When considering the firmament (raqiya), it is silly to try to understand it without understanding what was the reason for its creation. The text tells us quite explicitly—at least in short form:
Genesis 1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. 7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. (KJV)
This raises many questions. Among them are these:
- Are we supposed to understand these “waters” as H2O? Or do they refer to something else?
- Just why would it be necessary to divide waters from waters?
- How far apart were these waters divided?
- Was there any further distinction between the divided waters? That is, could some of those that ended up below have just as well ended up above? Or were they separated more purposefully than that?
It would be very easy to read this passage, asking none of these questions. And this would save us the trouble of several cognitive tasks and research tasks. But I’m not so sure this passage works if we interpret the “waters” as a reference to H2O. Now, before I say anything further about that, let me give you something to think about regarding the use of metaphorical language in Genesis 1. I submit that most believers interpret certain parts of Genesis 1 metaphorically, and that they’re just fine with that. Consider these points, drawn from popular interpretation of this chapter:
- 1:2 The earth was without form (towhu in the Hebrew) and void…
How could the Earth exist, and yet not have a form? Even if it’s form were somehow irregular and unfinished, it would still have a form. Yet when most of us read this, we take it to mean that the Earth was not yet ORDERLY. This is metaphorical language—and we’re OK with that, as well we should be.
- 1:2b And the Spirit (ruwach) of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Literally, “ruwach” means “breath” or “wind”. Most Bible readers, however, are quite happy with a metaphorical rendering of “Spirit” here. That’s how we understand it, even though that’s not a literal reading of the original text.
- 1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
The word for “firmament” in the Hebrew here is raqiya. It is from a root, raqa`, which means to beat, to stamp out, to spread out, to stretch out, to overlay, etc. (See reference.) It conjures up a hammered-out dome or bowl, as of brass or some other semi-soft metal. Millions of Bible readers, however, think that this is a reference to the sky or the atmosphere or to space—-none of which bear much resemblance to something spread out or beaten out or the like. Many consider this to be a metaphorical use of raqiya, and are just find with that.
- 1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
Most, it seems, interpret these two “great lights” to be the sun and the moon. Even so, they interpret the word “rule” (used twice here) to be metaphorical. Hardly anyone believes that the sun or moon had any sort of moral authority over mankind. They are quite happen with a metaphorical reading of “rule” here.
I could go on, but this is plenty to get the point that practically every Bible reader finds a place for some metaphorical language in Genesis Chapter 1. Let us not, then, rule out metaphor on the grounds that it is improper for this chapter. Rather, if we’re going to rule out that this or that might have been a metaphorical device of the writer’s, let us do it on the basis of the evidence—and not as some summarily executed rule that we ourselves would break with our own preferred interpretation of the chapter.
Why I Think The “Waters” May Be Metaphorical
Are there waters on the Planet Earth? Sure there are. When you gather them together in one spot, does “dry land” appear elsewhere? Sure it does. Are the waters the home of “great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm”? (Genesis 1:21) Sure they are. Even so, I’m not convinced that this chapter’s mention of “waters” is primarily about bodies of H2O.
Here is some of the language that I find elsewhere in the Bible that makes me think that maybe something more was in view of the writer when he used the word “waters”. Before we start, let us note that the “waters” mentioned in Genesis 1 are written in the Hebrew as mayim. And when the waters (mayim) below the firmament are gathered together into one place, God called them “seas” (yam). With that in mind, let’s read some select passages throughout the Bible.
Psalm 77:16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
Can H2O be afraid? Or does this indicate somehow that the water in view is constituted of one or more beings?
Psalm 148:1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
Can H2O praise God? Or does this indicate somehow that the water in view is constituted of one or more sentient beings?
Proverbs 8:27 When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
Does one normally give commands to H2O and expect them to be followed? Is this the normal language of shoreline management? Or does this indicate somehow that the water in view is constituted of one or more beings?
2 Samuel 22:“He sent from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of many waters.
18 He rescued me from my strong enemy,
from those who hated me,
for they were too mighty for me.
19 They confronted me in the day of my calamity,
but the Lord was my support.
20 He brought me out into a broad place;
he rescued me, because he delighted in me.
