In my previous post, I examined Dr. Deborah Haarsma’s assumption that the original audience for the Genesis account of creation was the “ancient Hebrews.” In this post, I will turn to the claims that Dr. Haarsma makes about the ancient Hebrew understanding of the created order – namely, that they believed there was a solid sky dome above the earth.
As a reminder, here is the video to which I am responding. If you haven’t already watched it, please take a moment to do so.
So did the ancient Hebrews believe that there was a solid dome above the earth? And where do we go to find out what they believed? The only source for ancient Hebrew belief is the Bible, so that’s where we’ll turn.
Much of this discussion turns on the meaning of the Hebrew word raqia, which is first found in Genesis 1:6-8:
“And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day” (ESV).
The word raqia is translated in the ESV as “expanse,” which makes sense. In the NIV 2011, it is translated as “vault,” which makes somewhat less sense. The King James Version, however, translates this word as “firmament,” which is completely wrong.
And when we look at the KJV translation of raqia, things get really interesting. The word “firmament” comes from the Latin word firmamentum, which means “a support, a strengthening. That Latin word itself derives from the word firmus, which means “strong, steadfast, or enduring.” The King James translators chose this word to translate raqia because it was used in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Scripture.
Follow me here, because the trail is twisting and turning – but if you can follow this path, there’s a reward of clarity at the end of it. The Vulgate used the word firmamentum to translate the word stereoma, which was the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate raqia in Genesis 1. That Greek word means “what is solid and firm.”
So here’s the path we took to get from raqia to “firmament”:
raqia → stereoma → firmamentum → firmament
We’ve made the journey from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, and along the way, a serious error in translation occurred. You see, the word raqia comes from the Hebrew verb raqa. Raqa means “to spread out, to hammer out, or to overlay.” In Syriac, however, raqa means “to make firm or solid.” This is one of the sources of the mistaken (but oft-repeated) view that the ancient Hebrews believed that there was a solid sky dome above the earth.
Context is important here, as always. And there are a number of passages in Scripture that refer to the LORD’s having “stretched out” the heavens, which support the meaning of raqia as “something that has been stretched out, or spread out.”
Isaiah 42:5 – “Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it, and spirit to those who walk in it.”
Isaiah 44:24 – “Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself.”
And finally, Job 37:18 – “Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?”
Uh… Ahem. Okay. So… now what?
“Hard as a cast metal mirror!” Aha! The solid sky dome makes its appearance at last!! My argument has been defeated!
Or has it been?
I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here. As with most questions, this one too has already been answered elsewhere. To put it simply, Job is speaking metaphorically; the book of Job is filled with poetic language and metaphor, and this is one of many examples of metaphor in that book. Dr. Joseph R. Nally writes:
The picture being painted in the book of Job is that the sky is solid but thin, like a piece of metal being hammered out (Ex. 39:3; Isaiah 40:19). God stretches out the heavens like a tent (Ps. 104:2). Metaphorically speaking, the heavens are being viewed as hammered out at creation (I.e, a spreading out of the sky or an expanse – Gen. 1:7,8) and/or clouds daily changing their shapes or reforming (Job 36:28,29; cf. Gen. 9:13-16; Psalm 18:9-11).
‘Solid’ in the book of Job does not mean impenetrable. Above the firmament are storehouses for rain (Job 36:27-28) and snow and hail (Job 38:22), and there is a place above it for the sun, moon, and the stars (Job 9:7; 22:12; 30:28; 31:26; 37:21; cf. Gen. 1:14-17). Job’s metaphoric picture says the skies are ‘hard as a mirror of cast bronze.’ Glass mirrors were not known until Roman times. In the day and age of Job, mirrors were cast from hardened bronze (copper hardened by the addition of tin). So, metaphorically, God’s skies are durable and strong.
The problem with Dr. Haarsma’s statement is not limited to the idea that the ancient Hebrews believed in that solid sky dome, or in the flatness of the earth. It goes deeper – to a fundamental misinterpretation of the Bible’s symbolic and conceptual descriptions of creation. All human beings and cultures have a conceptual or symbolic understanding of the world, and a way of describing the world that is based in that understanding. The conceptual and symbolic understanding of the “ancient Hebrews” was shaped by God’s Word. The Lord willing, I will follow up on this important point in a subsequent examination of Dr. Haarsma’s assumptions.