Home > 2300 evening mornings, Antiochus IV, Book of Daniel, Genesis 1, The 2,300 days, The firmament > Denis O. Lamoureux on the firmament and waters above

Denis O. Lamoureux on the firmament and waters above

December 9, 2014

Denis O. Lamoureux is the author of “Lessons from the Heavens: On Scripture, Science and Inerrancy.” [Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 59, Number 1, March 2007.]

The article focuses upon concordism as an interpretive approach to biblical cosmology in contrast to what he calls a modern phenomenological perspective. Lamoureux included the following discussion of the firmament:

The Firmament and Waters Above
[pp. 5-7.]

One of the best passages to explore the veracity of scientific concordism is the origin of the heavens on the second day of creation:

God said, “Let there be a firmament between the waters to separate the water from the water.” So God made a firmament and separated the water under the firmament from the water above the firmament. And it was so. God called the firmament “heavens.” And there was evening, and there was morning— The Second Day. (Gen. 1:6–8)

Popular evangelical Bibles like the New American Standard (1971) and New International Version (1978) replace the word “firmament” with the term “expanse.” As a result, readers are given the impression that the expanse refers to the atmosphere and outer space. Such an understanding aligns well with the fourth day of creation and placement of the sun, moon, and stars in the expanse. Leading anti-evolutionists follow this concordist approach in two basic ways. For example, in their classic The Genesis Flood (1961), Henry Morris and John Whitcomb assert:

On the second day of creation, the waters covering the earth’s surface were divided into two great reservoirs—one below the firmament and one above; the firmament being the “expanse” above the earth now corresponding to the troposphere … With the biblical testimony concerning a pre-flood canopy of waters, we have an adequate source for the waters of a universal flood.

In another harmonization of Scripture and science, Hugh Ross claims that the “expanse” in Gen. 1:6–8 refers to the troposphere and the “waters above” are water vapor. He contends that “God’s ‘separation’ of the water accurately describes the formation of the troposphere, the atmospheric layer just above the ocean where clouds form and humidity resides.” Clearly, both of these concordist interpretations are dependent on the meaning of the term “firmament/expanse,” which appears five times on the second day of creation.

The Hebrew word raqîa‘ does not refer to the troposphere or outer space. Ancient Near Eastern astronomers believed that the world was enclosed by a solid dome overhead that upheld a sea of water. In fact, this ancient science is reflected in the etymology. The noun raqîa‘ derives from the verb raqa‘ which means to “flatten,” “stamp down,” “spread out,” and “hammer out.” That is, this Hebrew verb carries a nuance of flattening something solid rather than forming a broad open space like the atmosphere. Exodus 39:3 and Isa. 40:19 use raqa‘ for pounding metals into thin plates, and Num. 16:38 employs riqqua‘ (broad plate) in a similar context. The verb raqa‘ is even found in a passage referring to the creation of the sky, which is understood to be a firm surface like a metal. Job 37:18 asks, “Can you join God in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?”

The Bible also affirms the ancient astronomical concept of a heavenly body of water.  On the second day of creation, the Creator makes solid raqîa‘ and lifts the “waters above.” Psalm 104:2–3 states that “God stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.” In calling forth praise from the physical realities of the sun, moon, and stars, Ps. 148:4 appeals to the heavenly sea, another real astronomical structure according to the ancient writer: “Praise the Lord you highest heavens and you waters above the skies.” And Jer. 10:12–13 claims, “God stretches out the heavens by his understanding. When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar.” Notably, these last three passages appear after Noah’s flood. In other words, the collapse of a preflood canopy as proposed by young earth creation betrays the biblical evidence since the “waters above” remain intact in the heavens. For that matter, the firmament holding up the heavenly waters is still there in David’s day as revealed in the beloved nineteenth psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the raqîa‘ proclaims the work of his hands” (cf. Ps. 150:1). Moreover, attempts to argue that the water referred to in these passages is water vapor fail to acknowledge that Hebrew has the words, ’ed, nasî’ and ‘anan which carry meanings of “mist,” “vapor,” and “cloud” (Gen. 2:6, 9:14; Job 36:27; Ps. 135:7), and the inspired writers did not use them. In particular, the common noun mayim appears five times on the second creation day and it is always translated as “water/s” in English Bibles.

The conceptualization of the firmament and waters above makes perfect sense from a phenomenological perspective. The color of the sky is a changing blue similar to a lake or sea, and rain falls to the ground from above. The ancients logically reasoned that a solid structure upheld this body of water. However, it is essential to understand that statements in Scripture about nature are from an ancient phenomenological perspective. What the biblical writers and other ancient peoples saw with their eyes, they believed to be real, like the firmament and heavenly sea. This was the science-of-the-day in the ancient Near East. In contrast, we view the physical world from a modern phenomenological perspective. Thanks to modern scientific knowledge, when we see the blue dome of the sky, we know that it is only an appearance or visual effect caused by the scattering of short wave light in the upper atmosphere. Consequently, it is critical that these two different perspectives of nature be differentiated and not conflated in the reading of Scripture.

