 1976, 7:152).

In Isaiah 40:22 the verb b?y means, to sit or dwell. This same verb and preposition lu is used in other OT passages. In Exodus 11:5 it says, Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne (also Ex. 12:29). Second Chronicles 18:18 says, I saw the Lord sitting upon his throne Psalm 2:4 says, He that sitteth in the heavens Psalm 123:1 says, O thou that dwellest in the heavens. Isaiah 6:1 says, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne. It seems clear that the Lord sits, or dwells on his throne in Heaven, and not on the circular earth or river encircling the earth. The verb b?y to sit plus the preposition lu means, to sit on not to sit over or above.

It seems that the circle of the sea is where the sky and sea meet at the horizon; the circle of the earth is where the sky and earth meet at the horizon and arching above; and the circle of heaven begins where the horizon is and arching above. The foundations of heaven are where the sky meets the earth at the horizon.

Akkadian Literature

There is an important Babylonian world map that depicts their view of the universe (Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum 1906, part xxii, pl. 48; BM 92687). Unger describes this world map in his book Babylon (1931; in German). A good English translation of this map is by Wayne Horowitz (1989, 147-165). The earth is seen as a circle within a circle with Babylon at the center. It seems clear that the Babylonians viewed the earth as flat and circular in shape.

Sargon of Akkad is a third millennium king who was said to conquer the whole world in the work The Sargon Geography which states, Anaku and Kaptara, the lands across the upper Sea, Dilmun and Magan, the lands across the Lower Sea, and the lands from sunrise to sunset, the sum total of all the land, which Sargon, the king of the Univer[se] conquered three times (Horowitz, 1989, 161; Garyson AFO 25, 62:A 41-44).

The Samas Hymn which is written to the Sun-god says, You climb to the mountains surveying the earth, You suspend from the heavens the circle of the lands (kip-pat matati (kur.kur) ina qi-rib same’saq-la-a-ta; Lambert 1960, 126-7).

In the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions (Grayson 1972, 105-109) there are many references to the four quarters (of the earth). The Royal inscription of Tukulti-Ninurta says:

Tukulti-Ninurta, king of the universe, king of Assyria, strong king, king of the four quarters, chosen of Ashur, vice-regent of Ashur, the king whose deeds are pleasing to the gods of heaven (and) underworld and to whom they allotted the four corners of the earth, (the king whom) they allowed to always exercise rule in the (four) quarters and who conquered all those who did not submit to him (Grayson 1972, 1:105).

The phrase king of the four quarters according to Grayson (1972, 1:4) is the Sumero-Akkadian expression for ‘king of the world’. Grayson goes on to say, The four ‘quarters’ or ‘coasts’ are approximately identical with the cardinal points of the compass and are the extremities of the world (which was believed to be a disc) projecting out into the primeval sea (which was believed to surround the world disc).

The phrase four corners of the earth which in Akkadian is kap-pat tu-bu-qa-at erbitti. can literally be translated the circle of the four corners (Grayson 1972, 105; CAD K, 397-400). This is a clear reference to the earth being circular. It seems strange that a circle would also have corners, but they meant the extremities in the four cardinal directions.

In Atra-Hasis the third tablet says:

22 Destroy your house, build a boat,

23 Spurn property and save life.

25 The boat which you build

29 Roof it over like the Apsu.

30 So that the sun shall not see inside it

31 Let it be roofed over above and below (Lambert and Millard 1969, 89).

Atra-Hasis is told to build a boat because a flood is coming. The boat is to be built like the world. He is to build a roof above and below to keep the waters of the deep and the waters from heaven out. Atra-Hasis’ world was completely surrounded by water. The firmament held up the heavenly waters, and the earth kept out the waters from the deep. The earth floated in a watery universe.

In Enuma Elish the world is like a shellfish or clam surrounded by an ocean of water. The world is shaped like a round clam with two halves. The upper half or vault is the firmament, and the lower half is the earth (Heidel 1942, 42-43; ANET, 67).

Egyptian Literature

Egyptian literature in the New Kingdom period has some interesting statements about the shape of the world. The Hymn to Ramses II is found on various stela inside the temple of Abu Simbel, Nubia. It proclaims:

The subjugator of the adversary, rich in years, great in victories, who reacheth the ends of the earth when seeking for battle, who maketh narrow the wide mouth of foreign princes.

