Is the “firmament” of the Genesis creation account “space” or a solid “dome”?

Q. In his book Genesis in Space and Time, Francis Schaeffer briefly argues that the word “firmament” in Genesis 1:6 should not be taken to mean a solid dome or brass covering, but is instead best translated as “expanse.” He says it is a fairly broad word that can be understood as “space” or “air” and that the notion that the Hebrews believed that the earth was covered by a solid dome is mistaken. How would you respond?

Here is what Schaeffer writes in his book:

“Some scholars who have tried to minimize the teaching of the Bible have said that the word firmament indicates that the Jews had an idea of a brass or iron covering over the world.  But this is not the picture at all.  Firmament simply means “expanse.”  It is a rather broad word, as we can see from the fact that the firmament is where the moon and the sun and the stars are (v. 14).  Perhaps for our generation the word space would be the best equivalent.  But it is also the place where the birds fly (v. 20).  In any case, the idea that it is merely a hard covering and reflects a primitive notion of a three-story universe is in error.  Rather what is being referred to is differentiation in the area of being—a differentiation of the openness that is about us.”  Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 37.

We can evaluate Schaeffer’s claims here by considering both the derivation and the usage of the Hebrew term in Genesis that English Bibles variously translate as “firmament” (KJV), “expanse” (ESV, NASB, HCSB), “space” (NLT), or “vault” (NIV).  (I don’t believe that respect or disrespect for the teaching of the Bible is at stake in this inquiry.  We should determine the meaning of the word objectively and draw our conclusions from there.)

The Hebrew term in question is the noun raqiya’.  It is derived from the verb raqa’, which means to beat out, stamp, or spread out a solid object, usually metal, to make it thinner, flatter, and broader.  The verb is used, for example, in the description in Exodus of the construction of the tabernacle: “They hammered out gold sheets and cut them into threads to be woven in with the blue and the purple and the scarlet material.”  Similarly in the book of Numbers, the bronze censers that were used by some rebellious Israelites to challenge Aaron for the priesthood were “hammered out to overlay the altar.”  And Jeremiah speaks of “hammered silver” that is used in the construction of idols.

So if raqa’ means “to beat out, to flatten” (and thereby “to extend”), then raqiya’, by derivation, means “an extended surface (solid),” as the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon defines it, or “a beaten (metal) plate,” as Holladay’s Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon puts it.

Numerous biblical writers indeed reflect an understanding of the “heavens” as a solid object that God has “spread out” like beaten or molten metal.  Elihu asks Job, for example, whether he can join God “in spreading out [raqa’] the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze.”  Similarly in Isaiah God says, “My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens.”  (In this case the verb is not raqa’ but the synonym tapach.)

Other biblical writers, using the further synonymous verb natah, say that God has “stretched out” the heavens.  Isaiah, for example, describes God as “the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out [natah].”  Jeremiah says similarly that God “founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out [natah] the heavens by his understanding.”  In some cases the biblical writers compare the “stretching out” of the heavens to the unfolding and spreading out of a tent or canopy (a  metaphor drawn delightfully from their former nomadic culture). Describing the creation, for example, Psalm 104 says, “The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment, he stretches out [natah] the heavens like a tent.”  And so forth.

Whichever synonym is used, in all these cases the heavens are envisioned as a solid object that God has spread out above the earth.  This consistent biblical understanding of the created world clearly extends into the Genesis creation account as well, as the use of the term raqiya’ shows, since it is identified directly with the “heavens.”

But what about Shaeffer’s claim that the “firmament” in Genesis can’t be a solid object, but must be an “expanse” of space or air, because it’s “the place where the birds fly”?  In the creation account God actually says, to translate the Hebrew literally, “Let birds fly above the earth on the face of the raqiya’ of the heavens”–in other words, in front of the dome of the sky, that is, in the space between it and the earth.

Then what about the heavens as the place “where the moon and the sun and the stars are”?  There’s no question that the Genesis creation account says that these are in the raqiya’ of the heavens.  But I take this to mean that they were envisioned to on its solid surface, moving around there.

So do these conclusions minimize the teaching of the Bible, since we know today that the sky is not a solid dome?  Not at all.  They simply show that the biblical authors wrote consistently from within an observational cosmology.  We should have no more problem with their idea of a solid sky than we do with their notion that the sun moved around the earth, even though we know today this only appears to be the case and it is actually the earth that is moving (revolving).

