As we read the narrative of Genesis 1, we repeatedly encounter the word 'expanse' or 'firmament.' These words are used to translate the Hebrew term raqia, but carry baggage that tends to predispose how we English readers interpret these verses, hindering our ability to derive their meaning on purely contextual grounds. Let us, therefore, try to follow the narrative by using the term raqia instead; doing so will, hopefully, help us understand it without unduly influencing us toward a particular interpretation. (Unless otherwise noted, all verses below follow the NASB.)
To set the stage for this study, I suggest that if we read Genesis 1:1-10 as a straightforward narrative, it teaches that in the only 'beginning' that concerns us-a beginning separate from any other God may have initiated in eternity past, such as the creation of His abode, or the creation of the angels-God began by creating the Earth. Genesis 1:1 is a summary statement that succeeding verses elaborate on. He did not begin by first creating the universe and then placing the Earth into it; but in creating the Earth, God was at the same time creating our entire universe, with the Earth being its first manifestation.
A Great Ball of Water
With the understanding that Genesis 1:1 is a summary statement, Genesis 1:2 signals the actual inception of Creation. It begins with the formation of the Earth and its universe as a single great body of water, formless and empty at the outset but presumably in the general shape of a sphere. From God's perspective external to His creation, darkness lay 'upon' the surface of the watery deep, but probably permeated the whole. Since God 'dwells in unapproachable light' (1 Tim 6:16), I suspect that this darkness 'upon the face of the deep' (KJV) was an integral part of the incipient universe, a darkness not existing as a separate entity; in other words, God was not doing His creating work in the dark.
Since this state of darkness upon the deep comes first, evening appropriately precedes morning. Then, in my mind's eye, this formless body of water then begins to glow as God, whose Spirit hovers over the dark waters, creates light-light, like the darkness, existing within the waters, and which soon coalesces into a localized, radiant area of energy-filled plasma. With the completion of this separation of the light from the darkness comes the morning. 'And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day' (Gen. 1:5).
On the second day God says,
Let there be a raqia in the midst of the waters [Heb. mayim], and let it separate the waters from the waters. And God made the raqia, and separated the waters which were below the raqia from the waters which were above the raqia; and it was so. And God called the raqia heaven [Heb. shamayim]. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day' (Gen. 1:6-8).
The raqia forms in the midst of the watery body, separating it into two parts and acting as a boundary between them. One part lies below the raqia, the other above it. God also defines the raqia, a term which describes the characteristics of this object, as being equivalent with shamayim, its specific name. (The same principle applies to how the Bible introduces the first human being. His characteristics are given by the Hebrew term for man, ish, which carries with it the concept of maleness, but his specific name is Adam.)
As for shamayim, this is a most interesting word, a plural form which in English is often translated by the singular term 'heaven,' but in every case it would be acceptable to translate it as 'heavens.' Hebrew actually uses no singular form of the word. The same is true of the word mayim, waters; only the plural (technically, dual) form is used in Hebrew. The two words are so similar that one suspects they are related.
A Closer Look at the Raqia
Before examining a possible relationship between mayim and shamayim, however, I would like to look more closely at the word raqia and comment on an alternative interpretation of it proposed by Dr. Walt Brown. He has done much careful, extremely detailed scientific research, set forth in his book In the Beginning, which helps us understand how scientific principles can illuminate the origin of the Earth, explaining many things we observe in geology and astronomy in a manner consistent with the Bible. He calls his model the Hydroplate Theory. Though I do not perfectly understand all of his points, he makes a very persuasive scientific case for many of them.
Despite the strength of his science, however, I do not believe the support he sees for his theory in the term raqia holds up under a close scrutiny. He states:
The word expanse (raqia) is used nine times in Genesis, all in the creation account, chapter 1. The first four uses are distinguished from the last four, to minimize confusion. Following each of the last four uses (in Genesis 1:14-20) is the phrase 'of the heavens.' Clearly, from the context, 'expanse of the heavens' means sky, atmosphere, outer space, or heaven. However, the first four uses of 'expanse,' in Genesis 1:6-7, do not use the phrase 'of the heavens.' That expanse was the earth's crust. Surface waters (oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers) were above this crust, and subterranean waters were below. The subterranean waters burst forth, producing 'the fountains of the great deep' and the global flood (p. 365, my emphasis).
I am convinced that contextual considerations militate against the distinct uses of raqia Dr. Brown proposes. The claim that raqia in verses 6-7 refers to the Earth's crust does not follow from the Biblical data, but was apparently made to provide supposed Scriptural support for the hydroplate theory. The context indicates it is far more likely that the expression 'of the heavens' was not used earlier in Genesis 1 simply because the name shamayim was not equated with the raqia until Genesis 1:8a. Until this name had been attached to the raqia, there was no reason to use the expression 'of the heavens.' Once the identification of shamayim with raqia was established in verse 8a, subsequent verses could use this expression to clarify the nature of the raqia without causing confusion. On the other hand, if shamayim had been connected with raqia prior to verse 8a, no one would have had a clue what it signified-it had not yet been defined.
Thus, there is no reason to propose differences in the meaning of raqia within the context of the first chapter of Genesis; the internal evidence indicates every instance of raqia in Genesis 1 refers to the same entity. Therefore, claiming that the phrase 'of the heavens' introduces a second kind of raqia into the picture, distinct from that in verses 6 and 7, is reading something into the text that is not really there.