The good god, the strong one, whom men praise, the lord, in whom men make their boast; who protecteth his soldiers, who maketh his boundaries on earth as he will, like Re when he shineth over the circle of the world, he, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt (Erman 1927, 258-9).

The phrase circle of the world indicates that the Egyptians viewed the earth as a disk which the sun-god shines over on its daily journey. There is another similar phrase in The War Against the Peoples of the Sea which comes from Ramses III’ temple of Medinet Habu at Thebes which says, They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth (ANET 1969, 262).

A relief on a sarcophagus cover from the fourth century BC pictures the earth as a circular disc surrounded by a circular sea (Keel 1978, 38). At the ends of the earth are the nations that surround Egypt. In the middle of the earth is the underworld which is reached through the gates of necropolis. So there are three rings in this picture; the circle of the sea, the circle of the earth, and then the circle of the underworld.

There is another much older picture of the circular earth surrounded by a circular sea which dates back around 700 BC (Keel 1978, 40). Surrounding the sea were the mountains of the horizon and beyond this circle the heavenly ocean begins. The heavenly ocean is called kbhw-hr which means upper waters of Horus (Ibid, 37). The outermost circle may represent the firmament which like a wall or dam that contained the heavenly ocean.

From the treasuries of Tutankhamun (1358-1349 BC) there is a drawing that represents the celestial and terrestrial oceans by two circular snakes (Ibid, 45). The earth is also drawn as a mountain in several places (Ibid, 42). In the book of Psalms the earth and mountains are used as parallel terms (Psa. 97:4-5, 98:7-8).

LXX Text

The LXX translation of gwj is with guros. Seybold states, the image conveyed by this word (guros ) appears to express the classical Babylonian idea of the ring of water surrounding the earth’s surface (TDOT 1980, 4:246). He declares that this rare word is especially used for a circular trench around a tree, but this is just one of the meanings of guros in the context of farming. Liddel and Scott (1940, 364) say, plant in a guros (a round hole). In the Letters to Alciphron Callicrates writes to Aegon saying, As the right season had come, I dug gurous (round holes) in the earth and made boqria (pits), and was ready to plant my young olive trees and to bring them running water, which comes to me from the neighboring ravine ( Letters of Alciphron, Aelian and Philostratus 1949, 101). A round hole in the earth is just an inverted vault, but this seems an unlikely way to describe the heavens. Guros may also just mean bent or curved and could be used to describe the vaulted heavens in Job 22:14, but Seybold is probably right in assuming that guros is referring to the idea of a circular trench of water surrounding the earth in Isaiah 40:22 which was the common belief of their day. The LXX translators probably understood gwh to refer to the sea around the earth. They could have clearly wrote the circle of the deep as was done in Proverbs 8:27 by Aquila, and Theodotion (Field 1964, 327), but stuck to a more literal rendering.

The LXX uses the ths ghs kuklw twice in 2 Chronicles 17:10 and Numbers 32:33. It means, the land round about, and not the circle of the earth.

In classical Greek guros is used primarily for farming, and never used to described the sky a s the LXX does. Another Greek word was usually used to describe the sky, and that was kuklos meaning circle (L&S 1940, 1007). Plato used the word sfairoeides to describe the heavens as a sphere (Archer-Hind 1973, 100). Strabo used sfairoeidhs meaning a ball, sphere, or globe, to describe the earth (Strabo 1924, 431; L&S 1940, 1452). If the Hebrews thought the earth or heavens were a sphere, they would have used the Hebrew word rwd which is used in Isaiah 22:18 for ball. I think the translators of the LXX were trying to avoid using a Greek word that would imply the controversial idea that the earth or heavens were spherical.

Aramaic Literature

The targum of Isaiah translates Isaiah 40:22 as follows:

Who caused the Shekinah of his glory to dwell in the mighty height, and all the inhabitants of the earth are counted as grasshoppers before him; who stretched out the heavens as a small thing, and spread them out like a glorious tent for the house of his Shekinah (Stenning 1949,132-5, see also Chilton, 79).