History of Interpretation

For many evangelical Christians today, it comes as a surprise that biblical translators and leading Christian figures during a great part of history accepted the reality of the firmament and waters above. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint; ca. 250 BC) renders raqîa‘ as stereoma, which ancient astronomers conceived as a physical structure overhead—either an inverted bowl covering over a flat earth in a three-tier universe, or a sphere enveloping a global earth in a geocentric world. This noun is related to the adjective stereos, a common term for “firm,” “hard,” and “solid.” The importance of the Septuagint cannot be overstated since New Testament writers often used it in quoting Old Testament passages. Similarly, the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, has raqîa‘ as firmamentum. This word is also associated with an adjective (firmus), from which derives the English word “firm.” The Latin Bible was translated during the fifth century and served the church for over one thousand years. Its impact upon early English versions like the King James Version (1611) is obvious in that raqîa‘ is rendered as “firmament.”

The towering church father Augustine also embraced an ancient astronomy. In a chapter entitled “The Motion of Heaven and the Meaning of Firmament” from Literal Meaning of Genesis (415), he cautions:

Bear in mind that the term “firmament” does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven: we may understand this name as given to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the waters below.

Similarly, protestant reformer Martin Luther in his Lectures on Genesis (1536) noted that the Bible: “simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven (below and above which are the waters)…The bodies of the stars, like that of the sun, are round, and they are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire.”

In fact, Luther was quick to chastize anyone questioning concordism:

“We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.”

The concordist hermeneutic was not limited to theologians only. Scientists like Galileo attempted to align their astronomy with Scripture. In the “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” (1615), he explained the stopping of the sun in Joshua 10 by using a heliocentric universe. With the Copernican system one can very clearly and very easily give a literal meaning to another detail which one reads about the same miracle; that is, that the sun stopped in the middle of the heavens.

According to Copernicus, the sun was literally in the center of the universe and surrounded by spheres with their respective planet. Galileo argued that since the rotation of the sun caused the movement of spheres and planets, then inhibiting the motion of the sun would also stop the earth’s rotation and account for the miracle in Joshua 10. Regarding the firmament, which was the final sphere in Copernicus’s heliocentric universe, Galileo argued that “the word firmament is literally very appropriate for the stellar sphere and everything above the planetary orbs, which is totally still and motionless according to this arrangement.” Scientific concordism and belief in the reality of the firmament and waters above characterizes the hermeneutical approach of Christians for over three-quarters of church history. In other words, the traditional and conservative interpretation of the creation of the heavens on the second day of Genesis 1 affirms that God called into existence a solid structure that lifted up a body of water over the earth. Of course, no one today believes in the firmament or heavenly sea, and I doubt anyone would see him or herself as a liberal Christian, let alone a “wicked” denier of Scripture or a “presumptuous” interpreter of it. With this being the case, the question naturally arises: should our scientific views determine the orthodoxy of our faith?

Modern Evangelical Old Testament Scholarship

Interestingly, a review of evangelical commentaries published in our generation reveals that most interpreters dismiss the originally intended meaning of the Hebrew word raqîa‘ and fail to conserve the traditional Christian understanding of the origin and structure of the heavens in Scripture. In order to do so, two basic hermeneutical approaches appear. First, the notion of a firmament has evolved conceptually from a solid dome overhead into the atmosphere and outer space. Similarly, the waters above no longer refer to a heavenly sea but to clouds, rain, and water vapor. Second, a number of evangelical Old Testament scholars employ a poetic or figurative language argument in order to mitigate conflicts between the Bible and modern astronomy. The former strategy is openly concordist, while the latter attempts to redirect attention away from difficulties produced by concordism.

Harris, Archer, and Waltke’s Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (1980) depicts these interpretive approaches. Notably, the word studies in this two-volume set have been a powerful influence in shaping the meaning of Hebrew terms for the current generation of evangelical theologians, pastors, and students of Scripture. In the entry on raqîa‘, J. Barton Payne states: Raqîa‘ is the most important derivative of raqa‘. It identifies God’s heavenly expanse. The Mosaic account of creation uses raqîa‘ for [1] the “open expanse of the heavens” in which birds fly (Gen. 1:20 NASB), i.e., the atmosphere, and [2] that farther expanse of sky in which God placed “the light … for signs and for seasons” (vv. 14, 17, referring apparently to their becoming visible through cloud cover; the stars, sun, and moon presumably having been created already in v. 3), i.e., empty space, over which, as Job said, “He stretches out the north” (Job 26:7). The former [the atmosphere] receives greater emphasis, particularly during that period before the second day, when the earth cooled sufficiently (?) to permit surface waters, separated from what must still have been a massive cloud-bank above, by the atmospheric expanse.

