Copyright © 1991 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission;
for use by
WTJ 53 (1991) 227-240
THE FIRMAMENT AND THE WATER ABOVE
Part I: The Meaning of raqiac in Gen 1:6-8
PAUL H. SEELY
STANDARD Hebrew lexica and a number of modern biblical scholars
have defined the raqiac (fyqr, "firmament") of Gen 1:6-8 as a solid dome
over the earth.1 Conservative scholars from Calvin on down to the present,
however, have defined it as an atmospheric expanse.2 Some conservatives
have taken special pains to reject the concept of a solid dome on the basis
that the Bible also refers to the heavens as a tent or curtain and that refer-
ences to windows and pillars of heaven are obviously poetic.3 The word
raqiac, they say, simply means "expanse." They say the understanding of
raqiac as a solid firmament rests on the Vulgate's translation, firmamentum;
and that translation rests in turn on the LXX's translation stere<wma,
which simply reflected the Greek view of the heavens at the time the trans-
lators did their work.4 The raqiac defined as an atmospheric expanse is the
historical view according to modern conservatives; and the modern view of
the raqiac as a solid dome is simply the result of forcing biblical poetic
language into agreement with a concept found in the Babylonian epic
The historical evidence, however, which we will set forth in concrete
detail, shows that the raqiac was originally conceived of as being solid and
not a merely atmospheric expanse. The grammatical evidence from the
OT, which we shall examine later, reflects and confirms this conception of
1 E.g., commentaries on Genesis by S. P. Driver, H. Gunkel, J. Skinner, G. von Rad, C.
2 J. Calvin, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948) 78-79. From the eighteenth century,
e.g., A. Clarke, The Old Testament (
century, e.g., G. Bush, Notes on the Book of Genesis, (New York: Ivison, Phinney, 1860) 33; R. S.
Candlish, Commentary on Genesis (1868; repr.
e.g., C. E Keil and
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949) 1.52; A. R. Fausset and D. Brown, A Commentary on the Old and New
Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948) 5; H. L. Ellison and D. E Payne, "Genesis," in
The International Bible Commentary (ed.
E E Bruce;
3 E.g., C.
Genesis, C. Gaenssle, "A Look at Current Biblical Cosmologies," CTM 23 (1952) 738-49.
4 E.g., L. Haines on
Genesis in the Wesleyan Bible Commentary (
1967) 26; R. L. Harris, "Bible and Cosmology," Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 5
(1962) 11-17; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., "The Literary Form of Genesis 1-11," in New Perspectives on
Testament (ed. J. B. Payne;
5 Kaiser. Literary Form. 52-57.
solidity. The basic historical fact that defines the meaning of raqiac in Gene-
sis 1 is simply this: all peoples in the ancient world thought of the sky as
solid. This concept did not begin with the Greeks.
The question, however, arises in the modern mind, schooled as it is in the
almost infinite nature of sky and space: Did scientifically naive peoples
really believe in a solid sky, or were they just employing a mythological or
poetic concept? Or were they, perhaps, just using phenomenal language
with no attending belief that the sky actually was a solid object? 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 to these questions, as we shall see more clearly below, is that
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 appear-
ance of the sky and their scientific concept of the sky. They had no reason
to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above
them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth
at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded
that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as
the earth itself.
Levy-Bruhl, commenting on the beliefs of scientifically naive peoples and
quoting from original reports, wrote,
Their cosmography as far as we know anything about it, was practically of one
type up 'til the time of the white man's arrival upon the
scene. That of the
Dayaks may furnish us with some idea of it. "They. . . consider the earth to be
a flat surface, whilst the heavens are a dome, a kind of glass shade which covers
the earth, and comes in contact with it at the horizon. They therefore believe
that, traveling straight on, always in the same direction, one comes at last, with-
out any metaphor, to touch the sky with one's fingers." . . . It is the same thing
these islands, the native drew a line to the west of them and explained in a very
clear and simple
way that yonder, beyond the
was too close to the earth to permit navigation; the utmost that could be done was
to crawl along the ground or swim in the sea." . . . Among the Melanesians of the
Loyalty Group, "to the mind of the Lifuan, the horizon was a tangible object at
no great distance. Many of the natives thought that if they could only reach it
they would be able to climb up to the sky."
