Neither the Hebrews nor Ancient Man Ever Believed in a ‘Firmament,’ But Both Believed in a Spacious Heavens

Thesis Statement

In light of the consensus view on ‘the firmament’ that we just laid out, I present the following alternative view: Not only did the Hebrews not believe in any such ‘firm sky’ notion, apparently, neither did their ancient contemporaries. In short, there has never been any wide-spread ‘firmament’ notion in antiquity. What there has been is a confluence of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings and misreadings of ancient texts. In the case of the Hebrews, these misunderstandings started early in the history of biblical interpretation.

Many will read these claims with incredulity. But this is true in large part because most people have only been familiar with the evidence at a distance, being influenced mostly from popular level summary views on the purported ‘Hebrew Conception of the Universe.’ Most of these depictions, even if we were to accept the firmament notion, are highly selective with the evidence, giving the impression that the cosmic vault of the sky notion could be found on every other page of the ancient source material, when the direct opposite is the case. In the vast majority of cases, when the Bible or when other ancient peoples spoke of the sky, they spoke of it as a spacious region which could be inhabited: by birds, by the cosmic bodies, and then most importantly, by God himself (by ‘the gods’ for the non-Hebrews). The actual ratio might be closer to 1,000 to 1.

As such, these common depictions are at best highly misleading in their portrayal of the ‘cosmic worlview’ of any of these peoples. Because of this, most people do not know that some of the greatest experts in the field have claimed that many an important ANE culture never had any such ‘firmament’ conception at all. And with regard to the Bible, little do they know that some scholars (even liberal, German-schooled scholars) have claimed that the Hebrew Bible itself betrays two different cosmological understandings, with one of these betraying no knowledge of a ‘firmament’ at all! Never will you hear such evidence from the popular level summaries, the like of which you find in abundance in scholastic sources and throughout the internet. Once people have been disabused of the claim of a monolithic, universal notion in antiquity of a physio-mechanical vault in the sky, it becomes easier for us to critically examine the remaining texts that seem to support that view (for example see here and here).

What then did Genesis 1 mean by the word rāqîaʿ? And what in general did the Genesis day two event represent? I argue that the Genesis day two event represents the creation of the spacious expanse of the heavens (šāmayim), which God enlarged or expanded at this time, thereby creating world-space. This ‘cosmic stretch’ did not exist at the very beginning, not until God called it into being, thereby creating a cosmic space to live in (a cosmic ‘living room’). The term ‘rāqîaʿ’ perfectly conveys these notions of expansion and enlargement (of the skies and universe). This use of a simple-technical word to describe the ‘cosmic region’ of sky / heavens fits precisely with the pattern in Genesis 1, in which the other major cosmic ‘regions’ (seas and earth) were first described with a simple-technical word, before being given their common name (that being šāmayim — ‘heavens’ / ‘skies’ in the case of the rāqîaʿ). While this term quite aptly conveyed the senses I have just described, of course the same root word unfortunately brought with it some other possible meanings, which is the main reason we have had all of these misconceptions throughout the millenia. One might understandably question if the notion of ‘space’ was too abstract of a concept for the ancients, but this is very far from the truth, as we will see.

In identifying the rāqîaʿ as the spacious expanse of the heavens, this thesis stands in continuity with the ‘expanse’ interpretation many scholars have advocated in decades past. However: 1) despite some excellent but brief defenses of this view in the last half century, never has a comprehensive case been made for this view (to say the least). 2) I reject some of the common descriptions that went with this view, such as the anachronistic argument that ‘the expanse represents the earth’s atmosphere.’ 3) And lastly, the number of proponents of this view, even within evangelical scholarship, seems to be dwindling by the year. Few seem to be making this case in recent decades, much less in earnest! Even so, a fundamental argument made by these scholars that we accept as valid is that the root word rqʿ (raqah) could fairly be interpreted in its verbal sense of ‘expansion’ alone, without necessarily having to carry with it the ‘metal-working’ or ‘beating’ senses that it often carries elsewhere. This core argument is what permitted any alternative view to the firmament interpretation in the first place.

