By John T. Stevenson
"Then God said, 'Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.'" (Genesis 1:6).
The old King James Version translated the Hebrew RAKIYA' with the English "Firmament." New American Standard Version replaces it with "expanse." I had thought the question long since settled in favor of the NAS translation until I cam across an article in an old issue Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 1985, page 15 is actually a book review) which stated that the Hebrew root of the word refers to something hammered out in metal.
RAKIYA' is used 17 times in the Old Testament - most of those instances taking place in the first chapter of Genesis. Before looking at the other instances, let us look first of all at its use in this chapter. RAKIYA' is defined in verse 8 when "God called the RAKIYA' heaven" (note that the Hebrew is plural; "Heavens"). This seems to be further explained in verse 20 where God says, "...let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens" (It literally reads "...upon the face of the RAKIYA' of the heavens"). A summary of the RAKIYA' is given in the following observations:
Any attempt to assign a specific meaning to RAKIYA' such as "atmosphere" or "outer space" is doomed to frustration when we consider all of these observations. The problem is that we are inclined to try to read in a 20th century interpretation into an ancient Semitic text. To understand it will not be difficult if we put ourselves into the shoes (or sandals) of the early Hebrew.
He is not attempting to describe precise scientific phenomenon. Rather, he is describing the word from his own vantage point. Have you ever gone out at night and looked into the sky? What did you see? Could you tell by looking where the atmosphere and the clouds ended and where "outer space" began? No!!! All you could see was the distinction between "down here" and "up there." That is how the Hebrews described things. I am not saying that they were in scientific error, any more than you are in scientific error when you speak of the sun rising and setting.
Psalm 19:1 and 150:1 give us little help in further determining the nature of this firmament. Ezekiel also mentions the Rakiya'. In his first chapter, the prophet describes a vision of the throne of God. In this vision, it is the RAKIYA' which separates the throne of God from the 4 Living Beings. In spite of the vividness of this description, the RAKIYA' itself is not described.
Up to this point, there is not a lot of help found in the actual uses of the word within the Old Testament. However, when we look to the root word, there is a possible clue. The root is RAKA' (only the yodh is missing). It seems that this word can carry a double meaning. On the one had, it can refer to that which is spread out (Job 37:18; Psalm 136:6; Isaiah 42:5). On the other hand, it is used to describe the act of stamping the foot (Ezekiel 6:11; 25:5) or even stomping of the enemies of the Lord (I Samuel 22:43). When used in the intensive stems (pi'el & pu'al), it takes on the idea of beating out precious metals, spreading them out over a wide area.
Thus, we are left with a picture of God as the Creator, spreading out the expanse of heaven, carefully placing each of the heavenly bodies in the dome of the sky, all designed to be seen from the earth below and to bear witness of His majesty and might. When you go out it night and look at the velvet dome of the sky above, consider the hosts of heaven and remember that it was God who set all of this in place.