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The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point

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January 14, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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:

  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 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 [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.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Nancy Janisch - #2694

January 15th 2010

One other comment concerning an earlier comment that people of the NT believed in a historical Adam and what that should mean for us. I would be surprised if Paul didn’t believe in a historical Adam. To my knowledge there was not a credible alternative in his day.  Paul and his readers had no evidence to the contrary. Sometimes we forget how recent our scientific knowledge is. 
As to Jesus’ knowledge of the historicity of Adam, scholars debate what the historical Jesus knew vs what Jesus as preexistant second person of the Trinity knows. But regardless of that, Jesus was talking to people who only had the knowledge that was generally available in those days.  And so spoke to people in language they could understand. Personally the fact that a historical Adam is mentioned in the NT doesn’t pose a particular problem for me. The reasoning that “works” for the OT, “works” for the NT. Now, I may not be thinking complexly enough about this topic and I would appreciate others comments to improve my thinking.


Jordan - #2705

January 15th 2010

It seems to me that there is a bigger question here. To me the argument over whether “raqia” is solid or not is a bit tangential.

Pete makes the case that we must understand how the people writing and originally reading scripture would interpret it. I don’t think very many Evangelicals would disagree with that. I wouldn’t imagine most have an issue with the idea that the Bible has a cultural and historical context. So then what’s the issue? I think maybe it’s that most Evangelicals would say that because this is God’s Word, the Bible has meaning in addition to that which the original readers might have seen. In other words, we don’t expect that the ancient writers and readers understood modern science or culture, but God *does*, so does He also include in some sense modern meaning in the Bible. Prophecy seems to be an example of this kind of thinking. Quite often (I don’t know about always) prophecy has both an “immediate” fulfillment and a longer-term ultimate fulfillment.


beaglelady - #2736

January 16th 2010

I mean, the resurrection of Jesus was also “back in the day” when people understood things differently.

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No way.  They didn’t know astronomy, but they sure knew when someone was dead.


beaglelady - #2737

January 16th 2010

Oops let me try again with correct html:

I mean, the resurrection of Jesus was also “back in the day” when people understood things differently.

No way.  They didn’t know beans about astronomy, but they sure knew when someone was dead.


Charlie - #2770

January 16th 2010

Hi Dr. Enns,

Responding to your post #2688

I do not assume the Bible is to be read literally, actually I am a scientist that sees the bible more as a mixture of history, symbolism, and lessons.  That being said, I feel the evil in this world that comes from religion is based on personal interpretation.  Because it is impossible to break up the Bible into the categories of fact, something the Biblical writers were uneducated about, and something divine, religion diversifies and can become either good or evil.  So I think assuring an accurate interpretation of the Bible is impossible and is different from assuring a good interpretation of the Bible (supporting love and harmony with everyone, regardless of who they are).  Do you agree or do you think an accurate interpretation of the Bible could be done?  Thanks.


Dan Allen - #2788

January 16th 2010

I appreciated this article quite a bit.  This has been an important issue for me because I have been “disfellowshipped” at my church for stating this argument in favor of a solid firmament as opposed to it being atmosphere.  This appears to have been too much for the church to handle.  I’m going to circulate this article around to the leaders at my church in the hopes that perhaps they will take another look and study this idea some more.  Thanks again for the post.

- Dan


beaglelady - #2853

January 17th 2010

Dan Allen,

Of course the firmament was thought to be solid. How else could it rest on pillars and hold back enough water to drown the whole planet?  I hope you found a better church!


Pete Enns - #2860

January 17th 2010

Charlie,

HUGE question and an excellent one (and pardons for misunderstanding you). I can’t possibly give a complete answer to this, even in 10,000 posts, but let me say that many are recognizing that plurality in interpretation—both throughout church history and throughout the world today—is not only an obvious fact, but “the way God wanted it” (if you’ll allow to speak for God). Scripture in that sense is not so much the source of information from which we can arrive at final “accurate” answers to everything we happen to ask it, but it is a means by which we can commune with God on own own life’s journey’s. That means our own understanding of what the Bible is doing will develop, mature, and also be tied to our own contexts. I would rather say that there are interpretations of Scripture that are more or less persuasive.  Anyway, you’ve opened up a can of worms and I managed somehow to step in it (to mix metaphors).


Charlie - #2960

January 19th 2010

Hi Dr. Enns,

You stated “Scripture in that sense is not so much the source of information from which we can arrive at final “accurate” answers to everything we happen to ask it, but it is a means by which we can commune with God on (our) own life’s journey’s.”

