A previous survey of the passages in Genesis and Exodus which contain the terms shamayim and erets together has shown that the simple rendering of “sky” for shamyim, and “land” for erets are the consistently correct translations for those words. In fact, none of the texts surveyed requires a meaning other than those simple meanings.
One significance of this finding is that much of the prevailing cosmology in Christendom has been centred around the concept of a heaven which awaits the believer at death. But, if these findings are consistent throughout the Bible, then the “heaven” which the Bible refers to is simply the sky all around us. That means that the hope of the believer must take its centre not on where one goes when he or she dies, but on what happens when Christ returns. Our “heavenly” hope is not in our going into the sky, but in Christ coming from it.
In this article, we will look at the rest of the Pentateuch, and examine whether that hypothesis proves true.
Remember Your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel– You swore to them by Your very self and declared, ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever.’ (HCSB)
In this verse, the HCSB translates erets as land, and shamayim as sky, and it is clearly correct in doing so. The land in question is the land of Israel, promised to Abraham. The sky is the atmosphere around and above this planet, containing the stars.
Yet, of all the popular versions reviewed, only the NIV follows this practice. All others (ESV, KJV,NASB,NET,NLT,NRSV) insist on using the word heaven or heavens for shamayim. But heaven (as the remote residence of God) does not contain stars. The sky does.
What is clear is that modern versions continue to use the word heaven or heavens for shamayim, even when the context makes it clear that “where God lives” or “where good people go when they die” is not the intended meaning.
I will break down your strong pride. I will make your sky like iron and your land like bronze, (HCSB)
In this verse, the HCSB also translates aretschem as “your land,” and shameychem as “your sky,” remaining consistent. Notice that the phrases are “your sky” and “your land.” This further indicates not some remote heaven belonging to God but the local sky above the Israelites, and not the entire planet earth, but the local land under the Israelites.
This time, the NET translates the terms as “your sky” and “your land,” and the NIV expresses the same idea with the terms “the sky above you” and “the ground beneath you.” The NLT, NASB and NRSV also translate shamayim as “sky” or “skies” here. But the ESV and KJV uses the phrase “your heavens” or “your heaven,” leading to the question, “Does heaven belong to the Israelites?”
Likewise, many of the versions (ESV,KJV,NASB,NRSV) translate eretschem as “your earth” here. But Moses is not referring to the planet. “Your land” is a much clearer translation.
The terms appear together in 22 verses in Deuteronomy.
There are three of these passages which highlight the difference between land animals and birds of the sky:
any kind of land animal, any bird that flies in the sky, (NET)
Your corpses will be food for all the birds of the sky and the wild animals of the land, with no one to scare them away. (HCSB)
“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the sky above, or that is on the land beneath, or that is in the water under the land. JDV)
There are six of these passages which highlight the relationship between the sky as a source of rain for the land (or ground) beneath it.
But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, (NRSV)
Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you. He will close the sky, and there will be no rain; the land will not yield its produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land the LORD is giving you. (HCSB)
The LORD will open for you His abundant storehouse, the sky, to give your land rain in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow. (HCSB)
The sky above you will be bronze, and the earth beneath you iron. The LORD will turn the rain of your land into falling dust; it will descend on you from the sky until you are destroyed. (HCSB)
Of Joseph he said: May the LORD bless his land with the harvest produced by the sky, by the dew, and by the depths crouching beneath; (NET)
So Israel dwells securely; Jacob lives untroubled in a land of grain and new wine; even his skies drip with dew. (HCSB)
There are three passages where God calls the sky and the land to be witnesses to his justice, or to his people’s sinfulness:
I call the sky and the land to witness against you today, because you will soon completely perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be completely destroyed. (JDV)1
I call the sky and the land to witness against you today, because I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your offspring may live, (JDV)
Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, so that I may speak these words in their ears and call the sky and the land to witness against them. (JDV)
There are five passages where the geographical distance between the sky and the land is highlighted and contrasted, but none of these require the assumption that erets refers to the planet, or that shamayim refers to God’s remote residence.
‘O Lord Yahveh, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. Because what god is there in the sky or on the land who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? (JDV)
From out of the sky he let you hear his voice, so that he might discipline you. And on the land he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. (JDV)
know therefore today, and return it to your heart, that Yahveh is God in the sky above and on the land beneath; there is no other. (JDV)
that your days and the days of your children may be extended in the land that Yahveh swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the skies are above the land. (JDV)
“Listen, O sky, and I will speak, and let the land hear the words of my mouth. (JDV)
That leaves only four “special mention” passages, which have been understood to stretch the semantic range of either erets, or shamayim, or both.
“Yes, ask now about the days in the distant past, which happened before you, since the day that God created Adam upon the land, and ask from one end of the sky to the other, whether such an amazing thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. (JDV)
The simple question which should govern our analysis of this text is “Does it require any change of meaning for erets or shamayim? As the translation above shows, it is possible to render each or those terms in a way that is consistent with all the other examples of the terms found in the Pentateuch.
Notice, to Yahveh your God belong the sky and the sky of skies, the land with all that is in it. (JDV)
Even if “the sky of skies” is a reference to God’s remote residence, it is a hyperbolic statement which should not forever change the clear meaning of shamayim as the sky. But all that this passage is actually saying is that God owns all that he has created: everything above us, and everything below us.
So, when Yahveh your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that Yahveh your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you must eliminate the memory of Amalek from under the sky; you shall not forget. (JDV)
The question to ask here is “Does using the term “heaven” instead of sky add anything to the meaning of this command beyond what is indicated in the translation above?” It obviously does not. So, why introduce the concept of God’s remote residence into the equation?
I have to reiterate at this juncture that I am not arguing against the idea that God lives in a remote residence which is appropriately called heaven. My argument is with the translation policy with seems to see references to that remote residence everywhere the term shamayim appears in scripture. So far, we have not seen a single instance of shamayim in the entire Pentateuch which necessarily implies a celestial location other than the sky in general.
Look down from your holy dwelling place, from the sky, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ (JDV)
This is the closest Moses ever gets to telling us about God’s remote residence. But all it actually does is ask God to look down from the sky (shamayim) and bless the ground, making it what he promised to make it: a land (erets) flowing with milk and honey. If anyone is inclined to look for evidence of a cosmology which sees leaving the planet earth and going to heaven as the saint’s hope, that person would have to look elsewhere other than the Torah.
1The JDV refers to my own translation.