Astronomy and the Watchtower Society
by Alan Feuerbacher
| Like the Stars of the Heavens in Number
Star Differs from Star
The Statutes of the Heavens
The Circle of the Earth
A short article on page 25 of the April 8, 1988 Awake!, says concerning this scripture:
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:
Also, Jeremiah 33:22 says:
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, lets make a few assumptions. First assume that the sand is at the sea coasts, and the sea coasts cover one percent of the earths 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:
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 dont 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
Poetic license does not constitute scientific proof, even if it sometimes produces an
interesting correlation between our rough estimates and selected verses in the
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:
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.
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. Strongs Concordance 3 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 meanings 4 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 :
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 Bibles 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 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, its 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 Bibles 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.
Awake! of September 22, 1981, page 25, says concerning this scripture:
The November 1, 1977 Watchtower said on page 646:
The most extensive discussion Ive been able to find on the Bibles use of circle of the earth is in the December 22, 1977 Awake! which said on page 17, after quoting Isaiah 40:22:
The ancients in general may have thought the earth was flat, but that doesnt 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:
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 earths 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 suns 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 earths radius.7 The earths 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 Moons phases.
The Greeks knew many things that apparently other ancient peoples didnt, 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:
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.
A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament 9 gives similar renderings:
A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language 10 gives:
Note that in the above references the English words for chuwg all refer to plane figures. Paraphrasing Websters 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
In the New World Translation Daniel 4:10-11 relates Nebuchadnezzars dream:
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 Daniels 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 Interpreters Bible argues similarly: 11
This picture in Daniel is further strengthened by the account of the Devils tempting Jesus. Matthew 4:8 says:
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:
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:
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:
Job 37:18 says the heavens are hard like a metal mirror:
As to viewing the vault of heaven as a thin metal sheet, Isaiah 34:4 mentions:
The Interpreters Bible, Vol. 5, says concerning Isaiah 40:22: 12
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:
The Interpreters Bible 13 comments:
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 Ive 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:
This doesnt 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 Interpreters Bible 15 gives one:
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 Bibles reference to the earth hanging on nothing is not unique.
The Society argues in the Insight book, under the subject expanse, that the Bibles use of this word (Hebrew, raqia) to refer to the heavens is consistent with the Hebrew picture of the earth as a sphere:
As usual, its not quite that simple. The previous paragraph in the Insight book just got finished saying that the
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:
After having looked up for myself the meaning of expanse and raqia I dont see how Insight can argue as it does. According to Websters New Collegiate Dictionary, expanse means
The New Strongs Exhaustive Concordance gives the translation of firmament, raqia and related words in several entries on page 363:
A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language by Ernest Klein renders raqia:
The Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon gives its definitions on page 956:
Ezekiel 1:22 reads, in the New World Translation:
The Jewish Publication Societys Tanakh renders the verse:
Under the subject Awe, Insight, Vol. 1, page 222, describes this verse:
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 Societys 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:
Note that the scripture not only compares the skies to a metal mirror, but alludes to Gods creation of the sky by beating it out like a metal mirror.
Other uses of raqia in the Bible are obviously literal. 2 Samuel 22:43 says:
Exodus 39:3 says:
Ezekiel 6:11 says:
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 Societys 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 Ive quoted imply? Either concept may be argued to be consistent with Genesis 1:6, 7:
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.
It does not help to claim that the expanse is the atmosphere there is little justification for it other than the Societys 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 says 17
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
dont 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.
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