No, the Bible doesn’t teach that stars were glued to a canopy
We received the following inquiry from J.C. in the US, asking what the ancient Israelites believed about the stars. A response follows from Keaton Halley of CMI–US.
Did the ancient Israelites know the stars were mighty suns?
I was wondering if the ancient Hebrews knew the stars were more than twinkling lights glued to the canopy above the earth. I see biblical references to the stars and I think they thought the stars were mighty objects, e.g. the Pleiades. Do you have any articles or comments about the stars being much more than “twinkle, twinkle little star”?
Good question. I don’t know of any evidence that the Israelites or other ancients thought of the stars as distant suns. That conclusion, as far as I know, is based solely on more recent scientific studies of the heavens. The Bible writers called all points of light in the sky ‘stars’, without differentiating between comets, planets, meteors, and the burning balls of hydrogen gas that we now designate exclusively as stars (see Stars). So they probably had little knowledge of the composition and size of these things, or very precise knowledge about the distances to them. (Though, for balance, ancient people did appreciate that the distances were relatively vast. See: Why would God bother with a tiny planet like Earth?)
The Bible does refer several times to a few of the constellations, like Orion, and the star cluster of the Pleiades, which you mentioned (Job 9:9; 38:31–32; Amos 5:8). It also has references to Venus, the morning star (2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 2:28; 22:16). But these references don’t say much about the stars that goes beyond their appearances. They don’t engage in scientific theorizing. They simply mention what is observably true about the stars from our vantage point, such as the Pleiades being a tight cluster of stars which can be metaphorically compared to being bound with bands or cords.
That said, however, I do think there is much evidence against the idea that the ancients, and particularly the writers of the Bible, thought the stars were “lights glued to the canopy above the earth.” For one thing, I don’t think they believed there was a solid vault in the sky, or that the term raqiya (‘firmament’ or ‘expanse’) in Genesis 1 referred to a solid object, as is commonly claimed. Here are several reasons why the term is better translated as ‘expanse’.
First, the terms raqiya and shamayim (‘heavens’) are co-extensive in Genesis 1:6–8, which indicates that the raqiya describes the spacious heavens, not a solid barrier within heaven. This is parallel to the descriptions of earth and seas in Genesis 1. The waters are co-extensive with the ‘seas’, and the land is co-extensive with the ‘earth’ (Genesis 1:10). So, the ‘expanse’ is not just a segment of the heavens; it refers to what comprises the heavens. I would add, though, that raqiya and shamayim can both refer to different aspects of the sky depending on context. In my view, these are not limited to the atmosphere, outer space, and the combination of the two. Sometimes these terms also refer to the phenomenal appearance of the sky. So, in a particular context, the raqiya/expanse might refer only to the invisible void beneath the clouds, or to the opaque backdrop of blue sky and scattered clouds. But that is because each of these could also be called ‘heavens’. The raqiya is the spread-out area of these heavens, not a (solid) piece of them.
Second, Psalm 150:1 enjoins the reader to praise God both “in his sanctuary” and “in his mighty raqiya”. Note that the locations of the sanctuary and the raqiya are in parallel. This suggests both refer to open areas where worship could take place. Also, note the preposition, ‘in’. That praise could occur somewhere ‘in’ the raqiya makes it unlikely that raqiya here is a solid thing. Instead, a spacious area fits the context well. One cannot praise God in the raqiya unless the raqiya refers to an expanse.
Third, the ‘solid sky’ view misreads much of Scripture by interpreting metaphors too literally. In my Journal of Creation paper, The ‘windows of heaven’ are figurative, I showed that the Bible writers knew that rain came from clouds, and they did not claim it came from a heavenly sea held aloft by a solid dome. I encourage you to read through that article to appreciate the weight of textual evidence against the solid sky interpretation.
Fourth, when God brought the raqiya into being, He positioned it “in the midst of the waters” (Genesis 1:6). The Hebrew term translated “in the midst” is betok, combining the preposition be (‘in’) with tavek (‘midst’). A spacious region could quite comfortably be described as “in the midst” of the waters above and the seas below. But if the raqiya were a cosmic ceiling, it would be positioned immediately adjacent to the waters above, and far from the waters below. Sure, it would be accurate, technically, to say it was between the two bodies of water. But I think it would be a rather unnatural characterization to say that a solid barrier at one extreme end is “in the midst of the waters”. The Hebrew term doesn’t have to refer to the exact middle, but it typically means somewhere well within, not likely hugging the edge of a particular space. To say that a sky roof is “in the midst of the waters” would be like saying that US Highway 1 (on the east coast) is in the midst of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. That would be an odd thing to say.
