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Biblical heavens and the language of appearance

Does the phenomenological interpretation of Genesis 1:20 lead down a slippery slope?

Adapted from Tom-L, CC BY-SA 4.0Heb-Uni
This common misrepresentation of the biblical cosmology erroneously depicts the heavenly lights inside a solid sky dome.

Today’s feedback was submitted by Abir K. from India, who interacts with a classic article on our website. He expresses the concern that its proposal about phenomenological (‘according to appearance’) language in Genesis 1:20 could, if accepted, distort the way we interpret Genesis in other respects. Keaton Halley of CMI–US responds.

Dear CMI,

I came across your article “Is the raqîa‘ (‘firmament’) a solid dome?” by J.P. Holding, which argued against the position that the raqiya or firmament in the Bible is a solid dome. I have some questions regarding it.

I believe the main defense that P.H. Seely [whom Holding was critiquing] presents for his position is Genesis 1:20. The Bible saying that birds fly “in front of” or “in face of” the firmament seems to suggest that the firmament is separate from the rest of the heavens, that it is not the same as the atmosphere or the sky, that it was an actual thing made to separate the waters.

The position put forward in CMI’s article is that Gen. 1:20 is phenomenological in nature, a no less problematic position than accepting a solid dome. It is saying that the sky appeared as a solid dome to the authors of Genesis. And conveniently calling one problematic verse in the Genesis as phenomenological or figurative can easily lead to a slippery slope where the entire narrative can be said to be figurative.

Hi Abir,

Thank you for sending the question. I think J.P. Holding’s article is a good one, though I would differ with it at some points. I’ll try to answer your questions and offer a defense of Holding’s claims about phenomenological language. But I’ll also give you some additional things to consider from my own point of view, which does not align entirely with his.

J.P. Holding’s views

As you said, Holding was responding to Paul H. Seely’s claim that the raqiya (expanse/firmament) is distinct from the shamayim (heavens). He analyzed Seely’s supporting verses, and argued that they made no such distinction. Noting Genesis 1:8, Holding said, “There is no reason to see a broader meaning of shamayim than an exact equation with raqiya‘.”

Following E.J. Young, Holding claimed the raqiya refers to “that which serves to ‘separate the earth from all that is beyond it’,” but he also thinks the term and its use in Scripture leave open its composition—whether solid, liquid, gas, an empty void, or whatever. He seems to think that the term raqiya is relatively vague, like the English word ‘sky’, which refers to the region we see above, but does not give us information about the nature of the sky. In hindsight, now that we have the modern categories of atmosphere and interstellar space, Holding believes the raqiya includes both, but not because these concepts are inherent in the term itself.

Holding also suggests that the ‘waters above’ may refer to an elemental substance that was transformed into all astronomical bodies (stars, planets, nebulae, comets, etc.). But when described as ‘waters’, the text itself is likewise noncommittal as to what exact form these ‘waters’ now take.

Stars in motion

Is Scripture equivocal about the nature of the heavens? Or does it rule out a solid sky?

I agree with Seely that the terms raqiya and shamayim are co-extensive in Genesis 1:6–8, and I think he is spot on to support this claim by noting that the land is likewise co-extensive with the ‘earth’, and the waters co-extensive with the ‘seas’ (Genesis 1:10). The ‘expanse’ is not just a segment of the heavens; it is the thing that comprises the heavens.

But I do not think the term raqiya is as equivocal as Holding believes. There are good reasons to believe that the Old Testament writers used the term raqiya to describe a spacious region, not a solid body, and thus ‘expanse’ is a good translation of the term. First, the Israelites surely did think of the heavens as a spacious realm, or that at least some of it was spacious, because birds fly there. So, the fact that the raqiya is called ‘heavens’, plus Holding’s own supporting arguments for equating these two, should, at first blush, lead us to think the raqiya refers to the same spacious realm as the heavens.

Second, Psalm 150:1 commands that God be praised both “in his sanctuary” and “in his mighty raqiya”, referring to the heavens. The parallel with the sanctuary and the fact that praise is coming forth from a location ‘in’ the raqiya makes it doubtful that raqiya here is a solid object. Instead, a spacious area fits the context well.

Third, according to Genesis 1:14–19, God set the sun, moon, and stars “in the expanse” (raqiya) “to give light upon the earth”. But the ancients knew that these lights moved through the sky daily, and that they weren’t all moving in sync. Seely spoke of the stars appearing “embedded in a solid vault”, but their motions totally defy this characterization. Even if the whole vault rotated to explain the motion of the fixed stars, it wouldn’t explain the ‘wandering stars’ (planets), comets, or the sun and moon. But if the stars were not embedded, and instead moved along paths on the underside surface of a vault, they would not really be “in” it when visibly providing light to the earth, as Genesis says. One could always salvage the solid raqiya interpretation by assuming the astronomical objects were thought to move inside trenches within the surface of this vault, which would allow them to be visible while moving within it. But, even then, the system would have to be fairly complex in order to allow for some lights (like the sun and moon) to follow unusual paths that intersect the fixed stars, yet avoid collision with them. Frankly, this picture of the heavens seems like an ad hoc monstrosity that results from an unyielding commitment to the solid raqiya concept, not something the ancients actually believed. But the problem is avoided if the raqiya refers instead to a spacious region.

