BioLogos have an article on the firmament of Genesis 1, “The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point“, by Peter Enns. He begins by twice asserting that biblical scholars agree that the expanse (raqiya`) is solid and appeals to observation of the horizon and the assumption ancients thought the world flat.
Ancient Israelites “saw” this barrier when they looked up. There were no telescopes, space exploration, or means of testing the atmosphere. They relied on what their senses told them. Even today, looking up at a clear sky in open country, the sky seems to “begin” at the horizons and reaches up far above. Ancient Israelites and others in that part of the world assumed the world was flat, and so it looked like the earth is covered by a dome, and the “blue sky” is the “water above” held back by the raqia.
Really? Clouds clearly move across the sky, as does the sun and moon, and even stars. Does the sky really look solid, or is solidity invoked by some cultures to explain rain? Enns does not mention that a curved horizon could lead observers to think the earth spherical, especially combined with observing lunar eclipses.
He goes on to discuss word meanings.
The translation “firmament” (i.e., firm) gets across this idea of a solid structure.
The comment on “firmament” is unhelpful because, although it does carry the idea of firmness, he implies by using the word “translation” in the above sentence that raqiya` means firm when the etymology of “firmament “is actually via Latin.
Biblical scholars agree on this understanding of raqia. For some Christians, however, this is troubling. How can the Bible, which is the inspired, revealed word of God, contain such an inaccurate piece of ancient nonsense? Hence, some invest a lot of time and energy to show that the raqia is not solid but more like the atmosphere. Often, the word “expanse” is the preferred translation because it does not necessarily imply something solid.
We will note here that Young’s Literal Translation published in 1898 uses the word “expanse”. And “expanse” is considered more accurate given that raqiya` is more likely related to “spread out” than it is to “solidity”.
The second problem is a much larger theological issue, but is actually more foundational. Regardless of what one thinks of the raqia, why would anyone assume that the ancient cosmology in Genesis could be expected to be in harmony with modern science in the first place?
Well it may not be in harmony with modern science, by why can it not be in harmony with the truth? If the atmosphere is how it is, why can Scripture and science not both be in harmony with this? Is it somehow better to have Scripture not concordant with the way things are? Modern science understands pregnancy in greater detail than understood by the ancients. Following Enns here it would seem that an inaccurate understanding of the virgin birth by the ancients be more likely to be recorded than an accurate one. But the ancients knew that virgin conceptions were impossible, even if they did not understand activation. Why cannot the ancients appreciate a non-solid expanse even if they did not understand partial pressures of gases, absolute temperatures, and triple points? Every observable can be considered a fact of science. Should every observation in Scripture be expected to be at odds with reality because it can also be described by modern science?
As a matter of clarification, I don’t think that Genesis is in harmony with several scientific cosmologies.
Genesis and modern science are neither enemies nor friends, but two different ways of describing the world according to the means available to the people living at these different times. To insist that the description of the sky in Genesis 1 must conform to contemporary scientific is a big theological problem. It is important to remember that God always speaks in ways that people can actually understand. In the ancient world, people held certain views about the world around them.
There is some truth to this latter comment, God may talk in ways that men understand (though not always). An important distinction here is that simplification is not the same as falsity. As Sarfati has often said
A mother might tell her four-year-old ‘you grew inside my tummy’—this is not false, but language simplified to the child’s level (‘tummy’ as a broad term for the abdominal region, but not as specific as ‘uterus’). Conversely, ‘the stork brought you’ is an outright error.
The greater problem here, however, is separating knowledge into scientific and biblical. Yes they are distinct, but by nature of the way they arrive at knowledge. They are epistemologically distinct. But that does not mean they speak to different topics. They may make competing claims on the nature of reality and real events of history. To have an account in the Bible that corresponds generally to the way things actually are, even if that coincides with contemporary science, is hardly a theological problem.
