What is the scientific evidence that the sky is solid?

Juan responds to the claim Dr. Hector Avalos made that the sky is solid.  Does the Bible say that?

By Juan Valdes,  Reasons for Hope

In his opening statements, Dr. Avalos asked me three specific questions and I want to tackle them in order. Having answered the first question regarding the creation of everything from water, let’s focus on the second question, “What is the scientific evidence that the sky is solid?” The essence of his argument was that the Bible advocates a cosmological model that includes a solid dome as the sky, something clearly incompatible with modern scientific cosmological models. Therefore, the Genesis account of the origins of our world are not scientifically reasonable. In support of this argument, Dr. Avalos spent considerable time and numerous presentation slides establishing a series of “supporting facts” that I intend to respond to, though it will take an equally lengthy response. However, prior to any refutation of his argument, we must first understand the basis of his argument.   

His argument was based on several points as follow. First, he argued that the Hebrew word ‘raqia’ translated “firmament” means a solid dome as it appears in Genesis 1:6-7, “Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.” (NKJV). He also argues a bit later that the Septuagint (Greek) translation of ‘raqia,’ the Greek noun ‘stereoma’ also means “a solid body”  Second, he misquotes a verse in Job 37:18 that he claims is speaking of a solid dome, “Can you, like him, hammer out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?” (RSV).

 Third, Dr. Avalos argues that the solid dome was a common belief amongst Christians in biblical times. To prove his point he quotes the pseudepedigraphic 3rd century book of 3 Baruch 3:7 and a quote from St. Augustine where he supposedly affirms his belief in the solid dome as well.  Fourth, Dr. Avalos presents the NRSV translation of Genesis 1:16-17, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.  God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,” which does in fact support his hypothesis well. Finally, he presents Egyptian and Greek mythology as the sources of the solid dome cosmology that he argues was copied and believed by the writers of Genesis. 

At first glance the argument seems very strong, but upon close examination of each supporting point, it turns out to be quite weak.  So let’s deal with it!

The first problem with Dr. Avalos’ argument is that his definition of ‘raqia’ is too narrow. With his knowledge of the Hebrew language, he is well aware but fails to inform us that the word is translated quite differently by many expert linguists. As a matter of fact, the major Hebrew lexicons and Hebrew dictionaries ALL provide a definition that includes “expanse” as well as “firmament.” Herein lies the problem, which word more closely reflects the meaning as it was intended by the original author and as it was understood by the original audience?  OBVIOUSLY the words firmament and expanse have quite different meanings in our modern day English.  The translation problem is obvious when one compares translations. The KJV translates ‘raqia’ as firmament all 17 times the word appears in the Old Testament, while the NASB translates it as expanse all 17 times.  The word ‘raqia’ appears nine (9) times in Genesis 1 and a survey of 40 different translations shows how divided translators are regarding the word just in Genesis 1:6-8, 14-15, 17 and 20.

Translations that favor a view of ‘raqia’ as open sky.  (17)

1b

Translations that favor a view of ‘raqia’ as a solid dome. (17) 

2

Translations that include several possible views of ‘raqia’ in Genesis 1. (6) 

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The plethora of the aforementioned translation variations highlights the difficulty faced by Bible translators in dealing with ancient documents. Further difficulty results from the fact that everyone has a bias, even Bible translators. This is something translators must constantly keep in check, but unfortunately they aren’t always successful. Thus it is important to keep in mind that there is no perfect translation of the Bible. The perfect text was the original autographs inspired by God and written by servants of His choice.  Thus, it is imperative to seek out the meaning intended by God, primarily in the Genesis passages under consideration, by examining the original language, not other translations. 

In response to Dr. Avalos’ first line of evidence, I will argue that “expansion” is the most acceptable translation for ‘raqia.’ Furthermore, I will argue that “firmament” is a very unfortunate mis-translation that occurred early enough in the history of Bible translations to contaminate many future translations.  Why is “expansion” the best translation? There are various reasons, but the primary reason is God’s omniscience.  Once we accept that the Bible is God’s Word, than we must approach it with the certainty that He knows all things. Thus, His revelation will be forever relevant and true.

 God would not reveal to his people a mythological conception of creation.

 Furthermore, there are other, more specific Hebrew words that could have been used to describe a solid metal dome but they are not employed in the text.  In addition, the meaning of the word ‘raqia’ as well as the syntax of the verses where it is used in Genesis clearly points away from a solid dome interpretation. Thompson explains, 

“Raqia denotes simply an expanse, not a solid structure (see Harris, et al., 1980, 2:2218). Furthermore, the actual substance of the expanse is not inherent in the word. Numbers 16:38 juxtaposes raqia and pahim (plates), suggesting literally an “expanse of plates.” Here, “plates” specifies the actual material involved in the expansion. In Genesis, “heavens,” not solid matter, is given as the nature of the expanse (Genesis 1:8,14,15,17,20). The original context in which raqia is used does not imply any kind of solid dome above the Earth.

