In recent days, John Loftus of Debunking Christianity has been arguing that we should interpret passages like 2 Samuel 22 and Job 26 much more literally than Christians usually do. He's argued that the ancient Jews probably believed in a flat earth, a God who has a physical body, etc. I had a discussion, last year, with another critic of Christianity who raised similar objections, though he was more reasonable than John Loftus. He acknowledged that some ancient people did believe in a spherical earth, but he argued that the Biblical authors probably didn't. He cited Matthew 4:8 as evidence that the author of that gospel believed in a flat earth. Other passages in the New Testament are sometimes cited as well, such as the references to the four corners of the earth in Revelation.
There are a few things we should keep in mind as we consider this issue:
1. Just as we today surely have some misconceptions about the universe, ancient people surely did as well. In a discussion about Biblical inerrancy or a related subject, the issue of primary importance is what the Bible teaches, not what some people or most people at that time believed. If the apostle Paul was ignorant or incorrect about some elements of how the brain functions, he could discuss subjects like Christ as the head of the church or how a Christian should think without thereby teaching a false view of the brain. You don't have to understand every element of how the brain functions in order to make some references to the head or the process of thinking.
2. There's much we don't know about what ancient people believed on these subjects.
3. Agnosticism was always an option. Earlier, I cited Theophilus of Antioch as an example. He suggested that people who argue that the earth is spherical or a cube have no way of knowing. We shouldn't assume that every ancient person took a confident position on every conceivable issue. Demanding that a Christian document the cosmology of the author of Job, for example, doesn't make sense. It's a highly poetic book that sometimes uses different images to refer to the same object. There's no way for us to know the author's cosmology in detail. He may have been agnostic on some of the relevant issues. We don't know.
4. The fact that other ancient cultures held a particular view doesn't prove that the ancient Jews held that view. As we'll see below in my citations of Basil of Caesarea, ancient cultures held a wide variety of views and were sometimes inconsistent with themselves and with each other. People would have known that human fallibility and a lot of speculation were involved, and they would have been able to notice inconsistencies from one culture to another.
Commenting on the references to the corners of the earth in the book of Revelation, Grant Osborne writes:
"The angels [in Revelation 7:1] stand 'at the four corners of the earth,' another ancient idiom for every part of the world (Ezek. 7:2). Some have thought this meant the ancients viewed the world as a square surface, but there are just as many passages in the Bible using a circle as a model (Ps. 19:6; Isa. 40:22). This is simply an idiom and no more." (Revelation [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2002], p. 305)
Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century A.D., comments that belief in a spherical earth was the common view of his day (The Natural History, 2:2). He explains why anybody should be able to discern the spherical shape of the earth without difficulty. Old Testament passages like Job 26:10 and Proverbs 8:27 may refer to the circular shape of the horizon, and Christian authors living just after the time of the apostles either refer to the earth as spherical or suggest agnosticism on the shape of the earth. Some church fathers did refer to the earth as flat, but the spherical view and agnosticism on the subject seem to predate the flat earth position among extant Christian sources.
Given how widely a spherical earth was accepted in ancient times, and given the willingness of the earliest New Testament interpreters to accept a spherical earth or take no position on the issue, it seems unlikely that passages like Matthew 4:8 and Revelation 7:1 were intended to refer to a flat earth. Matthew would have known that there was no mountain from which a person could physically see every kingdom of the earth, including whatever details of those kingdoms would be involved in showing their "glory". The parallel passage in Luke 4:5 refers to how Satan showed Jesus the kingdoms "in a moment of time". Jesus is shown the kingdoms. He doesn't move around to look at them. And it happens in an instant. Apparently, Satan is supernaturally bringing images before Jesus. The mountain backdrop isn't meant to convey the concept that there was some mountain high enough to allow people to see everything on a flat earth. Rather, the mountain backdrop is being used to convey the concept of elevation, without regard to whether that elevation allows a person to physically see the entire earth. This incident has nothing to do with normal eyesight or a flat earth.
