R Evans, Genesis in Context - 2

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← Index of Genesis in Context by Bro Roger Evans, 2021

2. The Firmament in Scripture: Ancient Cosmology

As we considered in the previous chapter, Genesis 1 describes the heavens as a space above the earth occupied by birds, over-arched by a vault which contains the heavenly lights. Daylight is the period of firmamental radiance extending from dawn to dusk, against which the sun independently rises and sets: a scientific nonsense to us, but a rational deduction from observation to the earliest readers of Genesis.

The separate description of sun, moon stars and light in Ecclesiastes 12:4[1] is a clear example of this distinction. A similar text, apparently concealed by translation, is present in the Creation text of Psalm 148:3: “Praise Him, ye sun and moon, praise Him ye stars of light”. The Hebrew text reads: “praise Him, sun, moon, Praise Him, all stars, light”. The Septuagint renders this “Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, all ye stars and light (ka astra kai to phos). The Vulgate translates this as “Praise Him sun and moon, praise Him all stars and light (omnes stellae et lumen). While the translation of the Hebrew is arguable, it is interesting to note that the attachment of light to the stars is a redundancy, as stars inherently possess light. Conversely, if the alternative reading is adopted, a poetic chiasm of day, night, night, day (sun, moon, stars, light) is revealed.

Above the heavenly vault, and completing the heavens, are the upper waters on which God sets His throne. The existence of the upper waters, above the firmament, is puzzling to our modern Western comprehension. The Hebrew word mayim, waters, is exclusively used in the Old Testament to describe water in its liquid form. The same word is used to define both the upper and the lower waters (the composite Hebrew word for heavens, sham-mayim, implying “uplifted waters”).

In order to rationalise the upper waters some modern exegetes attempt to read mayim figuratively as meaning vapours or clouds; but the clouds of heaven pass in front of (below) the heavenly lights not above them, and there are separate words in Hebrew for vapours and clouds. Forcing upon mayim a meaning which it does not have, and applying it inconsistently, does not solve any exegetical problems; it simply wrests Scripture and misrepresents its teaching.

Little further mention is made of the upper waters in Scripture, as they lay beyond the experiential reach of man, and did not directly affect him. However where reference does occur, a belief in their literal existence is indicated.

Genesis 7:11 speaks of the source of the waters of the Flood as being derived both from the upper and lower waters: “On the same day all the springs of the great deep broke out, and the windows of heaven were opened, and it rained on the earth forty days and forty nights”. The Flood ceases rising when “the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain ceased”. The attribution of the rain as coming from windows (openings) in heaven rather than from clouds implies the release of the upper waters through floodgates in the restraining firmament.

In Psalm 104, a hymn based upon the Creation record, the writer praises God. The first four verses speak exclusively of the heavenly realm, where “God stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and lays the beams of his chambers in the waters”. Verse 13 confirms a heavenly location for those liquid waters, when it says that “He waters the hills from his chambers”.

Psalm 148, also a Creation psalm and one of the Alleluia series (145-150), comes in two sections: the first six verses being Praise from the Heavens, the latter verses being Praise from the earth. In verse 4 we read: “Praise Him, ye heaven of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for He commanded, and they were created, He has established them for ever and ever”.

To the inspired Psalmist, the waters above the heavens were real, extant at the time of writing (at the time of Israel’s restored nationhood — 148:14, and 146:2), and permanent. Their express and literal existence was assured; because something that does not exist cannot offer praise. In the context of our modern scientific understanding, these scriptures are scientifically incorrect; but to the writer at the time, in the context of contemporary understanding, they were correct. The importance of context is paramount.

Incidentally, the prayers of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah in the furnace, recorded in the Septuagint text of Daniel ch. 3, invoke the same cosmology:

“’Blessed art thou, high in the vault of heaven, praised above all, renowned above all for ever’. Then they cried out upon all things the Lord had made, to bless him and praise him, and extol his name for ever. Bless the Lord they should, the Lord’s angels; bless him they should, the heavens, and the waters above the heaven . . . ”

While not part of the accepted canon, the words of this prayer, and the cosmological entities appealed to in praise of God, are entirely consistent with those of the Psalms cited above.

The upper waters were held back by the firmament, a conceptual surface sufficiently solid to retain the upper waters, and requiring fenestrations to permit the passage of rain. The Hebrew word for firmament in Genesis is raqia.

