From the Archives: The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Note: This article was originally posted on January 14, 2010.

Genesis 1 and 2 tell the story of creation, and it says things that are at odds with what modern people know to be true of the world and universe around us.

One of those issue concerns the second day of creation (Genesis 1:6-8), where God made the “expanse” or the “firmament.” The Hebrew word for this is raqia (pronounced ra-KEE-ah). Biblical scholars understand the raqia to be a solid dome-like structure. It separates the water into two parts, so that there is water above the raqia and water below it (v. 7). The waters above are kept at bay so the world can become inhabitable. On the third day (vv. 9-10), the water below the raqia is “gathered to one place” to form the sea and allow the dry land to appear.

Ancient Israelites “saw” this barrier when they looked up. There were no telescopes, space exploration, or means of testing the atmosphere. They relied on what their senses told them. Even today, looking up at a clear sky in open country, the sky seems to “begin” at the horizons and reaches up far above. Ancient Israelites and others in that part of the world assumed the world was flat, and so it looked like the earth is covered by a dome, and the “blue sky” is the “water above” held back by the raqia. The translation “firmament” (i.e., firm) gets across this idea of a solid structure.

Biblical scholars agree on this understanding of raqia. For some Christians, however, this is troubling. How can the Bible, which is the inspired, revealed word of God, contain such an inaccurate piece of ancient nonsense? Hence, some invest a lot of time and energy to show that the raqia is not solid but more like the atmosphere. Often, the word “expanse” is the preferred translation because it does not necessarily imply something solid.

Arguing for a non-solid raqia in Genesis is extremely problematic, for two reasons. First, the biblical and extrabiblical data indicate that raqia means a solid structure of some sort. The second problem is a much larger theological issue, but is actually more foundational. Regardless of what one thinks of the raqia, why would anyone assume that the ancient cosmology in Genesis could be expected to be in harmony with modern science in the first place?

This second issue creates a conflict where they need not be one. The raqia “debate” is not the result of new evidence that has come to light. Our understanding of ancient perceptions of the cosmos has not been overturned by more information. The debate exists because of the assumption made by some Christians that the ancient biblical description of the world must be compatible on a scientific level with what we know today.

Genesis and modern science are neither enemies nor friends, but two different ways of describing the world according to the means available to the people living at these different times. To insist that the description of the sky in Genesis 1 must conform to contemporary science is a big theological problem. It is important to remember that God always speaks in ways that people can actually understand. In the ancient world, people held certain views about the world around them. Those views are also reflected in Genesis. If we keep this in mind, much of the conflict can subside.

Let me summarize some of the general arguments for why raqia is understood by contemporary biblical scholars as a solid structure1:

  1. 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;
  2. Virtually every description of raqia from antiquity to the Renaissance depicts it as solid. The non-solid interpretation of raqia is a novelty;
  3. 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”);
  4. Other Old Testament passages are consistent with the raqia being solid (Ezekiel1:22; Job 37:18; Psalm 148:4);
  5. According to Gen 1:20, the birds fly in front of the raqia (in the air), not in the raqia;
  6. 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;
  7. Speaking of the sky as being stretched out like a canopy/tent (Isaiah 40:22) or that it will roll up like 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.

There is another approach that attempts to reconcile Genesis and modern science. This approach distinguishes between what ancient authors described and what they actually thought. This is sometimes referred to as the “phenomenological” view. It acknowledges that the raqia in Genesis 1 is solid, but the Israelites were only describing what they saw without necessarily believing that what they perceived was in fact real.

Modern figures of speech are often called upon to support this argument. For example, when modern people say “the sun rose” we are merely describing what we perceive without any of us actually thinking that the sun rises. We know it doesn’t, but we talk as if it does. Likewise, as the argument goes, Israelites were merely describing what they saw in the sky and not what they actually thought about what was up there.

To make a distinction between what ancient texts say and what it is presumed people actually thought is hard to justify. The only reason to argue this way is because it is already concluded that the biblical description of the sky and modern scientific observations cannot be fundamentally at odds.

