Is God inside or outside of time?

Q. Do you believe that God is the creator of time and hence outside of it, or that he is in time like the rest of us? If you believe God is outside time, and is its creator, why wouldn’t it be possible for God to simply view all of history, past and future, like a canvas or movie, without infringing on human free will?

I don’t think that “inside” and “outside” are quite the right terms to use when thinking about God’s relationship with time.  Let me explain what I mean by analogy to God’s relationship with space (the physical creation), the other part of the space-time continuum.

God is immanent in creation, that is, God is present in every single part of it.  But that doesn’t mean that God is “inside” creation, in the sense of being contained within it.  That would be pantheism.

Because we know that God is not contained within creation, we also confess that God is transcendent beyond creation.  But that does not mean God is separated or excluded from creation.  That would be gnosticism, with its radical spirit-matter distinction.

To avoid both of these errors, Christians have historically confessed that God is both immanent in creation and transcendent beyond creation, and I think we should understand God’s relationship to time in the same way.  God is immanent in time in the sense of being present at every single moment of time, but God is also transcendent beyond time (as its creator, as you say), not bound or limited by it the way we are.

So does this mean that God can simultaneously view all moments in time and know what is going to happen in the future without infringing on human free will?

Let me answer that question with another question, based again on an analogy to space:  Can God be present in a place that doesn’t exist?  No, that’s not what we understand God’s immanence to mean.  It means that God is present in all places that really do exist within the creation that God made.

Similarly, God cannot be present in a time that does not exist.  And the future does not exist yet.  The existence of the creation that God made unfolds in “real time” (so to speak)—that’s simply its character—so there’s nowhere to be (actually, “nowhen” to be) until time moves forward.

It is possible to view all of a canvas (painting) at the same time.  But it’s not possible to view every single moment in a movie all at the same time.  If a movie has been recorded and we have the capacity to rewind or fast forward, we can view any particular moment in it that we wish.  In that sense we have the same relationship to the characters and events in the movie that God, being transcendent, has in relationship to time.

But we can’t do this with a movie that hasn’t been made yet.  And so it is no limitation on God’s transcendence in relationship to time (one aspect of God’s omnipresence) that God can’t do this with the future that does not yet exist, either.  This is really the same point that I’ve made in several previous posts when discussing God’s omniscience:  it is no defect in omniscience not to know what cannot be known (the “last digit” of pi, for example).

God knows His own plans for the future, how He wants to bring human history to its culmination, and that’s what’s described for us in the Bible in places like the book of Revelation.  But God will actually fulfill His own plans in creative response to the millions and billions of free choices that people will make between now and then.  God can’t jump ahead into a future that does not yet exist in order to know in advance how everything will turn out.  But God can know, and tell us, how everything will turn out in the end because He will shape the destiny of history by His own sovereign power and authority.

Feature-by-feature comparison of the ESV Reader’s Bible, Bibliotheca, and The Books of the Bible

To follow up on the review I offered in my last post of the ESV Reader’s Bible, here is a feature-by-feature comparison of that edition with two other Bibles without chapters and verses that I also mentioned in that post, Bibliotheca and The Books of the Bible.  (Bibliotheca has not yet been published and I do not have a copy, so the information here is based on its promotional material.)

ESV Reader’s Bible: single column
Bibliotheca: single column
The Books of the Bible: single column

Chapter and Verse Numbers
ESV Reader’s Bible: none in text; chapter numbers in red in left margin
Bibliotheca: none
The Books of the Bible: none

Chapter and Verse Range
ESV Reader’s Bible: book, chapter, and verse range on top of page in red
Bibliotheca: none
The Books of the Bible: chapter and verse range on bottom of page in gray

Translators’ Notes
ESV Reader’s Bible: removed from printed edition, made available in online edition
Bibliotheca: none
The Books of the Bible: presented as endnotes after each book

Translators’ Sectional/Subject Headings
ESV Readers’ Bible: removed
Bibliotheca: none
The Books of the Bible: removed

Book Order
ESV Reader’s Bible: customary
Bibliotheca: follows Hebrew Bible for OT, customary order for NT
The Books of the Bible: chronological and literary, e.g. Paul’s letters in order likely written; OT lyric poetry together (Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs); etc. (See a full description here.)