Under the influence of changing scientific comprehension of the universe, the word raqia in modern Hebrew has taken on meanings of intangible expanse, or space. But the ancient meaning of raqia, as discussed by the theologian Paul Seely (see References), did not include this sense at all. Raqia is derived from the root word raqa, to beat out or to hammer out, as a goldsmith beats out gold to form gold leaf. In its original sense, the word meant a tangible extended expanse of something, a solid surface or interface.

For the ancient Hebrews, this was a literal concept of their cosmology. Hebrew commentaries in the Talmud (200-500CE) and the Mishna (200CE) record rabbinical speculations about the material composition and thickness of this heavenly dome (Simon-Shoshan, 2008). The pseudepigraphical Book of Enoch, understood as being written between 300BC and 100AD, contains detailed and speculative astronomy regarding the movements of the sun and moon through multiple portals in this heavenly vault.

Early Judeo-Christian writings (Baruch 3, the Ascension of Isaiah, understood to date from the first few centuries AD) invoke a similar, solid-vault cosmology. In the third and fourth centuries BC the early Christian Fathers, such as Basil (Homilies), Ambrose (Hexameron), Augustine (Literal Interpretation of Genesis), and Origen (Homily on Genesis), when discussing Genesis 1, speculated on the nature of the firmament and its solidity (or otherwise); either in context of the ancient cosmology, or in terms of Greek astronomy and natural philosophy.

The translators who produced the Greek Septuagint (200-300BC) deliberately selected stereoma, something established or solid, as a translation of raqia. The translators of the Vulgate (4th century AD) rendered it firmamentum, meaning something firm, or solid—a word faithfully translated in the King James Version as firmament. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100AD), paraphrasing Genesis 1 for the benefit of his Roman masters, translated raqia as crystalline, which carries explicit connotations of solidity.

Putting external testimony aside, what does Scripture say about the raqia? If we can deliberately empty our minds of modern astronomy, and enter into the ancient cultural contexts in which the Scriptures were given, we are enabled to see foundational spiritual themes which modern scientific comprehension has subsequently obscured.

Job speaks of the raqia thus (37:18): “Hast thou with him spread out (raqa, beaten out) the skies (shachaq, from a root meaning finely beaten or pulverized), hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” For the author of the book of Job, the heavens consisted of a hard, beaten out raqia or a reflective hard material like bronze.

Job 26:10 declares that God inscribed a circle on the waters at the boundary of light and dark. Proverbs 8:27 also speaks of the circle of heaven being inscribed on the face of the deep. Isaiah 40:22 has God sitting “enthroned above the circle of the earth” and in Job 22:14 God walks on the circle of heaven. The Hebrew word for circle, chug, defines a feature inscribed on a planar surface by a compass (mechugah, as in Isaiah 44:13). In the context of these verses, the raqia is spoken of as an inverted bowl, with its circular rim, the horizon, set on the seas of chaos, and God walking upon its upper surface looking down through it at the earth below.

Isaiah (40:22) speaks of the heavens in terms of a man looking up at an expanse of fabric. “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in” (expressing the function of habitability). In 34:4 he refers to the heavens being rolled up like a scroll (a thin sheet of parchment; again the concept of a solid, expanded but tangible surface in which the stars are set like writing). Revelation picks up this image and runs with it (6v13): “the sun became dark, the moon became blood, the stars fell to the earth (commensurate, in terms of perceived scale, with stars set in a vault not far above the land), and the heaven was rolled up as a scroll.” Figurative language perhaps, but entirely compatible with the concept of a solid, sheet-like, star-studded firmament.

“Stretched out” is a term often used of the heavens. In the book of Job, Bildad declares: “He stretches the north over the empty space (tohu), he hangs the land on nothing (belimah)”. (Job 26:5-14 Belimah (not anything) is a synonym for “bohu” (empty). In this text, the allusion appears to be to God setting His ordered heavens and earth amid the “waste and emptiness” of tohu wabohu; an allusion to Genesis, and a deduction more consistent with the broader cosmology of the book of Job than with isolated and precocious concepts of a sphere suspended in space.

However, the most compelling and persistent concept of the firmament in Scripture is that of its being a crystalline, translucent solid surface, blue in colour like lapis lazuli or sapphire, physically separating the domain of man below from the realm of God above, and forming the foundation and pavement of His eternal throne. This image is first presented to us in Exodus 24: “And God said to Moses, Come up to the Lord, thou, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 elders . . .  And they went up, and saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet as it were a pavement like translucent brick (libnah) made up of sapphire/lapis lazuli (a hard bluish crystalline material), as the substance of heaven in its clarity/purity.”