When we accept that the biblical authors were not supernaturally given a knowledge of cosmology that transcended the understanding humanly available in their own place, time, and culture, we can recognize their statements as accurate within that understanding, and we appreciate the points they are trying to make about God as creator and about creation as an ordered and harmonious whole–points that are still perfectly valid and well taken within our own understanding of cosmology, which is itself culturally bound and limited.

 

The so-called Flammarion engraving, thought to be intended to illustrate an ancient cosmology that included a flat earth bounded by a solid and opaque sky.

 

Questions about the creation of man and woman in Genesis

Q.  My last set of questions after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is about what to do with Genesis chapter 2.  It is quite clear to me from your book that reading Genesis chapter 1 the way Young Earth Creationists do is unfair to the text and hermeneutically irresponsible. It is obviously written in a very poetic literary style and immediately conflicts with chapter two in terms of the alleged order of creation and so on. On coming to chapter two, though, it isn’t written in such a poetic literary style and does assume a natural order in its account of creation, which leads to a couple questions.

First off, would you say that Genesis 2:4 is something of a header introducing the section as Genesis 1:1 does following Hebrew writing conventions?

This statement is a header not just to the story of the creation of the man and the woman, but also to the stories of the fall and of Cain and Abel.  It’s one of eleven instances in Genesis of the same formula, translated “This is the account of” in the NIV.  These formulas divide Genesis into twelve parts that each discuss what came from the figure named in the formula, e.g. Adam, Noah, Noah’s sons, etc.  The first one is the most elaborately stated.  It’s actually a chiasm:
A  This is the account of the heavens and the earth
B  when they were created
B  when the Lord God made
A  the earth and the heavens.
This formula introduces what “came from” the heavens and the earth, what they “brought forth.”  In the account that follows, God “forms from the ground” all the wild animals and birds, and God also forms the man from the “dust of the ground.”

Secondly, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a poetic style, would you say that it is trying to be more of a literal description of how and in what order creation occurred?

The account of the creation of the man and the woman belongs to a particular literary genre known as an “etiology,” which tells the story of how some contemporary phenomenon first originated.  Most of the stories early in Genesis belong to this genre.  They explain, for example, why there is a rainbow in the sky after it rains, or why people speak different languages.  The story of the man and the woman flows into the story of the fall and together these stories explain why weeds come up when you only plant good seeds, why women have pain in childbirth, and why the snake crawls on its belly.  So we need to take these stories for what they are and understand the meaning and message behind them, without regarding them as a literal, journalistic description of exactly what happened at the beginning of the human race.

Thirdly, in verses 8 and 19 it says, “Now the Lord God (had) formed…”. Depending on the translation, the word “had” isn’t always there, which kind of messes with the order of creation. If it is there, evolution is pretty easily accounted for within the text.  But if it isn’t, then the text more or less says that man came before plants and animals, which contradicts the claims of the scientific theory of evolution.

Hebrew verbs are not marked for tense, indicating time.  They are only marked for aspect, indicating either continuing or completed action.  The verbs in this account all indicate completed action.  So they could be translated either “formed,” “made,” “took,” etc. or “had planted,” “had formed,” etc.  I personally see no reason, linguistically or grammatically within the account, why any of them need to be translated with “had.”  I think we have a simple progressing narrative without review statements referring to earlier actions.  I think “had” is only introduced in some translations as a means of harmonizing the chronology with the earlier account.  I don’t think we need to do this.  The original author of Genesis was comfortable with the two accounts side-by-side even though their chronology doesn’t seem to line up, and we need to work out how we can be, too.

Finally, if evolution does account for the rise of all animals and eventually people, it seems strange that God would have had to make Eve because there was no suitable helper for Adam. If during the evolutionary process God granted consciousness, etc. upon early humans, there should have already been women present who would have been suitable for Adam. Of course, all these questions may simply arise from me trying to fit the story of Genesis 2 to actual history and not taking it from the observational perspective and so on. However, since Genesis 2 isn’t written in a literary style like Genesis 1, how exactly should it be taken?

I think you’ve identified where the problem comes from when we ask why a helper was needed for Adam if people had been around for so long.  It comes from trying to line up the details in these stories one-to-one with the events of natural history.  I don’t think we can or should do that.  As I say in response to your second question above, this account of the creation of the man and the woman should be taken as an “etiology.”  It answers the question of how some contemporary phenomena came to be by relating a story from the past that ultimately has a moral message.

Thanks very much for your thoughtful questions after reading our book.  I hope it continues to be helpful to you in your reflections! (The entire text of the book is now available free online.)

Another question from Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Was Noah’s flood local or global?

