To stretch or not to stretch (the heavens): A discussion on ancient and modern meanings, part 1
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I, with my own hands, stretched out (natah) the heavens, and all their hosts didst I command. Isaiah 45:12
The Hebrew Bible often speaks of God “stretching out” the heavens. But what in the world does that mean?! Does that mean “stretch out” like a rubber band? Might this expression even have something to do with modern scientific notions, like on spacetime, i.e. the relativistic notion that space is actually something that can even be warped and, yes, stretched? Or would all of these suggestions be nothing more than gross eisegesis: reading in modern understandings into Scripture? If there is a simpler, non-modern idea behind these descriptions, how still could the biblical skies be “stretched,” if the “skies” are nothing more than emptiness or air?! So again, what might this expression have meant in antiquity? And lastly, might there be a halfway meeting between the two, between the modern and the ancient notions?
While I have long been of the view that there is a simpler notion behind these passages, one that the Hebrews could and did conceive of when they used this terminology (beginning with, most importantly, the description of the second day of creation in Genesis 1), I have also long been puzzled and fuzzy on how or where the modern and the ancient notions may (or may not) touch one another.
I envision this as a blog post / discussion, probably to come in multiple parts. So while many things I stand strongly on here, on other points I gladly admit I am finding my way in the fog, or lately: the darned smokey haze (I’m referring to the poor air quality lately)! This post was occassioned by the fact that I am in discussions with some creationist and theologian friends right now, some of whom are adamant that there can be no touch point between the two (as this would be, for them, unambiguously eisegesis), and others who have leaned to the other side: namely being too quick to read in modern scientific notions, before trying to first ask if a more basic ancient notion was in view originally. I guess I have long been somewhere between these camps. While I think I have a long track record of doing rigorous exegesis, and of staying well away from reading quantum mechanics directly into Scripture, still, as a biblical creationist, I feel it would be wrong to state I believe, on the one hand, that the things God says he did and made in Genesis literally happened, but then to drive a huge wedge between the heavens and the earth described in the text, with the heavens and the earth that we know and can scientifically analyze today. All that said: my focus in this post and in general has been on trying to first understand the Scriptural description. What did God mean in that verse above, about stretching out the heavens by his own hands?!
Spacetime and light waves
My focus here is on the biblical expression, but quickly, let’s first list a few of the modern notions, which can seem to eerily fit with the biblical expression of “stretching out the heavens”:
- spacetime – the notion by many physicists today that space is not just a void, but is actually a thing that can be warped?
- the wave nature of light: i.e. the notion that light is a wave, which seems to indicate some invisible light medium exists. Note that a wave on the surface of a pond only exists because there is a body of water which got disturbed in the first place. In the case of light however, its waves are transverse (unlike waves in a liquid), which seems to indicate such a ’light medium’ is solid or crystalline in nature, as crazy as that seems (thus the word “quasi-rigid”).
- cosmic-expansion (in the modern sense), as discovered by Edwin Hubble, based on the discovery of the redshift of galaxies (the Hubble relation)?
“My own hands stretched out the heavens” - Isaiah 45:12
Let us now consider a few of these “stretching out the heavens” verses. Later we will delve into the key Hebrew verb, natah, but first I think it would be good to soak these in, and draw out some contextual points that may prove helpful.
אָנֹכִי עָשִׂיתִי אֶרֶץ וְאָדָם עָלֶיהָ בָרָאתִי אֲנִי יָדַי נָטוּ שָׁמַיִם וְכָל צְבָאָם צִוֵּיתִי׃
I myself made the earth, and upon her didst I create man. I, with my own hands, stretched out (natah) the heavens, and all their hosts didst I command.1
Let’s note the following:
- The earth is “made”
- The heavens are “stretched out” (or “extended”: i.e. “natahed”).
Less of concern to our current inquiry, but still important:
- Man is “created”
- The armies of heaven are “commanded / ordered” (in view here is the stars, arranged in constellations)
One point that I think is very important:
The earth is made here, whereas the heavens are stretched out. As we will see, this is the norm: the heavens in Scripture are “stretched out” as the main verb that’s used for their creation.
Why the emphasis?
Another point I want to draw attention to is the heavy emphasis God Himself was making in this passage, which should be apparent from my more literal translation. “I myself made the earth,” and “I, with my own hands, stretched out the heavens.” I have to give credit to many versions today that, unlike what I would have expected, did a good job at bringing this out.2
The Hebrew is emphatic with both of these expressions. God himself is emphasizing that it is He and He alone who did this act. Soon we’ll see another of these passages that directly states as much ("I alone": לבדי). And even mentioning the hands is a technique of emphasis. Imagine telling your family: “I washed the dishes, with my own hands!” You would only do that for particular emphasis, such as if someone questioned: “Are you sure it was you who did the dishes?”
Why is this important? Well for one, how notable it is that our God considered it a matter of emphasis and of weight that we know that he stretched out the heavens.
Perhaps Daniel the prophet could have told us why this matters. While there were always innumerable (typically terrestrial and lower) gods, the God Daniel professed to know in the presence of earthly pagan kings was none other than: “The God of heaven” (Daniel 2:28)
Another thing is: As mankind has always known, the skies above reveal the biggest thing we can conceive of. Homer of the Greeks would speak of the ‘broad heaven’ (οὐρανὸς εὐρύς, e.g. Il. 3:364) or of the ‘great (mega) heaven’ (μέγας οὐρανός, e.g. Il. 5:750), just like Montanans speak of their state as “Big Sky Country.” If anything is Big, it’s the heavens, while we down here are in the doldrums: the earth is the footstool that the smelly boots get hung up on. But the heavens are the place of God’s vast and mighty throne (Isaiah 66:1). If there’s one characteristic about the sky / heavens, it’s that they are broad and endlessly big and spacious. How fitting that God wants to emphasize that it is He who stretched out that wide open space. The God who could make the infinite expanse of the heavens and the heavens of heavens, is truly the greatest of all gods, and the King of all kings. Our God wants us to know that it is he who stretched out that broad and endless expanse, by his own hands.