Of what Bible character is this a literal account? This passage is particularly intriguing, starting with the question of who is the “me” who is speaking here. I’ll have to come back to this one later, as time permits.
Job 7:12 Am I the sea, or a sea monster,
that you set a guard over me?
I’m uncertain as of yet what to make of this passage. Could this have anything to do with the two great lights—particularly the lesser one, which was created to “rule over” the “night”—that is, evil? I’ll have to come back to it later.
Job 38:11 “Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
9 when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
Jeremiah 51:16a When he utters his voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens,…
Why would H2O in the heavens be in tumult when God speaks? Is this the normal language of water storage? Or does this indicate somehow that the water in view is constituted of one or more beings who are capable of being upset?
Revelation 17: And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.
Here we have multitudes of humans being called “waters”.
Jude 12 These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
This is a reference to evil angels, who are here called “wild waves of the sea”. This is likely an allusion to the following Psalm:
Psalm 93:The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
4 Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the Lord on high is mighty!
Why would the psalmist write such a statement intending it literally? That is, why bother to write that God is more powerful than the literal waves of the ocean? Would that not be obvious? Wouldn’t that be akin to saying something like “God is more powerful than the trees” or “God is stronger than elephants”? But if the author is not using “waters” and “sea” literally, then what we get here is a comparison between God and other beings. Then the comparison makes more sense.
Psalm 96:11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.
Why are all the characters in view here happy except the “sea”? Is “roaring” really a happy expression? Apparently not. Here’s a quick entry on the word for “sea” here:
רָעַם râʻam, raw-am’; a primitive root; to tumble, i.e. be violently agitated; specifically, to crash (of thunder); figuratively, to irritate (with anger):—make to fret, roar, thunder, trouble.
Now, see the next passage below, which is quite similar to that above, but with one very telling difference:
Psalm 98:7Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
8 Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
9 before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
The reference here to those who dwell in the world is not, I believe, a reference to humankind, but to those who dwelt here and SHOULD NOT have been here. That is, to those who had left their proper domains and interloped upon the earth. Consider these passages and the intended referent of “those who dwell on the earth”.
So in this present psalm, we see that not only was the sea to roar (where the rivers and hills were to be happy) but that the interlopers also were to roar. Apparently, they were in collusion with the sea—or, perhaps, had come from it themselves.
Revelation 12:12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
If Satan’s intent was to persecute the living Christians, what purpose would there be in declaring woe to the sea? If the sea is simply water, why should there be any concern about Satan coming to the sea?
Revelation 13:1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.
Note that this beast does not cross the sea, or sail the sea. Rather, it comes out out of the sea. Was the sea some seat of power for evil beings?
Revelation 16:3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.
What purpose would God have in a battle against Satan’s evil forces to kill all the fish, dolphins, and seahorses? Or was there something else in view here?
Isaiah 45:8 “Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.
Literal rain is neither righteous nor unrighteous, yet the water in view here is said to bring “salvation and righteousness” with it. The fairly obvious implication here, by the way, is that this rain could come from those waters that were “above” the firmament—those waters that had been separated out from among the rest at the creation.
1 Enoch 69:22. And in like manner the spirits of the water, and of the winds, and of all zephyrs, and (their) paths from all the quarters of the winds.
Are these spirits that live in the water? Is the water itself made of spirits? Are we talking about water, but in that water, there are spiritual things going on as well?
Revelation 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
If Sheol/Hades was the place for the spirits of dead humans, whose spirits were in the sea? And why were they there?
Perhaps the prince of Tyre could shed some light on this question:
Ezekiel 28:2 “Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus says the Lord God: “Because your heart is proud, and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,’ yet you are but a man, and no god, though you make your heart like the heart of a god—
What did this man know, and how did he know it? Could it be that this “seat of the gods”, whatever its nature, was what was in view in this exceedingly famous verse?:
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
If the “first heaven and first earth” are what we see being “created” in Genesis 1, then how do we explain some new and improved version of them that has no oceans?
I saved the strongest evidence until last in this brief survey of passages that have caught my eye so far on this topic. We are somewhat trapped with how we decide to handle the “sea” that was to be no more in Revelation 21:1. If we say it is a literal sea, then we are forced to explain how the Planet Earth could survive without any such a body of water. Or, if one subscribes partially to this Limited Firmament Theory, and wants to argue that the “sea” that was created in Genesis 1 is the Mediterranean, how does one explain why it is still there, even though the new age has arrived and the old heaven and earth have passed away?
