What is the Expanse?

No not the sci-fi series on Syfy and Amazon Prime Video that is based on the books by James S.A. Corey. But the matter created on day 2 in the Genesis account.

In Genesis 1:6 (NASB20) we read:

Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”

Depending on your translation the Hebrew word rāqîa may be translated as “expanse” (NASB, NET, ESV, Holman), “firmament” (KJV, NKJV) or “vault” (NIV). The NLT translates the word as “space”.

In order to understand what the expanse is we will read through the rest of the Genesis account. Examining the account and listing out what the text says about the entity that was created on day two. We will focus on both its description and function.

  • The expanse is created in the midst of waters (mayim) on the second day (1:6).
  • The expanse separates waters (mayim) so that there are waters (mayim) above and below it (1:6-7).
  • The expanse is named “heaven” or “sky” (šāmayim) depending on the translation (1:8).

On the next day (day 3) we find the creation account focused on the waters below the expanse.

  • The water (mayim) below the heavens (šāmayim) is gathered and dry land forms (yabāšâ). (1:9). The heavens as we saw is referring to the expanse.
  • The dry land (yabāšâ) that forms is called earth (‘ereṣ). The word for “earth” (‘ereṣ) is the same word translated “earth” in Genesis 1:1 (1:10).
  • The gathered waters below the expanse are called “seas” (yām) (1:10) .

Some translations (NET, NIV, Holman) use the word “sky” in Genesis 1:8 instead of “heaven” when translating the Hebrew word sāmayim. These translations seem to want to differentiate the expanse created on day 2 from the entity “heavens” that occurs in the phrase “the heavens and the earth” found in Genesis 1:1. However, the word translated “heavens” in 1:1 is the same Hebrew word that is translated as “sky” in 1:8.

There are some translations (NET, NIV) that also translate the Hebrew word found in 1:1-2 as “earth” differently when it appears in 1:9-10. Instead of using “earth” consistently when the Hebrew word ‘ereṣ appears they opted to translate it “land”. This also seems like an attempt to differentiate the entity “earth” that appears on day 3 from the “earth” that occurs in the phrase “the heavens and the earth”.

In the beginning, God created the heavens (šāmayim) and the earth (‘ereṣ).
Now the earth (‘ereṣ) was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water (mayim).

God called the expanse (rāqîa) “sky.” (šāmayim) …
God said, “Let the water (mayim) under the sky (šāmayim) be gathered to one place and let dry ground appear.” It was so.
God called the dry ground “land  (‘ereṣ) and the gathered waters (mayim) he called “seas.” God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:1,2,8-10 (NET)

That interpretive choice does not seem warranted. Understanding the Hebrew word sāmayim in Genesis 1:1 as referring to the same entity (the heavens) that will come into existence out of the cosmic ocean on day 2 is much more plausible. It is also reasonable to conclude that the Hebrew word ‘ereṣ in Genesis 1:1-2 refers to the same entity (earth) that will appear after the waters are gathered on day 3. In each case the words are the same and the entire account focuses on God’s creative work in terms of the planet earth. If the words in 1:1-2 refer to different entities than those created on day 2 and day 3 or are meant to refer to “the entire universe” that is not made explicit anywhere in Genesis itself. The entire account is very careful to define the words used to name different entities in relationship to each other. The use of the same words to indicate different entities without any explanation would not be consistent with the rest of the account.

What we find in Genesis 1:1-2 is a description of the state of the universe prior to the creation of the “heavens and the earth”. That state seems to consist of a cosmic ocean (the deep waters) from which the “heavens (aka expanse) and the earth (the gathered dry land)” will emerge. This ocean is in total darkness. Understanding the passage in this way does not necessarily negate creation ex nihilo (cmp Col 1:16-17) but seems to better fit what the account is describing.

On the following day (day 4) the creation account switches its focus to the expanse itself, calling it “the expanse (rāqîa) of the heavens (šāmayim)”.

  • lights are placed in the expanse to separate day and night and to serve as signs (1:14).
  • these lights are the sun, moon and stars (1:16).