Q. Another question I have after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is what to do with the story of Noah’s flood. Creationists claim that many cultures across the world in isolated regions have “flood legends” in which one of their ancient ancestors is said to have survived a world-wide flood. This ancestor was named something similar to “Noah” like “Nehu.” I don’t know how to interpret such claims if Noah’s flood was just a small scale or local flood. I also don’t know what to do with the Bible’s claims that God essentially wiped out all life except sea life if it wasn’t a global flood. Of course, the section in your book in which Dr. Godfrey discusses trace fossils is pretty much the scientific nail in the coffin of there having been a global flood, but I don’t know how to reconcile these other details with the Bible’s description of the flood.

I think the most important thing to realize when considering your question is this: whether Genesis is envisioning a local flood or a global flood, it’s not picturing it happening in the world as we know it today.  Rather, it’s describing the flood within an observational ancient cosmology, so that the very word “global” is misleading.

Genesis doesn’t envision the earth as a globe, but rather as a flat stretch of land surrounded by heaped-up waters on all sides.  As I say in response to a comment on the previous post (which was also written in response to one of your questions about our book), any attempt to “establish a one-to-one correspondence between details in the biblical text and events in natural history” is doomed, precisely because of this difference in cosmology.  “You can’t get there from here.”

In the flood episode, God is basically wiping out the wicked human race by destroying the place of its abode.  In the creation account, God makes “a place for everything” and then puts “everything in its place”:  birds in the sky, fish in the sea, humans and animals on the land.  The flood is an un-creation scene:  the dry land disappears beneath the waters, just as it originally appeared from under them, and the whole race of wicked people disappear with it.

That’s the theological message of the account from within its ancient cosmology. We really can’t extrapolate from that to try to determine what actually happened in natural history.  Comparative anthropology, as you note, may shed some light, and geology can as well, but we’re not getting natural historical details about the world as we know it today from the flood story in the Bible, precisely because of its ancient observational cosmology.  This is a case like the many others we discuss in the book in which the Bible answers questions of “who” and “why,” but not (at least to our satisfaction) questions of “what,” “how,” or “when.”

(I earlier shared some additional thoughts about the question of a local versus worldwide flow in this post.)

Did the other biblical authors understand the Genesis creation account literally?

A reader of this blog recently submitted several questions after re-reading my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, which I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland.  The book argues that the Genesis creation account should be understood as literally intended and accurate from an observational perspective, meaning that there is no inherent conflict between believing this account and believing that more complex life forms have developed from simpler ones in a process that has extended over a long period of time.  I will answer this reader’s questions in a series of posts, starting with this one.  The full text of the book is available online at this link.

Q. I recently reread your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage and I can safely say that it is by far the best book I have read on the Creation/Evolution controversy. (And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve probably read upwards of thirty.) I’ve come to the conclusion that the position you advocate is the most reasonable and cogent and makes the most sense in light of the big picture.

I still have some questions, however.  First, what are we to make of how other biblical authors understood Genesis? Creationists often argue that they viewed Genesis as literal truth, which would make these supposedly inspired authors wrong if evolution were a valid theory, unless they were affirming Genesis from a purely observational perspective. In the case of Jesus in particular, what’s important for me to resolve is to what degree he gave up his omniscience while he was a man. If he was still fully omniscient, then in affirming the Genesis account of origins he would have been affirming something he knew was empirically wrong.

Thanks very much for your kind words about our book.  I’m glad it has been helpful to you.

In answer to your first question, as we show in the book, the other biblical authors express the same observational cosmology that’s in the Genesis creation account.  For example, just as Genesis depicts God as creating the sky as a “vault” (literally a “spread-out” object), so Psalm 104 speaks of God “stretching out the heavens like a tent” and Isaiah says that God “stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent.”  And just as Genesis says that God made the seas by saying “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place,” so Psalm 33 says, in speaking of creation, “He gathers the waters of the sea into a heap; he puts the deep into storehouses.”

Perhaps it is not too surprising or unsettling to hear other biblical authors speak like this, if we accept that the Bible is written from an observational perspective.  Its human authors are simply describing how things appear to them.  But we might expect that Jesus would have spoken from a different, objective perspective (that is, not that of an earth-bound observer) if he really was God and so was omniscient.

However, what we find is that Jesus also describes the created world from the same observational perspective as the other biblical authors.  He says in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This is the same perspective expressed by Job when he says that God “speaks to the sun and it does not shine,” explaining days when the sun does not appear in the sky not just from an observational perspective but also from the standpoint that God actively commands weather phenomenon.  (Jesus is not speaking in poetry or metaphor here.)  And Jesus also appealed to the way things were “from the beginning,” quoting directly from the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman, when he answered a question about divorce.