But this logic cannot be pressed very far, even within Genesis 1. For example, are we to say that the Israelites actually knew better than to think that the moon was a “lesser light to govern the night” (v. 16) corresponding to the light-giving sun, the “greater light to govern the day”? Did they look up and think, “Well it looks like the moon is a light-producing body that gives off less light than the sun, but something else probably accounts for its light. Let’s just call the moon a ‘lesser light’ without committing ourselves to making any pronouncement on reality.”

It is unreasonable to suggest that Genesis 1 knowingly describes only what Israelites perceived, while holding back any commitment that what they saw was in fact reality. The meaning of raqia is likewise a description not only of what the Israelites saw but also of what they actually believed to be true. They were in good company, for their understanding of what was “up there” was in harmony with what ancient peoples believed in general. God spoke to the ancient Israelites in a way they would readily understand.

The arguments for a non-solid raqia can only gain traction by swimming against the strong current of what we know of the ancient world. But the problem is not just the arguments themselves. Rather, it is the very fact that the arguments are made in the first place. Feeling the need to make the arguments at all asks Genesis to be involved in a discussion it is not designed for.

It is important to be clear on what we have a right to expect from Genesis. This is central to making progress in the conversation between science and faith. It is a false expectation of Genesis that contributes to some heated exchanges about things like the description of the cosmos in Genesis.

The debate over the nature of the raqia is not a central issue. It is a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental disagreement over what Genesis is and what it means to read it well. This is the level where the truly important discussion must take place.

1. Those interested in more details can begin by reading Paul H. Seely “The Firmament and the Water Above,” (a two-part article that appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal 53 [1991]: 227-40 and 54 [1992]: 31-46; John H. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC; Zondervan, 2001), 110-13. If you want to dive into the debate itself, a good place to start is this article on raqia by Answers in Genesis.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/from-the-archives-the-firmament-of-genesis-1-is-solid-but-thats-not-the-poi

From the Mailbag: Why would God allow scientific errors in the Bible?
(Brad Kramer) #2

Pete Enns is not available to respond to comments, but you are welcome to discuss his post.


#4

This is a fairly common notion, that Gen1-3 should be scooped up and set aside and left to the ancients. Doing this takes away the enormous problem of how to reconcile what we know about the origin of our universe with what we perceive as the account of that origin in Gen1. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t work. Can we take the Bible as the book of God’s written revelation and say that it begins with a charming fairy tale about creation that we can only read as an interesting relic?
The Bible is not a relic. The word of God is living and active. It has its peculiarities; it has puzzles that we can’t solve; it has places where the manuscript evidence is sparse or conflicting; it has places where particular cultural practices are accepted and other places where they are rejected with little or no comment from the author. But that is part of its being alive, part of the way it engages us, makes us think, and gets us to go beneath its surface.
Its basic structure is magnificent. It spans reality. It goes to the heart. It does not trade in charming fairy tales and antique curiosities. The Bible speaks to every generation and every nation. We should not expect God’s account of earthly beginnings to be trapped forever in the mindset of the Ancient Near East. God knew very well that we would eventually have telescopes and figure out the distances to the stars. And he had us, too, in mind when he wrote Gen1.
This does not mean that we must take every phrase in a woodenly literal way. Where the language warrants it, we may find poetry with its metaphors and hyperbole, we may find parables, and even perhaps myth. The language may lead us this way in Gen2; but not in Gen1. The two accounts are quite different, with very different purposes.
Gen1 is written in a very straight-forward, detailed manner. There are no characters, no setting, no plot. It simply tells us how God created the heavens and the earth. Notice that it does not tell us why he created it, nor simply that he created it. I tells us how, step by step. Though Gen1 is fairly simple, it does have its share of artifice. The regular repetitions make it beautiful and memorable in any language. This artifice entices us to consider whether there is perhaps a deeper understanding waiting for us than just what the Ancient Near East would have understood from it.
The events of Gen1 match the events that recent cosmology has discovered in the history of our universe. Much of this information is relatively new, and not widely known among Christians who hold the Bible in high regard. The fact that the universe was larger than our galaxy was not discovered until the 1950’s.
Pete Enns makes a list of reasons to translate raqia as a solid. The word comes from the verb to beat, as to beat out metal into a sheet. I prefer stretch, or space. Certainly the metal stretches and makes more space on its surface when it is beaten. One thinks of Donne’s “as gold to airy thinness beat.”
Beyond this, the very close correlation between the events of Gen1 and modern cosmology make the list of reasons for calling the raqia a solid seem rather pale. That Christians do not recognize the Big Bang as the beginning of Gen1 can only be because they do not know very much about modern astronomy and cosmology. Scientists recognized the significance of the discovery of the Big Bang with its apparent corroboration of Gen1. The astronomer Fred Hoyle so hated the Big Bang because of this that he fought vigorously for the prevailing theory that the universe was eternal and self generating – and lost. Robert Jastrow says it well, speaking of the physicist who has been forced to accept the origin of the universe at a moment in history, occurring without a discernible cause. “He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Now, if we could just get Christians to scale this mountain.