Such an impression is not peculiar to the races of the Southern Pacific. It is to
be met with in
vault which rests upon the earth. The point where heaven touches the earth is
called bugimamusi . . . the place where the women can lean their pestles against
6 L. Levy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality (Boston: Beacon. 1966) 53-55.
THE FIRMAMENT AND THE WATER ABOVE 229
Among primitive African peoples various stories reflect their belief in a
solid sky. The Ngombe say that when the two creatures who hold the sky
up with poles get tired, "the sky will fall down." The Nyimang say that
long ago the sky was so close to earth that the women could not stir their
porridge properly with their long stirrers; so one day "one woman got
angry and lifting the stirrer pierced the sky with the upper end."7
The Dogon tell of an ancient ancestor who came down from heaven
"standing on a square piece of heaven. . . . A thick piece? Yes, as thick as
a house. It was ten cubits high with stairs on each side facing the four
On the other side of the world, among American Indians, the sky was
also conceived of as a solid dome. As Levy-Bruhl wrote,
on all sides by water and the sky is a solid concave hemisphere coming down at
the horizon to the level of the earth. In Cherokee and other Indian myths the sky
is continually lifting up and coming down again to the earth like the upper blade
of a pair of scissors. The sun which lives outside the hemisphere slips between the
earth and the sky-line in the morning when there is a momentary slit, and it
returns from the Western side in the evening in the same fashion.9
This idea of the sky lifting up and down, opening and closing a space
"between the rim of the sky and the earth" is widespread among North
American Indians, some of them believing that this bellows-like movement
of the sky caused wind. A number of Siberian tribes believe the opening of
the sky allows migratory birds to fly out of this world in the winter and live
"on the other side of the celestial vault" until spring. But birds which do
not hurry "are caught and crushed between the rocks of the sky and the
earth" when the sky closes down.10
Another common American Indian idea reflecting the solidity of the sky
is the story of a hero who gained access to the sky by shooting an arrow into
it and then another arrow into the first arrow and so on until he had an
arrow "ladder" by which he could climb up to the sky. There are similar
stories to this from all around the world. In a Chuckchee story a hero throws
a needle upwards ''as a dart, so that it fastens in the sky"; then he climbs
thread hanging from the needle. In
needle, but a lance that "fastens itself in the celestial vault."11
Still another element reflecting the solidity of the sky is the idea of a
window or hole in the sky. This idea is so widespread that one observer
7 S. Feldman, African Myths and Tales (New York: Dell, 1963) 39-40.
8 B. Sproul, Primal Myths (New York: Harper & Row, 1969) 61.
9 Levy-Bruhl, Primitive, 353-55.
10 G. Hau, Asiatic Influences in American Folklore (
gaard) 78-79. cr. Sproul, Primal, 197.
11 Hatt, Asiatic, 78-79.
concluded it was "a general human trait."12 The Seneca, for example, told
of a woman who fell through a hole in the sky bringing some soil of the sky
with her which she had clenched in her hands while trying "to hold on to
the edge of the hole" before she fell.13 The Navaho in their story of creation
not only mention a hole in the sky but specifically describe the solidity of
They went in circles upward 'til they reached the sky. It was smooth. [They were
told of a hole in the sky.] They entered the hole and went through it up to the
surface [of the second world above]. When they reached the sky [of the second
world] they found it like the sky of the first world, smooth and hard with no
The Cherokee clearly state that the "sky vault . . . is of solid rock."15
In the far northern reaches of
peoples there also give evidence of belief in a solid sky. The Lapps say that
the North Star is a nail which supports the sky, but in the last days when
Arcturus shoots down the North Star with an arrow "the heavens will fall
crushing the earth and setting fire to everything."16
a hemi-spherical sky and that "a certain hero rode out once to the place
where earth and sky touched."17 In some districts the Buriats "conceive the
sky to be shaped like a great overturned cauldron, rising and falling in
constant motion. In rising, an opening forms between the sky and the edge
of the earth. A hero who happened at such a time to place his arrow
between the edge of the earth and the rim of the sky was enabled thus to
penetrate outside the world."18
Other stories could be cited, but it is sufficiently clear that scientifically
peoples around the world from the
touching the earth at the horizon. Nor is this common conception of a
firmament merely myth, metaphor, or phenomenal language. It is an in-
tegral part of their scientific view of the universe. It is within the context
14 C. Long, Alpha: The Myths of Creation (Chico: Scholars Press, 1963) 46-48. Sproul (Primal)
also mentions an Islamic commentary which tells of boring "a hole in the sky" and an Eskimo
story of a bird which pecks "a hole in the sky."
