What is the "Firmament" of Genesis 1:6?
Much discussion has centered on the meaning of the term “firmament” (Hebrew raqia; “expanse”—ESV, NIV, NASB) in Genesis 1:6,7,8,14,15,17,20. The word “firmament” leaves the impression that Moses was saying a solid dome surrounds the Earth, which Bible skeptics have used to argue that the Bible teaches erroneous beliefs from antiquity.1
The translation “firmament,” however, is not so much a translation of the original Hebrew term as it is a transliteration of a term used in the Latin Vulgate (i.e., firmamentum) which was translated from the Greek Septuagint term (stereoma) that was used for the Hebrew raqia. The uninspired translators of the Septuagint, who were translating for an Egyptian pharaoh in Egypt,2 were apparently influenced by the then conventional belief in Egypt that the heavens are a stone vault.3 The Hebrew term raqia, however, does not suggest such a meaning. Rather, it refers to something that has been stretched, spread, or beaten out—like metal.4 The idea is that on day two, God divided the waters of Earth, spreading them out from one another and moving some above the Earth, and creating that which holds those waters apart—much like what a solid would do.
God then defined the raqia as “heaven(s)” (shamayim). Shamayim, however, was used in three distinct ways by the Hebrews (and by God through His inspired spokesmen). It could mean the sky or atmosphere where the birds fly and the clouds gather (Jeremiah 4:25; Matthew 6:26). It could mean outer space where the stars are situated (Genesis 1:14-15; Psalm 19:4,6; Isaiah 13:10), and it could also mean the place where God dwells (Psalm 2:4; Hebrews 9:24). Context must be used to determine which heaven is referenced. In this case, the heaven identified would affect one’s identification of the water that God separated.
The typical interpretation of raqia and “heaven” in Genesis 1:6 is that God created the sky on day two, separating water vapor in the sky (clouds) from liquid water. Most commentators and translators support this interpretation. Various Creation scientists have theorized that the waters above the firmament were not the sky, but rather, formed a water canopy like a bubble that burst at the Flood. The idea is attractive, as the greenhouse effect that would be generated helps theoretically to explain, for example, the long lifespans of the patriarchs of Genesis five. While the theory has strengths, its weaknesses have caused it to fall on hard times—namely, that simulations indicate the greenhouse effect caused by the canopy would be too severe. Unless the solar constant was reduced to 1/4th of its current value, water on the Earth would boil and life would be exterminated.5 Further, although there still may have been a canopy of some sort, the features of the canopy theory that made it attractive have been shown to be explainable in other ways.
Other Creation scientists have suggested that the second meaning of heaven is being referenced, and the raqia refers to outer space, since the stars were placed in the “heaven” that God created (vs. 17) and the birds created on day five are described as flying across the “face” of the heavens, rather than in the heavens (vs. 20). This interpretation would mean that the waters above the raqia would be water on the outskirts of the Universe, helping to explain why the stars appear to be accelerating outward, as though drawn by a distant gravitational source.6
Regardless of the meaning of raqia, the Bible does not support or endorse erroneous beliefs of mankind from antiquity. The Bible is accurate with regard to its scientific allusions 100% of the time.
1 Asimov (1981), In the Beginning (New York: Crown), p. 33; Schadewald, Robert J. (1983), “The Evolution of Bible-science,” Scientists Confront Creationism, ed. Laurie R. Godfrey (New York: W.W. Norton), p. 290.
2 The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, with an English Translation (1970) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), pp. i-ii.
3 J. Barton Payne (1980), “raqia,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, Jr. and Bruce Waltke (Chicago, IL: Moody), 2:862; James Orr, ed. (1956), “Astronomy,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:315.
4 Orr, p. 315; L. Koehler, et al. (1994-2000), The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, electronic ed.), p. 1290; F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs (1906), The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), p. 956.