Book Boundaries
ESV Reader’s Bible: customary
Bibliotheca: customary
The Books of the Bible: Luke-Acts, Samuel-Kings, Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah recombined

Compositional Units Presented Within Books
ESV Reader’s Bible: traditional chapters, with line spaces in between
Bibliotheca: traditional chapters, with line spaces in between (as depicted in promotional video)
The Books of the Bible: natural literary divisions, e.g. twelve topical discussions in 1 Corinthians; six exchanges between prophet and people in Malachi; four oracles in Haggai

Number of Volumes
ESV Reader’s Bible: one
Bibliotheca: four: 1. Five Books [of Moses]+Former Prophets=Genesis through Kings; 2. Latter Prophets; 3. Writings; 4. New Testament
The Books of the Bible: available in one volume or four volumes: 1. Covenant History=Genesis through Kings; 2. Prophets; 3. Writings [forthcoming]; 4. New Testament

Size of Page
ESV Reader’s Bible: 5.25 x 7.75 inches
Bibliotheca: 5.25 x 8.75 inches
The Books of the Bible: 6.25 x 9.31 inches

ESV Reader’s Bible: TruTone (imitation leather) or hardcover
Bibliotheca: hardcover or softcover with sewn binding
The Books of the Bible: softcover (Biblica editions), Duo-Tone (imitation leather) or hardcover (Zondervan editions)

ESV Reader’s Bible: English Standard Version (2011 update)
Bibliotheca: American Standard Version (1901) with grammatical forms updated (e.g. “thou” -> “you”) and syntax sometimes adjusted (“male and female created he them” -> “male and female he created them”) using Young’s Literal Translation as authority
The Books of the Bible: New International Version (2011 update)

I hope this comparative information is helpful.  Despite the slightly varying approaches in certain cases, these three editions embody a similar vision for presenting the Scriptures in a pure, clean form, free from additives.  I’m convinced that they are all “strikes of a bell that’s going to ring more insistently over the next few years,” as J. Mark Bertrand has put it on his Bible Design Blog, harbingers of a shift to “Bibles that make the scriptures accessible to us first and foremost as readers.”

Interior view of ESV Readers Bible

Envisioned page layout for Bibliotheca

Interior view of The Books of the Bible

Opening up another front against the “atomization of the Scriptures”: A review of the ESV Reader’s Bible

I’ve just gotten a copy of the new ESV Reader’s Bible (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2014).  My overall reaction to this presentation of the English Standard Version without chapter and verse numbers, headings, or footnotes is one of great delight.  Let me elaborate with some comments on specific features of the volume.

First, by way of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I was a member of the team that produced The Books of the Bible, an edition that similarly presents the Scriptures without any additives, first issued in the TNIV in 2007 and then in the latest update to the NIV in 2011.  I have also done some consulting with the NIV translation committee, specifically concerning the visual formatting of the text in that translation.

Given this background, you can see why I am so pleased that Crossway has now issued another major translation of the Bible in a format that represents a design philosophy so similar to the one behind The Books of the Bible.  As the introduction to the ESV Reader’s Bible observes about “modern editions”: “The addition of chapters, verses, and other non-inspired material can hinder us from reading large portions of Scripture without interruption. . . . We miss out on the flow of the argument, the arc of the story, and the broader context.”  To help readers “get drawn into” the Bible instead, the new edition aims at a design that is “ancient in its similarity to the original manuscripts, yet familiar in its resemblance to the modern novel.”

One way the edition nicely achieves this “ancient” feel, beyond removing modern additives from the text itself, is by echoing the older practice known as rubrication, that is, putting all non-textual material in red.  Medieval manuscript illustrators would, for example, put in red the names of books on the top of the page, chapter numbers in the margins (after these had been introduced), and notations within the text column that one book was ending and the next one was beginning.  In a delightful nod to this ancient practice, the ESV Reader’s Bible (as shown in the image below from The Bible Design Blog) puts the book-chapter-and-verse range at the top of each page, the page number at the bottom, chapter numbers in the left margin, and book names at the start of each book all in red.  (The Books of the Bible similarly puts all non-textual material in a different color to show that it is non-canonical and of lesser authority; in this case the color is gray, shaded back from the black of the text.)

