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The Waters Above the Firmament

Ben Vandergugten Reformed Academic, 4 August 2009

When I first read Genesis 1:7, God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament (RSV), I assumed that the waters above were clouds. After all, I learned in grade four that clouds were a collection of water droplets. But upon further study this interpretation seems to have evaporated. The problem is that the firmament separates the waters above from the waters below and then the sun, moon and stars are set in the firmament. A plain sense reading suggests that the waters above are beyond the sun, moon and stars, so the clouds need to make way for something else to fill the spot of waters above. Of course, part of this discussion involves figuring out what is meant by firmament. I am aware that there is disagreement about the possible meanings of the Hebrew term raqiya (firmament). Some modern translations use expanse while others use vault or dome. But since my Hebrew knowledge extends only to a few words, I will let the more qualified deal with the Hebrew grammar and syntax. What can also enhance our understanding of this term, however, is consideration of the broader cultural context. As stated, some understand this raqiya as an expanse, which would be analogous to the atmosphere as we understand it today. Others argue that it refers to a solid dome, which doesnt seem to comport with anything we observe in the sky with our modern telescopes and other instruments. But it does fit with the cosmology assumed by the people of the Ancient Near East, who after all only had the naked eye to observe the skies. The Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Canaanite neighbours of the Israelites had differing cosmologies, but generally they assumed the earth to be flat, floating over deep waters, with a solid dome held up by pillars or mountains. This dome then held up more water from which would come rain. Across the sky would travel the sun and moon. In some cases ancient peoples conceived of

The Waters Above

Reformed Academic, 4 August 2009

doors in the east and west of the dome that would allow the sun and moon to enter and exit. According to Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian cultures believed there were three levels of heaven with each having a different floor of stone.1 But do Hebrew texts assume this kind of cosmology? There are a couple of Hebrew pseudepigraphical texts that do. One is 3 Baruch,2 which was likely written around 2nd century A.D. or later. In this book Baruch, Jeremiahs scribe, is taken through various levels of heaven. At the second level of heaven he sees men that look like dogs and is given the following explanation: And the Lord appeared to them and confused their speech, when they had built the tower to the height of four hundred and sixty-three cubits. And they took a gimlet, and sought to pierce the heaven, saying, Let us see (whether) the heaven is made of clay, or of brass, or of iron. When God saw this He did not permit them, but smote them with blindness and confusion of speech, and rendered them as thou seest. (3 Baruch 3:6-8) Clearly here the firmament is conceived as a solid thing. A second pseudepigraph is the First Book of Enoch,3 which is quoted in the letter of Jude, verses 14 & 15, and was probably written around the 1st century B.C. The book is written in the name of Enoch, the seventh from Adam in the line of Seth. Enoch is led by the angels to see visions and revelations, and in chapter 71 he sees the detailed workings of the luminaries. According to Enoch, the sun, moon and stars have various gates at the eastern and western extremities of the world to enter and exit. At different times of the year they will use different gates to enter and exit, which explains why they can rise and set at different places in the horizon throughout the year. Other gates allow wind, rain, snow, dew, chill and various other things. The use of gates assumes a solid barrier between the earth and the air above it, and whatever is beyond this dome.
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Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1998), p. 9; online at http://books.google.ca/books?id=P8fl8BXpR0MC . 2 Online at http://www.pseudepigrapha.com/pseudepigrapha/3Baruch.html . 3 Online at http://www.piney-2.com/ApocEnoch1c.html .