To summarize, then, I think these evidences (plus others) tip the scales in favor of raqiya meaning an expanse, not a solid barrier. So the term isn’t merely equivocal. It refers to a spacious region, which refutes Seely’s accusation that the author of Genesis incorporated a false cosmology into Scripture. For more problems with the solid sky interpretation, you might also like to read my paper on the 'windows of heaven’.

The expanse in Genesis 1—what is it?

Seagulls flying “on the face of the expanse of the heavens” (Genesis 1:20)

As for the precise referents of the raqiya and the ‘waters above’ in Genesis 1, however, I would refer you to my recent paper on the ‘waters above’. There, I argued that the term shamayim is used in different senses throughout the Bible, and the details of Genesis 1 indicate it is being used in more than one way there too. I appealed to the very language you cite about the birds flying “on the face” of the raqiya. According to my analysis, the Day 5 “expanse of the heavens” is clearly above and behind the birds, where the sky appears opaque. But the Day 2 “expanse of the heavens” includes the lower invisible spacious region that extends down to the earth, so these uses cannot refer to the exact same thing. Furthermore, I, unlike Holding, take the ‘waters above’ to refer to clouds, which would mean that the Day 2 expanse refers to the heavenly region between the earth and the clouds (at their typical high altitudes).

So Seely is right that the birds are flying outside of the expanse in the context of Day 5. But this does not require the expanse to be distinct from the heavens, because the term ‘heavens’ refers to multiple things, depending on context.

As a caveat, let me acknowledge that other creationists believe the ‘expanse’ refers to the exact same thing throughout Genesis 1—a region that encompasses all of outer space. They believe the ‘waters above’ must be beyond the stars, forming a boundary to all the mass in the universe. My paper linked above gives my reasons for rejecting this interpretation, but it is a debated issue.

Phenomenological descriptions of heaven

Whether or not you are persuaded by my particular conclusions above, that same paper on the ‘waters above’ might also help you to think through your main question about phenomenological nature of Genesis 1:20. I agree with Holding on this point, and I offered reasons why we should view the expression “on the face of the expanse of heaven” as phenomenological. On Day 5, I think the “face of the expanse” refers to the appearance (from our vantage point) of the distant, opaque sky. The birds fly upon this face, which means that they are in front of the (typically) blue backdrop, much like Abraham was viewing Sodom and Gomorrah from a position outside of these cities when the Scripture says “he looked down upon the face of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 19:28). He was seeing the exterior ‘surface’ of these cities from his vantage point.

Vern Poythress comes to some of the same conclusions about Genesis 1:20 in his book, Interpreting Eden, which I have reviewed. Poythress says (p. 152):

The birds ‘fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens’ (v. 20), and the Hebrew underlying the English word ‘across’ … might be woodenly rendered ‘upon the face of.’ In this context, the ‘expanse’ is the background appearance (typically blue sky or clouds), and birds fly against this background. In addition, the birds are called ‘the birds of the heavens’ (v. 28; compare v. 30). In its loose use, the term ‘heaven(s)’ is flexible, and can designate the heavenly sphere, everything above us, or, more narrowly, the visible background.

I do not take the position that Genesis 1:20 should be regarded as phenomenological in order to escape anything or to resolve a difficulty, but just because this is what the language indicates. Being “on the face of” something means being positioned before or above its surface or exterior side. To take this language literally would mean the sky does have an actual surface. But I already argued above that the biblical authors did not claim the sky was solid; they thought of it as a spacious region. The “face of the expanse” refers to its presenting side or surface, and if the expanse is spacious rather than solid, then its ‘surface’ is merely a visual appearance—the distant background you see overhead.

A clarification might also help to alleviate your concern. I do not think that a phenomenological interpretation means, as you state, “the sky appeared as a solid dome to the authors of Genesis.” Holding explicitly rejected that and I would also say that it is wrong or, at best, very misleading. The statement seems to imply that the author(s) of Genesis had every reason to believe the sky actually was a solid dome. Yet the sky could ‘appear’ like it has a surface in some sense without giving every impression that it actually does, still less that it is a ‘solid’ surface, still less that it is structured like a dome. For example, as an ancient person looked upward on a typical sunny day, he could tell that there is an invisible spacious region from the ground up to some clouds (if present) which have a visible ‘surface’, and somewhere beyond them there is an opaque blue ‘barrier’, beyond which we cannot see. It’s fair to say this can look superficially like a solid surface. And it’s likely that this appearance did mislead some ancient people into thinking the sky was solid. Yet it does not mean the ancients had no reason to believe otherwise. When one looks to a mountain chain receding in the distance, for example, the mountains increasingly fade into the color of the blue sky as they recede toward the horizon. One can also travel to these far mountains and see that they become less faded the closer one gets. This suggests that the blue color of the sky is not the color of a solid dome resting on or behind the mountains, but results from great distance, from something about the thickness of the air between here and there. Whether or not any of the ancients contemplated these things or worked out these conclusions, I do not know. But the deduction that the blue color may not be a solid surface need not depend on the advancements of modern science—just simple observations and logic. The sky often fails to look like a solid dome at the horizon. So the sky may give some impression of looking solid, but simultaneously the sky can show that this is highly questionable or doubtful, since resemblances can be weak or strong, and different parts of the sky can give different impressions.

