When ancient man looked up at the sky, what he perceived was akin to what he observed when looking out over the seas—an expanse of crystal-clear blue water. This observation was confirmed of course by the very fact that it rained. For where else did rain come from if not from the waters above the sky?
Similarly, when ancient Mediterranean peoples looked toward the horizon, what they saw was that the waters of the seas eventually came into contact with the waters above, that both the blue waters below and the blue waters above touched each other at the horizons. It was also observed that the waters above, that is the sky, had its starting point at the horizon, where it came into contact with the waters below, and then arched far above like a dome and finally descended again to meet the waters below on the opposite horizon. Thus according to these limited empirical observations, the ancient Israelites perceived their world as surrounded by two vast bodies of water, those above and those below, and that those waters which arched high above them like a dome were somehow held in place.
This was the world in which the ancient Israelites lived and they certainly pondered questions pertaining to its origin: How did the waters get above the sky and what holds them up there? How did they obtain their current domed shape? Where did they originate from? And what about the waters below? In short, how did this world come to be?
Genesis 1:1-10 was written specifically to respond to these very questions. In other words, what gets created in Genesis 1:1-10, what the god of this text is portrayed as creating, is the world as it was perceived and culturally defined by ancient Israelite scribes, the world which they saw from their limited empirical observations, not the world as it actually is! This fact the text itself bears witness to.
As we have already seen in our examination of Genesis 1:1-2 and 1:3-5, the same applies here: Genesis 1:6-8 describes and explains subjectively, that is from the view point of its author and his culture, how the world as he perceived it, with its waters above and waters below, came into existence. It is a bottoms up approach. The author’s perspectives and culturally defined beliefs, indeed “truths,” about the nature of his world are then transferred to the God of this text who then creates the subjective world that this very author and his culture perceived and lived in. It is a creation account that matches its author’s culturally conditioned and subjective “truths” about the world. Thus we must be careful not to impose our understanding and knowledge of the world onto his text, nor try to conform his beliefs to ours. Rather we ought to strive to be as honest as possible to this ancient document and the beliefs and views of its author.
Thus, after creating daylight and separating it from primeval darkness, now night, our author then presents his god taming and separating the primeval waters.
And God said, “Let there be a domed barrier (raqî‘a) in the center of the waters and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
Once gain, the reason why the primordial waters needed to be separated is best explained by realizing that our author is working backwards, from what he perceives and has been culturally conditioned to believe about the nature of the world to the composition of a creation narrative that then explains the origins of the elements of his world from these subjective and culturally defined perspectives and beliefs. So Genesis 1:1-10 is not an account of the creation of the world in objective, scientific terms. Rather it is an account of the creation of a perception of the world as envisioned by ancient man. Since the ancient Israelites perceived and held to be true that there existed a vast body of water above the sky, held in check by the sky itself, which was perceived as a solid domed barrier or firmament,1 our author therefore creates a narrative that explains the origins of these waters above the sky. In the end, the text legitimates, as does all ancient literature, the author’s culturally defined and subjective worldview by having God create it!
Thus in accord with his perceptions and beliefs about the world, our author next presents God making (‘asah) this solid domed barrier (raqî‘a) in the middle of the primordial waters (mayim) in order to separate out the waters which are now above it from the waters now below it, effectively conforming to our Israelite scribe’s perception of his own world. Finally, the text informs us:
And God called this solid domed barrier (raqî‘a) “skies” (shamayim). And there was evening and there was morning—a second day.
Since the Hebrew word for “skies” (sha-mayim) is composed of the letter shin plus the word for water, mayim—always in the plural, “waters”—it is quite possible that what came to be called the skies was a combination of the solid domed firmament or raqî‘a and the waters above it. For we are informed in verse 14 that the raqî‘a, where the luminaries are to be set, was part of the skies or shamayim: “let there be lights in the firmament of the skies.” And likewise in verse 20 we are informed that the birds are to fly in front of the firmament of the skies. If the skies (shamayim) are both the firmament, domed barrier, and the waters above, which seems to be what is implied here, then under this conception the skies are nothing more than half of the untamed preexisting waters now held back and in check by a clear solid domed barrier, the raqî‘a—a far cry from our sky!
