The firmament -- a solid barrier to concordism

From: Loren Haarsma (
Date: Fri May 24 2002 - 09:38:08 EDT

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    People of the Ancient Near East (ANE), when the Old Testament was
    written, believed in a particular physical cosmology. They believed
    that the earth was a flat disk with a solid dome firmament above it,
    primordial waters above the sky which were held back by the
    firmament, and primordial waters below the earth. This physical
    picture of the cosmos was a common belief, as supported by amble
    evidence from archeology, from other written sources of that era, and
    from the Bible itself. It is clear from many biblical texts that the
    Old Testament authors themselves believed the physical picture of ANE
    cosmology. Unfortunately, modern English translations usually gloss
    over this fact. (The N.I.V., for example, sometimes substitutes
    "sky" for firmament and often substitutes "clouds" for the waters
    above the firmament.)

    Old-earth Concordist interpretations of Genesis 1 reinterpret several
    Hebrew words in order to make the chronology of Genesis 1 try to
    agree with modern science. Numerous (sometimes conflicting)
    concordist reinterpretations of those Hebrew words have been offered
    in books, in articles, and on this e-mail list. While concordism can
    be appealing, it relies on redefining Hebrew words in ways which are
    foreign to the original authors' understandings of the words. Such
    redefinition of words, I believe, is a deeply serious hermeneutical

    Paul Seely has an excellent article online at
    which explains in greater depth the ANE physical picture of the
    world. The article also explains the original meanings of the Hebrew
    words which refer to the firmament and the primordial waters.
    Seely's article includes numerous references. I also recommend the
    book "Portraits of Creation," which includes an excellent chapter on
    the same topic.

    In this post, I don't want to repeat their careful analysis of the
    Hebrew words. Instead, I want to point out these three things: (1)
    Besides Genesis 1, there is a great number of biblical passages which
    also refer to physical picture of ANE cosmology. (2) Interpreting
    these passages in light of ANE cosmology helps us understand their
    message. Numerous passages praise God for creating the physical
    structures of ANE cosmology --- and some in some of those passages,
    God speaks in the first person to take credit for creating them! (3)
    There is a hermeneutical danger in attempting to redefine these
    Hebrew word, in ways foreign to the original authors' thoughts, in an
    attempt to match Genesis chronology to modern science.


    Here is an incomplete list of passages which refer to the physical
    structures of ANE cosmology (the firmament, the waters above the sky
    and/or the waters below the earth):

    Genesis 1:1-22, Genesis 7:11-20, Genesis 8:1-5, Genesis 9:13-16,
    Genesis 11:4, Genesis 49:25,
    Exodus 15:8, Exodus 20:4, Exodus 20:11,
    Deuteronomy 5:8, Deuteronomy 33:13, Deuteronomy 33:26,
    Judges 5:6,
    2 Samuel 22:8-17,
    Job 20:6, Job 22:12-14, Job 26:8-14, Job 35:5, Job 36:27-30, Job 38:4-38,
    Psalm 9:1-6, Psalm 29:3-10, Psalm 74:13-17, Psalm 89:9-12, Psalm 90:2,
    Psalm 102:19-25, Psalm 104:1-9, Psalm 135:6-7, Psalm 136:5-9,
    Psalm 139:8-9, Psalm 146:6, Psalm 147:4-8, Psalm 148:1-7,
    Proverbs 3:19-20, Proverbs 8:22-29, Proverbs 25:3,
    Isaiah 14:12-15, Isaiah 24:18-19, Isaiah 40:12, Isaiah 40:21-26,
    Isaiah 42:5, Isaiah 45:8, Isaiah 45:18, Isaiah 48:13, Isaiah 51:6,
    Isaiah 51:13, Isaiah 65:17, Isaiah 66:1-2,
    Jeremiah 4:23-27, Jeremiah 10:11-13,
    Ezekiel 1:1, Ezekiel 1:22-28, Ezekiel 10:1, Ezekiel 32:7-8,
    Daniel 4:10-11,
    Hosea 10:7,
    Habakkuk 3:9-11,
    Revelations 4:1-6, Revelations 15:2, Revelations 20:11