In another nod to tradition, the ESV Reader’s Bible also begins biblical books with large red drop caps.  This is reminiscent of the way that the first letters of books were “illuminated” (illustrated) in manuscripts, as shown just below.  In this example, the rubrication (writing in red) signals the end of the book of James and the start of Peter’s first epistle.  The “P” in Peter (Petrus in Latin) is illustrated with an image of the apostle himself, identifiable by the key he is holding.  (Drop caps are also used in The Books of the Bible, in black, to mark the largest literary sections of each biblical book.)

At the same time, this new edition also creates the feel of a “modern novel” by presenting the text in a single column, in an attractive contemporary font, and by removing the translation notes that appear as footnotes at the bottom of the page in standard editions of the ESV, referring readers to a website for them instead.  (Translation notes are turned into endnotes and placed at the end of each book in The Books of the Bible.)  The ESV Reader’s Bible even features two built-in bookmarks, as if to say, “You’re going to be reading through this Bible, not pulling out a verse here and there, so you’ll need to keep your place”—just as you’d have to do when reading through a novel.

I can see some areas for future improvement, though this does not at all diminish my delight in this publishing initiative.  First, some necessary tradeoffs have been made in order to present the entire contents of the biblical canon in a single volume with a relatively small footprint.  (The text box is only 4” x 6.5”.)  The paper is thin, with noticeable bleed-through, and the margins are narrow, so that there are more words per line and per page than would be encountered in that “modern novel.”

I personally feel that electronic Bibles on smart phones and tablets are now filling the niche for take-the-whole-canon-with-you-everywhere Bibles, so that sit-down-and-read Bibles, intended for a different purpose, can be larger and heavier, with thick, opaque paper and wider margins, and even presented in multiple volumes.  I think the remarkable interest now being shown in projects like Bibliotheca by Adam Lewis Greene, for example, illustrates this decisively.  I’m looking forward eagerly to a time when Bibles are once again published in a way that allows them to grace home libraries as objects of beauty and visual elegance, seeing that they will no longer need to be slipped into a purse or a back pocket.

Another way the ESV Reader’s Bible could improve would be by representing the natural literary structure of the biblical books.  Even though it removes chapter and verse numbers from the text, it still presents chapters visually as the basic compositional units of the Bible.  A line space intervenes between chapters; the first word of each one is put in small caps; and that delightfully red chapter number appears in the left margin.  Since the Bible was only divided into chapters around AD 1200, and since these chapters typically do not correspond with the natural divisions of the biblical material, relying on them in this way does not really lead us to “read Scripture precisely as it was originally written,” as the online promotional copy for this edition promises.

How much better it would be to use line spaces, small caps, etc. to highlight the natural structures of the biblical books.  To give one simple example, Haggai consists of four oracles spoken by that prophet, each one beginning with a formula that dates it during the reign of King Darius.  Why not put a line space between these oracles, and put the first words of each one in small caps?  Now you’re really “reading Scripture precisely as it was originally written.”  And why not also recombine divided books such as Luke-Acts and Samuel-Kings, and put collections such as Paul’s letters in their likely chronological order, rather than continuing to arrange them by length, as in traditional Bibles?  (These initiatives are all undertaken in The Books of the Bible.)

Still, even with room to explore future refinements, the ESV Reader’s Bible is already a very welcome presentation of an important modern translation in an appealing, readable format.  I believe it will fulfill its intended purpose of helping readers “get drawn into the stories, characters, and events that comprise . . . the Story of God’s redemption of humanity and all of creation.”  That being the case, it has opened up another front against the “atomization of the Scriptures” (to quote its introduction one last time) that occurred in modernity.  Well done.

For a feature-by-feature comparison of the ESV Reader’s Bible with the two other Bibles without chapters and verses that I mention here, The Books of the Bible and Biblotheca, see this post.

How long did Jesus live in Egypt?