#5

Very well written, Karen Fletcher. Even though some creationists doubt the specifics of the big bang, particularly the amount of time since, yet it certainly does seem to get closer to a “beginning from nothing”.


(Scott Jorgenson) #6

A good introductory article. And the Seely papers are excellent for those interested in the details. They are what first showed me a “way forward” past literalism or concordism in understanding Genesis 1 (and other cosmological passages in the Bible). Now when I read Genesis 1 it seems blindingly obvious that it reflects the ‘snow globe’-type cosmology common to the Ancient Near East, for the actual passages fit that cosmology far better than any subsequent one, let alone modern cosmology.


#7

Or, conversely, that the cosmology common to the ancient near east derived from distortions of the actual record of the true story of creation, as told or written from generation to generation.


(Christy Hemphill) #8

If you believed that, wouldn’t it be a bigger problem for inerrancy than a non-literalistic or non-concordist approach. Because those “distortions” are clearly recorded in what we consider inspired and authoritative revelation. If you hold to inerrancy, you believe the original manuscripts (not the original oral traditions) are free from error. I’m confused about what this assertion buys you.


#9

I think you people should invite Dr. Enns to write for you again. It’s a shame he no longer does.


#10

Christy, the comment made by Scott, as often also made by others, suggests that Genesis 1 is merely a reflection of the existing cosmology of the time. rather than a true revelation of reality. This is speculation. So I suggest the alternative, that orginally, they knew the true story of creation, as told in Genesis, and that the cosmology of the near East somewhat distorted this true story, as we have often seen the variant creation stories and flood stories around the world. If the original manuscripts are themselves inspired over and above the oral traditions, and if somehow they “corrected” the oral traditions, then yes, we would suppose the oral traditions would be faulty while the manuscripts not faulty.

However, it is not impossible that while the oral traditions varied, and thus some were obviously wrong and distorted, that one or more of the oral traditions remained accurate, and that this one became transcribed in the Genesis story.

The point is that the Genesis story cannot be shown to be derived from the ancient east cosmology, rather than being the original source, which the ancient east cosmology has somewhat distorted.


(Christy Hemphill) #11

Is that what anyone here is really saying though? I think they are arguing that the Genesis account is culturally contextualized with respect to the ANE worldview, and that is part of what made it comprehensible and compelling to its original audience. It corrected the pagan worldview it used as a reference point in all the areas where it mattered (i.e. theology, not “cosmic geography”). That is very different than saying the Genesis account had it’s origins in pagan mythology. I have never heard any BioLogos author claim that.


(Scott Jorgenson) #12

I have to agree with Christy that your approach, johnZ, doesn’t really work. For we know now that the actual structure of the cosmos is far different than the ANE conceptualization; yet ANE cosmology fits far better with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 than modern cosmology:

  • A vast primordial deep - check.

  • A solid firmament called “sky” separating the deep into waters above the sky and below - check.

  • The dry land (earth) separated from the waters below - check.

  • The sun, moon and stars set into the sky, not above it - check.

  • The birds flying across the ‘face’ of the sky, not through it - check.

  • And later in Genesis, the eruption of the waters above the sky and beneath the dry land (remember them? - they’re still there) - check.

It requires far more creative and non-literal interpretation to get those references in Genesis 1 to comport with Earth as a rocky planetary sphere, partially covered in a relatively thin film of water, and with an amorphous, gaseous sky above which there is no water, just space - and with the sun, moon and stars much farther ‘above’ that still.

