Even if the meaning of raqiya` does not intrinsically tell us the expanse is solid, did the Hebrews think the expanse of the sky was solid? Paul Seely argues this is so in his article "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part I: The Meaning of raqia` in Gen 1:6-8", from The Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 227-40 (pdf). Much of the article gives examples of many cultures around the world including ancient Babylon and Egypt. He mentions that these cultures viewed the sky as being a solid dome high above the earth.
[S]cientifically naive peoples employed their concept of a solid sky in their mythology, but that they nevertheless thought of the solid sky as an integral part of their physical universe. And it is precisely because ancient peoples were scientifically naive that they did not distinguish between the appearance of the sky and their scientific concept of the sky. They had no reason to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as the earth itself.He then argues that the Hebrews would have held the same view as all these other cultures. He argues this from several trajectories. Firstly, the Hebrews were at least as scientifically naive as the surrounding cultures.
Since, from a cultural standpoint, the Hebrews' pre-Solomonic architecture and pottery were "vastly inferior" to that of their neighbors, one might gather that the early Hebrews were possibly more scientifically naive than their neighbors, but certainly not less so. Similarly, the fact that it was not the Hebrews but their neighbors who led the technological advance from the use of bronze to the use of iron (cf. Josh 17:18; Judg 1:19) suggests, if anything, that the Hebrews were more scientifically naive than their neighbors. It certainly does not suggest that they were less so. Nor do we know of any evidence from biblical times that suggests the Hebrews were ever more scientifically sophisticated than their neighbors. Accordingly, it seems most probable that so far as the physical nature of the sky is concerned, the Hebrews, as a typical scientifically naive people, believed the raqia` was solid.There are several errors in this paragraph. It is not at all evident that the Hebrews culture was inferior. This evidence likely comes from secular dating which is mistaken. It frequently places contemporary events hundreds of years earlier for Canaan and Egypt than for Israel, thus making Israel look undeveloped. The Bronze Age/ Iron Age schema is incorrect. Both materials were used during the same periods depending on what was being made. We know that Tubal-Cain forged iron and bronze in antediluvian times. Bezalel from the time of Moses was well skilled in the use of bronze. Frequent reference to iron and iron smelting in Deuteronomy suggests that these were familiar to the Israelites.
But the biggest error in this paragraph is conflating technology with scientific naivety. It is readily apparent that skill and knowledge can be disparate. Knowledge of the workings of a piston engine does not make one a skilled driver. Understanding macro- and micro-nutrients does not make one the best chef. Further, Seely crosses not just the knowledge/ skill divide, but also fields! Studying mechanical engineering does not make one a deft cook. The comparison of astronomical knowledge and metallurgical skill is a little tenuous.
Secondly Seely claims that Hebrew perspectives came from Abraham who in turn got his from the Babylonians
For the Hebrews the voice of the past was the voice of the patriarchs and Abraham in particular, men who most likely held the Babylonian view of the sky as solid. The Babylonian background of Genesis 1-11 can scarcely be missed, and if one were to date that background it appears to come from the time of the patriarchs.It is true that Abraham came from the land of the Chaldeans which has a connection with Babylon. But it is also true that Abraham was a descendant of Noah. Thus Abraham's knowledge may have been as influenced as much by his ancestors as it was his peers. If Abraham was the bearer of several texts later compiled into Genesis it matters more what these texts contained than the musings of Abraham's contemporaries. In other words, the existence of a proto-Genesis antedating the Babylonians would make Babylonian cosmogony is irrelevant.
There is reason to suspect this was the case. Seely's proposal of a Babylonian background for Genesis 1–11 is almost certainly false. There are similarities but structured narrative of Genesis is more likely to be primary than the stylised Babylonian myths. All our Babylonian material is postdiluvian. Much source material for Genesis is antediluvian.
Thirdly, Seely argues for the influence of Egyptian education on Moses.
Not only did the Hebrews spend several centuries in Egypt, but Moses, through whom much of the higher theology came (and who wrote Genesis 1 according to conservative thought), was schooled in the thinking of the Egyptians. That schooling would certainly have included the assumption that the sky was solid, a belief that forty years of living with a primitive tribe (according to Exod 2:15) would only have strengthened.There is some truth to this, Moses was educated in Egypt, though what this education covered is uncertain. Certainly, when Moses returned to Egypt he had little regard for the Egyptian pantheon as can be seen in the plagues. Given Moses' close relationship with God (Numbers 12) it is likely that his theology was far more influenced by God than Egyptian speculations. Also of importance to our view of Genesis is that Moses likely compiled and edited Genesis rather than writing it, as mentioned above. If Moses was compiling extant material then the influence of Egypt would have been less influential than Moses' respect for the writings of the patriarchs.
This does not disprove Seely's thesis, but it removes all his evidence for it. To his comment
I believe we have every reason to think that both the writer and original readers of Genesis 1 believed the raqia` was solid. The historical meaning of raqia` in Gen 1:6-8 is, accordingly, "a solid sky."one can respond that the historical context of Genesis is far earlier than the accounts Seely has documented; and in as much as one is derived from another, the Genesis account is primary. Because the documents from Babylon and Egypt postdate Genesis, similarity tells us how these pagan cultures interpreted (proto-)Genesis and informs us of their speculations on the nature of the universe. Only the first of these is relevant to our argument as they were closer to the Ancient Near East in culture and time.
Only by taking Genesis l out of its historical context could one say that raqia` means merely "an atmospheric expanse" or, as the more sophisticated conservatives say, "just phenomenal language."
Further to my comments about Moses compiling Genesis, we need to ask who authored his sources. One can only speculate, but it seems reasonable that the person identified in the prologue or a contemporary, probably a relative, wrote them. The authors needed access to the oral history. Adam could have written Genesis 2 through 4, or perhaps Seth. It is possible the author talked to Adam, or had access to earlier written material. Of course oral history is also possible but the toledoth structure suggests several documents, thus the accounts were possibly compiled and written down shortly after the events were completed.