Friday, 4 February 2011

The meaning of "expanse" in Genesis 1. Part 2

In my earlier post on the expanse I mention that it is not definitive that the Hebrew word translated "expanse" (raqiya`) has the semantic nuance of solidity. This word occurs 17 times in the Bible.
And God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." 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. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. (Genesis 1:6-8)

And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth." And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. (Genesis 14-19)

And God said, "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the expanse of the heavens." (Genesis 1:20)

The heavens declare the glory of God,/
and the expanse proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)

Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary;/
praise him in his mighty expanse! (Psalm 150:1)

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the expanse; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:2-3)

Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another. And each creature had two wings covering its body. And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army. When they stood still, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they let down their wings.

And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. (Ezekiel 1:22-28)

Then I looked, and behold, on the expanse that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in appearance like a throne. (Ezekiel 10:1)
Most of these occurrences are in the contested verses in Genesis, or passages that use the raqiya` in the same way as Genesis.

How do the other uses this affect our understanding of whether expanse is intrinsically solid, or fluid; or whether the word does not have a semantic connotation of firmness?

Some translations use a word for raqiya` in the Ezekiel passages that would be considered solid, such as "dome." If this is valid then raqiya` can be used of solid things. The expanse in Ezekiel was shining and is likened to a crystal. However these sentences do not parallel or contrast the firmness of the expanse with another word in the passage. When a term is contrasted or paralleled the meaning of the complementary phrase aids our understanding of the term. This lack in Ezekiel means we cannot state that raqiya` clearly has an intrinsic semantic component of firmness, just that it can (possibly) be used for firm objects, the same way that "large" can be used of water or ice.

Daniel is referring to the same expanse that is in Genesis. The brightness of the expanse could refer to the blueness of the sky during the day, or the shining stars at night, or perhaps the appearance of the Milky Way. The parallelism here may favour the brightness describing the stars or our galaxy rather than the blue sky, though this is not definitive.

The passages in the Psalms are useful to our question. Psalm 150 states God dwells in the expanse. This is paralleled to sanctuary. To dwell in suggests that at least part of the object is non-solid. We dwell in a house, or more broadly in a city. The psalm is poetical, it does not necessarily mean that God is located inside the earthly temple, or that his heavenly temple is a physical object, but the poetical use of "expanse" suggests it is not solid if God is said to dwell within it. It would seem unusual to speak of God dwelling within a rock, or a wall (from a biblical perspective). Psalm 19 parallels "expanse" with "heavens," an important point which we will come back to in a later post.

Genesis mentions the expanse frequently, though to use most of these passages to resolve the meaning seems to be begging the question. One verse is helpful though. God created the flying creatures that were to fly across the face or the surface of the expanse. While this is not definitive that the expanse is (at least partially) gaseous, it is consistent with a non-solid expanse beginning at the surface of the earth and extending into space.

Related to this point is that men know that the atmosphere is not solid from direct experience. The expanse God created separates water from water. It starts at the surface of the earth and extends out. So the only part of the expanse that the ancients had direct experience of, the part adjacent to the ground, is gaseous. This suggests that "expanse" can some times be thought of as non-solid because part of the expanse was indeed the immediate atmosphere.

This exhausts the biblical use of raqiya`. It does not seem that the term intrinsically describes solid things. In Ezekiel the expanse may be solid (though it could be interpreted as fluid or non-solid if this was deemed necessary). In Daniel it probably references interstellar regions with no indication or whether solidity is meant. The Psalms are suggestive of a non-solid interpretation. Genesis indicates that part of the expanse—or, at minimum, the surface—is non-solid.


  1. What does expanse mean? I think that before it is expounded, the real essence of the word should be gathered from the Hebrew tongue. I do not think that expanse is used in the King James Bible.. I think..

  2. CNZ, the word in Hebrew is raqiya` as mentioned in the post. And all occurrences in the Bible are mentioned. Modern Hebrew may add some, but with a 3000 year gap the word may have changed somwhat in meaning. Ancient uses of the word would be helpful.

  3. The picture painted in Genesis 1 of the "expanse" definitely connotes the idea of something solid being constructed to separate the waters above from the waters below. The ancient Israelites, like most of the rest of the ancient world, thought that the sky was a dome keeping out the water above it from falling on their heads. The sun, moon, and stars were points of light embedded within this dome, which circled the earth, giving us time in the form of days, nights, and seasons. If we read Genesis 1 while trying to scrub our minds of our modern scientific understanding of the physical world, this concept would jump out at us fairly quickly.

    The major problem people have with this concept is that they simply cannot wrap their minds around the fact that God did not correct the Israelites' misunderstanding of the way His world actually worked. This strikes directly at people's idea of the Word being "inerrant"--they think to themselves that if God left such a factually untrue account of creation in His Word, then how can we trust anything He says? But they don't realize that they're not approaching Genesis properly. Genesis's purpose is not to give us an understanding of how God made the material universe. Neither does it propose to persuade the minds of those who don't believe in God that he did in fact create the world. Remember, at the time Genesis was written, everyone believed that God (or the gods) made the world--no one had to be convinced of this. Genesis's purpose is to demonstrate to the Israelites why their God was the only one worth paying attention to. It does this in multiple ways that are quite clear if one is familiar with other ancient creation texts. But it doesn't do this by describing the physical process by which God made the world.



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