The first chapter of Genesis depicts the creation of the earth and its living creatures in six days. Here we focus on the nature of the “firmament” or “expanse” which was created on the second day, in order to separate the primordial waters into upper and lower portions. This has implications for Bible interpretation, in general.
The situation on or before Day 1 (e.g. Genesis 1:1-5) is shown below:
This sketch shows the primordial waters, which have an upper surface. The spirit of God was hovering above the surface of these waters, at first in darkness. God then created light, separated light from darkness, and called the light “day” and the darkness “night”.
On Day 2 (Genesis 1:6-8) God created a “firmament” (Hebrew raqia) in the midst of the waters, to divide the waters into two portions, the “waters above” and the “waters below”:
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. [Gen 1:6-7 KJV]
Other translations render raqia as “expanse”, as discussed below. At the end of Day 2, therefore, we have something like this:
On Day 3 (Gen 1: 9-13), the waters below are gathered into one place (which God calls “seas”) and dry ground appears. God calls the dry ground “earth” (eretz). (It is not clear if the land was created here ex nihilo on Day 3, or whether it was there all along beneath the waters, and simply emerged as the waters are drained off to the side). On Day 4 God made the sun, moon, and stars, and “set them in the firmament of the heaven” (Gen. 1:17, KJV). These celestial bodies can move around in or on the firmament (cf. Ps 19:6). At the end of Day 4 we have:
Old Testament scholars note that the Hebrews believed that the waters of the primordial waters still underlay the solid land. In Ps. 24:1-2 we read, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods”, and in Ps. 136:6 that God “laid out the earth above the waters.”
Despite this watery underlayer, the earth remains steady due to “foundation” or “pillars” which God placed beneath the land (e.g. Ps.104:5 “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”; cf. I Sam. 2:8, Job 38:4-6). The abode of the dead, sheol, was somewhere down there as well, but to keep this sketch simple I did not try to draw in the details of the underworld.
The “waters above” appear to be still extant today. In Psalm 148:4 we read of “waters that are above the heavens”:
Praise Him, highest heavens,
And the waters that are above the heavens! (NASB)
The Hebrew word (mayim) used here for “waters” is the one for liquid water, not the ones that are used to refer to vapors, clouds or mists (e.g.ed in Gen 2:6, anan in Gen 9:13, ab in I Ki. 18:44, and nasi in Ps. 105:7). Thus, Ps. 148:4 is not referring to ordinary clouds.
The great flood of Noah was sourced by the opening of windows or floodgates in the heavens (Gen 7:11), allowing the waters above to pour through, as well as by “fountains of the deep” bringing up water from below. Thus, the Flood involved partially undoing the separations made in Genesis 1, where the waters above (Day 2) and the waters below (Day 3) had been sequestered to allow the dry land to appear. These floodgates were closed (Gen 8:2) at the end of the Flood to stop the water from pouring down, indicating the water is still up there. The celestial waters get relatively little mention after Genesis 8, perhaps because God had promised to never again flood the whole earth. There is awareness in the later Old Testament of the association of clouds with ordinary rain.
In the mid-20th century, it was common in young earth creationist circles to hold that the “waters above” were in the form of a “vapor canopy”, the precipitation of which contributed to the Noahic Flood. They have largely abandoned this theory, following calculation by their scientists showing that a vapor canopy substantial enough to contribute more than about 2 meters (6.5 feet) of liquid water would have made the earth’s surface intolerably hot.
What Is a “Firmament” ?
A key question is: what did the word raqia mean in ancient Hebrew? The Hebrew root for raqia is the verb raqa. According to the standard Hebrew lexicon of Brown, Driver, and Briggs, raqa means to “beat, stamp, beat out, stamp out”. It is typically applied to metal being beaten out into a thin sheet (e.g. Is. 40:19, Ex. 39:3, Num. 17:4, Jer. 10:9; cf. Num 17:3). Thus, raqia (“firmament”) denotes something which has been beaten out or spread out, like a sheet of metal. Brown, Driver, and Briggs define raqia as, “extended surface, (solid) expanse.” This comports with the way we have sketched the cosmos of Days 3 and 4 above.
This understanding of the raqia as a solid dome is confirmed in Job 37:18, where Job’s wise friend Elihu asks him, “Can you join him [God] in spreading out [raqa] the skies, as hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” It could hardly be any plainer than that.