This work consists of two main parts:

Part I. A Reappraisal of the Rāqîaʿ Concept within the Hebrew Bible.

In this part we will thoroughly reassesses the biblical evidence, passage by passage and topic by topic. This will constitute a comprehensive reappraisal of claims that have been made from the Hebrew bible in support of the firmament notion, both small and large. On the other hand, a positive case will be made for what we have advocated above: that the rāqîaʿ was originally intended to represent ‘world space,’ the great ‘cosmic stretch’ of the cosmos, which is the simple definition Genesis 1 gave for what the heavens and sky are in their most basic sense: the space God created between the primeval waters, thereby making it possible to have a cosmos.

Part II. A Reappraisal of the Rāqîaʿ Concept(s) of Ancient Antiquity.

In part II we will reassess the purported non-Hebrew ‘firmament’ notions of antiquity, with the conclusion being that, as we have already stated above, there has never actually been any wide-spread ‘firmament’ notion in antiquity. But if that was all, then the proper name for this part would simply be: “A Reappraisal of the Firmament Concept(s) of Ancient Antiquity.” But we have even more striking evidence to present than this! Namely, while there is no convincing evidence of a wide-scale ‘firmament’ notion, there is on the other hand some striking parallels to the rāqîaʿ notion of the Bible. We will see how the notion that ‘cosmic space’ had to be created in the beginning does in fact have important and even striking parallels in many non-Hebrew cosmologies. These parallels are in fact so blatantly evident, I can only assume that the firmament viewpoint has simply obscured them.

17 thoughts on “Neither the Hebrews nor Ancient Man Ever Believed in a ‘Firmament,’ But Both Believed in a Spacious Heavens

  1. This is terrific, thanks for sharing Chris! You did a great service to put this out those many years ago. Here is the direct link to the PDF for everyone interested.

    I see many good points, and other things of which I have a different view on, but as someone on the same team. By the way, right from the outset (p. 3), you used one of my favorite quotes, the one from Othmar Keel, bravo! I feel what John Walton is trying to say (with his functional obsession) is a muddled and fouled up version of what Keel said in that quote (with the longer citation), but then he goes in all the wrong directions with it. Anyways, that’s for another time.

    – Raqia as atmosphere: If you see my other article here, The Rāqîaʿ is the Definition of the Sky According to Genesis 1, I think it is not warranted to simply make the raqia the atmosphere. It is exactly equivalent to the shamaym, or really it’s the other way around, shamaym is the name given to this simple-technical term. So we still have to deal with the waters above. I believe there must be (or must have originally been at the end of day 2 at least) cosmic waters above, and that could be fulfilled in a number of ways. 1), we do have solar-system waters (the Oort cloud), but 2) as an entire cosmos, many creationists today have taken this at face value and even worked it into their models (Humphreys, Faulkner). I would emphasize that the text does *not* name these upper waters, which means the text itself leaves them out in the cold, left in obscurity, and so they are. It’s also worth considering, since the text dedicates the next day (3) to describing God working upon the waters below, into seas, what if God was doing something at the same time with the upper waters, but that it wasn’t God’s purpose to reveal this information to us (in the text: as unnamed entities not talked about again). The point is, it’s even possible God used these waters to make the rest of the cosmos from, there are different options available.

    That last option has some problems to deal with, but in any case, what’s it to us if God likes water? He seemed to have wanted to start the world out with water, so just because this is so strange to *naturalist* models, which of course can’t start with water, it is not strange to a theistic system. In fact, all the ancient world thought the world started with water, including the original presocratic philosophers, such as Thales. By the way, this is clearly one of the greatest challenges to deal with, and in former times I would have probably gone the route you did way back then in 1982, so I hope it’s very clear, I totally understand why you went the route you did in identifying the raqia as only the atmosphere, which also allowed the waters to simply be atmospheric waters.