And despite the enormity of that expanse, these heavens are said by God in Isaiah 40:12 to be so small that he measures them off by hand-breaths. Think on that: How many spans (width of the hand) would you use before using a bigger measure, like your cubit (hand plus forearm length) to measure instead? Surely no more than a handful or two. Yet God is so big, that the heavens are small enough to use the tiny measuring rod of his own hand-span to measure them off by.
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?” (NIV)
Metaphors, similes, and phenomenons, oh my!
While this may be a point I will have to attempt to argue later, it is clear to me that there is no metaphor or simile at play here, which has been a matter of debate in these discussions. Nor is there any indication that phenomenological language is in use. Among other things, note that “stretching out” the heavens is parallel to “making” the earth:
“I myself made the earth”
Is that also phenomenological language? Of course not! How about the creation of man on the earth, is that phenomenological language too?! Our atheist or skeptical opponents rightly call us to task often on abusing the phenomenological language arument, a point I have partially defended in their favor. We can’t be so sloppy as this, to throw out that nebulous claim whenever it seems convenient to sweep anything under the rug. They often claim: No, the Hebrews said this because that is what they really believed… On the other hand, what our opponents miss is that the God of Job, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that most mysteries of creation were not revealed (“tell me, if you know”), with the upshot that we don’t have to argue that the Hebrews necessarily knew the earth doesn’t actually rise or set, that that is a grey area that falls off the edge of the page of what was ever claimed, so to speak. (Please see above article for a fuller discussion)
As a quick reminder:
- Simile: “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
- Metaphor: “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare, As You Like It). “He is a night owl,” and etcetera.
While there are different kinds of metaphors, I would encourage one who wants to make this case to point to what particular type of metaphor is being used either here, or elsewhere (this article lists four types of metaphor: implied, sustained, dead, and mixed, none of which seem remotely to apply to a passage like this).
Later we will see that the “stretching out the heavens” language is paired with a simile, namely by likening God’s stretching out the heavens to him inclining a tent. In that case the word “like” is directly used. But in at least half of these cases, this language is employed quite apart from any simile. While it’s a stretch, perhaps someone could argue that all these cases involved an implicit comparison to the tent simile, but I believe they would have a very tough case defending this. And regardless, in the case of a simile, the mere existence of a simile / comparison doesn’t negate the literal notion.
To the contrary, I believe it is clear that this “stretching out” action / verb is the main action presented by the biblical text and by the Hebrew prophets to describe how God created the heavens: While the earth is usually said to be “founded” (foundation type language), in the case of the heavens by far and large the language is one of expansion (growing from a smaller if not zero state, to their enormous if not seemingly infinite size today). There’s every reason to believe that’s precisely what they had in mind.
עֹשֵׂה אֶרֶץ בְּכֹחוֹ מֵכִין תֵּבֵל בְּחָכְמָתוֹ וּבִתְבוּנָתוֹ נָטָה שָׁמָיִם׃
Who makes the earth by his power, who establishes the world by his wisdom, and who by his understanding stretched out (nth) the heavens.
We’ve front loaded much of this discussion centered on Isaiah 45:12 above, so the following will be brief:
- The earth is “made”
- The heavens are “stretched out” (nth)
Also, no hint of metaphor, simile, or of phenomenological language is to be found here. The literal meaning of the text, as with Isaiah passage, is that the heavens are “stretched out,” just like the earth is “made.”
Note that this verse comes immediately after the beautiful verse before, which was a very special message God gave to the prophet Jeremiah’s to deliver to the nations. Fittingly therefore that one verse switches from Hebrew to Aramaic (the lingua franca of the day). That verse emphasized that the nations do not know the God who made the heavens and the earth.
I believe it’s evident with many of these verses that they are somewhat iconic in nature: God makes or founds the foundations of the earth, while the heavens he makes or in particular “stretches them out.”
מַשָּׂא דְבַר יְהוָה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם יְהוָה נֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיֹסֵד אָרֶץ וְיֹצֵר רוּחַ אָדָם בְּקִרְבּוֹ
The burden of the word of YHWH concerning Israel: Thus says YHWH, who stretches out (nth) the heavens, and who founds the earth, and who forms the spirit of man within him.
Here we see YHWH deliver his burden to his prophet, beginning with this opening line in which YHWH (“thus says YHWH”) first orients the listeners with three powerful statements of identification the LORD has, and that he obviously wants them to know about him (like is often done in the Torah: “I am YHWH, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”). This time the heavens get mentioned before the earth as well. He is the one who:
- stretches out (nth) the heavens
- founds (yasad) the earth
- forms man’s spirit within him
Again, there is no metaphor or phenomenological language here. Except that, as I’ve heard it said before, all language is in a sense figurative. So one might complain that the earth being “founded” is figurative, but I would say: are we to take all terminology from them? If God makes a hard ground that allows the world to walk upon it and to build their lives upon it, is it not appropriate to speak of that in terms of “founding” (i.e. laying the foundations of the earth)?
Pardon my archaic translation here, but some of these archaic forms (e.g. ‘didst’) serve the purpose of allowing one to more closely reflect the Hebrew word order and emphasis. ↩︎
E.g. NKJV: “I—My hands—stretched out the heavens,” or NRSV: “it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,” NIV2011: “My own hands stretched out the heavens,” etc. ↩︎