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These are not canonical Biblical texts, but they have Hebrew heritage and were written a few centuries after the Old Testament canonical books. They definitely assume a solid dome structure over the earth. First Enoch was regarded highly enough to be quoted by Jude, and defended by Tertullian, among other early church fathers. These books demonstrate that at least some later Hebrews assumed a solid firmament. But what did early Christians think about the firmament, you may ask? As far as I know, Ambrose of Milan stated in his Hexamaeron that it is to be understood as solid. Origen said it is without doubt firm and solid.4 Apparently during Augustines time there was some discussion about whether the firmament itself revolved around the earth or if it was merely the stars that traveled across the firmament. So as not to discourage subtle and learned enquiry, he wrote in The Literal Meaning of Genesis that the term firmament is given not to indicate that it is motionless, but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the waters below.5 So there seem to have been a few people, Hebrews and Christians, who took the firmament to be a solid thing. It appears to be a common concept. In The Westminster Theological Journal, Paul Seely6 argues that virtually everyone in the ancient world believed in a solid firmament. (p. 236) But what of the biblical authors? The clearest indication of a solid dome comes from Jobs friend Elihu, can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?
Origen, Homilies on Genesis 1.2, as cited in Ed. Andrew Louth & Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11. v. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 11. The full quote is as follows, Although God had already previously made heaven, now he makes the firmament. For he made heaven first, about which he says, Heaven is my throne. But after that he makes the firmament, that is, the corporeal heaven. For every corporeal object is without doubt firm and solid; and it is this that divides the water which is above heaven, from the water which is below heaven. 5 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2.10, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Newman Press, 1982), p. 61 (v. 41 in the Ancient Christian Writers series). 6 Paul H. Seely, The Firmament and the Water Above, The Westminster Theological Journal v. 53 (1991) pp. 227-240; online at http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/01Genesis/Text/Articles-Books/Seely-Firmament-WTJ.pdf .
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(Job 37:18, NIV) In the book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom recounts how she was present during the creation of the world. And though the NIV does not translate it this way, according to the ESV Lady Wisdom states, When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above (Proverbs 8:27-28) In Genesis 7:11 the floodgates of heaven are opened to bring down water, causing the Great Flood. In Genesis 8:2 they are closed, so the rain will cease. These verses fit well with a physical, solid dome. If floodgates (or windows) are opened in the dome to let water through, then of course there must be water above the dome. A number of verses fit this description. Psalm 48:4 reads, Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! (ESV) Clouds are in the heavens or skies, but are they above them? An ocean above the dome seems to fit better. Psalm 29:10 reads, The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever. (NIV) This Psalm describes a storm moving from the west to east over the land. David hears the voice of Yahweh in the thunder and lighting. In verse 10 David declares that Yahweh is enthroned as King. David, I think, has in mind to juxtapose the One True God over against the Canaanite god of rain and storms, Baal. He proclaims Yahweh as the one enthroned over the flood. Some suggest that this flood is Noahs, but there is nothing in the text that refers to that time. It would be odd for David to slip in a reference to the Noahic Flood with no contextualization. Possibly this flood is a result of the storm, but verse 10 forms part of a two-verse conclusion making more general statements about Yahweh, and so it may not be meant to refer to a specific result of the storm. Furthermore, floods on earth are fleeting and temporary, whereas The LORD sits enthroned over the flood is paired with the LORD is enthroned as King forever. I see a connection between over the flood and forever. In this view, the flood is the waters above the firmament. Yahweh sits enthroned above them.

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A third example is the beautiful creation psalm, Psalm 104. Verses 2-3 state: 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. (NIV) If the waters of the heavens are clouds, then God builds his upper chambers on them and also makes them his chariot. Where are his chambers then when the clouds move or have disappeared altogether? The image of the clouds being Yahwehs chariot is fitting, for throughout Israels history God has made his presence known by way of a cloud. Most references to a cloud in the OT indicate Yahwehs presence leading his people in the wilderness. But surely Yahweh is also enthroned above when the sky is cloudless. If the waters of the heavens are an ocean above the firmament, the image is less problematic. What is problematic is that all of our modern experience and science tells us that there is no solid dome above the earth holding up heavenly waters. So how could God possibly allow this archaic concept of a solid dome to be assumed by the Biblical authors in the writing of his Holy Scripture? James Patrick Holding offers a solution to this predicament.7 He argues that we do not need to interpret raqiya as a solid dome. The evidence is just not strong enough. In fact, according to Holding, those who do maintain that raqiya is a solid dome are allying themselves with the enemies of the Gospel. After arguing that the term raqiya is ambiguous enough to mean the atmosphere and the interstellar space beyond, Holding discusses the waters above the raqiya. He agrees they cannot be clouds. Along with Russell Humphreys, he suggests instead that these waters were the originally-created, basic building blocks of

James Patrick Holding, Is the raqiya (firmament) a solid dome? Technical Journal v. 13, n. 2 (Nov. 1999) pp. 4451, online at http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v13/i2/firmament.asp .

