In our recent YouTube livestream, Rob Rowe drew my attention to something I’d missed in the debate about whether Genesis teaches “obsolete science” that there is a solid dome over the world separating it from a celestial ocean. I’ve dealt with this topic in my book, and in a good few old posts here (search on “raqia”). Rob pointed out that in The Lost World of Adam and Eve, on page 37, John H. Walton states that he has now become convinced that the word traditionally translated “firmament,” which he long believed to mean a solid sheet, actually means “the space created by the separating of the waters…”.
Walton still clings to the “old science” theory by saying that the solid sky in Hebrew belief is actually represented by another word, sehaqim. However, this is usually translated as (thin) cloud, and indeed acts a synonym for the spiritual heavens in Jewish usage, and never for a barrier against inundation. In any case, this word does not appear in Genesis 1, so we have to conclude that a solid heavens is not taught at all in Genesis 1, because it is irrelevant to the purpose of the passage, even if we were to concede that Hebrews believed in a solid sky and a cosmic ocean.
Its absence tends to confirm my belief that the creation account is both phenomenological (describing the world we ordinarily perceive, not ancient or modern scientific theories about it), and orientated towards viewing the whole cosmos as God’s temple, thematically resembling the tabernacle constructed in the last chapters of Exodus.
The absence of a solid sky in Genesis 1 does not preclude its existence in ancient Hebrew thought, because the creation account also misses out sheol and even rivers, lakes and rain, which certainly existed in their minds, but not in their tabernacle. But I think one aspect of the account does make the solid dome/cosmic ocean idea difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. And that is the way the creation of birds and other winged creatures is described.
At the outset, in Genesis 1:2, the earth is tohu wabohu, well translated as “formless and empty.” God remedies this by creating the forms of realms in days 1-3, and filling their emptiness with denizens in days 4-6.
On Day 1, light is created and separated from darkness as night and day. These are both heavenly phenomena, and so their occupants, on Day 4 are the Sun (in the day), the Moon (in the night) and, for good measure, the stars.
Day 2 deals, primarily, with the separation of the waters into two by the creation of the raqia, which I agree with the self-updated Walton to mean the space between the earth and the sky, which by an ambiguous merism that is also seen in the English word “sky”, is named shemayim, or “heavens.” Later biblical passage distinguish this “heavens between the waters” from the “high heavens” in which God dwells, and which the astronomical bodies also clearly occupy.
Incidentally, the ultimate biblical scheme is shown where Paul speaks of the “third heaven.” In this case, the first heaven is the ordinary sky, the second the sphere of the astronomical bodies, and the third the spiritual dwelling of the God whom even the highest heavens cannot contain.
But just as on Day 1 it is not the created light itself, but the night and day separated from it, that form the realms later filled with the Sun, Moon and stars, so the “realm” of Day 2 is not the separating firmament, but the waters above and below it. I’ll return to that shortly, after briefly stating that Day 3 separates dry land from sea, so that on Day 6 the latter is filled with the animals and mankind.
OK, so let’s return to Day 2, and realms of “the waters below” and “the waters above,” both of which are, on the pattern of the rest of the account, intended to be “peopled” on Day 5. And lo and behold, that is what we see, in a feature inexplicable unless we have taken on board the pattern I have described. God creates aquatic creatures to occupy the waters below, and birds and winged creatures to fly above – because, following the logical structure of the account, they are the denizens of the waters above the “space” of the raqia.
Now, on the “solid dome/cosmic ocean” (or “goldfish bowl”) scheme, this raises a number of major problems. The first is that the idea of a chaotic, perhaps infinite, cosmic ocean kept out of the inhabited realm by the raqia, sehaqim or whatever you think it should be called, is refuted by the implication that the upper waters are inhabited, and by birds of all things. On that reckoning it’s not “turtles all the way down,” but “birds up, down and sideways.” Needless to say there is not a trace of such an idea anywhere in Hebrew or other ANE literature.
The second problem is that if the waters above are a cosmic ocean that gives birth to birds, they somehow have to find a way to penetrate the solid vault, stop breathing water, and fly about “in the open expanse of the heavens,” that is to say the sky.
If, to avoid these ridiculous consequences, we simply deny any connection between the waters above and birds, then as many have pointed out their mention on Day 5 is cack-handedly gratuitous. It’s as if Moses couldn’t think where to put them, but felt he had to shoe-horn them in somewhere.
The problems are all solved, at a stroke, if we abandon the myth of the solid dome from Moses’s thought, as well as from his creation account, altogether. As I have argued in my other writings, the Hebrews all knew that the clouds are made of water and produce rain, and yet are wondrously supported, apparently by nothing, in the heavens (Job 26:8; 36:24-29). Clouds are vital to life, and they also, in common experience, form the veil that to a greater or lesser extent hides our view of God’s heavens, thus fulfilling the parallel with the veil of the tabernacle hiding the Holy of Holies.
So the waters above the expanse of the sky are nothing other than the clouds, which modern science shows to contain 1.27×10^16Kg of the world’s water, and it is by no means a difficult conceptual step to view the clouds as the natural habitat of flying creatures. Now, experience also shows us that birds – even swifts – do not stay fly perpetually “across the face if the heavens.” And so God’s blessing of fruitfulness in Genesis 1:22 tells the fish and water creatures simply to be fruitful and multiply, with their natural environment assumed, whereas the birds are made to multiply “on the earth,” which is where their nesting happens, “as any fule kno.”
In summary, Genesis as a phenomenological account, with the clouds as the upper waters needing to be occupied, and without any trace of the erroneous concept of a solid sky and a cosmic ocean, makes not only for a rational account, but for a complete one in literary terms: God’s whole cosmos (at least as it mirrors the tabernacle account) is thereby formed and filled with life, thus demonstrating the truth of Isaiah’s words:
For this is what the Lord says—(Isaiah 45:18)
he who created the heavens,
he is God;
he who fashioned and made the earth,
he founded it;
he did not create it to be empty,
but formed it to be inhabited .
On the other hand, sticking with the “goldfish bowl” cosmology, which as Walton now admits isn’t actually represented in the Genesis 1 text anyway, leaves not only God either trapped below, or cut off from us above, an endless cosmic ocean, but leaves our feathered friends in dire need of acquiring unnatural skills: