In biblical cosmology, the firmament is the vast solid dome created by God during his creation of the world to divide the primal sea into upper and lower portions so that the dry land could appear.[1][2] 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 survives as a synonym for "sky" or "heaven".

Early Hebrew conception of the cosmos.[citation needed] The firmament, Sheol and tehom are depicted.
The sun, planets and angels and the firmament. Woodcut dated 1475.


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 BCE.

These words all translate the Biblical Hebrew word rāqīaʿ (רָקִ֫יעַ‎), used for example in Genesis 1.6, where it is contrasted with shamayim (שָׁמַיִם‎), translated as "heaven(s)" in Genesis 1.1. Rāqīaʿ derives from the root rqʿ (רָקַע), meaning "to beat or spread out thinly".[4][5] Gerhard von Rad explains:

Rāqīaʿ means that which is firmly hammered, stamped (a word of the same root in Phoenecian means "tin dish"!). The meaning of the verb rqʿ concerns the hammering of the vault of heaven into firmness (Isa. 42.5; Ps.136.6). The Vulgate translates rāqīaʿ with firmamentum, and that remains the best rendering.

— Gerhard von Rad [6]


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. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to "A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet..."

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.[7] 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. This became the dominant model in the Classical and Medieval world-view, and even when Copernicus placed the Sun at the centre 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,[8] 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.[9] 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.[8]

See alsoEdit

  • Abzu – Mesopotamian primeval sea
  • 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 – Chinese philosophical term for infinity and the primordial universe


  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. ^ Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; Briggs, Charles A. (1951). A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford University Press. p. 955.
  5. ^ "Lexicon Results Strong's H7549 – raqiya'". Blue Letter Bible. Blue Letter Bible. Archived from the original on 2011-11-03. Retrieved 2009-12-04.
  6. ^ von Rad 1961, p. 53.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ a b Grant 1996, p. 349.
  9. ^ Giordano Bruno, De l'infinito universo e mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds), 1584.


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