Does the reading of “sky” for “heavens” in the Genesis creation account rule out the creation of invisible, spiritual things?

This question was asked as a follow-up to my post entitled “In the beginning, God created the sky and the land.

Q. I had never before noticed the relationships between the three pairs of days. Laying out the text in such a manner as to highlight these relationships is helpful. Thanks.

I wonder, though, whether the Hebrew word which I will transliterate as shemayim, traditionally translated in this passage as “heavens” and here translated “sky” (in contrast to “land”), must mean only “sky” in this passage. After all, the word translated “Spirit” also can mean mere “wind.”

What if we read the word translated “sky” to include both English meanings contained by the one Hebrew word? Could the meaning include not only the concepts that contrast with “land”(that is, sky), but also the concepts which contrast with that realm in which we humans are grounded and can touch (that is, heaven)?

My denomination’s catechism cites the Genesis creation account to support the assertion from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”, and goes on to explain the meaning of “heaven” to include the unseen, which it identifies as the spiritual part of God’s creation.

I do note, however, that on Day 4 the sky is populated with items that are not spiritual (sun, moon, stars). Not, say, angels.

Limiting this scripture to refer merely to “sky” seems to diminish its meaning from that claimed by the catechism’s commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. Any thoughts on how I might reconcile this reading of the beginning of Genesis and my understanding of the historic catholic creeds of the church?

Thank you very much for this thoughtful question.  First, let me say that I do not feel that my reading and translation of the Genesis creation account limit its meaning to God creating the sky and nothing beyond it, whether physical (outer space) or spiritual (angels and the heavenly realm itself).

Rather, I would say that I see the Genesis author proclaiming God as the Maker of the entire created universe and depicting that creation as it was then perceived and understood.  We can join in this very same proclamation even though we would depict the creation much more extensively, beyond what appears to an earth-bound observer.

This is true not just of the visible, physical part of creation, but also of the invisible, spiritual part, because the Hebrew biblical writers tended to see the shemayim that God created as the location where God then established His throne.  Psalm 11 says, for example, that “the Lord‘s throne is in heaven” (shemayim).  Psalm 103 says similarly, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens” (once again shemayim). These are just two of many examples that could be given.

However, this is not to say that the Hebrew word shemayim had two different meanings, “the sky” (in which we would now include “outer space”) and “heaven” (the abode of God and the angels).  Rather, the biblical writers were envisioning one physical place in which both the sun, moon, and stars, and the throne of God, were all located.

While it is true, as you noted, that some Hebrew words can mean more than one thing–ruach, to cite your example, means both Spirit and wind, as well as breath–that is not the case with shemayim.  It does not mean two different things, but one single thing, the physical realm above the earth.

But this is not an insurmountable problem.  I would simply make the same move as in the case of “outer space” and say that we now understand today that what the earth-bound observer who is speaking in the Genesis creation account understood as a single entity is actually a more complex entity.  Shemayim, we now realize, encompasses both sky and space, and since it is the site of God’s throne, it also encompasses “heaven.”  In this way we can see the Genesis creation account proclaiming God as the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, once we translate the ancient understanding of the created universe into our own contemporary understanding.

(And I don’t doubt that centuries from now, our own limited understanding of the universe will have to be updated by later generations of believers!)

This photograph accompanied the text “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” on a recent Christian Post devotional. The photo, in my view, illustrates better what the Genesis author was envisioning than the “outer space” photos that often accompany that text.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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