Critics of the Genesis narrative have often argued that it describes a cosmology in which the sky is a solid vault, or an inverted metal bowl, to which are affixed the sun, moon and stars. This interpretation has recently been endorsed in a book titled God, Sky & Land: Genesis One as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It, by two Adventist authors, Fritz Guy, a theologian and former president of La Sierra University, and Dr. Brian S. Bull, a pathologist and former dean of the LLU School of Medicine. Guy and Bull argue that a solid vault is what the original hearers of the Genesis narrative would have understood from the words used, and hence what we should infer as the author's intended meaning. The Hebrew term raqia, the disputed meaning of which is at the heart of our discussion, first appears in Genesis 1:6:
And God said, “Let there be an expanse [raqia] between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse 'sky.' [shemayim] And there was evening, and there was morning —the second day (Gen. 1:6-8, NIV 1984).
The term raqia, here translated as “expanse,” implies something that has been spread out or stretched out; it is a cognate of the verb raqa, which means, “to spread out or stretch out.” No specific material substance is inherent in the term raqia, so just what has been spread out must be determined from the context. The context of raqia in the Genesis narrative does not imply any sort of solid structure. Genesis 1:8 states that God called the raqia shemayim, thus equating the raqia with the “sky” or “the heavens.” The term raqia of the shemayim, or “expanse of the sky” or “expanse of the heavens,” occurs four times in the creation narrative: Gen. 1:14-15,17, 20. Birds are said to fly “in the open expanse of the sky” (Gen. 1:20).
The raqia is just the sky, and, obviously, the sky is not a solid structure. How, then, did anyone ever get the idea that the raqia was a solid structure, such as a vault, a dome, or an inverted metal bowl? Therein, by several strands, hangs a tale.
Many English-speakers have been influenced by the King James Version's translation of raqia, “firmament,” which certainly conveys the idea of something firm and solid. Remarkably, the origins of the word “firmament” go all the way back to the Third Century before Christ. The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, produced around 250 BC by 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, at the behest of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, for inclusion in the famous library of Alexandria. Apparently, these translators were influenced by then-popular cosmological notions that included the idea that the sky was a stone vault. They translated raqia into Greek as stereoma, which connotes a “solid structure.” Over six hundred years later, when Jerome was translating the Hebrew Scriptures into the Latin Bible that would become known as the Vulgate, he was influenced by the Septuagint, and translated raqia into the Latin word firmamentum, meaning a strong or steadfast support. Finally, some 1200 years later, when English scholars were translating the Scriptures into what would become the most influential English Bible—the King James Version---Jerome's Latin term firmamentum was simply transliterated into English as “firmament.”
But the history of the KJV's translation does not explain why any contemporary commentator, familiar with modern scholarship, would argue that the Hebrew term raqia signifies a solid vault. In sources such as the famous Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, it is stressed that:
While this English word is derived from the Latin firmamentum which signifies firmness or strengthening,...the Hebrew word, raqia, has no such meaning, but denoted the “expanse,” that which was stretched out. Certainly the sky was not regarded as a hard vault in which the heavenly orbs were fixed.... There is therefore nothing in the language of the original to suggest that the writers were influenced by the imaginative ideas of heathen nations (1981, p. 67).
So whence comes the idea that the raqia is a solid structure? We need to examine another strand of our story.
In the mid 19th century, Sir Austen Henry Layard found, at a mound near Mosul, Iraq, that turned out to be the site of biblical Nineveh, a treasure trove of clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions. Layard had stumbled onto the ruins of a royal library amassed by the ancient Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. On some of these tablets were found the Babylonian creation story know as the Enuma Elish, thought to have been originally written around 1,100 BC. Around 1890, German Assyriologist Peter Jensen translated the Babylonian word appearing on tablet IV, line 145, as Himmelswölbung (“heavenly vault”). At about this same time, a school of German critics of Scripture began promoting a theory known as “pan-Babylonianism,” which held that most of the Old Testament was written during the Babylonian captivity, and the Jewish writers of Scripture were heavily influenced by Babylonian cosmology. The idea that the Babylonians believed in a vault of heaven, combined with the idea that the Bible writers were influenced by Babylonian cosmology, led to the idea that raqia meant a solid vault. Soon, Hebrew lexicons and Bible commentaries began to reflect this idea that the raqia was a solid vault or dome, likely composed of metal.
Pan-Babylonianism strikes me as an unlikely notion. We are expected to believe that Hebrew scribes, the guardians of the sacred Scriptures that were the core of the Hebrew national identity, would willingly adopt elements of the Babylonian worldview, despite the fact that Babylon was a deadly enemy of the Hebrew nation, had conquered the Hebrews, and had destroyed the most sacred and treasured Jewish building, Solomon’s Temple. Moreover, conservative Christians have long believed that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis around 1,500 BC (before the Enuma Elish was written). If any ancient pagan cosmology could be expected to be reflected in the Genesis narrative, it would be that of ancient Egypt, where Moses was educated, not that of the much later Babylonian civilization.
But even if one accepts the critical, decidedly skeptical theory of pan-Babylonianism, there is little support for the idea that raqia signifies a solid vault or dome. In 1975, when Assyriologist W. G. Lambert re-examined this issue, he found there was no evidence for the idea that the Babylonians conceived of the sky as a solid vault. The only “evidence” was Jensen's apparently unjustified translation of the term in Enuma Elish as “heavenly vault.” Lambert thought there was some support for the notion that the ancient Babylonians viewed the cosmos as a series of flat, superimposed layers of the same size separated by space, held together by rope. But there was no dome or vault in Babylonian cosmology.
The larger and more basic problem with the raqia-as-solid-dome theory is that is assumes that the Bible can reflect only the human wisdom and understanding of its human writers. Whatever the cosmology of the ancient Near East, that cosmology must be reflected in the Scriptures. But this idea ignores the Bible's own claim that all Scripture is inspired by God (theopneustos, literally “God-breathed”) (2 Timothy 3:16). If “holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), then Scripture will reflect more than human wisdom. We err if we assume that it reflects only ancient Near Eastern cosmology.
The attitude we bring to Scripture will ultimately determine where we come out on this issue. If we believe that Genesis reflects only human ideas, then we can build an argument that raqia indicates a solid vault or dome. But if we believe that Scripture was inspired by God, and thus reflects more than human wisdom, then the raqia of Genesis is merely the “expanse of the sky.”