 [emphasis in original]

That is why ‘expansion’ is the most reasonable translation of ‘raqia.’  But, what about ‘firmament?’  Why should it be considered an unfortunate mis-translation?  Dr. Avalos and others make a big deal about the prefix “FIRM” being sufficient evidence that the word is referring to a solid or hard dome. There are numerous problems with this line of reasoning. First, the word in Hebrew is not ‘firmament’ it is ‘raqia’ and ‘raqia’ does not have a prefix that means solid or hard. Second, the word ‘firmament’ should never have found itself in any translation. Again, I defer to Thompson who gives us an outstanding explanation,

The Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek produced by Jewish scholars in the third centuy B.C. at the behest of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ptolemy Philadelphus, for inclusion in his world-famous library in Alexandria) translated raqia into the Greek as stereoma, which connotes a “solid structure” (Arndt and Gingrich, 1967, p. 774). Apparently, the translators of the Septuagint were influenced by the then-popular Egyptian view of cosmology and astronomy [they were, after all, doing their translating in Egypt for an Egyptian pharaoh] that embraced the notion of the heavens being a stone vault. Unfortunately, those Hebrew scholars therefore chose to render raqia via the Greek word stereoma—in order to suggest a firm, solid structure. The Greek connotation thus influenced Jerome to the extent that, when he produced his Latin Vulgate, he used the word firmamentum (meaning a strong or steadfast support—from which the word “firmament” is transliterated) to reflect this pagan concept (McKechinie, 1978, p. 691).

  [emphasis in original]

When Bible translators work off of translations they are bound to copy errors into their new translations. When translating Genesis, the Hebrew text would be the place to begin, not a Greek translation influenced by a pagan pharaoh. Furthermore, what makes this mis-translation tragic is the profound impact that both the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate translations have had on many future translators, who have simply adopted the term ‘firmament’ and propagated the mistake. This leads to the issue of mythological cosmologies and their influence on the Biblical account of Creation. 

Dr. Avalos argues that the Egyptian and Greek mythological cosmologies provided a common understanding of Genesis among Christians until the Copernican Revolution, where science demonstrated that Genesis could not be taken as a literal scientific explanation of origins. His supporting evidence is both weak and irrelevant.  Even to imply that a 3rd Century AD pseudepedigraphal book such as 3 Baruch was representative of Christianity is ludicrous. It doesn’t form part of neither the Jewish nor the Christian canons. Furthermore, the book describes five (5) “heavens” where the just are transformed into birds and the wicked are turned into demons and punished in heaven as well.  3 Baruch is obviously not representative of the biblical Christian worldview.  Actually, the author is believed to have been a gnostic, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “He must have been one of the Gnostics, who revered equally the Haggadah, Greek mythology, and Oriental wisdom.”

  Obviously 3 Baruch is completely irrelevant to the argument—it does not prove that ‘firmament’ is a valid translation of Genesis nor does it establish that Christians believed in a solid dome. 

As a second example, Dr. Avalos argues that St. Augustine, the respected theologian, believed in a solid dome sky.  While Augustine is not considered a representative of all of Christianity, the argument merits a response. Augustine is quoted in a presentation slide as saying, “Our picture of heaven as a vault, even when taken in a literal sense, does not contradict the theory that heaven is a sphere.”[emphasis by Dr. Avalos].  The quote is hardly a clear declaration of belief in a solid dome sky.  When read in context, Augustine goes on to state that he interprets Genesis in an allegorical manner. He is hardly dogmatic in the work cited. As a matter of fact in the following two chapters he argues that there are problems with believing in a solid dome—primarily how to explain the moving stars, sun and moon if they are fixed to a solid dome. However, the real question is, how this is even relevant to whether or not the sky is a solid dome?  It could easily be argued that Augustine was influenced by both the Septuagint and the Vulgate mis-translation; and he probably was, but that is irrelevant. From a purely philosophical perspective, who or how many people believe something has no bearing on the truthfulness of a claim. Even if every Christian believed it was in fact a solid dome, it would not alter reality. Heaven is obviously not a solid dome and anyone who has accepted that theory has been wrong—but their error IS NOT based on God’s revelation in Genesis 1—instead, it is based on a mis-translation and/or pagan influence. 

Prior to concluding this response, we still need to deal with two other supporting arguments presented by Dr. Avalos. First, does the passage in Job 37:18 teach that the sky is a solid dome? Let’s look at it again, “Can you, like him, hammer out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?” (RSV). Let us begin by establishing that Elihu is speaking and not God. Not only have Job’s friends been wrong about the cause of Job’s affliction, but God himself rejects their entire argument just a few verses later, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2 NASB). Also, notice that Dr. Avalos mistakenly quotes the RSV as using the verb “hammer out” which it does not do. Notice how the verb ‘raqa’ is translated across the various translations: 

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Furthermore, the context of Elihu’s speech is God’s control of the weather.  I think the New American Commentary on Job unpacks this verse perfectly, “Elihu’s final query to Job once more challenged his ability to effect change in the weather. Having reminded him of the agony that the heat had brought, he asked if he could do anything about those brazen skies, spread out like a mirror, intensifying the torrid rays of a blazing summer sun.”

