Job and a Flat Earth


Job 26.7

He stretches out the north over the void, and hangs the earth on nothing.

This verse is one of many those who believe in biblical inerrancy will point to in order to claim the biblical authors were fully aware the spherical earth orbits the sun. The ESV, above, uses phrases like ‘the void’ and ‘hangs on nothing’. The book of Job, apologists insist, predicted the discoveries of modern astronomy centuries before anyone else could. (This is not actually true. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians had figured out the earth was spherical. Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of the earth.)

This would be an amazing bit of scientific prognostication for the ancient Israelites. However, between misleading translations and a handful of cultural ideas being alluded to in so few words, a modern astronomical model is not what the text hints at. The earth is not flat, of course, but the ancient biblical authors did think it was.

The North

The most immediately problematic element of the text is the emphasis on ‘the north’. While the synonymous parallelism of the verse does somewhat restrict us on how far we can read this in any direction, this specification of ‘the north’ should get more attention than it tends to receive. The Hebrew behind ‘the north’ is the term ṣāpôn—usually transliterated ‘Zaphon’—with no definite article.

In Isaiah the king of Babylon boasts that he will rise to heaven.

Isaiah 14.13

‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly, on the heights of ṣāpôn; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’

A psalm praises the glory of Jerusalem:

Psalm 48.2

beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, on the sides of ṣāpôn, the city of the great King.

Job describes the glory of God:

Job 37.22

Out from ṣāpôn comes golden splendor; around God is awesome majesty.

(Compare this to Ezekiel’s depiction of ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yhwh’ in Ezek 1, a human-like figure emerging from a fiery stormcloud in the North.)

While the word ṣāpôn can be translated as ‘north’, especially when used in conjunction with the word for ‘south’, we find in these circumstances it is not being used for a general direction, but for something else.

In biblical texts, various mountains are associated with revelations from God, or with God’s majesty. In two overlapping exodus traditions, Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb are the mountain where God revealed himself to Moses, and where he gave Israel their law code (Exo 19.18; Deut 4.15). God is also described as having revealed himself from Mount Seir and Mount Paran (Deut 33.2; Judg 5.4; Hab 3.3). In broader Southwest Asian culture, Mount Zaphon was associated with the gods. Mount Zaphon was the domain of the divine, functionally equivalent to heaven.

When those texts in Isa 14, Psa 48, and Job 37 are read as referring to Mount Zaphon as opposed to merely ‘the north’, everything clicks into place: the king of Babylon boasts that he will ascend Mount Zaphon to appoint himself king over creation; Jerusalem is set on Mount Zion, figuratively resting in the shadow of Mount Zaphon; God’s glory is revealed from his domain on Mount Zaphon.

The term ṣāpôn in Job 26.7 should be read in the same way: ‘He stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth on nothing’.

The verb used here, ‘to stretch out’, is frequently used to describe God ‘stretching out’ heaven in his act of creation (e.g. Jer 10.12; Isa 40.22; Zech 12.1; Psa 104.2; Job 9.8). The use of this verb reinforces the identification of ṣāpôn as the heaven-analogous Mount Zaphon.

The Void

The Hebrew term here is tōhû, found in several places in the Hebrew scriptures, sometimes in conjunction with the term bōhû. It is found first in Gen 1.2, where the earth is described as ‘tōhû and bōhû’. Along with Gen 1.2, it is used a handful of times to describe the world before God shaped it (Jer 4.23; Isa 45.18).

However, it is frequently used to describe locations, with a meaning of ‘desolate’ or ‘ruined’ (e.g. Deut 32.10; Job 12.24; Psa 107.40). It is also used to describe objects, as ‘worthless’ or ‘vain’. Its meaning is not ‘void’, as if referring to the emptiness of space beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

In ancient Israelite cosmology, the universe’s initial state of non-creation was ‘desolate and waste’ (tōhû and bōhû), depicted as a primordial ocean of chaos, called ‘the deep’ or ‘the sea’.

Genesis 1.2

The earth was desolate and waste, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

For Job 26.7 to use tōhû in this context, the author is not describing the present, but the past. He is not telling us about part of the universe as it currently is (i.e. the presently-existing ‘outer space’), he is telling us about what the world was like prior to God’s act of creation. In the midst of the primeval ‘desolate’ state of non-creation, God created his own domain, Mount Zaphon.

The Nothing

Per the parallelism we noted before, the second line is essentially restating the concept being conveyed by the first line, that God created the world: whereas God created Mount Zaphon in the midst of the desolate non-creation, so he ‘hangs the earth on nothing’.

The issue here is the Hebrew word translated as ‘nothing’, bᵉlîymâh. This word is found only here in all of the Hebrew bible. While the Greek translation of Job does turn this into the word ‘nothing’ (οὐδενός), whatever bᵉlîymâh’s literal, etymological translation may be, its actual meaning is suggested by its parallelism with ‘desolate’ (tōhû). In other words, bᵉlîymâh likewise describes the uncreated ‘desolate’ world before God acted to create; it does not describe the emptiness of space in the present state of the universe.


Based on the above information, Job 26.7 is not depicting a spherical earth flying through space around the sun. It is instead fully in step with the cosmology understood throughout the ancient Southwest Asian milieu. I suggest the following paraphrase of Job 26.7 to help shed light on its meaning (especially when read in parallel with Genesis 1.2 and the various texts mentioned above):



He stretches out ṣāpôn

He stretches out Mount Zaphon

over tōhû

over the desolate deep

and hangs the earth

and fixes the earth

upon bᵉlîymâh.

upon the surface of the waters.

No comments:

Post a Comment