What Is the Firmament in the Bible? (Genesis 1 Meaning)

The firmament is mentioned in Genesis as part of the origin story of God creating the heavens and the earth. Discover the form, meaning, and significance of the firmament as we look at the Bible and artwork through history.

Updated May 17, 2024
What Is the Firmament in the Bible? (Genesis 1 Meaning)

The firmament, as defined, is the celestial arch or vault separating the earthly domain from what lies beyond. Dictionaries describe it as the sky's arch or vault. In the Bible, it is called the "firmamentum" in the Vulgate, translated from Hebrew as "raki'a" or "raqia," meaning "expansion." The biblical language depicts it as a solid expanse above us, dividing the waters above from those below.

Then God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." Thus 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..." (Genesis 1:6-8 NKJV).

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)

Table of Contents

Firmament Definition

The definition of the firmament can be essentially summarized as the arch or vault over the earth and sky that separates the earthly realm from what is beyond.

Merriam-Webster defines the firmament as “the vault or arch of the sky; heavens.”

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, from the Vulgate firmamentum, which is used as the translation of the Hebrew raki'a, or raqia. This word means simply "expansion." It denotes the space or expanse like an arch appearing immediately above us. They who rendered raki'a by firmamentum regarded it as a solid body. 

The language of Scripture is not scientific but popular, and hence we read of the sun rising and setting, and also here the use of this particular word. It is plain that it was used to denote solidity and expansion. It formed a division between the waters above and the waters below (Genesis 1:7). The raki'a supported the upper reservoir (Psalms 148:4). It was the support also of the heavenly bodies (Genesis 1:14) and is spoken of as having "windows" and "doors" (Genesis 7:11; Isaiah 24:18; Malachi 3:10) through which the rain and snow might descend.

The Firmament in the Bible

The “firmament” is mentioned 15 times in the King James Version of the Bible and refers to the expanse of the heavens above the earth.

In the story of creation, as found in Genesis, God formed the firmament to divide the "waters above" the earth from the "waters below" the earth. As part of the cosmic design, the firmament is the formation above the atmosphere of Earth, understood as an immense stable arch. According to Genesis 1:8, God called the firmament Heaven, giving it significance beyond just the border between the earth and beyond.

According to biblical cosmology, the firmament, seen as the sky from Earth, is essentially a fixed upside-down container over the Earth, colored blue from the heavenly waters above it. The water for rain, snow, hail, etc., was stored outside the raki’a, which had "windows" to release them onto the earth. Genesis 7:11 mentions these windows, stating, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.”

In the Psalms, we find firmament used also: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:1). Again, in Psalm 150:1, “Praise ye the LORD...Praise him in the firmament of his power.”

In Ezekiel, it appears five times, and each occurrence is within a vision. For instance, in Ezekiel 10:1, it is written, "Then I looked, and behold, in the firmament that was above the head of the cherubim there appeared over them as it were a sapphire stone, as the appearance of the likeness of a throne."

Daniel 12:3 says, “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”

Drawings of the Firmament

Throughout history, many people have attempted to interpret the firmament's visualization through artwork. While each is distinct, they share a similar overview of the firmament’s place and meaning in the cosmos.

Above is a diagram representing features in the early Hebrew conception of the Universe. Ralph V. Chamberlin. "The Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe." The White and Blue. Vol XIII no. 11, Dec. 24 1909. pp. 84-88

The Flammarion engraving is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion's L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image above depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, depicted as if it were a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to "A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet..."

Firmament Scripture Quotes

"To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." Psalm 19:1

"And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years," Genesis 1:14

"Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?" Job 37:18 

"And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day." Genesis 1:6-8 

"He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved." Psalm 104:5

"Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!" Psalm 148:4

"And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever." Daniel 12:3

"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 like a tent to dwell in;" Isaiah 40:22

Interpretations of the Firmament

From a Christian perspective, the scientific interpretations of the firmament can be viewed in various ways, reflecting the diversity within Christian thought on reconciling scripture with modern science.