Q. How long did Jesus’ parents hide him in Egypt?

An icon of the holy family’s flight into Egypt

The starting point for the journey that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus took down to Egypt is shortly after the end of the wise men’s visit with them, before Herod realized, after a few days or a couple of weeks, that they weren’t coming back to his court as they had promised.

The gospel of Matthew tells us that after the wise men had started back home, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’”

We don’t know exactly when to date this historically.  It was, however, no more than two years after Jesus was born, because Herod then tried to kill Jesus by slaying all of the baby boys who had been born in Bethlehem in the past two years, based on when the wise men told him they first saw the star.  And since, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus was born around the time of “the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” his birth occurred some time between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C.  (Even though A.D. dating is supposed to begin with the birth of Christ, it wasn’t quite calculated correctly in the first place and so it actually begins a little way into his lifetime.)

We have a better idea of when the sojourn in Egypt ended.  The gospel of Matthew also tells us that “after Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’”  Herod died in 4 B.C.  So depending on when Jesus was born, the journey to Egypt lasted no more than two years, and perhaps as little as a few weeks or months.

It seems to me that the most likely scenario is that Jesus was born around 6 B.C., the wise men (by their own account) arrived in Jerusalem two years later in 4 B.C., and in that same year Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt, Herod died, and they returned.  So the length of their sojourn in Egypt was probably about a few months.

One takeaway from this investigation is the realization that King Herod the Great, who had been on the throne for 33 years, died a short time after slaying the children of Bethlehem.  We don’t always see immediately what feels like fitting retribution for atrocities like this one that he committed, but in this case it seems that the perpetrator very quickly joined his victims in death and had to answer for his crimes.

An interesting question that also arises is, since Jesus did find shelter as a refugee in Egypt for some length of time, whether He still feels a debt of gratitude to his briefly adopted homeland, and whether this provides an even further incentive for God to want to see justice done for all sides in current Middle Eastern disputes.  Speculative, but intriguing.

But the gospel of Matthew primarily wants us to take away from this episode an appreciation for how Jesus recapitulated the history of Israel in his own life.  The author quotes a historical recollection of the exodus from the book of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” and says that through the journey to Egypt Jesus “fulfilled” this Scripture.  That is, he gave it a fuller and deeper meaning in light of the significance of his own life.

This same gospel shows how Jesus recapitulated the history of Israel in several other ways as well, for example, by spending 40 days in the wilderness, where Israel spent 40 years.  Ultimately through his death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated a “new Israel” composed of those people from every nation who put their faith and trust in him.   The journey to Egypt, though it may well have been relatively brief, is another small signpost pointing in that direction.

Why didn’t God reveal the highest morality from the start?

Q. If morality is based on God’s character and is absolute and unchanging, why is it that God didn’t establish the modern Christian morality from the beginning? That is, why didn’t He directly punish or hinder those who had multiple wives and that sort of thing? Of course, Genesis subtly subverts many of the customs of that time such as that of having multiple wives, of giving preeminence to the first born, and of worshiping idols, but why isn’t it more overt?

I think Jesus actually taught that God’s ideal wishes for human life were presented right from the start in the laws and covenants that God gave Israel, so long as their true meaning was understood.  Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  In the context of the book of Matthew, “fulfill” means to reveal the fullest and deepest meaning of something that happened earlier in redemptive history.  So Jesus is saying that in his teaching, he will not change what came before, or substitute something else, but rather show how God’s ideal intentions have been disclosed all along.

And that’s just what Jesus does in this part of the Sermon on the Mount.  He shows that the command against murder, for example, really teaches that we’re not supposed to hate anyone or hold grudges, but actively pursue reconciliation with others.  The command against adultery is actually a call for a pure life that’s free from lust.  The law against breaking oaths is really teaching that we should speak sincerely and truthfully, without the need for external guarantees of our honesty.  And so forth.

But let’s take one more specific example, from another of Jesus’ teachings, to explore a bit further how this works.  Matthew tells us that some Pharisees, trying to “test” Jesus (that is, to put him in a “can’t win” situation by making him commit to one side or another of a controversial question), asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”  In his reply, Jesus appealed to the original creation order, as described in the Scriptures: “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Now when the Pharisees were asking about what was “lawful,” they were thinking not of the original creation order, but of a specific command in the law of Moses. They were hoping to embroil Jesus in the controversy surrounding it.  So they counter, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”  (The only issue for them was the grounds on which a man could do this.)

