Daily Archives: May 12, 2009

What’s up with the firmament?

The creation story in Genesis 1 is divided into eight creative acts — light, the firmament, dry land, plants, heavenly bodies, fish and fowl, land animals, and man — and similar language is used to describe each act, a formula beginning with “And God said, Let…” and ending with “…and God saw that it was good.”

But there’s one exception to the formula. Have you ever noticed it? I’ve been reading the Bible for 20-some years now, and I never noticed it until just now — which is weird, given the way a break in a pattern usually tends to jump right out at you. Maybe it’s because it occurs so early in the sequence, before the formula has been firmly established by repetition. Take a look at the second day:

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And 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. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. (Gen. 1:6-8)

Do you see it now? That’s right, it seems that the firmament is the only thing God creates that isn’t good. Everything else is proclaimed good as soon as it is created; this is the only exception. The firmament is proclaimed good only at the very end of the story, after the creation of man, when “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). So it’s not that the firmament is bad; it just doesn’t become good until after man has been created. How’s that for a riddle? What to make of it?

One possibility is that it doesn’t mean anything at all, that somewhere along the line someone just carelessly left out part of the formula and the error has been perpetuated by scribes and copyists ever since. That’s possible, but far too boring to bother thinking about.

An only slightly less boring explanation would be that the firmament is just an expanse of empty space, and therefore God doesn’t see it and it can’t be good or bad or anything else because it simply isn’t anything. I don’t buy that. The firmament isn’t nothing, it’s air, and the ancients thought it was a solid object (hence the word “firmament”), a literal vault of heaven. Besides, verse 7 says very clearly that God made the firmament, and verse 31 says just as clearly that God saw everything he had made was good. I think we simply have to take the implications of that last verse seriously — that, though the firmament was created on the second day and had birds flying around in it on the fifth, it couldn’t serve its true function and become truly good until after human beings had been created. Why?

My first interpretation was that, humans having such nearly unlimited potential, God saw how good it was that he had created all that empty space for them in which to grow and do their thing.

That’s the feel-good humanist interpretation, but I think there’s another one that better fits the overall context of Genesis: that the main purpose of the firmament is to keep us the hell out of heaven by establishing a very, very wide gulf between the angels above and the overweening mortals below. Later, both the Flood and the confusion of tongues would be provoked by those who tried to cross that gulf — whether angels coming down and intermarrying with mortals, or mortals building a tower to ascend to heaven. The firmament, in its role as an impassable chasm, is good, and God won’t stand for it’s being breached.

This is the theme of Byron’s unfinished verse drama “Heaven and Earth,” which presents the Flood as punishment in kind. Angels and mortals having shown their contempt for the firmament by crossing it to intermarry, the Lord in effect says, “Fine, have it your way. Let’s not keep heaven and earth separate” — at which point the waters above and the waters below (which, you will recall, the firmament was created to divide) come together and the world is flooded.

So that’s my interpretation, and I’d be very interested to hear others. It’s a fascinating riddle and, despite it’s being conspicuously located right there in the first chapter of the Bible, I’ve never seen the question addressed by anyone.


Filed under Old Testament