What is the Firmament in Gen 1?
The creation story narrates that God created a firmament above the heavens. But, what is the firmament in Gen 1?
The JPS translation of Gen 1:6-8 reads thus,
‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. (Gen 1:6-8 JPS)
The English word “firmament” comes from Latin firmamentum, literally “a support or strengthening” which in turn comes from firmus “firm”, used in Latin Vulgate to translate Greek stereoma “firm or solid structure”. Both firmamentum and stereoma translate Hebrew רָקִיעַ rakiya, a word used of the vault above the sky, as seen also in Gen_1:14-15, Gen_1:17, Gen_1:20, Psa_150:1, Eze_1:22-23, Eze_1:25-26, Eze_10:1, and Dan_12:3.
The idea of a firm “vault” or “expanse” above the sky comes from the Hebrew primitive verb רָקַע raka “to beat, stamp, beat out, spread out, stretch” i.e. to beat metal into a sheet, or to spread out the clay when making pottery, as in Syriac it means “to make firm or solid”. We find this literal meaning of raka in Exo 39:3, but also in Isa_40:19, Num_16:39, and Jer_10:9.
And they did beat (raka) the gold into thin plates, and cut it into threads, to work it in the blue, and in the purple, and in the scarlet, and in the fine linen, the work of the skillful workman. (Exo 39:3 JPS)
But, raka is also used in its poetical application of spreading the clouds by the Creator in Job_37:18 and Isa_42:5. Along with the literal application, these poetical images bring the idea that rakiya is regarded as a solid mass, i.e. רָקִיעַ rakiya is called heaven in Gen_1:8, i.e., the vault of heaven, which stretches out above the earth.
Hence, we get the meaning of rakiya as a firm and solid expanse above the sky.
But, instead of clarifying the creation account, we have come to a complication, because it seems that what Creator made was a shell-like expanse that enclosed the sky and the earth: a firmament above and under the sky. Something like a “walnut” shell that encloses the nut.
The waters under the firmament are the waters on the earth itself (see Gen 1:7), but what are the waters above the firmament? Because, if the mass of water from the deep of the earth was shut up at the end of the Flood (see Gen_8:2), it is evident that it must be regarded as such above the vault which spans the earth.
So, what is the firmament in Gen 1? A clue can be found in the following verses:
Then I looked, and, behold, upon the firmament (rakiya) that was over the head of the cherubim, there appeared above them as it were a sapphire stone, as the appearance of the likeness of a throne. (Eze 10:1 JPS)
And over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of a firmament (rakiya), like the colour of the terrible ice, stretched forth over their heads above. (Eze 1:22 JPS)
Or, as a molten looking-glass in Job_37:18,
Did you, with Him, spread out (raka) the clouds, strong as a hard mirror? (Job 37:18)
But, the answer to our question can be found in Josephus’ account of Gen 1: in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1:1:1, which reads thus,
After this, on the second day, he placed the heaven over the whole world, and separated it from the other parts, and he determined it should stand by itself. He also placed a crystalline [firmament] round it, and put it together in a manner agreeable to the earth, and fitted it for giving moisture and rain, and for affording the advantage of dews.
What we are learning from the Creation account was that rakiya is a huge mass of water; and from Josephus: that was a crystalline firmament. Hence, it is logical to conclude that the firmament in Gen 1 was a sphere of ice crystals or blocks around the earth.
That ice vault was an ideal filter against the harmful UV light from the sun, as it created the perfect environment for the life that would be created on the earth below from the third day until the sixth day. That ice firmament was like a transparent screen on which the sun, the moon, and the stars were projected in a spectacular view from the earth’s perspective,
And God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, (Gen 1:16-17 JPS)
And on whose face the birds were flying,
Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth on the face of the firmament of the heavens.” (Gen 1:20)
But, the Creator caused the ice firmament to melt in the six hundredth year of Noach’s life (see Gen 7:11) and in the 1656th year of the creation, when along with waters in the hidden chambers in the earth, the waters from above came upon the earth in the form of torrential rain and wiped out the wicked generation in Noach’s time. We do not have today the ice firmament that had been a protective shield around the earth for 1656 years because of the sin of mankind.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.