By Mike Hore
First Published 6 March 2013
A respected Christian teacher of mine many years ago used to compare the Bible to a street directory (these days, it would be Google Maps). The directory’s job is to get you where you want to go, and you have a right to expect that it won’t mislead you in doing that; in other words, you expect it to be “inerrant”. If it has a street in the wrong place, or a street left out, that would be an error. However, we don’t expect these sorts of errors. But also, we don’t expect streets to have writing down the middle or be colored yellow or white. That’s part of the presentation of the information, not the actual information that the directory is giving us.
The point should be obvious. The Bible has many human writers, and contains different kinds of literature. There’s history, poetry, legal material, apocalyptic, etc. We have to take into account the kind of literature—the genre—if we want to understand the actual meaning. This is pretty obvious and we apply this principle all the time in anything we read. However as the Bible is ancient literature, it isn’t always completely obvious to us what the genre of a particular passage is. Many scholars would agree that the genre of Genesis 1 is not clear to us. It’s not poetry, since Hebrew poetry has certain features, notably balanced parallelism and matching syllable counts, which aren’t there in Genesis 1. YECs make much of this point, and we must concede that the text is definitely not poetry, but has most of the characteristics of straght historical narrative. However the prose is “elevated”, and highly structured, with significant word counts (e.g. verse 1 has exactly 7 words in Hebrew). These features may possibly be mnemonic devices. In any case, with such an ancient document, we simply can’t be too dogmatic as to what its genre actually is. It’s too simplistic simply to say that because it isn’t poetry, it must therefore be straight literal prose.
I want to suggest another possibility. This site, to its credit, allows for different points of view, and I want to tentatively suggest another one. What is the meaning of the word rendered “firmament” in the KJV? The Hebrew letters are resh-qoph-yodh-ayin, usually rendered raqiya‘. This is often taken to be a flat solid object, so the TEV translates it as “dome”. So the picture is of water above, then a solid dome which is called “sky”, then water underneath. This is the familiar “three-tiered universe” which many ancient people believed to be the nature of the universe. Paul H. Seely wrote a paper in 1991, which is available online (enter “The firmament and the water above” in your search engine). This paper shows how many ancient people, including the Hebrews, believed (not very surprisingly) that the universe was just the way it looks to a pre-scientific observer—that the sky is a solid blue dome, and that there is water above it (where rain comes from), then air underneath it, where birds fly, then the ground, and water lower down (of which the oceans are a part). Seely makes the good point that the heavenly bodies are described as “in” the raqiya‘, while the birds fly “in front of” it (the Hebrew is literally “upon the face of” which means “in front of”).
Seely’s paper was countered in 1999 by James Patrick Holding, in an article in the Technical Journal, “Is the Raqiya‘ (‘Firmament’) a Solid Dome?”. This article has links both from Answers in Genesis and Creation.com, since it was written before these organisations split. The article is long, and needs a proper rebuttal. But basically it has little discussion about the exact meaning of raqiya‘, but simply asserts that it must have its derived meaning of “stretched out”, since anything else would mean the Bible was teaching error. Moreover, Seely is accused of making himself an ally of the enemies of Christ, by asserting that raqiya‘ could mean anything else.
The point I want to make here is that nobody is asserting that the Bible is “teaching” error. Rather we are concerned with genre, and seeking to find what the Bible is actually teaching, rather that what is just a feature of the presentation. YECs often allege, as does Holding, that those with other views are undermining the truth of the Bible. However this is making the a priori assumption that a literalistic reading of Genesis 1 is the correct reading, when in fact that is far from certain, and we are just trying to find what the correct reading actually is.
But back to raqiya‘. This is a noun, derived from the verb raqa‘ (many Hebrew nouns are derived from verbs). The meaning of the verb is to stamp, or hammer. It’s used of hammering metal flat. So raqiya‘ is something that has had raqa‘ done to it. This could indeed be expanded or stretched, since this is what happens to metal when you hammer it flat. However that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. The standard Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon gives this meaning:
Extended surface, (solid) expanse (as if beaten out) … 1. (flat) expanse (as if of ice), as base, support. 2. the vault of heaven, or �firmament,� regarded by Hebrews as solid, and supporting �waters' above it.
So I’m suggesting that Genesis 1 is really presenting us with a pre-scientific view, the three-tiered universe.
At this point I warmly recommend a two-part article from the retiring principal of Moore Theological College, John Woodhouse:
(Moore College has a very strong tradition of evangelical teaching, and a fine reputation around the world. Disclaimer: I’m a Moore College graduate, and John is a personal friend.)
Let me quote one paragraph:
“Did the Bible’s writers believe in a three-tiered universe? Possibly. Did God correct that understanding? Possibly not—if his purpose was unaffected by it. Does the Bible teach a three-tiered universe? I don’t think so. But the language of the writers that may suggest they had a cosmology different from ours is not an error. It is what God intended to say as he testified to his promise. And his testimony is completely true.”
Note that John is careful to say that he doesn’t think the Bible is teaching a three-tiered universe. This is exactly my point. If YECs claim that we are compromising the truth of the Bible, just because we don’t read the text one particular way, they’re not really listening. They just go ahead and accuse us of accepting worldly science, and compromising the Bible. However we’re trying to correctly understand the truth of the Bible! And in that process, we use all the powers of observation and reasoning that God has given us. I’m suggesting that the cosmology and the timing (including the details of the “days”) given in Genesis 1 is part of the presentation, not part of the actual message or teaching.
I need to make a couple of final points. The first one is about the Sabbath commandment. This is always brought up by YECs in claiming that the “days” in Genesis 1 must be literal, 24-hour days. This is a good point, not to be dismissed lightly. But there’s a possible cart-before-horse issue. It’s quite possible that God, foreseeing our need for a Sabbath rest, chose to present his creation to us in this manner. Anyway, as he’s outside time, “days”, for God, could be anything.
The second point is about whether Adam and Eve are literal. This is another point always brought up by YECs when arguing against any non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis—non-literal days, therefore Adam and Eve are non-literal, and then how could Christ be the second Adam, and what about the Fall? The whole foundation of the Gospel, they say, is undermined. That would really be valid if we were underming the Gospel. However in my discussion above I have only been referring to Genesis 1. There’s a clear literary break at chapter 2 verse 4 (“These are the generations…”). This is the normal introduction to a historical narrative, and I have no problem with reading what follows as literal. As usual, the YEC argument is an over-simplification. It seems if we disagree with them at one point, they argue back that we’re disagreeing in a much wider area. Again, as usual, they’re not really listening.
Finally, what I’m saying here is tentative. I could be wrong. There are many possibilities. I’m just offering this as a suggestion, which I think is still consistent with the Bible teaching us accurate truth.
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