    – The ‘patch’ interpretation of רקע is something I’ve never heard of before, seems inapplicable to many contexts where it occurs. It also has the problem that much of what I heard said in that interpretation, I can hear someone claiming that still supports the firmament interpretation? Also, about it always ‘strengthening’ I don’t see that either, for instance beating the gold plates for application to the altar were not for strength but for adornment. I don’t have a problem with the traditional interpretations about stamping, beating, but I argue this term was used (was coined by God at the creation) taking only the sense of spatial expansion. In other cases outside Gen1 where the creation of the heavens is being discussed, the emphasis is usually on God expanding them, usually, as you know, with the term נטה, which of course fits the notion that the semantic sense being gotten from the term in Genesis 1 was the spatial expansion sense.

    – “Had the Israelites conceived of the heavens as a metal bowl, or a similar metal sheet, then the appropriate word would not be רקיע but מִקְשֶׁה which is used in a number of places in the O.T. to refer to beaten metal work.” – p. 20

    Interesting point! I wouldn’t say this emphatically, but it’s a great point that other terms that emphasize solidness or in this case hardness could have been used, like מִקְשֶׁה.

    – “The concept of a metallic heaven is not consistent with either the views of the O.T. or the surrounding cultures of the East.” – 20

    Very interesting you came to this conclusion. This is one of the conclusions I came to, but it is a daring one, because everyone else is saying the opposite, and this claim requires a much broader amount research to be done in order to support it. Nice to see the supporting citations by Stuhmueller and Schmidt though, “kaum bekannt” (hardly known of)!

    – στερέωμα , As you can see in my introduction, I think the early Jewish translators were probably unsure of the meaning of raqia themselves, but then do misunderstand it to mean something hard like this. So while I agree with you that there is little evidence that they had “the firmament” full blown conception when they translated this way, I don’t believe it’s possible to totally deny they (mis) interpreted the meaning of the word as perhaps meaning something hard. I do agree that the purported influence from Greek ideas is in my view very weak (by the way, I believe the 4 cases where Homer speaks of bronze and iron heavens which you mentioned are simply metaphoric).

    Many great points overall, thanks again for sharing Chris, and for taking this stand those many years ago.

    Nick

    1. Hi Nick
      Thanks for your kind words. There has been a lot of research done into these issues since 1982 so I am aware my efforts then are somewhat dated but I think in general on the right track. There were also constraints on what I could say due to the theologically liberal approach of teaching staff and the limited space allowed (which I still exceeded somewhat).

      I will read your website pages and your comments with interest soon.

      Best wishes
      Chris

  2. Hi, Nicholas

    This was the post with the most recent comment, so I thought I’d post this here. (I can’t find any contact information page.)

    Two questions:

    1) Are you still working on this project? It’s fascinating. It will come in especially handy refuting the (unfortunately) growing numbers of “Bible believing” Christians espousing a flat earth. Their hyperliteral hermeneutic leads them to deny moon landings and posit an actual metal or glass dome/”firmament.” I’ve been working through the cosmological references myself and found your site here. Excellent. Keep up the good work!

    2) The one page I didn’t get to read is the one requiring login. I don’t blog so have no password. Is there some other way (another site?) that has that information?

    Thanks!

    Scott

    1. Hi there Scott, thanks for the encouraging words, it’s much appreciated!

      > Are you still working on this project? It’s fascinating.

      I am as passionate on this issue as ever, but as you can see, nothing has been posted for a long time, unfortunately. I still have a ton to share, so if you wouldn’t mind lifting me in prayer that I’ll be able to have time free up, as well as the dedication to not waste any time where I could have dedicated to start posting again. One thing that side-tracked me was work on this site: http://creationontrial.com/ (not just the site but work that relates to it), and there are a number of articles on creation and Genesis issues I have in the pipeline that aren’t published yet. But I am certainly eager to start making regular posts here. I’m also in the best position I’ve ever been in terms of the many research resources I now own, that makes this work easier.

