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Home > Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis > Issue 5

BibleJourney: Genesis

Issue 5

ISSN 1535-5187

When God Began to Create. Genesis 1.1-2
by Winn Griffin, D.Min.

A Quick Glance

Let's Begin
Morning has broken
    Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
    Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
    Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing
    Fresh from the Word!

So says the hymn by Eleanor Farjeon. This catches the essence of the beginning story of Scripture that affirms that God's creation came "fresh from his word."

We live in an era that is different from the era in which this story first appeared. Because of our culture, we ask different questions form what the ancients would have asked. We want to know how God created. We want to know if big bang is a possibility. We want to know how life began on earth. We want to know if there is life anywhere else in the universe. We are beginning to ask if God created and gave us the power to create, is cloning humans okay?

The story of creation presented in Genesis 1.1-2.4a is not equipped to answer such questions. As we have pointed out previously this story is not a scientific treatise. Rather, it is a theological work presented in a narrative or story form.

Rather than trying to figure out with scientific certainness what a text means, it carries a theological meaning. An illustration would be that the dawn of the very first day created by God carries an expectation of a dawn of a new age. In the beginning God created out of chaos and set Adam and Eve in Eden to till and keep it. At the end of time God will again create out of chaos a new Eden, peopled by a new creation.

God Calls a People
Into the ancient world of polytheism (belief in the existence of many gods or divine beings) God called his people to be monotheistic (believing only in him). When Israel was delivered from their bondage in polytheistic Egypt [ Map ] and journeyed toward polytheistic Canaan, God began the long process of training them to relate to him and not to all the other gods that were at hand. It is difficult for our Western mind to grasp that almost everything in their culture was divine. There was a sun god, a moon god, a light god, a darkness god, a sky god, a sea god, male gods, female gods, and the list goes on and on. Israel was faced with learning and relating to the one and only God, the creator of the universe in which they lived and moved.

As Israel camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, they could not shake the polytheism of Egypt. They were headed into the land that God had promised which was filled and fueled by the worship of many gods. Israel needed a clear word about who God was. On their journey, they had witnessed his power and judgment. It is not difficult to picture the family meetings at night as they sat around their campfires as the story of creation was told and retold. In simple rhythmic form, they learned about their God and how he was different from the many gods of the land they were to inherit.

With impact and power, they learned that God spoke and the world came into existence! The world was not itself divine. The great lights in the heavens were not deities. God and God alone was deity. He had created all that there was. Genesis 1 rehearses these great acts. From nothing to a beautiful world filled with his creation, Genesis rings out a clear message: God is creator!

Genesis 1.1-2.4a as a whole story is a small treatise against polytheism. In our time, we have seen the rise of Creation Science, which is an effort to give scientific proof for the account of the creation of the universe. We must note that the first chapters of Genesis predate science. These chapters have no interest in discussing science, teaching science, nor entering into any argumentation about scientific assumptions. These opening chapters, as well as the rest of Scripture, are theological in scope and nature. Their only intent is to teach us about who God is, not what he did or how he did it. The crucial teaching of this section of Scripture centers on polytheism versus monotheism. That was the burning need of their day and time. Hearing it as the first people may have heard and recited it would be very different from the way certain American groups, thousands of years later in the middle of a scientific age, might think and speak about it.

Genesis 1.1-2
The first word in the text of Genesis.Genesis is re' shiyth (pronounced ray-sheeth ). It is translated in most versions as in the beginning. In the beginning is not just a simple reflection of temporal time. It announced the setting in motion of a series of events. The phrase is pregnant with the end. The creative acts of God set history in motion determining its flow toward a specific end. It can be translated, when God began to create.

