Raqiya (Hebrew)

Raqiya is a Hebrew word that has been translated as "firmament" (KJV, ASV), "expanse" (NIV, ESV, NASB), "dome" (NRSV), and "vault" (TNIV, NJB). The term and its referent are relevant to our understanding of ancient culture, interpretations of the creation account, and the possible condition of the earth prior to the Genesis Flood.

Differing views

G. K. Beale explains,

"Some believe that the [raqiya] was rock-solid and formed a dome over the earth, reflecting the ANE mythological viewpoint without any qualification or critique... For example, P. H. Seely argues for such a view in an article published in the Westminster Theological Journal. He contends that the [raqiya`] in Genesis 1:6, 14, 17, 20 and in Ezekiel must be considered solid since this was the common ANE view, both from the mythological perspective and from the viewpoint of the ancient common person."^[1]^

P.H. Seely himself writes,

"[S]cientifically naive peoples employed their concept of a solid sky in their mythology, but that they nevertheless thought of the solid sky as an integral part of their physical universe. And it is precisely because ancient peoples were scientifically naive that they did not distinguish between the appearance of the sky and their scientific concept of the sky. They had no reason to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as the earth itself... "[N]aive peoples around the world from the Pacific Islands to North America, from Siberia to Africa, have perceived the sky as a solid inverted bowl touching the earth at the horizon. Nor is this common conception of a firmament merely myth, metaphor, or phenomenal language. It is an integral part of their scientific view of the universe. It is within the context of geography, astronomy, and natural science that they really believe that if they would travel far enough they could 'touch the sky with one's fingers,' that migrating birds live 'on the other side of the celestial vault,' that an arrow or lance could 'fasten in the sky,' that the sky can have 'a hole in it,' that at the horizon 'the dome of the sky is too close to earth to permit navigation,' that where the sky touches the earth you can 'lean a pestle against it' or 'climb up it,' that the sky is 'smooth and hard. . . of solid rock, . . . as thick as a house,' that the sky can 'fall down' and someday 'will fall down crushing the earth.' "Equally important, this perception of the firmament is not selective. It is almost completely universal. True, there are occasional variations on the solid dome conception, such as several worlds piled up on top of each other, each with its own firmament; but I know of no evidence that any scientifically naive people anywhere on earth believed that the firmament was just empty space or atmosphere. The only exception to this is the Chinese and that not until AD 200. Apart from a scientific education, it is just too natural for people to think of the sky as something solid. So true is this that it is generally regarded by scholars as 'the usual primitive conception.' One scholar goes so far as to call it 'a general human belief.'"^[2]^

Seely furthermore argues that we do not have "any evidence from biblical times that suggests the Hebrews were ever more scientifically sophisticated than their neighbors", and that "patriarchs and Abraham in particular... most likely held the Babylonian view of the sky as solid." Additionally, Moses "was schooled in the thinking of the Egyptians. That schooling would certainly have included the assumption that the sky was solid". He assures however that "Genesis 1 is free of the mythological and polytheistic religious concepts of the ancient Near East... [T]he religious knowledge of Israel, though clearly superior to that of its neighbors, was expressed through the religious cultural forms of the time."^ [3]^

The view of the expanse as a literal firmament was shared by "virtually everyone else up to the time of the Renaissance!" Of the Jews and early Christians Seely writes,

"Jews speculated as to what material the firmament was made of: clay or copper or iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7). They differentiated between the firmament and the empty space or air between it and the earth (Gen. Rab. 4.3.a; 2 Apoc. Bar. 21.4). They tried to figure out how thick it was by employing biblical interpretation (Gen. Rab. 4.5.2). Most tellingly they even tried to calculate scientifically the thickness of the firmament (Pesab. 49a). "Christians speculated as to whether it was made of earth, air, fire, or water (the basic elements of Greek science). Origen called the firmament "without doubt firm and solid" (First Homily on Genesis, FC 71). Ambrose, commenting on Gen 1:6, said, 'the specific solidity of this exterior firmament is meant' (Hexameron, FC 42.60). Augustine said the word firmament was used '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' (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ACW 41.1.61)."^[4]^

G. K. Beale, opposing this view, writes,

"[W]e just do not know that all ancients believed the sky was a solid dome or that there was anything near unanimity on this point."^[5]^

Hugh Ross also takes exception to this view of the expanse.^[6]^


  1. G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority, pp. 197-198. Crossway, 2008.
  2. P.H. Seely. "The Firmament and the Water Above". The Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991), p. 228, 230-231.
  3. Ibid., pp. 234, 235.
  4. Ibid., p. 236.
  5. Beale, p. 198. For his larger argument, see pp. 198-205.
  6. See episode from the 6/15/2004 "Reasons To Believe" radio show: What about the Eastern idea of a "metallic dome" at creation?"; "Was the biblical creation account taken from earlier (e.g. Sumerian) accounts?"; and "Is the 'dome' model repeated through the Bible?" (Real Audio)

External links

Atmospheric expanse

Solid dome (literal firmament)