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On the firmament in Psalm 136:6

November 2, 2014

In an essay on Reading Biblical Poetry in the Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin commented on the Hebrew used in Psalm 136:6. [Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 2101-2012.]

Berlin noted that the psalmist’s interpretation of how the world was created in this psalm does not match the account presented in Genesis:

No discussion of poetry can omit imagery, or metaphor, often thought to be the essence of poetry. It is not merely a question of inserting metaphors here and there for decoration; imagery, like parallelism, is pervasive in poetry. Poetry envisions the world metaphorically; it offers an alternative way of seeing reality. As medieval Jewish scholars put it, “the best part of poetry is its falseness” (that is, its figurativeness). They got this idea from Arabic sources, who in turn got it from Aristotle. Poetry, in this view, is not only elevated language, it is elevated vision.

A small example is in Ps. 136.6. We looked at this psalm earlier, noting how it poeticizes the creation story in Gen. ch. 1. But the poetry in Ps. 136 is not merely a matter of breaking up prose sentences into terse, parallelistic poetic lines; it is a matter of re-envisioning the account of creation. Ps. 136.6 says that God “spread (Heb roka’) the earth over the water.” Genesis does not say this; in fact, according to Gen. 1.9, the water was gathered to one place so dry land could appear–the land was actually under the water, visible when the water was removed. Moreover, the word that the psalm uses for “spread” is the same word that Genesis uses for “firmament.” The psalmist has a different conception, or a different interpretation of how the world was created. He sees the earth being spread, like a firmament, upon the water. The earth is a firm expanse set permanently in place over the waters (the forces of chaos, which cannot now escape); the earth is made analogous to the firmament in Genesis that separates the upper and lower waters. The psalm’s conception of the creation of the earth is more mythological than that of Genesis, more like, for instance, Ps. 24.2: “He founded it [the world] upon the ocean, set it on the nether-streams.” Poetry can retain more mythological concepts than prose, not because it is more primitive (Ps. 136 is probably exilic, after 586 BCE), but because it is free to call upon more imaginative views of the universe than can be tolerated in the “logical” or “theological” discourse of prose.

The psalmist clearly paraphrased Genesis 1, but wrote long before the hellenistic age, when that portion of the Scripture was changed by Antiochus IV and his agents, hellenized Jews who admired Greek philosophy. The psalmist comments on the original creation account. Later, the earth, or ‘raqia‘ was identified with the rigid heaven of the Greek cosmology. Psalm 136:6 preserves original information contained in Genesis 1, which refers to the earth’s rocky crust being formed in the primeval waters on the second day. The original scriptures provided no support for geocentrism or a rigid heaven revolving around the earth.

Isaiah wrote:

Isaiah 66:1

“Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.”

What king in his right mind would rotate his throne around his footstool every day?