The Firmament of Genesis – 1

Biblical literalists claim that the Bible is the only credible source of information on the origin of the universe. John Morris was entirely representative when he said:

The biblical record, accepted in its natural and literal sense, gives the only scientific and satisfying account of the origins of all things. The creation account is clear, definite, sequential and matter-of-fact, giving every appearance of straightforward historical narrative.1

Therefore, in areas of conflict between a literal interpretation of Genesis and modern astronomy, science is declared a priori to be incorrect. This assumption that Genesis is the only reliable guide to origins-related questions assumes that the creation narrative is meant to be interpreted literally, and this is where special creationism makes its first mistake, as the Bible is not a science textbook.2

Another problem is that literalism is inconsistently employed by special creationists, as there are passages which if interpreted literally require the exegete to believe aspects about the universe which even young earth creationists regard as incorrect. Examples include the clear references to geocentrism in Joshua 10v12-13, Isaiah 38v8 and Ecclesiastes 1v5. A common rebuttal to these arguments is that when not clearly poetry3, these verses are employing phenomenal language. In other words, they are describing things from an observer’s point of view.

The problem with this argument is that it presupposes the Biblical authors shared our modern understanding of the universe, or at the very least did not teach the cosmological views espoused by surrounding ancient near eastern cultures. The burden of proof lies on the exegete making this claim, as prior to the 6th century BCE, a spherical earth and heliocentrism simply did not exist as concepts in the ANE. We simply have no reason to assume the Israelites did not share the accepted cosmological world view of the surrounding nations.

Both the Sumerians and the Babylonians did not view the earth as a sphere. Rather, there is strong evidence they conceived of it as a flat disc.4 From the creation story in Enuma Elish, one can surmise the Babylonians – like almost all pre-scientific cultures – regarded the sky as solid. The fifth tablet describes how Marduk created holes in the sky to permit the passage of the sun.5

The independent Biblical scholar Paul Seely in an exhaustive study on the concept of the firmament in ancient civilisations notes that the idea of a solid firmament persisted well into the Common Era.6  It is hardly unreasonable to argue that if pre-Copernican Christianity could still speak of the sky as being solid, the Hebrew culture out of which Christianity arose would also hold a similar idea as true.

The Hebrew word translated as firmament, raqia’ occurs 19 times in the OT. Many of these occur in the Genesis narrative. The remainder occur either in the Psalms or Ezekiel and Daniel.7

Many theologically conservative exegetes have traditionally argued that raqia’ means expanse or space.  Walter Kaiser argues strongly for reading firmament in the Genesis account as an expanse. Kaiser admits that  “Few results of scholarly thinking have found more unanimity than on the point of linking the Bible’s view of the world with ancient cosmology”8 then claims:

To begin with, nowhere does the Hebrew text state or imply that the raqia (often translated “firmament” but better translated as “expanse”) is solid or firm. It is simply an “extended surface” or an “expanse.” The idea of “firmness” or “solidity” came more from the Latin Vulgate translation of “firmamentum” and the Greek Septuagint translation of steroma than it did from any Hebrew conceptualizations.9

However, apart from representing a minority scholarly view (a point he admits obliquely at the start) Kaiser’s argument however is unconvincing, and owes more to do with an apologetic agenda than an attempt at serious scholarly exegesis. In fact, the modern scholarly consensus is that the raqia’ in Genesis is a solid expanse separating waters above from waters below.10

  1. Henry Morris, The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth (San Diego: CreationPublishers, 1972), pp. iv. 84 Cited by Conrad Hyers in “Dinosaur Religion: On Interpreting and Misinterpreting the Creation Texts” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (1984) 36:142-148 []
  2. An excellent overview of this problem is found in Hyers, op cit. []
  3. This argument is a double edged sword, since it makes it difficult to explain away verses which appear to teach pre-Copernican cosmology while at the same time claiming the Bible was ahead of its time in teaching concepts only recently discovered by science. Job 26v7 is often cited as proof the Bible taught the earth was suspended in space ages before science established that fact. The fact that 26v11 would teach (if the same literalist approach is employed) the heavens are supported on solid pillars is never stressed by these writers. Likewise, the same people who argue Ecclesiastes 1v7 is a thumbnail sketch of the water cycle ignore 1v5 which if interpreted literally teach geocentrism. []
  4. Seely PH “The Geographical Meaning of ‘Earth’ and ‘Seas’ in Genesis 1:10” Westminster Theological Journal (1997) 59:231-55 []
  5. Seely PH “The Firmament and the Water Above – Part 1: The meaning of raqia’ in Gen 1:6-8” Westminster Theological Journal (1991) 53:227-240 []
  6. ibid, p232 []
  7. Gen 1v6; Gen 1v7; Gen 1v8; Gen 1v14; Gen 1v15; Gen 1v17; Gen 1v20; Psa 19v1; Psa 150v1; Ezek 1v22; Ezek 1v23; Ezek 1v25; Ezek 1v26; Ezek 10v1; Dan 12v3 []
  8. Kaiser WC Jr “The Old Testament Documents – Are They Reliable” (IVP 2001) p 75-76. Kaiser does his cause no good however with the decidedly polemic nature of his writing. For example, in footnote 13 on page 75, he describes Bailey’s Genesis, Creation as “among the most recent restatements of this scholarly shibboleth” []
  9. ibid []
  10. The standard reference HALOT notes רָקִיעַ: רקע, Bauer-L. Heb. 470n; SamP. arqi; MHeb. DSS (Kuhn Konkordanz 208), Sam., JArm., Syr., Mnd. rqiha sky, firmament (Drower-M. Dictionary 437b): cs. רְקִיעַ: the beaten metal plate, or bow; firmament, the firm vault of heaven: Sept. στερέωμα, Vulg. firmamentum; by רָקִיעַ was understood the gigantic heavenly dome which was the source of the light that brooded over the heavenly ocean and of which the dome arched above the earthly globe (see von Rad TWNT 5:501); for bibliography see further Eichrodt Theol. 2/3:57, 130; Westermann BK 1/1:162f; Zimmerli Ezechiel 55; O. Keel Jahwe-Visionen und Siegelkunst 250-255; Reicke-R. Hw. 719. []

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