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?

  • 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
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 13:46

8 Answers 8


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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    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. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 6:00
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    Frank even if i would agree that the evidence in the bible is lacking i would still choose to interpret it in this way since it is known what the ancients believed and how they viewed the world, and there is no reason to assume that the Israelites were any different when it came to cosmology. As for the divine inspiration aspect nothing is at stake here since the bible is not a science book and was never intended to be one.
    – bach
    Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 14:43

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. Furthremore, the the "firm" nature of the firmament is inherent in the word רָקִ֖יעַ itself. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament shows that the word רָקִ֖יעַ (raqia; H7549) derives from the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ, the spread out, stamp out or down (as with a foot) or hammer out. This itself derives from the Akkadian word for metal bowl or kettle.


The sky dome would then have been understood as being firm based on this word alone. To interpret the firmament otherwise would require a complete rejection of the Lexicon - including older less reliable Lexicons like the BDB.

Acceptance of the idea that The Bible depicts a round earth which orbits the sun with a "soft" atmosphere requires us to believe that the Bible authors had a secret knowledge about the universe which they referenced nowhere else and that they described using identical language and vocabulary to other creation stories in the Levant but intended it to be interpreted differently than those other authors.

The Genesis creation and flood stories appear to be a polemic corrective to the other creation and flood stories in the Ancient Middle East. In that vein, should Biblical authors have had a different cosmology, we would expect to see that hammered home (pun intended) in the polemic. Instead we see the same vocabulary of the surrounding cultures and no discussion about things like heliocentricism and creation ex-nihilo.

The other major point at which we would expect to see this discussion is in the Talmudic wrestlings with Plato's work. We simply don't see that.

While I may not have a fancy diagram to show, I do have this depiction of the world from the Babylonian Imago Mundi (c. 500 BC) which is the oldest map of the world known to exist

Imago Mundi

This map depicts a Pangea-like disc shaped continent floating in an ocean. Were one to depict a benben or the primordial primordial mound seen in nearly all the creations stories, it would most certainly look something like this.

A map with translations of the labeled points of interest is as follows:

Translation of the Imago Mundi

I am unable to find a translation of the inscription at the top, but did find that it indicates the map is a copy of an even older map. This is significant because the final redactor of genesis (under JEPD theory) is typically dated to the same era as this map (c. 500BC) yet the writers of Genesis 1 and the redactor did not see fit to correct the Babylonian misunderstanding of cosmology - indicating they did not see a misunderstanding.

Similarly, Gensis 2 and 3 appear to be (primarily) a polemic corrective to Egyptian creation myths. Tradition holds that Moses wrote it after the Exodus, the most likely date for which is some time during the 18th dynasty (BC 1549-1292). Therefore, the fact that we have a depiction of the firmament from Egyptian Creation myth on the Tomb of Seti I (1290–1279 BC) is extremely important.

From the Tomb of Seti I
Tomb of Seti I

Copy of above from the Book of Nut
Book of Nut

From the Coffin of Priestess Amon Gautsesjen (C. 1070-712BC)
Geb (earth) and Nut (sky) being held up by Shu (air)
Coffin of Priestess Amon Gautsesjen

Copy of above from the Book of Nut
Book of Nut

These depictions are from earlier written inscriptions dating back at least to the Pyramid of Unas in the 5th Dynasty (2360 BC) and probably earlier.

If the Hebrews had some secret knowledge about the correct cosmology of the universe, they did not see fit to discuss or correct the Egyptian viewpoint - even during their enslavement in Egypt.

Therefore in all likelihood it is because they did not view their world any differently from the cultures they lived in. They did, in fact believe that a fixed, solid dome existed above them just like all of the other cultures around them. While some like R. Laird Harris may believe that this is the result of scholars' ingenuity, it is Harris who is engineering an interpretation that simply isn't there - we don't have a single shred of evidence supporting Harris view. This is why the overwhelming majority of scholars link the Bible's view of the cosmos with other ancient cosmologies - because the evidence against this view is lacking (significantly more so than the alternative).

While an allegorical interpretation of this might be tempting, we simply don't see any evidence for that either. The ancient people came up with their cosmology through observational science - observing what things looked like and then guessing what they might be. The firmament cosmology is a logical conclusion of that limited way of looking at the world. Simply put, If it looked like a duck and walked like a duck and talked like a duck - it must have been a duck. Unless all creation stories were thought be be allegorical, it is unlikely that this one was also.


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.

  • So, in short, you agree that the word used to describe the sky that is literally understood to mean vault is simply figurative. Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 11:30
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    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
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 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:

enter image description here

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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. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 21:57
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    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.
    – user862
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 22:37
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    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 Commented Sep 3, 2013 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). Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 2:01
  • Non sequitur. What does any of that have to do with the topic at hand? Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 2:09

Genesis 1:6-8 makes it clear that the firmament was given the name "heavens" by God (v. 8), which formed a separation between the "waters" beneath: those that became the realm of earthly things, i.e. land and seas and living things (vv. 9-13); from the "waters" above: those that became the realm of celestial things, i.e. sun, moon and stars (vv. 14-19).

