In a previous post I expressed the belief that the Raqi’a of Genesis 1 was a solid plate or dome. I changed my mind, and in this post I will explain why I now believe in an understanding of the Raqi’a which is much less solid, yet no less quintessentially Ancient Near Eastern.
Before we spoke of the motif of the separation of heaven from the earth, a common motif in Ancient Cosmology (sorry Muslim apologists), found in Babylonian, Hittite, Egyptian, Sumerian, Indian, Arabian, Chinese, Greek and Maori creation myths, where heaven and earth are separated via a void space. Given the prevalence of this motif in the cosmogonic myths of the Ancient Near East, we ought to expect that this motif be found in Genesis 1. Which as it happens it is. For the Raqi’a separates what is in the heavens (upper waters) from the lower waters (seas).
More evidence that the Raqi’a was the space between heaven and the earth is found in Psalm 104:
Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
The KJV has accurately translated the word Yeriah in verse 2 as ‘curtain’, not tent as other translations have done in order to shoehorn it into a solid dome reading. Yeriah is the Hebrew noun used for the veil of the tabernacle. The context of the verses above seem to match the order of creation found in day 1-3. I would suggest then that this verse offers a comparison of the firmament to the veil of the tabernacle, meaning it separates man from God, meaning (in historical context) that it separates heaven from the earth
But, why. You may ask, is the Raqi’a called heaven (Shamayim) if it is intended to separate heaven from the earth? Well this needn’t be an issue, for as Wayne Horowitz tells us:
Heaven is the upper of the two halves of the universe. In ancient Mesopotamia,
as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the heavens include both visible
areas, where the stars, Sun. Moon, and planets are seen, and higher regions above the sky, where gods of heaven dwell. Only the lists of KAR 307 and AO
8196 and Enuma Elish provide clear evidence that the heavens consist of the sky and more than one level above the sky. In both KAR 307 and AO 8196,
three heavens are listed: the Upper Heavens, belonging to Anu; the Middle Heavens of the Igigi above the sky; and the Lower Heavens (the sky) of the
stars. KAR 307 adds that Marduk settled 300 Igigi in the Upper Heavens, that Bel sits in his cella in the Middle Heavens, and that Marduk drew stars on the Lower Heavens. The interior of Marduk s cella in the Middle Heavens is not seen from earth, but its blue saggUmud-sloiie floor may be visible as the blue
sky (see p. 9). Below the heavens in KAR 307 there are three earths: the earths
surface, Apsu, and underworld. The area between the earths surface and the
stars is not listed in KAR 307 or AO 8196 but is part of the heavens in other
texts. For instance, numerous passages speak of birds, clouds, and winds in the heavens (See CAD S/I 345-47), so the region of the universe we call the “atmo- sphere” or “sky” was clearly part of heaven in ancient Mesopotamia. This inter- relationship between heaven and the atmosphere is further illustrated by a passage from Lamastu, where dew is said to come from the stars:
Keep in mind that the Mesopotamians absolutely believed that heaven had been separated from the earth.
According to the Enuma Elish:
`He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
A variant of the Epic of Gilgamesh begins with this:
when the heavens had been separated from the earth, when the earth had been delimited from the heavens
So contradictory as it may sound to our eyes, the void space between the heavens and the earth was absolutely considered to be part of heaven in the ANE, which may go a way to explaining why it is called heaven.
In conclusion, commentators such as Paul H. Seely and John Walton (who I like), are absolutely correct in asserting that Genesis ought to be read in the context of the Ancient Near East, but when we do that, we see that the Raqi’a best fits the void space between heaven and the earth, not a solid dome. We are therefore hermeneutically bound to define it as such.
A final word on the placement of astronomical bodies
The Raqi’a contained birds, the sun, the moon and planets. The word used for the lights in the expanse in Genesis 1:14-19 is otherwise only used for the seven lamps on the tabernacle(1). It seems then that the ‘seven’ lamps likely symbolise the sun, moon and five visible planets, a connection made by Josephus and Philo Judaeus. It seems very likely then, that the ‘stars’ in Genesis 1 were actually the five planets.
There is reasonable evidence to assume that the other stars were already in existence. We are told in Job 38:4 that the morning stars were singing when the foundations of the earth were laid. So they existed at least before day 3. There is therefore no indication that they were placed in the firmament, in Genesis at least. Rather they were most likely in the Upper Heaven with God. It is likely that the Israelites offered no distinction between stars and the gods of Yahweh’a council. This is shown in 1 Kings 22:19, where the ‘host of heaven’ stand before God.