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Genesis 1:20 reads:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יִשְׁרְצ֣וּ הַמַּ֔יִם שֶׁ֖רֶץ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֑ה וְעֹוף֙ יְעֹופֵ֣ף עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ עַל־פְּנֵ֖י רְקִ֥יעַ הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ (WLC)

Which translates as:

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth עַל־פְּנֵ֖י רְקִ֥יעַ of the heavens.” (ESV)

The phrase עַל־פְּנֵ֖י רְקִ֥יעַ, literally something like "on the faces of the expanse," seems to be especially difficult to translate without referencing some outside cosmology since it doesn't make a lot of sense literally. (To clarify, when I say literally, I am thinking of "face" as the surface of something solid. E.g., walking on the face of the earth. Thinking of something like "fish swimming on the face of the waters" will perhaps clear up why I have trouble understanding the phrase literally.)

The King James chooses "in the open firmament" which is updated in the NASB to "in the open expanse." However, other most translations render is rather differently. The ESV and NET have "across the expanse" while the NIV has "across the vault [of the sky]" and the "across the dome [of the sky]."

Presumably ancient people has eyes and could see birds (or "flying creatures") flew up and down and thus not on the "face" (surface) of a possibly firm barrier that divided the waters (see Gen 1:6-8). As such, the phrase, it seems, must be idiomatic, as all translations take it. But, what clues do we have as to how the phrase is being used? I would prefer an answer that doesn't presuppose the account backs a certain cosmology - either the modern one of the "typical" Ancient Near East one. (I would also consider an alternate argument that the phrase is using "poetic license" and thus not an idiom per se.)

8

They fly across the expanse of the heavens.

The word פָּנִים pānîm (lit. "faces") is used in "frozen union" with certain prepositions to form constructions that function syntactically as prepositions, linking a verbal idea to a noun.1 That is, they allow a noun to specify something about the nature of the verb. This is no different from other prepositional phrases when used adverbially.

The "complex preposition" here is עַל־פְּנֵי (ʿal–pĕnê), literally "on the faces of" but functionally a preposition that is often translated "before" or "in front of".2 It is specifying the relationship between the jussive "let them fly" and the noun phrase, "the expanse of the heavens." The semantic range of the preposition is (as noted by the OP) broad, typical for prepositions. The BDB formulation is helpful (top left column of page 819, italics original):

Gn 1:20 let fowl fly על־פני רקיע השׁמים in front of the firmament of heaven, viz. as looked up to from below, i.e. between the firmament and the earth.

To me, accepting this sense of it acknowledges a phenomenological description without assuming a specific cosmology. The related translations "before" or "across" don't seem to me to be substantially different3 — all assume a spectator looking up from the earth, noting the existence of an expanse above, and observing birds moving along a visible plane that is presumed to be related in an expected way to the expanse.


1. Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, (Eisenbrauns, 1990).

2. “פנה”, sub-entry D.8. Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999). Note that the same combination of words occurs in 1:2 and 1:29. For these, the lexicons indicate that they are not strictly uses of the compound preposition but idioms using "face" to indicate "surface", and many English versions translate accordingly. In any case, this is not far separated from the sense of the preposition.

3. Both are included within the semantic range of this preposition in HALOT.

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