Jesus replies, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”  This reply is very instructive, because it shows that this question about divorce is a specific case that illustrates a general principle.  Many of the laws in the Bible are accommodations to protect people in less-than-ideal situations in which they otherwise might be exploited. But the situations behind these laws do not express God’s ultimate intentions, and they are not being endorsed in the process of being regulated.

These are specifically casuistic laws, which describe what to do when a given case or situation arises (as opposed to apodictic laws that speak universally, i.e. “Do not oppress a foreigner.”)   In this case, the full law is considering a situation in which a man decides to divorce his wife and so “writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.” Then, “if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”  This, the law concludes, “would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.”

Notice that nowhere in this law does Moses “command” husbands to give their wives certificates of divorce, as the Pharisees claim.  Moses simply says, on God’s authority, that if men do this, they are not to use it as a pretext to pass women around among themselves.  In other words, this law is really designed as protection against sexual trafficking, not as a license for men to go back on their wedding vows.

God’s ideal intentions for marriage are the ones that Jesus describes: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”  Nevertheless, even in the New Testament we find a further accommodation to unfortunate human situations in terms of divorce.  Paul writes to the Corinthians that if a person becomes a follower of Jesus and for that reason their unbelieving spouse wants to divorce them, “If the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

Why doesn’t Paul uphold Jesus’ teaching that marriage is for life and say that we shouldn’t let anyone separate what God has joined?  Like Moses before him, he’s making a realistic accommodation to a less-than-ideal situation.  He sees no point in requiring believers to engage in a protracted and hopeless fight against divorce when their very faith is the grounds their spouse is holding against them.  But when we read Paul’s counsel in its full context, we see that he is nevertheless urging believers to do everything they can to save their marriages even in these situations—the believer is never to be the one to start divorce proceedings on the grounds of incompatible faith, for example.

So, in short, there is an ideal for human life that is revealed from the start in God’s laws and covenants.  But at the same time, there are accommodations to protect people in less-than-ideal situations.  (Another such law is the one that requires husbands to continue to love and provide for their first wives even if they also marry other women—this is not meant as approval for polygamy, but rather as protection for women who might otherwise be neglected and abandoned.)

And this much said, I would also stress that in any situation, we should exercise all of our daring and creativity to try to live out God’s highest and best ideals, counting on God’s help and even intervention to make it possible for us to do that.  We shouldn’t fall back on the accommodations we find in the Bible to excuse any lower aim.

Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?

Q. The notion that Ruth cohabited with Boaz as a way of offering herself in marriage to him does NOT suggest immorality except by 1950′s USA standards–a different culture from that of Ruth or Boaz. If you want to think she just lay down next to him to rest, you are entitled, but my suggestion is that she offered himself to her and he accepted with intentions of consummating a marital contract.

This question was asked in a comment on the last post in my earlier series entitled “Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her?

I am aware that one possible interpretation of what was going on that night between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor is that she was inviting him to contract a marriage with her by consummating that marriage.  There is some biblical evidence that marriages were contracted that way in ancient Israel.

Specifically in the case of Levirate marriage, i.e. the closest male relative marrying a widow to carry on the dead husband’s name and line (what Ruth would have been asking Boaz to do), a law in Deuteronomy says, “Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.”  While, as I have argued, the biblical Hebrew phrase “uncover the feet” does not unambiguously refer to sexual relations, the phrase “go in to (a woman)” certainly does.  In this case a widow’s closest male relative is contracting a marriage with her by consummating that marriage.

However, even if this custom does provide the background we need in order to understand what Ruth may have had in mind when she approached Boaz on the threshing floor–if this is how, as I put it, she was “proposing marriage to him . . . honorably, within the customs of this culture”–it is still not the case that the two of them had sex that night.  Rather, Boaz explains to Ruth very clearly that he doesn’t know yet whether he is in a position to marry her, though he will marry her if he can:  “It is true I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. Remain this night, and when morning comes, if he will redeem you, good; let him redeem you. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then I will redeem you.” (Redeem in this case means to take on the role of the goel or “guardian-redeemer,” which would include marrying Ruth.)