The simple sounding phrase in the beginning is really not that simple. We must note that it is not the beginning of everything because God predates this beginning. Because our dialogue partner is often science and not theology, we just try too hard to prove something out of nothing. Could it be possible that beginning is no more that the "beginning of our story as a human race." We often try to define the English translated word without thinking about the Hebrew word from which we are translating. Our English word beginning indicates the beginning of something. However, with closer examination we might discover that the Hebrew usage might not carry the same implication. A great concern that we should hold in tension is our propensity to think in our own cultural and linguistic categories when trying to interpret words in Scripture. Make no mistake about it, we are all interpreting, even those of us that often boast that we are only reading the "plain meaning" of the text. The so-called "plain meaning" of the text is also an interpretation and usually an interpretation of the English words only. We shouldn't be shocked by our tendencies to read within our categories, after all they are often the only categories that we know. A simple exegesis of the English word beginning will not do in trying to understand what the storyteller meant.

While re' shiyth (ray-sheeth) may refer to the beginning of something it can have other meanings. It can mean an initial period or durationof time rather than a specific point in time. In Jeremiah 28.1 the prophet speaks about the beginning (re' shiyth, ray-sheeth) period of Zedekiah's kingship. This was a period of time, not a point in time.

It may then be well to translate the Genesis 1.1 as: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void…(New Revised Standard Version. NRSV). Thus "in the beginning" does not point to a point in time in which there was nothing and God began to create, but rather, a period of creative time that encompasses the six days of creation. One may conclude that the verse is not suggesting that anything was created in 1.1, but that the verse is an introduction and summary of what follows. The period of time indicated by verse 1 is events discussed in chapter 1.

Again and again we must be reminded that understanding words in the Hebrew Bible are within Hebrew terms not English terms. Most all translations use the word created to translate the Hebrew word bara (pronounced baw-raw ) . Bara appears forty-eight times in the Hebrew Bible and in all its uses God is the subject, thus bara is a divine activity. However, what is created is diverse: Jerusalem (Isa 65.18); people groups (Ezek. 21.30), things like wind, fire, darkness, etc. (Ex. 34.10, Num. 16.30). Bara is not the creation of material by manufacturing. It does not appear in a context where material is mentioned. Manufacturing is not the issue. Bara's essence concerns itself with the creation of the cosmos (universe, heavens and earth is a merism (merismus), together they represent the entirety of the created cosmos) and suggests that this initial period of beginning was a time when God gives roles and functions to his creation. It is true that Scripture later supports the idea that God created matter from nothing (Col. 1.16-17; Heb. 11.3), but this is not the idea being forwarded by the storyteller of Genesis 1.

It is more likely that the storyteller's concern was much like other storytellers of the ancient world where the greatest exercise of power was not that a god created something out of nothing, but rather the amount of power that the gods had in fixing the destinies, i.e., the fixing of roles and functions. Again, the dialog partner is not science, how did God create the universe, but it is polytheism. And against that dialog partner, the storyteller affirms that it is the Hebrew God who has the exclusive authority to create roles and functions to his cosmos.

Israel's needs at the foot of Sinai were many. Among them was their need to understand their calling in the world that God had created. They needed to understand that God was a God of order and that by his power he could bring clarity to their function with the chaos of their own world. For them the beginning of the story was a clear word of order in a foggy world of chaos.

There is no definition of God that is offered in these opening verses. Unlike the pagan cosmologies, Genesis displays no interest in the question of God's origin. His existence prior to the world is self-evident. These verses demonstrate that God's nature finds expression through his acts, not through philosophical or scientific hypothesis.

There is no grammatical tradition that supports the supposed Gap Theory (that the creation of verse 1 was destroyed and a new creation occurred in verse 2). The next phrase "formless and empty" (NIV) is a hendiadys (the use of two independent words that are connected by the word "and" which express a single concept (such as grace and favor for gracious favor). Verse 2 pictures God during a period of time bringing order out of chaos. James Barr suggests: "Genesis is interested in an organized world, as against a chaotic world, and not in the metaphysical question of something against nothing." (J. Barr. "Was Everything that God Created Really Good?" in God in the Fray. Editors T Linafelt and T.K. Beal Fortress Press. 1998. 62).