Enns then lays out 7 reasons for solidity of the expanse:
- The other cosmologies from the ancient world depict some solid structure in the sky. The most natural explanation of the raqia is that it also reflects this understanding. There is no indication that Genesis is a novel description of the sky;
- Virtually every description of raqia from antiquity to the Renaissance depicts it as solid. The non-solid interpretation of raqia is a novelty;
- According to the flood story in Gen 7:11 and 8:2, the waters above were held back only to be released through the “floodgates of the heavens” (literally, “lattice windows”);
- Other Old Testament passages are consistent with the raqia being solid (Ezekiel 1:22; Job 37:18; Psalm 148:4);
- According to Gen 1:20, the birds fly in front of the raqia (in the air), not in the raqia;
- The noun raqia is derived form the verb that means to beat out or stamp out, as in hammering metal into thin plates (Exodus 39:3). This suggests that the noun form is likewise related to something solid;
- Speaking of the sky as being stretched out like a canopy/tent (Isaiah 40:22) or that it will roll up like a scroll (34:4) are clearly similes and do not support the view that raqia in Genesis 1 is non-solid.
Many of these I have addressed previously but briefly
- Item #1 may be true, but then perhaps the Israelites didn’t borrow as much as we think, especially when we consider that Genesis 1 is much older than other cosmologies often referenced.
- I have not identified every occurrence nor researched their content so cannot answer item #2.
- Genesis 7:11 and 8:2 reference the “windows of heaven” and the “fountains of the great deep”. These are likely idioms. Nor does either passage actually suggest that the “windows of heaven” let thru the “waters above”.
- I have addressed Ezekiel 1 and Psalm 148 here. Job 37 (as currently translated) is suggestive of Enns’ thesis, and requires a discussion of its own
- In item #5 he mentions that birds fly on the face or surface of the expanse to which I concur. But this means that the surface at least is non-solid, and other passages mention birds within the expanse/ heavens. Using Enns’ own reasoning here the expanse must be non-solid.
- Item #6 is a difficult issue. I have addressed it here. The problem is that while etymology is helpful, it is not definitive. And it is likely that the idea transferred to the noun is “spread out”, not the metal which happens to be beaten.
- Item #7 is errant. These are clearly similes as I discuss here, but the association between the tent and heavens is that they are stretched out, not the material they are made from. The sky is stretched out like the way that a tent is stretched out. Consider the phrase, “The boy ran like lightening.” This is a simile, but no one would interpret the simile implies the boy is made of electricity.
I don’t have much to address in the latter part of the essay. I do not give a lot of credence to the phenomenological argument he tries to refute, other than saying that idioms do not necessarily mean what they literally say. But Genesis 1 is not using an idiom here. The moon comment is irrelevant. Objects can be lights directly or indirectly. The moon is a light whether it intrinsically produces electromagnetic radiation, or just reflects it.
We get to the end of the article. Enns finishes by saying
It is important to be clear on what we have a right to expect from Genesis. This is central to making progress in the conversation between science and faith.
And while I agree with this statement, Enns fails to mention what we can expect from Genesis. I suspect what he and I think is reasonable to exegete from Genesis differs considerably. A repeating theme is that ancient Israelites did not have modern knowledge (or equipment to gain them scientific knowledge). This assumes that what they wrote was based on their (false) beliefs about cosmology, which is usually assumed to be borrowed from other contemporary cultures. It is important to note here that Christians understand Scripture to be supernaturally revealed. Of course the Bible is historical. It touches events in history that were witnessed by Hebrews within and Gentiles without. We have documentary and archaeological evidence on biblical happenings. However while authors used historical sources and observation, insights into the meaning of events was often given by God. And even some historical events require supernatural revelation; how else would we be privy to dialogue between Yahweh and Satan concerning Job?
It would seem that Genesis 1 as history would need to be exclusively revealed as no humans witnessed it. If God created the universe, and if he could reveal the events of the 6 days of creation, and if Genesis 1 can easily be interpreted in line with what we actually observe about the earth and the atmosphere, then why the the desire to force errancy?