What is a Firmament?: The Mystery of the Genesis Sky
Picture Earth in your mind. Ok. You’re likely thinking of something similar to The Blue Marble - a planet floating in a sea of black space. Remarkably, this image has only been possible for the last 50 years or so, since it was taken December 7, 1972. But 3,000 years ago, with no photo, this is what you believed:
The Hebrew word behind “expanse” is רָקִ֖יעַ (rakia, pronounced “rah-KEE-ah”). When William Tyndale originally gave us an English word for this, he rendered it “firmament,” which includes a hint. Tyndale is trying to tell you in the Hebrew mind, the rakia is a solid — a firm dome, like a shield, over the sky.
In the ancient Hebrew thinking, the sky was blue because water was up there. Why would they think that? Not only is the sky blue, but also sometimes, water comes down. So it must be up there! “But what holds the water up?,” an ancient Hebrew child may ask. “The rakia.” What holds the rakia up? The mountains or mountain-like things called the “pillars of heaven.”
Now, in our modern 21st century thinking, we try to reconcile what the Bible says with what we know of the world, which is good! But I think it’s presumptuous and errant to think that if the work of reconciliation is difficult or not immediately and obviously easy, that means the Bible is flawed.
First, we must remember that whatever an all-knowing God inspired had to be understood and recorded by someone who was not all-knowing. Is it impossible to think that their cultural understanding would have influenced how they were communicating what they felt God wanted to say?
Also remember God had a target audience in mind, and while the Scriptures are useful to us, Genesis was for the people who lived, believed, and understood the image of the world above 3,500 years ago, first.
But what was God trying to communicate, after all? Could it be that as 21st century humans in any part of the world, we are simply not equipped to perfectly understand God’s original intent 3,500 years ago? Could it be that the Bible isn't trying to tell us what we think or expect it's trying to tell us? Maybe it isn’t trying to tell you about the cosmology of the universe or world.
It is my belief that the Hebrew Scriptures are trying to communicate something entirely different - and scandalous - to the generation in which these verses originally were inspired: that Yahweh (יהוה - YHWH), out of love and covenant faithfulness to humanity, designed and created the world and put humanity in it to bless humanity and the world, and that it was not through the violence or war of other elohim (gods), which is what was predominantly believed, or by chance, which is what is modernly believed, that it is here.
In fact, in the context of the ancient near east people groups, the book of Genesis, if found in your hands by the wrong people, got you killed. Why? Because being a direct descendant of the gods - who warred to make the world and you as their slaves - was what gave ancient rulers the claim of “divine right” to be kings and to rule over you. Genesis stands in stark contrast to this, claiming one all-powerful God made all creation and mankind out of love and a desire to do good to humanity and to the world. It claims that in partnership with mankind, He would work together with us and lead us to bring good to His world by working and cultivating the resources of the world and taking them beyond the potential of where the normal course of nature would take them on their own. It claims He would, in self-giving love and faithfulness, help us to reflect the nature of the Creator (Himself) to the world itself, to other humans, and to other species — to all the creation. That means not only are the kings the image of God… but so are you. Not only are kings designed to rule, but so are you. And what does ruling look like? Making things as cool as whole worlds, and giving them away for no other reason than because you can and that’s a loving thing to do! I'm sure you can see the economical and political implications here; they’re just huge.
There's much more detail on this you can discover. I recommend anything with Dr. Tim Mackie - fantastic Bible scholar, with PhD in biblical Hebrew as well as Bible and Jewish history. He somewhat addresses this issue in a podcast lecture “Science & Faith” you can find here.
He makes the point that if you appeared in Paris in 2,000 years, and said in English, “Beam me up, Scotty” that it is unlikely they would be aware of Star Trek and all that phrase in our culture implies. In like manner, it may be presumptuous of us to go to the Scriptures assuming we know all the popular culture thinking and communication styles of a foreign, ancient culture that is 3,500 years old, or the motives God would have in communicating to them to address real problems in their thinking we may not even be aware of. What if the Scriptures weren't trying to tell youhow God made the world, but that God made world. Oh, which god? יהוה - YHWH, in whose image you are made.