In biblical cosmology, the firmament (Hebrew: רָקִ֫יעַ rāqīa) is the vast solid dome created by God during the Genesis creation narrative to divide the primal sea into upper and lower portions so that the dry land could appear.[1][2]

An artist's depiction of the early Hebrew conception of the cosmos. The firmament (raqia), Sheol, and Tehom are depicted.

The concept was adopted into the subsequent Classical/Medieval model of heavenly spheres, but was dropped with advances in astronomy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today it is known as a synonym for sky or heaven.

Etymology edit

In English, the word "firmament" is recorded as early as 1250, in the Middle English Story of Genesis and Exodus.

It later appeared in the King James Bible. The same word is found in French and German Bible translations, all from Latin firmamentum (a firm object), used in the Vulgate (4th century).[3] This in turn is a calque of the Greek στερέωμᾰ (steréōma), also meaning a solid or firm structure (Greek στερεός = rigid), which appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation made by Jewish scholars around 200 BC

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT], s.v. raqa, makes an important correction regarding this translation: "In pre-Christian Egypt, confusion was introduced into biblical cosmology when the LXX [Septuagint], perhaps under the influence of Alexandrian theories of a 'stone vault' of heaven, rendered raqia by stereoma suggesting some firm, solid substance."

These words all translate the Biblical Hebrew word rāqīaʿ (רָקִ֫יעַ‎), used for example in Genesis 1.6, where it is named shamayim (שָׁמַיִם‎), translated as "heaven(s)" in Genesis 1.1. Rāqīaʿ derives from the root rqʿ (רָקַע‎), meaning "stamp, spread out, stretch." "The basic concept in raqa is stamping, as with the foot, and what results, i.e. a spreading out or stretching forth." TWOT.[4]

History edit

The sun, planets and angels and the firmament. Woodcut dated 1475.

The ancient Hebrews, like all the ancient peoples of the Near East, believed the sky was a solid dome with the Sun, Moon, planets and stars embedded in it.[5]

Around the 4th to 3rd centuries BCE the Greeks, under the influence of Aristotle who argued that the heavens must be perfect and that a sphere was the perfect geometrical figure, exchanged this for a spherical Earth surrounded by solid spheres.

The model established by Aristotle became the dominant model in the Classical and Medieval world-view, and even when Copernicus placed the Sun at the center of the system he included an outer sphere that held the stars (and by having the earth rotate daily on its axis it allowed the firmament to be completely stationary). Tycho Brahe's studies of the nova of 1572 and the Comet of 1577 were the first major challenges to the idea that orbs existed as solid, incorruptible, material objects,[6] and in 1584 Giordano Bruno proposed a cosmology without a firmament: an infinite universe in which the stars are actually suns with their own planetary systems.[7] After Galileo began using a telescope to examine the sky it became harder to argue that the heavens were perfect, as Aristotelian philosophy required, and by 1630 the concept of solid orbs was no longer dominant.[6]

Models of the Firmament edit

The plurality of heaven edit

The Flammarion engraving (1888) depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, depicted as if it were a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond.

Perhaps beginning with Origen, the different identifiers used for heavens in the Book of Genesis, caelum and firmamentum, sparked some commentary on the significance of the order of creation (caelum identified as the heaven of the first day, and firmamentum as the heaven of the second day).[8] Some of these theories identified caelum as the higher, immaterial and spiritual heaven, whereas firmamentum was of corporeal existence.[9]: 237 

Christian theologians of note writing between the 5th and mid-12th century were generally in agreement that the waters, sometimes called the "crystalline orb", were located above the firmament and beneath the fiery heaven that was also called empyrean (from Greek ἔμπυρος). One medieval writer who rejected such notions was Pietro d'Abano who argued that theologians "assuming a crystalline, or aqueous sphere, and an empyrean, or firey sphere" were relying on revelation more than Scripture.[10]

About this Ambrose wrote: "Wise men of the world say that water cannot be over the heavens"; the firmament is called such, according to Ambrose, because it held back the waters above it.[11]

Corporeality edit

Early Christian writers wrote at length about the material nature of the firmament, the problem arising from the barrier said to be created when it divided the waters above and below it.[12] At issue was the reconciliation of Scripture with Aristotle's cosmology.

Saint Basil rejected the notion that the firmament is made of solid ice, although Bede in Hexaemeron ignores the problem of the motion of celestial bodies (stars) in a solid firmament and declares that the siderum caelum (heaven of the celestial bodies) was made firm (firmatum) in the midst of the waters so should be interpreted as having the firmness of crystalline stone (cristallini Iapidis).[13]

See also edit

  • Abzu – Primeval sea in Mesopotamian mythology
  • Cosmic ocean – Mythological motif
  • Flood geology – Pseudoscientific attempt to reconcile geology with the Genesis flood narrative
  • Heaven in Judaism – Dwelling place of God and other heavenly beings
  • Nu – Ancient Egyptian personification of the primordial watery abyss
  • Primum Mobile – Outermost moving sphere in the geocentric model of the universe
  • Sky deity – Deity associated with the sky
  • Wuji – The primordial in Chinese philosophy

Citations edit

  1. ^ Pennington 2007, p. 42.
  2. ^ Ringgren 1990, p. 92.
  3. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary – Firmament". Archived from the original on 2012-10-18. Retrieved 2010-10-25.
  4. ^ Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Harris, Archer,Jr., Waltke, Moody, 1980.
  5. ^ Seely, Paul H. (1991). "The Firmament and the Water Above" (PDF). Westminster Theological Journal. 53: 227–40. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2009-03-05. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
  6. ^ a b Grant 1996, p. 349.
  7. ^ Giordano Bruno, De l'infinito universo e mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds), 1584.
  8. ^ Et vocavit Deus firmamentum caelum.
  9. ^ Rochberg, Francesca (2008). "A Short History of the Waters of the Firmament". In Ross, Micah (ed.). From the Banks of the Euphrates: Studies in Honor of Alice Louise Slotsky. Eisenbrauns. pp. 227–244. ISBN 978-1-57506-144-3.
  10. ^ Grant, Edward (1994). Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687. Cambridge University Press. p. 321.
  11. ^ Boccaletti Dino, The Waters Above the Firmament, p.36 2020
  12. ^ Et dixit Deus, Fiat firmamentum in medio aquarum et sit dividens inter aquam et aquam
  13. ^ Randles, W. G. L. (1999). The Unmaking of the Medieval Christian Cosmos, 1500–1760. Routledge.

Bibliography edit

External links edit