And so Genesis 1 is describing the ANE conceptualization, not the modern one. However degraded the Mesopotamian or Egyptian cosmology may be from Genesis 1, the original is not a reflection of the actual cosmos but rather something much more like the ANE rendering of it. Thus it does not work to claim Genesis 1 is less-degraded and more accurate, cosmologically, than other ANE cultural artifacts. Theologically, yes, that could be asserted; but cosmologically, no.


#13

A vast “primordial”? where does it say that? Deep, yes. Primordial??? Deep fits well with our scientific knowledge. uncheck.

A solid firmament? really? Convenient to choose this word, rather than “expanse”, or “vault”. Also ironic that those who choose to interpret Genesis One symbolically choose simultaneously to interpret this word literally. And in a way that is disputable as well. Uncheck.

The dry land separated from the waters below? I think you are confusing yourself here. Actually, it says; "And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good." Or you are confirming modern geography/geology. Check and check. and Uncheck.

Sun moon and stars in(to) the sky. Yes. As we see it today. We look nowhere else for the sun and moon. "God placed them in the [ab]expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 and [ac]to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. " Good thing you did not complain literally about the use of the word “govern”, as to govern the day or night. Anyway, uncheck.

The birds flying across the “face”? of the sky? Really? “and let birds fly above the earth [ae]in the open [af]expanse of the heavens.” let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky Don’t see the word “face” used. Not that it would be a problem anyway. Uncheck.

There are still waters in the sky, and beneath the dry land. And the waters in the sky are still often separated by an expanse which separates them from the water in the earth and beneath the earth. And you can see those sky-waters coming. And the waters on the earth are often usually connected to the waters under the earth. And we know there is an enormous amount of water under the earth, most of which is not drinkable. Water and the earth’s crust may be relatively thin, but I don’t think scripture gives us anything in kg, tnns, nor even kms. Ironic how in spite of similarities to ancient near east concepts and terminology, and that it is not presented in scientific measurements, it still manages to fit modern cosmology so well.


#14

Christy, if you use the prevailing thought (cosmology, ideology, philosophy, theology) of the day as a way of relating, especially when it defines the context of what you relate verbally to others in your story of the past, then it would seem that your story of the past has its origin in the context in which you place it, don’t you think?

As far as being “compelling”, well that can be left to the imagination, as many people have found StarTrek and Space Odyssey quite compelling, whether they believed it or not. It need not be true, but merely fascinating, or merely possibly true, such as Jules Vernes “Twenty thousand Leagues…”.

But perhaps you mean believable, rather than compelling. In that case, why would God creating something in a few days be more believable than creating something in a thousand years?


(Christy Hemphill) #15

No, I don’t understand the connection. My kids are obsessed with Percy Jackson at the moment. The author retells Greek myths using the idioms of today and superimposes quasi-scientific explanations that attempt to describe the supernatural aspects of the stories in a way that makes more sense to modern readers of the stories. They are culturally contextualized for American youth, but the origin of the stories is still ancient Greek myth.

Now I do think there is a big difference between culturally contextualized divine revelation and Percy Jackson. But I don’t see how you get away from the fact that communication is always highly contextualized. (Relevance Theory of Linguistics 101) As Christians we believe the source of revelation is God the Father.

By compelling, I mean tapping into the audiences conception of reality and addressing the questions they thought were important. The creation story corrects the ANE conception of reality in numerous places, it isn’t just a wholesale appropriation of it. I don’t think “how long, literally, did it take God to create stuff?” was one of their important questions.


#16

@Christy
@johnZ
@dscottjorgenson
The influence of ANE cosmology is an explanation for why Gen1 doesn’t fit with what we know about the universe today. But this explanation is not needed if we see that Gen1 and modern cosmology fit each other like a hand and glove.
There are reasons why this has not been noticed. One is that so many people accept that the earth was created before the first day. Gen1:2 says “the earth was without shape of form.” The assumption is that this means that the earth was flat and dark. But a “flat” earth still has shape; it is a sphere, or, if you’re a flat earther, a disc. In fact, anything that exists in the physical realm has a shape. The shape might be hard to describe, but it has a shape. If the earth were covered with water, it would not be void. It would have water. The only things that are without shape or substance are concepts, ideas. So, in verse 2, the earth is simply an idea in God’s mind.
The first thing made is light. Not the earth, not the sun, just light. First there was nothing, then there was light. Doesn’t that sound like the Big Bang? It does to me.