So even if the invitation was to contract the marriage by consummating it, Boaz honorably declines to do both that night until he determines his legal standing. Boaz would not have had sexual relations with Ruth simply on the basis of an intention to marry her if possible.  And for that matter, Ruth would not have actually “cohabited” with him merely as a proposal of marriage for him to consider.  That is certainly not how the ancient Israelite culture functioned; this is rather something we imagine from the vantage point of our own culture.  The offer was first of herself as a wife, with all the responsibilities that would entail for Boaz; only if he could assume all those responsibilities was he entitled to the privileges that came with them.

And all that said, I still question whether this is what was actually going on.  When we consider the full context of the law in Deuteronomy about a widow’s closest male relative “going in to her” to “take her to himself as wife,” we recognize that this happens within the context of extended-family and community sanction. The widow, we are told, “Shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.” In other words, the family is arranging the marriage–the woman is not deciding whom she wants to marry and going off on her own to “propose” to him. This law says further, “If the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders,” who “shall call him and speak to him” to try to get him to fulfill his responsibility. The community oversees the whole process.  Such marriages, in other words, however contracted, were not arranged privately between individuals.

We see precisely this same community dimension in the book of Ruth.  Boaz goes to the city gate, where civil matters are settled, and negotiates with the closer relative, who finally relinquishes his claim to act as guardian-redeemer for Ruth.  Only then, the book tells us explicitly, “Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.”

So I doubt that Ruth, acting alone (or even with Naomi’s prodding), would really have invited Boaz to enter into a marriage with her on the spot. Instead, as I argue in my earlier series of posts, she was lying down at his feet not “to rest,” but to put herself in a position (literally) where he could symbolically “spread his garment over her,” indicating his willingness to become her guardian-redeemer to the fullest extent he legally could.  Further matters such consummating the marriage would have to wait–as anyone in this culture would have known–until all legal matters were settled.  And then this would have taken place in the home the woman would share with her new husband–never casually one night on a threshing floor.

Is the “firmament” of the Genesis creation account “space” or a solid “dome”?

Q. In his book Genesis in Space and Time, Francis Schaeffer briefly argues that the word “firmament” in Genesis 1:6 should not be taken to mean a solid dome or brass covering, but is instead best translated as “expanse.” He says it is a fairly broad word that can be understood as “space” or “air” and that the notion that the Hebrews believed that the earth was covered by a solid dome is mistaken. How would you respond?

Here is what Schaeffer writes in his book:

“Some scholars who have tried to minimize the teaching of the Bible have said that the word firmament indicates that the Jews had an idea of a brass or iron covering over the world.  But this is not the picture at all.  Firmament simply means “expanse.”  It is a rather broad word, as we can see from the fact that the firmament is where the moon and the sun and the stars are (v. 14).  Perhaps for our generation the word space would be the best equivalent.  But it is also the place where the birds fly (v. 20).  In any case, the idea that it is merely a hard covering and reflects a primitive notion of a three-story universe is in error.  Rather what is being referred to is differentiation in the area of being—a differentiation of the openness that is about us.”  Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 37.

We can evaluate Schaeffer’s claims here by considering both the derivation and the usage of the Hebrew term in Genesis that English Bibles variously translate as “firmament” (KJV), “expanse” (ESV, NASB, HCSB), “space” (NLT), or “vault” (NIV).  (I don’t believe that respect or disrespect for the teaching of the Bible is at stake in this inquiry.  We should determine the meaning of the word objectively and draw our conclusions from there.)

The Hebrew term in question is the noun raqiya’.  It is derived from the verb raqa’, which means to beat out, stamp, or spread out a solid object, usually metal, to make it thinner, flatter, and broader.  The verb is used, for example, in the description in Exodus of the construction of the tabernacle: “They hammered out gold sheets and cut them into threads to be woven in with the blue and the purple and the scarlet material.”  Similarly in the book of Numbers, the bronze censers that were used by some rebellious Israelites to challenge Aaron for the priesthood were “hammered out to overlay the altar.”  And Jeremiah speaks of “hammered silver” that is used in the construction of idols.

