There is a popular notion now among some evangelical scholars that the Hebrews thought heaven was a huge, hard, fixed vault that no one could pierce through. After all, Genesis 1:6 describes the heavens as a “vault” (Heb. raqia). The Septuagint translators used the word stereoma, meaning “something fixed, firmament.”
But what kind of vault did the Hebrews mean? Every Hebrew shepherd watched that fixed vault (or at least everything in it) move every night. They also watched some of its lights move left, but later rightward in the heaven. They likewise noticed that the moon appeared at different spots among the stars as the weeks went by. What else was there to do outside in the dark?
No, of course they did not know that there are nine planets circling our sun, or that the sun is nine light minutes from the earth, or that we reside in the Milky Way galaxy. My guess is that they concluded by observation that the sun moves around the earth. But we should never be taken with the idea that the Hebrews were completely primitive about the sky. 1000 years after Moses, Aristotle explained the heavens as being a spherical vault, inside of which sun, moon and stars moved. The space in between was filled with ether. 2000 years after Aristotle, Einstein described the universe as bounded and filled with ether. Essentially, though refined, the concept of the universe has not changed much from Moses’ day to ours.
The Hebrew word raqia can also take the meaning “expanse” (the primary meaning, according to BDB). And that is precisely how the rest of the Old Testament describes the heavens. In 16 places the Bible says that God “stretched out” the heavens (Heb. natah), now measured at 13-14 billion light years across. To make the point more clear, the OT says that God stretched out the heavens “like a curtain” (Is. 40:22), or “like a tent” (Ps. 104:2). So much for the cast iron dome of the theologians.
In the 1920s, astronomers began noticing that there is a “red-shift” in stars and galaxies, indicating that everything in space is moving away from everything else. The “red-shift,” however it is explained, is a fixed phenomenon of the universe. How about that: the Bible presents the concept of the heavens “stretched out” 3000 years before anyone noticed it through the telescope.
Some scientists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, have sought to limit the explanation of things to science and the explanation of faith to religion. Theologians have ways of picking up on views of people like Gould as they exegete Scripture. For example, some evangelical theologians tell us that Genesis 1 has nothing to do with history. It is science that tells us the “what” and “how” of creation. Genesis tells us only the “why.”
But read Genesis 1 in Hebrew, or any other language. It is all about “what,” “how,” and even “when.” Did you ever notice that in Genesis 1 there is not the least mention of “why” God was making the heavens, the earth, and all of life (with the exception of verse 14)? God saves that explanation for later in the Prophets. After all, what good are explanations of why something happened, when you aren’t even sure what happened?
Actually, the Bible never really tells us why God created the universe as a dwelling place for humans. But Genesis 1:6-8 offers a wonderful, profound truth for believers and unbelievers alike. For when the later writers of Scripture take up the theme of the stretched-out heavens, they also reveal theological lessons which are tied to the creation of the universe. Note three examples.
In Jeremiah 10:12, “[God] has stretched out the heavens at his discretion” occurs in a prophecy about false gods. God created the sun, moon, and stars “for signs and for seasons and for days and for years.” (Gen. 1:14). The religions of the people surrounding Israel regarded the sun, moon, and stars as providing these and more. The lights of heaven, they believed, also told the fate of nations and kings. Through Jeremiah, God tells us what the fate of these religions, their gods, and their beliefs will be: “The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under these heavens.” (10:10). Believers in Jesus Christ are often confronted with the challenge, “What about the other religions? Why aren’t they just as legitimate as yours? Samuel Huntington has pointed out that religions continue to have a profound importance for the cultures of the world, and that they are not going to go away any time soon, if ever (The Clash of Civilizations, 246-298). But with a statement just as resounding and relevant today as it must have seemed in Jeremiah’s day, God tells His people all other religions will one day be swept clean from the earth. The God who stretched out the heavens has the sovereign right to demand worship for Himself alone. That should give us confidence that we are on the right way, no matter how much others tell us we are intolerably exclusive.
Psalm 19: 1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.” It is a largely unknown fact about Voltaire, one of the greatest foes of Christianity in all of history, that he had no problem affirming this verse of the Bible. Believing the universe was marvelously created by God, he likewise taught that God dismissed Himself from the earth and let it run on its own. Precisely this idea from Voltaire has had significant impact on the people of the western world for over 200 years. David had quite a different view. He coupled the truth that God created the heavens with another that God wrote His law for man, and that this law has a personal impact. Then David concludes: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer.” (v.14)
In the 21st century, evangelicals of whatever stripe are prone to not take their words and thoughts before God so seriously. After all, we live under grace. We can’t be forever worried about saying bad things. But the Bible takes words and thoughts seriously from its beginning to its end. And here in the middle of the Bible we have an admonition in the form of a prayer. Just as no creature is hid from the light of the sun (v.6), so no thought or word is hidden from God. Sinners, even redeemed sinners, need God’s grace—not to “get over it” about sins, but so that they will think and speak what is right. This is the believer’s timeless plea. Think about it for a moment: what is it that we would want one so supremely glorious and powerful to hear from us?
Few chapters of the Bible express the might, the majesty, and the grandeur of God the creator like Isaiah 40 does. In verse 22 of this chapter Isaiah says, “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.” In this chapter we also find the well-known words: “But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (v.31) If God can stretch out heaven so that it is 14 billion light years across, He is indescribably strong. Like David, Isaiah declares that the great God who created the universe is deeply interested in people, particularly His children (in spite of our minuscule size). Not only is He strong, He also gives His strength to those who trust in Him, who wait on Him. Thus, they hold up in circumstances that would crush others.
An older couple I know has lost children and grandchildren to disease, has raised a Down Syndrome child and has suffered personal health problems—yet they continue to serve the Lord joyfully day after day. Have they been sorrowful? Of course. But their enjoyment of life and readiness to put themselves into God’s tasks far outstrips any complaint one might hear from them. Like Jacob, they say, “I have waited for your salvation O LORD.” They are still waiting. If God has the power to stretch out the heavens, He has more than enough strength to share with me when life demands more power than I possess. The next time I watch God’s unusual strength in other believers, I will try to relate it to God’s enormous power of stretching out the heavens; then perhaps I will think, “no wonder my brother is flourishing!”
I have related three lessons in the Bible from the fact that God created the heavens and stretched them out to form a great universe. Each of these could give us meditation for a whole week. There are at least 14 more. When we contemplate how much this God wants to have a daily impact in each of our lives, and the fact that He loved us enough to let His Son die for us, it is profoundly moving. Sometimes we separate the physical from the spiritual in the Bible a little too much. Instead, we ought to let God cite His creative work, and afterward let Him teach us lessons for our spiritual lives.