Genesis 1:6-8 confused me for the longest time.

6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

I was always confused by what the “waters above” were. Was it a thick mist? Was it simply the atmosphere? Was it just a poetic way of describing rain? Like many other Christians, I concluded that it was mist or rain. But the Bible says “waters,” not mist or rain.

The problem is further complicated by verses 16 and 17:

16 God made two great lights–the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth…  (emphasis mine)

If the sun, moon, stars, and even birds (see verse 20) are in the firmament, then the firmament has to refer to everything above the ground, from the atmosphere to the farthest galaxy. This understanding presents a problem for modern readers, however, because the “waters above” would then be located over the sun and other celestial beings. If we interpret the “waters above” as rain or a mist, then we run into a conundrum.

Perhaps the best way to reconcile the problem is to understand that God spoke to the Hebrews using the cosmology of the day*. He spoke in a language that they would understand. Almost all Christians recognize that this happens in other parts of scripture. For instance, when we read that the sun rises and sets, we understand that the ancients probably imagined a geocentric universe and that God is speaking within this understanding. Likewise, when a passage talks about the floodgates of heaven opening, it is likely reflecting the beliefs of the day about where rain comes from.

So what was the Hebrews understanding of the universe? Did they know that the earth was an orb, that the universe was unimaginably extensive, or that the earth revolved around the sun? I hardly think so. This article may be a helpful explanation of their cosmology. Check it out and decide for yourself. To summarize the article, here is an image (taken from this blog) that illustrates many scholars’ view of Hebrew cosmology.

According to the article, the Hebrews believed that the firmament was a solid dome that formed a physical barrier between two bodies of water–the waters below (oceans, etc.) and a body of water that existed above the sky. If this understanding of Hebrew cosmology is correct, then a whole lot of light is shed on the subject of the firmament. The firmament and the waters above are not actual objects; they represent the Hebrews’ understanding of the sky and the universe beyond.

Bringing an understanding of Hebrew cosmology to the text dramatically affects the way it should be interpreted. This is really the whole point of this little exercise in thinking out loud. I have heard many Christians say that the correct interpretation of Genesis 1 is a strictly literal one because this is the “plain reading” of the text. In my last post, I tried to show that the passage was poetic and finely-crafted, and therefore, it was not intended to be strictly a plain account. In this post, I am suggesting that the passage is told in a way that made sense to the ancient Hebrews and to their understanding of the universe, and therefore, the account is not wholly true to what we have observed in outer space. That is not the point of the passage. The point is that the giant blue dome-like thing in the sky where the sun, moon, and stars move and the birds fly was built by our God. The passage is not any less true just because some of the elements are not literal.

 

 

* It is true that Hebrew cosmology is a reconstruction of scholars looking at the Biblical texts.

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