Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Waters Above the Firmament

Below follows a guest post by Ben Vandergugten (B.A., Trinity Western; B.Ed., Simon Fraser) in which he introduces his eight-page article which we have published in our “Collected Papers” (see sidebar). Ben teaches elementary students at William of Orange Christian School in Surrey, B.C. He and his wife, Esther, with their two children, are members of the Canadian Reformed Church in Cloverdale. We thank Ben for his contribution, and welcome the engagement of our readers.

“So God made the expanse (or firmament, dome, vault) and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so.” (Genesis 1:7) The interpretation of this text is straightforward, right? God separated the oceans, seas and lakes from the clouds above with an expanse of atmosphere. For a long time I didn’t give this reading a second thought. After all, it was plain and obvious. But this interpretation was not the obvious one until a few hundred years ago. It requires a scientific understanding of the atmosphere, as well as the sun, moon and stars (c.f. Genesis 1:16-18). It is likely that before the 16th century the “firmament” was considered to be a solid structure by nearly all educated (and probably also uneducated) people in the West. It was certainly assumed to be solid by the Ancient Near Eastern peoples, including Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Canaanites. Since it was amongst these nations that the people of Israel grew into a nation, it would seem most probable that they would also share with them this concept of the firmament.

In an article entitled “The Waters Above the Firmament,” I argue that the “firmament” in Genesis 1 should be understood as a solid structure and that the waters above the firmament are a heavenly ocean, rather than clouds. I discuss some perceptions of the cosmos found in both Hebrew and early Christian texts that compare well with this interpretation. I also consider a small sample of Bible texts that seem to fit better with these concepts of a solid dome and a heavenly ocean. I believe this interpretation takes seriously the ancient cosmology of the day and is most consistent with the Biblical text. This article is not exhaustive, but I hope it will generate some discussion and further research. The implications for this interpretation are significant, but I leave that for you to consider and hopefully discuss on this blog. I have provided some links within the paper to aid in further research. For a more complete argument in favour of this interpretation, see the articles by Paul Seely that I have referenced in the footnotes.

I hope this paper will entice some fruitful discussion, or at least fruitful thinking.


Anonymous said...

i appreciate the confession about the Bible's primary concerns.

the Bible does not serve textbooks nor science... (nor does it claim to.) it serves men and women who walk upon flat surfaces, see stars as specks, and are intuitively geocentric.

even today, understanding the earth as flat, immovable, and the sun revolving around it is far more practical for human beings than what they learned in grade 5.

your illustration of the Hebrew concept of the earth is precisely how i experience it. (does anyone feel like they're walking across a sphere when walking across a football field? does anyone feel the earth moving? wind blowing thru their hair due to orbit? we see the sun rise, we see it set; we don't see ourselves 'falling' in rotation.

practically speaking, does a star give me all of its brilliance? no! it is but a speck of light, and certainly smaller than a fig!)

paul jubenvill

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben, great article. My only disagreement is with your statement “For a long time I didn’t give this reading a second thought - after all, it was plain and obvious”. To me it was never plain and obvious. I was always asking (to myself): What is a firmament anyways? The only time I ever came across that term was in the Bible. So, a couple months ago after being stimulated by something posted on this blog, I did some research and came up with a similar conclusion. The firmament is a solid dome. And this made total sense. That was the model of the day. The people of that time looked up and saw a blue sky and concluded that the water of the heavens was separated by this dome. The problem is that even today some try to explain this “scientifically”. For example, I was taught in school that this firmament collapsed during the flood (that’s where all the water came from). At the same time the earth tilted and hence the seasons and the frozen poles. Do we still teach this stuff to our children?

Ed Baartman

Ben Vandergugten said...

Thanks, Paul, for your comment. Certainly our regular experiences with our surroundings can compare well with pre-scientific people, as you describe. But one thing we have difficulty with is identifying and restraining our modern scientific preconceptions. For example, I cannot remember ever thinking of the sky as a solid dome (though I may have as a child), and so it did not occur to me that my interpretation of Genesis 1:7 might be incorrect. I probably would have continued with my initial interpretation if I had not been confronted with verses like Job 37:18 and the historical ANE understanding of the cosmos. The question this raises is: Are there other passages that I assume to be plain and straightforward, but am interpreting poorly because of my immersion in a 21st century Western worldview? I am positive there are.

All of us, whether we like it or not, have to some degree adopted a scientific worldview. That is why it is uncomfortable to think of Genesis 1:7 as describing a solid firmament with water above and below it. As far as we know, nothing like this exists, and yet Genesis describes God making the firmament. Should not this straightforward description correspond with what we actually observe today? In a way, this uneasiness demonstrates the high view we have of modern scientific “truth.” We assume the Bible has to satisfy our ideals of technical precision and accuracy. Scientific creationists, and those who are persuaded by their arguments, have a difficult time accepting the firmament as a solid thing. In my view, the exegetical and cultural evidence, coupled with the history of interpretation prior to the 16th century strongly support the interpretation of "firmament" as solid. I suspect that when scientific creationists approach this text, they do not carefully survey the various relevant passages, the cosmology of the day, and history of Hebrew and Christian interpretation to determine the validity of the firmament’s solidity in Genesis 1. Instead, they presuppose that because God does not lie and the Bible is scientifically inerrant, this reading must be wrong. All that is left to do then is to determine how one can possibly interpret the text in a way that compares well with our modern scientific knowledge of the cosmos, and to discredit arguments in favour of a solid firmament with a heavenly ocean above. (I am sorry if I am not giving full credit to the thought processes of scientific creationists. If anyone wishes to respond and enlighten me on this matter, please do.)