15 H. B. Alexander, The Mythology of All Races. Vol. 10:
16 U. Holmberg, The Mythology of All Races. Vol. 4: Finno-Ugric,
in Hatt, Asiatic, 50. The Koran speaks of God holding up the heavens "so that they do not
fall on to the earth" (22.64).
17 Hatt, Asiatic, 63.
18 Holmberg, Mythology, 308.
THE FIRMAMENT AND THE WATER ABOVE 231
of geography, astronomy, and natural science that they really believe that
if they would travel far enough they could "touch the sky with one's fin-
gers," that migrating birds live "on the other side of the celestial vault,"
that an arrow or lance could "fasten in the sky," that the sky can have "a
hole in it," that at the horizon "the dome of the sky is too close to earth to
permit navigation," that where the sky touches the earth you can "lean a
pestle against it" or "climb up it," that the sky is "smooth and hard. . .
of solid rock, . . . as thick as a house," that the sky can "fall down" and
someday "will fall down crushing the earth."
Equally important, this perception of the firmament is not selective. It is
almost completely universal. True, there are occasional variations on the
solid dome conception, such as several worlds piled up on top of each other,
each with its own firmament; but I know of no evidence that any scientific-
ally naive people anywhere on earth believed that the firmament was just
empty space or atmosphere. The only exception to this is the Chinese and
that not until AD 200. Apart from a scientific education, it is just too natural
for people to think of the sky as something solid. So true is this that it is
generally regarded by scholars as "the usual primitive conception."19 One
scholar goes so far as to call it "a general human belief."20
I. The Ancient Eastern View of the Sky
Since scientifically naive peoples naturally conceive of the sky as solid, it
is no surprise that the records we have from the ancient East echo the same
Thus one observer of ancient
thought of as "an actual place, not more ethereal than the earth. ..but
plane situated above
bridge or ladder. . . . An arrow shot from earth could reach heaven and
make a hole in it."21
Joseph Needham tells us the Chinese had three cosmological views, but
the most ancient one perceived the earth as an upside down bowl with the
heavens over it as another upside down bowl, the sky having simply a
greater diameter than the earth. The sun and moon were attached to the
vault of heaven, which rotated from left to right carrying the heavenly
bodies with it.22 Chinese stories mention heaven and earth being separated
from each other, tell us that the sky was once much nearer to earth than it
19 Freund, Myths of Creation (New York: Washington Square, 1965) 204. cr. Levy-Bruhl,
Primitive, 353, and Feldman, African, 40. ;11:')
20 Hatt, Asiatic, 50.
21 Ibid., 54 n. 2.
is today, and speak of the place "where heaven and earth meet," ideas
which, if interpreted within their historical context, indicate they believed
in a solid sky.23
Interestingly, around AD 200 a school of
thought arose in
posited that the sky was empty space. This is to my knowledge the first and
only time that anyone in the ancient Eastern world thought of the sky as
not being solid. So novel was this idea even to the West that as late as the
century a Jesuit missionary to
that the sky is not solid is "one of the absurdities of the Chinese"!24
from the middle of the second millennium BC. It contains a number of
passages which show that Indians of that time believed in a solid firma-
ment. In one creation hymn an unnamed god is mentioned "by whom the
dome of the sky was propped up" (10.121.5; cf. 1.154.1 and 2.12.2). An-
other hymn asks, "What was the wood. . . from which they carved the sky
and the earth?" (10.81.4). Another says, "Firm is the sky and firm is the
earth" (10.173.4). Several hymns mention people who "climb up to the
sky" (8.14.14; 2.12.12; 1.85.7). Several hymns mention the separation of
heaven and earth. One says Varona "pushed away the dome of the sky"
(7.86.1; cf. 10.82.1).25
Equally important, the hymns of the Rig Veda distinguish the firmament
from the "middle realm of space," i.e., the space between the earth and the
firmament (10.190.3; 8.14.7). Indeed, the "realm of space" and the "sky"
were created from two different sources (10.90.14). The atmosphere is also
distinguished from the solid firmament (2.12.2; 10.139).26 As W. N. Brown
concluded, the universe of the Rig Veda "was considered to be composed
of the earth surface, the atmospheric region, and the sky surface."27
The Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer described the cosmology of the
Sumerians, the founders of the first civilization, in similar terms. The earth,
they thought, was a flat disc; heaven, a hollow sphere enclosed at top and
bottom by a solid surface in the shape of a vault.28 Sumerian literature, like
the Rig Veda, distinguished between the firmament and the atmosphere.
