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.