So it seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus had the same earth-bound perspective as the other biblical authors.  If that was indeed the case, then he couldn’t have been omniscient in his incarnation.  Is that a problem?

Not really.  As I explained in response to a recent comment on this post, “Christians believe that when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, he ’emptied’ himself of certain divine attributes, the ones known as ‘non-communicable’ (in other words, the ones that humans cannot share), which include omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Jesus fulfilled his mission on earth by complete obedience to God, rather than by drawing on powers not available to other humans.”  It may take us a while to wrap our minds around the idea that we today might understand natural phenomena and natural history better than Jesus did when he was on earth, but those seem to be the implications of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

Did the earth’s atmosphere become translucent and then transparent, allowing light and then the sun to become visible on earth?

sun_4ae1db4b5688c

The following is a comment on my earlier post on the question of how there could have been light on the first day of creation when the sun was only created on the fourth day.  Because of its length and detail, the comment is printed here and my response follows.

What a great question. Whilst I don’t believe that Genesis was written as a science textbook, I believe that there should be harmony between what we see in the Bible and what we observe in science. This is because God is the author of both.

One of the most important things one needs to do in scientific research and in Biblical hermeneutics is to determine the frame of reference. I think that it is important that readers of Genesis 1 understand that the days of Genesis come from the Hebrew word “yom” which can mean a very long indeterminate length of time . . . an age.

Furthermore, a change in the frame of reference takes place between Gen. 1:1 [“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”} and Gen. 1:2 [“Now the earth was formless and empty”]. It moves from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth.

The text does not say that light was created in Gen. 1:3 [“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”]. The actual Hebrew word is “hayah” which means to “appear” or to “cause to appear”. According to the best planetary theory the primordial earth had a dense and opaque atmosphere. This is exactly what the Scriptures say. Planetary models describe how the atmosphere slowly cleared and day and night were distinguishable . . . they “appeared”. Later on the atmosphere becomes translucent and then transparent. This explains the sun and moon “appearing” only on creation Day 4. This scientific model is in harmony with what the best science describes.

The rest of Genesis is also completely consistent with science. The establishment of a stable water cycle, the appearance of continents and plants, the clearing of the atmosphere, the appearance of sea animals and birds, followed by land animals and humans. Science tells us that this is the order that these things happened. But the Bible said it first! For an ancient writer to just get one of these creation events correct would be something. But to get them all correct and in the correct order is truly remarkable. The probability of an ancient writer getting the order of the 13 creation events correct is 13 factorial or 1 chance in 6.227 billion.

Don D. Wallar, M.Sc.
President, Toronto Chapter
Reasons to Believe
http://www.reasons.org

Don, thanks so much for sharing your own reflections on the Genesis account.  It’s great to engage these questions with you.

It seems to me that we are approaching the account with different expectations.  You’re expecting that it will be possible to match up its narrative details with the facts of natural history. I’m not necessarily expecting this; rather, I think we need to try to understand the account as a whole from its own perspective and then ask how it speaks to us today.

But this difference in approaches doesn’t mean we can’t talk.  In the Genesis study guide in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series, I invite small group members to state their opinions briefly about how the Genesis creation account  relates to science, but then “leave them at the door” and not debate them, so that the group can explore the text on a literary level. And that’s what you’ve allowed the two of us to do by your references to its literary structure and vocabulary.  Let me then engage each of the points you made.

The meaning of the word “yom.” The basic and most common meaning of the Hebrew word yom is “day.”  In most cases this is an ordinary day.  It’s true that the term can also be used figuratively to mean a longer, even an indeterminate, length of time.  In Deuteronomy, for example, Moses tells the people of Israel to celebrate Passover so that they will always remember “the day of your going forth from the land of Egypt.” The NIV translates this as “the time of your departure,” recognizing that a longer period of time is in view.  The prophets, to give another example, often begin their oracles by saying “In that day,” referring to an indefinite future period.  And so forth.  So how can we tell whether yom means a simple day, or a longer time period?  We have to depend on the context.  And the Genesis account says that for each “day,” “there was evening, and there was morning.”  I take this as an indication from the author that we’re meant to understand these as ordinary days, which the Hebrews considered to begin at sunset.  From the author’s observational perspective, creation looks like six days’ work:  realms are created on the first three days (day vs. night, sky vs. sea, sea vs. land), and these realms are populated on the next three days.  “A place for everything, and everything in its place”:  the account communicates the original order, beauty, and harmony of God’s creation.  But it doesn’t necessarily say that creation took place over a long period covering many ages.

