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The Masoretic text of Nehemia 9:6 reads:

אַתָּה־ה֣וּא יְהֹוָה֮ לְבַדֶּ֒ךָ֒ את אַתָּ֣ה עָשִׂ֡יתָ אֶֽת־הַשָּׁמַ֩יִם֩ שְׁמֵ֨י הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וְכׇל־צְבָאָ֗ם הָאָ֜רֶץ וְכׇל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ הַיַּמִּים֙ וְכׇל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּהֶ֔ם וְאַתָּ֖ה מְחַיֶּ֣ה אֶת־כֻּלָּ֑ם וּצְבָ֥א הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לְךָ֥ מִשְׁתַּחֲוִֽים

CSB, ERV, HCSB, ICB, ISV, NABRE, NCV, NET, NIRV, NIVUK, adn WYC all translate "the highest heavens" for "שְׁמֵ֨י הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם", while other translations (ESV, NASB, KJV, JPS) have "the heaven of heavens" which seems to be more literal. Why do some translations choose "the highest heavens" instead?

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    I do not understand your reference (in the body of your question) to - repeatedly - 'the highest heavens'. Is this a text ? My own understanding from scripture is that there is heaven which is seen (sun, moon and stars); there is the invisible heaven of spirit beings (principalities and powers) and there is the heaven of heavens, or highest heaven, which is where God dwells. – Nigel J Dec 1 '18 at 19:15
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This expression must be compared with similar ones, like "the song of songs" or "the king of kings" (a title for Assyrian and Persian kings, also found in Ezra 7:12; Ezekiel 26:7; Daniel 2:37). There are many more examples, also extra-biblical. "The X of Xs" is a common Semitic expression to denote the most X-like X. It is a way to express the superlative in a language that does not have it as a morphological category.

Thus, what literally means "the heavens of the heavens" really means "the most heavenly heavens". It depends on what the translator finds the most prototypical feature whether they translate "the highest heavens", "the heavenliest heavens", "the godliest heavens", etc. "the heavens of the heavens" is just a calque (a direct translation, in this case disregarding the idiom).

The other issue here is that the heavens are plural (thus "the heavens of the heavens" in contrast to "the king of kings"). But this is because in the common Mesopotamian world-view, the heaven is made up of three parts. Because of this, שׁמי always occurs in the plural, as I explained elsewhere. This is in principle unrelated to the idiom "the X of Xs". Translations that render "heaven of heavens" are interpreting this plural as a singular to match the modern western world-view.

This common world-view, with separate layers of heavens, presumably influenced translations rendering "the highest heavens", because the highest heaven would be where God resides.

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Perhaps the closest answer I can give is that in Matthew 6:9, where Christ taught the model of prayer to the inquisitive disciples:

"In this manner, therefore, pray: our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name."

"Ouranous" is the Greek word used for "heaven". It is understood as the highest of heavens, or the place in heaven where God the Father resides. So basically, His heavenly HQ/nerve center.

When looking at Nehemiah 6:9 a similar definition is given - albeit in Hebrew - with the highest of heavens being God's abode.

And since Nehemiah was a Jew and Jews wrote only for one anothers' understanding, that phrase in Nehemiah 9:6 refers to the definition mentioned above.

https://biblehub.com/greek/3772.htm https://biblehub.com/hebrew/8064.htm

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    Good comment , Phililp! Then if we were to alliterate the answer, the levels of heaven could be called 1) the Atmospheric heaven, or the heaven of the Atmosphere 2) the Astronomic heaven, or the heaven of the Astronomer, and (3) the Abode of the Almighty – Jck Gutknecht Dec 4 '18 at 12:34
  • Heeeeey that's a pretty good way of looking at it! In Genesis 1, the astronomic (v. 1) and atmospheric (v. 8) were both created. – Philip Dec 4 '18 at 14:30

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