FIRMAMENT: DOME OR ATMOSPHERE?

The Hebrew word raqi‘a is used 9x in the Genesis 1 creation account.  It is also used twice in Psalms, 5x in Ezekiel, and once in Daniel.  The raqi‘a is the focal point of the second day of creation: “Let there be a raqi‘a in the midst of the waters” to separate the waters above from the waters below, “and God called the raqi‘a Sky/Heaven.”  In Psalm 19:1, raqi‘a and “the heavens” are equated, paired there as poetic synonyms.  In Psalm 150:1, God’s raqi‘a is paired poetically with “his sanctuary.”  Daniel 12:3 pairs this same raqi‘a with the domain of the stars.

Ezekiel’s use of raqi‘a may or may not refer to the same heavenly part of creation.  In the context of his vision of what almost appear to be spaceships, Ezekiel sees a raqi‘a (without the definite article “the” when it is first mentioned), with a throne above it, someone seated on it, and a voice that comes from there (Ezek 1:22-26, 10:1).  Whether or not this is meant to be the universal heavenly canopy created in Genesis 1 is not entirely clear.

The use of the Greek stereĊma and the Latin firmamentum to translate raqi‘a has led to the persistent claim that what God creates above the earth on the second day of creation is a solid dome.  This has led to 2 different ways to understand the language used here.  One is to conclude that that the Biblical narrator and audience were hopelessly prescientific slobs who really believed that the sky was a solid dome.  The other approach is to understand the language as poetic and based on appearances, much as even modern scientists may refer to Mother Nature and sunrise.

Claims that the ancient Semitic world believed in such a dome separating the earthly and heavenly domains have been debunked by cuneiform scholars W.G. Lambert and Wayne Horowitz.  One must travel several centuries after Genesis to the Greeks to find belief in a solid dome over the earth, and even this turns out to be one of several concentric solid spheres.  It is perhaps this Greco-Roman belief that influenced the translations of the Septuagint and Vulgate toward the notion of a “firmament.”  Yet even by the time of Basil, Christian scholars began to question how solid that object that separates us from space really was.  So the notion of “firmament” as the way to translate raqi‘a is the result of bad Greco-Roman science.

But there is a better way to translate raqi‘a.  The better option is to call it an “expanse.”  The reason why is to be found in the meaning of the verbal root on which the noun is based.  The verb raqa‘, used 11x in the Hebrew Bible, means to hammer thin, to stamp, and/or to spread.  It is used for the manufacture of gold leaf in Exodus 39:3.  In Numbers 17:4, Eleazar hammers bronze censers into a covering for the ark.   In 2 Samuel 22:43, David sings, “I crushed them, I stomped (or spread?) them like the mud of the streets.”  Psalm 136:6 says that God “spread the earth upon the waters” (similarly, Isaiah 42:5 and 44:24).  Isaiah 40:19 speaks of an artisan “overlaying” an idol with gold.  Jeremiah 10:9 refers to “beaten” silver.  And Ezekiel 6:11 and 25:6 both speak of “stomping” one’s feet.

Those who believe the raqi‘a to be a solid dome point to the verb’s use in metallurgy as evidence that the “firmament” is to be understood as a hard metal dome or vault (thus the entries in Holladay and Koehler-Baumgartner).  The one verse lending support to this argument is Job 37:18: “Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?” (NRSV)  But almost every word in this verse is open to being read differently.  A better translation might be, “Can you, like him, spread out the clouds, strong (or mighty), like a display that has been poured out?”

There is less about solidity in this verbal root raqa‘, than there is about thinness.   Raqa‘ means to spread out material very thin.  So “expanse” becomes a far superior translation for raqi‘a, whether or not one chooses to see that expanse as solid or otherwise.  We don’t need to see the Biblical picture of the sky as if it were a dome with windows to hold back an ocean of water from above.  “Windows” and the raqi‘a never appear together, and the language of “windows” is arguably not intended to be literal.   As Younker and Davidson write, “One of the great ironies in recreating a Biblical cosmology is that scholars have tended to treat figurative usages as literal (such as Psalms and Job), while treating literal passages, such as Genesis, as figurative.”

Could one not see the atmosphere as that expanse or thin separation that God has created between earth and space?  At the risk of being accused of reading into the Bible what one wants to find there, I would suggest that “expanse” is far more linguistically sound, consistent with the Biblical uses of the word, and both scientifically and theologically tenable.  Such an approach also avoids condescension – it shows far more respect for the Biblical authors.  You know, what they say is sometimes more profound than what they themselves could have grasped. 

NEXT WEEK:  “IRON AGE SUPER MOM: THE WOMAN OF HAYIL”

Rev. Tom Hobson, Ph.D., is Assistant Pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (ECO), Chesterfield, MO, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?