In Genesis 1, God divides the waters from the firmament (הרקיע) What does firmament mean? Does it simply mean sky, as in the blue dome of air above us?
Gen 1:6-8 says (BSB):
And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters, to separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the expanse and separated the waters beneath it from the waters above. And it was so. God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
The two important words here are:
- רָקִ֫יעַ (raqia) translated "expanse" or "firmament". It occurs just 17 times in the OT. (The Brown-Driver-Briggs meaning is listed below.) Many of the occurrences are in Gen 1 where it occurs in the phrase "expanse of the heaves".
- שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim) translated either "sky" or "heavens". It occurs 421 times in the OT. (The Brown-Driver-Briggs meaning is listed below.) Many of the occurrences are in Gen 1 where it occurs in the phrase "expanse of the heaves".
Let us notice several things about these words as they are used in Gen 1 and throughout Genesis:
- The expanse/firmament is what separates the waters above from the waters below (Gen 1:6). This presumably means lakes and rivers separated from clouds and the source of rain above. This refers to the atmosphere.
- The expanse of named as "sky" or "heavens". It is the place where birds fly (Gen 1:20, 21; 26, 28, 30, 2:19, 20). Note that "birds or the air" is literally, "birds of the heavens". This clearly refers to the atmosphere.
- Note the very fine subtlety exercised in describing what happened on day 4 (Gen 1:14-19) where God placed "lights" in the expanse of the sky. The events here are described from the point of view of a terrestrial observer who sees lights in the sky. HOWEVER, note that the author was careful to avoid the idea that the sun and moon (he does not use these words) actually exist in the atmosphere, only their light exists in the atmosphere.
In Genesis 1 and throughout the rest of Genesis, "expanse/firmament" refers to earth's atmosphere, as does "heavens". (Note that there is broader meaning in other places in the Bible, see below, but this is the meaning here.)
APPENDIX 1: Expanse
noun masculine Genesis 1:6 extended surface, (solid) expanse (as if beaten out; compare Job 37:18); — absolute ׳ר Ezekiel 1:22 +, construct ׳רְ Genesis 1:14 +; — ᵐ5 στερέωμα, ᵑ9 firmamentum, compare Syriac below √above; —
1 (flat) expanse (as if of ice, compare כְּעֵין הַקֶּרַח), as base, support (WklAltor. Forsch. iv. 347) Ezekiel 1:22,23,25(gloss ? compare Co Toy), Ezekiel 1:26 (supporting ׳י's throne). Hence (CoEzekiel 1:22)
2 the vault of heaven, or 'firmament,' regarded by Hebrews as solid, and supporting 'waters' above it, Genesis 1:6,7 (3 t. in verse); Genesis 1:8 (called שָׁמַיַם; all P), Psalm 19:2 ("" הַשָּׁמַיַם), ׳זֹהַר הָר Daniel 12:3; also ׳ר הַשָּׁמִיִם Genesis 1:14,15,17, ׳הַשּׁ ׳עַלמְּֿנֵי ר Genesis 1:20 (all P). **רְקִיעַ עֻזּוֺ Psalm 150:1 (suffix reference to ׳י).
APPENDIX 2: Heavens
[שָׁמַי] noun masculine Deuteronomy 33:28 only plural שָׁמַ֫יִם421 (Sta§324 a) heavens, sky (Late Hebrew id.; Assyrian šamû plural šamê, šamûtu, also šamâmu, compare Phoenician שמם; Sabean סמה HomChr 46, 124; Arabic Ethiopic Aramaic שְׁמַיָּא ; Palmyrene, Nabataean שמ(י)ן in proper name (compounded with בעל) Lzb153 GACooke45; on plural form see BaZMG xiii (1888), 341 f.); — absolute ׳שׁ Genesis 1:1 +, מָ֑יִם- Genesis 2:4 +; הַשָּׁמַ֫יְמָה Exodus 9:8 +; construct שְׁמֵי Deuteronomy 10:14 9t.; suffix שָׁמֶיךָ Psalm 8:4 2t., שָׁמָיו Deuteronomy 33:28, שְׁמֵיכֶם Leviticus 26:19, with verb plural, Hosea 2:23; —