The main usage of raqia outside of Genesis is in Ezekiel 1:22-26 where Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures included the following:
Now over the heads of the living beings there was something like an expanse (raqia), like the awesome gleam of crystal, spread out over their heads. Under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward the other; each one also had two wings covering its body on the one side and on the other. … And there came a voice from above the expanse that was over their heads; whenever they stood still, they dropped their wings. Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. [NASB]
Whatever this “expanse” or (as in the King James version) “firmament” was, it was not just some empty space. It was a substantive “something”, gleaming like crystal, that was spread out above the head of the living creatures and with the throne set above it. With this clear example of a solid raqia overhead in Ezekiel, we expect the raqia of Genesis 1 to also be solid, unless there is some strong evidence to the contrary.
In Gen. 1:8 God calls the firmament “heaven” (Hebrew shamayim). That turns out to give little additional definition to what the firmament (raqia) is, since in all the cases in Genesis 1 where God puts a name to something, there is never a one-to-one correspondence to the original word for the object and the subsequent name. For instance, God calls the primordial light “Day” (Gen 1:5). This does not mean that “light” and “day” are synonymous. Any thorough Hebrew lexicon lists a number of meanings for the Hebrew word for “light” and a different list of senses in which yom, the Hebrew word for “day”, is used.
In Gen. 1:10 God called the dry ground that appeared in Day 3 “earth” (“eretz”). But eretz is used in many different senses: as the whole earth (Gen 18:25); earth as opposed to the heavens (Is. 37:16); the land as opposed to heaven and seas (Ex. 20:4; similar to the usage in Gen 1:10); the people of the earth (Gen 11:1); a country or territory (Gen 10:10), inhabitants of a territory (Lev 19:29); sheol, the place of the dead (Job 10:21-22); surface of the ground (Gen 18:2); productive soil (Lev 19:9).
Likewise, “heaven” is used in many senses of the visible sky and of the abode of God. Thus, we need to let context and usage inform our understanding of what shamayim and raqia mean in their specific occurrences. Sometimes “heaven” refers to some aspect of the physical sky and sometimes it does not. God was not homeless prior to the separation of the waters on Day 2. The fact that Gen 1:14-17 uses the compound phrase “the firmament of the heaven” further indicates that “firmament” (raqia) is not one-for-one synonymous with “heaven” (shamayim). The Israelites would understand this phrase to mean “the spread-out dome of the sky”.
In Isaiah 40:22 it says that God “stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” A tent, of course, is a domed structure with a flat floor, made of relatively thin sheeting. At some point the sky will be “rolled up like a scroll” (Is. 34:4). This comports with the firmament being a relatively thin solid layer of some sort, rather than empty space.
Heaven is supported by “foundations” or “pillars” (II Sam 2:8, Job 26:11). These are common architectural terms (e.g. Jud. 16:25-26, I Ki. 7:2-3). They are appropriate for supporting a solid dome, but seem to have little relevance to heaven (used here in the physical sense) as empty space.
The folks best placed to understand the meaning of the ancient Hebrew text would be the ancient Hebrews themselves. The Septuagint translation of Genesis into Greek was done by Jewish scholars around 300 B.C. The Septuagint was an authoritative version; typically the New Testament uses the Septuagint rather than the current Hebrew texts when citing the Old Testament. The Septuagint translators rendered raqia as “stereoma” which connotes solidity. The Latin translations of this passage followed the Septuagint’s lead in rendering this word as “firmamentum,” which again connotes solidity. The Jews of the Second Temple period, followed by practically everyone up through the Renaissance, all understood the raqia to denote a solid dome above the earth. The Jewish literature of that era includes discussions, for instance, of whether this dome was made of clay or copper or iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7-8).
The King James version retained this usage (“firmament”), while modern translations render it as “expanse” to better mesh with today’s science. “Expanse” is not strictly incorrect, since it can refer to something solid, but modern readers are so conditioned to think of the sky as NOT solid, that when we read “expanse” we tend to think of something wide but empty, like the atmosphere or outer space. However, that is not what this word meant to the ancient Hebrews. So “firmament” is a clearer translation, even if it raises awkward questions about the physical picture in Genesis.
MODERN CONTROVERSY OVER THE FIRMAMENT
By the early 1500’s, scholars (“philosophers”) were questioning the validity of a solid dome above the earth. Martin Luther was an accomplished Hebrew scholar, having translated the entire Old Testament from Hebrew to German. He took a firm stand on defending the plain, literal meaning of the Bible:
Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.
[ Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan, Concordia Pub. House, St. Louis, Missouri, 1958, pp. 30, 42, 43 ]
By medieval times, the Greek notion of a spherical earth had supplanted the ancient Near Eastern view of a roughly circular flat earth (the term “circle of the earth” in Isa. 40:22 uses the Hebrew word for a flat circle, not the word for spherical ball). A colored woodcut from the 1534 Luther Bible, is shown below [click to enlarge]. It shows God (top of the picture is cut off) presiding over creation. Adam and Eve are shown in Eden, with its four rivers and animals, including the snake. Note the liquid waters up above the heavens, just like Genesis says. Luther’s stand on the firmament is like of today’s fundamentalists on a literal Adam and a six 24-hour day creation: “the Bible says it, I believe it, phooey on the scientists, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wicked or presumptuous”.
That is actually not a foolish viewpoint, as long as it is held consistently. It is philosophically similar to the “Appearance of Age” position on the age of the earth, where the believer can freely acknowledge that the physical evidence (position of rock layers, sequence of fossils, radioactive dating, layers in glacier cores) is all consistent with an earth that is far older than is consistent with the Genesis story. The believer claims, however, that the fossils and the radioactivity levels are all an illusion, created by God to give the appearance of an old earth. The reality is that the earth is only 6000 years old, but was created to look old. Likewise, with the firmament, one could hold to the clear, literal meaning of the Genesis text (i.e. solid dome or sphere, with waters above), and dismiss the appearance of empty space as an illusion, sent perhaps to test our faith.
Even the most conservative Christians today find that level of literalism too much to bear, and seek some way to harmonize the text with what modern science teaches us about the earth and its environs. One approach is to equate the firmament with the earth’s lower atmosphere, and take the “waters above” to be ordinary clouds. However, the “waters above” the firmament are not presented in Genesis 1 as clouds or mist, but as liquid water. As noted above, there are different Hebrew words that would have been used for vaporous water. Also, the birds in Genesis 1:20 did not fly “in” the firmament, but “across the face of” it. Most importantly, the sun, moon, and stars were “set into” it, so the firmament cannot be merely the atmosphere that separates the ground from the clouds. These celestial bodies are far removed from the earth’s atmosphere.
Another suggestion, which comprehends the actual position of the planets and stars, is that the firmament refers to both the atmosphere AND the vast reaches of outer space. Thus, the “waters above” are still up there, but way, way up there, beyond human detection. A variant of this theory is that the primordial waters were different than today’s water. However, it is clearly the case that the “waters above” are of the same constitution as the “waters below”, which are the liquid H2O of the ocean: the “waters below” became today’s oceans mainly by being moved to the side to allow dry land to appear, and there is no justification for claiming that the waters which poured down through the floodgates in the heavens to propagate Noah’s flood were other than regular water. Also, if we are looking for outer space in Genesis 1, it would be present on Day 1, when the spirit of God was moving over the topmost surface of the waters, prior to the division of the waters on Day 2.
Placing the celestial ocean billions of light-years away is a convenient means of dealing with the fact that we cannot detect it, but it is difficult to imagine how floodgates could open in the interstellar void to conduct a ruinous deluge to the Noahic earth. Also, the firmament (raqia) was a “something” that God “made”. That does not comport well with “raqia” denoting just an empty space between two bodies of water. We reviewed at some length the usage of raqia, and find no grounds to overrule the definition given by the Hebrew lexicon, namely “extended surface, (solid) expanse.” Had the author or inspirer of Genesis wished to describe an empty space, there are more appropriate Hebrew words to use. The three following verses each use a different word to refer to the “space” between two tangible entities:
And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by themselves; and said unto his servants, Pass over before me, and put a space [“revach”] betwixt drove and drove. [Gen 32:16 – – referring to Jacob’s droves of cattle, goats, etc.]
Yet there shall be a space [“rechoq”] between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure [Jos. 3:4, referring to space between the people and the ark]
Then David went over to the other side, and stood on the top of an hill afar off; a great space [“maqom”] being between them [I Sam. 26:13, referring to space between David and Saul’s camp]
One could, of course, nitpick at each of these word choices, but the fact remains that each of them has been demonstrated to refer to a more or less empty space between two entities, whereas raqia normally connotes a thin layer of something. If the notion of empty space were intended, it would also be easy enough to express this by using the word “empty” (several Hebrew words available) together with a word for “space” or “place” (again, several choices).
Does This Mean The Bible Is Wrong?
I wish I did not have to write what I did above. I wish I could report that the Bible marvelously presented an accurate scientific view of the world, with knowledge beyond the age of its writing, that would vindicate it over against other religious writings and secular critics. That, I cannot honestly do. But I can share a perspective which has helped me to deal with the facts as they are.
It is disturbing to conservative Christians, and perhaps to conservative Jews as well, to have the sacred Scriptures, given and inspired by God, making statements that are manifestly incorrect. I get sad or angry responses from folks that I consider to be my brothers and sisters in Christ, accusing me of heresy or apostasy. I would counsel those folks to ponder Proverbs 26:7, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” If you don’t hear about this from me, you or your children will likely hear it from someone else, who may try to use it to destroy faith.
This post is already pretty long, so I will make this treatment compressed. Here is the basic problem: many Bible-believing Christians have an UNBIBLICAL view of the scope of authority of the Scriptures. Yes, all Scripture is inspired by God – but for what purpose ? Yes, the Scripture is inerrant, but in respect to what, exactly? Paul spells it out very clearly in II Tim. 3:15-17 [NKJV]:
…and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Likewise, Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44). Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is all theology and morals. Nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology. This is a biblical view of the Bible’s intent, which differs from some evangelical statements about inerrancy which mistakenly over-extend the Bible’s sphere of authority into science or history.
Getting Over Our Ignorance
That said, the literal Genesis story is so very far from physical reality. That can feel problematic, even if we can intellectually excuse it by noting that the Bible does not claim authority in teaching geology and biology. But that sense of the problematic here is just a symptom of how ignorant most moderns are of the ancient past. If we had a shred of historical understanding, we would be applauding Genesis rather than excusing it.
Let’s dial back to the era of 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C when Genesis was written and edited to its final form. The authors and early readers of the Bible had a “science” of their day, a shared understanding of the physical world. As discussed above, the stars were set in a solid firmament, which formed a barrier to the (liquid) “waters above”, and which was “hard as a mirror of cast bronze” (Job 37:18). The notion that the sky is solid was not peculiar to Bronze Age Semites. This is the common assumption among nearly all pre-scientific peoples. Paul Seely here presents many citations showing that Indians, Melanesians, sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans, as well as Egyptians and Babylonians, held the sky to be a solid dome. The concept of a limitless vacuum overhead would not occur to them, since it did not correspond to anything in their experience. An empty sky would seem as bizarre to them as a solid sky does to us.
God could have corrected this ancient science, but chose not to. This was not a mistake or “error.” Rather, God wisely and graciously accommodated His spiritual revelation to the existing physical understanding, in order to facilitate communication of vital spiritual and relational concepts. We need to understand the physical aspect of the ancient worldview, without taking it to be authoritative, in the same way that we do not endorse slavery even though the Bible treats it as normative and do not require veils on women despite Paul’s direct command (I Cor 11:3-16). It’s just part of the task of translation.
While not completely unanticipated (e.g. in the Egyption Aten cult), the ethical monotheism of the ancient Israelites was radically different from the common Near Eastern polytheisms and local gods. These competing religions typically included some account of creation which lent authority to their beliefs and helped to make sense of the world. Let’s look at the options available to God in making his revelation to the Israelites:
(1) Do not provide a creation story at all
(2) Provide a very general statement of creation, with little or no physical details
(3) Provide a creation story including physical details, with those details corresponding to the science of the first millennium B.C.
(4) Provide a creation story including physical details, with those details corresponding to the science of some later era (e.g. early 21st century).
Option (1) would have left the Israelites impoverished and disadvantaged relative to their pagan neighbors. Option (2) would have been a “safe” approach, just to state that The One God created everything (e.g. Gen 1:1), and leave it at that. But ancient peoples thought in terms of concrete stories and genealogies, so this would not have been a huge improvement over giving no creation account at all.
Option (3) provided a means to effectively communicate a number of key concepts about God, humans, and the world. While employing the categories of ancient Near Eastern “science”, it completely overturned the pagan theology. In contrast to the quarrelling, needy gods of the pagans, the Genesis story depicts the Hebrew God as sovereign, calmly and freely choosing to create the universe, and delighting in his work.
The creation was done in an orderly set of stages: the first three days of creation God formed various spaces or realms (e.g. the heavens, the seas, and the dry land), which He filled in the second three days (e.g. with birds, fishes, and land animals). Thus the earth, which was initially “formless and empty” (Gen 1:1), becomes formed and filled.
