Firmaments, cosmic oceans and Church Fathers #2

The main burden of today’s post has to do with the firmament and the cosmic ocean, since these are the controversial assumptions in the “normal” (goldfish-bowl) view of Hebrew cosmology, to some extent based on the evidence that the Septuagint Greek translators, who knew a thing or two, insisted that the Hebrew raqia meant something very solid, a στερεωμα (translated into Latin as “firmamentum”). But before I go there, let’s look at what St Basil says about the creation of light on Day 2 of the creation account, before the sun.

I’ve been arguing that some of the great problems this seems to present to modern interpreters can be bypassed by realising that, to someone unaware of the rather counterintuitive phenomenon of the scattering of sunlight, it may seem self-evident that the blue sky is itself luminous.

I’ve backed that up by the pre-philosophical Greek belief that the upper heavens were made of “aither“, a light and luminous substance whose very etymology is “light” or “burning”. More recently I discovered from Wayne Horowitz’s book that some Babylonian texts show a belief that the sky was bright independently of the heavenly bodies.

Now Basil writes, of course, much later than all of this. But he does not attempt to theologise the light of Day 2 (as some modern authors do) either by attributing it to the uncreated light of God himself, or to some display of his miraculous power to make light independently of a light source. Instead, he seems (like the Greeks and Babylonians) to take the bright sky in his stride as some kind of “natural” phenomenon:

And God said, Let there be light. Genesis 1:3 The first word of God created the nature of light; it made darkness vanish, dispelled gloom, illuminated the world, and gave to all beings at the same time a sweet and gracious aspect. The heavens, until then enveloped in darkness, appeared with that beauty which they still present to our eyes. The air was lighted up, or rather made the light circulate mixed with its substance, and, distributing its splendour rapidly in every direction, so dispersed itself to its extreme limits. Up it sprang to the very æther and heaven. In an instant it lighted up the whole extent of the world, the North and the South, the East and the West. For the æther also is such a subtle substance and so transparent that it needs not the space of a moment for light to pass through it…

“And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night.” Genesis 1:5 Since the birth of the sun, the light that it diffuses in the air, when shining on our hemisphere, is day; and the shadow produced by its disappearance is night. But at that time it was not after the movement of the sun, but following this primitive light spread abroad in the air or withdrawn in a measure determined by God, that day came and was followed by night.

(Homily II)

Turning to Hexaemeron Homily 3 On the Firmament (Στερεωμα), let me remind you that the Greek-speaking Basil derived his commentary from the Septuagint alone, not speaking Hebrew, and so took the word στερεωμα (something fixed), as Holy Writ. In describing the firmament he writes from his knowledge of the Greek in terms of its strength – but not quite as we might expect:

Scripture constantly makes use of the word firmament to express extraordinary strength. “The Lord my firmament and refuge.” “I have strengthened the pillars of it.” “Praise him in the firmament of his power.” The heathen writers thus call a strong body one which is compact and full, to distinguish it from the mathematical body. A mathematical body is a body which exists only in the three dimensions, breadth, depth, and height. A firm body, on the contrary, adds resistance to the dimensions. It is the custom of Scripture to call firmament all that is strong and unyielding. It even uses the word to denote the condensation of the air: He, it says, who strengthens the thunder. Scripture means by the strengthening of the thunder, the strength and resistance of the wind, which, enclosed in the hollows of the clouds, produces the noise of thunder when it breaks through with violence. Here then, according to me, is a firm substance, capable of retaining the fluid and unstable element water…

We must not believe that it resembles frozen water or any other matter produced by the filtration of water; as, for example, rock crystal, which is said to owe its metamorphosis to excessive congelation, or the transparent stone which forms in mines. This pellucid stone, if one finds it in its natural perfection, without cracks inside, or the least spot of corruption, almost rivals the air in clearness. We cannot compare the firmament to one of these substances… I, nevertheless, dare not affirm that the firmament was formed of one of these simple substances, or of a mixture of them, for I am taught by Scripture not to allow my imagination to wander too far afield.

Incidentally, this comment addresses a claim from a book review, ρεψεντλυ re-posted at BioLogos, that Patristic authors, unfettered by scientific constraints, let their exegetical imginations run wild. Basil was not unique in thinking otherwise. He goes on:

Therefore we read: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” I have said what the word firmament in Scripture means. It is not in reality a firm and solid substance which has weight and resistance; this name would otherwise have better suited the earth. But, as the substance of superincumbent bodies is light, without consistency, and cannot be grasped by any one of our senses, it is in comparison with these pure and imperceptible substances that the firmament has received its name. Imagine a place fit to divide the moisture, sending it, if pure and filtered, into higher regions, and making it fall, if it is dense and earthy; to the end that by the gradual withdrawal of the moist particles the same temperature may be preserved from the beginning to the end.