      > The one page I didn’t get to read is the one requiring login

      I have a couple of pages that I have password protected because they are unedited notes and scribbles, I’m guessing that’s what you saw. Was the page on ancient tents? That’s something I’m eager to post about, namely on the terminology of “inclining” a tent (נטה), and what that means in its simple sense, when it is compared to God expanding or enlarging the heavens.

  3. Hi, Nicholas

    Thanks for the reply and the update.

    I’m glad you’re still committed to this study! As I said, it’s fascinating. Ever since I happened to watch some of the flat earth videos on You Tube, I’ve been going through — at least in my head — how to reply to the claims of the Christians who espouse such a view. It got me thinking about how the ANE cosmology would compare or contrast with the Bible’s account and its various terminology in Psalms, Job, etc.

    For some background I made my way through Glenn Miller’s study on ANE accounts (at the Christian Thinktank site: http://christianthinktank.com/gilgymess.html). He suggests that not all cosmological views are created equal. Some were more highly thought of than others. That, I think, could lead one to ask whether the ancients took *some* of their own accounts of creation — or their descriptions of the structure of the earth and heavens generally — with a grain of salt. Perhaps you can say in your study whether that’s a possibility or not and what it’s implications might be.

    Also in my own thinking, I realize that in contrast to those older and more liberal commentators who simply observe the similar language of other ANE cosmologies and assume the Bible shares all their beliefs as a result, many recent commentators on Genesis (e.g. Wenham) point out that the Bible shows itself to be more *polemical* in its contents (i.e. the deep isn’t a god(dess)/Tiamat but just water; the sun, moon and stars aren’t gods, they’re just lights; the “sea monsters” are just fish, etc.). This, of course, is what we’d expect from a God who told the post-Exodus Israelites that “the nations do such-and-such, but you aren’t to be like them; you do this.” So readers of the OT would *expect* to see contrasts with surrounding nations’ beliefs elsewhere in the text, even though one might notice a somewhat shared vocabulary, the same way we use “sunrise” as just a culturally acceptable term for the morning daylight *without* meaning that the sun actually rises from the surface of the earth at the horizon up into the sky.

    So it’s very interesting to read your speculation that *even the ANE didn’t have the dome-enclosed cosmology ascribed to them*. (Or maybe there were some who believed that, but many others who didn’t? I.e. much more diverse beliefs among Israel’s neighbors than is suggested by those who wish to dismiss the Bible because of its flat earth views?) Intriguing! I’m looking forward to reading your articles and the evidences you have for all this. The ones so far have been great!

    Anyway, thanks again for your reply — and for your work on this important issue. It seems rather ground-breaking. 🙂

    Oh, and thanks for that link to the creation on trial site. I’m looking forward to going through the articles as I have time.

    And I will most definitely keep you and your various projects in prayer!

    Scott

    P.S. Yes, it was the notes on “natah.” But if you’re going to use those in one or more of your later pages, no need for me to get in there now. 🙂

    1. Scott, just a quick note on this, I started checking out that link when you first posted this, and unfortunately got stopped before I had read it all, but that looks like an excellent article, thanks for sharing!

    2. > “I’m not a naturalist btw”
      – Good to know Reginald

      > “1) As you mentioned, this is a common idea found in ancient cultures, such as with Thales.”

      Yes, but hopefully my previous responses will answer this, I am not denying contact points or parallels. This does not mean however that the Genesis claims (such as the claim that God started the cosmos out with water) cannot actually be true and non-mythological. It just may mean early passed on traditions lingered throughout the dispersed mankind, even after most of them had once again rejected the living God and followed idols.

      > “2) Whether you like it or not, the earth is billions of years old and water was formed ‘after’ the dry land, not ‘before’.”

      Yes, I am aware that that is what the current mythology believes :0) If you care to consider an alternative, please see my assessment of the scientific evidence here:
      http://creationontrial.com/creation-bibliography-scientific

  4. Hi, Nicholas

    Are comments allowed to any of the articles at the creationontrial site? I tried posting a comment (3x) to one and apparently it didn’t go through. ??