So if raqa’ means “to beat out, to flatten” (and thereby “to extend”), then raqiya’, by derivation, means “an extended surface (solid),” as the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon defines it, or “a beaten (metal) plate,” as Holladay’s Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon puts it.

Numerous biblical writers indeed reflect an understanding of the “heavens” as a solid object that God has “spread out” like beaten or molten metal.  Elihu asks Job, for example, whether he can join God “in spreading out [raqa'] the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze.”  Similarly in Isaiah God says, “My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens.”  (In this case the verb is not raqa’ but the synonym tapach.)

Other biblical writers, using the further synonymous verb natah, say that God has “stretched out” the heavens.  Isaiah, for example, describes God as “the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out [natah].”  Jeremiah says similarly that God “founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out [natah] the heavens by his understanding.”  In some cases the biblical writers compare the “stretching out” of the heavens to the unfolding and spreading out of a tent or canopy (a  metaphor drawn delightfully from their former nomadic culture). Describing the creation, for example, Psalm 104 says, “The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment, he stretches out [natah] the heavens like a tent.”  And so forth.

Whichever synonym is used, in all these cases the heavens are envisioned as a solid object that God has spread out above the earth.  This consistent biblical understanding of the created world clearly extends into the Genesis creation account as well, as the use of the term raqiya’ shows, since it is identified directly with the “heavens.”

But what about Shaeffer’s claim that the “firmament” in Genesis can’t be a solid object, but must be an “expanse” of space or air, because it’s “the place where the birds fly”?  In the creation account God actually says, to translate the Hebrew literally, “Let birds fly above the earth on the face of the raqiya’ of the heavens”–in other words, in front of the dome of the sky, that is, in the space between it and the earth.

Then what about the heavens as the place “where the moon and the sun and the stars are”?  There’s no question that the Genesis creation account says that these are in the raqiya’ of the heavens.  But I take this to mean that they were envisioned to on its solid surface, moving around there.

So do these conclusions minimize the teaching of the Bible, since we know today that the sky is not a solid dome?  Not at all.  They simply show that the biblical authors wrote consistently from within an observational cosmology.  We should have no more problem with their idea of a solid sky than we do with their notion that the sun moved around the earth, even though we know today this only appears to be the case and it is actually the earth that is moving (revolving).

When we accept that the biblical authors were not supernaturally given a knowledge of cosmology that transcended the understanding humanly available in their own place, time, and culture, we can recognize their statements as accurate within that understanding, and we appreciate the points they are trying to make about God as creator and about creation as an ordered and harmonious whole–points that are still perfectly valid and well taken within our own understanding of cosmology, which is itself culturally bound and limited.


The so-called Flammarion engraving, thought to be intended to illustrate an ancient cosmology that included a flat earth bounded by a solid and opaque sky.


Why did God give Nebuchadnezzar so many chances?

Q. I’ve been reading through Daniel and have been struck by how much God seems to communicate with and pursue Nebuchadnezzar. Any theories on why the God of Israel gave so many chances to a pagan king?

God certainly gave Nebuchadnezzar repeated opportunities to acknowledge Him, even after Nebuchadnezzar rebuffed and defied His initial overtures.  I explain the character of Nebuchadnezzar’s defiance in my book After Chapters and Verses:

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was looking at the book of Daniel. When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar made a statue ninety feet high out of gold. Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand this story better.

One note suggested that this was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire. Another observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling. But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the week before, and remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue. Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay. Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar created a statue that was entirely gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God. He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced. And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead. No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

And no wonder we marvel that the God of Israel continued to pursue a pagan emperor even after this.

One reason for the continuing pursuit may be that God had given Nebuchadnezzar an important trust to fulfill as the emperor of what was then the entire known world for the people of Israel, and also as their temporary lord during their exile.  In this role it was crucial that Nebuchadnezzar ultimately acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  God went to great lengths to win this acknowledgment. (See Blake’s illustration below!)

