Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 2: Pentateuchal Portraits – Genesis 1a

The reader will notice that the term “biblical cosmology” is not used in the singular. The author finds that it is tenuous to assume that the biblical authors envisioned an identical model of the cosmos. Though the models of the cosmos found in the biblical texts contain commonalities, not every portrait is comprehensive. Some portraits focus on only one constituent of the cosmos while others reflect on a more complete construal. Hence, the author will focus on the explicit cosmological aspects of a given passage before addressing implicit connections.

For the reasons described above, the author has chosen to deal individually with texts that describe the cosmos. Though a systematic, biblical study could be done of “biblical cosmology” with fruitful results similar to those in this study, the author prefers to focus on each portrait individually. Patterns will emerge through systematic reflection on each portrait, and the author aspires to make connections so as to benefit the cognition of the reader.

The Genesis 1 creation narrative contains numerous convergences with pre-biblical Sumerian-Babylonian and Canaanite creation traditions. Some of these parallels are of the utmost importance as the exigency of Genesis 1 is likely found in these polytheistic creation myths. Genesis 1 is polemically directed to combat polytheistic cosmogonies through literary reworking and anesthetization of existing polytheistic creation myths.

Leeming (52) explains the Sumerian-Babylonian creation myth contained in Enuma Elish as the victory of order over chaos. In Enuma Elish, the hero-god Marduk combats the dragon goddess Tiamat who represents the chaotic waters of primordial existence. Marduk crushes Tiamat—dividing her dead body in half. Tiamat who was the dragon of primordial watery chaos becomes the vehicle to establish the separation of the chaotic waters. Part of her corpse was used to hold the chaotic waters above at bay while the other half is transformed into the terrestrial abode of humanity and the threshold against the waters below upon which the earth floats.

Contrary to popular assertions of creation ex nihilo, Genesis 1 follows the lead of the ancient cosmologies with the assumption pre-existent primordial water (Beltz, 35). Notice, at no point is there a specific creation of water in Genesis 1. Water is assumed to exist. The Hebrew T’hom (“without form”) of Genesis 1:2 linguistically and thematically correlates with the Sumerian-Babylonian Tiamat. Though sanitized of reference to gods and goddesses, Elohim in Genesis 1 combats the primordial, watery chaos to achieve victory. Creation itself is initiated through separating order out of chaos (darkness and water).

The first act of Elohim in the Genesis 1 creation myth is the separation of light from darkness. This act is followed on day two with the creation of the firmament (Hebrew rakia). The Hebrew word for “firmament” (rakia-- רָקִיעַ) is derived from the root raka. This root means to “spread out by beating” (BDB) or “to beat, stamp, beat out, spread out, stretch” (TWOT). It carries the idea of beating out a solid malleable material such as a metal.

Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) define rakia- רָקִיעַ(“firmament”) as follows:

…the firmament of heaven, spread out like a hemisphere above the earth (from the root [raka]), like a splendid and pellucid sapphire (Ex. 24:10, compare Dan. 12:3), to which the stars were supposed to be fixed, and over which the Hebrews believed there was a heavenly ocean (Gen. 1:17; 7:11; Ps. 104:3; 148:4…

When read against the backdrop of the ancient cosmologies and the literary-etymological etiology of the term rakia- רָקִיעַthe picture of the cosmos portrayed in Genesis 1 becomes a reciprocation of the pre-scientific cosmologies of the ancients—a flat earth with domed heavens.

The next post will develop build upon the Genesis 1 references to the firmament.

Beltz, Walter. God and the Gods: Myths of the Bible, trans. Peter Heinegg. Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.

Leeming, David. Jealous Gods, Chosen People: Mythology of the Middle East. New York: Oxford, 2004.


Daniel said...

See Daniel's response to part II.

Tandi said...

Re: Firmament

Hello Peter,

My friend, Dr. Bouw, has this to say about the Firmament. You will probably understand it better than I do.....


by Gerardus D. Bouw, Ph.D


For many years people have puzzled over why the excellent scholars who translated the King James Bible chose to translate the Hebrew word raqiya as "firmament" in Genesis chapter one. This bewilderment is compounded by the fact that whereas the word firmament suggests something solid, it is clearly stated in verse 8 that the firmament is synonymous with heaven; and that the sun, moon, and stars are actually located inside the firmament (verse 17), as if embedded therein. Verse 20 also states that there is an open firmament and from the context it is obvious that that is the atmosphere. This means that the firmament need not appear solid, as the word might at first sight suggest. Since the root word of the Hebrew suggests something at least as firm as metal, it is no wonder that there has been so much bewilderment.