    Scott

    1. Hello Scott, I’m sorry for the late response to this. I was very sick when this came through, and by the time I was better it got lost in the sands of time :0)

      I don’t know about comments on that site, but I just experienced myself having problems when submitting comments on this site! So looks like I need to check out what is happening, apparently technical difficulties.

  5. “– Raqia as atmosphere: If you see my other article here, The Rāqîaʿ is the Definition of the Sky According to Genesis 1, I think it is not warranted to simply make the raqia the atmosphere. It is exactly equivalent to the shamaym, or really it’s the other way around, shamaym is the name given to this simple-technical term. So we still have to deal with the waters above. I believe there must be (or must have originally been at the end of day 2 at least) cosmic waters above, and that could be fulfilled in a number of ways. 1), we do have solar-system waters (the Oort cloud), but 2) as an entire cosmos, many creationists today have taken this at face value and even worked it into their models (Humphreys, Faulkner). I would emphasize that the text does *not* name these upper waters, which means the text itself leaves them out in the cold, left in obscurity, and so they are. It’s also worth considering, since the text dedicates the next day (3) to describing God working upon the waters below, into seas, what if God was doing something at the same time with the upper waters, but that it wasn’t God’s purpose to reveal this information to us (in the text: as unnamed entities not talked about again). The point is, it’s even possible God used these waters to make the rest of the cosmos from, there are different options available.”

    I agree with you that the firmament was probably a void space, not a solid dome. But I cannot help but disagree with you here. A heavenly ocean was very common in ANE cosmology. And as Walton points out, the context of these waters in Genesis 1 when compared to other ANE creation texts would suggest a link to the weather. Strange to see a YEC actually acknowledging that the Oort cloud exists however.

    That last option has some problems to deal with, but in any case, what’s it to us if God likes water? He seemed to have wanted to start the world out with water, so just because this is so strange to *naturalist* models, which of course can’t start with water, it is not strange to a theistic system. In fact, all the ancient world thought the world started with water, including the original presocratic philosophers, such as Thales. By the way, this is clearly one of the greatest challenges to deal with, and in former times I would have probably gone the route you did way back then in 1982, so I hope it’s very clear, I totally understand why you went the route you did in identifying the raqia as only the atmosphere, which also allowed the waters to simply be atmospheric waters.”

    The problem is: (I’m not a naturalist btw)

    1) As you mentioned, this is a common idea found in ancient cultures, such as with Thales.

    2) Whether you like it or not, the earth is billions of years old and water was formed ‘after’ the dry land, not ‘before’.

    1. “I agree with you that the firmament was probably a void space, not a solid dome.”
      – That’s great to hear sir.

      “But I cannot help but disagree with you here. A heavenly ocean was very common in ANE cosmology. And as Walton points out, the context of these waters in Genesis 1 when compared to other ANE creation texts would suggest a link to the weather.”

      There is a lot to talk about here which shouldn’t be done in long running comments, but you mention an important objection, I hope this will suffice for now:

      You stated: “the context of these waters in Genesis 1 when compared to other ANE creation texts would suggest…”

      A few caveats on this first:
      a) I don’t mean to quibble, and this is subtle, but what such words often turn into is simply ignoring the details of the actual text we are concerned with, Genesis 1, while rushing to read into it whatever we *think* ANE texts state.

      b) You seem to be treating ANE traditions as a monolithic entity, that’s a fundamental mistake Walton makes, see Noel Weeks’ excellent article on this.

      c) that in and of itself should warn you against too quickly conflating the Genesis account (even if one sees it as not inspired) with this monolithic “ANE” tradition. So it’s critical to read the text carefully on its own first, and to avoid at all costs the sin of conflating details of two or more texts or traditions. It’s a sin to do this even with *two contemporary ANE texts from the same culture (let’s say Mesopotamian), let alone between two separate cultures.

      All of that said, to the main points:

      1) Actually, the Genesis 1 day 2 account says absolutely nothing about weather, and it says absolutely nothing about these upper waters ever coming down, and to the contrary, it seems clearly to say the precise opposite, that the raqia’ (world-space, cosmic expanse, etc) would continuously go on (participle יהי מבדיל) separating the two, seemingly forever, so long as there is a cosmos (this very separation is the fundamental quality that makes a cosmos, minus light!).

