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Does this passage in Isaiah indicate that the heavens (e.g. universe) is expanding, in agreement with scientific observations? Am I interpreting this correctly? It would be pretty amazing if this is indeed the correct interpretation.

[Isa 40:22 NASB] 22 It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.

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    Hi Jonathan, we can't really handle "what does the bible say about X?" here, but based on the body of your question I am pretty sure that you actually want to focus on interpretation of a specific passage, which I think should be on-topic. I edited the title accordingly, but feel free to edit further if your intended meaning was different.
    – Susan
    Nov 30, 2014 at 14:49
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    Going out on a limb here because I can't support this with the text... I'm with you. I think there is something here. That said, I'm not convinced it's saying the universe is "expanding" the way science sees it. But the chapter involves The Holy Spirit. IMO, that breath inhales and exhales (to an infinite degree), so you might say it contracts and "expands." I think "heavens" (shamayim) is another way of saying "The Holy Spirit," so stretch[ing] "like a curtain" is the inhale/exhale (contract/"expand") of The Holy Spirit and the "tent to dwell in" is the person whom the spirit rests on.
    – Daisy
    Apr 20, 2016 at 14:16
  • הַיֹּשֵׁב֙ עַל־ח֣וּג הָאָ֔רֶץ וְיֹשְׁבֶ֖יהָ כַּחֲגָבִ֑ים הַנּוֹטֶ֤ה כַדֹּק֙ שָׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמְתָּחֵ֥ם כָּאֹ֖הֶל לָשָֽׁבֶת
    – user17080
    Mar 19, 2017 at 16:38
  • FYI, found another verse that discusses about the same thing: [Zec 12:1 ESV] 1 The oracle of the word of the LORD concerning Israel: Thus declares the LORD, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him:
    – Jonathan
    Jan 9, 2018 at 23:48

4 Answers 4

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Short Answer: No.


This is a great question, and I'm glad you asked it. This verse is often used by Christian apologists to show that the Bible was ahead of its times in its scientific claims. While this sounds convincing to modern readers of English translations, it is a very poor argument to use.

Exhibit A: The word "stretch"

To many, the idea of God "stretching" out the heavens sounds an awful lot like the "expansion" of the universe, but that is not what the word means. The Hebrew word נָטָה has the idea of something being spread out. Imagine standing upright and sweeping your arm in an arc from one side to the other (like you were painting a rainbow) and saying "God spread out the heavens". This gives a good picture of what the word means. It can be translated (depending on context) as spread out, reach out, stretch out, extend, or bend.

Exhibit B: Context

The context really drives our understanding of Hebrew words and helps us move from semantic range to authorial intent. So what did the author intend to say here? Was he trying to explain an astronomical theory which wouldn't be discovered for another 3,000 years? No. Let's look at his own description of this "spreading out" of the heavens:

Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain

Do curtains experience a Big-Bang-esque ever-increasing expansion of internal matter? No. Curtains are simply spread out to cover a window. The author's meaning here is simply that God spread out the heavens like a covering.

Exhibit C: Hebrew parallelism

Any reader of the Hebrew text will notice that in poetic passages (exp. in songs, proverbs, & prophecy), parallelism abounds. The Hebrew people liked to say one thing with two words (or phrases.) They did this at times for clarity, at times for an appealing sound, and at times because... well... that's just the way they wrote! The two parallel words / concepts were often linked by "and". We have an example of that literary device here in this passage:

Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.

The "stretching" is put in parallel with the "spreading"; these two are signifying the same thing.

Conclusion

The author's intention was simply to say that God spread out the heavens like a covering for the earth.

While in practice the Isa. 40:22 apologetic can be effective in reassuring believers and convincing non-believers that the Bible is the word of God, it should not be used, because that is not what the text is saying. We need to be careful to respect the authorial intent behind the words that we're reading and not use (abuse) the author's words for our own purposes -- particularly if we claim to have a deep respect for the Scriptures.

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  • I believe this was a very good, reasonable analysis, although I am still not 100% convinced the Bible is not saying this. I agree that if the Bible is not actually saying this, we should not "say" it does, and thank you for showing me this viewpoint, which I had not previously considered. I am very interested in digging further into this to find the true meaning if there is any further we can dig. The spreading out the heavens like a tent to dwell in to me could support an expanding scenario (although yes, the tent too stops expanding when set up fully).
    – Jonathan
    Dec 2, 2014 at 14:50
  • One thing I wonder about is how "perfect" the similarity is on what is being described. For example, the comparisons in Song of Solomon typically seem to pick a feature of the thing being described, and apply it to the person being described, like in this example (e.g. her teeth are very white and none are missing if I understand it right). Not all qualities persist though, e.g. her teeth aren't wooly :-) [Sng 4:2 NASB] 2 "Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes Which have come up from their washing, All of which bear twins, And not one among them has lost her young.
    – Jonathan
    Dec 2, 2014 at 15:00
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    @Jonathan To my knowledge tents did not "expand" in their day; their coverings were manually draped over their supports. So it wasn't like today with our elastic carbon-fiber rods that sort of explode into place when you shake it. Point being, the "tent" is mentioned here as an example of a covering which is spread out over the tent supports, in much the same way as a curtain is spread out over a window.
    – Jas 3.1
    Dec 2, 2014 at 16:21
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    @Jonathan Regarding the Song of Songs example, the key in both places is to recognize what similarity the author is trying to emphasize. Obviously in Song of Songs he's not relating them on the basis of them both being wooly. So in the Isaiah example, we need to ask what similarity the heavens have to a curtain or a tent -- and the answer is that they were all spread out as a sort of covering for something, as the text indicates.
    – Jas 3.1
    Dec 2, 2014 at 16:23
  • I am curious, what would the Hebrew word be that explains spreading out, as in the way the universe is expanding (if there is even a good equivalent)?
    – Jonathan
    Apr 23, 2016 at 14:52
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Yes, it does say that it is still stretching, as in expanding, just like it says that God is still spreading out the Earth, which is happening, when you consider sea floor spreading, which is creating new crust.

