Firmament Genesis 1 Solid sky

Genesis 1:6 and the Firmament


One of the challenges in reading Genesis 1 as a literal account of exactly what God did is the firmament.  The subject raises intense debate because many modern and (seemingly all) ancient scholars believe the Hebrew indicates a solid dome rather than an expanse (or sky).  This creates enormous trouble for the literalist and passionate comments as a result.  However the original readers had no such trouble.

This understanding of the sky as a solid entity holding back water was consistent with the conceptions of ancient people.  Commenting on the firmament, Bro Wilfred Lambert (a noted Assyriologist) drew a specific comparison to the Arkkadian creation myth “Enuma Elish” which has a similar sky barrier holding up water:

“All water known to man either comes down from the sky or up from the ground. Hence, the sky must be water. The first chapter of Genesis provides the closest parallel to the division of cosmic waters. On the second day of the week of creation, God put a ‘firmament’ between the upper and lower waters, which corresponds to the ‘skin’ in Enūma Eliš IV 139[1]

Similarly the Egyptians understood the sky as a solid barrier:

the sky, depicted by Nut’s body, was believed to be somewhat solid to the extent that Nut’s body is able to hide the sun during the night. Likewise, the sky is able to restrain the waters above from invading the earth. Yet there were also holes in the canopy—stars—through which the sun shone during the night. Moreover, some Egyptians may have thought that the sky was made of polished iron (the Egyptian equivalent of “firmament” is bia, and “iron” is biat)[2]

The Septuagint translators used a word meaning solid and are accused by conservatives of having fallen captive to Alexandrian science and compromising their translation by modern conservatives.  This is a significant slur against translators who were far closer to the original language than we are.  In fact the LXX translators are stated by translators today to have made a remarkably faithful copy, the general view is “the predominant characteristic of LXX Genesis is to conserve its presumed Vorlage[3] and further on this specific issue Scarlata notes:

There are also a number of calques and loan-words in the Greek text of Genesis. Some of these include διαθήκη (= ברית) ‘covenant’, κύριος (= יהוה) ‘Lord’, and στερέωμα (= רקיע) ‘firmament’.[4]

Ie rather than melding in Greek science, the Hebrew translators invented Greek words where necessary to do the job.  Criticising the LXX is even braver considering the LXX was regularly quoted by New Testament writers – what better endorsement could be given of the work generally?!

In commentating on Genesis, Josephus described God as placing “a crystalline [firmament] round it[5].  Philo (another first century Jewish writer) described it as the solid barrier between God’s realm and the physical world we know, saying “the first portion of it, being also the most excellent of all made by the Creator, was the heaven, which he truly called the firmament, as being corporeal; for the body is by nature firm”[6]This was and remained the Jewish understanding for centuries, along with the early Christian understanding (as witnessed by the various early writings we possess).   

Until science provided the model of cosmology we understand today, Bible readers and translators were united in reading firmament/raqia as a solid sky.  Tyndale and Luther, both respected translators, went for firmament/solid just as science was starting to demonstrate otherwise.  Luther for his part roundly condemned the new-fangled ideas which contradicted Scripture:

Indeed, it is more likely that the bodies of the stars, like that of the sun, are round, and that they are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night, each according to its endowment and its creation…we must believe them and admit our lack of knowledge rather than either wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding[7]

A detailed analysis is conducted by a non-Christadelphian, Paul Seely in the following paper:   The scriptural argument presented is convincing.  Essentially this demonstrates Genesis 1 was written in a way which accommodated the various misunderstandings of the surrounding world – a fact that shouldn’t challenge our understanding and faith in the inspiration of the Word.

Post science, the understanding of firmament/raqia amended in most texts to ‘expanse’ despite the lack linguistic justification for the change.  This was not universally adopted, some scholars like Gesenius maintained the ancient view of the word as per below:

רָקִיע”ַ m. Gen. 1:6, 7, 8; Psalm 19:2; fully רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם Gen. 1:14, 15, 17, 20, etc. the firmament of heaven, spread out like a hemisphere above the earth (from the root רָקַע), like a splendid and pellucid sapphire (Ex. 24:10, compare Dan. 12:3), to which the stars were supposed to be fixed, and over which the Hebrews believed there was a heavenly ocean (Gen. 1:7; 7:11; Ps. 104:3; 148:4; compare, however, Gen. 2:6). LXX. στερέωμα. Vulg. firmamentum. Luth. Befte“.[8]

This is consistent with the research of modern scholars and nicely supported with scriptural quotes (unlike conservatives who try and make the word mean ‘expanse’ with disregard for scriptural usage).

However, even if we consider for a moment (despite the indications of normal Bible study) the literalist explanation of firmament (Heb raqia) = expanse = atmosphere it raises many problems:

  • What is the water above the expanse in Gen 1:7? (Note clouds is not a good answer if you try and force the word firmament to mean atmosphere as clouds are not above the atmosphere & vary their height.  Plus the waters above are described with a Hebrew word which differs to the Hebrew for clouds, mists and vapours etc.  Other passages in scripture maintain the view of waters being ABOVE the firmament cp Psa148:4 and Psa104:3, consistent with the view of other ancient cultures and the blue colour of the sky but contrary to the facts we now understand)
  • Why are the lights put into the expanse in Gen 1:14 – meaning they are under the waters which are above the expanse? (note if the argument is phenomenal then the stars don’t appear to be in the air)
  • How could there be no atmosphere prior to Day 2 ie only 6,000-10,000 years ago? There clearly was an atmosphere for the “pre-Adamic creations” of the Old earth creationist. Gravity would retain the atmosphere so not having one is challenging…
  • There is a well-known issue with the sun being created on Day 4, but light and day/night commencing on Day 1. The usual explanation is that the sun was blocked out by thick vapours/clouds[9].  However if firmament actually means the expanse/atmosphere, how were these vapours/clouds supported?
  • Why does the earth show an unbroken pattern of climate/seasons stretching well back beyond 10,000 years?
  • Why do birds fly on the face of the firmament in Gen 1:20 – how could birds fly on the face of the atmosphere? (By contrast, birds do fly in the heavens/sky in Deut 4:17 just never “in the firmament”).

The literal reading of Gen 1 just in this word firmament/raqia is problematic.  To reference Bro Walker (who 104 years ago did not accept evolution) – perhaps we should “revise somewhat our interpretation of the brief cosmogony of Gen. 1.; but should not waver as concerning its divinity[10].


[1] Lambert, W. G. (2013) Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns), 171.[1]

[2] Crouser, W. (2016). Cosmology. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[3] Scarlata, M. W. (2015). Genesis. In J. K. Aitken (Ed.), The T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint (p. 21). London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury.

[4] Scarlata, M. W. (2015). Genesis. In J. K. Aitken (Ed.), The T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint (p. 17). London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury.

[5] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 29). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[6] Yonge, C. D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1995). The works of Philo: complete and unabridged (p. 6). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

[7] Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan, Concordia Pub. House, St. Louis, Missouri, 1958, pp. 30, 42, 43

[8] Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P. (2003). Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (p. 780). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[9] Eg Mansfield, G “Genesis Expositor”  Logos Publications Page 34 (1992)

[10] Walker, “Genesis” The Christadelphian, 47(electronic ed.), 501 (1910)

4 thoughts on “Genesis 1:6 and the Firmament

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