Is the firmament of Genesis chapter 1 solid?
There is a view that is gaining currency within Christadelphian circles that Genesis chapter 1, far from being a true historical account of the origins of the heavens and the earth, is a polemic against ancient near eastern mythology. It is seen as an attack on the creation stories of other ancient civilizations. In their stories the universe begins as a watery chaos, ruled over by sea monsters.
These sea monsters are defeated by the gods, who then argue amongst themselves about the creative plan. With great effort on their part the universe is brought into being. In stark contrast, the God of the Hebrews, the God of Genesis 1, is the one who creates the sea monsters in the first place. God is alone and unopposed in all that He says and does. He speaks and the creative work is done.
According to this view, it is a mistake to view Genesis chapter 1 as a true historical
account of the Divine work of creation. This was never its intended function. This allows for the accommodation of evolutionary theory into the creative narrative.
Is the firmament in Genesis 1 a solid dome?
A significant foundation stone for this understanding of Genesis 1 is the assertion that the firmament in Genesis 1 is portrayed as being solid.
The reasoning is that ancient near eastern civilisations believed that the earth was flat, supported by two pillars, and that the firmament was a solid, dome-like structure in which the sun, moon and stars were set. The waters below this firmament represented the seas, and above the solid, dome-like firmament was the ocean of heaven.
It is further reasoned that the writer of the book of Genesis, in his description of God’s creative work, assumes that this understanding of the cosmos is correct. Since we now know that the heavens are not solid, the conclusion is drawn that Genesis 1 does not align itself with modern scientific fact. Therefore we are at liberty to assume that Genesis 1 is not to be understood literally, rather it is a teaching story.
For this reason, a correct understanding of the scripture teaching regarding the firmament has assumed great importance. The approach to Genesis 1 outlined above stands or falls on this issue alone. If it can be demonstrated that this is not the arrangement of the cosmos that is presented by scripture, in particularly the book of Genesis, then this case can be dismissed altogether.
The objective of this study is to demonstrate that the firmament (Hebrew raqia) of Genesis 1 is not presented as a solid dome-like structure. This idea can be read into the text if one approaches the Genesis account with this pre-conceived notion, but the text does not demand that understanding of the cosmos. Neither is Genesis 1 a polemic against ancient near east mythology. This idea has to be read into the account, because it is not there.
After all, why would the Almighty God of truth (Deuteronomy 32:4) attack the religions of heathen nations by producing an account of creation which itself was not representative of actual events? On the contrary, Genesis 1 is an accurate description of the creative work of God in simple terms that anyone, in any age, can understand.
Proponents of the solid dome theory usually make reference to studies by Paul H Seely1 and Pete Enns2. For convenience, we summarise below a number of key assertions that these studies make:
1. The other cosmologies from the ancient world depict some solid structure in the sky.
The most rational explanation of the raqia in Genesis 1 is that it also reflects this
understanding. There is no indication that Genesis is a novel description the sky
2. Virtually every description of the raqia from antiquity to the Renaissance depicts it as solid. The non-solid interpretation of the raqia is a novelty.
3. According to the flood story in Genesis 7:11 and 8:2, the waters above were held back only to be released through the floodgates of the heavens” (literally, “lattice windows”).
4. Other Old Testament passages are consistent with the raqia being solid (Ezek 1:22;
Job 37:18; Psa 148:4).
5. According to Genesis 1:20, the birds fly in front of the raqia (in the air), not in the raqia.
6. The noun raqia is derived from a verb that means to beat out or stamp out, as in
hammering metal into thin plates. This suggests that the noun form is likewise related to something solid.
7. Speaking of the sky being stretched out like a canopy/tent (Isa 40:22), or that it will roll up like a scroll (Isa 34:4) are clearly similes which support the view that the raqia in Genesis 1 is solid.
Underpinning these articles is the belief that the Genesis account was written by men who adopted the language and understanding of the scientifically naive cultures that existed at the time. As one author on this subject puts it, “We cannot impute to authors knowledge or experience which they could not possibly have had”3. It is reasoned that these ideas of ancient civilizations were used and adopted in the Genesis record to attack these other gods, and to show how great the God of the Israelites was.
