It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” (Isaiah 40:22)
Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein… (Isaiah 42:5)
Thus saith the LORD, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the LORD that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself… (Isaiah 44:24)
Hugh Ross and others have very few exegetical arguments to make their version of the “Big Bang” theory, the so-called “Progressive Creationism” look like it came from the Bible. One of them recurs in his presentation: that the Bible says God is (even now) stretching out the universe. Now, apart from the question of whether or not the universe is indeed expanding, (which falls within the domain of observational science) this is a patent misrepresentation of what the Bible actually says, as an examination of the texts will clearly show.
One does not need to know Hebrew to understand the arguments that follow. One only needs to know how to use a lexicon, and how to reason soundly upon the scriptural text.
Our first observation is that this stretching out is a figure of speech – poetic imagery, not scientific data. It is intended to set forth an appropriate image of something beyond our experience and understanding. In another place (Job 37:18) the Bible uses very different imagery to represent the same truth, “Hast thou with him spread out (raw-kah’) the sky, which is strong, and as a molten looking glass?” Here, the sky is made of metal, formed into a bowl and polished to a mirror finish. How different from the thin gauze curtain of Isaiah’s picture! But both representations are true as far as the picture of Almighty God and of his work that they create in our minds.
The verb used, naw-taw’, here translated “stretcheth” has many significations, but is in the Bible commonly used of the setting up of a tent. It is sometimes translated “pitch”, and therefore can mean the whole process of setting up a tent. Tents, in ancient times, were made of relatively inelastic fabrics. One did not so much stretch a tent as simply spread it out. A tent was unfolded and placed on a frame, which had already been set up. Then the tent fabric was laid across the frame, spread out, and finally secured under light tension. The only sense in which the tent was “stretched” is that it was made taut – not expanded. Likewise for “curtain” in this text. This word occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, but it could mean the fabric of a tent; for this sentence seems to be a simple parallelism. The heavens are being compared first to a “curtain”, then to a tent; but the nouns may be nearly synonymous, as the verbs are.
Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint reads: “It is he that comprehends the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants in it are as grasshoppers; he that set up the heaven as a chamber, and stretched it out as a tent to dwell in…”
Keil and Delitzsch render it, “He who is enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants resemble grasshoppers; who has spread out the heavens like gauze, and stretched them out like a tent-roof to dwell in…” (See also Psalm 104:2.) Note the use of the past tense.
Does this accord with the idea of a continually-expanding universe? No, the Hebrew word suggests no such analogy.
But Ross will tell us that the verbs used are in the present tense. God “stretcheth out the heavens, and spreadeth them out…” Ross is not a Hebrew scholar. In biblical Hebrew, the idea of time is not always expressed in the verb tense; as it is in English, which has past, present and future tenses. There are only two tenses: the “perfect”, used of completed action, and the “imperfect” used of action not yet completed, or even not yet begun.
In our verse, both verbs are in the perfect tense, which is most naturally read as a past action. If the “stretching out” were still going on, the imperfect would have been required. The Commentary on Isaiah by Keil and Delitzsch renders both these verbs in the past tense. So did the translators of the Greek Old Testament. They all understood this as a reference to God’s creative work in the beginning of the world – not of something going on now.
Why, then, are the verbs rendered into the present tense in the AV? Isn’t this wrong? No, it’s not wrong. It is not unknown to use the present tense to express things that are past. “So I tell him what’s on my mind, and what do you think he did?” This mode of speech occurs very commonly in the Greek New Testament as well (Matthew 4:19). It is used to bring the listener into the action, as if it were occurring in the present. The AV’s translators had a fine poetic and dramatic sense, and they used it here. There was no danger of them being misunderstood at that time, for no one had ever proposed or imagined the incoherent theory of an “expanding universe”.
Is there further support for the claim that this “stretching out of the heavens” refers to the creation? Indeed there is. On day two of creation week, God makes the “firmament in the midst of the waters”(verse 6). This firmament is identified as “heaven” in verse 8. It is not outer space that is referred to, for the creation account is only meant to explain the origin of those aspects of the universe that belong to the common experience of mankind. Besides, space has no “waters above” it, as this firmament has (if these waters are the clouds) or had (if they represent the antediluvian water canopy). For the same reasons, it is not the heaven in which God dwells. It is the visible heaven, which looks to us as if it were a gigantic dome. In this heaven the sun, moon and stars appear. It is a highly-important part of our world. Now the Hebrew word here translated “firmament” might be better rendered “expanse”.
This noun, raw-kee-ah, is related to the verb, raw-kah’, which we saw used in the quotation from Job above. It refers to the process of forming a bowl out of sheet metal. There are two ways to make a metal bowl in a pre-industrial world. One is by “spinning”, done with a sort of lathe and a hard rounded forming tool; and the other is by hammering. In both cases, the metal is expanded and spread out to form the bowl. The spun bowl is smoother and more even, but it has concentric lines in the surface – the tracks of the forming tool. But the lexicographers tell us that raw-kah’ originally meant “to pound”, so the latter method is probably meant here. In any case, God is here represented as creating an “expanse” which he calls the sky; which is the same thing as “expanding” or “stretching out” the sky. This reference to the sky as an “expanse” supports the view that in other places in Scripture, the stretching out of the sky is to be understood as an accomplished fact, rather than something going on at present.
The spreading of a tent is not an ongoing process. Tents are designed to go up quickly. It is a short-term process with a long-term result. So, by the way, was creation. God finished it in six days, as the Bible says. To try to make it say anything else is really a stretch!
Howard Douglas King