To give an analogy for the kind of thing I’m arguing here, consider the following circumstance. While in Egypt on our recent tour, Gavin Cox of CMI–UK was taking someone’s photo in front of the pyramids. As a joke, he put his finger in front of the camera so it looked like a giant finger came down from heaven to touch the top of the pyramid. Well, the resulting photo gives that appearance in a certain sense, that a giant finger touched the pyramid’s tip. But it does not appear this way so forcibly that anyone thinks that is the truth of the matter. The appearance is ambiguous and superficial, and other observations and logic help us to know that a giant finger from the sky is not the truth of the matter.

Also, think of how many clouds, especially cumulus clouds, appear to have a surface. They resemble cotton candy. But they certainly do not have a hard, tangible surface in reality. When clouds come close, the boundary is fuzzy and not all that clear. So it’s fair to admit that something can visually appear to have a firm surface in a certain sense, without assuming this would lead the ancients to think it did. The ancients had familiarity with fog and clouds of dust, so they did likely know that cloud ‘surfaces’ were tenuous and that clouds were merely composed of lots of small particles. They didn’t automatically jump from an appearance to an assumption about composition.

So I don’t have a problem saying the sky may appear to be solid or have a surface in some superficial sense, as long as we remember that it’s debatable how clear and compelling that impression is. To admit that is not the same thing as saying that the sky looks like a solid hemisphere resting on the earth, in which the stars are embedded. I deny that. That claim goes way beyond the bare facts of how things appear, and theorizes about too many specific details of cosmic structure.

Note, by the way, that the biblical authors clearly did compare the heavens to a tent stretched overhead (Job 26:7; Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22). I think this is not because every observation they made suggested the sky was a solid vault and so they must have really thought it was, but because in some respects it’s fair to say the sky resembles a tent ceiling stretched overhead. But when you look close, it also doesn’t. This is a poetic analogy based on appearances, not a scientific description of the heavens.

Phenomenological language is a well-established linguistic device

I certainly wouldn’t want to dismiss the idea that phenomenological language could be used in Scripture, because it is clearly a widespread phenomenon in ordinary discourse. In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring (ch. 11), for example, he employs the line, “The hills drew nearer.” Everyone recognizes this as relative motion, the language of appearance. It does not mean the hills are literally moving away from the surrounding landscape and toward the observers, but that they appear to move closer as the observers proceed toward them. Or, people today might say that total solar eclipses are possible because the sun and moon are the same size. Well, they are the same size in appearance from our Earth-bound perspective, not in their absolute size.

I think it’s undeniable that this device is used in Scripture as well, when it comes to the motion of the sun, for example. Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.” The sun only appears to move from our vantage point on a rotating Earth, and Scripture merely affirms this, not absolute geocentrism. So it’s not novel to offer a phenomenological explanation for some biblical statements.

Slippery slopes

You are concerned that this will lead to us abandon the historicity of Genesis in general, but we need to be careful when making slippery slope arguments. There are genuine slippery slopes, when the specific rationale behind a certain claim would logically lead to a less than desirable conclusion. But there is also such a thing as a ‘slippery slope fallacy’, where a claim is made that x will lead to y, even though the logic behind x does not entail y.

In my view, there is no logical slippery slope connecting the affirmation that Genesis 1:20 uses phenomenological language to the claim that all of Genesis is figurative. As I argued, it is the precise details of the language in Genesis 1:20 and the accompanying evidence that the biblical authors took the sky to be spacious that leads to the conclusion of phenomenological language in that case. I could also add the consideration that Scripture typically doesn’t try to scientifically theorize about the nature of things that were inaccessible to the ancients, like the detailed structure of the universe. The Bible describes nature accurately, but isn’t trying to offer a cosmological breakdown that goes beyond what could be known from basic observations and ancient shared knowledge. Therefore, we do not invoke literary devices arbitrarily. We invoke them when the context and proper exegesis supports them.

In the same way, Jesus used literary devices. He spoke in parables and also metaphors, like when he said, “I am the vine” (John 15:5). But the fact that we can recognize a metaphor in one place doesn’t make Jesus a metaphor. One has to evaluate these things on a case-by-case basis. So hopefully that alleviates your fears.

That was a long-winded answer, but I hope it’s been helpful. Best wishes as you consider these things and continue to study and interpret God’s Word.

Blessings in Christ,
Keaton H.

Published: 4 February 2023

Helpful Resources

The Genesis Account
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The Creation Answers Book audiobook
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