Here the circle of the earth is interpreted as in the might height or the zenith of heaven which would make the inhabitants on earth look like grasshoppers. This shows that the vault of the heavens is understood, and not a river encircling the earth as in the LXX.

Jewish Literature

There is a legend that Alexander the Great once ascended high above the earth until the world appeared like a ball and the sea like a dish (in which it was set; Cohen 1975, 36).

In Ber.R.iv.5 the thickness of the firmament is said to equal the thickness of the earth because gwj is used for both the earth (Isa 40:22) and of heaven (Job 22:14; Bowker 1969, 104).

In Ezekiel’s Exodus quoted by Eusebius says, upon Mount Sinai’s brow I saw A mighty throne that reached to heaven’s high vault. Thence I looked forth Upon the earth’s wide circle (1981, 470).

Latin Literature

In the Apocalypse of Esdras 6:1, Charlesworth (1983, 1:534) translates the Latin text as, At the beginning of the circle of the earth. The Latin text says, Initium terrena orbis (Klijin 1983, 38). The Syriac and the Ethopic do not have the word circle (Charlesworth 1983, 534). There is a very simple explanation for this. The Latin words, terrena orbis have been mistranslated. This common Latin phrase is used frequently in the Vulgate and means world. It is sometimes shortened to just orbis. This does not mean that Jerome thought the earth was round, because Cicero and other Latin writers used orbis terrarum to mean world. What they meant was the land that encircled the Mediterranean Sea. Mediterranean means the sea in the middle of the land. The known world at that time surrounded the Mediterranean Sea. The Vulgate uses orbis terrarum six times in the NT (Matt 24:14; Luke 2:1, 21:26; Acts 11:28, 24:5; Rev. 3:10, 12:9), and orbis two times (Acts 17:31, 19:27). The references mainly refer to the world or mankind and not the physical world, just like the Greek word kosmos .

Church Fathers

St. Clement of Rome

St. Clement of Rome in his epistle to the Corinthians (about 95 AD), briefly describes his view of the world as under the control of the creator which results in peace and enjoyment. He says the following in chapter twenty:

The heavens are moved by His direction and obey Him in peace. Day and night accomplish the course assigned to them by Him, without hindrance one to another. The sun and the moon and the dancing stars according to His appointment circle in harmony within the bounds assigned to them, without any swerving aside. The earth, bearing fruit in fulfillment of His will at her proper seasons, putteth forth the food that supplieth abundantly both men and beasts and all living things which are thereupon, making no dissension, neither altering anything which He hath decreed. Moreover, the inscrutable depths of the abysses and the unutterable statutes of the nether regions are constrained by the same ordinances. The basin of the boundless sea, gathered together by His workmanship into its reservoirs, passeth not the barriers wherewith it is surrounded; but even as He ordereth it, so it doeth. For he said. ‘So far shalt thou come, and thy waves shall be broken within thee.’ The ocean which is impassable for men, and the worlds beyond it, are directed by the same ordinances of the Master (Lightfoot and Harmer 1984, 66).

In this chapter there is the common three layer view of the world, heaven, earth, and underworld. Surrounding the earth is the ocean which man can not pass. Beyond the ocean are kosmoi. worlds. It is not certain what is meant by kosmoi. It may refer to the underworld and upperworlds.

St. Basil in his Hexaemeron states:

Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth. If it be spherical or cylindrical, if it resemble a disc and is equally rounded in all parts, or if it has the forth of a winnowing basket and is hollow in the middle; all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes. Shall I not rather exalt Him who, not wishing to fill our minds with these vanities, has regulated all the economy of Scripture in view of the edification and the making perfect of our souls (Homily 9)?

Cosmas Indicopleustes

An Egyptian monk named Cosmas Indicopleustes wrote a book called Christian Topography around 547 AD (McCrindle 1897, iv-x). Cosmas was probably a native of Alexandria. Because he was a merchant, he traveled to seas and countries that were far from home. There were many ecclesiastical controversies in his day. Cosmas probably belonged to the Nestorian sect.

