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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 '14 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 '16 at 14:16
  • הַיֹּשֵׁב֙ עַל־ח֣וּג הָאָ֔רֶץ וְיֹשְׁבֶ֖יהָ כַּחֲגָבִ֑ים הַנּוֹטֶ֤ה כַדֹּק֙ שָׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמְתָּחֵ֥ם כָּאֹ֖הֶל לָשָֽׁבֶת Mar 19 '17 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 '18 at 23:48
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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 ark 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '16 at 14:52
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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 '17 at 14:18
  • You may wish to review the question (and answers to) According to Genesis, where do the birds fly? Mar 24 '17 at 4:28

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