    I expect there are more passages besides those listed above. Also, I
    didn't bother to include in this list other passages which, for
    example, refer to the God of Israel as "the God of heaven and of
    earth." Today, when we think about the place called "heaven," we
    probably think of it in a sort of science-fiction parallel-dimensions
    sort of way. In ANE cosmology, "heaven" was physically located above
    the earth. So when the Old Testament authors refereed to "heaven and
    earth," they were thinking "every part of the cosmos."
    Theologically, the claim that Israel's God was God of every part of
    the cosmos is a claim that is in sharp contrast to the "gods" of the
    surrounding cultures, which were thought to be gods of specific
    tribes or gods of specific parts of the cosmos (the sky, the ocean,
    the sun, the moon, the underworld, etc). When the Old Testament
    authors said that the God of Israel was the "God of heaven and
    earth," they were using the same _physical_ picture of the cosmos
    (flat-earth, solid firmament, waters above and below the earth) as
    the surrounding cultures in the ANE; however, the authors were making
    a _theological_ claim which was radically opposed to the beliefs of
    the surrounding cultures.


    For many of the passages listed above, it could be argued that the
    language is poetic. Some of the passages listed above, by
    themselves, do not prove that the author believed in the physical
    picture of ANE cosmology. However, for many of the passages listed
    above, the language of the text itself (even in the English
    translation) makes a compelling case that the author really did
    believe in the physical picture of ANE cosmology. When your read
    those passages with ANE cosmology in mind, it helps you understand
    the theological message.

    A few examples:

    Genesis 49:25. Jacob is blessing his son Joseph. "With bitterness
    archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. But his bow
    remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand
    of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of
    Israel, because of your father's God, who helps you, because of the
    Almighty, who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above,
    blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and
         Keeping in mind ANE cosmology, Jacob is saying that the Almighty
    blesses Joseph with blessing from the very top of creation (the
    heavens above) to the very bottom of creation (the deep that lies
    below). You can't get more blessed than that.

    Exodus 20:4. God says, "You shall not make for yourself an idol in
    the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the
    waters below."
         In ANE cosmology, "heaven above, earth beneath, and waters below"
    is both a poetic _and_ a literal way of referring to "the whole of

    Psalm 104:1-9. Praise the Lord , O my soul. O Lord my God, you are
    very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps
    himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like
    a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He
    makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He
    makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the
    earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with
    the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But
    at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took
    to flight; they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the
    valleys, to the place you assigned for them. You set a boundary they
    cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth.
         This Psalm clearly refers to the stretching out of the firmament,
    the existence of waters above the earth, and the raising up of the dry
    land out of the waters below. This psalm literally praises God for
    making the solid firmament, dividing the primordial waters, and
    raising the land out of the waters..

    Prov.8:22-29. Wisdom personified says, "The Lord brought me forth as
    the first of his works, before his deeds of old.... I was there when
    he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the
    face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed
    securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary
    so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out
    the foundations of the earth."
         Despite the English mistranslations, you can see ANE cosmology
    throughout this passage. Again, the passage is praising God making
    the firmament, dividing the primordial waters, and raising up the dry
    land out of the waters below.

    Is.48:13. The prophet quotes God, "My own hand laid the foundations
    of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon
    them, they all stand up together."
         Note, this is God himself saying that he made these things.

    Job 38:4-10. Again, God is the speaker. "Where were you when I laid
    the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off
    its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across
    it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone -
    while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for
    joy? Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the
    womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick
    darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in
    place, when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther; here is
    where your proud waves halt'?"
         Again, God is referring to the physical elements of ANE cosmology
    and taking credit for making them.

