Friday, 11 March 2011

The meaning of "expanse" in Genesis 1. Part 4

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

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."

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."
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.

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.


  1. I've been pondering on this precise question for some time now. I was introduced to the bowl definition of raqi'a from a Hebraic scholar I met who defined the word raqa as primarily meaning "to beat out" or "to fashion" rather than your definition "to spread".

    What is interesting is the way in which you spread out metal is to beat it out, so these are not mutually exclusive definitions. The question is which is primary, and I don't think we have any examples of raqa which were used outside of metalurgy.

    As to your comments on Seely, I am heard some argument about the Babylonian model. One of the things that I think is interesting is the number of dissimilarities between the Hebrews and their neighbors. While the Hebrews often told the same stories, they often made the opposite point with them. Cetainly there is no idea of God combating a chaos beast in Genesis 1, yet that was the belief of both the Canannites and the Babylonians. in the Noachian stories of the area, often the gods lost control of the flood waters and did more damage than was necessary. Yet in the Hebrew story, God kept the number of days to a precise 40, implying control. Just look at the Law: in contradicts Egyptian laws in so many different places that it is really difficult for someone to truly say that Moses based his thinking on the Egyptians (though it was clear that he was aware of how the Egyptians thought).

    Here is what I do think. I do think that Genesis 1 was written in such a way as to challenge those around the Hebrews. (There's a good portion of Genesis that is polemical) However, that doesn't mean that they had a similar cosmology.

  2. You are correct about raqa in the Bible, there are metallurgic uses, as well as the heavens, though the latter is the disputed topic.

    One of the issues I have with Seely here and in his second essay is that he seems to weight the other mythology so heavily. But if Genesis is primary then it is much less relevant what the Babylonians thought. If their version was progressively mythologised, and speculative because they did not understand Genesis, then how does this inform us what the Genesis author thought?

    There is a big problem of chronology. While the Hebrew chronology taught in profane literature is roughly correct, the ANE chronology is much less ancient than suggested by these same authors. As such the Hebrews are seen as late to the party when in fact much of what other cultures teach is a distortion of an earlier truth.

    I am not certain how much of Genesis 1 is polemical. Perhaps the deliberate non-naming the sun and moon in Genesis 1? I think much is just descriptive.

  3. There are two firmaments in Genesis 1. There's the firmament called heaven and the firmament of the heavens. :)

  4. I wouldn't read so much into this Stripe, verse 1 is perhaps a merism, as an introduction, or a summary statement of what is to be written. And the plural may solely be a plural of majesty.

    While your solution may be possible, it by no means appears to be necessary.

  5. stripe, I don't see how you would argue that. There is no distinction of "heaven" and "heavens" in the Hebrew. In all cases the word is shamayim which is actually a dual declension, not a plural, and is the form that the word is always found in throughout the OT. Where do you get this "heaven" vs. "heavens" distinction?

  6. Umm .. I wasn't making a distinction between different heavens (although there are such distinctions elsewhere). I made a distinction between firmaments. In Genesis 1:6 we have "a firmament in the midst of the waters" and then in Genesis 1:14 we read about "lights in the firmament of the heaven."

    Two different firmaments.

  7. Except the firmament in the midst of the waters in 1:6 is named "shamayim" and thus the firmament in 1:14 must be referring to the same one.

  8. I disagree. It necessarily reads that way. To have some kind of distinction where the word expanse refers to something else would make day 2 read:

    `"And God said 'Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it seperate the waters from the waters.' And God made the expanse, and God separated the waters under the expanse from the water above the expanse. Oh, and there was this totally different expanse that God called "heaven". And there was evening and morning, the second day."

    Sorry, that just doesn't make sense. Language has rules, and one of them is that words have the same meaning within the same context unless explicitly stated otherwise.

  9. I reviewed your comments a bit, and I realized that I forgot a bit of what you said before. You seem to think that there is a firmament called Heaven (6-8 as opposed to 6-7) and one "of heaven". I might add that it is heaven in both places, or heavens in both places. The Hebrew is always shamayim, and like I said before, the word is always in the dual form, never in the singular or plural.

    In either case you seem to have a firmament within a firmament, which doesn't make sense with the link you gave which tries to argue that the first one (which is called the heaven) is somehow the earth's crust, which makes no sense.

    It also betrays the entire structure of the text. The second three days build off the first three days and relate to one another (day 1: light, day four: little lights. Day 2: sky and see, day 5: birds and fish. Day 3: land and plants, day 6: animals on the land and humans.) The second day is clearly referring to the sky, or else the discussion of birds in day 5 makes less sense.

    Additionally, I would argue that the word heaven means the same thing throughout Genesis 1 because writers don't change what words mean in the middle of a text.

  10. I'm just happy that you understand what I mean, JC. :D

    You're a rare one. :)



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