Is it my understanding then that you hold the belief that the Bible cannot provide one with accurate answers (due to the reason I stated in my previous post)?  Biologos’ mission states that faith can lead to truth about creation, something I disagree with simply due to faith being a personal belief unaffiliated with evidence.  Do you think faith can lead to truth?  What are your definitions of faith and truth?  Thanks for your responses.


Knockgoats - #3016

January 20th 2010

Of course the firmament is solid! That’s why they had to fake the Moon landings in the Mojave desert!


Martin Rizley - #3103

January 21st 2010

Dr. Enns,
Two points:  First, I don’t know see how you can object to raqia being translated “expanse,” when that is the translation given in most Hebrew dictionaries.  The verb from which it is derived, raqa, means to spread out, beat out, or hammer out as one would a malleable metal.  So a raqia is any substance that has been thus “spread out.”  In itself, the word does not say anything definite about the relative permeability or impermeability of the substance that has been thus spread out.  Second, it seems that when you say the Hebrews held to the same ideas about the nature of the raqia that earlier, or contemporary, or later cultures held, that is simply an assumption.  But reality is often not nearly as tidy, or neat, or predictable as we assume—just witness the recent election in Massachussettes!  History, logic, demographics would have led the investigative scholar to predict that one would find a Democrat sitting in Teddy Kennedy’s seat at the present time; but in this case, predictions based on logic, history, and demographics would prove to be wrong!  I fail to see the logic in imputing to the prophets the same ideas as other cultures about God’s raqia.


Martin Rizley - #3192

January 22nd 2010

Dr. Enns,
One further point:  how do you reconcile your opening statement with 2 Peter 1:20-21?  If no prophecy of Scripture represents the prophet’s own interpretation of reality, but holy men of God spoke as they were “carried along” by the Spirit, it follows that their teaching, rightly interpreted, is inerrant, since God cannot err.  But you begin by saying, “Genesis 1 and 2. . .says things that are at odds with what modern people know to be true of the world and universe around us.”  At face value, that appears to be a flat denial of biblical inerrancy.  That’s why I object to your saying that Genesis 1 teaches that the firmament is a solid dome; for then, Genesis 1 would be in error.  But it does not say what you affirm that it says.  It says simply that God made a thin, spread out layer of something to separate the waters above from the waters below—which is a true statement, insofar as it goes, since it allow for the layer to be permeable (i. e., the atmosphere, which does indeed separate the upper and lower waters.  There is no need to write “error” over Genesis 1, as you do; nor may we write error over Genesis 1, if we accept Peter’s view of the Scriptures.


James B. Jordan - #5204

February 23rd 2010

Pete,

Like Joel, I’m not opposed to language of appearance, but I very much do question some aspects of the model you’re using. During the day, the sky does appear to be a dome, or curtain (Is. 40:22), but at night it has depth. The ancients all knew that the sun was farther away than the moon. They knew that the moving stars (planets to us) were at various distances. It was the fixed stars that were on a firm dome in pre-modern cosmology.

This is imaged in the Holy Place, which is between two curtains, and is the tent-form of the firmament (associated with Day 4; the curtain with Day 2). The lampstand’s seven lamps are the seven moving stars moving from the earth up to the fixed stars: moon, Venus, Mercury, sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. (continued below)


James B. Jordan - #5205

February 23rd 2010

I do not see that the Biblical materials require a pre-modern cosmology for interpretation. We today say that “the sun rises,” not that “the horizon dropped to reveal the sun.” The question is whether there is anything in the Biblical text that is simply in error when compared with what we know about the present construction of the universe.

I grant that raqia by itself implies a hard flat surface. But the term must be taken in Biblical context, and since the representations of it in the tabernacle include both a hard shell (the bowl of the laver), soft smoke-permeable curtains (the veils), and an actual room (the holy place), it seems to me that we must allow that information to speak into the Biblical meaning of the term.

Back to you.


Dr. Rodney Sadler - #6130

March 8th 2010

Thank you Dr. Enns for the article.  It was an interesting read.  I enjoy teaching on Genesis and wrestling with the notion of the raqia and the fact that the biblical cosmology is quite different from our own. That said, I think the larger point of the story is that Genesis 1 wrestles not with our questions, but with questions that were particular to the original audience.  They were concerned about the nature of the universe, the nature of God, the inter-relation between their cosmology and their customs (i.e. 7 day week and Sabbath), and the nature of humanity.  If we appreciate what their questions were, we will find that Genesis 1 answers those questions quite well, providing a wonderful contrast to other origin stories from that region of North East Africa.  Further, taken on its own terms, it can speak again to us an offer us answers not to the questions we think are primary, but questions that really stir in our soul. Understood own its own terms, this story from an ancient world can speak to us anew without bearing the weight of questions it never intended nor cared to answer. Thanks for the thought provoking article.
God’s Grace and Peace,
Dr. Rodney Sadler


Rich - #10750

April 22nd 2010

Martin Rizley (#3192):

Granted that the expanse could be something permeable, but you still have a problem.  You want the expanse to be the atmosphere.  What are “the upper waters” above earth’s atmosphere?  The atmosphere contains water, but there isn’t water above it (even if by atmosphere you mean only the troposphere)—not in any appreciable volume.  Any stray water molecules above the troposphere would not be rain water, and the Flood story makes clear that we are talking about rain water.  So you rescue the literal text from one error, but not from the other.  There are no upper waters. 

