Exposition of Genesis 1-11: Genesis 1:1-3

Genesis 1:1-3

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
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 bara, (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 bara, and concludes:

The word bar 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 Gods light-bearing word (Gen. 1:3). Most of us live in cities filled with ambient light, even at night. But this darkness (Hebrew, roughly koshek) was pitch black; when it occurred during the plague of darkness in Pharaohs 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 Adams 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 Spirits 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 (Hamiltons translation).[15]

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. 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, quotingO. Procksch.

[2] Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, Second Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000) 910.

[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.


Short Introduction to the Study of Genesis 1-11

No book of the Old Testament has received as much scholarly attention as Genesis. But that is not necessarily good news because, like the Internet, Genesis scholarship contains ample amounts of trash mixed with the treasure. In the brief discussion that follows we will rely on comments from evangelical Christian scholars whose views are generally consistent with what the church held to be true for the first seventeen centuries after Jesus rose from the dead.

Definition of a few terms

Before presenting a few quotations to clarify Genesis, we will establish a few terms. The Hebrew word Yahweh (yhwh) is what God revealed as his personal or covenant name, first in Genesis 2:4. Yahweh is usually translated Lord in English Bibles. One of our early quotes will include the phrase Yahwistic faith, and that uses the divine name in the form of an adjective; Yahwistic faith means faith in Yahweh.

When the Hebrew authors of biblical books used the word God in a more general sense, they used the Hebrew word elohim. This Hebrew word is sometimes used to refer to God, as in Genesis 1:1, and other times used to refer to the false gods worshipped by unbelievers.

Two other words will prove useful. The word primeval means: Belonging to the first ages; pristine; original; primitive; primary.[1] The word patriarch means: The father and ruler of a family; one who governs his family or descendants by paternal right.[2]

The nature of biblical history

The historical viewpoint of Genesis also pertains to the whole of the Bible. Old Testament scholar Alan Ross says:

The biblical account is actually a unique distillation of history…. It is less interested in recording events for the sake of history than in using these events as vehicles for communicating the verities of biblical faith. The Bible presents an interpretation of significant events from the perspective of Yahwistic faith.

In the biblical idea of history, the conviction concerning the reality and authority of Yahweh is the point of departure for any evaluation. Robinson says, The Bible takes it as axiomatic that God controls history, reveals himself in history, and directs it towards a final goal.[3]

The literary classification of Genesis

Those who cannot abide belief in a supernatural God who created the world and humanity like to categorize Genesis as myth or saga. Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton says, Anything that is treated as the work of a supernatural being, but which a scientific worldview would interpret as the operation of impersonal laws and forces, is by this position understood as myth.[4]

The faithless approach described above emerged from the rise of a philosophical rationalism which seeks to put the Bible under the skeptical judgment of human scholarship. Of course, philosophical rationalism is not the view we accept or use in this study guide. We begin with the understanding that Genesis is part of Gods revelation to mankind, and we seek to understand how God has presented it.

Ross gives a useful description of the mixed literary types we find in Genesis:

It may be necessary to classify the three sections of Genesis individually. The primeval events [Genesis 1-11] are ancient traditions cast in a poetic narrative form that lends itself readily to oral transmission. The patriarchal events [Genesis 12-36] are reports about the ancestors that were retained in the family records. And the Joseph material [Genesis 37-50] forms a short story with its arc of tension and its resolution.[5]

The themes of Genesis

Ross presents some essential ideas that will help the reader understand what Genesis is all about:

Even a casual reading of the Book of Genesis reveals the prominence of the theme of blessing. The entire book turns on this motif and its antithetical motif, cursing. . . . There is another side to this tension between blessing and cursing, a conflict that works out on the human level and corresponds to the blessing and cursing. The motifs of good and evil characterize the human activities and circumstances in this struggle. That which is good is harmonious with the divine will; that which is evil conflicts with the divine will.[6]