The basic purpose of his book was to refute from scripture and common sense, the impious pagan beliefs that the earth was a sphere, and the center around which the heavens which were also a sphere, revolved. He also wrote against antipodes which means that people would be standing on their heads on the other side of the spherical earth.

Cosmas shaped the world through his literal interpretation of Hebrews 9:23-24 which says:

It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices that these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.

The tabernacle was a pattern of the universe.

The tabernacle is divided into two parts by means of a veil. This symbolizes the division of the universe into two worlds, an upper and lower, by means of the firmament. The table of shew-bread with its waved border represented the earth surrounded by the ocean. Since the table was twice as long as it was wide, and was place lengthwise from East to West, the earth also is a rectangular shape extending in length from East to West twice as long as it is wide. The surrounding ocean is unnavigatable, and is surrounded by another earth which is the seat of paradise, and the abode of man until the flood when Noah was carried over to this earth. McCrindle summarizes Cosmas’ shape of the world by saying:

The heavens come down to us in four walls, which, at their lower sides, are welded to the four sides of the earth beyond the ocean, each to each. The upper side of the northern wall, at the summit of heaven, curves round and over, till it unites with the upper side of the southern wall, and thus forms, in the shape of an oblong vault, the canopy of heaven, which Cosmas likens to the vaulted roof of a bathroom. This vast rectangular hall is divided at the middle into two stories by the firmament, which this serves as a ceiling for the lower story and a floor for the upper. The lower story is this world, where men and angels have their abode until the resurrection, and the story above is heaven-the place of the future state (McCrindle 1897, xvi).

From Isaiah which says that the heaven is His throne, and the earth is His footstool, he deduced that the earth must be at the bottom of the universe, founded on its own stability (Ibid, 28). Therefore in Job 26:7 it says, He hangeth the earth upon nothing. It is the Lord who holds up the earth (Heb 1:3, Job 38:4-6, Psa 102:5).

Cosmas believed that heaven was light, and tended upward while the earth was heavy, and tended downward. By binding heaven and earth together they would both naturally support each other. He then describes the heavens like an oblong vaulted vapor-bath. For it says in Isaiah 40:22, He who established heaven as a vault. Cosmas always quotes from the Septuagint. He seems to ignore the phrase the circle of the earth, since he views the earth as a rectangle. The LXX mistranslates the Hebrew word for veil as vault. At that time the LXX was considered inspired. Cosmas based his argument on the Greek word kamaran which means vault. Cosmas writes:

The divine scripture speaks thus in Moses concerning the second heaven: And God called the firmament heaven; and in the inspired David we find these words: Stretching out the heavens as a covering; and he adds: who covereth his upper chambers with waters; saying this evidently with respect to the firmament. But scripture, when coupling the two heavens together, frequently speaks of them in the singular, as but one, saying through Isaiah: He that established the heaven as a vaulted chamber, and stretched it out as a tent to dwell in; meaning here by the vaulted chamber the highest heaven, and by what is stretched out as a tent the firmament, and thus declaring them in the singular number to be bound together and to be of similar appearance (McCrindle 1897, 31-2).

The LXX reads kamaran which Cosmas translates as meaning vaulted chamber and not just chamber, in Isaiah 40:22b. Kamaran means arch, vault, vaulted room in the Greek (A&G 1957, 401). The Vulgate has qui extendit velut nihilum caelos which means, who stretches out the sky as nothing. The Hebrew word is qd. meaning curtain (BDB 1980, 201). Cosmas quotes David in Psalm 104:2-3 saying:

Stretching out the heaven as a curtain, and indicating still more clearly he says, Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters. Now, when scripture speaks of the extremities of heaven and earth, this cannot be understood as applicable to a sphere (McCrindle 1897, 313).

Isaiah again says, Thus saith the Lord, he that made the heaven and pitched it (Isa 42:5). The curtain refers to the firmament. Cosmas quotes Isaiah 45:18 which says, The Lord God who made the heaven and fixed it means the heavens are not revolving as the Greeks thought (Ibid, 313).

Cosmas states that the Babylonians were the first ones to say that the heavens were a sphere, and they were the first to be taught, through Isaiah the prophet, that it is not a sphere, but a vault (Ibid, 315).