In addition, if Dr. Brown's reasoning were correct, we should expect the raqia 'of the heavens' in Genesis 1:20 to be precisely identical in every way with that mentioned in 1:14-17. But the raqia 'of the heavens' (which could equally well have been rendered 'the heavenly raqia' in modern English) in 1:14-17 is the domain of the heavenly bodies, while in 1:20 the 'face' of the raqia is the atmospheric zone where the birds fly - a difference of localized characteristics, though not a wholly different type of raqia. This difference in localized characteristics of the single raqia makes it clear that the phrase 'of the heavens' is not a technical term precisely defining a particular type of raqia distinct from other potential types, but only serves as an adjective elaborating on its characteristics. If the modifying phrase was intended to exactly define one type of raqia, we would expect 1:20 to read 'raqia of the air' or something similar. Therefore, if the phrase 'of the heavens' does not support a very specific usage in 1:14-20, we have no firm basis for supposing that its lack in 1:6-7 means the usage there is substantially different. Since all the uses in Genesis 1 are in close association with each other, the highest likelihood is that they all refer to exactly the same thing.
The Great Stretch
To understand what happens next in Creation, we must gain additional clarity by going outside the book of Genesis and allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. Observe the following representative verses, there are some 17 in all:
Isaiah 45:12-It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens [shamayim] with My hands...
Isaiah 51:13-That you have forgotten the LORD your Maker, Who stretched out the heavens [shamayim]...
Jeremiah 10:12-It is He who made the earth by His power, Who established the world by His wisdom; And by His understanding He has stretched out the heavens [shamayim]...
God stretched out the heavens. Since we already know that God called the raqia 'heaven' (shamayim), these verses speak of the great stretching out of the raqia. Let us again picture Creation taking place; the Lord places His hands upon the ball of water, draws them apart, the raqia stretches out in all directions-and outer space is created, with light years passing in a moment of time. The waters below the raqia become the primeval, water-enshrouded Earth, while those above the raqia lie outside of our experience, at the outermost boundary of this universe, beyond the reach of even the Hubble telescope. In the process of stretching out the raqia, the glowing plasma formed on the first day stretches out also, permeating the raqia as its boundary extends to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Thus ends the second day.
As we continue reading Genesis 1, verses 14, 15 and 17 tell us that on the fourth day, the swirling eddies of plasma that stretched out with the raqia on the second day coalesce, becoming the galaxies and all they contain, while the plasma closest to Earth comes together to become our Sun. These verses, together with verse 20, give confirmation that the raqia deals with the atmosphere and outer space. The term cannot be used as evidence for subterranean waters within the Earth.
'Fire in the Waters'
This brings up one other point made by Dr. Brown that deserves comment, given on page 374 of the eighth edition of his book. I remarked earlier I had observed a close resemblance between the words mayim, waters, and shamayim, heavens, and suspected they were related. Dr. Brown noted that
One of the most famous and revered Hebrew scholars of all time, Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki (A.D. 1040-1105) of France, proposed that the correct translation of Genesis 1:8a is 'And God called the expanse fire in the waters,' instead of the normal 'And God called the expanse heaven.'
He goes on,
Rabbi Yitzchaki, in his eleventh century Rashi Commentary, pointed out that with different vowel points [which are not part of the original, consonantal Hebrew text prior to about 700 AD] the original Hebrew we now think of as meaning 'heaven' in Genesis 1:8a would mean 'fire in waters.' While in Jerusalem on 28 June 1990, I met for two hours with Michael Kline, Dean of Hebrew Union College. My question was, 'What did raqia (expanse) and shamayim (heaven) mean in Genesis 1:8a when Moses wrote Genesis?' To my surprise, he suggested Rabbi Yitzchaki's translation, which I had previously studied. Shamayim is a compound of the words fire (esh) and liquid water (mayim). After I briefly explained the hydroplate theory, Dean Kline said that raqia (as opposed to 'raqia of the heavens') might well have been the earth's crust-appropriately called 'fire in waters.' You decide.
I find this understanding of Genesis 1:8a extremely interesting-but not for the same reasons Dr. Brown does. He finds in it support for the hydroplate theory, proposing that 'fire in the waters' referred to rocks glowing with heat in water-filled subterranean chambers beneath the Earth's crust. Yet I believe my proposal, that God created a glowing plasma within the waters as the light source on Day 2, prior to the formation of the Sun, Moon and stars on Day 4, is even more consistent with this translation. Furthermore, this idea is given scientific support by Dr. Brown himself on page 425 of his book, where he shows a photo of burning taking place within supercritical water-water at extremely high temperature and pressure. I suggest that when God's Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters in Genesis 1:2, He was applying extreme pressure and heat to the infant universe, which ignited when God said, 'Let there be light.' Then when God placed the raqia in the midst of the waters and stretched it out, the glowing plasma stretched along with it, forming eddies that became the spiral galaxies we are so familiar with. (If you place your hands in a bathtub and rapidly pull them apart, this eddying behavior is readily apparent.) I think this explanation makes excellent sense from both scientific and Biblical perspectives.
I hope this brief study of Genesis 1 and the raqia helps us all to appreciate how proper interpretation of Scripture is crucial to gaining an accurate understanding of God's revelation. To go beyond the basics, which are simple enough for a child to understand, is immensely facilitated by knowledge of the original languages the Bible was written in; awareness of other Scriptures which have a bearing on a passage; and a keen respect for context. Over everything is the need for prayer, that God will provide insight into the Scriptures. Though we sometimes need to think creatively to relate things revealed in Scripture to the world we live in, in the final analysis we must allow the Word of God to speak on its own terms, and not attempt to force it into saying something it does not. As Dr. Donald A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School wrote in his book Exegetical Fallacies, 'A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.' We must beware allowing any pet theories we may hold to determine how we interpret Scripture. Since God is the ultimate Author of the Bible and has taken on the responsibility of guiding its writing and preservation, He is well able, through the illumination of His Spirit, to speak clearly through its context.
2008 In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood. 8th edition. Phoenix AZ: Center for Scientific Creation.