Further, if the atmosphere is permeable, why do the windows of heaven have to be opened for the Flood to take place?  The clear suggestion of the Flood story is that normally the water can’t get through, unless the windows are opened.  This sounds like gates in a solid barrier.  That doesn’t sound like the atmosphere, does it?  So the language of the Flood story itself counts against your interpretation.  Ironically, your attempt to rescue the literal sense of the Bible goes against the literal sense of the Bible.


Bryan Hodge - #11720

April 29th 2010

If I can just jump in a bit late to the conversation to suggest that the raqi’a in Gen 1 is neither the result of a phenomenological perspective nor an attempt of the author to communicate a scientific cosmology (not even one that existed in his day). It seems clear that the raqi’a is the ceiling of the temple, per Ezekiel and other ancient Near Eastern concepts of temple ceilings that hold back the rains (i.e., waters of chaos) as a symbol of their ordering presence within the community. The author is conveying the creation in terms of temple imagery (something suggested many times now, only recently by Walton), therefore, not his view of the universe. I don’t think we can conclude, therefore, what ancient Israelites believed about the universe from these texts alone. In fact, the ancients seem to have more of a precise science, although nothing equaling what we have today, when they calculate and measure celestial phenomena. Just thought I would throw that one in there, since it’s in a chapter I just finished writing. Good discussion.


Dan Baright - #17586

June 16th 2010

Obviously, the history, symbols, lessons, hypotheses, theories, and even poetry and mythology of the ancient peoples as recorded in the Bible has brought great coherence over time.  But in regards to science, it occurs to me that the phenomenological approach and a literal recording of observations to the best of ones ability also has a lot going for it.  For example, if a biblical account infers that the sun rises in the east, then we know the report is of a planet Earth that is consistent with our own no matter what hypotheses, theories, or speculations there are regards such observation.  What matters is the data.  On the other hand, if some future revision of the Bible states that a temple was built during the time indicated in I Kings 7:23 and that the builders used a value of pi equal 3.1415923536 ..., then the reader of such a translation might rightly infer that the translator’s love of mathematics exceeded his love of accurate history.  And you know what has been written about “love.”  (I John 4:8)                          ——cont


Dan Baright - #17587

June 16th 2010

It would be interesting to know what researchers even 500 years in the future might think of our current hypotheses and speculations in regards to whatever data we and they might have.  Thus the epistemology of Evolution (speciation by means of common descent) is of interest, particularly regards its lack of scientific rigor.  For example, many natural history writers have expressed the thought that Evolution is as absolutely true as heliocentricism is absolutely true.  But the real world data informs that (1) Evolution is absolutely false and (2) heliocentricism is a relative truth depending on ones place of observation within a particular inertial frame of reference.  In my view, major errors as these have occurred in theoretical biology due, at least in part, to the acceptance of a very weak definition of “fact.”  In science, a theory isn’t a “fact” even when the theory is well confirmed and assumed to be true.  Also, a more rigorous definition of “scientific fact” captures the notions of observation and observables.
                                                                                            ——cont


Dan Baright - #17588

June 16th 2010

Further regards heliocentricism vs. geocentricism, there is some thought, and I agree, that relativity theory is now well beyond the phenomenological and actually represents reality.  Seeing is indeed believing.  Thus the Ptolemaic geocentric kinematics based on observations that the sun rises in the east, goes up and around, sets in the west, etc.—- this understanding of motion based on the precise data collected indirectly (for safety reasons) by oneself and ones fellow researchers around the world could be entirely scientific and used to make predictions, i.e., statements of FUTURE events.  One might also make some fine calendars.

Alternatively, and even more interestingly, ones frame of reference for motion (kinematics) AND force (dynamics) could be the Earth’s moon, Mars, a space station, Earthbound train, elevator, or even the fuel guzzling school buses children otherwise waste all too much time on.  Furthermore, if technologists and experimental scientists would at long last invent a ‘videovectometer,’ such a device might be quite educationally useful. Hans Reichenbach in his ‘From Copernicus to Einstein’ (Dover; 1942, 1970) is good on this subject.                                ——-  cont


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