The resulting confusion has led many to speculate that the firmament is nothing more than a solid shell about the heaven. But this ignores the very equating of the word with heaven itself. Since motion is clearly allowed on the part of the planets (which are also referred to as stars in the Bible) and comets, as well as sun moon and stars, the solid-shell model runs immediately contrary to Scripture. Likewise, the comparatively recent equating of the word firmament with canopy does not agree with the clear statement of Scripture that the celestial bodies are set "in the firmament of the heaven" (Genesis 1:17). The Bible insists that the firmament, as heaven, includes the astronomical objects. We, as Bible believers, are obligated to accept this; but is the idea scientifically feasible? It turns out that it is.

Scientific View of the Firmament

Twentieth century science has afforded us a new perspective on the firmament. The view that develops is one of a very solid material, so solid that it is indistinguishable from an infinitely dense medium insofar as the material in the universe is concerned. The firmament is actually a created medium with a density of about 4 x 1093 (a 4 followed by 93 zeros) grams per cubic centimeter (gm/cm3). This density is known to physics as the Planck Density. It is so high that the very highest material densities in the universe (nuclear densities of 1014 gm/cm3) are as next to nothing when compared to it; just as the density of a cloud (about 10-6 gm/cm3) is negligible when compared to the density of air (about 0.001 gm/cm3).

A medium of such a high density has some interesting properties. One would think, for example, that it would be impossible to move in such a medium, just as one could not move if encased in iron -- even if one were made of iron! Normally this is true; but it was demonstrated earlier in this century that if the medium were eternal and uncreated, that motion can happen in it as long as objects moved in cyclical paths, e.g. waves. In this way the medium would fill in the space left in the wake of the moving object. Now it turns out that such a medium, called a plenum, can be simulated by a non-infinitely dense, created medium if the material inside it merely perceives itself to be in a true plenum.

In order to hide its finite properties from the material in the universe, the firmament, as this created medium is called, could not be allowed to reveal its true age, density, nor allow the determination of absolute positions within it. In this way, time and position would be kept indeterminate, where the word indeterminate is a mathematical synonym for infinite. The indeterminacy of position and time (also energy and momentum which are essentially changes in position and time) is popularly called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The truth of this principle has been demonstrated by numerous experiments. In short, this means that the firmament is an underlying medium. The atoms and galaxies of our universe are merely tiny, insignificant disturbances in the firmament. Because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle they are totally unaware of the firmament's existence. If it were not for Scripture, we would be equally unaware of it. Only on extremely small scales, distances of the order of a Planck length (about 10-33 cm and time scale of about 10-44 second) does the firmament show through the warp and woof of space. The Planck length is a much smaller than a man as man is to 100,000,000 universes laid side-by-side!

Properties of the Firmament

The above model of the firmament makes some interesting predictions. First of all, the reaction time of the firmament to any change within it is about 10-78 second, faster by far than any chemical, atomic, or nuclear reaction. One wonders if this is how long it would take the Lord to melt all the elements with a fervent heat.

Second of the predictions is the fact that on scales where Planck's Constant is important (nuclear sizes and universal sizes), the masses of objects in that realm vary inversely with area. In other words, the bigger the object, the less its mass. On scales in between these two extremely small and extremely large ones, the equations show that the mass must vary directly with volume. That is, in the realm of the "every-day world" of people, stars, planets and galaxies, the bigger the object, the bigger its mass.

Although this may seem contradictory, it is well known in nuclear physics. For example, an electron "surrounds" a proton in an atom because it has a smaller mass and so is "bigger" than the proton. That the universe becomes less massive on its scale is a new perspective due to the firmament theory, although it is implicit in evolutionary speculations on the origin of the universe, such as the big-bang, as well as in theories which deal with the universe as a whole.


From the perspective of modern science, the firmament as put forth in Genesis chapter one is a very viable scientific option. It is a super-dense, created medium which mimics a plenum. It does so by both keeping absolute position and time indeterminate within it (Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle), as well as allowing only wave motions and thus disallowing absolutely straight-line motion. It reacts instantly to any changes within it (in about 10-78 sec). Material objects can only become vaguely aware of its existence on extremely large scales (of the order of the size of the universe) and on extremely small scales (of the order of sub-nuclear particles). All such phenomena have been noted before in the scientific literature.

For more information contact:

The Biblical Astronomer

4527 Wetzel Avenue

Cleveland, Ohio 44109


PeterS said...

Hello Tandi,

Bouw makes a number of fallacious statements in his assessment of firmament (rakia) in Genesis 1. I will not address these in my response as I intend to deal with this more extensively in my next post.

Bouw’s argument for the occurrence of a solid, imperceptible “firmament” is a case of ad hoc argumentation. That is, he construes his case not because the evidence suggests that any such “firmament” exists but because his view of Genesis requires it to exist. Ad hoc argumentation does not falsify an argument; however, it does raise red flags. Yes, it may be true that such an edifice could exist in the constraints of theoretical physics, yet, there is absolutely no evidence for its existence.

