The Firmament and the Water Above Part II: The Meaning of “The Water above the Firmament” in Gen 1:6-8 -- By: Paul H. Seely

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 54:1 (Spring 1992)
Article: The Firmament and the Water Above Part II: The Meaning of “The Water above the Firmament” in Gen 1:6-8
Author: Paul H. Seely


The Firmament and the Water Above
Part II: The Meaning of “The Water above the Firmament” in Gen 1:6-8

Paul H. Seely

When one realizes that the historical-grammatical meaning of raqiaʿ, “firmament,” in Gen 1:7 reflects an ancient rather than a modern concept of the sky,1 it should come as no surprise that the “water above the firmament” also reflects an ancient rather than a modern concept. There is, however, a slight difference historically between these two concepts. In the ancient world a virtually universal agreement existed among all peoples everywhere that the sky (firmament) was a rock-solid dome over the earth beneath which were the sun, moon, and stars. In the case of the “water above the firmament” that universal agreement did not exist.

The concept of “water above the firmament” appears occasionally in other places besides the ancient Near East, but as described in Genesis it reflects an ancient Near Eastern concept, particularly shaped by a Mesopotamian tradition found in Enuma Elish. The historical definition of “the water above the firmament” is, therefore, a veritable sea located above a solid firmament which is in turn located above the sun, moon, and stars. This historical meaning, as we shall see, is also the meaning that Gen 1:6–8 contextually demands. Let us first, however, review the historical background.

Among scientifically naive peoples, who have universally believed in a solid firmament, only a very few seem to have a concept of an ocean or of water being stored in bottles above the firmament.2 We must beware of arguing from silence, but the vast majority of primitive peoples evidence no belief in a body of water existing above the firmament. Gunkel thought the original primitive idea was that the sky itself was suspended water. He knew primitive peoples think the sky is solid; so, perhaps, he was thinking of water in the form of ice.3 That idea would fit a biblical passage such as Ezek 1:22. Gunkel cited Rev 4:6. Many primitive peoples, however, think of the sky as an earthen floor for a world above ours. So I think it would be hard to prove that all peoples originally conceived of the sky as being made of water.

Homer and Hesiod, in accordance with Near Eastern beliefs, thought of the earth as floating on and surrounded by an ocean with a solid firmament abo...

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