The phrase "corners of the earth", which is used in the book of Revelation, is a common figure of speech that we still use today. Tertullian, who lived from the middle of the second century into the third century, can refer to a "corner of the world" in one place, yet refer elsewhere to the earth as spherical:
"For if such multitudes of men were to break away from you, and betake themselves to some remote corner of the world, why, the very loss of so many citizens, whatever sort they were, would cover the empire with shame; nay, in the very forsaking, vengeance would be inflicted." (Apology, 37)
"There was a time when her whole orb, withal, underwent mutation, overrun by all waters." (On The Pallium, 2)
Victorinus, who wrote the earliest extant commentary on the book of Revelation, didn't think that a flat earth was in view:
"By the corners of the earth, or the four winds across the river Euphrates, are meant four nations, because to every nation is sent an angel" (Commentary On The Apocalypse Of The Blessed John, 9)
Victorinus, like many other ante-Nicene fathers, was a premillennialist who interpreted Biblical prophecy in a highly literal manner. Yet, he interpreted the "four corners of the earth" as a figure of speech.
Similarly, Commodianus, another early premillennialist, refers to the earth as a globe:
"He [the Antichrist] himself shall divide the globe into three ruling powers" (The Instructions Of Commodianus In Favor Of Christian Discipline, Against The Gods Of The Heathens, 41)
In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea criticized those who are too allegorical in their scripture interpretation:
"I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel.'" (The Hexaemeron, 9:1)
Yet, just after the comments above, he goes on to comment on the shape of the earth:
"Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth. If it be spherical or cylindrical, if it resemble a disc and is equally rounded in all parts, or if it has the forth of a winnowing basket and is hollow in the middle; all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes; he has not said that the earth is a hundred and eighty thousand furlongs in circumference; he has not measured into what extent of air its shadow projects itself whilst the sun revolves around it, nor stated how this shadow, casting itself upon the moon, produces eclipses. He has passed over in silence, as useless, all that is unimportant for us." (The Hexaemeron, 9:1)
Notice a few things here. Basil refers to how ancient people had a wide variety of views of the shape of the earth, not just one or two views. He also refers to how these theories are "conjectures", he notes that some issues are more important than others, and he doesn't think that anything in the writings of Moses compels us to one conclusion over another. Basil did hold some incorrect views of the physical universe, as people do today, but he acknowledged that his own views and those of other people were largely speculative, and he allowed for a hierarchy of importance in the issues of life. An issue such as the shape of the earth isn't as significant as an issue like the salvation of the soul. In another passage, he writes:
"We are asked how, if the firmament is a spherical body, as it appears to the eye, its convex circumference can contain the water which flows and circulates in higher regions?" (The Hexaemeron, 3:4)
Notice, again, that questions were being asked and that qualifying phrases are used ("if", "as it appears to the eye"). Whatever errors men like Basil promoted in their writings, we ought to acknowledge that they did recognize their own fallibility, they did often qualify their comments, and they did recognize a hierarchy of importance in the issues they discussed.
There isn't anything in scripture like the sort of detailed cosmology we find in other places. To construct a Biblical cosmology out of passages of scripture as highly poetic as 2 Samuel 22 and Job 26, and to ignore the many qualifying factors that men like John Loftus repeatedly ignore, is unreasonable.
Similarly, it's unreasonable to take Biblical references to an arm of God or an eye of God as references to a physical body that God possesses. I addressed this subject in a post yesterday, mostly discussing the Old Testament, and here I'll mention some New Testament examples.
The apostle Paul repeatedly refers to the right hand of God the Father (Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20). Yet, within the same book, he can both refer to the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1) and refer to God as invisible (Colossians 1:15). Similarly, John refers to the Father as having a hand (John 10:29), yet he also refers to God as a spirit in a context that emphasizes non-physicality (John 4:24).
As I documented in the post linked above, we find widespread references to the fact that God the Father doesn't have a body in the earliest church fathers. If they were misunderstanding scripture, then the misunderstanding must have begun early and on a large scale. But we don't have to rely on post-Biblical interpreters to tell us what the Bible teaches on this subject. Passages like 2 Samuel 22 and Job 26 are far too poetic to lead us to the conclusion that God the Father has a body, and there are widespread Biblical references to the invisibility of God, the change brought about by the incarnation, etc. Critics like John Loftus aren't attempting to arrive at a reasonable understanding of the text. They're looking for something to criticize.