The ‘waters above’ in Genesis 1—a brief survey of competing interpretations
In Genesis 1:6–8, God created an ‘expanse’ (Hebrew: raqiya רָקִיעַ) that separated the waters of the deep (verse 2) into two parts—the waters “under the expanse” and those “above the expanse”. While the waters below became seas, opinion is divided on the nature of the waters above. Various interpretations have been discussed in creationist literature, but T.T. from the U.S. needed some help finding these. So, here, we present a summary of the main proposals, with links to articles where more details can be found. Keaton Halley of CMI–US fielded the question.
I’ve just been trying to find out some info on Genesis 1:14, specifically how it interacts with the waters above in verse 6. Any ideas on what is meant by the separation of the waters? It appears that there is water above the sun and stars, which seems really weird.
I tried looking on your site but haven’t found what I’m looking for exactly.
Any insight would be most appreciated.
It’s funny you ask, because a paper I published in Journal of Creation back in 2021 was recently made available as the featured article on creation.com, and it deals with this very issue. But it’s controversial, and creationists have different opinions.
We also dealt with this issue to some extent in my talk about Days 2 & 3 (Session #4) in The Genesis Academy, though a lot could be added to my brief comments there. And there are many other discussions of this subject scattered throughout our website and in various products from our webstore, like The Genesis Account.
I know I’ve come across many unique views on this topic. For example, J.P. Holding suggests in Is the raqîa’ (‘firmament’) a solid dome? that the ‘waters’ refer to an elementary substance that was transformed into astronomical bodies like stars and planets. So, presumably, since the ‘waters above’ are still said to exist in Psalm 148:4, Holding thinks the stars can be called waters in virtue of having been made from that substance. I don’t think his view is very plausible, however, since he takes the ‘expanse’ to include outer space, so his ‘waters’ would not really be above the expanse. Plus, it’s doubtful that the stars were labelled as ‘waters’ regardless of how they were made.
John Hartnett has suggested the waters above should be identified with icy objects on the outskirts of our solar system. You can read about his view in The ‘waters above’. I’m not sure it has won many adherents since these waters would only be above a few ‘stars’ (using the ancient definition of ‘star’ that includes the planets of our solar system), but not all. That probably doesn’t satisfy those who think the waters need to be above all the stars. I, on the other hand, think Hartnett’s view is unlikely since it makes the ‘waters’ into something—frozen objects beyond Neptune—that ancient readers of Genesis did not seem to be aware of, which had little relevance to them. I don’t think Genesis 1 was intended to disclose secrets of the solar system, but to tell readers how known elements of the universe were made by God. This is consistent with CMI’s general position that the right interpretation of Scripture is usually what the original readers would have understood. This interpretive method can be called scriptural originalism, and is often called grammatical-historical exegesis.
From my survey of the literature, the four most common views of the ‘expanse/firmament’ (raqiya) and the ‘waters above’ seem to be the following:
- Heavenly Sea: According to this view, the biblical writers accepted the cosmological views of their ancient neighbours who (supposedly) believed in a flat earth and a solid sky which held back a liquid ocean above. So, the raqiya refers not to a spacious expanse, but to a solid dome resting on the earth, and the ‘waters above’ are a sky ocean. This position is widely held in academia, but it should not be acceptable to anyone who believes in biblical inerrancy. This is what Holding’s paper critiques, but I think there are many other serious problems with the view which are not widely known. I have offered a few criticisms in my paper on the “windows of heaven”, and noted several additional problems in: No, the Bible doesn’t teach that stars were glued to a canopy. People like Vern Poythress and William Lane Craig have also critiqued this idea.
- Pre-Flood Canopy: This view says the raqiya is the atmosphere and the ‘waters above’ are a water-vapour (or ice) canopy that surrounded the pre-Flood Earth. Many lay creationists still hold this position, but it has fallen out of favour among leading creationist organizations because of its various biblical and scientific problems. See the following article for a brief critique of the canopy theory: Were “the waters above” a vapour canopy?
- Cosmic Shell: This view is along the lines of what you suggested, that the waters are beyond all the galaxies, surrounding the universe perhaps as a tenuous shell of ice particles. The raqiya is understood to include all of interstellar space. This perspective is very popular among creationists today, including many at CMI, but it is what my recent paper attempts to critique. Russell Humphreys and Danny Faulkner both advocate this view. If you subscribe to Journal of Creation, you can read Humphreys’ recent paper where he lays out some of his current views on these things, which he calls A more biblical cosmology (not currently available for free). Terry Mortenson has also written a paper advocating the cosmic shell model.1 For my critique, I present three biblical arguments against a cosmic shell: The ‘waters above’ do not surround all galaxies. You might enjoy reading the comments on this paper as well, as I have interacted with people offering pushback.
- Clouds: This is my own view, and it has been advocated by many commentators in the past and present, such as Basil, Augustine, John Calvin, H.C. Leupold, Gordon Wenham, K.A. Matthews, Robert C. Newman, Randall Younker, Richard M. Davidson, Vern Poythress, C. John Collins, Andrew Steinmann, and more. The paper I just mentioned explains why I don’t think the ‘waters above’ are beyond the stars. The raqiya, in my view, means ‘expanse’, but it can refer to different things depending on context, just as the term ‘heavens’ is somewhat flexible and is used with different senses in Scripture. These need not be limited to the concepts of atmosphere or interstellar space, but can sometimes refer to the ‘sky’ as we phenomenologically experience it. See the above links for more details. But there are also positive reasons to think the ‘waters above’ are clouds. For example, though some have tried to dispute it, Psalm 104 seems to use motifs from Creation Week in the same structural order as the chronology of Genesis 1 to talk about God’s ongoing providence. It clearly discusses clouds in the section for Day 2 (verses 2b–4), just as it discusses light in the Day 1 section (verses 1–2a) and land emerging from under the water along with the value of plants in the Day 3 section (verses 5–18). That is strong evidence, in my view, that the biblical writers understood the waters above to be clouds. But feel free to form your own opinion.
If you do more digging, I think you can find other views besides these. But hopefully this lays the groundwork for you to look deeper into this issue if you so desire. Best wishes in your search!
References and notes
- Mortenson, T., The Firmament: What Did God Create on Day 2? Answers Research Journal 13:113–133, 2020. Return to text.