This is the fifth in a six-part series based on Brian Godawa’s scholarly paper “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible”, which can be read in its entirety here. In the last post, Brian examined the ancient understanding of the underworld and the "waters below". Today he turns his attention up to the "heavens above".
If we move upward in the registers of cosmography, we find another ancient paradigm of the heavens covering the earth like a solid dome or vault with the sun, moon, and stars embedded in the firmament yet still somehow able to go around the earth. Reformed Scholar Paul Seely has done key research on this notion.1 His work helps make sense of the Bible passages that used to cause so much trouble for me as a concordist and “hyper-literalist.”
Gen. 1:6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse [firmament] in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the expanse [firmament] and separated the waters that were under the expanse [firmament] from the waters that were above the expanse [firmament]. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse [firmament] Heaven.
I used to think, what is that all about? Waters below separated from waters above by the sky? Young earth creationism tries to explain those waters above as a water canopy above the earth that came down at Noah’s flood. But that doesn’t make sense Biblically because birds are said to “fly over the face of the firmament” (Gen 1:20) with the same Hebrew grammar as God’s Spirit hovering “over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). But the firmament cannot be the “water canopy” because the firmament is not the waters, but the thing that is separating and holding back the waters. If the firmament is an “expanse” or the sky itself, then the birds would be flying within the firmament, not over the face of the firmament as the text states. So the firmament cannot be a water canopy and it cannot be the sky itself.
The T.K.O. of the canopy theory is the fact that according to the Bible those “waters above” and the firmament that holds them back were still considered in place during the time of King David, who wrote:
Psa. 104:2 stretching out the heavens like a tent. 3 He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
Psa. 148:4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Seely shows how the modern scientific bias has guided the translators to render the word for “firmament” (raqia) as “expanse.” Raqia in the Bible consistently means a solid material such as a metal that is hammered out by a craftsman (Ex. 39:3; Isa. 40:19). And when raqia is used elsewhere in the Bible for the heavens, it clearly refers to a solid material, sometimes even metal! (See Job 37:18, Ex. 24:10, Ezek. 1:22, Prov. 8:27, Job 22:14, Amos 9:6)
Not only did the ancient translators of the Septuagint (LXX) translate raqia into the Latin equivalent for a hard firm solid surface (firmamentum), but also the Jews of the Second Temple period consistently understood the word raqia to mean a solid surface in covering the earth like a dome. (See 3Bar. 3:6, 2Apoc. Bar. 21:4, Josephus Antiquities 1:30 (188.8.131.52))
The Talmud describes rabbis debating over which remains fixed and which revolves, the constellations or the solid sky (Pesachim 94b)2, as well as how to calculate the thickness of the firmament scientifically (Pesab. 49a) and biblically (Genesis Rabbah 4.5.2).3
What’s more, when the Scriptures talk poetically of this vault of heaven it uses the same terminology of stretching out the solid surface of the heavens over the earth as it does of stretching out an ANE desert tent over the flat ground (Isa. 54:2; Jer. 10:20) – not like an expanding Einsteinian time-space atmosphere. (See Psa. 19:4, Psa. 104:2, Isa. 45:12, Isa. 51:13, Jer. 10:12, Jer. 51:15)
Keeping this tent-like vault over the earth in mind, when God prophesies about the physical destruction he will bring upon a nation, he uses the symbolism of rolling up that firmament like the tent he originally stretched out (or a scroll), along with the shaking of the pillars of the earth and the pillars of heaven which results in the stars falling from the heavens because they were embedded within it. (See Isa. 34:4, Rev. 6:13, Matt. 24:29, Job 26:11, 2Sam. 22:8, Is. 13:13, Joel 2:10)
Waters Above the Heavens
Now on to the highest point of the Mesopotamian cosmography, the “highest heavens,” or “heaven of heavens,” where God has established his temple and throne (Deut. 26:15; Psa. 11:4; 33:13; 103:19). But God’s throne also happens to be in the midst of a sea of waters that reside there. These are the waters that are above the firmament, that the firmament holds back from falling to earth (Gen. 1:6-8). (See Psa. 148:4, Psa. 104:2, Psa. 29:3, Jer. 10:13, Ezek. 28:2)
The solid firmament that holds back the heavenly waters has “floodgates” or “windows of heaven” that let the water through to flood the earth in Noah’s day. (See Gen. 7:11, Gen. 8:2, Isa. 24:18)
Summary of Mesopotamian Cosmography in Scriptures
The sheer volume of passages throughout both Testaments illustrating the parallels with Mesopotamian cosmography seems to prove a deeply rooted ancient pre-scientific worldview that permeates the Scriptures, and this worldview is not coincident with modern science. A full summary listing of its elements (extra-biblical 2nd Temple literature in parentheses) can be found in my full paper.
Next week, in my final post in this series, we will look at what these verses mean for our reading of Scripture, and if they show that something is “wrong” with the Bible itself or merely with certain interpretations of it.
1. “The Firmament And The Water Above: Part I: The Meaning Of Raqia In Gen 1:6-8,” Paul H. Seely, The Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 227-40.
2. Quoted in The Science in Torah: the Scientific Knowledge of the Talmudic Sages By Leo Levi, page 90-91.
3. Seely, “The Firmament,” p 236.
4. Bratcher, Robert G., and William David Reyburn. A Translator's Handbook on the Book of Psalms. Helps for translators. New York: United Bible Societies, 1991, p 280. Psalm 29 takes place in heaven amidst God’s heavenly host around his throne.