Luther on the Meaning of “Heaven” in Genesis 1

Genesis 1:1-8 deals with the first two days of creation and the formation of heaven and earth. In the 1549 Matthew Bible[1] these verses, gently updated,[2] read:

1 In the beginning God created heaven and earth.

2 The earth was without form and empty, and darkness was upon the deep water, and the Spirit of God moved upon the water.

3 Then God said, Let there be light, and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good, and divided the light from the darkness,

5 and called the light the day, and the darkness the night. And so of the evening and morning was made the first day.

6 And God said, Let there be a firmament(a) between the waters, and let it divide the waters apart.

7 Then God made the firmament, and parted the waters that were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament; and it was so.

8 And God called the firmament heaven. And so of the evening and morning was made the second day.

According to St. Jerome, because of its great difficulty the ancient Hebrews would not allow anyone under the age of thirty to read the first chapter of Genesis. (I do not mean to suggest that this is a good thing; it is never good to withhold truth or the word of God.) Martin Luther observed that, though the language of Genesis is simple, it speaks about matters of the utmost importance and very difficult to understand. He said the theologians hardly agreed about anything in Genesis 1 except that the world was made from nothing. He rejected Augustine’s position that the days of Genesis 1 were allegorical: he believed in a literal six-day creation event (as I also do), and that the phrase “in the beginning” means at the beginning of time. (The Matthew Bible contained two charts that gave the history of time and the earth from two different young-earth perspectives. See here.)

In this post I draw from Luther’s lectures on Genesis.[3] As he said, some things we can only dimly understand, such as the formlessness of the earth at the beginning of the first day. Other things must remain in the realm of mystery, such as the nature of the waters that are above the firmament.[4] However, there is one question about which Luther was firm and clear: the meaning of “heaven,” which translates the Hebrew word shawmah-yim. Luther said the Holy Spirit uses the term “heaven” in the Scriptures differently than astronomers or philosophers do in their writings, and we must keep to the diction of the Scripture.

The meaning of “heaven” in the language of the Holy Spirit

While Scripture sometimes refers to heaven as the dwelling place of God and the angels (e.g. 1Ki. 8:39-49, 2Ch. 6:21), the first book of Genesis deals with the creation of the physical universe. Luther explained that in Genesis 1:1-2, before the physical world and heaven were fully formed, the words “heaven,” “deep water,” and “water”[5] were used for the same thing; namely, for the dark abyss of water that overlay the mass of the earth beneath. Luther imagined this deep water as an “ooze” or “mist.”[6]

During the first creation day, earth and heaven were unformed masses. Verse 6 tells us that in the second day, the ooze or mist of deep water above the earth was parted to create the firmament, which God called heaven. Rogers explained in a note:

MB note on Genesis 1:6: Firmament, or heaven. Psalm 136:5 and 8:3. It is a Hebrew word and signifies thrusting forth or spreading abroad.

Luther repeatedly stressed that this “firmament” or “heaven” means and includes the entire area above the surface of the earth. It is not limited to the skies above us, but includes the air we breathe and where small birds hop on the ground, the upper atmosphere where the clouds are and where great birds fly, and the heavens where the moon, sun, planets, and stars orbit.[7] Luther called the entire area of heaven the “upper structure” (p.33). However, in some passages only certain parts of the upper structure are meant. For example, where the Bible speaks of heaven being shut so that it does not rain, it is referring to the atmosphere below the clouds. Then again, where it speaks of the lights in the firmament of heaven, it means the upper spheres of outer space.

Some of Luther’s comments:

  • It is plain that, in Holy Scripture, the air in which we live is called “heaven” because Scripture speaks of “the birds of the heaven.” Likewise, it says that the heaven is shut up when it is not raining; likewise, it says that the heaven rains. All this happens in the air, not in the spheres of the moon or of the other planets.
  • Moreover, in the term “heaven” is included all that the philosophers divide into the eight spheres [i.e. the skies and outer space].
  • Just as a philosopher employs his own terms, so the Holy Spirit, too, employs his. An astronomer, therefore, does right when he uses the terms “spheres,” “apsides,” [etc.]. By way of contrast, the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture know nothing about those designations and call the entire area above us “heaven.” Nor should an astronomer find fault with this; let each of the two speak in his own terminology.
  • But let me add this for the sake of the less learned: that what we call the “horizon” often occurs in Scripture under the designation “heaven.” Hence the entire firmament is called the heaven of heavens, wherein are included the heavens of all human beings; that is, their horizons. In this way we have here another heaven than those people have who are in France or in Italy. [8]

Modern translations of shawmah-yim.

