How Firm is the “Firmament”? Part 2 (of 2)

How Firm is the “Firmament”? Part 2 (of 2)

General Relativity and the Hebrew Word Rāqîa

Part one of this series suggested that – based on analysis of the Hebrew word rāqîa‘—an important part of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity was already described by Genesis 1 by many centuries before.. Seven uses of rāqîa‘ in Genesis 1 were considered, and it was concluded that rāqîa‘ seems to match quite well with “the fabric of space,” the existence of which was predicted by general relativity and is now verified experimentally.

The scientific method dictates that attempts must be made to falsify “the fabric of space” model by reviewing other uses of rāqîa‘ in the Old Testament, in particular any problem passages.
Before considering problem passages, it seems appropriate to mention that one use of rāqîa‘ beyond Genesis 1 seems to match perfectly with the fabric of space model. Psalm 19:1 is a poetic parallel, a construction which typically expresses synonymous ideas. In this instance, the “heavens” (KJV, NASB) are likened to the rāqîa‘ since both are made by God and show his “glory” (KJV, NASB). This verse reinforces our model because the word used for “heavens” is shāmayim, the same word used in Genesis 1:8: “God called the expanse [rāqîa‘] heaven [shāmayim]” (NASB).

Rāqîa‘ Problem Passages
Now it is necessary to consider possible “problem” passages in an attempt to falsify this model. The most obvious are found in Ezekiel 1 and 10, in which the prophet sees “something like a” rāqîa‘ with the “gleam of crystal” (Ezekiel 1:22, NASB) and the throne of God beyond. Some scholars interpret this to mean the rāqîa‘ is a solid dome. Yet it must be remembered that Ezekiel was a post-exilic prophet, reporting a vision that he struggled to explain so the Jewish exiles in Babylon would understand. It is noteworthy that Ezekiel does not say that what he sees is the rāqîa‘; literally the Hebrew reads “like a rāqîa‘ that is like a gleaming crystal.” In this analogy, emphasis is on God’s complete otherness, making the rāqîa‘ a separator between God’s person and created beingsimagery that is consistent with Hebrew tradition.

Psalm 150 contains a tricky rāqîa‘ passages. Verses 1–2 (NASB)  are another poetic parallel, a construction that typically expresses synonymous ideas. They read:

Praise the LORD! Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in His mighty expanse. Praise Him for His mighty deeds; Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.

If these verses do indeed express synonymous ideas, then the text would imply the rāqîa‘ (rendered “expanse”) is God’s sanctuary. However, we (the authors) think that this passage is actually a chiastic structure, beginning and ending with the same idea. In this case praising God is the theme, and the text moves from praising the greater thing (God’s person) to praising the lesser (his sanctuary and works) and then back to the greater. Verse 1 praises God’s person, descending to praise in his heavenly sanctuary and then to his rāqîa‘; verse 2 praises God’s works (such as his rāqîa‘), then ascends to again praise God’s person (his “greatness”). In this view, the rāqîa‘ is not God’s heavenly sanctuary, but something lesser: inner and outer space.

Furthermore, a literal translation of Psalm 150:1c,1 referring to the rāqîa‘ as the “expanse of [God’s] might,” emphasizes again that the rāqîa‘ has substance, even though it is not solid. Hence what Psalm 150 does seem to do is to falsify the idea of the rāqîa‘ as a “dome” or a “vault.” Perhaps those interpreters who translated rāqîa‘ as “firmament” had more insight than those who have tried to choose a more precise modern word.

Scholars often cite Job 37:18 as the most difficult passage to explain because it refers to the skies as chazaq, which means “strong” or “hard.” Yet this verse uses the verb form raqaי (“to beat out” or “to spread”), not the noun rāqîa‘ Moreover, in analyzing this passage, we must consider the context: it is part of Elihu’s advice to Job. Elihu’s character is debated by scholars, yet he claims to speak “in God’s behalf” (Job 36:2, NASB), and cites God’s control of the weather to demonstrate that God’s power is infinitely greater than man’s. Elihu enumerates some of God’s mysteries: clouds and lightning (37:14–16), the south wind (37:17), and God’s ability to “spread out the skies, strong [chazaq] as a molten mirror” (37:18, NASB). However, the word translated “skies” here is shachaq, which actually refers to fine dust or a thin cloud; hence the verse literally reads “spread out thin clouds, strong (or hard) as a molten mirror.” The analogy seems nonsensical; even the ancient Hebrews knew clouds were not hard! However, it makes perfect sense in the context of the ancient Hebrew vernacular, in which the clouds were said to be “hard” when there was no rain. Elihu is not saying the sky is hard; he is saying the power of God makes the clouds and lightning that bring rain and also makes the hot south wind that clears the clouds away and brings drought.

(Daniel 12:3 makes reference to “the brightness of the expanse of heaven” (NASB). However, as this passage is apocalyptic we will not address it, except to say that it seems to present no substantive problem to our model.)

One must marvel at the insight in the Bible. It portrays a universe with an absolute beginning, a fact accepted by science just 50 years ago. Now it seems plausible that the traditional complex, contradictory concept of the rāqîa‘ might be understood in the context of general relativity as the fabric of space. The Bible is not a science book, but if it is truly the word of God, it will be consistent with true science, even if incomplete. What it will not be consistent with is incorrect science.

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. Literally, Psalm 150:1c reads: Praise Him in the expanse [rāqîa‘] of his might