How did the sun, moon, and stars move, according to ancient Hebrew cosmology?

Q. My question is about biblical cosmology, specifically about the relationship between the sun, moon, and stars and the firmament. If we assume that the firmament is a solid dome, and the Bible says the sun, moon, and stars are IN the firmament, then it seems the sun, moon, and stars are somehow embedded in the firmament. But to an ancient Hebrew looking up at the sky, it would have been obvious that the sun, moon, and stars MOVE across the sky. A rotating firmament might seem to fix that problem, except that it also would have been obvious that the sun, moon, and stars—and “wandering star” planets—move across the sky at DIFFERENT speeds. I’m trying to make this cosmology as logically coherent as possible, and this issue bugs me. One solution I have in mind is that the firmament can be defined as both the solid dome and some of the space underneath the dome; thus, the sun, moon, and stars could move in the space just below the dome—just as Genesis say birds fly across the face of the firmament. But does this solution actually accord with the Biblical Hebrew describing the cosmology?

In our book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, my co-author Stephen J. Godfrey and I note this same problem. This book is now available online as a blog. I will quote from the post in which we discuss this issue. After noting that the sun first appears on the fourth day of the Genesis creation account, even though there is light on the first day, and that the moon sometimes appears during the day, even though it is supposed to “rule the night,” we say:

“But these are not the only ways in which the account of the fourth day confounds our modern cosmological expectations. Perhaps even more important is the effect of a small preposition: in. Genesis tells us that God set the sun, moon and stars in the dome of the sky. We today would instead place them beyond the sky—outside our atmosphere. Even if we grasp the idea that the Genesis author is picturing a solid sky, we might still imagine these lights shining through from the back. But the account says quite clearly that they are in the dome. The particular means by which they are attached is not specified; nor is the means by which they move through the sky. But there can be no doubt about where they are, and it is not where modern cosmology would put them. Nevertheless, it is exactly where they appear to be, to the naïve observer.”

So, even though I co-authored a book that discusses Genesis cosmology, in that book itself I admitted that I did not know precisely how the ancient Hebrews understood the sun, moon, and stars to be moving in the firmament. However, since then I have come across the idea that they were understood to move on tracks on the surface of the firmament. The Bible does not say this specifically, but that explanation may be as good as any. I think that if the sun, moon, and stars had been understood to move just in front of the firmament, then the same expression would have been used for them as for the birds, on the face of the firmament, rather than in the firmament.

I hope this is helpful. You may be interested in reading the entire section of our book that is dedicated to Genesis cosmology, which starts with this post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. 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 New International Version (NIV) 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 was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. 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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