I think it was in grade eight that I first learned about the Water Cycle. According to this science lesson, the air is full of water vapour. Condensation occurs as the sun causes the water to evaporate and rise into the sky, so that the water vapour turns back into liquid water, which we see in the big, fluffy clouds floating overhead. When the water droplets in clouds combine, they become heavy enough to form raindrops to rain down onto our heads. That is where the rain comes from. It was a fascinating lesson, and we drew a little picture to illustrate it.
The ancients did not know about the Water Cycle. Most of their science was based on simple observation, and it served them well enough for the daily tasks they had to perform in order to live. As far as they were concerned, the rain came from the sea which was above the sky. Just as there was a sea here on earth (for example, the Mediterranean Sea), so there was also a sea above the clouds. The sky was solid, and it was the sky that kept the sea above from falling down on us and flooding the earth. There were windows in the solid sky which could let through the water from the celestial sea, where it was caught in buckets (i.e. the clouds) and then poured out upon the earth. In a cosmology based solely upon observation, it all made sense. If lots of water fell from the sky, there must be a sea up there just like there was a sea down here. That would also explain the colour of the sky: it was blue because all seas were blue, including the sea above the sky.
We see this ancient understanding of the rain and the celestial sea reflected in the Old Testament. Thus the first creation story in Genesis: in that story, in common with other cosmologies of the Ancient Near East, before anything was created, there was nothing in the world except the sea (Genesis 1:2). The earth was unproductive and uninhabitable (in Hebrew tohu and bohu), and darkness lay upon the face of the deep, though the power of God also hovered over the waters. The narrative is clear that before God began to create and before He uttered the first word, “Let there be light”, all was sea.
After creating light (i.e. day and night), the next thing God did was to create a separator to divide the waters of the sea in two, pushing upward half of the waters, separating them from the waters below. In Hebrew the word for this separator was raqia’, a word coming from the root raqa, to hammer out—the word used in Exodus 39:3 to describe the process of hammering out gold plate for use in the Tabernacle shrine. In the Greek Septuagint the separator was called the stereoma (from the Greek stereos, meaning “firm, hard”). The Latin translation reads firmamentum, from which we derive the English word “firmament”. This separator, Genesis 1:8 goes on to tell us, was named “the skies”.
Common to all these translations is the idea of the separating sky being solid—which it would have to be to keep all that celestial sea water from falling down to the earth. We learn that the sky was solid from other Old Testament passages as well. Job 37:18 describes the sky as “hard as a molten mirror”. In the Psalter we find that there were “waters above the skies” (Psalm 148:4), and also that God “laid the beams of His upper chambers on the waters” (Psalm 104:3).
Note: the beams of His upper chambers [Hebrew aliyah]—the Psalmist is here speaking of God’s heavenly abode, so that “the waters” are those of the celestial sea, not those of the sea here below. All the opening verses of Psalm 104 describe God’s heavenly creation—His heavenly abode, the clouds, the winds, the lightning. The writer of Psalm 104, in common with everyone else of his day, assumed that there was a sea above the solid sky, and that was where the rain came from. It does, in terms of Ancient Near Eastern thought, help explain where all the waters came to flood the earth in the time of Noah: God opened the doors of the sky and all the water from the celestial ocean came pouring down (Genesis 7:11).
Obviously none of this is scientifically true, despite some rather desperate attempts to identify the waters above the heavens with the clouds. (I call this attempt “desperate” because it would mean that the ancient Hebrews had access to a scientific knowledge not available to others of their day—a notion refuted by such texts as Job 37:18. Like their contemporaries, the Hebrews regarded the sky as hard as a molten mirror.) But what does this mean for exegetes and readers of the Old Testament today?
It means that God condescends to us to meet us where we are. Those who believe in the Incarnation should not find this hard to believe. God came down to meet the ancient Hebrews as they were—enslaved, confused, weak, fickle, and frightened. He had much to teach them—lessons they were slow to learn. (This should not tempt us to despise them—are we really much better?) God had to teach them that He was the only God for them—in fact, the only God who really existed. He had to teach them that religion necessarily involved ethical behaviour as well as cult, that a man must not only offer sacrifice, but also love his neighbour. Given the hardness of the human heart, these lessons were quite enough for now. Lessons about the inner nature of the Trinitarian God, the inviolable nature of the marriage bond, and the needlessness of oath-taking for the honest man were all lessons which could wait—how much more lessons about cosmology and astronomy.
In other words, we read the Old Testament to find the truth that God put there, not the science He did not put there. Thus when we read in Joshua 10 that Joshua told the sun and the moon to stand still and the text relates that “the sun stood still and the moon stopped”, we should not conclude that God is teaching that the sun and the moon actually moved around the earth. All the ancients thought so (they could see it move!), and God was not concerned to contradict them in the Joshua narratives. In that narrative God was not teaching us that the sun moved, but that He would in mercy hearken to the voice of a man and fight for His people (v. 14). He left the Hebrews’ science where it was, for He had other more important lessons for them to learn.
If we are humble readers of Scripture, we will read the sacred text to see what it actually says, and not foist our own views upon it or read our modern science into the ancient writings. And we will go on to discern from those writings what God really wants us to learn. We can learn where the rain comes from easily enough in our science classes. The Scriptures have saving lessons to offer us that we could never learn in school.