The beliefs of other civilizations
With regards to the beliefs of other ancient near east civilizations, we do not doubt that some may well have believed that the sky was solid. But it is a total assumption to then conclude that therefore that is what Genesis 1 is describing also. The significant difference between the writings of ancient near eastern civilizations and Genesis 1 is that the latter is the word of God, and therefore there is no need to bring Genesis 1 into line with the beliefs of the ancients.
Furthermore, it appears that the belief that the sky was solid may not have been as
widespread as is being suggested by some. In a study by Randall W Younker and Richard M Davidson4, we find this statement:
1 The firmament and the waters above – The meaning of raqia in Genesis 1:6-8. Paul H Seely, The Westminster Theological Journal, 53 (1991) 227-40
2 The firmament of Genesis 1 is solid but that’s not the point. Pete Enns, biologos.org, Jan 14, 2010
3 The Three-Story Universe, N F Gier, God, Reason and the Evangelicals (University Press of America 1987), Chapter 13. http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/gre13.htm
4 The Myth of the solid heavenly dome: Another look at the Hebrew raqia. Randall W Younker & Richard M Davidson, Andrews University Seminary Studies, No 1, 125-147, 2011.
A representation of the beliefs of ancient near east civilizations regarding the firmament
“There have been some who continue to suggest that the ancient Hebrews borrowed
cosmological concepts, including the idea of a solid domed heaven, from the
Mesopotamians. However, even this idea had to be scuttled when more recent work by Wilfred G. Lambert could find no evidence that the Mesopotamians believed in a harddomed heaven; rather, he traces this idea to Peter Jensen’s mistranslation of the term “heavens” in his translation of the Enuma Elish .
Lambert’s student, 5 Wayne Horowitz, attempted to piece together a Mesopotamian cosmology from a number of ancient documents, but it is quite different from anything found in the Hebrew Bible. Horowitz’s study suggests that the Mesopotamians believed in six flat heavens, suspended one above the other by cables. When it came to interpreting the stars and the heavens, the Mesopotamians were more interested in astrology (i.e., what the gods were doing and what it meant for humanity) than they were in cosmology.
There is no evidence that the Mesopotamians ever believed in a solid heavenly vault”
The reference that this article makes to Wilfred G Lambert is interesting because he was, of course, a Christadelphian who was also a historian and archaeologist, and a specialist in Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology. The whole article is worth reading because it casts considerable doubt upon the dome theory, including the writings of Seely. It gives the lie to the statement of Enns that “biblical scholars understand the raqia to be a solid dome-like structure… biblical scholars agree on this understanding of raqia”. Biblical scholars old and new most certainly do not agree. Here are some quotations from other Biblical scholars who clearly do not agree with Enns’ conclusions:
“The most probable meaning of [raqia] therefore is the expanse or the expansion. The LXX rendered it firmament; and hence it has been argued that Moses taught the sky to be a hard, metallic vault, in which the sun and stars were fixed; but the most learned modern commentators, including Gesenius, Kalisch &c., believe the true etymology of 5 “The Cosmology of Sumer and Babylon,” Wilfred G Lambert, Ancient Cosmologies, ed. C.
Blacker and M. Loewe (London: Allen & Unwin, 1975), 42-65.
the word to show that expanse, not firmament, is the right translation. The teaching, however, of the present passage does not depend on the etymology of the word. If a writer in the present day uses the English word heaven, it does not follow, that he supposes the sky to be a vault heaved up from the earth. Neither would it follow that the inspired writer had taught, that the portion of atmosphere, intervening between the sea and the clouds, was a solid mass, even if the word used for it had etymologically signified solidity”6.
“We must be careful neither to let our own view of the structure of the universe nor what we might think to have been the view of ancient men control our understanding of the biblical author’s description of the “expanse”. We must seek what clues there are from the biblical text itself. One such clue is the purpose that the author assigns to the “expanse” in v.6: it is “to separate water from water”. The “expanse” holds water above the land; that much is certain. A second clue is the name given to the raqia. In v.8 it is called the “sky”. Finally, we should look at the uses of “expanse” within chapter 1. Here the terms refers not only to the place where God put the sun, moon and stars (v.14) but also to that place where the birds fly (v.20: “across the expanse of the sky”)…. It would be unlikely that the narrative would have in view here a solid partition or vault that separates the earth from the waters above. It appears more likely that the narrative has in view something within the everyday experience of the natural world, in a general way,
that place where the birds fly and where God placed the lights of heaven (cf. v.14). In English the word “sky” appears to cover the sense well”7.