On the fifth day the account continues to concentrate on the expanse.

  • living creatures fill the waters (mayim). These waters refer to the seas from day three, which in turn refer to the gathered waters below the expanse (1:20-21).
  • birds fly above the “earth” (‘ereṣ) and “across the face of the expanse (rāqîa) of the heavens (šāmayim)” (1:20-21). The “earth” refers to the dry land that formed when the waters below the expanse were gathered.

Later, as the creation account proceeds, we learn that the living creatures are to fill the “waters (mayim) in the seas (yām)” (1:22) and that man is to rule over the fish of the sea (yām) and the birds of the “sky” (šāmayim) (1:26).

If we picture what the account is describing, it would seem to make the earth the center of the “universe” surrounded by celestial bodies in a cosmic ocean.

image made up of images from nasa.gov

If we look to other passages in Scripture to understand the expanse or heavens we find they describe it in similar ways. In Job 26:10 we read a description that would seemingly describe the same “surface of the waters” in Genesis 1:2. They are separated by a circle. This circle may be another description of the expanse.

He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters (mayim)
At the boundary of light and darkness.

Proverbs 8:22-31 describes wisdom as being “before the works of old”. In 8:27 a circle is described as being inscribed on the deep (cmp Gen 1:2) and seems to mimic the imagery of Job.

When He established the heavens (šāmayim), I was there;
When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep

In Psalm 19:1 we find:

The heavens (šāmayim) tell of the glory of God;
And their expanse (rāqîa) declares the work of His hands.

In verse 4 of the Psalm we find that in the heavens (aka expanse) is the sun. This is the same way the expanse is described in Genesis 1:6-8; 14-18. This description also matches what we find in Psalm 8:3.

When I observe Your heavens (šāmayim), the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which You set in place,

In Psalm 148:4 we read:

Praise Him, highest heavens (šāmayim),
And the waters (mayim) that are above the heavens (šāmayim)!

This seems to affirm that waters exist above the expanse (aka the heavens) that were separated from the lower waters that was described in Genesis 1:7.

At this point the expanse as presented in Scripture is an entity that has been used to separate waters in a cosmic ocean. It is also the region where both the sun, moon and stars as well as the birds are placed. The expanse thus seems to cover regions that we would describe as the sky, the atmosphere and outer space.

The waters of the cosmic ocean that were separated by the expanse are an interesting concept to consider. In Genesis 1:2, prior to the creation of the expanse we find that there was darkness “over the surface of the deep” and that God’s Spirit hovered “over the surface of the waters” (mayim). These waters are the ones that are later separated by the expanse. The waters below the expanse become what we understand to be the ocean and seas of the earth. They are filled with fish and other sea creatures. The dry land is gathered from these waters to become the land on the earth (cmp Psalm 136:6; 2 Peter 3:5).

From the perspective of the creation account we learn that similar waters to the ones below the expanse also exist above the expanse. The account does not devote any time describing this region or any activities that may have occurred within it. We may be tempted to try and understand this region as outer space but that is also how we would conceive of the expanse where the sun, moon and stars are placed. If the waters and the expanse represent the same concept than we must consider why the creation account describes them as different “objects”, noting that one separates the other into two regions.

As a twenty-first century reader the description of the expanse and the cosmic ocean paint a very difficult image to reconcile and overlay on top of our current understanding of the universe.

This difficulty may be something that we force on the text because in reading Genesis we minimize the fact that this is an ancient document that was not written to us. While it does contain information that is important for us to understand it was written in ancient Hebrew to the Hebrew people living during the Late Bronze Age. Despite the numerous debates about the author and dating of the Genesis document, as well as the genre, most scholars would acknowledge that the document was written during the historical time period that has come to be known as the Ancient Near East (ANE). That term generally covers the Mesopotamian and Arabian regions of the earth from approximately 4500 BC to 500 BC. Most readers would further agree that the entire composition and theme aims to provide a background for the history of the Hebrew people that is rooted in creation and mankind’s rebellion.

