From John Ray's shorter notes

March 26, 2017

The puzzle of Genesis 1:6-9

In my recent comments on Genesis chapter 1, I suggested that chapter 1 was not an original part of the Torah and should be recognized as deuterocanonical (apocryphal).  I did however add the rider that what Genesis 1 had to relate was probably based on something relatively ancient, such as a myth or oral tradition.

And I think Genesis 1:6-9 fairly reliably identifies part of what that source was.  It goes right back to the theology of ancient Sumer -- the first known human civilization, situated in what is now Southern Iraq.

Here is what 1:6-9 says in the New International Version:

"And God said, "Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water. So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning--the second day. And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so."

Wha?  Was the Genesis writer saying that there was a body of water ABOVE the sky as well as on the surface of the earth?  That is an extraordinary idea by modern scientific standards but it is precisely what the Sumerians believed.  The rains came down from above, didn't they?  So there must be another body of water way up above that the rains came from.  It was a fairly reasonable deduction given their complete ignorance of modern science.

There is nothing else in Genesis 1 that is starkly contrary to what we know today -- though it's a bit odd that birds were created before land animals.  It is more or less common sense and could have been made up by anyone.  But 6-9 is very distinctive and clearly of Sumerian and later of Babylonian origin.  The Babylonians borrowed a lot from Sumer, including the 7-day week.

The Sumerians and other early civilizations also had their own creation myths but there is absolutely no similarity to Genesis 1 in any of them.  It would seem, therefore, that the 7 day account of creation is mainly of ancient Israelite origin with Sumerian "wisdom" added in to give it authority.

Genesis 1 does read in a very orderly way so I surmise that it was in fact the work of one man.  When it was originally written is completely unknown. But its allusion to Sumerian/Babylonian thought could make it quite ancient.  Textual criticism does however enable us to trace the version that appears in the Bible to about the third century BC --JR.

UPDATE: That pesky word "Firmament"

Where the NIV above uses "vault", most early translations use "firmament", which is a rather old-fashioned word meaning "sky/heaven/atmosphere". That ambiguity does tend to mask the meaning of the passsage to modern eyes. The word used by the NIV does add clarity.

The New English Version also says "vault" and the English Standard version says "expanse". It is however clear that what is being referred to is the sky, or what we in modern times might call the atmosphere.

The Common English Bible obscures the picture a bit, however. It says: "God said let there be a dome in the middle of the waters separating the waters from each other. God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome". The invention of a dome is a bit confusing but it presumably refers to how the sky is seen -- as a dome above us.

Perhaps of greatest interest, however, is the rendition given in the Septuagint (LXX) -- an early (c. 200 BC) translation of the OT into Greek. Its translation of the Torah is clearly very early and modern scholars put it on the same footing as the Hebrew version. They regard it as based on a very early version of the Hebrew -- before the current Masoretic text. So it is as authoritative as any Hebrew version. And the Septuagint is pretty plain about our matter. In the authoritative Brenton translation it reads:

6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water, and let it be a division between water and water, and it was so. 7 And God made the firmament, and God divided between the water which was under the firmament and the water which was above the firmament. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven, and God saw that it was good"

So the Septuagint virtually DEFINES "firmament" as the sky and says that it had bodies of water both above and below it. So it is clearly the Sumerian cosmology that was being referred to.

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