Critics of the Bible have often said that the writings of Genesis reflect an “unscientific view” of the universe—one that reflected the cosmology of the ancient world. One of these criticisms centers on the Hebrew word raqia used in the creation account of Genesis 1. Several Bible versions, such as the New King James, translate this word as firmament:
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus 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. So the evening and the morning were the second day. [Emphasis added.]
The argument from these Bible critics is that the ancient Hebrews believed in a solid dome with the stars embedded in the dome. They say that the word firmament reflects the idea of firmness, and this reflects erroneous cosmology. Therefore, the Bible is not the inspired Word of God, and we don’t need to listen to its teaching.
However, other versions of the Bible, such as the New American Standard, translate raqia as expanse:
Genesis 1:6–8 (NASB)
Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. [Emphasis added.]
But which is the correct term to use? Where did the word firmament come from? The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced by Jewish scholars in the third century BC at the request of the Egyptian pharaoh) translates raqia into the Greek word stereoma, which connotes a solid structure. Apparently, the translators of the Septuagint were influenced by the Egyptian view of cosmology, which embraced the notion of the heavens being a stone vault (after all, they were doing their translation work in Egypt!). Later, this Greek connotation influenced Jerome to the extent that, when he produced his Latin Vulgate around AD 400, he used the Latin word firmamentum (meaning a strong or steadfast support). The King James translators merely transliterated this Latin word—and thus was born the firmament.
We must remember that the context always determines the meaning of a word.
But what does the Hebrew word actually mean? The Hebrew noun raqia is derived from the verb raqa, which means “to spread abroad, stamp, or stretch.” This word is used in the Old Testament in several places for the stamping out of metal into a sheet. Gold is a good example of this process. Gold is malleable and people use a hammer or other tool to flatten and stretch it into very thin sheets (e.g., Numbers 8:4). However, we must remember that the context always determines the meaning of a word, not just the etymology of the word or how it may be used in other verses.
So, we need to ask ourselves, why did the author use this word to describe the expanse? What property did the author intend to be understood by the word raqiya? It is possible that the author intended to get across the solid nature of the expanse. However, what if the intended understanding was the stretched out nature of the raqiya rather than its hardness? This understanding is consistent with the terminology of many other verses, such as Psalm 104:2 and Isaiah 40:22, which speak of the stretching out of the heavens. The Hebrew word used in these verses for heaven is not raqiya, but shamayim (literally “heavens”). However, in Genesis 1:8 God explicitly calls the expanse “heaven,” thus equating raqiya with shamayim. If the stretched out nature of the raqiya is what is intended, then firmament may not be the best translation; expanse is more accurate.
The context of Genesis 1:6–8, 14–22 makes it clear that Moses intended his readers to understand raqia simply as the sky (atmosphere and heavens or space) above the earth, as even the sun, moon, and stars were placed in them. In fact, in modern Hebrew raqia is the word used for sky, and there is no connotation of hardness.
Genesis 1 is perfectly worded for what the author wanted to communicate. It says nothing more than God created the sky and its constituent elements, while remaining completely silent about what those elements were. It really depends upon where one starts: if one starts with the presumption of a solid dome, one will read that into the text. However, if one starts with a modern conception of sky, the text permits that understanding as well, and, hence, there is no contradiction.