It appears that the Ancient Near Eastern culture believed that Jerusalem was at the center of the Earth. For us, the language, “center of the Earth” evokes the image of the Earth’s core, but this is almost certainly not what they had in mind. Rather, “center” would have referred to the central point of a land mass—or perhaps, we could explore, the center of importance, focus, or attention.
Let’s start by looking at the texts that suggest that they considered Jerusalem to be the center.
Ezekiel 5:5 “Thus says the Lord God: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center (טַבּוּר—tabbuwr) of the nations, with countries all around her.
Ezekiel 38:12 to seize spoil and carry off plunder, to turn your hand against the waste places that are now inhabited, and the people who were gathered from the nations, who have acquired livestock and goods, who dwell at the center (טַבּוּר—tabbuwr) of the earth.
Book of Jubilees 8:10 …And it came to pass in the beginning of the thirty-third jubilee [1569 A.M.] that they divided the earth into three parts, for Shem and Ham and Japheth, according to the inheritance of each, …. 12 And there came forth on the writing as Shem’s lot the middle of the earth which he should take as an inheritance for himself and for his sons for the generations of eternity, ….. This portion came forth by lot for Shem and his sons, 18 that they should possess it for ever unto his generations for evermore. And Noah rejoiced that this portion came forth for Shem and for his sons, and he remembered all that he had spoken with his mouth in prophecy; for he had said: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Shem And may the Lord dwell in the dwelling of Shem.’ 19 And he knew that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies, and the dwelling of the Lord, and Mount Sinai the centre of the desert, and Mount Zion -the centre of the navel of the earth:
1 Enoch 26:1 And I went from thence to the middle of the earth, and I saw a blessed place ⌈in which there were trees⌉ with branches abiding and blooming [of a dismembered tree]. 2. And there I saw a holy mountain, ⌈⌈and⌉⌉ underneath the mountain to the east there was a stream and it flowed towards the south.
(No, Enoch doesn’t name the place as Jerusalem, but he does call it a “blessed place” with a “holy mountain”. This is certainly consistent with descriptions of Jerusalem elsewhere. )
….”As the navel is set in the centre of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the centre of the world,
and Jerusalem in the centre of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the centre of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the centre of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the centre of the holy place,
and the foundation stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.”
Midrash Tanchuma, Qedoshim. (c. 400-600 CE)
For more reading on this “navel” idea, read Wensinck’s The Navel of the Earth online here.
Now, I understand that this could have been symbolic language, paying respect to the importance of Jerusalem, but what if it were meant literally? That is, what if God has seen fit to make the holy mountain in Jerusalem the actual center of the erets (earth) and the raqia (firmament)?
Is this idea crazy? Well, ponder this. Suppose that we were to judge the geographical focus of the Bible authors by listing all the places they name in the texts. Here’s a Google map showing all the places named in the Bible texts.
Note that from Tarshish (far left, or West) to Ophir (far right, or East), the span puts Jerusalem right at the center. Similarly, the spans from Jerusalem to Meshech in the North and from Jerusalem to Sheba in the South are of roughly equal distance. While this doesn’t outline a literal circle, it still puts Jerusalem right in the center of the geographical focus of the stories of the Bible. (NOTE: All four of these places, Tarshish, Ophir, Meshech, and Sheba are listed among the so-called “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10 as being places inhabited when “the earth was divided” (Genesis 10:25).
Question: If God “divided the Earth” and populated it with all these people, why didn’t he spread them out further, say, to China and Australia and to the Americas? Surely, he had the means to do it. In my model, “the earth” was not Planet Earth, but merely that area encompassed by this “circle”.
Was it a literal circle, as defined in Geometry class?
I have found no indications in the texts or in commentaries that the word for circle (טַבּוּר—tabbuwr) necessarily carries such a strict definition. If it did, a literal circle big enough to encompass all of these locations would be of roughly the size pictured below.
Just to put this in perspective, the total surface of Planet Earth (including both land and water) is 196.9 million square miles. The area inside the yellow circle on the image above covers 20.2 million square miles, or just over 10% of the total surface area of Planet Earth. Again, I’m not insisting on a literal circle, but I’m not ruling it out, either. If we choose northern and southern boundaries of Meshech and Sheba respectively, then an oval (ellipse) of the same width as the circle above, but with a shorter height, could be drawn, still encompassing all the named locations.
The area of this ellipse would be approximately 9,800,000 square miles, or just under half the area of the circle shown above. (That would make it roughly 1/20th the surface area of the entire Planet Earth.)
The Functional Center of the Bible Story
Throughout the Bible story, we see that God is concerned with getting the message out to everybody in view. And putting Jerusalem at the center certainly does make sense. Consider these various passages:
Psalm 74:12 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. (Think about this verse as you read the ones the follow.)
Exodus 19:6 “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Genesis 18:18 “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.”
Genesis 26:4 “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.”
Deuteronomy 4:6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
Isaiah 42:6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand, I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles” (Literally, the nations)
Isaiah 49:6 “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Isaiah 52:10 The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 56:7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Ezekiel 37:28 “Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”
Ezekiel 39:7 “‘I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned, and the nations will know that I the LORD am the Holy One in Israel.”
Matthew 28:19 “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:”
Luke 24:47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Romans 1:5 “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the nations to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.”
Now let us consider this last passage. If Paul had indeed received apostleship to call “all the nations”—and if “all the nations” meant “all the societies living on Planet Earth”, then why did Paul go only as far as Tarshish (modern-day Spain)? Why did he not go to the Americas, for instance, or to China?
Did not the Eleven have a directive in the Great Commission to”go” to “all nations”? If they did not obey, those directions, then they would not have been considered faithful to Jesus:
John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
John 15:21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.
If they did not do as they were commanded, then we have a serious problem. Even so, nobody contends that they did indeed evangelize all of Planet Earth. Now, some attempt to solve this problem by assuming that the Great Commission was given to all Christians over all time, but it was not. It was stated only to the apostles, and they never repeated it to the non-apostles in any of the documents we have.
But we don’t have to rely on this sort of secondary reasoning alone, for Paul speaks to the matter in much more direct terms, stating twice in Colossians that the job of evangelizing the regions they had been commanded to evangelize had been accomplished. Consider these two verses:
Colossians 1:5 Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing
Colossians 1:23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
These two evidences are rarely considered by believers, yet here they are, right under our noses. Surely Paul did not think that he had preached in Australia or in Greenland! No, he knew where he had gone, and it was all within the territory outlined by that Table of Nations narrative in Genesis 10. That message did go out from Jerusalem–the center of the Earth–and it went “to the ends of the Earth.”