According to Payne:

“In pre-Christian Egypt, confusion was introduced into biblical cosmology when the LXX [Septuagint], perhaps under the influence of Alexandrian theories of a “stone vault” of heaven, rendered raqîa‘ by stereoma, suggesting some firm, solid structure.” [J. Barton Payne, in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers, 1980. v. 2]

Embracing a similar concordist hermeneutic, Walter C. Kaiser asserts in his word study on mayim that the waters above are “the watery clouds of heaven.” He then sharply rebukes “liberal” interpreters for misunderstanding the nature of figurative language in Scripture. Many liberal critics draw a crude picture of biblical cosmology in which the “waters on high” [i.e., waters above] are held back by a solid firmament, being permitted to fall to the earth through “windows.” Actually, this is a strange mixture of mistranslation and misuse of poetic imagery … An “expanse” (rather than the Greek and Latin derivative “firmament”) was created between two bodies (Gen. 1:6). No idea of hardness, dome-like effect or solidity is attached here.

Ralph H. Alexander explains more precisely the poetic language argument in his entry on shamayim, the Hebrew word for “heavens.” He notes:

The heavens are frequently described in figurative language as having windows (Gen. 7:11 …), gates (Gen. 28:7), doors (Ps. 78:23), pillars (Job 26:11), and foundations (2 Sam. 22:8). They are stretched out and spread out like a tent or a curtain (Isa. 40:22). The use of such figurative language no more necessitates the adoption of a pagan cosmology than does the modern use of the term “sunrise” imply astronomical ignorance. The imagery is often phenomenological, and is both convenient and vividly forceful.

Despite the unnecessary and uncharitable rhetoric in some of its entries, the Theological Wordbook presents an interpretation of the origin and structure of heavens in Scripture commonly held by evangelical Old Testament scholars today.

A few comments are in order regarding the poetic language argument. First, the use of metaphors is a common practice in science to describe physical reality. For example, the magnetic field theory employs an agrarian category. In Scripture, the world is compared to a tent (Ps. 19:4; Ps. 104:2; Isa. 40:22), modeling exactly an ancient understanding of the structure of the universe— a flat earth (tent floor) with a heavenly dome overhead (tent canopy).

Second, poetic passages in Scripture often refer to actual physical realities. To illustrate, “Praise the Lord, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies” (Ps. 148:3–4). No one today doubts the existence of the sun, moon, and stars. However, attempts to write off the “waters above the skies” as merely “figurative” because this phrase appears in a poetic passage introduces a blatant inconsistency in the interpretation of these verses— acceptance of the first three heavenly bodies mentioned and then rejection of the last. To ancient Near Eastern peoples, the waters above were as real as the sun, moon, and stars, and not fanciful poetic dressing.

Third, if the biblical writers had intended the terms “firmament” and “waters above” to be poetic expressions, then it means that they had an understanding of the structure of the world other than that presented in Scripture. In other words, these inspired authors would be like us, knowing the real structure of the heavens. Consequently, they and other ancient Near Eastern people would have both poetic literary works and a distinct scientific literature that describes and explains physical reality. But there is no historical evidence whatsoever indicating that this was the case. The astronomy found in God’s Word is the same as that found in the written works of nations surrounding God’s chosen people.

Finally, the poetic language argument is ultimately rooted in a conflation of the ancient and modern phenomenological perspectives. To explain this categorical confusion, consider the fact that everyone today understands the “rising of the sun” is only figurative language based on a visual effect. When we see the sun “rise,” we know that it is only an appearance caused by the earth’s rotation. However, this was not the case in the ancient world. The biblical authors and surrounding peoples believed what their eyes saw—the sun literally moved across the sky. In fact, the idea that the earth rotates daily on its axis causing the visual phenomenon of “sunrise” only became accepted in the seventeenth century.

Consequently, the inspired writers of Scripture did not use poetic language regarding the heavens in the way we do because the modern phenomenological perspective had yet to be conceived. In sum, the poetic language argument is eisegetical in that it reads into the Word of God alien categories from the modern scientific world.

Daniel 8:23-27
And in the latter time of their kingdom, when the transgressors are come to the full, a king of fierce countenance, and understanding dark sentences, shall stand up. And his power shall be mighty, but not by his own power: and he shall destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people. And through his policy also he shall cause craft to prosper in his hand; and he shall magnify himself in his heart, and by peace shall destroy many: he shall also stand up against the Prince of princes; but he shall be broken without hand. And the vision of the evening and the morning which was told is true: wherefore shut thou up the vision; for it shall be for many days.

The first part of the chapter, vs. 9-14, reveals the role of Antiochus IV in causing the corruption of the cosmology of Scripture. Verses 13-14 specify the date of the scientific revolution. The heavens were to be “cleansed,” 2,300 evening-mornings (or years) from the date of the vision, the third year of Belshazzar, about 550 BC. [Dan.8:1] Thus the first part of the vision is connected with the scientific revolution in astronomy, and indirectly with other physical sciences, and with the development of modern technology. In verses 23-27 Antiochus IV appears as a type of antichrist, who opposes “the Prince of princes.” In Daniel’s prophecy, Antiochus IV personifies and signifies the future rise of science and technology in the world, and its effect upon the Christian Church. “And his power shall be mighty, but not by his own power: and he shall destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people.”