•  Change in reference after the start of the account. Our English translations give us the impression that there is a change in the frame of reference after the opening sentence of the creation account, a change “from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth,” as you put it.  We hear about God creating “the heavens and the earth,” and then the action apparently shifts to the waters of the sea, grass on the ground, etc.  But the words used for “heaven” (shemayim) and “earth” (‘erets) in the opening sentence are actually the very same words used for the “sky” and the “land” everywhere else in the account, for example, “God made lights for the expanse of the sky (shemayim),” “The land (‘erets) produced vegetation,” etc.  So it would be more accurate to translate the opening line of the account this way:  “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  We would then realize that this is a summary of what follows, in the characteristic Hebrew narrative style.  (For example, later in the book of Genesis we’re told in summary, “Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.”  Then we get the details.)  So as I see it, there is no change in the frame of reference.  An earthbound observer is describing “the sky and the land” throughout the whole account.

•  The meaning of the word “hayah.” The Hebrew word for “to appear” is actually ra’ah, “to see,” in the Niphal or reflexive stem meaning “to be seen” or “to appear.”  That’s the word that’s used in the creation account when God says, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”  The word hayah means “to be.”  It can also mean “to become,” that is, “to come into existence,” and that’s what I understand the term to mean with regard to the light of the first day:  “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and the light was (hayah),” that is, light came into existence.  This is not a case of a previously created entity becoming visible.

Even though these considerations related to the vocabulary and structure of the account leave me convinced that it is literally intended but written from an observational perspective, I share your belief that there is an ultimate coherence between scientific discoveries of the wonder and beauty of the created universe and the Bible’s revelation to us of God as Creator.  I happen to believe that these operate on two different levels, while it seems you believe they operate on the same level.  But we both agree that we can learn much about God from what are often called the “two books” of God’s revelation, nature and Scripture.  The fine organization you work with, Reasons to Believe, encourages believers and seekers to reflect with wonder and respect on the universe that God created, and I feel that the Genesis author is doing exactly the same thing, speaking out of an ancient culture to readers down through the ages.

How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

I have a question about the creation account in Genesis:  How could there have been light on the first day when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

SAMSUNGThis is an excellent question that has long puzzled readers of the book of Genesis.  In response to it, some have asserted that the “light” created on the first day was not the light we now see from the sun, but rather something like newly-created matter, or electromagnetic radiation, static electricity, or even a divine light that no longer exists.

But in my view, the simplest explanation is that the light of the first day is the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which remains in the sky after the sun sets, finally fading away until it can be seen no more.  We now know that this light comes from our sun, but the Genesis author apparently believed, writing from an observational perspective, that it was an independent entity that was present before the sun existed, and which appears even on those days when the sun is absent.  This light defined the realm of “day,” just as the dome above the earth defined the realm of “sky” and the gathering together of the waters below constituted the realm of “sea.”  As the Genesis study guide points out, this creation account is about realms and their rulers, and light is introduced as the essential defining characteristic of the first realm to be set off from the primordial darkness and chaos.

When I was in grade school we used to tell this joke:
Q. “Which is brighter, the sun or the moon?”
A.  “The moon, because it shines at night when it’s dark.  The sun only shines during the day, when it’s light anyway!”
In a simple but profound way, this joke captures the naïve observational cosmology of the Genesis account (although it admittedly does not also capture its reverential spirit).

It actually makes good sense, from the perspective of ancient readers, that the “days” of Genesis should be defined on the basis of this light, rather than on the appearance or non-appearance of the sun.  After all, this first light is more reliable than the sun; it always appears in the sky even when the sun does not (due to complete cloud cover, or to dust storms, sand storms, volcanic ash, or something similar).  This obscuring of the sun may, in fact, be what Job was referring to when he said of God, “He commands the sun, and it does not rise” (Job 9:7).  When we don’t understand that the light in the sky comes from the sun, we can picture God having the sun take a “day off” like this from time to time, because even when it’s not visible in the sky, there is always light.

For some readers of the Bible, however, this explanation may solve one problem only to create another.  Light before there was a sun makes sense from an observational perspective, but were the inspired Scriptural writers really writing from such a perspective?  Wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything they wrote was fully accurate scientifically and historically?  I’ll address this concern in my next post.

See here for a detailed comment on this post and a reply.