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In Genesis 1:6, the word "firmament" (Hebrew: raqiya) is referring to what we call the sky. It separates the waters below (oceans, lakes, rivers, etc) from the waters above (where the rain comes from). Just two verses later, we see that God calls the firmament shamayim, which is to say the visible heavens or "sky". Strong's suggests the word means something akin to a vaulted ceiling. However, one can can see the same word raqiya used in Dan 12:3 where it obviously does indicate the sky.

So, why does the text seem to indicate some kind of support for the rain or a background to which the stars are pasted? I don't believe the Hebrews considered the sky to be a solid thing holding up the waters (or the stars). At least not as such. I contend that sometimes the language in the Bible is poetic and we must be careful to not to take things literally that are not meant to be taken that way. Today we might poetically compare the sky to the ceiling of a cathedral. They did not have cathedrals 3,500 years ago but palaces or temples with vaulted ceilings were known to Sumerian/Babylonian and Egyptian architecture so is it likely the original audience would have understood the image that God was using perhaps to inspire to His people who had just left Egypt (and may have built some of those same type ceilings)? Or did they truly believe a fixed, solid expanse existed and God simply spoke to them in the vernacular of their day?

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Walter Kaiser addresses this in "The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?" I'll try to summarize his answer in the next couple of days. – Frank Luke Sep 11 '13 at 13:46

3 Answers 3

Even though many scholars and resources link the Bible's view of the cosmos with other ancient cosmologies, the evidence in the Bible for this is lacking. They talk (usually with diagrams) as if the Bible shows a flat earth (Isaiah 11:12 and Revelation 20:8), capped allegedly with a solid firmament (Genesis 1:7-8 and elsewhere), which was appropriately outfitted with windows in the solid sphere over the top of the earth (Genesis 7:11; 8:2; 2 Kings 7:2; Isaiah 24:18; et al). The whole flat earth and solid firmament were supported by pillars (e.g. 1 Samuel 2:8; Job 9:6), which stretched up past the underworld and the "deep."

R. Laird Harris has shown that each step in this diagram depends more on the scholars' ingenuity than on Scripture.1 In the first place, nowhere does the Bible imply that the raqia' is solid or firm. It is simply an "extended surface" or "expanse." The idea of firmness arises from the Vulgate translation of firmamentum and the Septuagint translation of steroma. Raqia' is used also in Ezekiel 1 and 10 where it means an extended platform or an expanse on which the throne of God is situated. Attempts to translate it as "strip of metal" fall as flat as the attempts to link some sort of hardness in order to match the Hebrew concept with the upper half of Tiamat's body that became the sky in Babylonian mythology.

As for the windows of Heaven, presumably to let in starlight and rain, the creation story never mentions them as such. The first place where the concept of "windows" appear is the flood story. Other things later come through those windows, including "barley" (2 Kings 7:1-2), "trouble" and "anguish" (Isaiah 24:18), and "blessing" (Malachi 3:10).

Summarized from Walter Kaiser's The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?, pp. 75-76. The next page continues on the Biblical cosmology with their views of Sheol, flat earth, shape of the earth, support of the earth, etc.

1R. Laird Harris, "Bible and Cosmology," pp. 11-17; "The Meaning of the World Sheol As Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts," Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society (BETS) 4 (1961): 129-35; and "The Midst, the Canopy, and the Rivers of Eden," BETS 11 (1968): 177-79.

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While nowhere does the Bible explicitly state that the raqia' is solid or firm, there was a longstanding and well established belief regarding cosmology in antiquity which implies it. Acceptance of the idea that The Bible depicts a round earth which orbits the sun requires us to believe that the Bible authors had a secret knowledge about the universe which they referenced no where else and that they described using identical language to other creation stories in the Levant (see same link above) but intended it to be interpreted differently than those other authors. – James Shewey Nov 6 at 5:58
Despite Harris' claim, it requires a great deal more ingenuity to conclude that the author(s) of Genesis meant these same words differently than the rest of the writers in Mesopotamia who used these words to describe the universe in the format you describe in your first paragraph. – James Shewey Nov 6 at 6:00

I think from a purely scientific lens it might seem exactly as you describe it – Sun, Moon and Stars ‘pasted on the surface’ of an arching vault that supports the rain in the sky. However, I think a careful consideration would take a slightly different perspective. The ‘heavens’ is a word with various senses even in Genesis. It may have started to mean the air between the ground and the upper atmosphere acting as a gulf between the ‘waters above and waters beneath’ yet it also seems to have an extended meaning of everything above the earth surpassing the waters above. Not only so but this extension also seems to equate to the very dwelling place of God beyond the realm of the material. All these concepts of heaven and sky seem to be understood before Genesis was written. While looking at the creation there does seem to be reference to the ‘vaulted enclosure’ of air holding the clouds and water up above on the second day, but the wider meaning of the sky extending past to the outer regions of imagination seem to be used in the very first verse where God created all ‘the heavens and the earth’, before arranging the specific relationships of each part.

