In a new sky and land Jefferson Vann investigates some passages from the epistles of James, Peter and Jude to determine if they reflect a “heaven and earth” cosmology.
I have been surveying the biblical terms that our English bibles usually render “heaven” and earth. My hypothesis is that these terms do not necessarily convey the notions that first come to mind. Our culture has taught us to think of heaven as a special supernatural place where God lives. I have shown that neither the Hebrew shamayim (שמים) nor the Greek ouranos (οὐρανός) automatically convey that meaning. The usual meaning of both of these words is sky. Likewise, our culture has taught us that earth is the name of our home planet, the third rock from the sun. But neither the Hebrew ‘erets (ארץ) nor the Greek gē (γῆ) denote a planet. Instead, those biblical words signify the land all around us.
I will now survey the epistles of James, Peter and Jude to see how these apostles utilize these biblical terms.
- You have lived luxuriously on the earth and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter (CSB).
Our English versions are unanimous in translating gē (γῆ) as earth here, but nothing requires that rendering. There is nothing substantially lost if the term is rendered land, because the authors are talking about how the fruitfulness of the land has made the rich prosperous.
- Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains (NIV).
- Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains (NASB).
- So be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s return. Think of how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground and is patient for it until it receives the early and late rains (NET).
Kudos for these three versions, because they accurately show that farms grow things in dirt: land, ground, soil. Yet the other versions uselessly translate gē (γῆ) as earth here. “Fruit of the earth” (KJV, NKJV, ESV, CSB, ASV, YLT, DBY) is not technically wrong, but it does betray a “heaven and earth” cosmology which is not at all what James was getting at. James was talking about farmers, not astronauts.
- And above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath. But let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall into judgment (NET).
This is the first instance where James uses both of our survey terms, and there is not a single English translation that renders the terms as anything other than heaven and earth. Doubtless the translators will argue that since these two terms suggest things that one swears by them they are examples of the heaven and earth cosmology. But this is the same context as the previous verses. In that context, the gē (γῆ) that a person would swear by is the land of his own farm, and the ouranos (οὐρανός) would be the sky that rains on it. I would then argue that all of our English translations are incorrect. I suggest that James is instructing believers not to swear by their own sky or their own land.
- Elijah was a human being as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit (CSB).
Once again, in the same context, James uses both our survey terms in a way that limits their meaning and avoids a “heaven and earth” cosmology. The ouranos (οὐρανός) is the sky which rains down upon the gē (γῆ), which is the land. Yet there are still numerous versions which insist on translating gē (γῆ) as “earth” in verse 17 (KJV, ESV, NASB, RSV, ASV, DBY) and even in verse 18 (KJV, NKJV, NLY, NIV, ESV, NASB, RSV, ASV, DBY). Many also follow the KJV tradition in asserting that it was heaven that produced the rain (NKJV, NIV, ESV, RSV, ASV, DBY).
Of course, one could argue that heaven produced the rain because Elijah prayed to God and God answered his prayer from heaven. But what we as translators have to grapple with is what is the most obvious meaning of the terms as used in the James 5 context. The agrarian use of the terms in this chapter argue against those translations which show a “heaven and earth” cosmology.
Peter comes closer to the “heaven and earth” cosmology because he often uses ouranos (οὐρανός) specifically as the place where God lives, responds to prayer, and holds the believer’s future inheritance.
1 Peter 1:4
- and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay (NLT).
1 Peter 1:12
- They were told that their messages were not for themselves, but for you. And now this Good News has been announced to you by those who preached in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen (NLT).
2 Peter 1:18
- We ourselves heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain (CSB).
Yet, when Peter uses both of our survey terms together in a major section of 2 Peter 3, it is clear that he is talking about a portion of the created universe which will be destroyed and recreated. In spite of this, all of the major versions still translate ouranos (οὐρανός) as “heaven” or “heavens,” and gē (γῆ) as “earth.” Here is my translation of that section:
2 Peter 3:5-13
- 2 Peter 3:5 They deliberately overlook this: By the word of God the sky came into being long ago and the land was brought about from water and through water.
- 2 Peter 3:6 Through these the world of that time perished when it was flooded.
- 2 Peter 3:7 By the same word, the present sky and land are stored up for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
- 2 Peter 3:8 Dear friends, don’t overlook this one fact: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.
- 2 Peter 3:9 The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.
- 2 Peter 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the sky will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the land and the works on it will be disclosed.
- 2 Peter 3:11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness
- 2 Peter 3:12 as you wait for the day of God and hasten its coming. Because of that day, the sky will be dissolved with fire and the elements will melt with heat.
- 2 Peter 3:13 But based on his promise, we wait for new sky and a new land, where righteousness dwells.
So, even though Peter tends uses ouranos (οὐρανός) on its own as the place where God dwells, when he uses the term along with gē (γῆ), he is not talking about reflecting a “heaven and earth” cosmology. Instead, he looks back to the original creation, which contained a sky and a land. He talks about the destruction and replacement of that first sky and land at the time of Noah. Then he promises a new, third sky and land (not heaven and earth) at the return of Christ.
- Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe (NASB).
- Now I desire to remind you (even though you have been fully informed of these facts once for all) that Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe (NET).
Jude only uses gē (γῆ) once, and all the versions translate it as “land” or else do not translate it at all. It is obviously a reference to a particular nation – Egypt. Both the Hebrew ‘erets (ארץ) and the Greek gē (γῆ) are often used to identify a particular spot of land, as well as the land itself. This fact alone should give translators caution and keep them from simply following tradition and assuming that these words imply the whole planet rather than a portion of it.
PREVIOUS ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:
- sky and land
- rescuing the text
- The sky God is supreme
- The sky above – shamayim, the land beneath – erets
- Attention, witnesses!
- Limited to the visible
- Sky and land in the Gospels
- Paul’s ‘sky and land’ references
- The author of Hebrews chimes in