Literal Interpretation: Some Christians might adhere to a more literal interpretation of the Bible, viewing the firmament as a solid dome-like structure that physically exists, as described in Genesis. This view often sees the firmament as a real, tangible boundary between the waters above and the waters below the earth. Advocates of this perspective may consider modern scientific views as either complementary to or in conflict with their understanding of the biblical text.

Metaphorical Interpretation: Many Christians interpret the firmament metaphorically, understanding it as part of the poetic and symbolic language used in the Bible to describe the mysteries of God's creation. They might view the firmament not as a physical structure but as a way of expressing the vastness and majesty of God's creative power. This view is more accommodating of contemporary scientific understandings of the atmosphere and space.

Historical Contextualization: Another approach involves considering the historical and cultural context in which the biblical texts were written. Supporters of this view argue that the descriptions of the firmament reflect the cosmology of the ancient Near Eastern cultures, which perceived the sky as a solid dome. This perspective suggests that while the biblical authors might have shared this view, the spiritual truths conveyed by these descriptions are more important than their scientific accuracy.

Symbolic and Theological Perspectives

The concept of the firmament holds rich symbolic and theological significance in various religious traditions, particularly in Christian beliefs as described in the Genesis creation narrative of the Bible. The firmament is portrayed as a vast dome created by God to separate the waters above from those below, symbolizing order and structure imposed by the divine on the chaos of the primordial world. This act of separation signifies God’s sovereignty and the establishment of the cosmos as a structured and orderly environment, reflecting divine wisdom and authority.

Theologically, the firmament represents the manifestation of God's power and the tangible barrier between the human and the divine. It is a constant reminder of God's omnipresence and His role as the sustainer of the universe. The sky above, or the firmament, is often seen as the realm of the heavens, a sacred space where divine beings reside and from which God oversees and interacts with humanity. This separation also underscores the transcendence and mystery of the divine, suggesting a boundary between the earthly and the heavenly that is both protective and delineative.

In a broader spiritual context, the firmament can also symbolize the connection between the spiritual and the material worlds. The daily and seasonal changes observed in the sky serve as metaphors for divine messages or signs, influencing cultural rituals, agricultural practices, and social structures. In this way, the firmament not only separates but also connects, acting as a medium through which the divine communicates with the earthly realm, imbuing the natural world with spiritual significance and meaning.

Etymology and Translation Variations

The etymology of "firmament" traces back to the Latin word "firmamentum," which means "support" or "strengthening." This term itself is derived from "firmare," meaning "to make firm." The concept entered the English language through the Old French "firmament," which in medieval times was used to describe the heavens as perceived as a solid, supporting structure. The usage of "firmament" in the Bible, particularly in the King James Version, was to translate the Hebrew word "raqia," which refers to an expanse or stretched-out thinness, like a beaten metal sheet, suggesting a solid dome-like structure above the Earth.

Various translations and interpretations of the term "firmament" reflect differences in cultural and theological understandings of the heavens. In modern translations of the Bible, "firmament" is often rendered as "expanse" or "sky," aligning with contemporary scientific views rather than the ancient idea of a solid heavenly dome. This shift in translation underscores a broader conceptual transformation from seeing the sky as a physical structure to understanding it as a vast space or atmosphere. This adaptation highlights how linguistic choices influence our perception of cosmological concepts, illustrating the dynamic interplay between language, science, and theology.

Further Reading and Resources

  • Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective by Ted Davis: This book examines the historical interaction between Christianity and scientific thought, providing context for how concepts like the firmament have been understood within Christian theology. View PDF on Amazon

  • Institute for Creation Research (ICR) - Articles on Biblical Cosmology: This institute provides articles that discuss the Biblical concept of the firmament from a creationist viewpoint, exploring its implications for understanding the Bible and the natural world. Visit the Institute for Creation Research

  • Bible Study Tools - Definition of Firmament: Delve into a detailed exploration of the term "firmament" as found in biblical scripture, offering insights into its historical context and theological significance. Explore the Firmament on Bible Study Tools


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