ORIGINS/BIBLE--The "solid" firmament of Genesis

R. Joel Duff (
Thu, 7 Nov 1996 16:15:55 GMT


I posted this elsewhere but thought I would use it as my first post here.
I've recently read an interesting paper which I will summarize (mostly with
quotes). The article(s) are available at:

Title: The Firmament and the Water Above Parts I and II: The
Meaning of raqiaa in Genesis 1:6-8. By: Paul Seely published in
the Westminister Theological Journal Fall and Spring of

This article includes a wonderful historical examination of the
meaning ascribed to the Hebrew word raqiaa (uyqr,
"firmament") in Genesis 1.

The word has been defined literally as a solid dome over
the earth or as an "atmospheric expanse." Conservative scholars
it is argues have from Calvin on down taken special pains to
interpret this word as an expanse "on the bases that the Bible
also refers to the heavens as a tent or curtain and that references
to windows and pillars of heaven are obviously poetic."

It is argues that the historical evidence shows that the raqiaa was
originally conceived of as being solid. The question raised by
our understanding at present of a non-solid atmosphere are very
"Did scientifically naive peoples really believe in a solid
sky, or were they just employing a mythological or poetic
concept?....That is were they referring to the mere appearance of
the sky as a solid dome but able to distinguish between that
appearance and the reality?"

The answer in short:
"scientifically naive peoples employed their concept of a
solid sky in their mythology, but that they nevertheless thought
of the solid sky as an integral part of their physical universe.
And it is precisely because ancient peoples were scientifically
naive that they did not distinguish between the appearance of the
sky and their scientific concept of the sky."

A long and interesting discourse follows showing from Biblical
and ancient non-biblical texts that all ancient cultures believed
the sky to be solid, even all of the native American mythologies
reflect their belief in a solid sky. A belief in a solid sky is
universal until 200 AD when the Chinese suggested that the sky
was empty space. A solid sky was widely believed all the way
up until the Renaissance!

The nearly inescapable conclusion is drawn that when Moses
spoke of raqiaa to the people surely interpreted this as a solid sky
and almost surely Moses would have believed this true himself.
The author points out:
"Only by taking Genesis 1 out of its historical context
could one say that raqiaa means merely "an atmospheric
expanse" or, as the more sophisticated conservatives say, "just
phenomenal language." In the ancient world the sky was not just
phenomenal. The ancients did not just refer to the appearance of
the sky as being solid. They concluded form the appearance that
the sky really was solid, and they then employed this conclusion
in their thinking about astronomy, geography, and natural
science. The raqiaa was for them a literal physical part of the
universe, ... solidity is an integral part of its historical meaning."

An excellent discourse on the Biblical-grammatical meaning of
the word finds that can only be interpreted as a solid from
scriptures throughout the OT. After establishing the meaning of
the word raqiaa as a solid in part I, Seely goes on to discuss the
importance of the raqiaa separating the waters above and the
waters below. The sun, moon, and stars are placed in the raqiaa
while "waters above the firmament" are clearly above this solid.
The early Christian church held strongly to the view that there
was a real body of water above the solid sky (with sun, moon,
Renaissance, outside pressure finally resulted in the church
entertaining the idea that the firmament (raqiaa) referred only to
terrestrial clouds. Again a split is seen between the time of
Luther who maintained the view of literal water source and
Calvin who maintained Moses must have been referring to
clouds. Seely goes on to point out that from multiple texts that
Genesis Moses clearly made quite an effort to distinguish simple
clouds (atmosphere above them) from the solid firmament.

The waters above/on top of the firmament can only be
interpreted as being outside of the firmament which includes the
sun, moon, and stars. A result of this can be seen in the
following paragraph from Seely's paper:
"Dillow and other creation scientists, having rejected the
idea that "the water above the firmament" refers to terrestrial
clouds, have not really objected to locating "the water above" on
the top side of the firmament. This location is fine with them
because having taken the firmament itself out of its biblical and
historical context, they have redefined the firmament as mere
atmosphere (or a space between the earth and the sun). Their cano
py of water then sits literally above the atmosphere until it falls
as rain in the time of Noah. But even if this canopy theory
did not ignore the historical and biblical context which defines the
firmament as rock-solid, it would still be falsified by Gen 1: 14-17.
Gen 1:14-17 tells us that the sun, moon, and stars were
places in the firmament, so that if "the water above" is literally
above the firmament, then it must be above the sun, and hence
could not be a canopy of water beneath the sun. If the biblical
text is accepted in the straightforward way that creation scientists
way they want to accept the Bible, then defining "the water
above the firmament" as a water canopy below the sun is not
possible. Nor is it possible to define the firmament as
atmosphere, for the sun, moon, stars are not in the atmosphere."

"In addition, according to the Bible the "water above the
firmament" is not only above the sun and not below it, it also did
not completely fall to earth during Noah's flood and hence
according to the Bible is still above the firmament today (Gen
7:11-12 to 8:2)" - God closes the floodgates restraining further
water "damage." Psalm 148:4 also testifies that the water above
the firmament is still there after Noah's flood.

"I believe that it will bring more glory to God if we will
just acknowledge the fact that when 'the water above the
firmament" is left in its historical and given its biblical context
its historical-grammatical meaning.... it means a large body of
water, a sea, above a solid firmament, which firmament serves as
a roof to the universe and under which firmament are the sun,
moon, and stars."

One last quote from the last two paragraphs:
"The divine intent of this picture was not to communicate
natural science, but to teach the fact that the God of Scripture is
Creator and absolute sovereign over the supposedly independent
forces of the natural world. This is an important revelation
which men still need today. ... This gives us a clue, I think, as to
why, as Davis Young has pointed out, neither concordism nor
literalism has genuinely been able to harmonize modern science
with Genesis."

A few (disorganized) comments and questions that came to my
mind upon reading this paper. First it would obvious that we
do not hold to a solid firmament and
thus the word must be interpreted symbolically to us, but what
did it mean to the Israelite (if not people throughout the whole
Bible)? If not meant literally but symbolically could the
Israelites have derived the "deeper" meaning in the same way we
can (if we in fact see it ourselves)?

I am very sensitive to the idea of contextualization and
the real danger in it that I perceive. I don't view all scripture with the
attitude "well what did it mean to them" but that the Bible is
God's revealed will for all men for all times. But, here we, I
believe, are justified in saying that God has a point and its not
describing the physical state of the universe but the relationships
of God to man. I agree with Glenn Morton in principle on the
historicity question (that the Bible is talking of real events in Genesis
1-11) but the exact nature of this history is vague to me, especially
considering that many of the concepts cannot be excepted literally as they
once were.
I am wondering what other words are out
there for which similar discussions could illuminate further the
errors or even benefits of particular "origins solutions."
The word "day" of course has been discussed to the point its
hard to find anyone without a strong opinion, that is why I found
this discussion of the word firmament so interesting because it
addresses many of the same dilemmas but ones that aren't as
highly charged. This is particularly useful to me because I am
heavily involved with ongoing discussion of origins questions at
church and want to find ways to avoid "hot topics" so that cooler
heads will prevail. This question of the use of the word firmament is an
excellent way to address questions regarding the inspiration of the Word.


Postdoctoral Fellow
Department Plant Biology
Southern Illinois University

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