A change of mind regarding the firmament and waters above

I have made some slight adjustments to my view regarding the firmament and the waters above. I continue to believe that the Raqia of Genesis 1 was solid and the waters above were literal waters, not clouds, as some argue, as they are above the heavenly bodies, or ‘space dust’ (as conservative JP Holding argues). However, I find it difficult to see that these waters were the standard belief amongst Ancient Israelites, and that this is where rain comes from. For we see in Jeremiah 10:13 that the author was aware that clouds contained water vapour, and in Exodus 24:10 we see that God is walking on top of the firmament, and not in the waters at all. This does not create contradiction in my opinion, for Genesis 1 was not intended to a a scientific account of the cosmos in any way.

Hi Reggie

A I understand it your position has now become, then, that the Israelites knew rain came from clouds, and that Genesis is therefore an exception to that belief, positing a heavenly ocean with no actual function, but instead just as the content of some mythical belief, or metaphorical function?

The first part is indubitable, for example in the instance of Job 26.8, which says:

> He wraps the waters in his clouds,
> yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.

What, then, do you make of Genesis 9, in which God covenants with Noah not to flood the earth again? The sign of this is the rainbow he sets “in the clouds” (anan, the same word used in Job 26). God goes on to say that whenever he brings such clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds (as everybody knew, that happens when the clouds drop rain) he will remember his covenant, and that never again will he send the waters (mayim, as in both Job 26 and Genesis 1) to flood the earth. He closes his speech by, once more, associating the perpetual sign of the rainbow with the clouds.

Now it seems the writer of Genesis 9 agreed with the writer of Job, but was he unfamiliar with chapter 1 of his own book (which even the critical scholars don’t believe, attributing both ch1 and ch9 to the same “priestly” source)?

It appears that your continued belief in the “ocean”, despite its absence from the rest of ANE literature and even, you suggest, the rest of the Bible, depends on your interpretation that Genesis 1 teaches that the waters are above the heavenly bodies. Can you be quite certain that interpretation is thoroughly watertight (!) against the weight of all that other evidence?

Here’s an alternative: On a logical basis (and actually even in keeping with many of those dreadful “ancient cosmology” pictures), the original dark space above the face of the waters in v2, in which the breath/wind of God hovers/broods, becomes in the fullness of time the “heaven of heavens” or “highest heaven” designated as the the dwelling of God elsewhere in Scripture, and somewhat distinct from the “heavens” created on Day 2 to separate the waters.

It is in this original space above the face of the deep that primordial darkness exists, and it is there that the light is created on Day 1, and where day and night therefore start their alternation. Given the fact that the second set of three days is to do with populating the realms created or separated in the first three days, it is perfectly rational to envisage the heavenly bodies of Day 4 occupying and governing the realm in which light and dark, day and night already exist in the scheme - that is the original space above the waters that will, in other texts, be termed “highest heaven”. After all, they govern the day and night which first appeared there.

That makes the “inhabitants” of Day 5 neatly divide between the upper and lower waters divided by the firmament - the lower waters produce fish and so on, and the upper waters give rise to the flying creatures of the heavens. The raqia remains the divider between the two (rather than the supporter of the upper, which is never claimed in the text). And of course the animals and man share the realm of the dry land.

If that interpretation were correct, Genesis 1 would mesh neatly with Genesis 9, Job 26, Jeremiah 10, Exodus 24 (and in fact the whole of the OT), as well as with Mesopotamian cosmic geography, the various Egyptian schemes and what little is known of Canaanite cosmology. It would still not be science, but it would be consistent with those other sources, and phenomenologically relevant (by talking of the essential provision of rainclouds rather than a useless body of water mentioned nowhere else).

One would, of course, have to accept that that other unique feature of Genesis - the lattices (‘arubbah) of heaven that are opened to flood the earth (whilst the springs of the deep are also broken open) - might be metaphorical rather than scientific. Given that doors/windows are unique to Genesis as sources of rain, but not as metaphors of heavenly blessing and judgement, I don’t find that a difficult step to take, especially in the light of all those rainclouds mentioned at the end of the Flood account!