Another central idea to grasp seems to be that the whole description is according to the view from the human eye viewed from the earth. Thus the way I see it is that what we see is simply explained from how it was made without detailing scientific backgrounds or contradicting them. God made space and earth. He then made an atmosphere to water it in good health. Then he positioned lights to govern days and seasons etc. He did not paste the lights inside the atmosphere; he simply says that he positioned the lights that we see in our atmosphere. We need not be hung up on the word 'in' our amosphere meaning the water is 'behind' since the 'vault' which the Sun was placed is respecting the sky supporting the water and clouds. Rather the word vault in this sense carries a slightly extended meaning as mentioned. In other words, this is all just a simple description of what we see and we are not to imagine that the water is held up by the vault is 'literally behind the Sun'. It means the water held up by the atmosphere is 'usually not blocking our view' of the Sun (i.e it just meant that he Sun was placed in the sky as we obviously see it. We are not to understand these descriptions were necessarily understood as 'scientifically' literal (even if some Hebrews may have speculated such at the time) for although the 'moon rules the night' anybody can see it also sits around in the day, it’s just very pale. Therefore, the description of 'how things were made' in reference to 'how we see them' is not misleading, or revealing scientific secrets. It is only emphatically declaring how it all came to be from our own limited and simple references. The simplicity maintains its majestic and unfathomable origins, unlike the fooleries of similar accounts explained by ancient philosophers getting lost in meaningless debates about the joining of triangles made of water, fire or earth, etc.

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So, in short, you agree that the word used to describe the sky that is literally understood to mean vault is simply figurative. – Mark Anthony Songer Sep 4 '13 at 11:30
Actually I really found this a difficult question and searched over 10 commentaries that did not directly answer the question to my satisfaction. I guess, yes, I arrived at the conclusion that it is slightly figurative based on a literal view of the sky. I mean it even makes sense to me today to think of the atmosphere of many arches of physical air holding up the rain, but this is not to be treated as my literal view. Actually a scientific account might not be very useful in describing what I see. cheers. – Mike Sep 4 '13 at 23:03

Well, they had a primitive understanding of the world.

Under the Wikipedia article "Biblical Cosmology," section "Heavens," sub-section "Form and Structure," it is written,

In the Old Testament the word shamayim represented both the sky/atmosphere, and the dwelling place of God.[28] The raqia or firmament - the visible sky - was a solid inverted bowl over the earth, coloured blue from the heavenly ocean above it.[29] Rain, snow, wind and hail were kept in storehouses outside the raqia, which had "windows" to allow them in - the waters for Noah's flood entered when the "windows of heaven" were opened.[30] Heaven extended down to and was coterminous with (i.e. it touched) the farthest edges of the earth (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:32);[31] humans looking up from earth saw the floor of heaven, which was made of clear blue lapis-lazuli (Exodus 24:9-10), as was God's throne (Ezekiel 1:26).[32]

The following is Gesenius' remarks on the word רָקִיעַ:

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Doesn't that suggest then God was perpetuating this misunderstanding, then, if He intended them to take it literally? I am sure that is not the case. – Mark Anthony Songer Sep 3 '13 at 21:57
You would have had no reason to understand it as anything but literal had you lived 5000 years ago. You only know such a belief is erroneous now, in hindsight, due to the advance of science. Moshe and others wouldn't have questioned it. As far as God perpetuating this misunderstanding...well, I suppose you could say that if you believe the Bible was intended to be a science book. – H3br3wHamm3r81 Sep 3 '13 at 22:37
No, I do not believe the Bible was intended to be a science book, but I do not believe it was intended to perpetuate misunderstandings, either – Mark Anthony Songer Sep 3 '13 at 22:41
@MarkAnthonySonger you can say that it describes events as concepts, or uses exaggeration (which may have just been the way of talking, known not to be understood literally) kind of like a scientist explaining atoms with not 100% percent accurate examples, however they convey the point well. or you can use the bible to question science, as opposed to using science to question the bible ( which isnt a very popular approach in our society). – tryingToGetProgrammingStraight Sep 4 '13 at 2:01
Non sequitur. What does any of that have to do with the topic at hand? – Mark Anthony Songer Sep 4 '13 at 2:09

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