In addition to Bouw’s fallacious statements about the nature or role of the “firmament” in Genesis 1, he makes additional exegetical fallacies. First, he is missing a grasp of the sitz im leben (situation of life) of the earliest readers of this narrative. It is imperative that the exegete ask herself what the earliest reader would have understood a passag. It is absurd to read current exigencies into a text; hence, it would be absurd to expect Genesis to identify the occurrence of a “firmament” that had no practical relativity to the interpretive community. The ancient Hebrews evidence no indications of a cosmology physically divergent from their neighbors—they accepted the same basic model of a flat earth and a vaulted firmament.

In addition to missing the sitz im leben of Genesis 1’s original readers, Bouw fails to address what the text specifies as the purpose for the firmament-rakia. Bouw’s “firmament” appears to serve no real-world function other than to evidence his interpretation of a Hebrew creation myth.

Finally, Bouw’s argument is defensive—not offensive. That is, his argument does not explain anything. Rather, it seeks only to redress the maculatory nature of the Genesis firmament-rakia.

I will develop more about the firmament-rakia in short order…

Daniel said...

See my post about Dr. Bouw.

His thinking about RAQIA = HEAVEN is pretty much the same as mine.

PeterS said...

Hello Daniel,

My essential critique of Bouw’s proposal remains the same. There is no evidence for the existence of Bouw’s “firmament”; hence, his hypothetical construal is simply an ad hoc proposal designed to defensively adorn his view of Genesis. Bouw and others would have no reason to posit the existence of such a “firmament” if Genesis was not in the picture because there is no evidence that such a structure exists. Unless Bouw can demonstrate the real-world, not hypothetical, existence of this “firmament” from physical realities, his proposal can be nothing more than ad hoc defensive sandbagging.

Additionally, Genesis does not speak to modern-day empirical exigencies. It is dealing with a worldview very different from that granted by post-Copernican models. Bouw’s “firmament” is not established on sound exegesis of the text. Fortunately, Bouw does concede the difficulties surrounding the Genesis firmament-rakia, and I hope to build on these.

I will comment more on the firmament-rakia-heavens-shamayim identity of the firmament-rakia. I will state, however prematurely, that this reading is guilty of reading the modern idea of “space” as “heavens” into the passage.

Daniel said...

Hello Peter,
My main aim was to show that Dr. Buow was entitled to his model and that it fit within the Genesis account. My second aim was to show that he agrees with me on the definition of RAQIA = heavens. This point and my other points confirm that there is no contradiction between science and the Genesis 1 account.
Second, like most evolutionary apologists, you insist on characterizing the motives of the opposition were it is not warranted in a personified sense. I.e. "defensively adorn" e.t.c. These sort of attempts to define the opposition are not really fair. They are just propaganda designed to win by definition the opposition argument for the audience. Whatever the merits of Dr. Buow's hypothesis such characterizations are not warranted.
For Christians, that the bible states something is evidence by divine revelation for the existence of what it states. The RAQIA exists because God said it does. The argument therefore stands or falls on whether you succeed in showing that the bible is not God's word because it contains unexplainable contradictions.
As you admitted yourself an "ad hoc" argument proves nothing, and it only raises a "red flag". The "red flag" is in the eye of the beholder. Also I may point out that the evolutionary point of view is full of theories and hypothesis that are "ad hoc". They do not prove anything, and they do not explain anything. A phylogenic tree does not explain the fossil record. There is no evidence of transition from one form to another, and the assumption that the sequence from invertebrates to land mammals in the strata is evidence of evolution is fallacious because the assumption of evolution is not proved. Therefore, other explanations of the sequence are valid, such a hydrological sorting and biome segregation.
Dr. Buow's hypothesis has one advantage over the "ad hoc" argument of evolution, and that is his theory is allowed in the framework of divine revelation whereas evolution is not.
Genesis does speak to the modern day. Dr. Russell Humphrey's (Ph.d.) made valid predictions of the strength of magnetic fields of the outer planets before science verified them on the basis of his belief in Genesis. Walt Brown (Ph.d.) has made many valid predictions based on Genesis that have come true. Also Brown's theory has a great deal of parsimonious ability to explain the current geography of the earth.
While many creationists use Copernicus' point of view, Dr. Buow is entitled to his, and science has nothing against it. Scientific hypothesis do not have to be proven to exist by the text. They only have to pass the test of non-contradiction with the text. Science remains the wonderful art of discovering of God's creation.
While you reject Dr. Buow's position, I sense that you may try to use him as evidence for too strict a view of the RAQIA that is not warranted by the text in order to try to involve the text in a contradiction with science.
You try to say that the RAQIA cannot be the modern idea of space. However, what is space? Modern scientists still do not understand the structure of space. One may say that a table is "solid", but in fact at the atomic level it is mostly empty space! There may actually be something there at the subatomic level below the plank length that scientists have not discovered that may be reflected in the divine hint of the word RAQIA. I will not be so bold as to say Dr. Buow has convincingly defined space, but I will be so bold as to say that it is quite improper to assume our understanding of space is so complete as to require a contradiction with Genesis.