Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 1:1–3

Genesis 1:1–3
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2 Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.  3 God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.
(NET Bible)

God Begins Everything

The Bible begins by asserting a fact: to answer those who wonder why anything is here at all, the author of Genesis says God created everything. Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham quotes another scholar in saying, “’The first subject of Genesis and the Bible is God.’”[1]

Of course, many scientists abhor the idea that Genesis 1:1 presents a definite beginning brought about by God. The agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow has written:

When a scientist writes about God, his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers. . . . However, I am fascinated by the implications in some of the scientific developments of recent years [i.e. the Big Bang]. The essence of these developments is that the Universe had, in some sense, a beginning — that it began at a certain moment in time, and under circumstances that seem to make it impossible — not just now, but ever — to find out what force or forces brought the world into being at that moment. Was it, as the Bible says, “Thine all powerful hand that creates the world out of formless matter”? No scientist can answer that question; we can never tell whether the Prime Mover willed the world into being or the creative agent was one of the forces of physics; for the astronomical evidence proves that the Universe was created 15 billion years ago in a fiery explosion, and in the searing heat of that first moment, all the evidence needed for a scientific study of the cause of the great explosion was melted down and destroyed.[2]

Many scientists earnestly wish scientists like Jastrow would not say such things. His remarks reveal that scientists rely on faith just as Christians do; only the object of faith differs. The event Jastrow describes is the “Big Bang,” the prevailing theory of how the universe began. Some scientists have strongly resisted the Big Bang model of origins because a definite beginning for the universe takes the discussion too far toward the words of Genesis.[3]

But let us turn from the committed skepticism of some scientists to gain a better understanding of the biblical text. The word for “God” in Gen. 1:1, Hebrew elohim, is the most common word for deity and can be used for any god. The author of Genesis intentionally used elohim to let it be known that the creator of the whole universe is the God he describes, not merely some local deity. In part, Genesis counters other religious views of creation common in the ancient east.

Wenham explains: “It is important to appreciate the fact that Hebrew elohim is not simply synonymous with English ‘God.’ Thanks to secularism, God has become for many people little more than an abstract philosophical concept. But the biblical view avoids such abstractions.”[4] While contemporary society tends to marginalize God, the Bible shows that he is central to all that happens.

In saying “the heavens and the earth,” the author of Genesis uses a figure of speech (merism) that means “the universe.” We use the same type of idiom today when we say we refashioned something from top to bottom.

The Hebrew verb b?r?’, (Gen. 1:1) means “God creates,”[5] which makes clear the lexical fact that God is the only subject of this verb in the Old Testament. (Verbs normally take more than one kind of subject.) Ross offers a significant word study of b?r?’, and concludes:

The word b?r?’ is used exclusively for the activity of God in which he fashions something anew. The word can be used for creating something out of nothing, but that idea must come from the context and not from the inherent meaning of this word.[6]

Genesis 1:1 tells us the world did not just happen by chance. At a stroke, Genesis 1:1 sweeps aside atheism, cynicism, pantheism, humanism and naturalism. In their place we have God!

Many scholars have debated the complex details of Gen. 1:1–2, which is not surprising. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke presents the most convincing conclusion, held by many, when he says:

The evidence, therefore, seems convincing that verse 1 should be construed as a broad, general declaration of the fact that God created the cosmos, and that the rest of the chapter explicates [expands] this statement. . . . It is concluded, therefore, that the structure of the account of the creation of the cosmos is as follows:

I. Introductory summary statement, 1:1.

II. Situation prior to the creation, 1:2.

III. Narrative of creation, 1:3–31.[7]

The Unformed Earth

The NET Bible Notes describe the state of the earth before the creative activity of God (Gen. 1:2): “What we now know as ‘the earth’ was actually an unfilled mass covered by water and darkness.”[8] In such a world there was nothing to distinguish any point from any other point; it was an empty, lifeless wasteland. Only later would God add an abundance of life to the oceans (Gen. 1:20) — but not yet.

Concerning Genesis 1:2, which he headlines as the “Negative State of Earth before Creation,” Waltke says: “The starting point of the story may be somewhat surprising. There is no word of God creating the planet earth or darkness or the watery chaos. The narrator begins the story with the planet already present, although undifferentiated and unformed.”[9]

In addition to being featureless and empty, the primeval earth was shrouded in “darkness,” waiting for God’s light-bearing word (Gen. 1:3). Most of us live in cities filled with ambient light, even at night. But this darkness (Hebrew, roughly k?shek) was pitch black; when it occurred during the plague of darkness in Pharaoh’s Egypt, the Egyptians had to grope for anything they sought (Exod. 10:21). Their eyes were useless! Ross says, “Darkness throughout the Bible represents evil and death — it is not conducive to life.”[10]

In this featureless gloom over the primeval world, the Spirit of God “was moving” over the surface of the water just as surely as darkness covered the surface of the deep. The Spirit moved in readiness (Gen. 1:2) to breathe life into the creation in a similar way to the Lord God subsequently breathing into Adam’s nostrils “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Nothing comes about in either case apart from the creative activity of God! The key activity in Gen. 1:2 is the “moving” of the Spirit of God; apart from the Spirit’s presence, the earth would have remained lifeless and shrouded in darkness.

The “God said” formula occurs ten times in chapter one (verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29), and in every case immediate change results. In Gen. 1:3, the author even uses short forms of the verbs to make the sentence as powerfully brief as possible. The Net Bible Notes say these verbs “form a profound wordplay [yehi ’or vayehi ’or; “let there be light and there was light”] to express both the calling into existence and the complete fulfillment of the divine word.”[11]

Wenham points out: “Throughout Scripture the word of God is characteristically both creative and effective. . . . But in this creation narrative these qualities are even more apparent.”[12]

In relation to “light,” Wenham says, “Light is often used metaphorically for life, salvation, the commandments, and the presence of God (Ps. 56:14; Isa. 9:1; Prov. 6:23; Exod. 10:23). It is the antithesis, literally and metaphorically, of k?shek ‘darkness.’”[13] For those who are wondering what the source of light might be, Waltke says, “Since the sun is only later introduced as the immediate cause of light, the chronology of the text emphasizes that God is the ultimate source of light.”[14] In Gen. 1:4, “God saw how beautiful the light was” (Hamilton’s translation).[15]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 14, quoting O. Procksch.

[2] Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, Second Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000) 9–10.

[3] Hugh Ross, “Big Bang Model Refined by Fire,” Mere Creation, ed. William A. Dembski (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 363, 369.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 15.

[5] HALOT, bara’, God creates, q.v.

[6] Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988) 728.

[7] Bruce K. Waltke, “The Creation Account in Genesis 1:1–3; Part III,” Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 132, num. 527 (July-September, 1975) 227–228.

[8] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 1:2.

[9] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 59. Hamilton reaches the same conclusion (Genesis, 117); so does Ross (Creation & Blessing, 104–107).

[10] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 106.

[11] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 1:3.

[12] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 18.

[13] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 18.

[14] Waltke, Genesis, 61.

[15] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 118.

 

This entry was posted in Genesis, God, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!