We can then treat Genesis 1 as a simple, but phenomenologically plausible, account of “the world in which we live”, and then concentrate, instead of picking its “science” apart, on why it takes the particular form it does to teach us about God and ourselves.

Some problems with this:

  • The Enuma Elish mentions waters above the sky.
  • Seely points out, early Christians and Jews did not believe these waters were clouds. If this was the original belief this would not make sense.
  • Elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible does support the idea that the Israelites believed in a solid sky, for example in 2 Samuel 22:8, which mentions the foundations of heaven shaking. It is difficult to explain this away as ‘just’ poetry, since this was a common belief at the time the Bible was written.
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I’m glad you raised these, Reggie, because they’re so easily answered.

  • Enuma elish doesn’t mention waters above the skies. Wayne Horowitz deals with this in great detail in Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (and here), but one only has to read the text itself to see that after slaying his enemy the goddess Tiamat, originally portrayed as the primaeval salt water but quickly acting as just a warring goddess (and seldom mentioned in the other Mesopotamian literature), Marduk splits her body “like filleting a fish”, makes the lower half into the earth, her upper half into the sky, and various other bits into terrestrial features of various kinds. A rather damaged part of the text has Marduk setting up some kind of guards to “contain her waters”. That’s the waters of Tiamat’s body itself, whatever that might mean - and not an ocean above the sky.

  • Early Christians did believe the waters were clouds. I don’t say all of them did, but for reasons unknown Seely omitted the testimony of the most significant writer on natural philsophy in the early church, and one of the most important early theologians, Basil of Caesarea, who preached a series of sermons on Genesis 1 called the Hexamaeron. He specifically says the waters are the clouds, and the firmament the air, even though as a Greek speaker he based his sermon on the Septuagint translation with its substantial firmament translation. Anyway, I present his views in detail here.

  • You give a great example of circular reasoning:

You cite the only Bible verse mentioning the “foundations of the heavens” as evidence that the Hebrews commonly believed in them as the support a solid heaven, and forbid a poetic reference because … it was a common belief at the time (as evidenced by that one verse!).

Sorry, I don’t accept that one solitary reference proves that a common belief led to the solitary reference - and certainly not within a poetic passage in which death by violence is described as waves, torrents, cords of the grave and snares; and in which thunder is described as God’s voice, lightning as his arrows, the valleys of the sea being opened by God’s snorting nostrils to expose the earth’s foundations … and in which all this description of the earth and heavens doing their thing is a metaphor for God’s wrath against David’s enemies. No poetic descriptions to see there - move along!

Ancient Egyptian texts mentioned the twin mountains, Manu and Bakhu which held up the sky, Ancient Ugaritic texts also mentioned two twin mountains which held up the sky. And in Greek Mythology the Titan Atlas held up the sky. There are plenty of examples.

Ah - so the issue is not actual Israelite evidence, but stories from around the world. As far as I can discover there is only one Egyptian source, Coffin Text 160, (just one of the many coffin texts found) that says mountains at the eastern and western extremes of the world actually support the sky. The coffin texts consist of spells to get the deceased through a whole series of mythical (and quite variable) regions either to the underworld, or through it to heaven. The text reads:

I know that mountain of Bakhu upon which the sky leans. Of crystal (?) it is, 300 rods in it length, 120 rods in its width. On the east of this mountain is Sobek, Lord of Bakhu. Of carnelian is his temple. On the east of that mountain is a serpent, 30 cubits in his length (COS, 32; ANET, 12).

Now, on what criteria do we distinguish what in this is internationally agreed cosmology believed by Israel, and what is merely Egyptian priestcraft (punters paid a lot for their coffin spells)? And on what criterion do we transfer the particular item of “mountains supporting the sky” to Israel, and not the alternatives even within Egyptian spells and mythology?:

From the different texts and drawings of Nut and Geb one can see different views of the world. For example, sometimes the realm of the dead is in heaven and sometimes under the earth. Sometimes just Shu (the air-god) holds up heaven, and sometimes four pillars help him. One picture shows Nut as a cow, and other show her as a woman. Sometimes the sky is seen as flat, and sometimes it was drawn curved. The sea was seen as a circle, and sometimes it was seen as a coiled serpent. So in Egypt there many different ways of drawing, and describing the universe.

