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The Cracking Dome of Heaven

July 22, 2013

It is not uncommon to run across the claim that the world of the Old Testament is a world in which earth rests on a vast, primordial ocean and under another vast ocean held back by the dome of the sky. The main reason this argument is given weight is that it proposes that ancient Hebrews had the same cosmology as their neighbors, something that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. The evidence within the Bible for this belief is tied to wording like the “expanse of heaven” mentioned in Genesis 1 which is a רקיע, a thing that has had רקע done to it and that crucial verb seems to mean to hammer or stamp out a flat sheet. Moreover, this expanse or sheet separates water from water. Job 37:18 even speaks of the sky as being strong (although strong as a molten mirror, something that would not be strong at all). Wording like that of Genesis 7:11 (“the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens”) also seem to indicate a world in which water can burst in through either side. 2 Chronicles 6:26 and 7:13 both speak of “shutting up the heavens so there is no rain” as if the heavens contained doors that rain could fall through.

This idea can be tested rather thoroughly. When it is tested it also fails dramatically. It is important to briefly note that in Hebrew “heaven”, “heavens”, and “sky” are all the same word.

First, the evidence provided is not up to the task. Some of it is simply nonsense – Amos 9:6 is sometimes brought up because it mentions the dome of heaven in some translations but the crucial word is hard to translate. Much of the evidence is poetry (anything from Job for instance) and who knows whether that imagery can be taken a serious cosmology? More importantly, we can make up other theories that are equally well supported but contradictory. For instance, Job 26:11 mentions the pillars of heaven which might fit with this general view of heaven as a hard sheet holding back water but Job 38:37 talks about water jars in heaven. Is that supposed to be taken literally? Phrases like “stretched out the heavens” (e.g. Psalm 104:2) seem to indicate that heaven is more like cloth than a hard, hammered sheet. Job 22:14 indicates that heaven is a circle but Jeremiah 49:36 indicates that it has four ends. Psalm 103:11 could be taken to mean that heaven has a fixed height but the tower of Babylon reaches into heaven as if it is a zone and not an object (Genesis 11:4). If one is to seriously suggest that the Old Testament supports a cosmology in which heaven is a solid dome one must do some serious and arbitrary cherry-picking where some poetic verses and possible metaphors are literal descriptions of the universe and others are just poetic license.

There’s also a problem with language that directly contradicts elements of the “dome of heaven” story. Aside from the story of Noah it does not appear that the heavens opening causes rain. Instead (Malachi 3:10, Ezekiel 1:1, Isaiah 64:1) it opens human experience to God’s realm. Genesis 1 is the only place where there is any clear suggestion that there is water above the heavens and Genesis 7 is the only vague suggestion of the same. Instead, the Old Testament seems to be quite clear on the fact that clouds cause rain. Judges 5:4 depicts rain pouring from clouds. 2 Samuel 22:12, Psalm 18:11, and Proverbs 16:15 refer to rain clouds. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah first declares a drought and then an end to drought. The end to the drought is as dramatic as its beginning with a tiny cloud rising above the sea and then rapidly expanding to bring a downpour. Psalm 135:7 and 147:8 link clouds and rain as well. Proverbs 25:14 speaks of the false promise of clouds with no rain. Ecclesiastes 11:3 specifically states that clouds can be full of water which causes them to rain. Isaiah 45:8, Jeremiah 10:13, and Jeremiah 51:16 all link God’s provision of rain with His creation of clouds. This is not just language of leaks in the dome of heaven create clouds and rain. Job 26:8, 36:28, and 37:11 speak of clouds bringing rain and containing water. This is despite the Hebrew understanding that clouds are not solid objects – like English one can speak of a cloud of smoke or dust in Hebrew.

There are other issues with the dome of heaven cosmology. The stars are never said to be attached to heaven (they are always “of heaven”) and one can speak of going higher than the stars (Isaiah 14:13). Leviticus 26:19 contains a curse that the heavens will become like iron. This is great imagery but if the sky is a hard dome of metal or a metal-like substance it’s not new imagery. The heavens should already be hard as iron. As already mentioned there are also contradictory statements about whether heaven has a height or is a zone.

The best way to save these claims (seriously) is to say that the dome of heaven applies only to early Genesis – Creation to Flood. There is good reason to make this claim. The Old Testament covers a large span of time and cosmology can change over that time. Three books of the Bible mention the four winds of heaven (once associated with four corners of heaven). These three books (Zechariah, Daniel, and Ezekiel) can very plausibly be thought to represent a new idea in Hebrew cosmology (or a new turn of phrase) that first appears in Ezekiel and is used as well in the later books of Daniel and Zechariah. Moreover, some of the dome-of-heaven language of Genesis does not appear later. In Genesis 1 birds fly “upon the face of” the expanse of heaven. In Deuteronomy 4:17 they just fly in heaven.

The primary issue of claiming that the dome of heaven applies to early Genesis is that early Genesis is (I think rather clearly) in dialogue with Mesopotamian myth. Much of this dialogue seems to be hostile – a full-scale assault on Mesopotamian ideals. The presence of what appears to be Mesopotamian cosmology might be part of this literary dialogue and not a reflection of Hebrew ideas about the actual physical nature of the cosmos.

The fact that this dome-of-heaven idea gains as much traction as it has looks to me to be largely due to two factors. First, there’s not a great deal of evidence but people want to make conclusions anyway. Moreover, they want clean conclusions – “The Old Testament follows this cosmology” not “parts of Genesis may endorse (or may mock) this cosmology but this exists before or alongside other ideas which may not be integrated into a complete picture”. I find it highly likely that rural agrarians grasped a number of observable facts about the workings of the weather, stars, sun, and moon that were not clearly integrated into a single whole. Second, there’s a modern idea of the march of progress in which ancient people are stupid and modern people are smarter and all ideas progress from the very stupid to the much more intelligent. The march of progress tends to be hostile towards religion and so the opportunity to tell a story about stupid ancient people who are considered religious authorities is pretty much guaranteed to be taken.

In short, I see no reason to believe that there is much weight to the claim that ancient Hebrews (especially all ancient Hebrews) believed in a dome of heaven cosmology. However, and perhaps more importantly, I don’t think this is even a particularly important point to worry about. Much of the Old Testament is about God slowly leading His people away from their previous ideas. If He leads them away from bad cosmology as well that’s actually less disturbing than most of the other errors He had to correct. As a simple example, I think there is strong reason to believe that most of the Old Testament shows no belief in any sort of happy afterlife but I am not particularly bothered by this. Arguments over where rain comes from and what the substance of the sky is or isn’t seem decidedly less important.

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