The Sumerians made this distinction by attributing to their air god, Enlil,
the original act of separating heaven from earth. Hence Kramer noted the
Sumerians believed that between heaven and earth was a substance called
lil or wind which "corresponds roughly to our 'atmosphere,' " while they
23 Wing-Tsit Chan, Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (
1963) 247-48; Hatt, Asiatic, 54 n. 1.
25 The Rig Veda
(trans. W. O'Flaherty;
26 (solidity of the sky); 36, 213 (separation of heaven and earth).
26 Ibid., 31, 34, 159, 160; Sproul, Primal, 182-83.
27 W. N. Brown, "The Creation Myth of the Rig Veda," JAOS 62 (1942) 85.
28 S. N. Kramer, History
THE FIRMAMENT AND THE WATER ABOVE 233
the firmament as solid, possibly composed of tin since the
ian word for tin is literally "metal of heaven."29
We have no description of the Hittite cosmology, but we do know they
thought of the sky as solid, for a recovered text speaks of a time when they
"severed the heaven from the earth with a cleaver."30
The Egyptian Pyramid Texts (ca. 2000 BC) seem to speak of the sky as
being made of metal.31 Max Muller accepted this idea and went on to say
the Egyptians apparently believed the firmament was made specifically of
iron. He says, "This conception of a metal dome explains some expressions
of later times, such as the name of iron, be-ni-pet ('sky metal'), or the later
word for 'thunder,' khru-bai (literally, 'sound of the metal') i.e., thunder was
evidently explained as the beating of the giant sheets of metal which consti-
tuted the sky."32
Whatever the case may be as to exactly what material the ancient Egyp-
tians thought the sky was made of, they certainly believed it was solid. A
number of texts speak of the time when the sky was literally separated from
the earth. Pyramid Text 1208c specifically mentions the time "when the sky
was separated from the earth," and, although this was a historic event of
creation, Text 854c seems to imply that the sky was separated from the
earth daily in order to let the sun enter (a concept reminiscent of American
Text 1156c mentions that "his (Shu's) right arm supports the sky"; and
2013a says, "Thou art a god who supports the sky."33 Various of the Coffin
Texts (ca. 2050 to 1800 BC) reiterate these ideas of the sky needing support,
e.g., spells 160, 366, 378, and 664. Pyramid Text 1040c more prosaically
the two mountain ranges on the east and west sides of the
the "two supports of the sky." In either case the fact that the sky needed
supporting clearly shows that the Egyptians thought of it as solid; and Text
299a implies that if the supporting arms of Shu were hacked off, the sky
would fall. Also clearly showing that the Egyptians thought of the sky as
solid is the fact that they like the Sumerians and Indians in the Rig Veda
distinguished between the sky (firmament) and the atmosphere. The sky
70, 83. cr. S. N. Kramer, Sumerian Mythology
30 ANET, 125.
31 Adolph Ennan, The Ancient Egyptians (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) 5. S. A. B. Mercer
understands the text (305) as being more figurative than literal (The Pyramid Texts in Translation
and Commentary [3 vols.;
Thoughts on Genesis 1 & 2 and Egyptian Cosmology," JANES 15 (1983) 45. Cr. RGG (3d ed.)
32 W. M. Muller, The Mythology of All Races. Vol. 12: Egyptian
Square, 1964) 35. Cr. E. A. W. Budge, The Book of the Dead (New York: Dover, 1967 repr.) ci,
ciii; and Hoffmeier, "Some Thoughts."
