The Firmament And The Way That Leads To Life

CW: Abuse, bodily harm, torture

And God said, “Let there be firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate between waters from waters.” God made the firmament and it separated between the waters which were below the firmament from the waters above the firmament, and it was so. And God called the firmament “heavens.” It was evening and and it was morning, day 2.

Genesis 1:6-8

Many, many Hebrew words do not have an adequate single-word english translation. Once you study the word shalom, the word “peace” just doesn’t cut it. Once you look at what’s behind the word rachum, the word “compassionate” needs more explanation. The same is true for the Hebrew word raqia, often translated as “expanse” or “firmament.” Because if it’s “expanse,” is this really saying anything at all? And seriously, what is a firmament?

My Hebrew lexicon doesn’t usually disappoint me, but this time it did. I looked up raqia, and it defined it simply as “firmament.” So I turned to Merriam-Webster. “What is firmament?” I asked. “The sky,” it said. And then it sent me back to Genesis 1. I went full circle while learning nothing.

This verse is highly descriptive of a thing that we don’t even venture to define. We file it under “quaint” and dismiss it as the old belief that the sky was blue because there is water up there. We pat day 2 on the head and send it to bed.

I am not an expert in Hebrew cosmology, but I am a student of one who loves to think and wonder and ruminate on such things. We call him Tehom. Tehom had this to say about firmament: The question at hand is the question of how the Hebrew people thought that the world held together. The firmament is a crucial part of answering that question. To begin imagining the creation of and subsequent function of the firmament, imagine someone blowing a bubble. A bubble is this tension-filled, delicate barrier that creates separation between what is within and what is outside.

This is not unlike the raqia of the earth. The firmament created during day 2 is more than just “sky”; firmament is boundary and living space, holding back the chaos that presses in. It is an expanse made to sustain and protect that which it holds. William Brown, author of The Seven Pillars of Creation, explains, “That expanse is what we now call atmosphere, the blanket of air that shields the earth’s surface from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (by means of the ozone layer) and from the onslaught of extraterrestrial material such as comets and meteors.”² The atmosphere, the earth’s raqia, preserves the earth and ensures the flourishing of life. Our existence hinges on raqia, and the earth would just be “planet” without it.

In 1985, it was discovered that the ozone layer was damaged – it had a giant hole that was caused by our use of modern chemicals for modern convenience. Without the ozone layer, we have no protection against ultra-violet rays. A damage ozone means disease and death for all of life on earth. Could there be a more literal way to understand what is meant by “the way that leads death” (Proverbs 16:25) than the destruction of the very thing that protects the life of creation? My favorite news of the day is that due to a world-wide effort to ban the chemicals associated with ozone damage, the hole is gradually being healed.³ The way of life, it seems, is to live in a way that does not damage or destroy the firmament.

Raqia is barier, filled with the life-breath of God and tasked with withholding the chaos that threatens that life. Our bodies are raqia.  Our bodies are firmament, boundary and living space, an expanse made to sustain and protect that which it holds. Our bodies are fragile, but perfectly suited to sustain life. Consider your skin. Consider the womb. Delicate, yet tenacious in its intricate and brilliant design – raqia. To know this is to know what is at stake: Racism justifies the destruction of the body firmament. Abuse cracks the raqia. Suddenly the idea of sexual assault is theologically reprehensible. Torture consumes the integrity of the bodily raqia until it is not longer able to protect the life-breath within. To take a life is to massacre the firmament that God perfectly crafted and indwells.

There is a way that leads to life, and it seems to be living in a way that does not damage or destroy the firmament.

The Ongoing Holy War Against Evil
by Wendell Berry

Stop the killing, or
I’ll kill you, you
God-damned murderer!

  1. Tom “Tehom” Boogaart is Dennis and Betty Voskuil Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.
  2. Brown, William P. The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2010.

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