When the book of Genesis was written, early Hebrews had very unusual ideas about the earth and sky. They didn't have our understanding of the universe, scientific facts we take for granted today. Rather, they believed the sun, moon and stars were some kind of lights traveling across a dome called the firmament in the King James Version of Genesis. This dome was above the sky and covered the earths entire earth, which was shaped like a pancake under the dome. To people of that time, the universe did not even exist. They knew nothing about outer space. Nor did they know how big and far away the stars are, and that light from some takes millions of years to get here. It was to these people with their strange ideas about the cosmos that God originally spoke, and inspired them to write the scriptures.
Todays Hebrew scholars have researched these early beliefs about the earth and sky, and are able to tell us what the Bible is saying in terms of ancient beliefs. Their work shows us the original literal interpretation of the creation account, as understood by those living long ago. To learn more about these ancient beliefs, read Richard Elliot Friedman's, Commentary on the Torah, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Water, Water Everywhere
The first concept to grasp is that the earth was thought to be initially submerged within a vast quantity of water. The creation story then explains how God made it suitable for habitation. It was during the second day of Gods creative work that he made a living space for mankind on earth, inside a giant air bubble. This bubble, or dome protected the earths living space by holding back the surrounding water. To form the bubble, God made a firmament (KJV) within the water. It separated water from earths surface, but left some of it behind, on earths surface. This is a picture of the world as it was known to the ancient Hebrew people.
Genesis 1:6 describes making the bubble in this way, "And God said let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." The NIV translation uses the word expanse, but we shall mostly use firmament, the KJV translation. Firmament appears in the first chapter of Genesis and in the book of Ezekiel, but nowhere else in the Bible. It is interesting to note that the two Hebrew words that are used together and translated between, are only given this meaning three times in the entire Bible. A much more common translation of these Hebrew words is within or simply in, which occurs sixty times in the Bible, and better portrays the ancient beliefs. Since earth was submerged within the water, God made the firmament within the water to form a protective air bubble for people to live in.
As Friedman describes the firmament, it is a transparent dome that holds back the waters above it. If we like science fiction analogies, we might say it is a force field, akin to the shields of the Starship Enterprise. The Hebrew root of firmament refers to the way in which a goldsmith hammers gold leaf very thin. As ancient Hebrews no doubt believed, this thin and transparent dome was able to support millions of tons of water above it. Air and the sky were below this thin dome, and below the sky was dry land surrounded by water, or great seas. The sun, moon and stars were lights that traveled on the dome, as mentioned before. Under the surface of the earth was still more water, since the ancient world was thought to be literally immersed in water. This view of the earth and cosmos is what Hebrew scholars in ancient times wrote about.
Fear of a Watery Doom
To us, the ancient Hebrew culture seemed obsessed with water. They believed it was everywhere, above, below and all around. Apparently God let water above the dome leak down to moisten the land. Ancient people also thought that water was the reason for the sky's blue color, since the firmament was thin and transparent. When a hole was dug deep enough, it filled with water from below the earth's dry ground, and the seas were visible all around and formed earth's boundary.
People of ancient times were not only obsessed with water, they likely dreaded it. The earth and firmament formed something like a giant submarine, giving them an air space for living and breathing while submerged in water. Can you imagine what it was like? if something went wrong they could perish, with the water rushing in from all directions. This is apparently what the Bible describes during the flood in Noah's time. Reading the flood story and keeping in mind what Hebrews believed and feared back then, we see things in a new light. The flood of Noahs time was like the Hebrews worst nightmare coming true, with people perishing in the torrent of water coming from everywhere, the earth below and the sky above.
A Watery Creation
Since ancient Hebrews believed the earth was submerged in water, and God made a dome, the firmament, to cover it and provide an air space for life, its not surprising that they pictured earth beginning in the water. Psalm 136:6, speaking of creation says, "who spread out the earth upon the waters, . . ," Without knowing ancient beliefs about earth, this psalm may seem backward. Today, we might understand if it said, who spread out the waters upon the earth. Also, we read in Genesis 1:2, ". . . the spirit of God was hovering over the waters," and think of a great ocean of water cover earths surface. Hebrews of ancient times likely pictured, a very large chaotic ball of water with a rather flat, pancake-like earth fully immersed in it.
We miss much when we do not know these beliefs of long ago, and there are many other examples. After God made the firmament or dome to give us a living space, Psalm 148:4 gives us this picture of it, "Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies." Todays knowledge of science keeps us from seeing the original meaning of this sentence, that there was thought to be an large quantity of water above the sky, above the dome.
It is difficult, or even impossible, for us to discover these ancient beliefs by reading the Bible. Genesis 1:2 does not give us a clue about what people in ancient times thought about early earth. It simply says, Now earth was formless and empty, . . Checking the the Hebrew word formless, we find it is more normally translated as nothing or empty. So it is like repeating an idea for emphasis. We might say, Now earth was empty, really empty. This statement does not suggest much, but possibly that the earth containing no life or vegetation.
Supernatural Light from the Sky
Yes, ancient people certainly had unusual ideas about the world and cosmos, and none are any stranger or shocking than what they thought of daylight, the sky and the sun. (Of course nothing shocks Indiana Jones, because hes a great scientist.) Today we know that the sun produces the light that comes from the sky. The suns rays illuminate the air above us. However, ancient folks didn't know where skylight came form. To them, skylight was was supernaturally produced, and began every morning. Skylight was responsible for the day-night cycle. Sunlight was important, but was secondary to the reliable daylight shining from the heavens. The sun did not always appear, and when it did, it was only after skylight been around for a while. Ancient people knew the sun could cast shadows, but otherwise the sun was really more symbolic than necessary, or so it seemed to them.
In Genesis 1:14 and on, the sun is simply referred to as a light, with no particular importance and is not even given a name. In 1:16 the Bible mentions the greater light to "govern the day" and a lesser light to "govern the night." That is all. The sun did not exist to produce light, but simply rule the sky during the daylight hours. Ancient Hebrews may have thought the sun concentrated skylight, but we can only speculate about such ideas. With their view of skylight and the sun, it is no wonder ancient Hebrews were comfortable with light being created on the first day, while the sun, moon and stars were not created until the fourth day. To them, the light on earth did not depend on the sun for its existence. Skylight was supernaturally provided by God.
All these ancient ideas about the earth and cosmos can be summarized in three simple sentences. First, skylight is supernatural, and does not depend on the sun. Second, the firmament is a dome that keeps water above it from flooding earth, thus giving mankind a space to live in. Third, the sun, moon and stars are simply lights that travel across this firmament dome.