The King James version (as well as many other versions in various languages) states in Genesis 1:8 -

And God called the firmament Heaven.

The wording in the American Standard version is exactly the same. However, here's what some other versions have to say about this:

New International Version: God called the vault "sky."

New Living Translation: God called the space "sky."

English Standard Version: And God called the expanse Heaven.

New American Standard Bible: God called the expanse heaven.

Why?

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    Two changes are going on: firmament->vault/space/expanse and heaven->sky. But firmament is not being changed to sky. – curiousdannii Nov 18 '15 at 0:43
  • Same difference. – Ricky Nov 18 '15 at 0:47
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    I think the question is asking why the name given to the firmament is changed from "Heaven" to "sky". – Matt Gutting Nov 18 '15 at 0:48
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    @Ricky It really isn't. No translation changed the word "firmament" into "sky". – curiousdannii Nov 18 '15 at 0:48

Firmament

The primary reason the word "firmament" has been updated in modern translation (using the term "changed" is incorrect - new translations start with the original language, not the KJV text) is because language changes. While the word was an ordinary one in 1611 meaning something like

The arch or vault of heaven overhead, in which the clouds and the stars appear; the sky or heavens. (Oxford English Dictionary)

it is now used almost exclusively in connection with the Biblical account of creation. As such, the word has taken on connotations of what people think the Bible authors meant. With such connotations often derived from ideas expressed by other Ancient Near East cultures, ideas which were not necessarily shared by the Hebrew people.

The Hebrew word in question is רָקִיעַ (raqiyaʿ; root רקע, rqʿ ). It literally means something more like "expanse" or "extended surface", deriving from the verb רָקַע (raqa) which means "to beat, stamp, or spread out". Figuratively it is used for "the vault of Heaven." (Brown-Driver-Briggs)

Heaven

The word translated as "Heaven" by the King James and "sky" by some modern translations is שָׁמָיִם (shamayim). The word usually means "sky" or "heavens", but sometimes the abode of God (i.e. "Heaven"). (Brown-Driver-Briggs)

Modern translators correctly understand that God is not creating his abode here, but rather the sky, as the context makes it clear the creation of the parts of the Earth is what is being described. The King James translators probably understood this too, but were influenced by the theology of their day which did not see a difference between the place beyond the visible sky and Heaven. Thus, they chose the more powerful word choice.

The modern understanding of Heaven not being "up there in the sky" makes "Heaven" an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew, which is clearly talking about the physical sky in some sense. (Not all modern translations have chosen to make this update, though, as "heaven(s)" can still mean "sky" in some usages.)

Verse meaning & translation

In Hebrew, then, verses 7 and 8 are basically saying God created the sky-like stuff and called it sky, but it a much more elegant way. Translators are tasked with translating this in an intelligent way that both retains a distinction between the creation action and what the creation was then called and uses sufficiently elegant language. In 1611, firmament was a good choice because it was a normal, semi-poetic word for arch of the sky. In 2015, firmament is a poor choice because the word is mostly archaic and has connotations that the Hebrew does not support. Thus, translators have variously picked "expanse," "vault," or "space" to express the idea conveyed in the creation act, believing such words capture the idea without the confusing (to a modern reader) use of an archaic word.

  • Good answer. The problem with this logic, though, is the fact that it only took science 2,500 to realize that the way an electromagnetic wave behaves is only possible inside a solid body. Strange but true. – Ricky Nov 18 '15 at 6:04
  • @Ricky I'm not sure what logic you refer to - my only argument is that the meaning of words change. I did not attempt to describe the nature of sky, nor does the Hebrew original. The Hebrew word is an ordinary one and was translated as an ordinary word in 1611 and by modern translations. The technical connotations that the word "firmament" has taken on are due to its usage in the Bible, not something inherent to (or denied by) the Hebrew. – ThaddeusB Nov 18 '15 at 15:36
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    I agree that this is basically a question about English and not about Hebrew. I would maintain that literate/educated people in Britain, and perhaps even in America, know the word "firmament". Unfortunately, some modern Bible translators think that they need to cater to the illiterate. – fdb Nov 18 '15 at 21:48
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    @fdb Why wouldn't you cater to the average reader of the language you're translating it for? And the more obscure a word, the more likely that even when people know of the word they will misunderstand it. – curiousdannii Nov 19 '15 at 0:54
  • Your suggestion that the biblical authors were speaking figuratively about the firmament and heaven is incorrect. Gen.1 describes their cosmology as they understood it literally. Modern translations of 'space' and 'sky' obscure the original meaning and original cosmology, described here: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/24765/6884 – Schuh Aug 20 '16 at 19:05

