Science in Christian Perspective
The Metallic Sky: A Travesty of Modern PseudoScholarship
Gleason L. Archer
Council, International Council on Biblical Inerrancy
Oakland, California 94661
From: JASA 31 (December 1979): 220-221.
In the March 1968 issue of the Journal of the American Scien tific Affiliation appears an article entitled "Three-Storied Universe" by Paul Seely that presents such a distorted caricature of the Old Testament view of the universe that it calls for a new look at all of the pertinent evidence and an intelligent effort to understand what the Hebrew authors were saying by the terms they used in regard to celestial phenomena. The author of this article has diligently researched the Brown-Driver-Briggs article on raqia' (firmament, expanse) and then extrapolated from its utterly misleading etymologism to spin a fantastic theory that forces all of the biblical references to the heavenly bodies and the meteoric phenomena into a mold of blatant absurdity. No ancient Hebrew could ever imagine that an intelligent adult of the modern age would have concocted such a tissue of absurdities as are presented in this article and seriously believe what Paul Seely claims they believed.
Admittedly the lexicon referred to is usually quite trustworthy in most of its definitions, and it is perhaps excusable if a layman with scant acquaintance with Hebrew or knowledge of the comparative literature of the Ancient Near East might have accepted this scholarly absurdity as proven fact. But after thirty-five years of careful study of the Hebrew Bible and of the cognate languages of the Fertile Crescent, I feel I must raise an energetic protest against such a palpable travesty of scholarship and say a word in defense of the intelligence and rationality of the inspired authors of Holy Scripture. Even apart from the question of biblical trustworthiness and reliability-which "Three-Storied Universe" seems to discard with utter scorn-I feel that for the cause of true objectivity in the interpretation of ancient literature I am under obligation to set the record straight.
Seely affirms, first of all, that the Bible "assumes that the universe consists of three stories. The top story consists of a hard firmament which serves to divide a part of the primeval ocean from the other part of that ocean which is on the earth. The middle story, the earth, is where flesh and blood men live. The bottom story, Sheol, is where the souls of the departed live."
As for that middle story, I venture to guess that even Seely believes in its existence, since that is the plane on which he is now living. As far as the whereabouts of the souls of the dead are concerned, I agree that the Bible teaches that the souls of the damned descend to the depths below. I am not sore where Seely feels they go, or where they are now to be found. Up in heaven, perhaps? Or floating around as invisible ghosts here on what he calls "the middle story"? Apparently he disapproves of their going downward. That is his privilege, but in this case a personal preference falls short of objective, scientific proof that Holy Scripture is altogether mistaken on this score. The inspired Apostle John relates to us in Revelation 20:13 the vision Christ gave him concerning the last judgment of the great white throne: "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works." A few verses earlier we read that "The devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night forever and ever." The earlier part of this chapter indicates that prior to his final judgment Satan had been cast "into the bottomless pit"which sounds quite definitely subterranean. It would seem to be a reasonable demand to make of Seely that he adduce his superior source of inspiration that puts him on a better level than the Apostle John, who simply recorded what the risen Christ had revealed to him.
So much for the "middle story" and the "bottom story--to use Seely's quaint (but quite unbiblical) terminology. We now come to the top storey (as I prefer to spell it, lest the term be confused with the other kind-a a fairy story). On the other hand, that might not be altogether inappropriate, since the theory of a metallic sky belongs to the genre of fairy story. Let us first of all examine the Brown-DriverBriggs article, which started all the mischief, and subject it to a careful critique. It reads: "Raqia'-extended surface, (solid) expanse (as if beaten out, cf. Job 37:18)." After citing the Greek and Latin equivalents in the Septuagint and Vulgate it differentiates two meanings as follows: "1. (flat) expanse (as if of ice, cf. ke'eyn haqqerah-which would mean "like the appearance of crustal," or possibly "ice") as base support." The second definition is: "2. the vault of heaven, or 'firmament', regarded by the Hebrews as solid, and supporting 'waters' above it, Gen. 1:6,7,8." Here we have a grotesque notion, entertained by no other culture of the Ancient Near Fast-whether Egyptian or Mesopotamian or Syrian-and never proposed by any literature or culture of more recent times, as far as this writer is aware. The Egyptians regarded the sky as composed of the body of the goddess Nut, who is sometimes represented as supporting herself by her long arms and legs as she holds her body in an arched position over the surface of the earth. So far as the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians are concerned, there is never a hint or suggestion of any sort concerning a metallic-plate sky. The same is true of the religious literature of Ugarit, dating back to the time of Moses.
The grounds for deducing this absurd notion are found in the etymology of the root from which raqia' is derived. The related verb raqa' means, according to B.D.B., "beat, stamp, beat out, spread out." In the subsequent discussion of its usage in the qal stem we read: "2 Sam. 22:43-I will stamp them down. . .Ezck. 6:11-beat (stamp) with thy foot, in token of contemptuous pleasure. Participle active, as a substantive in the construct state: roqa' ha'eres-he that (beateth out) spreadeth out the earth; likewise in Is. 44:24 and Ps. 136:6. "Then it gives the following for the one occurrence in the hiphil stem: tarqia' 'immow lishehaqim (Job 37:18) canst thou make with (: like) him a spreading for clouds (spread out clouds; cf. raqia?"
Now it should be observed that this type of interpretation violates proper lexical procedure. It is true enough that the verb raqa; originally meant, and often does mean, "stamp down, beat out" as into thin metal plates. In the piel stem it is used of a goldsmith overlaying a wooden idol with gold plating. However it should also be observed that words are not necessarily confined to their original root meaning. Take our English word "beat." True enough, it primarily means "hit" or "strike." But when a person exclaims at the end of a long and exhausting day, "Boy, do I feel beat!", he does not necessarily mean that he has been subjected to a thorough drubbing with sticks or stones. So also in the case of raqa', there is a figurative meaning which has nothing whatever to do with beating or stamping out a metallic plate, and that is "stretch out" or "extend." This occurs in contexts in which no hammer action is involved, such as Is. 42:5: "Thus says the God Yahweh, the Creator of the heavens, and the one who stretched them out (the verb here is netah, which is often used of extending curtains or tents), the one who extended (roqa') the earth and that which it produces (the noun se'ese' refers to the plants and animals that grow in earth)." B.D.B. absurdly suggests that raqa' here is tantamount to, or suggestive of, beating out. But if God had beaten out the animals and plants growing on the earth, there would not have been much left of them except pulverized fragments. This, therefore, is a completely unjustified attempt so force a doctrinnaire, stereotyped interpretation upon a context which will not admit of it. Or again, take the citation in Psalm t36:6, which offers praise "to Him who stretched out (roqa') the earth above/upon the waters." It is perfectly evident that if God had beaten out or stamped out the earth upon the waters, there would have been a very great splashing to muddy up the scene! No, quite obviously this usage implies extending out, without any reference to stamping with hammer or foot. Both Aramaic and Syriae preserve the same derived meaning ("extenders," "ausbreiten") in their use of this root. In Jastrows Dictionary of Post-Biblical Hebrew the only meaning he cites is "stretch, spread' '-without any reference to beating or stamping. And as far as the Isaianic usage is concerned, it is highly significant that in 40:22, where Isaiah expounds the same sentiment as those previously cited, he glorifies Yahweh as "the one who sits above the circle of the earth. who stretches out (noteh-the same synonymn as in 42:5) the heavens like a cloud (doq), and spreads them out (match) like a tent for a dwelling." Quite clearly the prophet thought of God's stretching out the sky in the form of a cloudbank or a garment, without any connotation of metallic plating. That effectively disposes of the whole notion of a metallic sky, and undercuts Seely's entire argument.
A more comprehensive examination of the biblical reference to meteoric phenomena would surely have alerted Seely to the unfeasibility of the theory of a metallic sky. Raqi' simply means "expanse," without any connotations of solidity; it is properly rendered that way in the New American Standard and in the New International Version. Psalm 19:5 speaks of the sun as resembling a bridegroom coming out of his marriage chamber, rejoicing like a strong man to run a race. On the metallic sky theory, alas, he would have to run it upside down, or else he would not be visible to us earthlings at all! Nor is there any suggestion of a metallic heaven in the language of Job 36:27-28: "For He draws up the drops of water,/They distill rain from the mist,/Which the clouds pour down,/They drip upon man abundantly." Seely suggests that the biblical writers accounted for rain by supposing there were windows or cracks in their metallic sky, allowing the superterrestrial ocean to gush down through to earth. The opening of the windows of heaven are poetically referred to in describing the Deluge of Noah (Gen. 7:11), or figuratively of the blessing of an abundant crop resulting from generous rainfall (Mal. 3:10), but no Hebrew would ever have supposed that literal windows were opening in a metallic vault-any more than we would take it literally if we were told, "It really rained buckets yesterday," or, "Boy, it's raining eats and dogs outside." Let us urge upon Seely that the Hebrews had fully as much right to the use of figurative language as we do. And that in the light of Job 36:27-28 they had their facts straight in regard to the precipitation cycle-quite as straight as we enlightened Americans of the 20th century!