Barry Newman's Blog

October 16, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part III)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 12:17 am

Day 2 – Genesis 1: 6 – 8

It may seem a strange place to start but the reason for beginning at Day 2 should soon become clear.  Later we shall return to Day 1 and the verses preceding.

Day 2 is interesting for a number of reasons.  It is the only day with respect to which there is no reference to “And God saw that it was good”.  There is a temptation to believe that one of the two such references in Day 3 has been misplaced and originally was associated with Day 2.  However there is no evidence that that has occurred.  

More importantly is the reference in Day 2 to the “raqia” – the “firmament” or “expanse”.  We are faced with the problem of “What does it actually mean?”  According to Dillow, (See Dillow, J.C., The Waters Above, Moody Press, Chicago, 1981), “the expanse of ‘firmament’ was probably just what it means to people today – the atmospheric heavens.” (p. 11). On the other hand, Seely (see Seely, P.H., “The Firmament and the Water above: Part I: The meaning of raqia in Genesis 1: 6-8”, Westminster Theological Journal, 1991, 227-240) believes that it refers to a solid sky.

It seems to be generally accepted that the verbal cognate of “raqia” – “raqa” means something like, “stamp”, “beat” or “spread out”.  If one places the emphasis on “spread out”, as does Dillow, then you might conclude that “raqia” refers to something like our understanding of atmosphere, something spread out, but diffuse.  One of the problems with this understanding is that it looks like one is reading into the word an understanding of the entity which is associated with what we breathe, what enables flight, what is involved in wind etc. – a modern concept, with little evidence that the ancient Hebrew world had such a concept.  One might want to say that the evidence for such is the word “raqia” itself.  But that is hardly an argument.  The Hebrew of the O.T. in its use of the word “ruach” indicates that concepts of breath and wind were held but there is no clear indication of the concept of “atmosphere” being in existence.  The concept of “space” could have been conveyed by another Hebrew word.  In fact the idea that “raqia” could refer to “atmosphere” seems to be only a few centuries old.  Furthermore, the idea that something is “stamped’, “beaten” or “spread out” implies that what you have is something that is relatively thin but still held together and not ethereally thin.  According to Seely, an examination of Jewish and Christian writings in ancient times clearly indicates that the “sky” was understood to be of a solid nature with no evidence that it was perceived as being something akin to our concept of “atmosphere”.  In fact in Seely’s analysis there is no evidence of anyone anywhere believing in other than a solid sky with the exception of a Chinese work suggesting that the sky might be limitless in depth, a work written around 200 AD.

In Genesis 1: 8 God calls the “raqia” “the heavens” often translated, “sky”.  As a consequence appeal is sometimes made to references to “the heavens” in Scripture for an understanding of “raqia” given that the use of the word “raqia” or its cognates is relatively rare. That Psalm 104: 2 and Isaiah 34: 4, for example, refer to the heavens as being a “curtain” and “scroll” respectively seems to clearly indicate that metaphorical descriptions of the “raqia” or at least “the heavens” are sometimes in mind. While accepting these descriptions as metaphorical, it could be argued that the references to “curtain” and “scroll” in themselves do not refer to something diffuse but something solid, though relatively thin and spread out.  Furthermore, while God calls the “raqia” “the heavens”, “raqia” seems to be something which is subsumed within the notion of “the heavens” as a whole.  For instances Genesis 1: 14, 15 and 17 refer to “the ‘raqia’ of the heavens” and the reference to “the heavens” in Genesis 1: 1 seems to be a reference to an entity not confined to the “raqia”.

There are 16 references to “raqia” or a cognate in the O.T.  Eight are found in Genesis 1, five occur in Ezekiel, two in the Psalms and one in Daniel.  Psalm 19: 1; 150: 1 and Daniel 12: 3 refer to something which could legitimately be translated “the firmament” or “expanse”, depending on your preference. The five references in Ezekiel (1: 22, 23, 25, 26; 10: 1) taken together are arguably references to a precise entity under which and over which things exist, described as “sparkling like ice” in Ezekiel 1:22.

Seely’s arguments for why we should understand “raqia” as something solid are substantial.  For instance, he argues that not only did all people in the ancient world think of the sky as solid, they also did not make a distinction between it having such an appearance and what it was “really” like. There were widespread ideas of the sky having holes and for some peoples, it could be touched, some items could be attached to it and it could move up and down.  He claims that in Genesis 1, the birds fly in the heavens upon the face of the “raqia” not within it, God set the stars and probably the two great lights in the “raqia” (which surely could not be the atmosphere as we understand it) and while God divided the light from the darkness (two intangibles) without making anything to enable it, the “raqia” was made to divide the waters (two tangibles).

What is the problem about concluding that by “raqia” is meant something like a solid sky?  I take it that the difficulty is that we understand that there is no such thing as a solid sky and if “raqia” means a solid sky then there is something in Genesis 1 that is mistaken.  And then the question is asked, “How can the Bible, if it is indeed God’s word contain something which is mistaken?”



  1. Pfffffff……………
    6 And God went on to say: “Let an expanse come to be in between the waters and let a dividing occur between the waters and the waters.” 7 Then God proceeded to make the expanse and to make a division between the waters that should be beneath the expanse and the waters that should be above the expanse. And it came to be so. 8 And God began to call the expanse Heaven. And there came to be evening and there came to be morning, a second day.
    9 And God went on to say: “Let the waters under the heavens be brought together into one place and let the dry land appear.”

    It’s clear from the text that raqia starts from the surface on the sea and expands upwards.So you say that they believed they live and breathe inside a solid material??From Gen 1:8 and 1:9 you see that raqia is the heaven!
    Do you say that they believed the heaven was solid?Then how did the birds fly through the air?
    OH BOY….

    Comment by None — February 15, 2011 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

    • Hi,

      I understand your point of view. However, historically, Augustine and Luther, for example, believed that the text should be interpreted with the understanding that the raqia was solid and referred to the sky – the heavens – that is, they did not believe that it referred to the atmosphere. Calvin was perhaps one of the first to understand raqia to refer to the atmosphere and it seems he came to this understanding not on the basis of the text but upon his reliance upon the science of his day. It is one thing to interpret a text on the basis of what one’s current understanding of the world is. It is another to try and understand what the text in its own right is saying. Sorry if we disagree.

      Comment by barrynewman — February 15, 2011 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

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