      2) For the ANE depictions, I have to say it again, there is no one depiction. Some traditions can even have a change so big as to have the sky god be a female figure (as in Egypt with Nut), unlike the more common where the sky god is masculine who inseminates the feminine earth. So there are massive variations, and not all traditions even talk about cosmic waters. All that said, I don’t think even with their traditions that this is typically true, though keep in mind, I expect confusion, and not a perfect match. I wouldn’t be surprised to have the ancient, non-inspired and all of them mythological and corrupted traditions to not start to conflate things, like the upper waters conflate into the “regular” meteorological source of waters. But all of that said, the waters in Enuma Elish, with Tiamat, seem to have nothing to do with sources of rain, in fact, it seems to fit closer to what I am saying of the Genesis depiction (in this one pint alone, there are countless ways that they are totally different and in conflict still).

      IV.139. He stretched out a skin and assigned a guard.
      140. He ordered them not to let her waters escape.
      (Horowitz, 112)

      Then, importantly, the 3 main cosmic regions are described, and the focus continues to be large scale cosmic, as it then moves into (in tablet V) cosmic bodies, stars, moon, and sun. Only once we reach V.47-52 do we get a description of precipitation, which is describing meteorological elements, actually mentioning clouds and rain, but the source of this is not said to be those main waters, but to be from Tiamat’s Spit (47) which he rolled into clouds, and the fog is from her venom (51).

  6. “For the ANE depictions, I have to say it again, there is no one depiction. Some traditions can even have a change so big as to have the sky god be a female figure (as in Egypt with Nut), unlike the more common where the sky god is masculine who inseminates the feminine earth. So there are massive variations, and not all traditions even talk about cosmic waters. All that said, I don’t think even with their traditions that this is typically true, though keep in mind, I expect confusion, and not a perfect match. I wouldn’t be surprised to have the ancient, non-inspired and all of them mythological and corrupted traditions to not start to conflate things, like the upper waters conflate into the “regular” meteorological source of waters. But all of that said, the waters in Enuma Elish, with Tiamat, seem to have nothing to do with sources of rain, in fact, it seems to fit closer to what I am saying of the Genesis depiction (in this one pint alone, there are countless ways that they are totally different and in conflict still).”

    I never said that they are all a monolithic entity, Walton doesn’t say so either, only that Genesis has similarities with some ANE creation accounts such as the Enuma Elish, the Foundation of Eridu and Egyptian creation myths.

    I wrote about it here:

    https://riderontheclouds.wordpress.com/2018/03/29/establishing-the-ancient-near-eastern-context-of-genesis-1/

  7. It’s interested to see you are quoting Horowitz. I think he makes it abundantly clear that the Mesopotamians did believe in a solid sky. As it happens I believe the Hebrews did too, Raqia just wasn’t the word for it.

    As a side not you may find this article I wrote of interest, though I don’t expect you to agree with me on everything. I make similar claims that in historical context, the ANE parallels with the Raqia are not with any solid dome/disc/sphere/plate:

    https://riderontheclouds.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/the-separation-of-heaven-from-earth-an-alternative-view-of-the-raqia/

  8. I also find that the common belief in a heavenly ocean needn’t be explained by any real primordial entity. It need only be explained by the colour of the sky, or the fact that waters falls from the sky as rain.

  9. Dear Nicholas,

    I just wanted to let you know that I believe you are doing the Lord’s work on this site, so I really appreciate it. The issues you tackle are very important and we have a biblical duty to refute those who are implicitly teaching that God is a liar. There seems to be a great lack of people addressing the topic seriously and without twisting scripture or undermining its authority. Your style is also thorough yet easy to understand, so it’s a great place to link others to. I am praying that you will have more time to write for this site and a mind focussed and dedicated to the task. God bless you!

    In Christ,
    William

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