“Raqia – to stretch, spread out, then beat or tread out, means expansum, the spreading out of the air, which surrounds the earth as an atmosphere. According to optical appearance, it is described as a carpet spread out above the earth (Ps. civ. 2), a curtain (Isa. xl. 22), a transparent work of sapphire (Ex. xxiv. 10), or a molten looking-glass (Job xxxvii. 18); but there is nothing in these poetical similes to warrant the idea that the heavens were regarded as a solid mass, such as Greek poets describe. The raqia …is called heaven in ver. 8, i.e. the vault of heaven, which stretches out above the earth.
The waters under the firmament are the waters upon the globe itself; those above are not ethereal waters beyond the limits of the terrestrial atmosphere, but the waters which float in the atmosphere, and are separated by it from those upon the earth, the waters which accumulate in clouds, and then bursting these their bottles, pour down as rain upon the earth. For, according to the Old Testament representation, whenever it rains heavily, the doors or windows of heaven are opened (ch. vii. 11,12; Ps. lxxviii. 23, cf. 2 Kings vii. 2,19; Isa. xxiv. 18). If, therefore, according to this conception, looking from an earthly point of view, the mass of water which flows upon the earth in showers of rain is shut up in heaven (cf. viii. 2), it is evident that it must be regarded as above the vault which spans the earth, or, according to the words of Ps. cxlviii. 4, “above the heavens”8.
“Raqia – Identifies God’s heavenly expanse. The Mosaic account of creation uses raqia interchangeably for the “open expanse of the heavens” in which birds fly (Gen 1:20
NASB), i.e. the atmosphere… and that farther expanse of sky in which God placed “the lights… for signs and for seasons” … In pre-Christian Egypt confusion was introduced 6 Speakers Commentary. F C Cook, Commentary on Genesis 1:6. Vol 1 p33
7 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Frank E Gaebelein. Commentary on Genesis 1:6. Vol 2 p 298 Commentary on the Old Testament. C F Keil & F Delitzsch. Commentary on Genesis 1:6. Vol 1 p52-54_5 into biblical cosmology when the LXX, perhaps under the influence of Alexandrian theories of a “stone vault” of heaven, rendered raqia by stereoma, suggesting some firm, solid structure. This Greek concept was then reflected by the Latin firmamentum, hence KJV “firmament”9.
“While this English word is derived from the Latin firmamentum which signifies firmness or strengthening,…the Hebrew word, raqia, has no such meaning, but denoted the “expanse,” that which was stretched out. Certainly the sky was not regarded as a hard vault in which the heavenly orbs were fixed…. There is therefore nothing in the language of the original to suggest that the writers were influenced by the imaginative ideas of heathen nations”10.
Sufficient has been said, and much more could be said, to illustrate the points (1) that the debate as to the precise meaning of raqia is nothing new, and (2) contrary to what Enns says, the scholars do not agree on the etymology of the Hebrew word raqia. This, then, leaves us with a dilemma. Which scholars do we choose to believe, and which to reject? If we are not careful, we are likely to choose those scholars whose opinions coincide with our own pre-conceived ideas.
A Biblical approach
Let’s approach the problem another way. All of these so-called scholars are astray from Bible truth on a number of key first principles. None of them understand the Truth of the Gospel in its entirety, as defined by “the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). So we may legitimately ask why we should put our trust in any of them. Why, indeed, when there is a much better way, outlined by the prophet Isaiah: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20). The Bible is its own interpreter, and surely the best way of seeking to understand the meaning of Genesis 1:6-8 is to compare scripture with scripture. As Gaebelein has observed above, “we must seek what clues there are from the biblical text itself”.
The second part of this study will seek to do just that, and to arrive at an understanding of the firmament in Genesis 1 from the testimony of scripture itself.
9 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. R Laird Harris, Gleason L Archer, Bruce K Waltke.
Vol 2 p 862
10 Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words, W E Vine, Page 67_6