And God said, Let there be a firmament/an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it divide/separate the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament/expanse, and divided/separated the waters which/that were under the firmament/expanse from the waters which were above the firmament/expanse: and it was so. And God called the firmament/expanse Heaven. (Genesis 1:6-8a KJV/ESV)
When you look up, what do you see?
What does “Heaven” look like? Is it as it appears to us? Can we really know it’s true form?
The Hebrew word translated here in the KJV and ESV as “firmament” and “expanse” is “raqiya” (H7549).
According to Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions (BDB), raqiya (H7549) is defined as:
1) extended surface (solid), expanse, firmament
1a) expanse (flat as base, support)
1b) firmament (of vault of heaven supporting waters above)
1b1) considered by Hebrews as solid and supporting ‘waters’ above
When I use the BDB for definitions I typically run with the top line [“1)”] as the primary definition. I don’t always consider the sub-points or the parenthetical words, since I assume they are just commentary of the dictionary authors.
BDB also indicates this word comes from the verb root “raqa” (H7554), which means “to beat, stamp, beat out, spread out, stretch”. I always pay particular attention to verb roots because I think they give wonderful clues as to understanding the linguistic meaning of words derived from them.
So, my understanding of what Brown-Driver-Briggs is saying is that the word simply means “extended surface, expanse, firmament” which is beaten (out), stamped, stretched, and/or spread out.
Some have suggested that this denotes its shape as being a dome or vault. But given the use of this word and its verb root, I don’t see anything in the lingual aspect to suggest that. Instead, the primary picture that comes to my mind is something flat, like a sheet or a curtain that can be formed into something else, or not.
Strongs’ says this about the word, raqiya (H7549):
From H7554; properly an expanse, that is, the firmament or (apparently) visible arch of the sky: – firmament.
“From H7554” is a reference to the verb root, which can easily be overlooked by those wanting a quick answer to what a word means because it’s just a series of numbers after a letter. However, I think it’s very important to consider for determining a word’s meaning, especially in the Hebrew language since Hebrew is action-based. From what I understand all nouns are derived from verbs.
Secondly, I believe the italicized words is the actual definition, not the entire entry. So in this case, “expanse” and “firmament” would be the actual definition for raqiya.
Next, the phrase “(apparently) visible arch of the sky” in my opinion is commentary by the author to elaborate on his understanding of the word and how it is used throughout the Bible. The words “apparently” and “visible” here are clearly referring to appearance, and not necessarily actuality.
And finally, the word(s) following the colon indicates how the word is translated in the King James Version of the Bible. In this case, it is only translated one way, as “firmament”.
(Apparently) Visible Arch…
The sky appears to us from our vantage point as an arch, because we can only see so far in every direction. Our eyes, being at a fixed point in our head, can look in every direction at the turn of our head: above, below and all around. The limit to which we can see in all directions would create a spherical boundary.
When standing on land, the land we’re standing on obstructs the limit of our view vertically downward.
When we stand on land, the limit of our view horizontally all around us can be obstructed by various things, such as buildings, mountains, trees, etc., but if we are on a desolate flat plain or in a boat out on the ocean, we can see very far in every direction around us. The edge at which we see what is above us meeting that which we see is below us is called the horizon line. That is the limit of our lateral view. From our vantage point, it is a big circle all around us and we are at the central point of it. This doesn’t mean there isn’t anything beyond that limit…we just can’t see it.
When we ascend to greater heights, whether it be up a mountain or flying in a plane, the horizon line (where what we see above us meets what we see below us) remains at eye level. This indicates to me that what is below us is vast enough that we are still able to see it, as well as what is above us.
Now the limit of our view vertically upward when we’re standing on land (on a clear day or night) is not obstructed, it seems to go on and on. When we ascend to a greater height, we still see more above us.
The Hebrew word translated as “Heaven” in Genesis 1:8 is “shamayim” (H8064). It comes from an unused verb root that means to be lofty.
So when we take all of these components: what we see below us with what we see all around us, and what we see above us, the heavens appear to enclose us within a dome over a plane. But that does not mean that is what it actually is.
The Creator who is over all, and formed the heavens knows for certain the shape of it. It is what it is, not because of how mankind views it, but because of how the Creator formed it.
My Personal View…
There are other passages that speak of this firmament/expanse called Heaven that I will address in future posts, but I thought introducing the Hebrew definition from two popular resources would be a good start.
I have shied away from discussing my personal view on the shape of the heavens, because for one, I have no way of knowing its shape for certain, and two, I don’t see the need to know. But when pressed for my thoughts on the matter, it seems more likely to me that the heavens are an infinite (or near-infinite) plane above the land and seas than a domed enclosure.
I doubt the domed enclosure theory because it suggests the heavens are not only above us but also around us, and I just don’t see anything in Scripture specifically portraying that concept, but I’ll save further commentary on this subject for another day. 😉