What seems more obviously to be “in the midst of the waters” mentioned in Genesis, from an earthbound observer’s perspective, is the empty void that starts immediately above the sea. So that large, open, spacious region is the most likely referent of the term raqiya. Creationists may have different ideas about where the ‘waters above’ are located, and therefore they differ on how high the expanse of Genesis 1:6–8 goes, but it at least includes the lower atmosphere which is immediately above the lower waters.
Fifth—and this gets to your main question about the stars—the ancients knew the stars moved through the heavens despite being in the raqiya. According to Genesis 1:14–19, God placed the celestial lights “in the expanse” (raqiya) “to give light upon the earth”. However, the ancients could see that they not only traversed the sky in daily and yearly cycles, but also that they didn’t all move in sync. If the stars were “glued to the canopy” how could they move in this manner? I’m not aware of any evidence that ANE people thought the ‘dome’ rotated or precessed, but even if it did, this would only explain the fixed stars, not the independent motions of the sun, the moon, the comets, or what the Babylonians called ‘wild sheep’—planets. Moreover, even if the stars were not stuck in place, and instead moved on the underside surface of a solid raqiya, that would not put them ‘in’ the raqiya when visibly providing light to the earth, as Genesis says.
I suppose the solid raqiya view could accommodate these issues by positing that the celestial lights moved inside grooves embedded in the surface of this ‘dome’. This would mean they would be moving within the dome while still remining visible. (I’m picturing it like X-wings flying through the trenches on the Death Star.) Nonetheless, this entails a rather complicated system to permit some lights (like the sun and moon) to go along divergent paths that cross over the fixed stars while still avoiding any crashes. Frankly, this model of the sky seems to be a hopelessly contrived way to hold onto the solid raqiya idea rather than something the ancients would have actually held to. But we can avoid this conundrum if raqiya speaks of an expanse. So, I think ancient knowledge of celestial movement is strong evidence that they thought stars moved freely through space and were not affixed to a solid canopy.
There are other considerations that might also suggest the ancients believed the stars moved freely through space. For instance, the Bible writers often associated stars with angels—calling both “the host of heaven” (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:19; 1 Kings 22:19), and referring to angels symbolically as stars in apocalyptic literature (e.g., Revelation 1:20). If the stars were thought to be glued to a solid surface, I think this association would have been less likely. Rather, the stars were thought to populate the spacious heavens like the angelic armies.
It’s also clear that other cultures of the ancient Near East treated the stars like spiritual beings that could and did travel. Egyptians sometimes depicted the stars and constellations as deities traveling on barques to the underworld during the day, just like the sun/sun god did during the night. In other Egyptian references, the stars are said to begin as fish in the Duat (underworld), and they fly up to the sky at night. In still other cases, the stars are called “bas” (a ba is one aspect of the Egyptian concept of the soul). The ba is often portrayed as a human-headed bird which could travel between the realms of the living and the dead. This, too, suggests the stars were thought to move freely through space, not glued to the underside of a solid sky roof.
In Mesopotamia, similarly, there are indications that the stars were thought to go into the underworld during the day and rise up into the sky at night. The Babylonian Shamash (sun god) Tablet shows this, for example. Unfortunately, many scholars have misinterpreted the art on this tablet, thinking that it shows a heavenly scene with stars embedded in a solid vault, and a heavenly ocean immediately above this. People like John H. Walton,1 Kyle R. Greenwood,2 and J. Edward Wright3 have made this error. But the cuneiform inscription on the tablet itself actually says the water depicts the apsu, not a heavenly ocean!4 The apsu is water on and mostly under the earth, so the scene portrays stars in the underworld as the sun god Shamash is in his shrine above the apsu during the day, probably as he is rising in the morning. This has nothing to do with a solid sky or a heavenly ocean. It shows the Mesopotamian view that stars moved down into the underworld after they set. Thus, they were not believed to be permanently attached to a hard dome.
The Hebrews may not have had advanced scientific knowledge beyond that of their neighbours, but it seems to me that many scholars have misattributed to them a belief in a solid sky. The evidence suggests instead that they thought stars were situated in spacious skies. Note, by the way, that the Bible doesn’t claim the stars went to the underworld, or that stellar motion is absolute rather than apparent. It is noncommittal on these questions. But even if some Israelites did have a faulty view of the heavens, I see no reason to think that this solid-sky perspective was a working assumption that got woven into the biblical text. It’s simply not there in Scripture at all.
I hope that is helpful.
References and notes
- Walton, J.H., Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 168–169, 2006. Return to text.
- Greenwood, K., Scripture and Cosmology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, p. 61, 2015. Return to text.
- Wright, J.E., The Early History of Heaven, Oxford University Press, pp. 36–37, 2000. Return to text.
- Hilber, J.W., Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation, Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, pp. 64–65, 2020. Return to text.