No one changed "firmament" to "sky". Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Hebrew source word is raqiya, which signifies something thin and stretched out. (To get a sense of the imagery involved, raqiya was used to refer to gold leaf, among other things.) There are many who believe that the Hebrew text is direct revelation of literal truth. Without getting into such claims, it's worth noting that in this specific case it's a surprisingly accurate description of the atmosphere, which is incredibly thin compared to the diameter of the Earth.

The word firmament denotes something quite different, almost diametrically opposite. It contains the word "firm" and that's not a coincidence; the KJV translators essentially ignored the meaning of raqiya because it didn't fit their conception of the sky--which draws heavily on Greek philosophy--being comprised of a solid crystal dome above the surface of the Earth. Such a dome would certainly be a firm-ament, but it bears little resemblance to either the actual Hebrew text or the scientific truth as we now know it.

As beautiful as the King James Version text is, this is one specific place in which the translators really dropped the ball, and newer versions are correct to render the "firmament" as "sky" or "expanse".

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    Except none of the translations quoted do render it "sky", that's the name given to the vault/space/expanse. Sky is being used as an alternative to "heaven". – curiousdannii Nov 18 '15 at 2:48
  • Actually, the KJV reflects the Hebrew conception of the universe as being enclosed within a solid superstructure. It's our modern view of the universe that's new, and you seem to be imposing that back on the text. – Schuh Aug 20 '16 at 23:53

Above us only sky?

I understand the OP to be asking why the firmament was given a specific name in v.8, and secondarily, why various translations render the Hebrew words differently.

Briefly, while ‘firmament’ is now a synonym for ‘the heavens’ and so could suggest a redundancy in Gen.1:8 in the KJV, in the 16th century it was a type of thing, not a specific thing. ‘Firmament’ comes from the Latin firmamentum which the Vulgate used for the Greek stereoma in these verses, meaning a ‘firm or solid structure’. Firmaments were literally firm: the Hebrew root word means ‘beaten’, ‘to spread out by hammering’, like gold plating or iron.

So according to the ancient Hebrew cosmology underlying this story, a solid structure (raqiya' in Hebrew) held the watery chaos of the primordial cosmic ocean at bay. The 'firmament' of Gen.1 was thus not the inner atmosphere as we conceive it: it was the dome superstructure inside of which God created the universe as they conceived it, both heaven and earth.

The Genesis author wrote that God called this dome ‘shamayim’, traditionally rendered here as ‘heaven’ (Gen.1:8). This is a correct English translation, in my view, because Hebrew tradition as preserved in scripture held that in addition to being the expanse above we call ‘sky’ and ‘space’, shamayim was ALSO the dwelling place of God. They believed God literally looked down on them from heaven above, which was also the place from which came rain, hail, and lightning. It is unclear whether later biblical writers, like most people today, understood God’s ‘heavenly’ abode poetically or metaphorically or removed to a spiritual dimension altogether. But the ancient Near Eastern worldview reflected in Gen.1 described God as creating a dwelling among the clouds and stars above, literally.

The English word ‘heaven’ in Gen.1 retains, or at least allows, for this ancient worldview. Using the word ‘sky’ for shamayim (e.g. NIV, NLT, NET, HCSB) strips the ancient story of its original cosmology and secularizes ‘the heavens’ to align with later theological and scientific understandings. A similar anachronistic accommodation is made by translations that render 'erets (literally, ‘land’) as ‘earth’ which has, since c.1400, suggested a cosmology wholly at odds with that of the biblical authors.

Gen.1 is a case where readers unfamiliar with Hebrew cosmology will only get half the story – if you don’t understand their universe, you won’t understand their creation story. My preference would be that translators leave such texts ambiguous or confusing rather than edit-out archaisms that would at least signal to alert readers that there's more here than meets the untrained eye.

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