The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point
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 scientific 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:
- 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 (Ezekiel1:22; 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 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 the Genesis is and what it means to read it well. This is 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 : 227-40 and 54 : 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.