Vol. 10, No. 4 James B. Jordan, 1998 April, 1998



by James B. Jordan

Paul H. Seely, "The Firmament and the Water Above," Westminster Theological Journal 53(1991):227-240; 54 (1992):31-46.

Paul H. Seely, "The Geographical Meaning of `Earth' and `Seas' in Genesis 1:10," Westminster Theological Journal 59(1997):231-55.

In these two essays, Mr. Seely provides a very careful exegesis and explanation of the meaning of the firmament, the waters above the firmament, the land, and the ocean, according to Genesis 1. There is much of value in these essays, and I have drawn upon them in my own work (in previous essayletters), but I believe they also contain errors that are in need of correction.

Seely holds that the Bible is inerrant, but agrees with B.B. Warfield that the Bible was also written in terms of the scientific understanding of its times. Thus, the Biblical picture of the cosmos should not bind us as we consider the actual arrangement of the universe.

In each of his essays, Seely begins by surveying the views of a wide range of the primitive peoples of the world and of ancient cultures. He concludes that before the arrival of modern understandings, men pretty universally believed that there was a hard shell or dome over a flat, circular earth that floated on water and was surrounded by water. (A few cultures did not believe that the earth floated on water.)

Then Seely turns to the Bible and attempts to show that the same understanding of the physical cosmos is found there. He is quite clear that neither the early cultures nor the Biblical people took this world picture as a mere metaphor, but that they believed this is how the world really is.

Turning to Seely's first article, we find that throughout the history of the Church until the modern era, it was universally held by expositors that the firmament was a hard shell supporting a heavenly ocean. Only after the development of modern views of the universe did expositors suggest that the firmament might just be the atmosphere with clouds in it, or that the waters above the firmament might refer to a water vapor canopy over the earth before the Flood.

Seely does a good job of demolishing these modern notions. The firmament, or raqia`, was "made" according to Genesis 1. Thus, it cannot be merely the absence of something, but something actually made. Genesis 1 might have said that God put "room" or "space" between the waters, but it does not. Further, the firmament is the place where the sun, moon, and stars were later put. Thus it cannot be the atmosphere, and the waters above the firmament cannot be a water vapor canopy over the earth.

In this first article Seely is quite firm on the point that the firmament is something hard, and that it in fact holds back the heavenly waters. In his second article, however, Seely admits that the verb raqa`, and thus the noun raqia`, can refer not to something hard that is stamped out, but simply to something spread out, as in Psalm 136:6.

Now, as Seely shows in his first article, the ancients used to argue over what this hard firmament is made of. The Bible does not say what it is made of. In the light of this, Seely might have suggested that perhaps the firmament is not made of any kind of metal or stone at all, or anything hard. All we know is that God made it of some created substance. It might, in fact, have been made of "spread out" empty space, if we consider "empty space" as actually a matrix of some sort.

Seely comes at Genesis 1 from the perspective of the ancient world, assuming that it was written in terms of the science of that time. It would be better to assume that God inspired Genesis 1 in such a way that it is not written in terms of the science of any time, though it does not conflict with the true arrangement of the cosmos, rightly understood.

Hidden in his procedure is the notion that the Bible arose in and out of a Hebrew culture, something the Bible emphatically denies. The Bible came down as the Word of God to stand over against and criticize the Hebrew culture. The prophets stood outside their culture and spoke down to it from a standpoint on high. To the extent that the Hebrews learned about the heavens from the Babylonians and the Egyptians, that learning is brought into question on every page of the Bible, for the Babylonian and Egyptian skies were full of gods. Many Hebrews may well have thought like the Babylonians and Egyptians, but not the prophets sent by God to write the Bible.

Just as some modern conservatives err by stuffing modern science into Genesis 1, so Seely stuffs ancient science into it. He imports into the text notions of a hard shell and a hard domed sky that are in fact not present there at all. However common such notions may have been among the idolatrous nations round-about, and however common they may have been in the minds of ancient Israelites, they are not found in Genesis 1. All that is present in the text is a "stretched out something."

Here is where Seely overlooks something important. Genesis 1 clearly states that God put the sun, moon, and stars in the firmament. If the firmament were a rotating hard shell over the earth, the sun, moon, and stars would all have to move together. In fact, they do not, and everyone in the ancient world knew it. (It is, after all, impossible not to know it!) They also knew that the moving stars (planets) were not fixed to any hard firmament. For them, the hard firmament was the area of the fixed stars, not of the sun, moon, and planets. But this is NOT what Genesis 1 states. Genesis 1 puts all these various motions in the area called "firmament," and that means that the firmament cannot be a hard shell.

