What is the “firmament” of Gen 1:6?

The firmament is the sky, i.e., the space between the land and sea below, and the clouds and stars above. To understand the notion at work here, remember that we are to imagine a world utterly beclouded, with vague light glimmering through, but lighting nothing in particular. Then, once the dust settles enough, on Day 2—although there might still be massive, impenetrable clouds of water vapor—water oceans might well become visible and distinguishable from the clouds.

Did God not create heaven in Gen 1:1? Then why is this newly-created firmament called “Heaven” in 1:8? And what of the spiritual place where God dwells?

As I said above, in Gen 1:1, “the heaven and the earth” was probably meant as a compound phrase with a singular meaning, a hendiadys, standing for something like “the universe” or “the world.” Moreover, the “heaven” that was created in 1:1 was simply the vaguely-conceived upper regions, perhaps the unseen cloudtops above the proto-earth. As to “Heaven” in the sense of God’s spiritual dwelling-place—that is, assuming that we should assume that God’s dwelling-“place” is indeed spiritual and not located in any physical/spatial relation to the earth—clearly it must already have existed before 1:1. Of Jesus, Paul said, “by him were all things created” (Col. 1:16), and “he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” Hence, if it must be said that the Godhead dwelt “somewhere” and “before” the creation—though perhaps this makes dubious sense—then that place existed before God created “the heaven and the earth.” So we are really dealing with two, or perhaps three, concepts of “heaven” in Gen 1.

In reference perhaps especially to Gen 1:6, do any other ancient cosmogonies (creation myths) sufficiently resemble that of Genesis 1 as to be a plausible inspiration of it?

Or might they have a common source, anyway? The short answer is that other contemporaneous ancient cosmogonies—Egyptian, Sumerian, and Assyrian—all have enough and striking elements in common with the Genesis account that it is unlikely that they are utterly independent and unrelated. Just for example, one pagan god is said to plan and then speak certain things into existence. In another, the “Enuma Elish” myth of the ancient Babylonians, following a long and complicated back-story, it is a created god, Marduk, who becomes king of the universe and leader of the divine assembly, by defeating the goddess of salt water, Tiamat, which he divides (as some would say God does in 1:6). And the Egyptian god Atun is said to be the original and supreme god, and to have gotten the creation started. But he is by no means the only god, and there are many very important differences. Probably, there was one original tradition, which the Hebrew account gets most correct, being most sensible and being connected with a tradition deeply imbued with other qualities that compel belief.

Do the limited points of similarity of ancient cosmogonies (and theological elements, such as the “divine council” and speaking things into existence) make that of the Hebrews less credible? Why or why not?

It seems not. No other cosmogony has significant enough similarities to be plausible as a sole or even main origin of the Hebrew cosmogony. All of these texts are hard to date precisely. Finally, we have independent theological reasons to find Genesis 1 plausible, and if God shared that story during some antediluvian or patriarchal ages (not with Moses himself, which is another possible original source), then we might well expect to find multiple pagan versions of the original story, i.e., versions of the Hebrew (Yahwist) narrative twisted by pagan cults, handed down from days gone by. In that case, the similarity with pagan accounts means only that the pagans misrepresented the truth, and that Genesis 1 is adequately reflects the original, faithful source.

What are the “lights in the firmament” of 1:15?

These are, of course, the Sun, Moon, and stars. One commentator speculated that these are not named as such in order to convey that they are mere “lights,” created objects, not gods—since these items in the “host of heaven” were often the objects of worship. Not naming them was a way to reduce these mere objects in dignity.

Isn’t it a problem that Sun and Moon are said to be created (Gen 1:14-17) after the earth (1:1)?

Again, if the narrator of Gen 1 is occupying a position close to the surface of a proto-earth, then at some point, enough of the primordial dust cloud would have settled or burned off that there would be clear periods in which the Sun and Moon became visible, perhaps for the first time. One potential problem here is that the text actually states, “Then God made two great lights” and “God set them in the firmament” (1:16-17); but current theory about the formation of the solar system has it that the Sun ignited before the Earth formed. What is very likely the case, however, if that is so, is that the early Sun and Moon were for a long time invisible from the surface of the proto-Earth, as it was still forming. If so, then the events described as taking place on days 2 and 3 followed the creation of the Sun and Moon, but the Sun and Moon became visible after them.

As to “heaven” in 1:14-17, shouldn’t we say, as the illustrators sometimes show, that God dwells in the clouds or among the stars? Is that not a sufficient sense of “heaven”?

Perhaps early theologians thought so, but we now know they would have been mistaken, because the regions above the clouds—outer space, with its planets and stars—are every bit as “fleshly” as the rest of the material creation. It seems to have been thought that the loftier regions were not like “here below,” so it was possible to think of a spiritual heaven as being simply, “up there.” But Copernicus and even more modern astronomy and space exploration have shown that space is material and not particularly holy. Yet we are specifically told that God is “a spirit” (John 4:24). Visions of God on his throne, and surrounded by adoring angels (e.g., Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 4), are distinctly otherworldly visions and typically interpreted as somewhat clumsy, metaphorical attempts to describe wholly spiritual visions. So any divine dwelling place cannot reside “at” any particular place “in” this material world.

What does it mean to say the Sun and Moon “rule over the day and over the night” (Gen 1:18)?

This does not suggest the author indulged in a pagan sort of personalization of these objects, or that he was tipping his hat toward Egyptian and other mythology. Of course the author of Genesis 1 did not mean to avow Sun and Moon gods (which, again, is perhaps one reason they were not named as such). The language of Genesis is poetic, though not poetry. Doubtless, the pagan traditions ultimately suggested the metaphor of the Sun “ruling” the day, just in the sense that it was the most prominent universal presence in daytime; but this hardly meant that the author of Genesis 1 took the metaphor to be understood literal. That language even as early in the Bible as this first chapter could be metaphorical is obvious. This is said to be “divided” by God from that; there are six “days” which are probably metaphorical; Sun and Moon are “great lights”; animals are enjoined to be “fruitful”; man is said to have “dominion,” as if royalty; etc.