This image of a solid, bluish, translucent pavement is presented again in the opening chapters of Ezekiel. The first 21 verses describe the chariot of the cherubim, which appeared in the sky. Above these is the vault of the firmament, seen from below: “And the likeness of the raqia upon their heads was as the terrible crystal (qerach, ice or frost, crystalline water) stretched out over their heads above. Under the raqia their wings were straight . . .  and there was a voice from the raqia over their heads”. Verse 26 describes the upper surface of the firmament, as if the voice had summoned Ezekiel into the Divine presence: “And above the raqia was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone”. Upon this throne was a fiery radiant being. This, Ezekiel says, was the likeness of the glory of the Lord. The vision is repeated in chapter 10.

An alternative rendering could possibly be that “above the firmament which was as a sapphire in appearance, was the likeness of a throne”. This would be more in keeping with the account of Moses, but which reading is correct is not of critical relevance.

The concept of a solid vault cosmology in the Old Testament may seem uncomfortably foreign to our modern concepts of the universe. However, it was entirely appropriate to the ancients in terms of their contemporary understanding.

We might think, with Greek advances in the understanding of the heavens in the last three centuries BC, that Scripture might have modified its presentation of heavenly visions in the New Testament. But with minor exception, it does not.

By Jesus’ time, the Greeks had noticed that while most of the stars remained constant, about seven of them appeared to wander on different paths. These were given the name “planets”, or, wanderers, and inferred to move within individual raqia-like surfaces. The spaces between these surfaces were referred to as the seven heavens. Jude (verse 13) refers to these “wandering stars”. However, when Paul speaks of being caught up in vision as to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2), he was probably thinking more in terms of the ancient Hebrew cosmology: the first heaven being the air, the second being the firmament, and the third being the Paradise of God, or His dwelling above the firmament. The novel concepts of Greek cosmology, which had not yet taken root in common Jewish thinking, are virtually ignored by the inspired writers of Scripture.

Heaven in the Book of Revelation

NB: not integrated into wiki

In the Revelation given to John from God through the risen Christ, late in the first century AD, the Genesis raqia, Moses’ vision, and Ezekiel’s raqia form the unamended basis of the Divine cosmology.

Revelation 4: “After this I looked up, and a door was opened in heaven (implying the need for an opening in a solid barrier), and the first voice said “come up here”. “And immediately I was in the spirit, and a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat upon the throne was in appearance as a jasper and a sardine stone”. “And in front of the throne there was a sea (thalassa) of glass (hyalos) like crystal (krustallos, or, crystalline, from a root word meaning ice). Here again is the vision of a solid pavement, like glass, but also like a sea of ice; possibly a representation of the upper waters congealed to a frozen state.

In chapter 15 this pavement is described as a sea of glass mingled with fire (echoing Daniel’s “brightness of the firmament”); with the victorious saints standing upon (epi = upon, not beside) it, implying solidity. God sits enthroned upon the firmament; the jasper and sardine stone, reddish in colour, echoing the fiery radiance witnessed by Ezekiel. Throughout Revelation this illuminated pavement (like the heavenward surface of the day-lit sky) forms the foundation- floor of God’s throne and dwelling place.

The cosmological climax comes in the closing chapters of Revelation (21 v10):

“And he showed me that great city, the new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven… her light was like a precious stone, like a jasper, clear as crystal... And the wall of the city was jasper, and the city was like pure gold, clear as glass. . .  and the streets of the city were pure gold, as transparent glass”.

The description of the New Jerusalem draws together all of the elements of Job, Moses, and Ezekiel’s accounts of the nature of the firmament. The description of the walls and pavements of the city in the language of the firmament, as a gold-like, glassy, pure, crystalline solid, and the jasper-like radiance of the throne and its occupant incorporated into these descriptions, speaks eloquently to the reader in terms of the ultimate end of the separation between God and Man. God in effect brings the firmament of His heavenly temple down to earth, in the form of a city whose pavement is the raqia, the glowing pavement that lies before the throne of God. Down the street flows the River of Life, “as clear as crystal”, as it were the substance of the crystalline issuing forth in liquid form from the throne of God. Sun and moon, set in the firmament on the fourth creation day to give light to men (Gen 1:16), are made redundant: the eternal Glory of God (Revelation 21:23) lights the Temple-City, and ‘there is no night there’. Heaven is no longer separated from earth, and God dwells with men.

This spiritual message, sanctioned by express revelation to John from our risen and all-knowing Lord seated at the right hand of God in heaven, is foreign to and obscured by modern astronomy. Conversely, it is crystal clear when understood in terms of the solid raqia of the Genesis cosmology.

  1. apparently an error for 12:2 — BP