- a. visible heavens, sky, where stars, etc., are Judges 5:20; Genesis 15:5 (J), Deuteronomy 4:19; Genesis 1:14,15,17 (P), hence ׳כּוֺכְבֵי הַשּׁ Genesis 22:17 (JE) = 9 t. (usually as countless), ׳(כָּלֿ) צְבָא הַשּׁ Deuteronomy 4:19; Jeremiah 8:2 + ( ׳צ 1c; rarely of angels, ׳צ
1b; before which fowl fly Genesis 1:20 (P), compare Deuteronomy 4:17; Jeremiah 8:7; Proverbs 30:19, ׳עוֺף הַשּׁ Genesis 2:19 (J), Genesis 1:19 (P) + (עוֺף 1), ׳צִמֹּר שׁ Psalm 8:9, ׳נִשְׁרֵי שׁ Lamentations 4:19; as רָקִיע (q. v.) Genesis 1:8 (P), Psalm 19:2, with waters beneath and above Genesis 1:9 (P, compare Genesis 1:7), Psalm 148:4, darkened with clouds 1 Kings 18:45, cleared by wind Job 26:13; whence comes rain Genesis 8:2 (J), Judges 5:4; Deuteronomy 11:11 +, and dew Genesis 27:28 (J), Genesis 27:39 (E), Deuteronomy 33:28 (poem) +. compare ׳בִּרְכֹת שׁ Genesis 49:25 (poem in J), ׳מֶגֶר שׁ Deuteronomy 33:13 (poem), but also (destructive) fire 2 Kings 1:10 (twice in verse); Job 1:16 + (see also 2a below); ׳הֹבְרֵישׁ Isaiah 47:13, i.e. astrologers, compare ׳אוֺתוֺתהַשּׁ Jeremiah 10:2; as high Genesis 11:4 (J), Amos (:2(opposed to שְׁאוֺל), Genesis 11:6 (opposed to אֶרֶץ) +, ׳עַדלֵֿב הַשּׁ Deuteronomy 4:11;as over all the earth, ׳תַּחַת (כָּלֿ)הַשּׁ Genesis 6:17; Genesis 7:19 (both P), Deuteronomy 2:25; Ecclesiastes 1:13 ׳מִתַּחַת וגו (of extermination) Exodus 17:14 (E), Deuteronomy 7:24; Deuteronomy 9:14 +; specifically of Israel, שָׁמֶיךָ Deuteronomy 28:23, שְׁמֵיכֶם Leviticus 26:19 (H); וּבֵין הָאָרֶץ ׳בֵּין הַשּׁ 2 Samuel 18:9 (hung from tree), 1 Chronicles 21:16 (of angel), compare Ezekiel 8:3 (Ezekiel in vision), Zechariah 5:9 (flying ephah); וְעַדקְֿצֵה ׳מִקְּצֵה הַשּׁ ׳הַשּׁ of limits of horizon Deuteronomy 4:32, compare Deuteronomy 30:4; Nehemiah 1:9; Psalm 19:7 as made by God Jeremiah 51:15 (opposed to תֵּבֵל), Psalm 8:4 #NAME? Deuteronomy 11:21; Job 14:12; Psalm 89:30; especiallyוְ(הָ)אָרֶץ ׳(הַ)שּׁ = universe (compare in Sabean, SabDenkmNo.41.42, l.3) Deuteronomy 3:24 Genesis 1:1 (P) + (especially Deuteronomy, Isa2, Psalms), + הַיָם Exodus 20:11; Haggai 2:6, etc., + מַיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ Exodus 20:4= Deuteronomy 5:8,.compare Proverbs 30:4, etc.; opposed to תְּהוֺם Proverbs 8:27 (+ אֶרֶץ Proverbs 8:29) חֲרָשִׁים וְהָאָרֶץ חֲרָשָׁה ׳שׁ as part of future glory Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 66:22.
b. phrases are: ׳אֲרֻבּוֺת הַשּׁ (letting rain through) Genesis 7:11; Genesis 8:2 (P), Malachi 3:10 (figurative), compare ׳בַּשּׁ ׳א ׳הֲיַעֲשֶׂה י 2 Kings 7:2,19, so ׳דַּלְתֵי שׁ Psalm 78:23 (for manna), compare ׳דְָּגַן שׁ, Psalm 78:24, ׳לֶחֶם שׁ Psalm 105:40; ׳מוֺסְדוֺת הַשּׁ 2 Samuel 22:8 ("" הָאָרֶץ; in "" Psalm 18:8 חָרִים ׳מ), ׳עַמּוּרֵי שׁ Job 26:11, ׳חוּג שׁ Job 22:14; towards the sky is הַשָּׁמַ֫יְמָה Joshua 8:20(J), Exodus 9:8,10 (P), Job 2:12; Judges 13:20; Judges 20:40; 2Chronicles 6:13; עַלהַֿשָּׁמַיִם Exodus 9:22,23; Exodus 10:21,22(all E), ׳אֶלשֿׁ Deuteronomy 32:40 (poem), Daniel 12:7, ׳שׁ alone 1 Kings 8:22,54; Job 35:5; Proverbs 23:5. 2. a. as abode of God (׳י) 1 Kings 8:30,32 #NAME? Psalm 2:3; Isaiah 66:1, etc., compare ׳רֹכֵבשׁ Deuteronomy 33:26(poem), Psalm 68:34, whence he rains brimstone Genesis 19:24 (J), bread Exodus 16:4 (E), compare Nehemiah 9:15, casts hailstones Joshua 11:11 (E), talks with Israel Exodus 20:22 (E; Gi Exodus 20:19) +, compare Genesis 21:17; Genesis 22:11,15 (E), looks down Deuteronomy 26:15 +, hears his people Psalm 20:7+ 10 t. Chronicles, etc.; he thunders ׳בַּשּׁ 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 18:14,"" ׳מִןשֿׁ 2 Samuel 