According to many versions, Proverbs 8:28 speaks of a ‘firm sky.’ For instance, both the NASB and the NRSV read: “When He made firm the skies above…” What basis is there for this rendering? On the other hand, at least as many interpreters have translated šĕḥāqîm — the Hebrew word translated as ‘sky’ above — as clouds, not as sky. If šĕḥāqîm indicates ‘clouds’ here, it would mean this verse makes no reference to a firmament at all. But the somewhat ambiguous nature of this word means we cannot lean to heavily on it alone, which brings the context and other considerations to the fore. What then of this ‘made firm’ business? Well once again we find that many other versions have given a different rendering of the Hebrew verb here, ʾmṣ, such as: “when he established the (clouds / sky) above.” So which one is it? We will see that in fact the literal sense of the verb, ʾmṣ, is simply to be or make strong. We will analyze this word in depth below. We must also come to a right understanding of the second clause of this verse, as it is clearly parallel to the first.
The purpose of this article is to analyze this passage in detail, and in particular to: a) review the way current scholarship and the versions have dealt with it, b) offer a detailed analysis of the Hebrew, giving special attention to the parallel verbs in each clause, and c) explore the larger context of 8:22-30. The conclusion I reach is that many of the interpretations went off course when they interpreted this strengthening language in a highly concrete manner, even though both verbs show little (to no) precedent for those kinds of renderings. Even more important is the context, which shows, I would say beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this ‘strengthening’ language was speaking of abundant waters. This is what the clouds above and the springs of the deep were ‘strengthened’ with, life-giving waters at creation. As such this passage, besides having quite a different meaning than so many have given it, has nothing at all to do with a firmament.
When He made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep … (NRSV)
When He made firm the skies above …” (NASB)
(When He) set Sky firmly in place … (and) built the vast vault of Heaven … (Message)
בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל בַּעֲזוֹז עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם
The Sky, Earth, And Seas Simply Defined
Then God said: Let there be a rāqîaʿ … so God made the rāqîaʿ … and God called the rāqîaʿ: ‘Sky!’ (šāmayim)…. Then God said: Let the waters … be gathered… and let the dry land (yabbašâ) appear.… Then God called the dry-land (yabbašâ): ‘Earth!’ (ʾereṣ), and the gatherings-of-water (mikwê hammayim) he called: ‘Seas!’ (yammim).
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי רָקִיעַ … וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָרָקִיעַ … וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ שָׁמָיִם … וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יִקָּווּ הַמַּיִם … וְתֵרָאֶה הַיַּבָּשָׁה … וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לַיַּבָּשָׁה אֶרֶץ וּלְמִקְוֵה הַמַּיִם קָרָא יַמִּים
– Genesis 1:6 – 10
According to Genesis 1, the rāqîaʿ is not some entity situated above the (spacious) skies, as it is often portrayed, rather it is the basic definition of the sky according to a straightforward reading of the text. The purpose of this article is to take a close look at the nature of this definition, and then to see how the information gleaned might inform this debate. We will do this first and foremost by comparing the creation of the sky in Genesis 1 with the creation of the other two ‘cosmic regions,’ namely the creation of the earth and the seas which occurred on day 3. What we find is an identical pattern in how each ‘cosmic region’ is created: First God calls one of the cosmic regions into being, but at this initial point he only refers to it by what we might call a simple but technical term, rather than by the commonly used name for that region (e.g. ‘sky,’ ‘earth,’ or ‘seas’). This ‘technical term’ provides a simple description of but a single physical characteristic of that region. Only after that region is ‘finished off’ does God give it its commonly used name, which in all three cases happens to be the most frequently used term in the Hebrew Bible for that ‘cosmic region.’ In contrast, the three ‘technical terms’ are only infrequently used in the bible.
This is a synopsis of our main conclusions on this passage until a fuller treatment can be given.
Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?
(Job 37:18, NRSV)
תַּרְקִיעַ עִמּוֹ לִשְׁחָקִים חֲזָקִים כִּרְאִי מוּצָק
This passage is consistently used as one of the primary supporting texts for the ‘sky is a solid vault’ concept, and understandably so. The context of this passage is greatly important. It is a lengthy description of a storm which culminates with the theophany of God from the midst of an intense storm or tornado (seʿārâ, 38:1). Verse 15 speaks of God “causing the light of his cloud to shine forth.” The next two verses continue:
Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect, 17 you whose garments are hot when the earth is still because of the south wind? (NRSV)
Strikingly, our verse comes immediately after that verse, in which the clouds of the sky were the intense focus, as well as other quite local atmospheric phenomena, namely the hot blasting wind from the desert. A couple verses later we have this:
Continue reading “‘The Skies, Hard as a Molten Mirror’? – Job 37:18 (Synopsis)”
The number of texts in the bible that have been interpreted as referring to a firmament must have credible alternative explanations if this work is to stand. There is no way to summarize the problems and solutions to these different passages in a unified way, as they are unique to each passage.
This article will continually be expanded as we add more posts that address each of these passages in a separate post. The plan is to add links to each of these articles as they are added, perhaps with a short synopsis for each one.
… forthcoming …
In light of the consensus view on ‘the firmament’ that we just laid out, I present the following alternative view: Not only did the Hebrews not believe in any such ‘firm sky’ notion, apparently, neither did their ancient contemporaries. In short, there has never been any wide-spread ‘firmament’ notion in antiquity. What there has been is a confluence of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings and misreadings of ancient texts. In the case of the Hebrews, these misunderstandings started early in the history of biblical interpretation.
Many will read these claims with incredulity. But this is true in large part because most people have only been familiar with the evidence at a distance, being influenced mostly from popular level summary views on the purported ‘Hebrew Conception of the Universe.’ Most of these depictions, even if we were to accept the firmament notion, are highly selective with the evidence, giving the impression that the cosmic vault of the sky notion could be found on every other page of the ancient source material, when the direct opposite is the case. In the vast majority of cases, when the Bible or when other ancient peoples spoke of the sky, they spoke of it as a spacious region which could be inhabited: by birds, by the cosmic bodies, and then most importantly, by God himself (by ‘the gods’ for the non-Hebrews). The actual ratio might be closer to 1,000 to 1.
As such, these common depictions Continue reading “Neither the Hebrews nor Ancient Man Ever Believed in a ‘Firmament,’ But Both Believed in a Spacious Heavens”
The Second Day of Genesis 1 Describes … What?!?
Then God said: ‘Let there be a rāqîaʿ in the midst of the waters, and let it keep separating the waters from the waters. So God made the rāqîaʿ, and he separated the waters which were under the rāqîaʿ from the waters which were above the rāqîaʿ. And it was so. Then God named the rāqîaʿ: “Sky! (/ Heavens!)” And there was evening, and there was morning, the second day.
– Genesis 1:6-8
For thousands of years this passage has been an enigma for interpreters of the Bible.1 What is the meaning of this word ‘rāqîaʿ,’ and what exactly were these waters that it divided? Was this simply describing the creation of the atmosphere? Do these upper waters simply refer to the clouds? Or are there details in this passage that make those interpretations problematic? Looking at this passage within its context, we must also wonder: What is it about this event that an entire day of creation was devoted to it? And what relation does it have to the works God performed on the other five days of creation?
While it may come as a surprise to many, modern scholarship has long argued Continue reading “Introduction to the ‘Rāqîaʿ’ Problem”
Since this topic only rarely involves New Testament passages, “bible” in this work usually refers only narrowly to the Hebrew Bible / the ‘Old Testament’. ↩