On Creation Day 2, God called the “firmament” “heaven.” So says Genesis 1:8. Could the word that translates as “heaven” mean something else?
Summary of Creation Day Two
The Bible says that God formed an expanse, like a hammered-out sheet (Hebrew רָקִ֫יעַ (raqia, a large, thin expanse), between waters, to divide the waters above it from the waters beneath it. The most obvious place for an expanse between waters is not in outer space, but on the earth itself. The expanse was the earth’s crust, that would later sag in some places and rise in others, so that dry land would appear (Creation Day Three).
The next verse (Genesis 1:8) seems confusing: “God called the expanse the skies.” (Hebrew שמים shamayim sky, skies.) Why call it “sky” when it was not the sky at all? But this assumes that the word that translates as “skies” or “heavens” always means that.
A rooted language
Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzhak. From Postillae maiores totius anni cum glossis & quaestionibus by Guillaume de Parisiensis (Lyon, 1539)
Hebrew is likely the most ancient language that man speaks or ever spoke. A modern language borrows from ancient languages for the roots of many or most of its words. (Seventy percent of English words have Latin and/or Greek roots.) An ancient language has its own roots; those roots can come from nowhere else. So every word in Hebrew of more than one or two syllables very likely has much simpler words as roots.
The roots of the word shamayim are אש (esh, fire) and מים (mim, water) The beginning letter א (aleph) is a silent stand-in for a beginning consonant, nothing more. Dropping it does not change the meaning of the two-letter word. So the Hebrew שמים literally means fire in water.
Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzhak (1040-1105), or Rashi for short, was the greatest of the Jewish commentators on the Old Testament during the Middle Ages. Concerning Genesis 1:8, he says this:
The word shamayim is a contraction of [a word for] carrying of water, also [a word meaning] there is water, also esh and mim, [meaning] fire and water. He blended them with one another and made the heavens from them.
A blend of fire and water seems a good metaphor for outer space. Water is one of the most abundant substances in space, and all stars burn. But Walter T. Brown believes that “fire in water” refers to something closer to home.
Fire in water on earth
Methane, dissolved in supercritical water, burns with access to enough oxygen.
Brown, in In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood, describes his word study of shamayim here. But elsewhere he describes something that one sees only in water that becomes supercritical. A supercritical fluid is a fluid at a higher-than-critical temperature and pressure. Such a fluid contains liquid and gas dissolved in one another. And supercritical water can dissolve a flammable gas, like methane, and is also hot enough to split into the gases that make it up. Thus supercritical water, even without access to air, can support the burning of a dissolved flammable gas. Thus fire can appear literally in water, if the water is hot and compressed enough.
Brown also reminds us that on Creation Day Three, when the earth’s crust sagged and formed pillars, those pillars grew hot enough to glow under the tremendous pressure (enough to make rock flow like putty, or concrete mix). The burning of methane in the subcrustal ocean would have come later, certainly after Creation Day Four when God formed the moon. (The tides pumped the crust and heated the water beneath it.) But the glowing pillars would have looked enough like “fire in water” to fit such a description.
So perhaps God blended fire in water, not only in outer space but also in the depths of the earth. Not a man is likely ever to have seen it, but it would have been no less real. Concerning this, Brown himself says:
While in Jerusalem on 28 June 1990, I met for two hours with Michael Klein, Dean of Hebrew Union College. My question was, “What did raqia (expanse) and shamayim (heaven) mean in Genesis 1:8a when Moses wrote Genesis?” To my surprise, he suggested Rabbi Yitzchaki’s translation, which I had previously studied. Shamayim is a compound of the words fire (esh) and liquid water (mayim). After I briefly explained the hydroplate theory, Dean Kline said that raqia (as opposed to “raqia of the heavens”) might well have been the earth’s crust—appropriately called “fire in waters.” You decide.