 More can be said about this verse, but suffice it to say the poetic language communicated by Elihu does not establish the sky to be a solid dome.  

Our final point is Dr. Avalos’ reference to the NRSV translation of Genesis 1:16-17, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.  God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” For the aforementioned reasons, the NRSV adopts the mis-translation view of the Septuagint and thus superimposes on the text an idea that was foreign to both Moses and the people of his time. When we consider the same passage translated using the original meaning of ‘raqia’ as it reads in the NASB, “God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth,” [emphasis added] the editorial decision to impose the mythological cosmology into the text is gone and the text makes perfect scientific sense.

In Conclusion

Dr. Avalos’ selection of translations and supporting evidence is a testament to his worldview. As I stated in my opening statements of the debate, in order to understand the root of our differences one must understand that both Dr. Avalos and I have intellectual commitments to very divergent foundational presuppositions. Underlying our debate there is a big picture that accounts for our differences regarding the issue we are debating and a plethora of other issues.  

At their core—our differences stem from our beliefs about the God of the Bible. Dr. Avalos presupposes the non-existence of the God of the Bible and I presuppose His existence. As we develop our respective foundational presuppositions, we edify intellectual frameworks for our ideas and build an entire ideology or worldview that seems to us as the most reasonable way to understand reality. Nowhere is this more evident than the way we approach the Bible. Because there is no God from Dr. Avalos’ perspective—he approaches the Bible, at best, as just another book meriting no special treatment. On the other hand, because I believe there is a God and He authored the Bible, I approach it as a UNIQUE, one-of-a-kind book where God reveals himself to mankind. Because of his approach, Dr. Avalos considers the Bible to be an “ancient relic” full of errors, contradictions, and absolutely irrelevant when it comes to modern science. Because of my approach, I consider the Bible to be the INERRANT, INSPIRED Word of God that is fully reliable and ETERNALLY RELEVANT even when it comes to science.

There is no denying that Egyptian and Greek mythology had a profound impact on the world for numerous centuries. Further, there is no denying that the mis-translation of ‘raqia’ in the Septuagint had a profound impact as well. However, God was not misled by the error in translation nor was He influenced by the Egyptian and Greek mythologies when He inspired Moses to write the words of Genesis 1. The Bible does not teach the mythological cosmology that the Septuagint translators and Dr. Avalos have tried to attribute to it. Thus the apparently strong case presented by Dr. Avalos turns out to be very weak.

In response to this paper, the best Dr. Avalos could do would be to try to defend the Septuagint translation based on his “language expertise,” but I would caution the reader to just take a look at the wide variety of translations listed above and take it as a testament that hundreds of scholars that have been chosen to be on Bible translation committees for their expertise have patently disagreed with Dr. Avalos’ interpretation of the text.

  

Regarding our question, the Word of God is clear—God created the expanse of the heavens, not a solid dome with the sun, moon and stars attached to it. Nor does Genesis attempt to present that view.  Therefore, the question itself is invalid, because it is asking us to give evidence for a solid dome that is not part of our Bible or our creation model.  

 [footnotes below]

valdes avalos

For those who did not see the Avalos/Valdes Debate, view it here.

 

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1 Dr. Avalos’ presentation misquotes the RSV, “Can you, like him, hammer out the skies, hard as a molten mirror.” The phrase “hammer out” does not appear in the RSV, as per Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. There is no need to respond to this point, since it is probably a just a careless mistake.

2No scientific discovery will ever contradict God’s revelation, because true science is the study of that which God has created. God is the only one who was there in the beginning and we can trust Him when He tells us what He did and how he did it.

3 I’m well aware that this reason is completely irrelevant to someone whose worldview posits the non-existence of God.

4 Bert Thompson, Ph.D “What was firmament of Genesis 1?” https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1164   Accessed, 2/21/2014. Note: Dr. Thompson’s reference to  ‘Harris, et al., 1980, 2:2218’ is footnoted in the original article as:  Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer, Jr. and Bruce Waltke, eds. (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody).

5 Ibid.

6 Jewish Encyclopedia, “Apocalypse of Baruch” (Greek). http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2563-baruch-apocalypse-of-greek   Accessed 2/22/2014

7 Alden, R. L. (1993). Job (Vol. 11, p. 363). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

8 Please note that this paper is not meant as an attack on any of the mentioned translations of the Bible. I believe most Bible translators care and are cautious in their approach to the sacred task of translating. Nevertheless, sometimes translators make poor choices. There is no perfect translation, therefore my advice to those who cannot go back to the original languages, is to always compare various translations regarding the passage you wish to understand.

Juan Valdes

Dr. Juan Valdes is a bi-lingual speaker for Reasons for Hope (English and Spanish) and the senior pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation in Miami, Florida. He has taught Theology, Bible and Apologetics at the seminary level in both English and Spanish and speaks regularly across the country and internationally at Pastor’s Conferences, Youth Conferences, Apologetics Conferences and local church events. Juan, his wife Daisy and their children, Juan Elias and Jessica serve in multiple areas of ministry in Miami, Florida.