‘My Hands Stretched Out the Heavens’: Thesis Statement

Thesis Statement

In the context 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.

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 ‘lebensraum’). 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.

3 thoughts on “‘My Hands Stretched Out the Heavens’: Thesis Statement

  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

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