How Firm is the “Firmament”? Part 1 of 2

How Firm is the “Firmament”? Part 1 of 2

General Relativity and the Hebrew Word Rāqîa

Experimental physics has recently verified the prediction of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity that outer space has structure. Yet was this concept already described by Genesis 1 many centuries earlier? A comprehensive analysis of the complex Hebrew word rāqîa‘ seems to suggest that it was!

Rāqîa‘ appears seven times in Genesis 1. The King James Version (KJV) translates it as “firmament.” This curious word choice is carried over into the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New King James Version (NKJV). Yet other modern English Bibles translate rāqîa‘ in a variety of different ways: “expanse,”1 “dome,”2 “vault,”3 “sky,”4 “space,”5 and even “horizon,”6 “air,”7  and “solid arch”.8 These various translations seem to convey contradictory concepts; which emphasizes the complex meaning of rāqîa‘. This complexity is reinforced by the fact that modern translations often use different, contradictory words for rāqîa‘ in different passages.9

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

This word means simply “expansion.” It denotes the space or expanse like an arch appearing immediately above us. They who rendered rāqîa‘ by firmamentum regarded it as a solid body….It is plain that it was used to denote solidity as well as expansion” (emphasis added).

Genesis 1:8 says: “God called the expanse [rāqîa‘] ‘sky’”10 (NIV). Hence, based on Easton’s explanation, we might say the word rāqîa‘ could refer to “an expansive (or expanding) solid such as inner and outer space.” This seems nonsensical. Modern educated people know sky is not a solid and that outer space is a vacuum that we usually think of as nothingness.

The purpose of this paper is to propose a plausibility argument that the seemingly contradictory character of rāqîa‘ might be consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Although one must be careful not to read too much science into Genesis, the ancient Israelites seem to have understood the word rāqîa‘ as conveying a contradictory complexity that might have foreshadowed this revolutionary concept of twentieth century physics.

The Nature of Outer Space
According to general relativity, outer space is not nothingness. Space possesses a structure with real physical characteristics; it has a fabric that can be distorted by the presence of a massive object. General relativity suggests that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space in response to a massive object (see here and here for further descriptions of general relativity). This is a subtle but significant departure from Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, which suggests an attractive forcebetween any two bodies. Nevertheless, Newton’s and Einstein’s equations for gravity produce the same result almost all the time.

The idea of gravity as a warping of the fabric of space can be visualized by a marble and a bowling ball on a trampoline. If the trampoline is taut (and nothing else is on it), then a marble will stay wherever it is placed on the trampoline. However, if a bowling ball is placed on the trampoline, it sinks to the center, distorting the fabric of the trampoline.  Now a marble rolls down toward the bowling ball with increasing velocity (just as Newton observed). An object thrown out of a window is like this marble. Newton says the Earth’s gravity pulls the object to the ground; Einstein says it slides down the fabric of space, which has been warped by presence of the Earth. But in either case, the object falls to the ground with increasing velocity.

General relativity was first demonstrated in 1919. Recently, NASA’s Gravity Probe B project proved there is indeed a fabric of space; the data also give strong indications that the fabric is substantive enough to be “dragged.” Superstring theory, another theory of modern physics, even predicts that the fabric of space can be torn and patched. Superstring theory is unproven, but if the fabric of space can be dragged, torn, and patched, then it takes on a very real, physical character, even though it seems to contain essentially no matter. Like a lattice, the structure exists as a framework for matter—with or without matter present. Hence, the fabric of space is like an expansive (or expanding) solid—even though it is not a solid. It seems, then, that the fabric of space fits with the traditional definition of rāqîa‘ as “an expansive (or expanding) solid such as inner and outer space”!

According to ancient Hebrew tradition, God is beyond the rāqîa‘. This concept is also consistent with general relativity, which forms the basis for the big bang theory. This theory holds that the universe is expanding and may have a boundary.11 A creator-God must, by definition, be outside of that boundary. This is another startling biblical prediction foreshadowing twentieth century physics.

Correctly Translating Rāqîa‘
Interpreting rāqîa‘ as “the fabric of space” seems to provide—perhaps for the first time—a translation of Genesis 1:20 consistent with the literal Hebrew, which says birds fly upon the paniym(the “face” or “surface”) of the rāqîa‘. English Bibles generally avoid a literal translation of paniym and use words like “in the open” rāqîa‘ (KJV, NASB) or “across” the rāqîa‘ (RSV, NIV, NRSV). Only the NKJV follows the Hebrew by rendering that passage as “across the face” of the rāqîa‘. Nevertheless, the literal Hebrew seems to make sense only within the model that the rāqîa‘ is the fabric of space, in which case Genesis 1:20 reads: “birds fly…on the surface [or across the face] of the fabric of space.” This interpretation fits with general relativity theory.

This fabric of spacemodel for rāqîa‘ easily explains all other uses of that word in Genesis. For example, Genesis 1:8 defines rāqîa‘ as “sky” (NIV), which restates the model. Genesis 1:6–7 says the rāqîa‘ divides the water on and in the earth from the water above. Indeed, the rāqîa‘ separates the water vapor from ground and surface waters; the water vapor is then collected in clouds and converted to rain according to the laws of physics.

Genesis 1:14–15, 17 says the Sun, Moon, and stars are all in the rāqîa‘—and indeed they are. Each of these heavenly bodies warps the rāqîa‘ according to its relative mass and also moves along the warped rāqîa‘ in a precise path as observed by astronomers for centuries. Furthermore, these verses falsify the suggestion that placing the heavenly bodies “in” the rāqîa‘ implies the ancient Hebrews believed the sky or space was a solid dome. Rather, the Bible makes clear that the ancient Hebrews knew that the heavenly bodies moved, beginning with Genesis 1:14 in which the heavenly bodies are described as “for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years” (NASB). Rāqîa‘ implies substance, not solidity.

In summary, interpreting rāqîa‘ as “the fabric of space” seems to match quite well with its seven uses in Genesis 1. However, before making a definitive conclusion, it is necessary to consider this model in the context of its other uses in the Old Testament. And in particular, in order to follow the scientific method in our analysis, it is necessary to attempt to falsify this model by considering problem passages.

Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD

Dr. Hugh Henry received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.

Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh

Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.

Part 1 | Part 2
  1. See the New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), and TaNaKh (TNK, the Hebrew Bible).
  2. See the New Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New American Bible (NAB), and the Contemporary English Version (CEV).
  3. See the New English Bible (NEB), the Revised English Bible (REB), and the Today’s New International Version (TNIV).
  4. See the Message (MSG).
  5. See the New Living Translation (NLT).
  6. See the GOD’S WORD Translation (GW).
  7. See the New Century Version (NCV).
  8. See the Bible in Basic English Bible (BBE).
  9. This point becomes apparent by comparing rāqîa‘ translations in Genesis to those in Psalms and Daniel. Bible versions which translate rāqîa‘ as “firmament” usually do so consistently, but versions using another word for rāqîa‘ are not so consistent; cf. BBE, CSB, DBY, ESV, NET, NIB, NIV, and NLT translations of Genesis 1:6 and Psalm 150:1, for example.
  10. The word translated “sky” here is shamayim, which is more typically translated “heaven” (NKJV, NASB ESV). However, the word “sky,” as used in Genesis 1:8, seems to better convey the traditional Hebrew use of “heaven” to refer to the sky above and outer space beyond, not to God’s heaven, which is outside the rāqîa‘.
  11. There are multiple solutions to the general relativity equations, and some such solutions imply the universe is bounded, though others suggest an unbounded universe.