Barry Newman's Blog

October 17, 2010

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

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 9:47 pm

My conclusion is that “raqia” should be understood as a reference to something like a solid and strong but sheet-like canopy which the writer of Genesis thought of as real and not a description of how things simply appeared to be; that to perceive it to mean something akin to our understanding of “atmosphere” is to write into the text a modern understanding and so undermine the integrity of the text. From one point of view, it is better to believe that there is a solid sky above than to treat the text in such a way as to meet one’s own wishes. 

In a previous blog series I endeavoured to point out that “leb/lebab”, often translated “heart”, throughout the O.T. is a reference to an entity, one way or another, from which, among other things, our thinking and emotions are thought to emanate; that the ancient Hebrew is generally not thinking metaphorically when referring to “the heart” as we often do; that he displays no understanding that something we call “the brain” is involved in thinking and feeling; that he is simply operating with an idea, that apparently everyone else around him shared, that “the heart” was the thinking and feeling organ which today we regard as a double pump for the circulation of blood.  That he should understand the “raqia” to be a solid sky is no different.

To come to such a conclusion might mean that some of us need to come to a different understanding of what it means when we proclaim that the Bible is the word of God.  Although the Timothy text refers to the O.T. scriptures and although it simply occurs as part of the letter’s reference to Timothy’s upbringing, 2 Timothy 3: 15, 16 is worth pondering on again.  It reads, “… the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV).  The scriptures will do all that God intends without their having to conform to the modern thinking about the natural but God created world.  Rather, the position adopted here is that, in one text or another, there will be indications that Scripture contains understandings of our natural world that were commonly held by others but which we do not agree with today.  At the same time it should be said, with emphasis, that the Scriptures, perhaps especially these early chapters of Genesis, contain understandings of God, his created world and his relationship with that world which have no parallel or likeness in the ancient world.

Back to Day 2.  The “raqia” had an extraordinary beginning and was intended for an extraordinary purpose.  God effortlessly said, “Let there be a ‘raqia’ between the waters in order to separate water from water” and there was. Then he used it to separate water from water with the result that there was water above it and water below it.  With it he pushed some water away and created space between that water and the other water. Where was any of this water to begin with? It was there before the first day.  We shall return to this matter later when discussing Genesis 1: 1, 2. 

Seely in a second paper (See Seely, P.H., “The Firmament and the Water above – Part II: The meaning of ‘The Water above the Firmament’ in Gen 1: 6-8”, Westminster Theological Journal, 54, 1992, 31 – 46) claims that in the ancient world, it is very uncommon to find any notion that there was water on the other side of the sky.  The Babylonians certainly held to such an idea; there is some reference to the notion in some Egyptian literature and occasionally the idea finds expression in some Indian literature, though the claim has been made the Indian material was borrowed from the Babylonians.  The inference from this is that the Hebrews shared a belief in there being water on the other side of “the sky” with the Babylonians.  In the early centuries AD the evidence is that while the Christians did not have to argue that the sky was solid because their Greaco-Roman contemporaries already believed that, they did have to argue that there was water on the other side, because that was not a shared belief.

Watson, (See Watson, J.H., Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006) cites Egyptian and Mesopotamian material that refer to water being held back by the sky (pp. 169, 170). “In Mesopotamia Marduk assigns guards to keep the heavenly waters from flooding the earth.  These waters are the remnants of Tiamat’s body which was split to form the waters above and the waters below.” “Egyptian texts refer to the heavenly ocean … the cool or upper waters of Horus.  The sun god’s barque travels from horizon to horizon across this heavenly ocean.”  We should notice how free the Genesis text is of any reference to any god intimately associated with the “sky” either with respect to its nature, its origin or any part it regularly plays in connection with a god.  The God of Genesis 1: 6 – 8 is not like the gods of the surrounding nations.  He is outside of the sky, bringing it into existence effortlessly for a one-off purpose.  He is not to be confused with it in any way and it has been brought into existence by his will.  What is said about the “raqia” and its purpose and how God determines both, acts as a type of polemic in the Hebrew’s world.  Other peoples have got it wrong.  Their understanding of the gods is in error.  Their understanding of the relationship the gods have with the world is in error.  We shall return to these claims from time to time as we work through the rest of the Days.  Watson also refers to beliefs that people has about things like the origin of rain and holes in “the sky”.  We might comment on such matters later.

What did God do in Day 2?  He began to bring order into the chaotic world described in verse 2.  This is the God who is completely in charge.  It was formless but now he begins to give it form. He sets the scene for Days 3, 4 and 5.  More will be said about Day 2 when we examine Day 5 in particular. 

Before we leave Day 2 let us return to the matter of there being no “And God saw that it was good.” As we shall see when examining the other Days, the entities about which these words are said have a fairly obvious “goodness’ about them.  However in the case of “raqia” its “goodness” is in terms of what it enables and what it enables becomes obvious as the following days unfold.  Perhaps that is the reason for the absence of “And God saw that it was good”.

In the blogs that follow I will continue to look at the text of the six Days in some detail in an attempt to give it the integrity that it deserves.  However, later on, I will ask some more fundamental questions about the text and its overall nature and significance and what to make of it in light of some modern understandings of the origin of the universe, earth and life on the earth.



  1. Thanks for this series, Barry.

    Concerning the absence of ‘it was good’, an even simpler explanation would be that having it in day two would result in eight occurences of ‘good’. But Gen 1 is full of seven-fold repetition. With days 3 and 6 both being two-stage (which you’ve already hinted at speaking on later), there had to be one omission if the significant seven was to appear.

    Little c

    Comment by Chris Little — October 20, 2010 @ 1:16 am | Reply

    • Chris (Little c?),

      Thanks for the comment. In due course I hope to make some references to overall structure, numbers etc. Your explanation could be on the money.

      The two acts of day 6 warrant two of “and God saw that (it was) good” if one wants day 6 to line up nicely with day 3 and of course that explicit clause occurs only once in day 6. Oddly, (at least at first sight), the second reference to “good” on day 6 is associated with a type of summative statement for that day. (some see it as a summative statement for days 1 to 6)and that “good” is attached to Hebrew that is different to that which is attached to “good” as it appears in days 1, 3 (2x), 4, 5 and earlier in 6. (Even day 1 is slightly different compared to the others.) Very close symmetry could be achieved by having one reference to “and God saw that (it was) good” in each of days 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 with a summative “good” appearing after day 6, giving, as you rightly point out, 7 occurrences of “good”. For whatever reason, our writer/editor wasn’t going to be subject to such tight symmetry!!


      Comment by barrynewman — October 22, 2010 @ 6:41 am | Reply

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