When ancient man looked up at the sky, what he perceived was akin to what he observed when looking out over the seas—an expanse of crystal-clear blue water. This observation was confirmed of course by the very fact that it rained. For where else did rain come from if not from the waters above the sky?
Similarly, when ancient Mediterranean peoples looked toward the horizon, what they saw was that the waters above eventually came into contact with the waters of the seas, that both the blue waters above and the blue waters below touched each other at the horizons. Thus, it was observed that the waters above, that is the sky, had its starting point at the horizon where it came into contact with the waters below, and then arched far above like a dome and descended again to meet the waters below on the opposite horizon. According to these limited empirical observations then, ancient Mediterranean man, Israelites included, perceived their world as surrounded by two vast bodies of water, those above and those below, and that those waters which arched high above them like a dome were somehow held in place. This was the world which the ancient Israelites perceived and lived in. It was therefore only natural to ponder questions about its origin: How did the waters get above the sky and what holds them up there? How did they obtain their current domed shape? Where did they originate from? And what about the waters below? In short, how did this world come to be?
Genesis 1:6-8 was specifically written to answer these questions. In other words, what the god of this text is portrayed as creating is the world as it was perceived and culturally defined by ancient Israelite scribes, the world which they saw from their limited empirical observations, not the world as it actually is! This fact the text itself bears witness to.
As we have already seen in our examination of Genesis 1:1-2 and 1:3-5, the same applies here: Genesis 1:6-8 is a subjective description and explanation from the view point of its author and his culture of how the world as he perceived it, with its waters above and waters below, came into existence. It is a bottoms up approach. The author’s perspectives and culturally defined beliefs, indeed culturally-held “truths,” about the nature of his world are transferred to the god of his text who then creates the subjective world that this very author and his culture perceived and lived in. It is a creation account that matches its author’s culturally conditioned “truths” about the world. Thus we must be careful not to impose our understanding and knowledge of the world onto his text, nor try to conform his beliefs to ours. Rather we ought to strive to be honest to this ancient document and the beliefs and views of its author.
After creating daylight and separating it from primeval darkness, now night, our author then presents his god taming and separating the primeval waters. “And God said, ‘Let there be a domed barrier (raqî‘a) in the center of the waters and let it separate the waters from the waters.’”
My translation of raqî‘a as “a domed barrier” may seem alarming at first, but it is the clearest image available for expressing what the Hebrew invokes. The verb form of raqî‘a means “to beat out” or “to hammer out” and is attested with respect to hammering out metal plates or bowls (e.g., Ex 39:3; Jer 10:9), thus a domed or concaved shaped. But more specifically the domed shaped in Genesis 1:6-8 is supplied not only from the cultural worldview that our biblical author was influenced by, but it is also found in other passages from the Bible. Other references to the domed shaped raqî‘a or sky occur in Is 40:22 and Job 22:14, as well as Deut 4:32 which envisions the skies touching the earth on each end (cf. Ps 8:27-28). Furthermore, the term is explicitly used to refer to the crystal clear solid domed barrier, colored blue from the waters above, upon which the throne of Yahweh rests in Ex 24:10 and Ez 1:22, 25-26. And in support of this Job 37:18 refers to the sky as “molten glass,” thus also implying a solid texture. Likewise the primeval waters are depicted as occupying the space above the sky elsewhere (e.g., Ps 148:4), and it was because of this solid barrier’s openings that the waters above pour down and flood the earth in the Priestly writer’s flood narrative (Gen 7:11, 8:2). Indeed, rain, snow, and hail were all believed to be kept in storehouses above the raqî‘a which had “windows” to allow them in. Finally, the birds of Gen 1:20 are said to fly in front of the raqî‘a in the open air, not in the raqî‘a.
Once gain, the reason why the primordial waters needed to be separated is best explained by realizing that our author is working backwards, from what he perceives and has been culturally conditioned to believe about the nature of the world to the composition of a creation narrative that then explains the origins of the elements of his world as he perceived it through his culturally defined perspectives and beliefs. So Genesis 1:1-10 is not an account of the creation of the world in objective, scientific terms. Rather it is an account of the creation of a perception of the world as envisioned by ancient man. Since the ancient Israelites perceived and held to be true that there existed a vast body of water above the sky, held in check by the sky itself, our author therefore creates a narrative that explains the origins of these waters above the sky. In the end, the text legitimates the author’s culturally defined and subjective worldview by having God create it!
Thus in accord with his perceptions and beliefs about the world, our author next presents God making (‘asah) this solid domed barrier (raqî‘a) in the middle of the primordial waters (mayim) in order to separate out the waters which are now above it from the waters now below it, effectively conforming to our Israelite scribe’s perception of his world. Finally, the text informs us: “And God called this solid domed barrier (raqî‘a) “skies” (shamayim). And there was evening and there was morning—a second day.”
Since the Hebrew word for “skies” (sha-mayim) is composed of the letter shin () plus the word for water, mayim—always in the plural, “waters”—it is quite possible that what came to be called the skies was a combination of the solid domed firmament or raqî‘a and the waters above it. For we are informed in verse 14 that the raqî‘a, where the luminaries are to be set, was part of the skies or shamayim: “let there be lights in the firmament of the skies.” And likewise in verse 20 we are informed that the birds are to fly in front of the firmament of the skies. If the skies are both the firmament and the waters above, which seems to be what is implied here, then the skies (sha-mayim) are nothing more than half of the untamed preexisting waters (mayim) and the clear solid domed barrier, the raqî‘a, which now holds back these same waters.
Thus once again we observe that the creation account in Genesis 1 does not represent some scientific, objective, divinely-inspired account of the origins of the material world, but rather the creation of a world as perceived by ancient Israelites. It was precisely from these subjective, culturally conditioned beliefs that biblical scribes then proceeded to compose creation myths whose aim was to explain their observable world. In this instance, how did the waters above come to be formed and held in check? Genesis 1:1-8 responds by claiming that they were created through an act of separating them out from the initial watery abyss (tehôm), and holding them above the sky through the creation of a solid domed barrier.
Finally, the argument that our ancient Israelite scribe was interested in presenting was not where did matter originate from. Threatened on all sides, above and below, by the primordial waters, the Israelite scribe painted a portrait not of a creator deity who creates matter out of nothing, but of a creator deity who creates ordered life by (continuously) subduing, taming, and controlling the primordial forces and elements that existed prior to his creative act, and which still exert their force in the world. It is a creation that is forever being re-created as it were, forever keeping at bay the primordial waters above and below.
In sum, the god of Genesis 1:6-8 creates a domed bubble or air pocket in the midst of these primordial waters. According to the text, then, God creates a finite space in the midst of, and encased from all sides by, the primeval waters. This is not some outlandish theological claim that I’m making; rather, as a biblical scholar I’m reproducing the claims of the text—a text which reveals subjectively and culturally defined beliefs, attitudes, and worldviews of ancient peoples and cultures.