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matter that the earth was made from, and otherwise became all that was created outside of our atmosphere and/or our solar system. Really? It is astounding that Holding, working under the assumption that the Bible is scientifically inerrant and that the days of creation are plainly the same length as the 24-hour days we experience today, is willing to take this position! I find it literally incredible that the waters above (and below?) the raqiya are stellar matter, methane gas, asteroids, comets, etc. A better approach is to assume the principle of accommodation. If God wanted to wrest the ancient physical cosmology from the minds of the Israelites, he of course could do that. If he desired to correct them and replace their ancient notions with something more akin to our modern cosmological understanding, there is no stopping him. But if God did overhaul their understanding of the physical cosmos, it would be clearly apparent in Scripture. In my view, it is not. Every book and letter of the Bible has far more pressing concerns to communicate to the people of God. Or consider it from this perspective. Imagine I have lost all my knowledge of the modern model of the cosmos. I read the Bible and have to decide between different options about the shape, structure and processes of the cosmos. The first question is the shape of the earth: flat or spherical? The more than 30 verses that assume a flat earth outweigh the few verses that might possibly allow for a spherical earth, so Id go with flat. The second question concerns the relative motions of the earth, sun and moon: geocentric or heliocentric? Even more verses speak for an immovable earth, so geocentric. Third, where does weather come from? Rain comes from clouds and through windows or sluices from heaven. Snow and hail come from storehouses. Wind comes from storehouses and from the ends of the earth. Many of these elements of weather are sent or led out by Yahweh. Fourth, are stars larger or smaller than the earth? Probably smaller, since in visions and prophecies they fall to the earth like figs from a fig tree, without obliterating it. Fifth, is the firmament solid or gaseous? This is

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tougher one. But Elihu says it is solid, it holds water above it, the sun, moon and stars are set in it, and even Ezekiel in his visions describes it as sparkling ice. So I would tentatively say it is solid. My final cosmos might look some thing like this: 8

If I were then told that my answers comport with the perspectives of all the nations surrounding Israel, I would have to conclude that the Bible assumes this cosmology. But it is important to remember that all the references to the structure of the physical cosmos are incidental. Explicating the structure of the cosmos is not the primary concern of any book or chapter in the Bible. It does not even make the list of concerns. Creation scientists often lament that sceptics claim the Bible teaches a flat earth. They respond by stating that the Bible does not teach a flat earth. I agree. It is not the least bit concerned with the shape of the earth. Nowhere in Isaiah do we come across a disputation on the proper shape of the
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Image from http://www.aug.edu/~nprinsky/Humn2001/bbl-gn-hvn.GIF .

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earth, though many passages speak of its ends or end (Isaiah 5:26, 24:16, 40:28, 41:5, 42:10, 45:22, 48:20, 49:6, 52:10, 62:11). The Biblical authors assume a flat earth and get on with the pressing issues.9 Perhaps the same can be said for the solidity of the firmament. Many Christians are concerned about the Biblical text, specifically Genesis 1, being continually reinterpreted in accord with new and developing scientific theories (or fads as some are inclined to call them). I share this concern. Some wish to reinterpret the days of creation as ages, but a plain sense reading of the text clearly communicates days as the periods of creative activity. The creation account also clearly implies, I think, that the firmament is a solid structure that holds up the waters above and in which the sun, moon and stars are set. From the perspective of the first hearers, the Israelites, this is not an issue since everyone saw the sky like this in the Ancient Near East. For modern readers it can pose an interpretive conundrum, but the problem is ours, not theirs. Dont take my word for it though. I am no expert. I am just trying to read the Scriptures and listen to the Word of Yahweh. As much as possible, I want to listen to the text as the original authors and first hearers would have, letting my 21st century Canadian categories of what is important take the back seat, so to speak. I encourage anyone to research it. Read the relevant texts and see if an atmospheric or solid firmament fits best. What do you think?

Paul H. Seely, The Geographical Meaning of the Earth and Seas in Genesis 1:10, The Westminster Theological Journal v. 59 (1997) pp. 231-55; online at http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/ArticlesBooks/Seely_EarthSeas_WTJ.pdf .

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