In the end, God will roll up the heavens like a scroll, like how Einstein explained wormholes. All the elements will melt with fervent heat.

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    – agarza
    Oct 31, 2023 at 14:00
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The question I'm answering is:

Does Isaiah 40 indicate (along with science) that the universe is expanding?

This is the text in question:

Isaiah 40:1-31 NASB95

1 "Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God. 2 "Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD'S hand Double for all her sins." 3 A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. 4 "Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; 5 Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see [it] together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Call out." Then he answered, "What shall I call out?" All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, When the breath of the LORD blows upon it; Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever. 9 Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, Lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, bearer of good news; Lift [it] up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 Behold, the Lord GOD will come with might, With His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him And His recompense before Him. 11 Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry [them] in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing [ewes.] 12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, And marked off the heavens by the span, And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure, And weighed the mountains in a balance And the hills in a pair of scales? 13 Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, Or as His counselor has informed Him? 14 With whom did He consult and [who] gave Him understanding? And [who] taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge And informed Him of the way of understanding? 15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust. 16 Even Lebanon is not enough to burn, Nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering. 17 All the nations are as nothing before Him, They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless. 18 To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him? 19 [As for] the idol, a craftsman casts it, A goldsmith plates it with gold, And a silversmith [fashions] chains of silver. 20 He who is too impoverished for [such] an offering Selects a tree that does not rot; He seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman To prepare an idol that will not totter. 21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22 It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. 23 He [it is] who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. 24 Scarcely have they been planted, Scarcely have they been sown, Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, But He merely blows on them, and they wither, And the storm carries them away like stubble. 25 "To whom then will you liken Me That I would be [his] equal?" says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these [stars,] The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of [His] power, Not one [of them] is missing. 27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God"? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth Does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. 29 He gives strength to the weary, And to [him who] lacks might He increases power. 30 Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, 31 Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up [with] wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.

Isaiah says nothing about the heavens expanding. What Isaiah wants is for his readers to expand their list of possibilities to include expanding their national borders. To inspire this he (the YHVH religion) exhorts Israel to begin taking over their neighbors through violence. This is the expansion of which Isaiah speaks, and with what he is concerned. He's saying, "Wake up and expand your borders through violence and the LORD is in just the right state of mind to assist your conquests."

However, I see no connection with Einstein's mathematical models of the Universe.

In the writings of Moses/Moishe, "heaven" is just an old way of saying "sky". In scriptural cosmology, the "sky" is not "the universe" but rather a solid structure that is above the dry land. It supported part of the waters of the original abyss:

Genesis 1:6-10 ISV

6 Then God said, "Let there be a canopy [a solid structure] between bodies of water, separating bodies of water from bodies of water!" 7 So God made a canopy that separated the water beneath the canopy from the water above it. And that is what happened: 8 God called the canopy "sky." The twilight and the dawn were the second day. 9 Then God said, "Let the water beneath the sky come together into one area, and let dry ground appear!" And that is what happened: 10 God called the dry ground "land," and he called the water that had come together "oceans." And God saw how good it was.

Since the sky is above the "waters below" and above the dry land, it isn't the "universe" as we know it. Instead it is a solid structure supporting water for the rain. The universe as we know it doesn't have waters above it or below it.

No one with a creed can possibly comprehend this passage.

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This is another misunderstanding done by people with need off associating religion with science . Back in the days they associated stuff with objects and things that were common to them like objectivity and scale differences from the point of view of one human looking down to an ant or a grasshopper, heavens or better said sky with something that you can bent and expand like a courtin, remember that they associated many times the sky with the heavens, for example in Genesis 8:2 ( Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky)... Jesus told us that the heavens are not above remember that!! Because if they were birds would already have been there. So it's basically just a methaphor way of speaking

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  • Jesus told us that the heavens are not above remember that!! Because if they were birds would already have been there I am at a loss, care to explain, please.
    – Ted O
    Mar 18, 2017 at 14:18
  • You may wish to review the question (and answers to) According to Genesis, where do the birds fly? Mar 24, 2017 at 4:28

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