Hamilton has drawn attention to another prominent theme. After noting that the patriarchal history constitutes about four fifths of Genesis, he says: Almost everybody who has written on the subject agrees that the theme of divine promise unites the patriarchal [accounts].[7] Hamilton then presents the findings of D.J.A. Clines. Clines identified three major promises in the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) known collectively as the Pentateuch. The promises from God relate to descendants, a relationship to God, and a land. Clines data breaks down like this:

  1. promise of descendants: Genesis, 19 times
  2. promise of relationship: Genesis, 10 times; Exodus, 8 times; Leviticus, 1 time
  3. promise of land: Genesis, 13 times; Exodus, 5 times
  4. allusions to the promise: Genesis, 17 times; Exodus, 11 times; Leviticus, 11 times; Numbers, 37 times; Deuteronomy, 50 times[8]

After establishing his view that the kingdom of God is the theme of the Bible, Bruce Waltke says the following themes of the kingdom emerge from Genesis: the seed [spiritual sons of Abraham], the land, Gods rule, the Ruler.[9] Whether you agree with this analysis, the attempt to tie Genesis into the entirety of the Bible is useful.

The literary structure of Genesis

Readers of Genesis will notice a refrain that repeats throughout the book: This is the account of . . . or These are the generations of . . . . The Hebrew behind these English words is regarded as a structural marker separating various sections of the book.

Ross expresses the meaning of the Hebrew marker (tledt) as: this is what became of ____, or this is where it started from (with reference to the following subject).[10] So, when we find the marker tledt in Genesis 2:4, it means, This is what became of the heavens and the earth. In Genesis 6:9, the term means, This is what became of Noah.

So, we have a sequence of stories that explain what became of the heavens and earth and important people such as Adam, Noah, Isaac and Jacob. But we must also notice a perceptible decline from the beginning of Genesis to the end. Ross quotes commentator Derek Kidner about this decline by saying: Man had travelled from Eden to a coffin [Josephs], and the chosen family far from Canaan to Egypt.[11]

Along with decline we have a narrowing of focus. In Genesis 1 the focus is universal when God creates the heavens and the earth. By the end of Genesis we are almost exclusively involved with the children of Jacob, whose descendants soon fell into disfavor with a new Pharaoh (Exodus 1). But they are the inheritors of Gods promises, and his hand is upon them.

Within each major section of Genesis the reader will find a deterioration due to sins pervasive reach. While God started the creation in pristine condition (very good, Genesis 1:31), by the time of Noah evil had become so widespread that God found it necessary to destroy all life on earth except for the family of Noah and those animals he took with him (Genesis 6). Similarly, Abraham exhibited greater faith than Isaac or Jacob. The reader should watch for this theme, which is unstated or implicit in the manner of most narrative literature.

The Flood

Genesis chapters 6-9 tell the somber story of how God destroyed his original creation by flooding it with water because of rampant violence. Many otherwise orthodox Christians wonder if this story is just a legend, but we offer three key reasons for upholding a world-wide flood which destroyed all but the tiniest part of human life, which God chose to spare:

  1. The Bible presents the flood in the same language as for all other historical events.
  2. Jesus plainly stated that the flood occurred just as Genesis describes it (Luke 17:27; Matt. 24:37-39).
  3. Dozens of cultures around the world have ancient stories of a world-wide flood. For an excellent chart and comparison, see http://nwcreation.net/noahlegends.html.

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



Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 115, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987).

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).

Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996).


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


Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008). [Recommended]

Recommended Reading!

Tremper Longman III, How To Read Genesis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

[1] “primeval.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Aug. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/primeval>.

[2] “patriarch.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Aug. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/patriarch>.

[3] Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988) 59.

[4] 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) 56-57.

[5] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 63.

[6] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 65-67.

[7] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 39.

[8] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 42.

[9] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001)45-54.

[10] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 72-73.

[11] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 74.