Does the Bible Speak of a Vapour Canopy?

A vapour canopy about the antediluvian earth has been proposed occasionally through the centuries. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate (c. A.D. 400), described a canopy, 'compactae et densiores aquae'.1 White infers this to mean a canopy of ice.2 Immanuel Kant suggested more than two centuries ago that the Flood might have been caused by the collapse of a vapour "ring",3 an idea later proposed independently by Isaac N. Vail in 18744 Dillow recently hypothesised a forty-foot column of water vapour six miles above the earth.5

Some proponents like a watery canopy; others prefer an icy model. But does the Bible suggest a canopy at all?

The following verses, when read together, particularly in a literal translation, are enough to cause one to suspect a canopy of some sort: GENESIS 1:6-7; 2:5-6,10; 3:8; 6:17; 7:6-12,17; 8:2; 9:11,15,28; 10:1,32; 11:10; PSALM 18:11; 29:10; and 2 PETER 3:5-6.

GENESIS 1:2 depicts a geoidal earth totally covered with water. Two Hebrew words, tehom, normally translated "the deep", and hamayim, "the waters", are both found in verse two. Driver says that tehom as used here does not mean what the deep, or the sea, would denote to the modern world, but rather "the primitive undivided waters; the huge watery mass which the writer conceived as enveloping the earth."6 These waters pictured in verse 2 completely covered our planet, forming a hydrosphere upon the earth and apparently a hot, steamy atmosphere for some miles above the earth - an utterly uninhabitable chaos. Such is the condition of the earth as the Spirit of God initiates His first creative act on Day One.

Following the creation of light, God deals with teom, the "bathic deep". Two acts are necessary for this: the separation of the waters above the earth from the waters below, and the raising of the land and the forcing of the oceans into their allotted areas. In verse 7, "God made the sky [firmament]" and He used the sky to "separate [i.e. establish order between] the waters under the sky from the waters above the sky." The words of verse 7 thus describe the establishment of the antediluvian vapour canopy. Without a perception of this canopy, Bible students are mystified about the significance of the second day's work.

"The waters above" were called mabbul, a specific Hebrew designation to distinguish the canopy from the waters below, teom, "the oceans". Although mabbul is not specifically used in chapter one, it does appear subsequently, particularly in the Flood narrative, as later biblical authors correctly recall the canopy's former existence. Von Rad exegetes the scripture brilliantly:

"An understanding... of the Flood depends materially on the correct translation of the word mabbul. Mabbul does not mean "flood", "inundation", or even "destruction", but it is a technical term for a part of the world structure, namely, the heavenly ocean. This heavenly sea, which is above the firmament (raqia), empties downward... We must understand the Flood, therefore, as a catastrophe involving the entire cosmos. When the heavenly ocean breaks forth upon the earth below, and the primeval sea beneath the earth, which is restrained by God, now freed from its bonds, gushes up through yawning chasms onto the earth, then there is a destruction of the entire cosmic system according to biblical cosmogony. The two halves of the chaotic primeval sea, separated - the one up, the other below - by God's creative government, are again united; creation begins to sink again into chaos. Here the catastrophe, therefore, concerns not only men and beasts... but the earth - indeed, the entire cosmos."7

Mabbul then is the specific term for "the waters above", and our English versions should use the words "the canopy" or an appropriate synonym each time mabbul appears. Brown, Driver & Briggs, in their classic Hebrew lexicon, state that mabbul "seems... to be almost a proper name..."8 Indeed, twice it appears without the definite article, suggesting its use as a proper name. The word is found 13 times in the Old Testament, and it is commonly mistranslated, as Von Rad notes. Translating all the words except mabbul in these passages, we see as follows:

  1. "For behold, I will bring mabbul of waters upon the earth..." (GENESIS 6:17a).
  2. "Noah was six hundred years old when mabbul of waters came upon the earth" (GENESIS 7:6).
  3. "And Noah... went into the ark, to escape the waters of mabbul" (GENESIS 7:7).
  4. "And after seven days the waters of mabbul came upon the earth" (GENESIS 7:10).
  5. "Mabbul continued forty days upon the earth" (GENESIS 7:17a).
  6. "...[N]ever again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of mabbul..."
  7. "...and there is no longer mabbul to wipe out the earth" (GENESIS 9:11b,c).
  8. "...No longer shall there be the waters - namely, mabbul - to wipe out all flesh" (GENESIS 9:15b).
  9. "After mabbul Noah lived three hundred and fifty years" (GENESIS 9:28).
  10. "...[S]ons were born to them after mabbul" (GENESIS 10:1b).
  11. "...[A]nd from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after mabbul" (GENESIS 10:32b).
  12. "...[H]e became the father of Arphaxad two years after mabbul" (GENESIS 11:10c).
  13. "The LORD sat enthroned over mabbul, the LORD is enthroned as King forever" (PSALM 29:10).

2 PETER 3:5,13, which is such a helpful New Testament commentary on the Creation and the Flood, also confirms the two "waters" - Teom and mabbul.

"...[A]n earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which [Greek: di hon, plural] the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished." (2 PETER 3:5-6)

The writer's choice of the genitive plural "which", shows his astute perception of the actual conditions prior to the Flood.

As may be seen from GENESIS 9:11 and 9:15, mabbul no longer exists; it was condensed out during the Flood several millennia ago. Today the atmosphere scarcely contains even inches of water vapour. Yet even the psalmist correctly recalls - many centuries later - the canopy's earlier existence (PSALM 29:10).

Noah stepped out of the ark into a brand-new world - now with more water than land after 40 days of rain. The sons of Noah, no longer threatened by hostile "giants", found a new threat - an increasingly-severe climatic regime, without the protecting antediluvian canopy.

Von Rad has confirmed from his exegesis of Genesis that the Flood involved the entire cosmos. 2 PETER 3:5-6 likewise pictures both the heavens and the earth having been violently re-ordered during the Flood, and then verse 7 gives the most specific New Testament portrayal of the future universal destruction by fire.

Still we are given a glorious hope. God not only assures us in GENESIS 9:11 and 9:15 that "there will no longer be a mabbul to wipe out the earth," but He also promises in REVELATION 21:1 that even teom, the ever-threatening waters below, will one day be eliminated: "...and the sea was no more."

by R. Russell Bixler

Source: 'Bible Science Newsletter'

 References

  • 1. J.-P. Migne, 'Patrologia Latina, Vol.XXII', p.659.
  • 2. A. D. White, 'A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Vol.I'. D. Appleton & Co., N.Y., 1898, p.324.
  • 3. F. C. Haber, 'The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin'. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959, p.150.
  • 4. I. N. Vail, 'The Earth's Annular System'. Pasadena: Annular World Co., 4th ed., 1912, p.v.
  • 5. J. C. Dillow, 'The Waters Above'. Chicago: Moody Press, 1981, p.247f.
  • 6. S. R. Driver, 'The Book of Genesis', London: Methuen, 1904, p.4.
  • 7. Von Rad, 'Genesis'. Philadelphia, Westminster, 1961, p.124. Cf. F. Delitzsch, 'A New Commentary on Genesis'. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1888, p.78.
  • 8. F. Brown, S. R. Driver and C. A. Briggs, 'A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament'. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1907 (reprinted 1959), p.650.