In pagan thought, the celestial lights represented gods which held power over men. The Israelites themselves had a hard time to shaking off worship of the sun and moon (Job 31:26-28). Genesis 1 thoroughly subverts this idolatry: the sun, moon and stars are totally demythologized, being mere created objects. In delicious irony, instead of humans serving them, they are (in Genesis) to serve humans by providing light and marking off the days and seasons.
The closest parallel to the Genesis story is the Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish. There humans are created out of the blood of a slain god in order to be slaves, working so that the gods could be relieved of their labors and be at ease. This conception of humans helped to justify the Babylonian social order, where most men were effectively enslaved to the royal leaders. In Genesis, mankind has a far more dignified status. Adam is created from ordinary matter and then infused with the breath of life from God, being “in the image of God.” God does not need Adam’s labor or sacrifices. Instead, God works for the benefit of mankind, graciously giving them authority over the whole earth (Gen. 1), and making a fruitful garden and a suitable mate for Adam (Gen 2). God does “rest” at the end of the Genesis creation epic, but this is because He is satisfied with what He has sovereignly spoken into being, not because some flunky is fanning Him with a palm leaf.
Thus, the pre-scientific Genesis creation account marvelously accomplished what II Tim 3:15-17 says is the purpose of the Scriptures. It vividly conveyed a high doctrine of God’s goodness and power, and His authority to give moral direction to humankind. It was thus “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Retaining the ancient physical concepts (instead of trying to correct them) was essential in accomplishing this divine purpose for the people to whom this revelation was given.
For those who are still not satisfied with this Option (3), consider what the remaining option might look like. With Option (4), the ancient Israelites would be told that God created the universe initially as a tiny point of unimaginable temperature and density; this fireball expanded and cooled, with matter condensing into hydrogen and helium; over ensuing billions of years, clouds of hydrogen and helium coalesced to form stars, some of which later exploded in supernovae, thereby creating the heavier elements that compose ordinary solid matter; some of that matter accreted to form the earth; for a billion years, one-celled organisms floated around the seas; through a partially understood process of mutations and natural selection, more complex life-forms developed, including gigantic reptiles, ape-like humans and finally anatomically modern humans. To me, a scientist of the 21st century, the sweep of this evolutionary drama evokes admiration for God’s prowess and purposefulness, but for ancient Israelites this would all be a confusing mess.
I fail to see how this would be an improvement over Option (3) for accomplishing the designated purpose of the Scriptures. Apparently God saw it the same way. In inspiring Genesis He chose Option (3), and I honor that choice.
Brad Kramer of Biologos has summarized the findings of Kyle Greenwood’s 2015 book Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science. Greenwood is a professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary. According to the following extended citation from Kramer’s summary, Prof. Greenwood’s conclusions are substantially the same as I have stated in this blog post:
….Greenwood states that, “It was a nearly universal truth [in biblical times] that the sky was a solid structure…it served as a barrier for the upper waters” (54). And precipitation came from this cosmic ocean above the sky. Coupled with the common experience of finding water deep in the ground, “the ancients conceived of the earth arising out of primordial waters, called the cosmic ocean…the earth was thought to be surrounded by these cosmic waters” (62). This picture of the world is found in numerous literary and visual sources (many just discovered in the last century) and Greenwood details a large number of them.
Of course, just because the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians thought something doesn’t automatically mean the Hebrews agreed. After all, their beliefs about God were foundationally different than the polytheism of the surrounding pagan nations. And, as Greenwood readily admits, many modern scholars have over-emphasized the similarities between the Hebrews and surrounding cultures. But still, “the authors [of Scripture] shared a common cognitive environment that colored their view of the cosmos” (41), and so we should not be surprised that the Bible reflects these beliefs.
For biblical evidence, look no further than Genesis 1, which opens with a picture of darkness and watery chaos. Modern visual depictions of these verses assume a modern perspective of the universe, where the water is contained to the surface of the earth. But Genesis portrays these waters as the backdrop of the whole story of creation. Here are verses 6-7 in the NRSV translation:
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.
These verses only make sense if the whole universe is filled with water. The picture here is God blowing a bubble of habitable space in the middle of the cosmic sea and placing a barrier to keep the waters from crashing down onto earth. Interestingly, the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars) are “set…in the dome” (1:17), under the “waters above”, rather than above them. So again, the picture is of cosmic waters encircling the entire universe, including stars and planets (which ancients assumed were attached to the solid dome). Greenwood concludes: “As was the case with ancient Israel’s neighbors, the land mass they called earth was thought to be surrounded by water—east and west, above and below” (95, emphasis mine)…