Raqia: Expanse of the heavens or solid structure?

Critics of the Genesis narrative have often argued that it describes a cosmology in which the “firmament” (KJV) of Genesis 1:6 is a solid vault, or an inverted metal bowl, to which are affixed the sun, moon and stars.

A few years ago this interpretation was endorsed in the book, God, Sky & Land: Genesis One as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It, by Fritz Guy, former president of La Sierra University, and Dr. Brian S. Bull, a pathologist and former dean of the LLU School of Medicine.

Guy and Bull argued that a solid vault is what the original hearers of the Genesis narrative would have understood from the Hebrew term used, and also the author's intended meaning.  In effect, they argued that the writer of Genesis was describing a primitive cosmology that we now know is false.  A logical inference is that Genesis is unreliable and not fact-based history. 

The theory that the “firmament” is a solid structure is one of the indictments of Scripture catalogued by Warren Trenchard (of La Sierra University—of course) in his broadside against sola Scriptura, the Protestant principle that doctrine and practice should be based upon Bible teachings rather than on tradition or other sources.

The Hebrew term at the heart of this discussion is raqia.  It first appears in Genesis 1:6:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse [raqia] between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse 'sky.' [shemayim] And there was evening, and there was morning —the second day (Gen. 1:6-8, NIV 1984).

The word raqia implies something that has been spread out or stretched out; it is the noun form of the verb raqa, which means, “to spread out or stretch out.” No specific substance or material is inherent in the term raqia, so exactly what it is that has been “spread out” must be inferred from the context.

The context of the Genesis narrative does not imply any sort of solid structure. To the contrary, Genesis 1:8 states that God called the raqia shemayim, thus equating the raqia with the “sky” or “the heavens.” The term raqia of the shemayim, or “expanse of the sky” or “expanse of the heavens,” occurs four times in the creation narrative: Gen. 1:14-15,17, 20. Birds are said to fly “in the open expanse of the sky” (Gen. 1:20).

Clearly, the raqia is just the sky, and the sky is not a solid structure. How, then, did anyone ever get the idea that the raqia was a solid structure, such as a vault, a dome, or an inverted metal bowl?

Part of the answer is that pagan cosmological notions influenced the translators of Scripture. 

Many English-speakers have been influenced by the King James Version's translation of raqia as “firmament,” which conveys the idea of something firm and solid. Interestingly, the origins of the King James’ “firmament” go all the way back to the Third Century before Christ, when Jewish scholars were writing the Septuagint.

The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, produced around 250 BC by 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. It was produced at the behest of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the Greek ruler of Egypt, for inclusion in the famous library of Alexandria.

In the Egypt of that time, a popular cosmological notion was that the sky was a stone vault. It seems that the Jewish scholars who translated the Septuagint from the original Hebrew were influenced by this pagan cosmology; they translated raqia into Greek as stereoma, which connotes a “solid structure.”

Some six hundred years later, when Jerome was translating the Hebrew Scriptures into the Latin Bible that would become known as the Vulgate, he was influenced by the Septuagint, and translated raqia into the Latin word firmamentum, meaning a strong or steadfast support.

Finally, some twelve centuries years later, as English scholars were preparing the translation that would become by far the most influential Bible in the English-speaking world—the King James Version of 1611—they simply transliterated Jerome’s Latin term firmamentum into English as “firmament.”

It is important to emphasize that the idea that the raqia was a solid structure was not in the inspired Hebrew-language account of the creation week.  This error came in through a chain of un-inspired translators: the Jewish scholars of Hellenistic Egypt, the 4th Century church father Jerome, and finally the 17th Century English scholars who produced the King James translation.

If one examines only the Hebrew original, and discards prejudices, preconceptions and misconceptions, raqia simply means “expanse.”  There is plenty of scholarly support for this view.  For example, in Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, it is stressed that:

“While this English word is derived from the Latin firmamentum which signifies firmness or strengthening. . . . the Hebrew word, raqia, has no such meaning, but denoted the “expanse,” that which was stretched out. Certainly the sky was not regarded as a hard vault in which the heavenly orbs were fixed. . . . There is therefore nothing in the language of the original to suggest that the writers were influenced by the imaginative ideas of heathen nations.” (1981, p. 67).

Why, then, do people like Bull, Guy, and Trenchard still push the idea that the writer of Genesis intended raqia to signify a solid structure?  There is yet more history to delve into. 

In the mid-19th century, archeologist Austen Henry Layard discovered a treasure trove of cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets in the ruins of biblical Nineveh. Layard had excavated what had been a royal library amassed by the ancient Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. On some of these tablets were found the Babylonian creation story known as the Enuma Elish, thought to have been written around 1,100 BC.

In 1890, German Assyriologist Peter Jensen translated a Babylonian term (appearing on tablet IV, line 145) in the Enuma Elish, as Himmelswölbung (“heavenly vault”). At about this same time, a school of German critics of Scripture began promoting a theory known as “pan-Babylonianism,” which held that most of the Old Testament was written during the Babylonian captivity, and that the Jewish writers of Scripture were heavily influenced by Babylonian cosmology.

The idea that the Babylonians believed in a solid structure, combined with the idea that the Bible writers were influenced by Babylonian cosmology, led to the idea that raqia meant a solid vault. Soon, Hebrew lexicons and Bible commentaries began to reflect this idea that the raqia was a solid vault or dome, likely composed of metal.

But there are valid objections to this theory. For example, conservative Christians have long believed that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis around 1,500 B.C., well before the Enuma Elish was written; hence, Genesis could not have been influenced by it, much less by any cosmological notions from a thousand years later.

Another problem is that there is no evidence that the Babylonians believed in a solid vault or dome. In 1975, when Assyriologist W. G. Lambert re-examined this issue, he found there was no evidence for the idea that the Babylonians conceived of the sky as a solid vault. The only “evidence” was Peter Jensen's unjustified translation of the term in Enuma Elish as “heavenly vault.” Lambert thought there was some support for the notion that the ancient Babylonians viewed the cosmos as a series of flat, superimposed layers of the same size separated by space, held together by rope. But there was no dome or vault in Babylonian cosmology.

The larger and more basic problem with the raqia-as-solid-dome theory is that it assumes that the Bible can reflect only the human wisdom and knowledge of its writers. The assumption is that whatever the cosmology of the ancient Near East, it must be reflected in the Scriptures. The conclusion flows from the premise. 

But this idea ignores the Bible's own claim that all Scripture is inspired by God (theopneustos, literally “God-breathed”) (2 Timothy 3:16). If “holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), then Scripture will reflect more than human wisdom. We err if we assume that it reflects only the flawed cosmology of some ancient culture.

The bottom line is that there is no real reason to accept the notion that the inspired writer of Genesis was trying to communicate a solid dome or vault by his use of the term “raqia.” If he had wanted to communicate that idea, he would have a used an appropriate word, instead of a word that simply means “expanse,” which he then paired with “the heavens.”  God created the expanse of the sky, in which the birds fly. 

As usual, Scripture is shown to be accurate, and her critics are refuted.  The Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.