33 Cf. ANET; 33 n. 2. The Deir el-Bahri papyrus picture can be seen in IDB 2.57.
was personified by one goddess, Nut, while the air which upheld the sky was
personified by an entirely different deity, Shu.34
In Babylonian thought the solidity of the firmament is most clearly seen
in Tablet IV of Enuma Elish, particularly in lines 137-38 where Marduk,
having killed Tiamat, "split her in half like a shellfish, and from one half
made and covered the heavens." Or, as Heidel translated the passage, with
half of Tiamat Marduk "formed the sky as a roof."35 The solidity of the sky
is also seen in Tablet V:9-11 where Marduk "opened gates on both sides"
so that the sun could pass through morning and evening; and then "In her
belly he placed the zenith" (i.e., the Pole star).36
This brings us to the historical meaning of raqiac in Genesis 1. Everyone
agrees that raqiac means "sky," but modern conservatives deny the mean-
ing "solid sky" or "literal firmament." But on what basis can it be denied
that the Hebrews believed the sky was solid? Scientifically naive peoples
everywhere have believed the sky was solid, and there is no reason to believe
the Hebrews were any less scientifically naive than their neighbors. Since,
from a cultural standpoint, the Hebrews' pre-Solomonic architecture and
pottery were "vastly inferior" to that of their neighbors, one might gather
that the early Hebrews were possibly more scientifically naive than their
neighbors, but certainly not less so.37 Similarly, the fact that it was not the
Hebrews but their neighbors who led the technological advance from the
use of bronze to the use of iron (cf. Josh ; Judg ) suggests, if
anything, that the Hebrews were more scientifically naive than their neigh-
bors. It certainly does not suggest that they were less so. Nor do we know
of any evidence from biblical times that suggests the Hebrews were ever
more scientifically sophisticated than their neighbors.38 Accordingly, it
seems most probable that so far as the physical nature of the sky is con-
cerned, the Hebrews, as a typical scientifically naive people, believed the
raqiac was solid.
The voice of the past would also have had a strong influence upon the
thinking of the Hebrews as it has on all peoples and especially ancient
peoples for whom the voice of the past was the voice of authority. For the
34 S. Morenz, Egyptian Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1960) 173-74. Cf. J. A.
and "supported" see Mercer, The Pyramid Texts, 299a, 854c, 952d, 1040c, 1101c, 1156c, 1208c,
1528a, 1778b, 2013a, 2091a; and R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (3 vols.;
Wanninster: Aris & Phillips, 1973) spells 61, 160, 366, 378, 664, and 948. For a picture and
a statue of Shu separating and supponing the sky, see ANEP, 183-84, and E. Hornung,
Conceptions of God in Ancient
and n. 36.
35 A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 42.
36 ANET; 67. B. Landsberger and J. V. K. Wilson, "The Fifth Tablet of Enuma Elish,"
JNES 20 (1961) 173. M.
K. Wakeman, God's
37 M. Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New York: Meridian, 1957) 99, 140-41, 166-8.
38 See n. 41 and cf. P. Seely, Inerrant Wisdom (Portland, OR: Evangelical Reform, 1989) 1-9.
THE FIRMAMENT AND THE WATER ABOVE 235
Hebrews the voice of the past was the voice of the patriarchs and Abraham
in particular, men who most likely held the Babylonian view of the sky as
solid. The Babylonian background of Genesis 1-11 can scarcely be missed,
and if one were to date that background it appears to come from the time
of the patriarchs.39 Taken within its historical context, then, the probability
again is that the raqiac in Genesis 1 was understood to be solid.
At the same time Egyptian influence should not be totally disregarded.40
Not only did
the Hebrews spend several centuries in
through whom much of the higher theology came (and who wrote Genesis
1 according to conservative thought), was schooled in the thinking of the
Egyptians. That schooling would certainly have included the assumption
that the sky was solid, a belief that forty years of living with a primitive
tribe (according to Exod ) would only have strengthened. And, of
Hebrews had a continuing relationship with
their history. With this Egyptian background in mind we must again say
that probably the raqiac of Genesis 1 should be defined as solid.
It is true that Genesis 1 is free of the mythological and polytheistic
religious concepts of the ancient Near East. Indeed it may well be anti-
mythological. But, as Bruce Waltke noted when commenting on the higher
gious knowledge of
expressed through the religious cultural forms of the time.
priesthood, and sacrifices, for example, were common to all ancient Near
Eastern religions.42 It should not surprise us then to find the religious
of the time.43
Considering that the Hebrews were a scientifically naive people who
would accordingly believe the raqiac was solid, that both their Babylonian
and their Egyptian background would influence them to believe the raqiac
was solid, and that they naturally accepted the concepts of the peoples
around them so long as they were not theologically offensive, I believe we
have every reason to think that both the writer and original readers of
Genesis 1 believed the raqiac was solid. The historical meaning of raqiac in
Gen 1:6-8 is, accordingly, "a solid sky."
39 K. A. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World (London: InterVarsity, 1977) 35-36. W. G. Lambert,
"A New Look at the Babylonian Background or Genesis" JTS 16 (1965) 300. W. F. Albright,
Yahweh and the Gods of
40 Hoffmeier, Some Thoughts, 45. cr. C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11
41 B. Waltke, Creation and Chaos (Portland, OR: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary,
endon, 1951). Also M. Smith, "The Common Theology or the Ancient Near East," JBL 71
43 Cf. Seely. Inerrant Wisdom. 1-43.
Only by taking Genesis l out of its historical context could one say that
raqiac means merely "an atmospheric expanse" or, as the more sophisti-
cated 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 from the appearance
that the sky really was solid, and they then employed this conclusion in
their thinking about astronomy, geography, and natural science. The raqiac
was for them a literal physical part of the universe, just as solid as the earth
itself. Solidity is an integral part of its historical meaning.
