Raqia and Ancient Cosmology
Theistic evolutionists, and other accommodationist views on the book of Genesis, make the claim that the Bible presents a primitive, three-tiered cosmology that depicts a flat earth sitting on pillars that floats upon the sea with a round, metal dome as a sky.
It is argued that the biblical writers, men like Moses and David, were unsophisticated with their knowledge of the cosmos and God never really intended to explain the function of the solar system with the planets orbiting the sun or the spherical nature of the earth or the vastness of the universe. Rather, God merely explained the cosmos in terms that the writers of Scripture, a bronze aged culture, could truly understand. Besides, the purpose of Genesis 1-11 was not to present history or any scientific data at all, but is theological in nature and God accommodated His revelation to the scientifically limited people of Israel. This is the view taught for example by Peter Enns, and John Walton in his book, The Lost World of Genesis: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.
Supporters of this view of Genesis believe they are drawing the correct interpretation from the biblical text. Obviously, with what we know of the cosmos in today’s modern, scientific world, a literal reading of Genesis contradicts the reality of things. Or at least that is what they claim. If Christians attempt to teach the book of Genesis as being literal history, they risk embarrassing God for denying reality. Any literal reading of Genesis puts a massive stumbling block in front of people when we preach the Gospel. We are essentially telling people that when they trust Christ for salvation they must also embrace pseudo-scientific ideas of a young earth and a 6 day creationist model which contradict known fact. The only option for true, Bible believing Christians is to lend God a hand against misguided young earth creationists and their “literalist” interpretations that rape the text of Genesis with foreign meaning.
However, the position presented by Peter Enns and John Walton and utilized by theistic evolutionists that God used accommodating language to reveal His purposes to primitive minded men create some significant theological difficulties. The most egregious is how God’s character is impugned. This position basically says God had to hide the truth from the biblical writers because their small minds would be unable to grasp it. In other words, God was either purposely vague to help stupid people or He outright lied. I believe such a view of God is deplorable and likens Him to pagan deities. (More about the theological difficulties of theistic evolution in forth coming posts).
The concept of a three tiered cosmos with a solid, metallic dome covering a flat earth is something of a urban legend that seems to be promoted by accommodationist believers attempting to snatch the Genesis record out of the hands of young earth creationists. John Byl notes in a blog article on the subject of Genesis and ancient cosmology that such diagrams of an ancient earth covered by a solid dome owes more to “the ignorance of modern scholars than of ancient civilization.” In fact, Noel Weeks points out in a journal article that a three-tiered cosmology isn’t even really identifiable with in ancient near eastern creation myths, those “myths” accommodatists claim are reflected in the opening chapters of Genesis [Cosmology in Historical Context, WTJ 68 (2006): 283-93].
When one honestly considers the text of Genesis 1, God is in no way presenting such a picture for the ancient earth. Genesis 1 is a day by day outline that progressively reveals God creating miraculously over a course of 6 days. It is not attempting to formulate a physical model of the cosmos. Theistic evolutonists like Peter Enns, however, seize upon the Hebrew word raqia or what is translated as “firmament” or “expanse” in Genesis 1:7, 8. The related verb raqa means to “stamp” or “beat out,” and in the piel stem of Hebrew is used to describe a metal smith “beating out” gold metal to cover an idol. Because of that language usage, accommodationist commentators like Enns and Walton connect the use of raqa as “hammering out” metal to the idea that raqia in Genesis 1:7, 8 was believed by the OT Israelites as saying the sky is a solid, metal dome.
But Old Testament scholar, Gleason Archer, argues quite convincingly that the classic Hebrew dictionary by Brown-Driver-Briggs is the culprit with defining raqia as a solid surface. There is no warrant for such a definition in the context of Genesis 1, and in other OT context where reference is made to God creating, like Isaiah 42:5, the raqia is described as a tent or a cloud that God spreads (roqa) out. There is no solidity at all with raqia.
The best understanding of raqia is that of an “expanse,” or simply put, the sky and space as opposed to the earth. That is all God was telling Moses when He revealed His creation week to him. So, when we read how God set the sun and the moon (and the stars) in the “firmament” or better, the “expanse,” the Bible is not saying God is poking big holes in a metal dome or hanging enormous light bulbs from its ceiling. It is the realm of the sky (which by extension would include outer space) as opposed to the earth. Additional study can be found in J.P. Holding’s article, Is the Raqiya a Solid Dome?
Hence, anyone who attempts to argue that Genesis teaches a primitive mythological cosmology is practicing bad exegesis and bad historical research. I would argue they have an agenda to set forth.