Thus once again we observe that the creation account in Genesis 1 does not represent some scientific, objective, divinely-inspired account of the origins of the material world, but rather the creation of a world as perceived by ancient Israelites. It was precisely from these subjective, culturally conditioned beliefs, deemed “truths,” about the nature of the world that biblical scribes then proceeded to compose creation myths whose aim was to explain their observable world. In this instance, how did the waters above come to be formed and held in check? Genesis 1:1-8 responds by claiming that they were created through an act of separating them out from the initial watery abyss (tehôm), and holding them above the sky through the creation of a solid domed barrier, the sky itself!
Finally, the argument that our ancient Israelite scribe was interested in demonstrating was not where did matter originate from. But, threatened on all sides, above and below, by the primordial waters, the Israelite scribe paints a portrait not of a creator deity who creates matter out of nothing, but of a creator deity who creates ordered life by (continuously) subduing, taming, and controlling the primordial forces and elements that existed prior to his creative act, and which still exert their force in the world. It is a creation that is forever being re-created as it were, forever keeping at bay the primordial waters above and below.2
In sum, the god of Genesis 1:6-8 creates a domed bubble or air pocket in the midst of these primordial waters. In other words, the god of this text does not, and did not, create planet Earth, boundless space, and the numerous galaxies that occupy it! Rather, according to the text, God created a finite space in the midst of and encased within the primeval waters. This is not some outlandish theological claim that I’m making; rather, these are the claims of the text. Again, it shouldn’t have to be argued in the 21st century that ancient texts reflect the subjective and culturally defined beliefs, attitudes, and worldviews of ancient peoples and cultures. But there you have it.
Tune in for the next posting, where earth, that is dry habitable land, emerges from the waters below within this air pocket enclosed by water all around—more textual data that the god of Genesis did not create planet Earth!
- My translation of raqi‘a as “a solid domed expanse” may seem alarming at first, but it is the clearest image available for expressing what the Hebrew invokes. The verb form of raqi‘a means “to beat out” or “to hammer out” and is attested with respect to hammering out metal plates or bowls (e.g., Exod 39:3; Jer 10:9), thus a domed or concaved shape. More specifically the verb raqa‘ is used in Job 37:18 to speak of Yahweh “hammering out thinly the firmament, hard like the reflective surface of poured metal.” And Psalm 19 further supports the idea that the raqi‘a was seen as a manifestation of Yahweh’s handiwork or craftsmanship (19:1). We should further note that both Genesis 1:6 8’s use of raqi‘a and Job 37:18’s use of raqa‘ conceptualize the sky as a hard or solid thinly hammered out metallic-like domed surface, likened to the reflective substance of poured metal. Other references to the domed shaped raqi‘a or sky occur in Isa 40:22 and Job 22:14, as well as Deut 4:32 and Prov 8:27 28 which both envision the skies touching the earth on each end. In addition to these, there are other biblical passages that also attempt to describe this raqi‘a. In Ezekiel 1:22, for example, the raqi‘a is described “like the sight of awe-inspiring crystal” or perhaps ice, and is strong enough to support Yahweh’s throne which rests upon it (Ezek 10:1; Exod 24:10). Likewise in Exodus 24:10 this raqi‘a is described “like a smooth-paved work of sapphire, and like the substance of the skies in regard to brightness.” And in Job 37:18, as we have already noted, it is spoken of as looking like a poured metallic mirror of some sort. All of these textual traditions support the view that the Israelites conceptualized the sky—that is the raqi‘a of Genesis 1—as a solid crystal or metallic-like domed expanse of a sapphire hue, no doubt reflecting the color of the waters above which this solid crystalline domed expanse supported. Additionally, the primeval waters are depicted as occupying the space above this raqi‘a or sky elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Ps 148:4), and it was because of this solid barrier’s openings that the waters above pour down and flood the earth in the Priestly writer’s flood narrative (see Gen 7:11; 8:2). Indeed, rain, snow, and hail were all believed to be kept in storehouses above the raqi‘a which had “windows” to allow them in. And the birds of Gen 1:20 are said to fly in front of the raqi‘a in the open air, not in this solid domed expanse.↵
- This subjective cosmological portrait of the world is also found in this author’s flood story. Contrary to the Yahwist version of the flood story, where it rains for forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:4, 7:12), in the Priestly version that which holds back the waters above is loosened to let those waters retake their original chaotic and untamed position (Gen 7:11, 8:2). It is a true undoing of creation from this author’s perspective.↵