So, Paul, the point of this response, to which I am sure you agree, is that Scripture communicates a far more important Truth. His name is Jesus.

The Lord's peace be with you,
Ben Vandergugten

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Ben, for your balanced and irenic approach to a controversial topic. I agree with you that we have to speak here of divine accommodation. John Calvin already taught us this. As he wrote in the first Book of his Institutes, “who…does not understand that, as nurses commonly do to infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness” (I, 13, 1).

Calvin used this principle of accommodation throughout, also in his explanation of the first chapters of Genesis. With respect to Genesis 6:11 he wrote: “For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the point. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated but the visible [i.e., apparent] form of the world. He who would learn astronomy…let him go elsewhere… The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses.” (The quotation is from Dirk W. Jellema, “God’s ‘baby-talk’: Calvin and the ‘errors’ in Scripture,” The Reformed Journal, April, 1980, pp. 25-7.)

As to Ed Baartman’s question, I am afraid that creation science is taught widely in our schools. Some years ago a principal complained to me in a private letter about the widespread tendency among us to idolize this approach and to hold it up as “Reformed doctrine.” As to the extent of this belief among Reformed churches in North America, including our own, I refer you to the research Tony Jelsma did some years ago. You can find the results in my essay “Young-Earth Creationism: A History,” which has been posted on this blog. You will also find there that our collective turning to young-earth creationism goes squarely against our Reformed tradition.

Tony Jelsma said...

We may criticise the Creation Science people for treating Genesis 1 as a scientific document but Hugh Ross and his Reasons to Believe organization do the same thing. Only in their case they twist the words of Genesis to make them fit an old universe, big bang cosmology. It's little wonder that these two camps are so strongly opposed to each other when they use the same methodology yet come to opposite conclusions.

Arnold Sikkema said...

For these reasons, I am now reading John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity, 2009), which I received in the mail today.

Aren said...

Ben, you have me convinced. Nice work. As for implications, I don’t think there are necessarily any major ones. On the scale of infinity, which I believe the mysteries of the universe lie on, the solid dome description (God’s “baby speak”) and our modern scientific views are essentially equal in credibility. 5000 years from now I doubt our current understandings will seem very special and enlightened, and even less so “when we shall know in full”.

Practicality aside, if God had revealed a perfectly full and accurate scientific account nobody would be able to grasp it. I really agree with you that the Bible is communicating an infinitely more important message.


Aren Van Dyke

Arnold Sikkema said...

Thanks, Aren, for your comments. Here are some responses.

Not that you are quite doing this, but I think it would be inappropriate to consider Ancient Near Eastern cosmology as being scientific in any modern sense. Perhaps it fits into the category of “proposed explanation”, but there is more to science than explanation, such as a coherent network of empirically-based concepts.

Your comment also raises the question of how accurate our current scientific theories are. You suggest a scale in which zero would mean complete ignorance and infinity would mean full comprehension and perfect accuracy. Since everyone agrees that science cannot achieve infinity on this scale, and since every achievement can only be finite, and since any finite number is equally distant from infinity, you claim that each view would be equally credible on this scale. This is somewhat problematic, and similar to the famous Zeno paradoxes, one of which leads to the conclusion that one can never get from point A to point B. For before getting to point B, you must get half-way there, and from that half-way point, one must get half-way again, etc., and so it will require an infinite number of such steps to get to point B.

It is difficult to quantify progress in science, but there is generally good agreement that within many fields, we are experiencing theory’s ever tightening grasp on reality. Thus, Einstein’s theory of gravity improves significantly on Newton’s, while Newton’s remains relevant and valuable in its particular domain of applicability (not “false” as some argue). Any future theory of gravity which might improve upon Einstein’s will not see Newton and Einstein as wrong or irrelevant, but will encapsulate and deepen their explanations. On a scale of 0 to 10 for theories of gravity, I would suggest Aristotle is 3, Newton 9, and Einstein 9.9; this, I think, is closer to a proper depiction of accuracy of theories than using a scale of 0 to infinity with these three at 3, 6, and 9.

Secondly, you suggest a future time “when we shall know in full”, presumably referring to I Corinthians 13:12. However, I do not think there is much support for the idea that this has to do with our understanding of the cosmos when Christ returns, but more with our experience of intimate relationship (especially with God). I think it is true, though, that our pursuit for knowledge will be placed into proper perspective at the eschaton.

Aren said...

Thanks for that response, Arnold. I think I more or less agree with everything you said.
My main point was to highlight God and His creation's immeasurable greatness contrasted to our feebleness. My reference to I Corinthians 13:12 was also to highlight our weaknesses in any pursuit of knowledge. I do think there will be pursuits of knowledge on the New Earth, though, perhaps some will be complete.

You definitely made me think more about quantifying scientific progress and the claim that "there is generally good agreement that within many fields, we are experiencing theory’s ever tightening grasp on reality". Very interesting - thanks.

Aren Van Dyke

Mike said...

Hey Ben,

That's a well laid out model. Or a least a glimpse the the framework. Good job!

I was listening to R.C. Sproul today on Literary Forms and I thought it might be of good use to the readers.
This was taken from the Ligonier Ministries website:

"The Bible uses many different literary forms. It uses phenomenological language (the language of apperance), round numbers, hyperboles, metaphors, and anthropomorphic language (ascribing human form or attributes to God). These forms must be recognized by readers of Scripture.
One literary form that is found quite often in biblical poetry is personification, where human characteristics are given to inanimate objects. Historical narrative, on the other hand, describes actual events."

Not all language in the Bible is written in the same form.

Thanks for bringing light to this topic in such a clear and concise way.

Thanks brother.

Mike Vandergugten