I have argued that the proper interpretation of Genesis 1 is this: On the second day, God made a spread out something and set it to divide the waters above and below, creating an earthly and a heavenly sea. Given the meaning of raqia`, this "spread out something" was essentially flat. Then, on the fourth day, God expanded this firmament outward, breaking up the primordial light into the sun, moon, and stars (Isaiah 40:22). Later passages of the Bible speak of the firmament both as a surface (as it continues to appear) and as a three-dimensional environment (as the fourth day of Genesis 1 clearly implies).

As to the waters above the firmament, Seely is absolutely correct. Those waters were literally taken up into the angelic heaven, where they form the sea of glass/ice/crystal.

The finished firmament of Genesis 1 is what we now call outer space. The "substance" of that firmament is the matrix of space itself. The hard shell (if it was hard) of the second day has been broken up and expanded to form stars, planets, and cosmic dust, as well as the spatial matrix in which these subsist.

To be sure, Genesis 1 was doubtless read in the ancient world in terms of their view of the universe; but it can also be read without compromise or difficulty in terms of a modern understanding of outer space.

The waters beyond the firmament are on the other side of outer space, in heaven. I am not at all sure that heaven is a place that can be reached by travel in a spaceship; rather it seems to exist in "another dimension," so that when heaven is opened, it is very near to the people who see into it. The starry universe is, however, finite. The notion of an infinite universe gives rise to what is called Olbers's Paradox: If the universe goes on forever in every direction, our eye will see a star in every direction — in which case the sky would be white at night, filled in every nook and cranny with a light-streaming star. The fact that the sky is not white with light indicates that in some sense the universe is finite, whether "curved in upon itself" as

modern physics argues, or simply boundaried. Thus, while modern science shows us a vastly larger and deeper firmament than the ancients believed in, that firmament is still bounded, and in some sense heaven is on the other side of it.

We now turn to Seely's second article, on the land and sea in Genesis 1. As noted, Seely shows that pre-modern people believed (and still believe) that the earth is a circular island surrounded by water and (usually) floating on a vast sea. He then tries to argue that the Bible presents such a flat earth, and not simply as a metaphor in passages comparing the earth to an altar or a house, but as a reality.

His case for this is not convincing. He argues first, from Daniel 4, that since the great tree reaching to heaven was "visible to the ends of the earth," this presupposes a flat earth. Seely errs in assuming that "earth" here means exactly what it means in Genesis 1. First of all, the Bible often speaks of empires as ruling the entire earth, when in fact they only ruled part of it. The ancients spoke the same way, even though they knew full well that there were nations and peoples outside the boundaries of their lands. Thus, "all the earth" and "to the ends of the earth" does not mean, in such contexts, the entire physical earth but rather a "political earth." Second, of course, Daniel 4 is a vision, and in a vision the pictures are to be taken symbolically, not literally. The other (few) passages that Seely discusses are also speaking metaphorically, and must not be pressed to imply a literal notion. Job 38:13, for instance, does not say that the earth is hard and flat, but that it is like a carpet that can be shaken (as in an earthquake). The passage is metaphorical, not scientific.

Genesis 1 says that the waters are under the earth. This is quite literally true, but does not imply that the earth is one circular continent, or that it is flat. There is only one world ocean, and all the land in the world rises above it.

Seely then attempts to show that the Bible teaches that the earth floats on a vast underground ocean, from which arise springs and rivers. Not all of his arguments for this are sound, as when he refers to the great bronze ocean in Solomon's Temple. That laver portrayed the heavenly ocean, raised up above the earth on the backs of bronze bulls, and resting in the firmament of the laver itself.

Clearer are Psalm 136:6 and 24:2, which speak of the earth as spread out upon waters, and as founded upon water. Similarly, Genesis 49:25 speaks of the blessings that come from the sea below, which cannot refer to any body of water, but to water below the ground.

All of this is quite true, but it does not mean or imply that there is a body of water under all the ground of the earth. Dig down far enough and you will find water. Some degree of wetness is under the ground everywhere in the world. From that underground wetness come springs and rivers. We call this underground water the "water table."

Genesis 1 does not say anything at all about water under the earth. It contrasts the sea with "dry" land. The moist soil under the dry surface of the land is all that "water under the earth," mentioned elsewhere, need imply.

We conclude that Genesis 1 could readily have been read by ancient people in terms of their cosmology (though with some difficulty given their view of a solid firmament), but it can also be read by us in terms or our more developed and sophisticated cosmology. God has written it in such a way that it is valid for all times and seasons of human experience and understanding, for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.


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