(Christy Hemphill) #17

You have to do a lot of gymnastics to get to that conclusion though. I’d rather just ditch concordism altogether. No one has convinced me that there is any good reason to read Genesis as something its original composers and audience would not have understood. I don’t think there are hidden messages in Scripture.


#18

Of course, language has to be meaningful, and in that sense it is contextualized. Context does not mean appropriation or agreement; it just means a reference point. And so you recognize that the creation story corrects the ANE concepts sometimes. Some of the creation story concepts are simple reality, observable things we also see today, like deep water, water under the earth, water in the sky, etc. Since we know the creation story is not bound to the ANE concepts, it is difficult to argue that it was bound by them. It is not difficult to argue that it didn’t address everything. It is difficult to argue that it needed to adopt incorrect concepts to be relevant; this would imply no need for corrections.


(Christy Hemphill) #19

I think what we have here is two very different view of how Scripture is inspired. I can see that if you think God composed Genesis and then dictated it to an author, you can’t have God dictating stuff that is just plain wrong. But if you see the inspiration of Scripture as God supernaturally guiding and enlightening the thoughts of the authors with truth that is relevant to what he wants to communicate, then God isn’t intentionally misrepresenting truth when he lets a flat earth suspended over a watery deep into Scriptures (or slavery as normal or women as chattel or the intestines as where your mind is located or any number of other culturally dependent “realities” you find in Scripture). It’s just a part of the author’s worldview that wasn’t changed by God’s inspiration at that time.

I don’t think God “adopted incorrect concepts.” I think he accommodated what he wanted to communicate to what the thoughts and worldview of the composers were capable of conceiving and communicating. He communicated in an inspired way through their voice and their reality, which is different than ours. He chose to correct their worldview when it was wrong about who ruled the universe, what God was like, and what creation was for. He didn’t choose to give them a supernatural science lesson that they wouldn’t have understood anyway.


#20

However, God achieved it, the inspiration of scripture would imply that God wanted what is there, to be there. Through dictation (sometimes), through guided thoughts (sometimes), through record of history (sometimes), through recorded events (sometimes). I tend to assume that God did not want falsehoods there. Falsehoods do not lend themselves to good instruction, which is also what scripture is for. Scripture represents both what happened (slavery, sin, slaughter, true worship, idols, exile, return) and what God wanted (true worship, obedience, redemption, victory).

He did not write a history book, a theological treatise, a science text, nor a novel. Yet that does not mean that it did not contain history, theology, science, or literature. We cannot say that a. he did not give them a supernatural lesson, b. that the science was wrong, c. that they would not have understood it.

Do you understand the sun and moon coming four days after the light? Do you understand man from dust? Why do you think they understood it?


(Christy Hemphill) #21

Nope, that account does not fit my view of reality. I think they understood it because it matched their expectation of how creation stories were supposed to be told, and it answered the questions they were asking. I don’t understand the Canaanite conquest either, but I believe the original audience did understand in a way that preserved God’s character as good and just, and the form of the narrative matched their expectations of how the story was supposed to be told in a way that glorified God. I don’t understand Revelation, but again, I think it matched the audience’s expectations for apocalyptic Jewish literature. That is why I’m thankful for all the scholars who write Bible commentaries that shed light on the original contexts and what was “normal” or “true” for the original audiences even though it’s not normal or true (in the not capital T sense) now.

My husband and I are doing literacy development in a minority language community, and one of the things we do is get people to tell us stories, which we make into books to use when teaching people to read and write their language. Often the stories make no sense to us. They don’t fit our expectations of how a story should be structured at all. We ask what the moral is or why it is funny, and we have no idea how they think the story communicates that idea. But then we share the story with someone else from the same culture and they laugh at the right parts and they get the same message. Obviously there is something in their shared cultural context that contributes essential parts of the meaning that are not in the literal words on the page.

I think that kind of thing happens with Scripture too. God, through his Spirit, can use Scripture to speak things to us that the original audience did not hear, so I don’t agree with people who say the only meaning in Scripture is what the original hearers got out of it. But I think there are important things it meant to the original audience that take a lot of word to reconstruct and gain insight into.