The references to raqia’ in Ezekiel 1 and Genesis 1 when examined without an apologetic agenda readily show that the ancient Hebrews shared the cosmological view of their neighbours. Ezekiel 1 uses raqia’ to refer to a solid dome, capable of supporting a throne:
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.1
Genesis 1:17 notes how God placed the sun and moon “in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth,” while Gen 1:20 states that God commanded birds to “fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” As the NASB margin notes, v20 literally reads “let birds fly on the face of the firmament.” Any interpretation which posits raqia’ refers to the atmosphere is negated by these verses. Verse 17 notes that the sun and moon are set in the firmament, while verse 20 states birds fly across it. The firmament cannot simultaneously be outer space and the atmosphere, as conservative exegesis would require, whereas the sun and moon can be set in a solid dome across which the birds fly.
The lexical and Biblical evidence, coupled with the contemporary ANE view of the world as flat with a solid dome is enough to show that the conservative view of raqia’ as the atmosphere is untenable. Further reinforcing this is that the idea of a solid firmament was accepted well into the common era.2
The Jews speculated about its composition3, differentiated between it and empty space4, and tried to determine its thickness both by scriptural and empirical methods.5 Origen regarded the firmament as “without doubt firm and solid”6 Ambrose argued that “the specific solidity of this exterior firmament is meant”7 Augustine wrote that “it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the waters below”8
None of this is remotely controversial in serious OT scholarly circles. For example, the respected OT evangelical scholar Peter Enns summarises the case for a solid raqia’ in a BioLogos post:
- The other cosmologies from the ancient world depict some solid structure in the sky.
- The most natural explanation of the raqia is that it also reflects this understanding.
- There is no indication that Genesis is a novel description of the sky;
- Virtually every description of raqia from antiquity to the Renaissance depicts it as solid. The non-solid interpretation of raqia is a novelty;
- According to the flood story in Gen 7:11 and 8:2, the waters above were held back only to be released through the “floodgates of the heavens” (literally, “lattice windows”);
- Other Old Testament passages are consistent with the raqia being solid (Ezekiel 1:22; Job 37:18; Psalm 148:4)
- According to Gen 1:20, the birds fly in front of the raqia (in the air), not in the raqia;
- The noun raqia is derived form the verb that means to beat out or stamp out, as in hammering metal into thin plates (Exodus 39:3). This suggests that the noun form is likewise related to something solid;
- Speaking of the sky as being stretched out like a canopy/tent (Isaiah 40:22) or that it will roll uplike a scroll (34:4) are clearly similes and do not support the view that raqia in Genesis 1 is non-solid.
The solid nature of the raqia is well established. It is not the result of an anti-Christian conspiracy to find errors in the Bible, but the “solid” result of scholars doing their job. This does not mean that there can be no discussion or debate. But, to introduce a novel interpretation of raqia would require new evidence or at least a reconsideration of the evidence we have that would be compelling to those who do not have a vested religious interest in maintaining one view or another.9
Before the Copernican revolution, both Jews and Christians interpreted references to the firmament as being a solid dome. The same applies to geocentrism, where prior to Copernicus, Christians defended the belief that the earth was fixed from the Bible. Young earth creationists may claim that they accept the Bible “in its natural and literal sense”, but the fact they do not accept geocentrism and a solid firmament shows the inconsistency of this claim. The fact that literalism when taken consistently requires one to make truth claims that are demonstrable false (even to young earth creationists who accept positions that have been refuted for well over a century) should be telling us something about the credibility of special creationist exegesis, as well as pointing out that God did not deem it necessary to update the pre-scientific knowledge of the inspired writers.
- Ezekiel 1:25-26 [↩]
- The following section is styled after Seely. [↩]
- 3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7 [↩]
- Gen. Rab. 4.3.a; 2 Apoc. Bar. 21.4 [↩]
- Gen. Rab. 4.5.2; Pesab. 49a [↩]
- Origen, First Homily on Genesis, FC 71 [↩]
- Ambrose, Hexameron, FC 42.60 [↩]
- Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ACW 41.1.61 [↩]
- Enns P “The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point” Science and the Sacred Jan 14th 2010 http://biologos.org/blog/the-firmament-of-genesis-1-is-solid-but-thats-not-the-point [↩]