To which I could add that in these paintings sometimes the boat of Re traverses a river over Nut, and sometimes under her (and in the texts, sometimes through her body). FWIW the royal Memphite theology of Ptah, dominant at the time and place of both the Exodus and 2 Samuel, and rationally more likely to influence a nearby king than commoners’ funeral superstitions, unequivocally mentions Shu (air) as the supporter of the sky (and shows little interest, because theology mattered to them more than cosmic geography). Meanwhile in Babylonian thought, the heavens are suspended on a network of ropes and so need no foundations. All of this, or none, might bear some similarity to what Israel believed, but conceivable similarity does not mean demonstrated dependence, even if the types of literature were comparable: would you go to Diskworld for a typical physical cosmology?.

By the by, researching the Ugaritic background currently - so far can find sacred moutains as the dwelling of the gods, the source of water and fertility, a battleground of “natural” forces, the meeting place of heaven and earth, and hence a source o divine government. What I can’t find so far is any mention of mountains supporting the sky, so you’ll have to give me a primary source on that!

Look up Targhizizi and Tharumagi

I have: I only found this in the Baal cycle:

Baal surely cried aloud to his pages:
'Look, [Gupn] and Ugar,
'the daylight [is veiled] in obscurity,
'[the exalted princess] (is veiled) in darkness,
'the [blazing] pinions of …5 (are veiled).
'[Flocks are circling round in] the clouds,
'[birds] are circling round [in the heavens]
'[ I shall bind the snow ]
'[the lightning j

Col. viii
‘Then of a truth do you set (your) faces’
towards the rock of Targhizizi,
'towards the rock of Tharumagi,
'towards the two hills bounding the earth.
'Lift up a rock on (your) two hands,
'a wooded height on to (your) two palms,
'and go down (into) the house of “freedom” (in) the earth,
'be counted with them that go down into the earth.

Appears to show these two mountains as the ened of the earth and as the entry to the underworld (editor’s notes suggest it’s probably just a colourful description of sunset!). So no mention of supporting the sky. I still need that primary source.


The way I read these verses, and the reference to “water bottles” (better translation is “water skins”), is that the clouds could be loaded in two ways:

a) from rising mist; and
b) from openings in the firmament, controlled by God and/or the angels.

I think you will find many of the issues in the thread above are addressed in this article:

We note that the firmament in Genesis 1 is formed to divide the original waters into two zones, the waters above and the waters below. The waters below are clearly plain liquid water, and thus so are the waters above (not clouds or mist). At the time of Noah’s Flood, the Flood was partly sourced by floodgates being opened in that solid dome, allowing those liquid waters to pour down. 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, as I think Jon and/or Reggie mentioned.

However, the “waters above” appear to be still extant today. In Psalm 148:4 we read of “waters that are above the heavens”. 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 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).

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 ]

A colored woodcut from the 1534 Luther Bible, is shown in this article (see hyperlink above). 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.

I may not have opportunity to participate much in any further discussion here, but I wish you both well in your search for understanding here…

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Yes, I thought that until I read St Basil’s exegesis of Genesis 1, which (as a native koine Greek speaker) he based on the Septuagint, regarded by early Greek Christians as at least as authoritative as the Hebrew. I linked to my post on him above in connection with early Christian views, but as a commenter on the Septuagint he is useful too.

But one must surely challenge the assumption that Greek speaking 3rd century Jews in Alexandria equate automatically to “ancient Hebrews”. The nation had been subject to Babylonian and Persian dominance for 3 centuries, and it was because of the Greek Seleucid dominance in Judaea, and the Greek Ptolemies in Egypt, that the translation was made or even possible. Their cosmological views were more likely to reflect Hellenic philosophy than 2nd millennium ANE memories.

How many times does the Bible use the word for “waters” when it really means “clouds”?

