The Creation story is one of the best-loved and seemingly simplest passages of the Bible. It deals with the compelling themes of human origins and our relationship with God, yet it is couched in language simple enough that my first year Hebrew class was able to include it. However I think that this simple charm and familiarity lead people to be content with a superficial understanding that would not bear scrutiny.
In fact this story above all others requires special care. Firstly, the subject matter - creation of a world by God - is an event so remote from our everyday experience in both nature and scale that we cannot rely on our normal intuition to correctly fill in the details. And secondly, we do not know how the text was transmitted, beyond its inclusion in the Torah. Human beings cannot have been observers of the Creation, but there is no mention of dreams, visions or visits from angels like the ones in Daniel and Revelation that explain the divine insights into the equally inaccessible future.
Anyone trying to understand Genesis 1 needs to remain aware of the limits of the knowledge he brings to the task. It is instructive to keep in mind the words of , which starts (NLT):
The difficulties start at the very beginning. Every item of vocabulary in verse 1 is ambiguous or outside our experience. “In the beginning” looks wrongly translated. What does “create” mean here? What is the nature of God and what is He really doing in the Creation? What does the phrase “heaven and earth” refer to - the whole universe, just our planet and its atmosphere, or something between those extremes? Both those words are defined by God later in the chapter to mean something different from the initial impression conveyed by this verse.
And the difficulties continue. For example, on day 1 (), what exactly happens when God says “Let there be light”? How can that be the start of day and night if the sun, moon and stars are not made until day 4 ()? And on day 2 (), what is this “firmament” that God calls “heaven”? What does heaven have to do with separating 2 bodies of water?
Thus I have gone over the chapter repeatedly, trying to understand it on its own terms, continually revising my understanding to arrive at the most appropriate and consistent interpretation. My current approach is to read Genesis 1 as a vision of the event from the point of view of a human at the surface of the Earth. This approach reduces the overall level of confusion. A distinct indicator that such a viewpoint applies to Genesis 1 is the consistent use of evening and morning to delimit each of the six days, which makes most sense for an observer at a fixed spot on the surface of the planet, rather than a God's eye view.
“In the beginning”, the familiar translation of very first word in the Hebrew, בְרֵאשִׁית (b'reshith), appears wrong. Brown Driver Briggs lists 2 alternative parsings for it, neither of which would normally be rendered as “in the beginning”.
Most translations assume it is in the the absolute state, the normal state, which indicates that the word is not directly connected to the following word. The vowel pointing of the word indicates that in the absolute state it lacks the definite article and thus should read “in a beginning”. The Septuagint similarly renders it without definite article (ἐν ἀρχῇ), but modern translators have ignored the pointing and tidied it up to read “in the beginning”. The use of ἐν ἀρχῇ in John 1:1 corresponds with the absolute state and is similarly translated “In the beginning”, despite the lack of definite article.
Since pointing was only introduced in the middle ages, there are debates about whether it carries the inspiration of the original consonantal text. However it does represent the oral tradition, and one could argue that the very first word of the Scriptures would be well remembered in an oral tradition.
By this reading - like the English phrase at first - the beginning is left floating and dependent on context before any context has been provided. What beginning is it referring to? The creation of the whole universe? Or of some more local creation process of which Genesis 1 focuses on the concluding week? Or simply the beginning of the 6 days? All these are unique and defined, so one would expect the definite article.
The other parsing, preferred in Brown Driver Briggs, is the Hebrew construct state, making the first word read “in the beginning of”, directly connected to whatever noun immediately follows. The word רֵאשִׁית (reshith) beginning almost always appears in the construct in the Bible. If that is the correct reading, we are left with the dilemma that it is followed not by a noun but by a finite verb. This has been resolved by making the construct attach to the clause of that verb (created).
For example, Young's literal translation has “In the beginning of God's preparing the heavens and the earth -- the earth hath existed waste and void” (link). Similarly Rashi, the acclaimed medieval scholar, has rendered it: “In the beginning of God's creation of heaven and earth, the earth was without form and empty”. See the Commentary on “In the beginning” at bible.ort.org. The Living Bible starts with “When God began creating the heavens and the earth”. The New Living Bible has a footnote on Genesis 1:1 that reads “Or In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, … Or When God began to create the heavens and the earth, …”
This grammatical distinction affects the relative force of 2 different interpretations of Genesis 1:1. Either:
1) This verse is the first act of the sequence of creation, depicting God bringing the heavens and the earth into existence before the rest of the events of the chapter; or
2) The verse summarizes the following 6 days.
