The Firmament

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The English word firmament

When he translated the Vulgate into Middle English in the 1380s, John Wycliffe transliterated Jerome's Latin firmamentum into English, perhaps with an eye on the 12th Century French borrowing of the same word from Church Latin. See the story of the word in Latin below. — Bruce

The Firmament in the Bible

The Firmament was created on the Second Day; the Sun was created on the Fourth Day.

Old Testament: Hebrew רקיע (raqia)

Every pre-Copernican commentator in Judaism who wrote about the rakia knew exactly what it was.[a] The Talmud, for instance, records varying opinions about the thickness of what is clearly a solid firmament; from the seven layer firmaments of Resh Lakish (b. Chagigah 12b), to the two firmaments of R Judah (ibid.), from the finger-width firmament of Rav Joshua ben R Nehemia (Gen. Rab. 4:5), to the “50 year journey” firmament of Rav Judah (j. Berachot 2c).

[a] Natan Slifkin, "The Sun’s Path at Night", Rationalist Judaism (2010).

— Oren Faas, My Encounter with the Firmament at

Robert Alter translates raqia as "vault" in Genesis 1:6 and gives this footnote:

The Hebrew raki'a suggests a hammered-out slab, not necessarily arched, but the English architectural term with its celestial associations created by poetic tradition is otherwise appropriate.

See Ezekiel 1:26-28, The Sun's Path at Night.

LXX (Septuagint) Old Testament: Greek στερέωμα (stereoma)

Vulgate: Latin firmamentum

The Heavens in the Bible

Whatever the Shamayim was/were and how ever it is to be translated, the Bible speaks of it, perhaps in poetical exaggeration, as something that could bend under pressure. For the bowing of the heavens consider this NET Bible note to Psalm 144:5:

a tn The Hebrew verb נָטָה (natah) can carry the sense "to [cause to] bend; to [cause to] bow down." For example, Gen 49:15 pictures Issachar as a donkey that "bends" its shoulder or back under a burden. Here the Lord causes the sky, pictured as a dome or vault, to sink down as he descends in the storm. See Ps 18:9.

Historical understandings

It was understood that the sky was solid in Bible times and later, and that the words רקיע (raqia) and στερέωμα (stereoma) had that meaning — this accounts for Jerome's Latin neologism “firmamentum” created when he made the Vulgate translation, and from there the English word firmament in the King James Version and elsewhere.

Common Understanding in the Ancient Near East

Ben Stanhope

”On William Lane Craig's (mis)interpretation of Othmar Keel and criticism of my Hebrew cosmology illustration” Stanhope response to Craig
Ben Stanhope’s cosmology illustration

Ancient understanding of "the Firmament" (raqia) and "the Heavens" (shamayim)

Basil of Caesarea (330-379), who died a few years before Jerome was born, is a solitary exception with respect to this ancient understanding of Biblical cosmology. He understood the words רקיע and στερέωμα to refer to something solid, but believed that the firmament was actually rushing air, blowing so hard that it held up the waters above. Thus, he believed, the “firm” words were not to be read literally.

See Ecclesiastes 1:5 for reference to some ancient scholars who argued that the Sun is hidden by the Firmament at night time, turning around at sunset and going back eastward behind it. This view is compatible with a literal understanding of Scripture but is not required by it.

See also this page of Roger Evans' Genesis in Context.

The waters above the firmament

See Psalm 148:4 and Genesis 1:6-10 for the "waters above the heavens" and the chain of references beginning here.

A medieval Jewish understanding

The Firmament Blocks the Light: Rabbi Joseph Kara

Quoting Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber from this article:

"The interpretation that seems to come the closest to understanding the “science” behind the Torah’s description here is that of the peshat commentator (ca. 1065-1135), R. Joseph Kara (vv. 14-15).

יהי מאורות ברקיע השמים להאיר על הארץ – והלא כבר נברא האור מיום ראשון . . . אלא ביום השני נאמר ויהי רקיע משמע שהיה הרקיע תחת השמים המאירים והמעיט את האורה. והיינו דכתו' עוטה אור כשלמה נוטה שמים כיריעה כלומר [נטה] לרקיע תחתיו, עטה האור ולא היה נראית ולכך כתב יהי מארות להאיר על הארץ. . .  Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens. . .  to cast light on the earth – but wasn’t light already created on day one? . . . But on day two it says, “let there be a firmament” which implies that the firmament was under the heavens, which contains the light, diminishing the effect of its light. This is the intent of the verse (Ps 104:2) “wrapped the light in a robe; You spread the heavens like a tent cloth.” Meaning, he spread the firmament underneath it and wrapped the light so that it was not seen. Therefore, the Torah writes [that God said]: “Let there be lights that shine on the earth.”. . . 


A modern interpretation: the "expanse"

See also →
T4C re the solid dome

The claim that Hebrew רקיע means “expanse”, which would mean that both the Septuagint (LXX) and Vulgate translations were incorrect, was first made by John Calvin (1509-1564) — at least it is not attested earlier.

It has often been repeated, and accepted as correct. For example the NET Bible annotations to Genesis 1:6 apparently combine Calvin's "expanse" with Basil's concept of air pressure, and explain away the literal meaning as poetical:

tn [Translator's note] The Hebrew word refers to an expanse of air pressure between the surface of the sea and the clouds, separating water below from water above. In v. 8 it is called "sky."

sn [Study note] An expanse. In the poetic texts the writers envision, among other things, something rather strong and shiny, no doubt influencing the traditional translation "firmament" (cf. NRSV "dome"). Job 37:18 refers to the skies poured out like a molten mirror. Dan 12:3 and Ezek 1:22 portray it as shiny. The sky or atmosphere may have seemed like a glass dome. For a detailed study of the Hebrew conception of the heavens and sky, see L. I. J. Stadelmann, The Hebrew Conception of the World (AnBib), 37-60.

This translation was referenced here (5.3.4) in our responses to the AACE discussion questions.

Relevant Scriptures

See Job 22:14 and Isaiah 14:13.