Framing the document in the Ancient Near East (ANE), we should begin to reset our expectations about the cosmological model that would be used to describe the formation of the earth and mankind – the primary focus of the first chapter.

In looking at several ANE creation myths we can find both similarities and differences between them and Genesis. Much can be made about the similarities and differences, but if we look at the commonalities in a generalized way an ancient cosmology of the universe emerges that would form the framework for how the ancient reader understood things. This framework would than be built out as each region or civilization added their concept of the work of the gods and the place mankind has in the universe.

Some commonalities in cosmology that relate to the expanse include:

  • a universe that is comprised of a cosmic ocean before the expanse or the earth existed.
  • a separation of the ocean, with the lower half being the region where the earth is formed.
  • the separator, often the body of some fallen god, is where the sun, moon and stars (which are often other gods) are placed.
  • a creation narrative focused on the earth rather than the universe. The ANE creation accounts and Genesis focus their attention on the planet earth and the emergence of life and mankind on it with minimal attention on the rest of the universe.

Unsurprisingly we find concepts from Genesis in other ANE creation accounts and cosmologies (or vice versa) because the understanding of the universe’s origins are rooted in an ANE cosmology.

Many might argue that the differences between the ANE creation myths and Genesis are too great to see them rooted in a similar cosmology. Others may reject the idea that all readers shared a common cosmology. However, the idea that the Genesis account is written in terms of an ancient cosmology does not require complete uniformity in the creation myths or stories, nor does it necessitate or even assume that all ancient people believed the same things about the universe. It does suggest that there was a common shared understanding of the origins and makeup of the universe. Just as we all know about the Big Bang and may talk about an expanding universe, the ancient reader would have a vocabulary that instead included a cosmic ocean and a region separating them where the earth, sun, moon and stars were able to exist.

What is the expanse? A construct within ANE cosmology that represents the region in the cosmic ocean where the earth and the celestial bodies would exist.

Now that might sound shocking. We might even ask why an all knowing God wouldn’t have allowed the creation account to follow a more scientific cosmological model. But then we have to ask what cosmological model would God have used to explain creation? The understanding of the cosmos has changed in dramatic ways over time as mankind has learned more about astronomy, physics and mathematics. There have always been different ideas about how large the universe is, what it is made of, whether it is static or expanding, and even whether it had a beginning or not.

Consider some of the changes in cosmology over the last 500 years.

  • There are ancient scientists and philosophers that suggested that the geocentric cosmology of Ptolemy was incorrect but it wasn’t until around the 16th century AD that a heliocentric model of the universe was established.
  • The classic Newtonian laws of motion and gravity became the common understanding for how the universe worked in the 17th century.
  • The theories of general and special relativity proposed by Einstein further altered the understanding of the universe as well as space and time in the late 19th and 20th centuries as did quantum mechanics.
  • The current understanding of the origins of the universe are captured in what is known as the Big Bang theory. This model was formulated in the 20th century replacing the Steady-State models and galactocentric models of the universe that came before it.
  • There are numerous questions and challenges that exist in the Big Bang theory as well as what is known as the Standard Model. There are currently inexplicable concepts like dark matter and dark energy as well as the horizon and flatness problems that all complicate our understanding of the universe. The work on a Theory of Everything (ToE) or a Grand Unifying Theory (GUT) may be discovered in the future and further alter how we understand the universe and its origins.

With even that short and austere overview of how cosmology has changed we can rightly conclude that any explanation of the origins of the universe that focused on what was known and accepted at various points in time would have left countless readers across numerous other historical time periods lost, confused and even dismissive of what was offered.

It is against the backdrop then of an ANE cosmology that we should expect to find the framework in which the author (both human and Divine) taught the ancient Hebrew people about the origins of the earth. We should not expect that these descriptions should easily fit into our current cosmology anymore than a 21st century description of the Big Bang and inflation would have fit into the mindset of a Late Bronze Age reader and their understanding of the universe. Understanding the expanse in this way seems much more in line with the text and the historical understanding of the universe that the original writers and readers would have had.

What do you think?

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