So that leaves us with one other possibility, which is the one I am investigating: What if the “sea” that was no more is simply not about H2O, but about evil beings or spirits that had been around since before the creating that happened in Genesis 1? Let’s look at the text:
Genesis 1:1 When God began to create heaven and earth–2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water–3 God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (JPS)
Funny, but “darkness” is a metaphor for evil in many places throughout the Bible. Why, then, are we so certain that it is not such a metaphor here? Why must it be a literal reference to the absence of photons? Here is the Jewish Publication Society’s note on “darkness” from Genesis 1:2:
“Throughout the Bible darkness is often a symbol of evil, misfortune, death, and oblivion. Here it seems to be not just the absence of light but a distinct entity, the origin of which is left unclear. Isaiah 45:7, however, explicitly ascribes its existence to divine creation.”
And as to “the deep” upon which this “darkness” was hovering, JPS says this:
“At times it is personified. In Genesis 49:25 and Deuteronomy 33:13 it “couches below,” and in Habakkuk 3:10, “Loud roars the deep” in panic at the wrathful approach of God. Lastly, tehom appears in Isaiah 51:10 in a mythic context. All these facts suggest that tehom may once have been the name of a mythical being much like the Mesopotamian Tiamat, the female dragonesque personification of the primordial salt-water ocean, representing the aggressive forces of primitive chaos that contended against the god of creativity. Here in Genesis, tehom is thoroughly demythologized.
The opinion of JPS expressed in that last sentence seems to ignore the evidence laid out immediately before it, and I’m more inclined to take the evidence than the bald assertion that dismisses it.
Indeed, let’s see what happened once the Light showed up:
Genesis 1:4 God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.
If the “light” in question here is a reference to photons, then how does one separate photons from the absence of photons? If you light a candle in a dark room, don’t the photons spread everywhere? Are we really supposed to believe that photons are in view here? Or is this “light” a reference to a being? Isn’t it a reference to Jesus? Consider what else we know about him:
John 12:46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Why should John use this language to summon up Genesis 1 in the well-informed reader’s mind? Is it purely coincidence? No, it is not. Here we are told that all things were made through Jesus. So where is Jesus in Genesis 1? He’s in verse 3; he is the “light” that was summoned. And if John’s word isn’t good enough for us, how about Paul’s?:
Colossians 1:He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
And look, he didn’t just create butterflies and dandelions, but “thrones”, “dominions”, “rulers”, and “authorities”. So where is all that in Genesis 1? (It’s in 1:14-18, as well as in 2:1–but that’s a subject for another post.)
Now, back to our discussion about this “light”. Are we sure that was Jesus? Again, John was adamant about it, as he mentioned it in his narrative about John the Baptist:
John 1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
And consider these passages, which you can verify on your own to be about Jesus:
Matthew 4:16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
John 9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
I could go on, of course, but these are sufficient to show that Jesus was definitely known as the “light”. Most readers, however, seem to insist in divorcing this fact from their awareness as they read about the “light” that was summoned in Genesis 1:3. They much prefer “photons” to what was really intended to be understood. And “photons” makes perfect sense—if you don’t think about it.
So, we had “darkness” on the face of the deep, and then “light” is brought in, and God makes a distinction, a separation, a division, between the two–after making a point of stating that the light was “good”. Could it be, just maybe, that if the light and the darkness needed separating, and that if the light was “good”, then the darkness was bad? Yes, I think we’re onto something here.
And where was that darkness? It was on the face of the waters.
But God separated those waters by way of the raiya (firmament), with some contained by the firmament, and some outside of it. And if I’m anywhere near right about all this, there’s quite a story to be learned!
I suspect that the Genesis story opens as do some great novels–not at the true beginning, but afterward. Whatever had happened to leave the earth “unformed and void” is a mystery to us, as well as how there came to be this evil “darkness” that was concentrated around the deep. But alas! The Genesis 1 story is about what the Genesis 1 story is about, and not about what it is not about. So if God wants the book to begin with a metaphor-rich story about the creation of a new order of things on an existing planet, I’m OK with that.