Genesis 1 on ocean and atmosphere

From: Peter Ruest <>
Date: Thu Feb 16 2006 - 15:52:47 EST

Dear friends,

someone asked me a question (off-line) which might interest others:

> Was wondering about the Genesis text where it says that the earth was
> covered in water (1:2) but then says the skies formed afterwards. Isn't
> the reverse true from what we know? Atmosphere formed first, then the seas?

This is a very good question! But it cannot be answered in just a few sentences.
So, bear with me a little bit longer.

As I don't know your own attitudes on Bible interpretation in general and the
creation story in particular, I'd like to start with a few preliminaries.

(1) In giving us the biblical revelation, God primarily wants to draw us to
Himself and to His Son whom He sent to save us from perdition. Thus, whereas the
fact of divine creation is essential, the way He did it is not. (2) He wants to
enter into a personal relationship of love with everyone of us. This would not
be possible if He used force of any kind, including intellectual proof (of His
existence, etc.), as is evident from a parallel to His love He has created in
human marriage, where we can experience the relationship between personal
freedom and love, prospering best in the absence of any trace of force. Thus, we
should not expect to be able to prove that some interpretation of the creation
story corresponds to what was unknown at the time it was written (as this would
amount to a proof of God). Nevertheless, compatibility between a feasible
interpretation of a text and reality (even if unknown to the writer) seems a
theologically reasonable hypothesis, particularly if we believe the Bible to be
meant for all cultures and times. (3) In finding an interpretation of the
biblical text, we have to refrain from assuming that modern concepts
automatically correspond to those an ancient writer used. Rather, we have to
consider what they could easily deduce from their own observations.

The modern concept is that an atmosphere consists of any type of volatiles kept
by gravitation around a planet or other astronomical object. The ancients (or
any modern person who happens to never have been taught any science), on the
other hand, would know about the sea and the clouds, as well as the space which
usually separates them and the air that it contains: this space and air is what
I would call "atmosphere" (in the anthropomorphic sense) when trying to
interpret the creation story.

In fact, "expanse" is the most reasonable concept one can deduce from the term
/raqia^/, as it is used in Gen.1:6,7,8,14,15,17,20 and Eze.1:22,23,25,26 (and
nowhere else), if we don't arbitrarily introduce foreign mythological concepts.
Of course, clouds are found at different heights and may also be seen from above
(from mountains), but this doesn't change the basic concept that they are
usually above.

Now, if we look at Earth's geological history, we notice the following plausible
sequence: Earth accreted from planetesimals of increasing sizes; very early, it
was hit by a Mars-sized body to form the moon, resulting in a global magma
ocean, the original gaseous atmosphere escaping; later, comets brought new
water, and more meteorites hit, producing a hot Earth surrounded by nitrogen,
methane, water vapor and other gases (an atmosphere in the modern scientific
sense), before the formation of an ocean; for some time, water condensing to the
surface produced a slowly increasing, boiling ocean; with temperature
decreasing, the cloud cover would get thinner, particulates and organic haze
would decrease, increasing the amount of light reaching the surface; after the
ocean cooled down below the dew point, the cloud cover separated from the ocean
surface, and an "expanse" formed in-between. Thus, we first had an ocean, and
later the "expanse" or "sky" or "atmosphere" (in the anthropomorphic sense)
between the ocean and a thick cloud cover. - As our knowledge of the earth's
geological history increases, the scenario sketched might have to be modified.

By the way, in the earliest, boiling ocean, early prokaryotic life might
possibly have existed already in suboceanic ducts or vents.

In A. Held & P. Rüst (1999), "Genesis reconsidered", PSCF 51/4, 231-243
(, we wrote (omitting the
references to the scientific literature):
"[The earth] accreted 4.55 Ga ago, and the moon apparently formed by the impact
of a Mars-sized body 4.5 Ga ago. The earth was bombarded by planetesimals,
differentiated into an iron core and a siliceous mantle in the molten state, and
collected a secondary atmosphere and hydrosphere from volcanic outgassing and
meteorite impacts. Sufficient cooling let a global ocean condense.
At a relatively high temperature, a thick cloud of water vapor enveloping the
whole earth prevented the penetration of any light to the ocean surface...
Further cooling and chemical change of the atmosphere later permitted the sun’s
light, still diffused by a permanent cloud cover, to reach the surface,
producing day and night...
[The /raqia^/] is the relatively thin layer, the lower atmosphere formed around
the earth. The ancients knew the water cycle and would easily understand the
/raqia^/ between the waters as the air space between oceans and clouds. The two
were separated when the atmosphere cleared, after its temperature fell below the
dew point, generating the global water cycle."

Although there might be other possible ways of harmonizing Gen.1 with what we
know happened in the Earth's history, it seems clear that it is not necessary to
claim conflicts. In fact, we don't even know, as yet, enough about what happened
on Earth. But I hope this helps for the moment.


Dr. Peter Ruest, CH-3148 Lanzenhaeusern, Switzerland
<> - Biochemistry - Creation and evolution
"..the work which God created to evolve it" (Genesis 2:3)
Received on Thu Feb 16 15:54:10 2006

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