    Much of this is poetic language. It is also literal language. When
    you combine archeological evidence, other ANE literary sources, plus
    all of the Biblical texts, it becomes clear that (1) the Old
    Testament writers really did believe the physical picture of ANE
    cosmology: a flat earth, a solid firmament, and primordial waters
    above and below the earth; and (2) the Holy Spirit inspired the Old
    Testament writers to praise God for making these things -- sometimes
    putting the words in God's own mouth.


    The chronology of Genesis 1 makes perfect sense if you have the
    physical picture of ANE cosmology in mind. The chronology of Genesis
    1 does not match modern science. It _cannot_ match modern science
    simply because there is no solid dome firmament, no waters above the
    sky, and no primordial oceans below the dry land.

    So why shouldn't we redefine these Hebrew words, in ways foreign to
    the original authors' thoughts, in an attempt to match the Genesis 1
    chronology to modern science? What's wrong with that?

    We should discuss that question. And to open discussion, let me ask
    the following question: On what basis, then, would we criticize a
    theologian who might want to redefine the word "prophet" from "one
    who speaks God's words" to "one who calls us to live better lives and
    be nicer to the poor;" or redefine the word "prayer" from "speaking
    with God" to "attuning oneself to the reality of one's own being and
    the cosmos;" or redefine "God's law" to mean "good guidelines for
    living in society;" or redefine "resurrection" to mean "a
    psychological event in which Jesus' teachings took hold in the
    disciples' hearts and emboldened them to become teachers themselves."
    All of those redefinitions could be done in the name of making the
    Bible more in line with modern science.

    I think we should use the same hermeneutical principles on Genesis 1
    which we use on every passage of scripture: Taking into account the
    background knowledge of the author, the original audience, the
    historical context and the type of literature, we ask ourselves what
    message the passage would communicate from the author (and therefore
    from God) to the original audience. The original author and audience
    of Genesis 1 (and all the other passages listed above) believed the
    physical picture of ANE cosmology. The original author and audience
    would have known the creation myths of surrounding cultures --
    cultures which shared the same physical picture of ANE cosmology but
    disagreed about the theology. Keeping all that in mind as we read
    Genesis 1, the message is clear. The original message had no
    interest in teaching, and no interest in correcting, the mistaken
    physical picture of ANE cosmology. The original message was a
    radical theological message: There is _one_ God, the God of Abraham,
    the God of Israel, who made _all_ of creation. (There are more
    theological messages in Genesis 1 besides that, but that's the first
    obvious message.)

    Paul Seely says it well in the above-referenced web article, which I
    quote here.
    "The biblical approach that I believe better relates science to the
    Bible [than concordism] is to accept the historical-grammatical
    meaning of Genesis 1. Admit that it reflects the cosmology of the
    second millennium B.C.... Admittedly, this does not uphold the
    common but unbiblical assumption that the divine inspiration of
    Scripture cannot entail concessions to ancient "science." But, there
    is no biblical reason why the theological message in Genesis 1 cannot
    be eternally valid, while the package in which it came was a temporal
    concession to the people of that time. Indeed, it was Jesus who
    taught that divinely inspired Scripture can and does include
    concessions to hardened hearts, concessions in the area of faith and
    morals (Mark 10:5). How much more then is concession possible in the
    area of mere science? We might add that, according to Scripture, the
    development of scientific knowledge was delegated by God to humankind
    (Gen. 1:26-28). The divine purpose of biblical inspiration,
    therefore, is not to reveal science but to inform us of God's
    standards of faith and morals (2 Tim. 3:16). It is time for
    evangelicals to lay aside extra-biblical definitions of biblical
    inspiration, and agree with Jesus that inspired Scripture can contain
    concessions. Genesis 1 is a concession. Or, as a modern missionary,
    aware of the imperative need for divine revelation to be clothed in
    the terms of the culture to which it comes, has explained: Genesis 1
    is a case of divine contextualization."

    Loren Haarsma

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