In the ancient world, chaos was a concern. The gods of the ancient were pictured as holding back the forces of chaos. The storyteller of Genesis tells his listeners that the God of Israel did not hold back chaos; he created order from the disorder of chaos. From the wasteland of chaos God spoke and order came into being.

The next phrase "darkness was over the surface of the deep," continues the description of the chaotic state into which God spoke. There is nothing malicious about the chaos; it may just imply that God had not yet begun his work. Because darkness or surface of the deep is not personified as in other ancient creation accounts (i.e. Enuma Elish), it may be the storyteller's way of saying at the beginning that these are not gods, as they were feared to be in other ancient cultures.

What does the "Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" mean? In order to understand what this phrase means we must ask: What may it have meant to the original audience? Certainly, we must realize that there was communication taking place from God to the storyteller (author) to the audience. What we don't want to do is to see quickly a reference to the Holy Spirit as the third member of the Trinity, which would run the risk of superimposing a Trinitarian concept on Genesis 1 that is not necessarily present. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis 1-17. 114.)

The text of the Hebrew Bible is concerned with convincing the people of God that there was only one God. This is in fact the purpose of Genesis 1.1-2.4a. So God did not provide them a confusing message with a bit of Trinitarian complexity. It is generally attested that the ancient Israelites did not know about the Trinity, a fact that remains current today. When we accept this, it becomes apparent that we must look elsewhere for the authoritative communication of "spirit of God." It is clear in the Hebrew Bible that "spirit of God" was an extension of God's power, not a separate entity. The meaning of "spirit" was understood, for example, like the metaphor "the hand of the Lord." We are not saying that the Holy Spirit is an "it" rather than a "he." We are suggesting that the text here is not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit in the mind of the Hebrew storyteller. The "spirit" here is an extension of the power of God in the work of creation.

Finally, let's look at "hovering." This word only occurs one other time in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 32.11) There it is a picture of a mother bird "hovering" over her nest. This could be a picture of fertility based on the way a mother bird keeps her eggs warm during gestation, in which case it would point to the power of God to bring about his creation.

These interpretative conclusions presented here may be new to you. Not to fear. It is clear that the ancient people who first received this word are different that we are today. Our approach to the text, then, is based on trying to familiarize us with what the text may be addressing to the first hearer/reader rather than letting our modern culture dictate the questions that are answered by the text. We cannot feel free to transform the text into a scientific query. If we as interpreters are free to transform the text into answering questions that the text does not answer, then we strip the text of transforming our lives.

This text sets up the remaining part of the story of God's creation as presented by the storyteller in Genesis 1.1-2.4a. It always works as a strong foundation for the whole story of God of which Genesis 1.1-2.4a is a beginning. These thoughts will frame our continuing discussion about the text of Genesis 1-11. They, in fact, demonstrate that God works in periods of time to create order by his power.

Doin' the Stuff!

It is always important to apply what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.

  • How does this picture of Genesis 1.1-2 differ from what you may have encountered before?
  • What struggles does it present to you?
  • How does a "period of time" versus "a point in time" clarify how God works in the life of your faith community and your personal life?
  • In what ways does God want to bring order to the chaos of your faith community and your own personal chaos?
  • When is the last time that you remember being visited in your faith community by the power of God to create order and functionality?
BibleHandbook: Resourse Stuff!

Read the following Dictionary Articles from Easton's Bible Dictionary, or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Easton's is about a century old, therefore, some of the information is not current with newer Bible Dictionaries. ISBE is about seventy-five years old. You might read the articles off-line in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try The Revell Bible Dictionary now out of print but still can be ordered from One of these should suit your personal needs.



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Copyright © 2001-2019, Winn Griffin. All rights reserved. BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study is a service of SBL Ministries. Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are from the International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible®. Copyright © 2001 by The ISV Foundation, 2200 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705-7016. Used by permission of Davidson Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.

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