To Basil, then, the firmament is self-evidently that intangible, yet strong, thing which supports water in its vaporous form, yet enables it to fall in liquid form. He justifies this from his belief (which I mentioned last time) that Gen 1.1 treats of an initial creation of the earth and God’s heaven above it:

“And God called the firmament heaven.” Genesis 1:8 The nature of right belongs to another, and the firmament only shares it on account of its resemblance to heaven. We often find the visible region called heaven, on account of the density and continuity of the air within our ken, and deriving its name “heaven” from the word which means to see. It is of it that Scripture says, “The fowl of the air,” “Fowl that may fly…in the open firmament of heaven;” Genesis 1:20 and, elsewhere, “They mount up to heaven.” Moses, blessing the tribe of Joseph, desires for it the fruits and the dews of heaven, of the suns of summer and the conjunctions of the moon, and blessings from the tops of the mountains and from the everlasting hills, in one word, from all which fertilises the earth. In the curses on Israel it is said, “And your heaven that is over your head shall be brass.” Deuteronomy 28:23 What does this mean? It threatens him with a complete drought, with an absence of the aerial waters which cause the fruits of the earth to be brought forth and to grow.

Mediaeval depiction of Day 2 – note the form of the waters above the non-solid firmament.

We see not only an affirmation that the “firmament” is the whole region above the earth, named “heavens” in Genesis by analogy to the highest heaven, but even the use of one of the proof texts brought nowadays for a solid raqia to confirm his conclusion (exactly in agreement with my own interpretation, as it happens!).

If Basil has hinted already that the purpose of the firmament is related to the rains, he goes on specifically about the meaning of “waters above the firmament”:

Since, then, Scripture says that the dew or the rain falls from heaven, we understand that it is from those waters which have been ordered to occupy the higher regions. When the exhalations from the earth, gathered together in the heights of the air, are condensed under the pressure of the wind, this aerial moisture diffuses itself in vaporous and light clouds; then mingling again, it forms drops which fall, dragged down by their own weight; and this is the origin of rain. When water beaten by the violence of the wind, changes into foam, and passing through excessive cold quite freezes, it breaks the cloud, and falls as snow. You can thus account for all the moist substances that the air suspends over our heads.

Now one might argue that this is accommodationism, imposing a scientific knowledge of the water cycle on the biblical text. If it is accommodation of Genesis, it is actually to the other Hebrew Scriptures which, as I myself have often pointed out, contains in many passages knowledge that rain comes from clouds that are replenished with water rising from the sea or “the horizon”. All Basil has done is to assume that Scripture is not contradicting itself in the creation account.

Citing Basil’s understanding does not, of course, prove that the ancient Hebrew writers actually viewed things the same way. But it does show that a koine Greek-speaking Christian theologian using a koine Greek translation did not believe that στερεωμα necessarily implies something hard and solid, thus destroying the claim that the Septuagint translators must necessarily have thought it did.

It also shows that modern (mainly Evangelical) suggestions that the firmament and upper waters may well correspond to “the expanse of the atmosphere/sky” and “the clouds” are not simply wishful thinking in the face of overwhelming evidence that it means a solid vault and a cosmic ocean. It is rather the view of the first serious Christian theologian to comment at length on the creation story of Genesis. And, as I showed in my three recent posts on Horowitz, his views are closer to the actual “ANE cosmology” than those insisted upon by writers like Seely, apparently accepted as definitive by most Evolutionary Creationists.

I’ll close by citing a passage from Homily IX, which directly refers to both of the common modern approaches to Genesis 1, that of allegorising it and that of accommodating it (positively or negatively) to modern science. Basil dismisses both approaches, preferring the kind of literalism that takes genre into account (as did William Tyndale) and reads the text carefully:

I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Romans 1:16

Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth. If it be spherical or cylindrical, if it resemble a disc and is equally rounded in all parts, or if it has the forth of a winnowing basket and is hollow in the middle; all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes; he has not said that the earth is a hundred and eighty thousand furlongs in circumference; he has not measured into what extent of air its shadow projects itself while the sun revolves around it, nor stated how this shadow, casting itself upon the moon, produces eclipses. He has passed over in silence, as useless, all that is unimportant for us. Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? Shall I not rather exalt Him who, not wishing to fill our minds with these vanities, has regulated all the economy of Scripture in view of the edification and the making perfect of our souls?

The work of Day 4 – Sun, moon, stars – and clouds of heaven.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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