Sunday, June 16, 2013

The waters above

6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 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. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day (Gen 1:6-8).

i) Some think this refers to ancient cosmology, where the solid dome of the sky held back reservoirs of water (the source of rain, snow, and hail).

A problem with this interpretation is that ancient Near Easterners knew that rain clouds were the source of rainfall. So this interpretation imputes an unrealistic level of ignorance to the narrator and his audience. It doesn’t require modern science to know that rain comes from rain clouds. That’s something you can see with your own eyes. And people back then were keenly aware of their natural surroundings, for their survival depended on it.

Indeed, we have various Bible passages that attribute rain to rain clouds. But even if we didn’t, it stands to reason that ancient people could see clouds emitting precipitation–just like we can.

It’s naïve to assume that literary or artistic depictions were taken at face value. As the author of a standard monograph on Mesopotamian cosmography notes:

This investigation attempts to glean evidence from the widest possible variety of surviving sources in order to present as clear a picture as possible of Mesopotamian views of the universe. At the same time, however, it must be recognized that this approach poses certain dangers, not the least of which are our distance and time and space from the ancient writers, as well as the vagaries of archaeological discovery…Ancient Mesopotamian authors do not distinguish between cosmographic ideas drawn from direct observation of the physical world (for example, the movement of stars in the sky) and those not derived from direct observation (for example, the geography of the Heaven of Anu above the sky or the fantastic regions visited by Gilgamesh in Gilg. IX-X). The current evidence simply does not allow us to know, for instance, if ancient readers of Gilgamesh really believed that they too could have visited Utnapistim by sailing across the cosmic sea and “the waters of death,” or if a few, many, most, or all ancient readers understood the topographical material in Gilg. IX-X in metaphysical or mystical terms. W. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (Eisenbrauns 1998), xiii-xiv.

ii) Furthermore, they could see passing clouds obscure the sun, moon, and stars. So they knew the source of rain was lower rather than higher than the celestial luminaries.

iii) Hence, some commentators think this is figurative imagery for rain clouds. An objection to that interpretation that this passage places the source of rainwater on the far side of the “firmament,” rather than our side–looking up at the sky. If, however, this is figurative, then pressing the picturesque details misses the point.

Moreover, the account doesn’t say that the “waters above” were above the sun, moon, and stars. At best, that’s an inference. And since the account also says that birds fly in the “firmament,” it’s not a discrete barrier, with a clear line of demarcation between what’s “above” and what’s “below.” It has depth rather than surface.

iv) In addition, Deut 33:26 treats the clouds and the heavens as interchangeable, in synonymous parallelism.

v) There’s also a point of tension in modern scholarship. On the one hand, John Walton thinks that this reflects the antiquated science of the ANE. On the other hand, Walton also interprets Gen 1 as a cosmic temple. If, however, we’re going to interpret Gen 1 in terms of temple imagery, then we’d expect “the waters above” to have an architectural rather than a cosmological analogue. So Walton’s interpretation lacks consistency.

If the “firmament” is roof or ceiling of the temple, you have blue sky above the temple. So that might be the suggestive imagery behind Gen 1:7.


  1. Job 37:18 is often associated with discussions about the "firmament". Skeptics like to to point out that the KJV translates it as, "Hast thou with him spread out the sky, which is strong, and as a molten looking glass?" Suggesting that the firmament is solid. But the Hebrew vowel pointing wasn't standardized till long after the time of Christ. As one writer says,

    The translation of r e 'i y by "mirror" is even stranger though almost universal among English versions of the Bible. Brown, Driver and Briggs cite no other occurrence of the word but here.3 However, vowels are a late addition to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, being incorporated in the tenth centry AD. by Masoretes. By changing one vowel to get ro'iy, obtain a word meaning "looking, sight, appearance."4 This word appears several times in Scripture, of which job 33:21 (Elihu speaking) and Nahum 3:6 are noteworthy. That this suggestion is not merely a modern attempt at harmonization with science is clear from the fact that the ancient Creek Septuagint translation uses horasis here,5 meaning "sight, appearance," not "mirror."

    Hence we find that this verse can be translated, "Can you, with him, spread out clouds, which are strong, as an appearance of being cast?" or even, "Can you, with him, spread out mighty clouds, as an appearance of being poured out?" In the light of such possible (even better) translations, job 37:18 is a poor proof-text for a solid "firmament."

    Taken from HERE
    Because of the typos, it looks like the document was scanned using OCR conversion technology.

    1. But the Hebrew vowel pointing wasn't standardized till long after the time of Christ.

      Conversely, the Septuagint was translated before the time of Christ.

  2. Hi Steve, Can I use this for a bulletin insert for our church? I like to expose them to apologetics on a regular basis.

  3. While I have your ear, I am going to start a sermon series on Genesis. I have commentaries by Walton, Boice, Wenham, Salihammer, Walke, and Collins work on ch 1-4, as well as Kelly's book Creation and Change. Are there any other resources that you would recommend?

    1. John Currid, Genesis 1:1–25:18

      Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17

      Kenneth Matthews, Genesis 1–11:26

      G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Biblical Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, chaps. 6-7.

      John Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, chap. 2.

      B. C. Hodge: Revisiting the Days of Genesis.

      Richard Averbeck, “CHAPTER ONE: A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1-2,” J. D. Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2.