My earliest impressions agreed with with the former interpretation - I liked the sense of completeness in having a creation story that starts with the Earth getting summoned out of nothing. However, I now think the case for taking Gesesis 1:1 as a summary is stronger, especially in the light of , and . Those 3 texts use the expression Heaven and earth in a summary of the creation week; Exodus 20:11 in particular - in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth - echoes Genesis 1:1 to refer to the 6 days. Reading בְרֵאשִׁית in the construct state enhances that position.
The big question that I want an answer to at this point is: Did God bring the physical matter of the Heavens and Earth into existence at the start of day 1, or had they existed for some time before the 6 days? The first of those 2 interpretations of Genesis 1:1 - that it is the first in the sequence of events of Genesis 1 - doesn't mention a pre-existence. It is easy to read the creation of the heavens and earth as being at the start of the first day, but the text allows them to have been made at some indeterminate point earlier, with the first day starting with “Let there be light”.
In the second interpretation of בְרֵאשִׁית - that Genesis 1:1 is a summary of the six days - the existence of the Earth is simply assumed. The planet is introduced as being already present in an “unformed and unfilled” state. That is in some ways less satisfying. I want God to tell me how the creation of our planet fits into the history of the universe as a whole. But I need to be careful to read the Bible for what it was intended to say, and to avoid making it answer my own questions and say things that it really doesn't say.
In further support of the idea that Genesis 1:1 is a summary rather than a creation ex nihilo preceding the six days, is way this verse connects to the next. In Hebrew narrative such as this passage, the typical way to connect sentences is vav-consecutive: the Hebrew letter ו vav which is the word “and”, prefixed to the imperfect tense of the verb indicating sequence (see section on vav-consecutive in Wikipedia entry on vav). Genesis 1:2 however has a less frequent order: vav followed by the noun and then the verb. This seems to focus attention on the noun - the Earth, allowing the reader to take verse 2 as the start of a sequence of events centred on planet Earth.
Another difficulty in the first interpretation of Genesis 1:1 is that every other act of creation in Genesis 1 follows that pattern of a quote from God followed by a description of what followed, i.e. “God said xxx” then either “God did xxx” or “xxx happened”. There is none of that pattern in verse 1, suggesting it does not relate an event in the sequence. Taking Genesis 1:1 as a summary eliminates this disconnect.
What does the phrase “heaven and earth” refer to? One common understanding of it is represented in Wikipedia and Answers In Genesis, where it is claimed that the phrase Heaven and Earth is a merism referring to the whole universe. That's a possibility; however the Hebrew is not precise enough for confidence in that interpretation.
Let's look at the word for Heaven and its use in the Bible. The Hebrew word for heaven at this point is the generic word שָׁמַיִם (shamayim) meaning heaven or sky. It occurs over 400 times in the Bible, always in the plural. In the KJV it is mostly translated heaven or heavens. There are 21 exceptions, where it is rendered as air, and refers to the domain of the birds. Three of them are right here in Genesis 1: . In fact, each of those three instances is used for the domain of the birds and includes it in a list that also has the same word for Earth as in Genesis 1:1, thus echoing verse 1, and suggesting that the meaning of heaven and earth in limited to the planet and its atmosphere.
Consider for example the way the Decalogue, worded by God Himself (), echos this verse: identifies God as maker of “heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is”. The phrase “heaven and earth” - identical in the Hebrew to the equivalent phrase in Genesis 1:1 - is joined with an “and”, but the next word is not, highlighting the pair “heaven and earth”. However, if that pair refers to the whole universe, billions of light-years across, there seems a total loss of sense of scale to tack on the sea. A more natural way to read that is as the 3 domains or locations in which living creatures were created on days 5 and 6 in . Those verses provide a strong precedent for using these categories. Similarly a few verses earlier in the Ten Commandments, , heaven, earth and water are mentioned as places where potential objects of idolatry are found. This idea is expanded in , where שָׁמַיִם appears twice, for the location first of the birds, next of the “sun moon and stars”. Notice that the order “sun, moon and stars” is the order of apparent brightness from Earth. The connecting thread in these passages is the use of the human perspective.
A likely reason for pairing “heaven and earth” in is that those 2 are the domains of the air-breathing creatures, which we humans belong to, and it can thus be regarded as special in some way. The sea is more alien to us. In Genesis 1:1 God was not creating the sea - the Earth started as one unbroken ocean. Dry land did not appear until the 3rd day: . The world was being prepared for humanity.