When the original readers of Genesis 1 read the word raqiac they thought
of a solid sky. And so did virtually everyone else up to the time of the
Renaissance! After the time of Christ there were occasional dissenters, but
by and large Jews and Christians, Greeks and barbarians all believed the
firmament was solid.
Jews speculated as to what material the firmament was made of: clay or
copper or iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7). They differentiated between the firmament
and the empty space or air between it and the earth (Gen. Rab. 4.3.a; 2 Apoc.
Bar. 21.4). They tried to figure out how thick it was by employing biblical
interpretation (Gen. Rab. 4.5.2). Most tellingly they even tried to calculate
scientifically the thickness of the firmament (Pesab. 49a).
Christians speculated as to whether it was made of earth, air, fire, or
water (the basic elements of Greek science). Origen called the firmament
"without doubt firm and solid" (First Homily on Genesis, FC 71). Ambrose,
commenting on Gen 1:6, said, "the specific solidity of this exterior firma-
ment is meant" (Hexameron, FC 42.60). Augustine said the word firmament
was used "to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that
it constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the
waters below" (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ACW 41.1.61).
Greeks from Anaximenes to Aristotle set forth as scientific fact that the
firmament was made of a crystalline substance to which "the stars are fixed
like nails."44 This idea was passed on for centuries via Ptolemy's Almagest.
The barbarians meanwhile worried about the sky falling on them if they
did not keep their promises!45
Astonishing as it may seem to the modern mind, with very rare excep-
tions the idea that the sky is not solid is a distinctly modern one. Historical
evidence shows that virtually everyone in the ancient world believed in a
solid firmament. Accordingly it is highly probable that the historical mean-
ing of raqiac in Genesis 1 is a solid firmament. Certainly anyone denying the
solidity of the raqiac in Genesis 1 bears a heavy burden of proof. It seems
to me that nothing short of a clear statement to the contrary made by an
OT writer could allow one in good conscience to set aside this clear his-
44 P. Wheelwright, The Presocratics (New York: Odyssey, 1966) 63, 153. Aristotle, De caela 2.8
THE FIRMAMENT AND THE WATER ABOVE 237
II. The Biblical-Grammatical Meaning of raqiac
Does any statement or phrase appear in the OT which clearly states or
implies that the raqiac is not solid? Does anything in Genesis 1 state or imply
the raqiac was not (or was) solid? The fact that it was named "heaven(s)"
in Gen 1:8 and birds fly in the heaven(s) (Deut ) seems to imply the
raqiac was not solid. But the word samayim (heaven[s]) is broader in meaning
than raqiac. It encompasses not only the raqiac (v. 8; Ps 19:6; 148:4) but the
space above the raqiac (Ps 2:4; 11:4; 139:8) as well as the space below (Ps
8:8; 79:2). Hence birds fly in the heavens, but never in the raqiac. Rather,
birds fly upon the face or in front of the raqiac (Gen ).
This phrase upon the face (surface) or in front of the raqiac is important in
that it implies the raqiac was neither space nor atmosphere. For birds do not
fly upon the surface or in front of space or air, but rather in space or air. This
distinction is illustrated in the case of fish, which no one would say swim
upon the surface or in front of the water (Gen ) but rather in the water (cr.
Exod 7: 18, 21).
Gen 1:17 also testifies that the raqiac is not air or atmosphere for it says
that God placed the stars (and probably the sun and moon) "in the raqiac
or the heavens." But the stars are not located in the air or atmosphere. So
we know the raqiac (in which locates them) cannot be air or atmo-
sphere. Even if 1:17 is construed as phenomenal language, the raqiac still
cannot be air or atmosphere. For the stars do not look like they are located
in the air or atmosphere. Rather (as anyone can tell on a clear night away
from city lights) they look like they are embedded in a solid vault which is
exactly why scientifically naive peoples believe in a solid vault, and why
1:17, in accordance with that belief, says God placed the stars in the raqiac.