But I think we should also see Nebuchadnezzar as an individual example of a general principle.  As Peter puts it in the New Testament, God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  God goes to great lengths and makes repeated overtures to every soul, striving to bring it to repentance and salvation so that it can fulfill His purposes for it on earth.

And we can see how Nebuchadnezzar was offering small but positive responses as God reached out to him.  Even though Daniel said his dream foretold the end of his empire, instead of punishing Daniel for disloyalty or treason, Nebuchadnezzar rewarded him, as he’d promised to do for anyone who could tell him a dream he’d had while asleep but forgotten once he woke up!  In this way he tacitly agreed with Daniel that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” that are beyond human capability.

Similarly, after Nebuchadnezzar saw God deliver Daniel’s friends from the fiery furnace, into which he’d thrown them for refusing to bow down to his statue, he decreed severe punishment against anyone who would “say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.”  And in the end, as I noted earlier, Nebuchadnezzar did acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

So in response to God’s repeated overtures, we see Nebuchadnezzar slowly recognizing and acknowledging more and more about God’s supreme claims.  It shouldn’t surprise us that God would continue to pursue anyone who was steadily coming around like this.  And we should be encouraged by similar signs, even small ones, that the people we dearly want to know and love God are being steadily pursued and are beginning to respond.

William Blake, “Nebuchadnezzar” (1795). An illustration of God’s decree against the emperor, “Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal . . . so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

Why is “mene” written twice in the handwriting on the wall?

Q. In the handwriting on the wall in the book of Daniel, why do you think God wrote “mene, mene” twice instead of just “mene, tekel, upharsin”? Does the repetition mean something?

For one thing, “mene” might be repeated to fill out the poetic line, so that it will have two parts with four syllables and two stresses each: mené, mené; tekél, parsín.    (The “u” is barely pronounced and simply means “and”; it’s a variation on the usual “w,” when it comes before “p.”)  As I note in this post, solemn pronouncements, including judgments like this one, are often spoken in poetry in the Old Testament.  Repeating “mene” allows the line to have a memorable poetic cadence.

But the repetition of the first word might also be a clue that each word actually has a double meaning.  As I explain in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

The inscription is a play on words.  In one sense, it lists the names of three coins of decreasing value: the minah (worth many shekels), the tekel (the Aramaic form of the word shekel itself), and the peres (half-shekel; parsin is the plural).  This duplicates the image in the statue dream of materials of decreasing value, underscoring God’s purposes to replace the Babylonian empire with later ones.  (The narrator echoes this image by describing how the goblets from Jerusalem were gold and silver, while the gods of Babylon were gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone.)  

But the meaning of the inscription also rests on the derivation of the names of these coins.  Minah comes from a verb meaning “to count” or “to number”; tekel comes from the verb “to weigh”; and peres from a verb meaning “to divide.”  Daniel explains how all of these meanings apply to Belshazzar and his doomed empire.  (Peres is also a play on the word “Persian.”)

So this was a very dense puzzle; the last term actually has a triple meaning, disclosing the identity of the empire that would soon conquer Babylon. Even though the repetition of “mene” might have offered a slight clue to its interpretation, “all the king’s wise men . . . could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.”  But Daniel showed both his divine gifting and the certain fate of Babylon when he interpreted the puzzle.

Rembrandt, “Belshazzar’s Feast,” 1635. In this depiction the words read from top to bottom and then from right to left. (Uparsin takes up the two leftmost columns.) In Aramaic they would more likely have read from right to left and then from top to bottom.

Are these Bible studies available through the mail?

Q.  Can I receive your Bible studies through postal mail?

Yes, you can get printed editions of all of the study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series through the mail, even though they can also be ordered through your local Christian bookstore, or downloaded in electronic formats.

Probably the easiest way to get a printed copy of any of the guides, since you’re already on this blog, is to point to the link at the top right of this page that says “The Study Guides.”  A drop-down menu will lead you to pages that describe each guide.  On each specific page, you can click on the link that says “Printed Edition,” which will lead you to an page where you can place an order to have the guide sent to you in the mail.  (Just be sure to select “Paperback” rather than “Kindle.”)

Thanks very much for your interest, and I hope you enjoy using the guides!


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