A further indication that heaven in Genesis 1:1 doesn't refer to the whole universe is the way the word is officially introduced on day 2 in . It is the name given to a “firmament” used to separate two bodies of water. Before God starts speaking on Day 1, the surface of the Earth was water (). Then on Day 2 it seems that God raised some of the water and instituted the sky as the barrier to keep the 2 bodies of water separate. This suggests the water canopy thesis (see Wikipedia) with its controversial physics.
Another explanation of Day 2, which I favour, is that God evaporated or somehow else removed a few metres of depth from the water that was covering the Earth, and it just blew out into space. This could have been a way to cleanse the atmosphere and start to expose the land masses, which is what the very next day is about. The sky separating the waters below and the waters above is the newly purified atmosphere. That doesn't leave a fragile vapour canopy hanging around, but it requires a bigger step away from a straightforward reading because the text leaves the reader with the impression that the top waters remain. However, it was only on day 4 that those top waters would have cleared up enough for the heavenly bodies to be discerned, so for day 2 it was accurate.
Either the vapor canopy theory or this water-ejection theory of the “firmament” leads the word heaven (שָׁמַיִם shamayim) when it is formally introduced in to mean the atmosphere. Thus, the idea that heaven in verse 1 refers to the rest of the universe looks less compelling.
All uses of ראשית in the Bible other than Gen 1:1. A letter c after the reference indicates that ראשית is in the contruct state, and a indicates the absolute state. The only case where ראשית is open to be interpreted as ultimate beginning is the Isaiah 46 one where the pointing indicates the definite article:
c: And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.
c: Reuben, you are my firstborn, My might and the beginning of my strength, The excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.
c: The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. …
c: The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. …
a: As for the offering of the firstfruits, you shall offer them to the Lord, but they shall not be burned on the altar for a sweet aroma.
c: You shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest.
c: You shall offer up a cake of the first of your ground meal as a heave offering; …
c: Of the first of your ground meal you shall give to the Lord a heave offering throughout your generations.
(c): All the best of the oil, all the best of the new wine and the grain, their firstfruits which they offer to the Lord, I have given them to you.
c: Then he looked on Amalek, and he took up his oracle and said: “Amalek was first among the nations, But shall be last until he perishes.” (First among the nations = רֵאשִׁית גוֹיִם)
c: … the eyes of the Lord your God are always on [the land], from the beginning of the year to the very end of the year.
c: (2x) The firstfruits of your grain and your new wine and your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him.
c: But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.
c: you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground …
c: and now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land which you, O Lord, have given me.
a: He provided the first part for himself …
c: … Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?
c: But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.
c: As soon as the commandment was circulated, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of grain and wine, oil and honey, and of all the produce of the field …;
(38 in the Hebrew) c: to bring the firstfruits of our dough
a: And at the same time some were appointed over the rooms of the storehouse for the offerings, the firstfruits, and the tithes …
(c) Though your beginning was small, Yet your latter end would increase abundantly.
c: He is the first of the ways of God; Only He who made him can bring near His sword.
(c) Now the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning …
c: And smote all the firstborn in Egypt; the chief of their strength in the tabernacles of Ham:
c: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments.
c: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction.
c: Honor the Lord with your possessions, And with the firstfruits of all your increase;
a: Wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.
c: The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old.
c: The beginning of strife is like releasing water; Therefore stop contention before a quarrel starts.
(c) The end of a thing is better than its beginning; the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
a: … I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning (declaring the end from the beginning = מַגִּיד מֵרֵאשִׁית אַחֲרִית), And from ancient times things that are not yet done …
c: Israel was holy to the Lord, The first of His harvest … (NASB)
c: Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'Behold, I am going to break the bow of Elam, The finest of their might.
c: …there I will require your offerings and the firstfruits of your sacrifices, together with all your holy things.
c: The best of all firstfruits of any kind, and every sacrifice of any kind from all your sacrifices, shall be the priest’s; also you shall give to the priest the first of your ground meal, to cause a blessing to rest on your house.
c: And they shall not sell of it, neither exchange, nor alienate the firstfruits of the land: for it is holy unto the Lord.
(c) I saw your fathers as the firstfruits on the fig tree in its first season.
c: Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria, which are named chief of the nations, to whom the house of Israel came!
c: Who drink wine from bowls, And anoint yourselves with the best ointments, But are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.
c: … She was the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion …