The Three Heavens

earth atmosphere

Thoughts on the Rāqîa‘ and a Possible Explanation for the Cosmic Microwave Background

by Dr. Danny R. Faulkner, Ph.D Astronomy

I propose that Genesis 1:1 represents an example of introductory encapsulation, providing a summary of all the events of the Creation Week. The creative acts described in the account of Day Two (Genesis 1:6–8) thus refer to the astronomical heaven. This establishes a foundation for building a biblical model of astronomy. This approach also makes three bold statements about the universe. As an added benefit, it may provide a simple explanation for the CMB (cosmic microwave background).

The first occurrence of the word “heaven” in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:1, which records that “In the beginning, God created the heavens (שָׁמַיִם šāmayim) and the earth (אֶרֶץ, ʾereṣ).” In Hebrew, šāmayim is properly a plural noun, despite having the appearance of a dual form. While the Hebrew word šāmayim is translated as a plural in Genesis 1:1 in versions such as the ESV (quoted here), the NASB, and the NIV, some versions, such as the KJV, translate šāmayim as a singular. Whether šāmayim is rendered as a singular noun (“heaven”) or a plural (“heavens”) is generally a matter of the translator’s preference. While šāmayim appears 421 times in 395 verses of the Old Testament, it is the subject of a sentence only rarely, as in Psalms 19:1 [19:2 MT] and 50:6 (cf. Judges 5:4). The Hebrew word šāmayim refers to things above us.

As such, it can have three possible referents. For convenience, we can call these the three heavens, though this terminology does not appear in the Old Testament. The first heaven is the near distance above us. Today we would call this the atmosphere, though the atmosphere was not a concept that ancient people, including the Hebrews, would recognize. Clouds, birds, and precipitation are phenomena associated with this first heaven. For instance, Psalm 104:12 refers to the birds of heaven and Isaiah 55:10 speaks of rain and snow coming down from heaven. 

The second heaven is the astronomical realm, what we today would call space. The Old Testament describes stars as being in heaven, in Genesis 22:17, for example. The third heaven is the abode of God. Psalm 115:3 states that our God is in heaven. The only place in the Bible where this distinction and enumeration of the heavens is alluded to is in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 12:2–4, where the Apostle Paul briefly described his experience in the “third heaven.”

Since the distinction and enumeration of the heavens is not clearly taught in Scripture, one must exercise caution in making these distinctions in biblical texts. The distinction is merely a phenomenological one. It is clear that things in the first heaven are nearby, because we readily can see motion in them, such as the motion of birds and clouds. Furthermore, there is an obvious parallax effect—one’s location directly determines what one observes. A bird, cloud, or rain experienced locally will not necessarily be experienced by observers elsewhere. 

On the other hand, a change in location on the earth’s surface will not dramatically alter what we see in the second heaven, unless that change in location is great. Today we clearly see the distinction as being due to objects either being in the earth’s atmosphere or beyond it, in space. However, the ancient Hebrews would not have grasped this distinction in this sense, because our concept of the atmosphere and space beyond is modern. Therefore, the distinction between the first and second heavens sometimes is blurred in the Old Testament, and they are merged into one in some contexts.

The second occurrence of the Hebrew word šāmayim is in the Day Two account (Genesis 1:6–8 ). On Day Two, God made the expanse (rāqîaʿ). Genesis 1:8 further states that God called the expanse heaven (šāmayim). Thus, we are in the curious position of God creating the heavens (or heaven) twice, in Genesis 1:1 and again in Genesis 1:6–8. There are several ways to resolve this issue, and the path that we take will have direct implications in developing a proper biblical model of cosmology. Important in this discussion is the rāqîaʿ, the thing that God made on Day Two and then called šāmayim…