Expanding Universe Theory
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. (Genesis 1:6-8a)
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 that God is (even now) stretching out the universe. Sadly, many young-earth creationists have embraced this view as well.
It deserves mention that there are many alternative explanations to the phenomena of “the red-shift” of distant luminaries and of “cosmic background radiation” besides the common theory that the universe is expanding. Many scientists, secular and Christian, are skeptical of the “expanding universe theory”, which creates more problems than it solves. But apart from the question of whether or not the universe is indeed expanding, Ross's interpretation of these texts 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. The Hebrew words that are important to our discussion have been represented using Strong's pronunciation guide, rather than a transliteration. It seemed the best way to give the reader a “handle” on the words, so he can remember and use them. In a live lecture, I would have simply pronounced them.
My first observation is that the appeal to these texts creates an insuperable problem for Ross, at least in Isaiah 44:24, cited above. Is it not plain that his interpretation must apply to both members of the clause? In other words, if the text is telling us that the heavens are now expanding, then it must also be telling us that the earth is expanding as well, which is patently false. This fact alone is fatal to the Rossian interpretation.
My second point is that many of these texts (there are seventeen in all) that refer to the stretching out of the heavens use the past tense. These do not help his case, for he must explain why the “stretching out” is commonly spoken of as a past event if it refers to an ongoing process. Only a few of these seventeen texts are rendered in the present tense in our English Bible; and I will address them later on.
Our third 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 Proverbs 8:27, God is said to have “set a compass upon the face of the depth”. This is obviously not literal description. In another place (Job 37:18) the Bible uses very different imagery to represent God's creation of the sky, “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 poetic descriptions of Almighty God creating the sky.
Fourth, the verb, naw-taw', translated “stretch” in all three of these verses has many significations; but is in the Bible commonly used of the setting up of a tent. It is often 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 spread out, and finally secured with ropes and stakes 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. (Parallelism is the hallmark of Hebrew poetry.) The heavens apparently are being compared first to a “curtain”, then to a tent; but the nouns may be nearly synonymous, as the verbs are. In any case, this provides no support for an ongoing expansion of space, or of the universe; for it clearly refers to a once-for-all act of God in “pitching the tent” of the sky on the second day of creation week.
But Ross will tell us that we are overlooking the fact that the verbs used are in the present tense. For example, God “stretcheth out the heavens... and spreadeth them out...”(Isaiah 40:22) Ross admits that he is not a Hebrew scholar; and neither am I. But in consulting the authorities, we find that here a participle is used. There is no indication of time, or of continuous versus completed action. Weingreen's Hebrew Grammar, discussing the active participle, states that the same Hebrew phrase can be rendered “the man keepeth”, or “the man who was keeping”, or “the man who is keeping”, depending entirely on context. The clause could therefore be rendered, “stretching out the heavens, and spreading them out...” without any implication as to time. But one does not stretch out a curtain endlessly, nor does the pitching of a tent take forever. These analogies point to action completed in the past. Accordingly, the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on Isaiah renders both these verbals 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.
Brenton's translation of 40:22 in 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...”
Delitzsch renders 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 in both these translations. This does not reflect a time element in the Hebrew original, but rather, the obvious fact that this verse refers to the creation. Delitzsch, commenting on 42:5, states the principle: “The attributive participles we have resolved into perfects, because the three first at least declare facts of creation, which have occurred once for all.”
Why, then, are the verbs sometimes rendered into the present tense in the AV? Isn't this wrong? No, it's not wrong. Time is unexpressed in the text, both because the reference to creation is obvious, and because the focus is on God, as the One who alone is capable of such a mighty work. Besides, 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 does?” This mode of speech occurs very commonly in the Greek New Testament as well, (i.e. “Jesus saith (says) unto them...” 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 any 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 what we call “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.
We do not know how much the patriarchs and prophets knew about the actual architecture of the cosmos. But we do find in Scripture what is plainly phenomenological language, language that describes things from the viewpoint of the observer. The sun “rises” and “goes down”. Such language is useful; and if not pressed beyond its designed intent, perfectly true. Consider what would have happened if each part of Scripture had recorded a specific scientific or cosmological terminology from the era in which it was written. We know that cosmological models vary from time to time, so the Bible would inevitably, at some time or other, contradict itself. At least, it would have made the interpretation of these passages much more difficult for us, who use modern models and terminology.
But besides, the “firmament” cannot be space, because space has no “waters above” it, as this firmament has (“the clouds”, per Proverbs 8:28; Psalms 148:4). For the same reason, it cannot be 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, of which the simplest of men are aware. This is especially true of agrarian peoples. Their lives are intimately related to, and dependent on, the state of the heavens.
Now lexicographers agree that the Hebrew word here translated “firmament” would be better rendered “expanse”. This noun, pronounced 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” in Genesis one supports the view that in other places in Scripture, the stretching out of the sky is to be understood as an accomplished fact, occurring in creation week, 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 make it say anything else is really a stretch!
Howard Douglas King