Genesis 1 presents us with many challenging ideas but verses 6-8 may be the most challenging.
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. (NIV)
I’ve written one post on how John Calvin understood these verses. Here’s how I introduced and taught this passage to 9th graders.
Christians and Jews believe Genesis is a part of God’s Word. A human wrote it (traditionally attributed to Moses), but God inspired that human to write it. Now, if God is going to effectively communicate with humans, he will need to accommodate to human limitations. When we accommodate someone, we make room for them in our home. So by accommodate I mean that God will need to make room for our lack of knowledge and lack of ability to understand.
Q: Have you ever accommodated to someone else in the way you explained something? How so?
Now, you will be taking on roles with the person next to you. One of you will be a five-year-old and the other will be their actual age. And then you will reverse roles. I’m going to have you explain something to the five-year-old.
Here’s the question you need to answer: Where do babies come from? (Remember your questioner is only five.)
Here’s another question: Where does rain come from?
Q: How does an adult communicate with a baby?
Yes, sometimes adults talk normally, but other times they talk in a different language known as “baby talk.” Some biblical scholars have used that analogy to explain how God communicates with us in the Bible. The intellectual distance between an adult and a baby is nothing compared to the distance between God and us. So if God is going to communicate effectively with us, he will have to condescend or accommodate to our level and not only to our level but to the level of an ancient audience.
Introducing Genesis 1:6-8
These are difficult verses to understand for two reasons:
1.) the translation of the Hebrew word raqi’a is disputed
2.) the fact that we don’t believe waters above exist as the verses state.
Dome or Space?
First, the translation of the Hebrew word raqi’a is controversial and that can be seen by comparing English translations. On the one hand, certain translations use a word that indicates an opening of space rather than something solid. For example,
- “expanse” (NASB, ESV, NET, HCSB),
- “space” (NLT),
- “huge space” (NIRV), and
- “horizon” (GW).
On the other hand, other translations use words that indicate something solid, such as
- “firmament” (NKJV, RSV),
- “dome” (NRSV, CEB),
- “vault” (NIV), and
- “canopy” (ISV).
In support of the translation “dome” we have other references in the Old Testament and other ancient literature that suggest ancient people viewed the sky as a solid dome with heavenly lights embedded in it and which when opened caused rain to pour down on earth. For example, “Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies” (Ps. 148:4). Obviously, this view would create a problem for those who believe everything in Genesis 1 happened exactly as it is stated because we know that a solid dome doesn’t exist in the atmosphere or in outer space.
Others argue that while ancient people referred to the sky as a solid dome they knew better. That was just one of their figures of speech, just like we refer to sunrise or sunset, but we know that the sun doesn’t actually rise or set. Perhaps it was even their way of speaking poetically. Therefore, the translation “expanse” or “space” is more accurate to what the ancients really believed even though they used a figure of speech that may suggest otherwise. Along these lines, some identify the raqi’a with the troposphere—the layer above the ocean where clouds form. Obviously, there’s no way for us to get inside an ancient person’s brain to know what they really thought, but we do know that they had to understand the world without modern scientific tools.
Be Nice to Old People—Really Old People
Q: What modern tools and technology do we have that ancient people did not have?
Ancient people had to understand the world with their bare eyes only. They didn’t have telescopes, radar, cameras, satellites, planes, or rockets.
(Draw a timeline on the board showing a person today who sees the physical world through the filter of the Enlightenment which occurred in the 1600s and looking back at a person in 1000 BC who is looking up at the moon and stars with their bare eyes.)
Waters above the Heavens
Second, these verses are difficult because they distinguish waters under the raqi’a from waters above the raqi’a. But today we don’t think of water as being above the expanse or sky. However, from an ancient and uneducated person’s point of view it would seem like waters descended from some place above the raqi’a.
While some claim that the waters above refer to water vapor or clouds (e.g. John Calvin), there are two challenges with that view. First, the same word—”waters” (Heb. mayim)—is used for what is above and below the raqi’a making it difficult, though not impossible, to argue that one is a different form than the other (e.g., vapor vs. liquid). In addition, mayim is not the typical Hebrew word used for clouds in the Old Testament. Second, the text refers to “water above” the raqi’a” causing us to think of waters somewhere above the dome-like sky and not merely in the sky. And since God sets the two great lights—sun and moon—in the raqi’a (vv. 14-17), the waters above the raqi’a must be somewhere above the two great lights. So putting together the uses of raqi’a in Genesis 1 gives us the following: the raqi’a contains the sun and moon and water exists above the raqi’a. But water doesn’t exist up there, or does it?
Those challenges lead some to conclude that we cannot use Genesis 1 to give us an accurate scientific view of the universe. However, astronomers have recently discovered an enormous amount of water, 140 trillion times larger than all the water in the world’s oceans, 12 billion light-years away. And we know that water vapor exists in the Milky Way galaxy, so perhaps the reference to water on the second day can be supported by modern-day science.
While some believe the description of day two shows that God accommodated his message to a level that his ancient audience would understand, and therefore, it is not scientifically accurate, others believe the details of day two are supported by modern science.
Finally, we need to remember to ask, what is the primary point being conveyed in these verses? While the primary point is not always easy to determine, the simple assertion seems to be this: God made the sky (see v. 8). If the point was simply to convey to ancient people that God placed the big blue canopy-like structure over their heads, then modern, scientifically-informed believers can fully agree with it.
(I have used information from Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation in my explanation.)
 See Hugh Ross, Navigating Genesis: A Scientists Journey through Genesis 1-11, 2014.
 Matthews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1–11:26: The New American Commentary: Vol. 1A (Broadman & Holman, 2001), 150.
 Whitney Clavin and Alan Buis, “Astronomers Find Largest, Most Distant Reservoir of Water,” NASA, accessed June 26, 2017, https://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/universe20110722.html.