22:14; he bends (נטה) ׳שׁ to come down 2 Samuel 22:10= Psalm 18:10, compare Psalm 144:5 and (rend) Isaiah 63:19; ׳נִמְּתְּחוּ הַשּׁ Ezekiel 1:1 in vision of God, compare ׳שַׁעַר הַשּׁ Genesis 28:17 (E; + בֵּית אֱלֹהִים); though even ׳שְׁמֵי הַשּׁ the highest heuvens cannot hold him Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; 2Chron 6:18, 2 Chron 2:5; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 148:4, שְׁמֵי שְׁמֵיקֶֿדֶם Psalm 68:34; he is called ׳אֱלֹהֵי הַשּׁ (post-exilic title) Ezra 1:2 2Chronicles 36:23; + 11 t. Ezra Nehemiah; Jonah 1:9 (compare Aramaic, Daniel 2:18,19,37,44; in Genesis 24:7 add with ᵐ5 וֵאלֹהֵי הָאָרֶץ, as Genesis 24:3), ׳אֵלהַֿשׁ Psalm 136:26; his sword is ׳בַּשׁ Isaiah 34:5, but also his חֶסֶד Psalm 36:6, צֶדֶק Psalm 85:12, אֱמוּנָח Psalm 89:3, his word fixed Psalm 119:89. — ׳שׁ are שָׁמָיו (of Israel) Deuteronomy 33:28 (poem), שְׁמֵיכֶם Leviticus 26:19; שָׁמֶיךָ Psalm 8:4; Psalm 144:5, ׳שְׁמֵי י Lamentations 3:66, קָדְשׁוֺ ׳שׁ Psalm 20:7.
b. Elijah taken up ׳הַשּׁ in whirlwind 2 Kings 2:1, compare 2 Kings 2:11. 3 ׳הַשּׁ personified in various relations Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 2:12; Job 15:15; Psalm 19:2; Psalm 50:6 = Psalm 97:6; Psalm 89:6; Psalm 148:4.
4 מְלֶכֶת ׳הַשּׁ see ׳מ p. 573. I, II. שַׁמָּה see שׁמם. שָׂ֫מָּה see שָׁם. [שְׁמַ֫יִן] noun masculine plural heavens (Biblical Hebrew [שָׁמַי], שָׁמַיִם, √ שׁמה); — always emphatic שְׁמַיָּא:
1 visible sky Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 4:8; Daniel 4:10; Daniel 4:17; Daniel 4:19; Daniel 4:20; Daniel 4:27; Daniel 4:28; ׳עוֺף שׁ Daniel 2:38; ׳צִמֲּרֵי שׁ Daniel 4:9; Daniel 4:18; ׳טַל שׁ Daniel 4:12; Daniel 4:20; Daniel 4:22; Daniel 4:30; Daniel 5:21; ׳רוּחֵי שׁ Daniel 7:2 winds of the sky; ׳עֲנָנֵי שׁ Daniel 7:13; heavens + earth = universe Jeremiah 10:11, where God shews signs Daniel 6:28.
2 heavens as abode of God Daniel 2:28; Daniel 4:31, hence, figurative, as ruling Daniel 4:23 (׳שׁ sometimes = God in Late Hebrew, J, Aramaic, DWorte Jesu 179; Eng.Tr.218 f.); as abode of angels Daniel 4:32 (Dr); elsewhere in phrase ׳אֱלָהּ שׁ Daniel 2:18,19,37,44; Ezra 5:11; Ezra 5:12; Ezra 6:9; Ezra 6:10; Ezra 7:12; Ezra 7:21; Ezra 7:23 (twice in verse), ׳מֶלֶךְ שׁ Daniel 4:34, ׳מָרֵא שׁ Daniel 5:23.
In their book 'The Genesis Flood' Morris and Whitcomb put forward the idea of a 'water canopy' which, prior to the Flood, was a protective (invisible) layer around earth, in the same way as the Kuiper belt, the gas giants and the Oort cloud are protective of the solar system generally and earth in particular.
The water vapour (in the expanse) would have protected against cosmic radiation and its loss may account for the loss of longevity documented in Genesis chapter eleven, after the water layer was relinquished in an alteration that was catastrophic, together with the breaking up of the deep, a water layer in the crust of earth.
The expanse is continuous, it extends outwards continuously, and visibly contains stars.
But there may be an allusion here, with regard to 'waters above' and 'waters beneath'. In all of creation, God has expressed spiritual meaning. The creation is at is because it is he who expresses it.
'Waters above' may be an allusion to the angelic host of heaven, 'waters beneath' being mankind that dwells on earth.
But even more than this, as we see in the book of Revelation, 'waters above' may be a matter of heavenly being, and 'waters beneath' a matter of earthly existence.
The account of creation is not a technical manual, I would say, it is a spiritual expression of what creation is, in essence.