However, increasingly scholars have changed the translation of shawmah-yim to indicate only the upper spheres. It is common now to find Genesis 1:1 translated as below:

NKJV: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

The New King James Version changed “heaven,” which the KJV had, to “the heavens.” However, “the heavens” indicates only the upper spheres. My Oxford Dictionary of Modern English gives the following definition:

The heavens: the sky as the abode of the sun, moon, and stars.[9]

Therefore the NKJV, and all the modern Bibles that adopt this translation, contradict Luther. They agree more closely with Strong’s Concordance:

Strong, shawmah-yim: The sky (as aloft; the dual perh. alluding to the visible arch in which the clouds move, as well as to the higher ether where the celestial bodies revolve).[10]

Strong says that, as the “sky aloft,” shawmah-yim may “perhaps” refer to the upper atmosphere where the clouds are, but he would only be definite about its reference to the “higher ether,” or outer space. However, in Genesis 1:26, 28, and 30, the MB and many other Bibles translate shawmah-yim as “air” in the phrase “birds of the air,” which shows that shawmah-yim is not generally understood as limited to the higher ether.

People will have to decide between the Matthew Bible (and the older versions that retain “heaven”) and modern Bibles that have “the heavens.” For many reasons, especially as set out in Part 2 of The Story of the Matthew Bible (due for publication before the end of 2020 if things go as planned), I trust Luther and the Matthew Bible. On the other hand, I have learned to be cautious about the modern translations, and also about Strong. I discuss Strong’s unorthodox treatment of the Hebrew sheol (hell) in my paper on Hell, and show how he and modern scholars have significantly changed foundational doctrine.

The New Matthew Bible

In the interest of clarity, in the NMB I am planning to add Luther’s teaching to Rogers’ note on Genesis 1:6. It is important to establish at the beginning of the Bible the full sense of “heaven,” and to counteract modern influences. My comment will be in square brackets, which readers of the October Testament will recognize as the format used there. Below is the note I am currently considering:

John Rogers note on Genesis 1:6: Firmament, or heaven. Psalm 136:5 and 8:3. It is a Hebrew word and signifies thrusting forth or spreading abroad. [Luther>In the Scriptures heaven means the entire expanse of air, sky, and outer space that extends from the surface of the earth upward: the horizon. It may also refer to any part of this expanse; e.g., birds of heaven means the birds of the air, while stars of heaven refers to the upper spheres.]

R.M.D., October 2020

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[1] There are small differences between the 1537 and 1549 Matthew Bible. I use the 1549 version.

[2] In verse 2, I updated “void” to “without form,” which is also how the KJV had it. “Void” was used here in an obsolete sense meaning formless or featureless. Also, I updated “the deep” to “the deep water,” to make it clear. In English “the deep” literally meant “the deep water,” which appears to accord well with Luther and the Hebrew. In verse 6, “asunder” was also updated to “apart.”

[3] Luther’s lectures on Genesis comprise volumes 1-8 in the American edition of Luther’s Works. Here I draw from pages 3-48 in volume 1.

[4] At page 31 Luther wrote, “it cannot be denied that, as Moses says, there are waters above the heavens; but I readily confess that I do not know of what sort those waters are. Scripture mentions them nowhere else except in this passage and in the song of the three lads [Daniel 3:60 in the LXX]. We cannot establish anything certain concerning all similar matters, such as the heaven in which the angels and God dwell with the blessed.”

[5] Luther’s exact words were, “water and abyss and heaven are used in this passage for the same thing.” (LW, Vol. 1, p.9) He also explained that the Hebrew noun for “heaven” is derived from the word “water,” and therefore denotes something watery, or which has a watery nature (Ibid., p.23). His understanding was that if there were no sun, which dries the air, the atmosphere would be much wetter than it now is.

[6] Ibid., 6, 8, 24.

[7] One question that remains in my mind is whether the mysterious waters above the firmament (v.7) could in some contexts be included in the term “heaven.” Unless I have misunderstood, Luther is inconsistent in that usage. The Scripture might also use the term inconsistently, with the reference to be derived from the context.

[8] LW, Vol. 1, pages 29, 29, 47-48, and 31 respectively.

[9] I use the Canadian edition of the Oxford Modern English Dictionary. I should note that Tyndale, in his Old Testament glossary, indicated that “firmament” meant “the skies.” My guess is that he meant it in the sense that Luther described it as “the horizon.” In this sense it is the “visible arch” called the skies but does not exclude the air in which we move and live.

[10] I have the popular Welch’s edition of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.