It should be noted that הַ/מַּ֨יִם֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ מִ/תַּ֣חַת לָ/רָקִ֔יעַ, "the waters beneath the firmament" in verse 7, are immediately referred to as הַ/מַּ֜יִם מִ/תַּ֤חַת הַ/שָּׁמַ֨יִם֙ "the waters beneath the heavens in verse 9. So, we have here "the heavens" and "the firmament" declared as synonymous terms.

Modern science confirms the existence of this firmament, a "solid" barrier between what lies beneath it and what lies above. To the ancients the firmament was like an invisible canopy surrounding the earth, but we know it better as the outer layers of the Earth's atmosphere (those above the stratosphere - see Step-by-step guide to the atmosphere). That it is "solid" is testified to by:

  • the need of re-entering space vehicles to approach at a specific angle to avoid what in layman's terms is referred to as, "bouncing off the atmosphere".

  • the use of the higher layers of the atmosphere to "bounce" radio signals back to Earth.

The language in Genesis is not poetic, but literal. The capacity of the one to whom God revealed the vision of creation to comprehend what he was being shown, is understandably not as great as it is for a man now.

The "firmament" of Genesis refers to what we know today as "the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere".


Confirming Frank Luke statement about the meaning of the Hebrew term רקיע as 'an expansion', I would add that the firmness of this object (according LXX and Vulgate) has been misunderstood.

First, the Hebrew text (of Gen 1:6) has no reference about a firmness of the רקיע. Second, the LXX and the Vulgate testimony regarding the firmness of the 'expansion' has another sense.

In fact, we are not obliged to see always a physical firmness of the object 'expansion' (רקיע). In Greek language στερεωμα derived from the verb στερεoω, that has also the meaning of "to be firmly established". We have a clue of this meaning - for example - in 1 Sam 2:1 (1Kin 2:1,LXX). There, the term used by Hannah - concerning her heart - is εστερεωθη. Clearly, she refers not to a cardiosclerosis of her heart, but to the fact that her heart was firmly grounded on God. She relied - completely - to God. Likewise, the Latin term firmamentum is a derived word from the verb firmo that has the meaning (physical) of "to make solid, firm" but also a meaning (not physical) of "to be steady, permanent, durable".

In other words, the waters separated by the expansion, will not return to their previous location, since this expansion (רקיע) was (and is) firmly established, that is, permanent.


The question shows a bias based upon learned beliefs of our current time line, and the opinions expressed as facts currently taught in our structured education systems. But, a further review of Egyptian and Babylonian history and customs allows for another possibility that the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian views of the cosmology may have been learned from the Hebrew exiles in those lands.

Many historians date Joseph's arrival in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom period, specifically the 12 dynasty under either Senusret II or III, circa 1900 BC (old chronology) or 1730 BC (new chronology). Sources: BiblicalTImeline; Egypt Middle Kingdom Period; WordHistory

The exile of the 10 northern tribes (Ephraim / Israel) commonly traced to about 722 BC under Tiglath Pileser III , and the exile of the 2 southern tribes of Judah beginning about 597 BC under Nebuchadnezzar. Source: NewWorldEncyclopedia; JewishVirtualLibrary

Both Joseph and Daniel were elevated to high positions during those periods and would have had great influence on the belief systems of those nations. Both the Egyptian and Babylonian views of the cosmos were most likely influenced by Joseph and Daniel's knowledge of God's word. Though the Bible does not specifically relate this, Joseph's knowledge would have been by direct communication and oral history from Abraham down, and while Daniel had scripture to rely upon, both had communication with our Father in heaven. I am sure there is much they were told that is not written.

Further, it is wrong to assume that the word "raqia" means simply the air of the sky above us. As used in Gen. 1:6 it is defined as an extended surface, or expanse (Biblehub) and refers to Job 37:18 as if beaten out.

Thou hast made an expanse with Him For the clouds -- strong as a hard mirror! (Job 37:18, YLT)

The expanse or extended surface was containing the clouds or sky, and God's word says that the expanse was hard as a mirror. The air of our sky is inside the expanse or firmament. And that is the true science of a pressurized system. We cannot have air pressure without a container.

The Hebrews were taught the truth of God's creation, and mostly probably taught both the Egyptians and the Babylonians what they knew.


Compare Genesis 1:6-8 with Exodus 14:16,21,22,29 and 15:8,10.

What did YaHWeH use to "divide the waters" in Exodus 14? Was it a dense, solid material shoved between the waters of the sea? What does the Exodus account say?

What then, divided the waters above from the waters below in Genesis? A dense plate of solid material, or the "Wind from God"? (NRSV) The literal wind is material, but NOT a solid; God's spirit is not a material at all. But in both cases, whether God divided the waters by natural, secondary causes or supernatural causes, the RaQiAh/"firmament" of Genesis is NOT a plate of solid material.

Were the Hebrews so primitive or lacking in observation that they could not see the similarity in the two accounts and draw some conclusions about the nature of the RaQiA of Genesis?

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