Gen 1:14-17 is such a clear proof that the raqiac is not air or atmosphere
that some conservatives have tried to dissociate the raqiac in vv. 14-17 from
the raqiac in vv. 6-8. But the statement in v. 14, "Let there be lights in the
firmament or heaven," immediately raises the question, What "firmament
of heaven"? To which the context immediately replies, the firmament of vv.
6-8 which was called heaven. The contextual identity of the two firma-
ments is really beyond question. Taken in context it is impossible to say the
raqiac of vv. 6-8 was just air or atmosphere.
On the contrary. For when God divided the light from the darkness (two
intangibles) nothing was made. But in order to divide the tangible upper
ocean from the lower ocean the raqiac was made (hWf). The combination or
dividing two tangibles (as opposed to intangibles) with something that was
made (hWf), a verb which often means "manufacture," implies a tangible,
i.e., solid divider. It would be unnatural to use hWf to say that God made
space. Nor is it a particularly apt word for saying God made air. If a
nonsolid divider had been in mind for separating the primeval ocean, the
idea could have been communicated in a much more natural way. It could
simply said that God put room (Mvqm) or space (Hvr ) as in Gen.
32:16 (17), or space (qvHr) as in Josh 3:4, between the two bodies of water.
If air (a word never appearing in the OT) had been in mind as the divider,
Hvr ("wind") could have been used, as in Exod 14:21, or hmwn ("breath")
as in Gen 2:7; Ps 150:6.
If the writer wanted to communicate the idea of a nonsolid divider, his
choice of the word raqiac was particularly unfortunate since its verbal cog-
nate raqac ("stamp, beat, spread out") is used of hammering metal into thin
plates (Exod 39:3) and hence suggests that a raqiac was something ham-
mered out, an idea consonant with both Egyptian and Sumerian views of
the sky. In addition a Phoenician cognate (mrqc) means "plating."46
Conservative writers usually try to avoid this implication of solidity by
stressing the meaning "expanse" or "thinness" for raqiac and pointing out
that Isaiah also speaks of the sky as a curtain or tent (Isa 40:22) or scroll (Isa
34:4). But in Isa 42:5 the earth is called an "expanse" (raqiac) without in
any way implying that it is not solid. So even if the raqiac in Genesis is
translated "expanse," this in no way implies that it is not solid. And even
though gold can be beaten very thin, it never loses its solidity.
As for Isaiah, he never says God made a curtain or tent or scroll as Genesis
says God made a raqiac. Rather he says the sky is like a curtain or tent or
scroll. His statements are always poetic similes, but Gen 1:7 is not a simile
(nor is it just phenomenal language). Gen 1:7 makes a prosaic statement
about the creation of a part of the universe, a part just as physical as the
earth, sea, sun, or moon. The statements in Genesis and Isaiah are not
We see then that Gen and testify that the raqiac is not air or
atmosphere. The verbal cognate of raqiac, as well as the use of the verb hWf
("made"), in 1:7 imply the raqiac was solid. More important, the purpose
and function of the raqiac imply its solidity, for it functions as a horizontal
dam (cf. ; 8:2; Ps 148:4), holding back a mighty heavenly ocean. The
water above the firmament is not clouds as some rationalize (and we shall
delineate this fact more fully in Part II), for while the sun, moon, and stars
are in the raqiac (v. 14), the waters of the upper primeval ocean are above the
raqiac (v. 7).47 This ocean over the raqiac, indeed resting upon it (Gen ;
8:2; Ps 148:4), tells us quite clearly that the firmament is a physical part of the
universe. It is not just phenomenal language as it might have been if Genesis
were a modern Western book. Rather it is an ancient Near Eastern concept
similar to if not related to that found in Enuma Elish Tablets IV and V
As for the rest of the OT, the word raqiac is used a number of times but
usually in contexts that do not help us define the word any further than
saying it means "sky." But in Ezekiel 1 the nature of a firmament is de-
scribed. This is the clearest description of a raqiac found in the OT. It was
46 E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1964) 90 n.
THE FIRMAMENT AND THE WATER ABOVE 239
a divider of some kind over the heads of four cherubim (vv. 22-25), and on
top of it was a throne with a man on it (v. 26). As to the composition of this
firmament, it looked like "terrible crystal or ice."
Inasmuch as the throne mentioned was apparently sitting on this firma-
ment (cf. Exod 24:10) and the firmament looked like crystal or ice, it is
apparent that the firmament is solid and is certainly not mere atmosphere
or space or simply phenomenal language. Nor does anyone to my knowl-
edge doubt that it was solid. Even conservatives admit the firmament in
Ezekiel 1 is solid. Having then this clear definition of a raqiac as a solid
divider, one is hermeneutically bound to interpret the raqiac in Genesis as
solid unless there is some clear reason to differentiate the one from the other.