About the second day of creation Cosmas quotes Severianus, the Bishop of Gabula, who explains:

He made this heaven, not the one above, but the visible heaven which he crystallized from the waters like ice. Thereupon a solid ice-like substance was produced in the midst of the waters, which made lighter the upper half of the water, and left the other half underneath. Isaiah testifies where he says: The heaven was made firm and solid as smoke (Isa 51:6). The heaven was crystalline, having been consolidated from the waters; but since it was to receive the flame of the sun and of the moon and the countless hosts of the stars, and was entirely filled with fire, then in order that it might not be dissolved, nor burned with the heat, He spread over the upper surfaces of heaven those sea-like expanses of water, with a view to soften, and as it were to anoint the upper surface and thus render it capable of resisting the scorching heat of the flames (Ibid, 336-8).

Cosmas takes everything in the Bible very literally.

Cosmas in book twelve claims that many old pagan writers testify to the accuracy of the OT. The Chaldaean books of Berosus tells of King Xisuthrus who was warned by God built a ship and escaped the great flood (Ibid, 375). Noah is King Xisuthrus. The genealogies with long life spans are explained by counting days not years, and are carefully correlated to the genealogies in Genesis. The Tower of Babel is also mentioned in Chaldeaen history.

Cosmas also appeals to the philosopher Timaeus in Plato’s boo where he describes the earth as surrounded by the ocean, and then the ocean is surrounded by the more remote earth called Atlantis which Cosmas calls Paradise(Ibid, 376). It may be more accurate to say that Atlantis and Paradise are big islands. In Timaeus it says that the island is bigger than Africa (Archer-Hind 1973, 79; 24E). It seems that Cosmas in order to add support to his views, quotes secular writers that agree with him, and criticizes those writers who do not agree with him.

Eusebius of Caesarea

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote a book called Preparation of the Gospel around 314 AD (Eusebius 1981, v; Mras 1954). He discusses different Greek philosophies showing how some are similar to the Bible, and how some are contrary. The following is a compilation of Greek views of the shape of the earth:

Thales and the Stoics: the earth is spherical.

Anaximander: it is like a stone pillar supporting the surfaces.

Anaximenes: like a table.

Leucippus: like a kettle-drum.

Democritus: like a disk in its extension, but hollow in the middle.

But Moses and the oracles of the Hebrews trouble themselves about none of these things; and with good reason, because it was thought that those who busied themselves about these matters gained no benefit in regard to the right conduct of life (Eusebius 1981, 913, 869).

Eusebius quotes briefly from scripture to demonstrate how God created the universe. God spoke and it came into being. He quoted Isaiah 450:22b, лo sthsas ws kamarav ton ouranon kai diateinas Ws skhnhn katoikein. which means, who set the heaven for a canopy, and spread it out as a tent to dwell in (Mras 1954, 384; 7:11,7). This is a direct quote from the LXX. He does not speculate on what the verse might mean.

St. Chrysostom

St. Chrysostom in Concerning the Statues quotes the following scriptures, who hath placed the sky as a vault, and spread it out as a tent over the earth. And again, Who holdeth the circle of heaven (Schaff 1979, 9:409). St. Chrysostom is following the LXX, but instead of writing circle of the earth he writes circle of heaven He may be interpreting the phrase to refer to heaven or thinking about the circle in Ecclesiasticus 43:12-12.

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa in book two of Against Eunomius writes, Who sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and hath meted out heaven with the span (Schaff and Wace 1979, 5:125). Here Gregory is not quoting the LXX which says, It is he that comprehends the circle of the earth, but from the Vulgate.


Theophilus writing to Autolycus following the LXX says:

The heaven, therefore, being dome-shaped covering, comprehended matter which was like a clod. And so another prophet, Isaiah by name, spoke in these words: It is God who made the heavens as a vault, and stretched them as a tent to dwell in.This heaven which we see has been called firmament, and to which half the water was taken up that it might serve for rains, and showers, and dews to mankind. And half the water was left on earth for rivers, and fountains, and seas (Schaff and Wace 1979, 2:100).

Theophilus interprets the circle of the earth as referring to the vault of heaven.


Novatian in his Treatise Concerning the Trinity, following the LXX writes:

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