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But we know their cosmological views did reflect second millennium ANE views. We have the texts to prove this.



What a wonderful quote from Luther … demonstrating the YEC mentality even before there were YEC’s!

After reading your post it suddenly occurred to me that the West became heirs to the view of planets affixed to a crystal firmament - - which seems to be as much a part of the Bible as a part of any pagan culture from the Ancient period.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg “firmament”? It would be interesting to examine how the Chinese and the Muslim astronomers characterized the sky and the stars!

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I waited a day or so before replying because I hoped that, on a thread with the degree of detail i have endeavoured to provide, you’d actually present texts, rather than just the claim to possess them.

My memory of the intertestamental literature, apart from the Apocrypha, is a little hazy, from studying apocalyptic twenty years or so ago. But that memory, and modern secondary literature on it, seems to confirm what I would predict: in the earlier material, there is a strong and understandable influence, post-exile, of Neo-babylonian and Persian ideas; and then there is a gradual transition to and mixing of Greek concepts.

Thus in apocalyptic, with its emphasis on heavenly events, there are multiple flat heavens after the Babylonian pattern described by Lambert (usually 3 or 7), peopled by a heirarchy of heavenly beings up to God in the highest heaven. Moving forward through time the picture is more of a spherical earth with crystalline spheres (equally populated by angelic beings, as in gnosticism) based on the Hellenic model. None of this is the simple “heaven and earth” found in Genesis and the Old Testament generally.

At the other extreme, Sheol as a place of shades becomes progressively transformed into the (more platonic) concept of actual souls, and begins to be divided into places for the righteous and unrighteous. The Persian loan-word “paradise” begins to be ambiguously applied as the resting place of the righteous prior to resurrection, either somewhere in Sheol, or in a distant hidden location of earth, or as a division of heaven. It gets equated with Eden, but is really a very different concept.

All this is new, and variably dependent on the influence of Babylon, Persia or Greece. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which, because the images are mixed, and some sources formerly believed quite late, like 1 Enoch, are now held to contain earlier material. But it’s all written in the aftermath of centuries of exposure to non-Hebrew ideas in exile, or diaspora, or foreign colonisation. It would be remarkable if pre-Babylonian ideas of cosmology, otrher than straight use of biblical texts, survived that. And I’ve not seen evidence that it did.

Now, it may be that you can produce other primary sources that show this pure 2nd millennium Hebrew influence (generic “ANE views”, as I’ve endeavoured to show, have proved to be something of a chimaera of thoroughly disparate cosmogonies and cosmologies, so their presence, and link to Hebrew ideas, would need to be demonstrated in detail). If you can provide them, great - I’ll have something to discuss, as in the case of Targhizizi and Tharumagi, which turned out to be based on a single reference in the Baal cycle that doesn’t say what was claimed; or as in the case of the “many visual representations” of Mesopotamian cosmology you claimed some time ago, of which it turned out, as I had already predicted, you couldn’t produce even one: just an Egyptian picture of the air god Shu supporting the sky goddess Nut from a coffin painting based on Old Kingdom Heliopolitan theology.

Anything less than relevant texts is, to use the phrase you like throwing at me, “hand-waving”.

This may or may not be relevant but several Islamic texts mention an ocean above the sky. Now these may be derived from an understanding of the Genesis creation narrative, but it’s worth noting that many other features in these particular texts are not found elsewhere, for example eight giant goats dwell above the waters.


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Thank you! I was most surprised to read this from the Hadith (“a collection of sayings of Mohammed”) [ <a tip of the hat to @Jay313]:

“I was sitting in al-Batha with a company among whom the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) was sitting…
… [He said]: Above the seventh heaven there is a sea, the distance between whose surface and bottom is like that between one heaven and the next.”

“Above that there are eight mountain goats the distance between whose hoofs and haunches is like the distance between one heaven and the next. Then Allah, the Blessed and the Exalted, is above that.”

Not from the Quran. That is from Hadith, a collection of sayings of Mohammed.

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I will correct my reference in the post above. Thanks for the heads up.