As it turns out there is no reason to differentiate the raqiac in Ezekiel 1
from the raqiac in Genesis 1. On the contrary, there is good reason to
identify the one with the other. For we can see in Ezekiel that above the
firmament is the throne of God in glory (vv. 26-28) just as above the
firmament of heaven described in Genesis is the throne of God in glory (1
Kgs 22:19; Ps 2:4; 11:4; 103:19; Isa 6:1; ; 66:1). Also the firmament in
Ezekiel looked like it was made of crystal, exactly the substance that prim-
itive peoples believed the sky was made of.48 These two similarities between
the firmament in Ezekiel and the firmament in Genesis could hardly be
coincidental. The firmament in Ezekiel 1 must be related to the firmament
in Genesis 1, and a number of commentators have made the identifica-
tion.49 Eichrodt, for example, calls the firmament in Ezekiel a "copy of that
vault of heaven." The NT confirms the virtual identity of the firmament in
Ezekiel and the firmament in Genesis by combining them into one image
(Rev 4:6; 15:2).50
We ought then on both biblical and hermeneutical grounds to interpret
the nature of the raqiac in Genesis 1 by the clear definition of raqiac which
we have in Ezekiel 1, and all the more so since the language of Genesis 1
suggests solidity in the first place and no usage of raqiac anywhere states or
even implies that it was not a solid object. This latter point bears repeating:
there is not a single piece of evidence in the OT to support the conservative
belief that the raqiac was not solid.51 The historical meaning of raqiac, so far
48 See nn. 46, 51, and M. Eliade, Shamanum (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964)
49 See commentaries on Ezekiel by W. Brownlee, W. Eichrodt, C. E Keil, H. May, and W.
Zimmerli. See also b. Hag. 12b.
50 Note the "sea"(Genesis 1) and the "eyes" (Ezekiel 1) in Rev 4:6. See also commentaries
on Revelation, especially by R. H. Charles. It might also be noted that although Exod 24: 10
does not use the word raqiac, it testifies to the solidity of the firmament as well as to the idea
that it was crystalline by saying that the "pavement" under God's feet was "like the material
or substance of heaven in transparency."
51 The conservative interpretation (if an interpretation that rejects the historical-gram-
matical meaning of Scripture can be called conservative) rests on two arbitrary assumptions.
One, that ancient men would conceive of the sky the same way modern men do (cf. J. Orr,
from being overthrown by the grammatical evidence, is confirmed by it.
The historical-grammatical meaning of raqiac in Gen 1:6-8 is very clearly
a literally solid firmament.
It is to the credit of E. J. Young that, although believing in biblical
inerrancy as much as any other conservative, he alone did not alter or
rationalize the historical-grammatical meaning of raqiac. In his Studies in
Genesis One he defined raqiac as "that which is hammered, beaten out" and
noted that "the LXX stere<wma and Vulgate firmamentum are satisfactory
Additionally and finally, the historical-grammatical meaning of raqiac
possibly illustrates the words of B. B. Warfield, who said as he defined
biblical inerrancy, that an inspired writer could
share the ordinary opinions of his day in certain matters lying outside the scope
of his teachings, as, for example, with reference to the form of the earth, or its
relation to the sun; and, it is not inconceivable that the form of his language when
incidentally adverting to such matters, might occasionally play into the hands of
such a presumption.53
Certainly the historical-grammatical meaning of raqiac is "the ordinary
opinion of the writer's day." Certainly also it is not the purpose of Gen 1: 7
to teach us the physical nature of the sky, but to reveal the creator of the
sky. Consequently, the reference to the solid firmament "lies outside the
scope of the writer's teachings" and the verse is still infallibly true.
in principle by C. Gaenssle, "A Look"). Two, that God would not speak in Scripture to ancient
men in terms of the ordinary opinions of their own day (cf. article 12 from the International
Council on Biblical Inerrancy's Nineteen Articles in R. C. Sproul, Explaining Inerrancy, ICBI
1980, 28-27). Both assumptions are contrary to Scripture (cf. Seely, Inerrant Wisdom).
52 Young, Studies, 90 n. 94.
53. B. B. Warfield, "The Real Problem of Inspiration," in The Inspiration and Authority
of the Bible (Philadelphia, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948) 166-67.
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