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Historical Context

In the Beginning. Genesis 1.1-2: An Examination

In the Beginning. Genesis 1.1-2: An ExaminationThe first word in the text of Genesis is re’ shiyth (pronounced raysheeth). 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 recorded here set history in motion determining its flow toward a specific end. It could be translated when God began to create.

This 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 than 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. 1 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 2. 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” something, it can have other meanings. It can mean an initial period or duration 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, not a point in time 3.

It may then be well to translate Genesis 1.1 as: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void…(or “When God began to create…” (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. The TANAKH (the Jewish Bible) suggests a rendering of Genesis 1.1 as: “When God began to create….” 4 One may conclude that the text 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 the first sentence in Genesis is the events discussed in the first story (1.1-2.4a).

Again and again, we must remind ourselves that understanding words in the Hebrew Bible is different than understanding the translated English words. 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 5(Tanakh, 70-71). 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 suggest that this initial period of the 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 God created the universe, but it is polytheism. 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 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” is a hendiadys. 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 sense of something against nothing.” 6 In this phrase, one might see an allusion to the historical experience of Israel coming out of bondage in which God begins to work his creative purpose through them. 7.

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; 8 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.

The next phrase to consider is: “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” What could that mean? 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. 9. The same word in Hebrew (ruah) can be translated “wind,” a meteorological phenomenon or a metaphysical entity “spirit.” It is not all that easy to determine which usage of the Hebrew word the author intended 10.

The text of the Hebrew Bible is concerned with convincing the people of God that there was only one God. This is 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  11.

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. One commentator translates the verse using the word circulated: “The earth was nonfunctional, primordial, watery darkness prevailed, and a supernatural wind that was permeated with the power of God circulated over the service of the waters.”

So What?

These interpretative conclusions presented here may be new to you. Not to fear. Clearly, the ancient people who first received this word were different than we are today. Our approach to the text, then, is based on trying to familiarize ourselves with what the text may be addressing to the first hearer/reader rather than letting our present 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 may strip the text of transforming our lives.
Genesis 1.1-2 sets up the remaining part of the story of God’s creation as presented by the storyteller in Genesis 1.1-2.4a. It works as the beginning framework for the whole Story of God of which Genesis 1.1-2.4a is the beginning. These thoughts will frame our continuing discussion about the Story presented in Scripture. Genesis 1.1-2.4a demonstrates that God works in periods of time to create order by his power.

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  1. John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 67.
  2. Walton, Genesis, 69]
  3. Walton, Genesis, 68
  4. Tanakh, (Philadelphia Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 3. This alternative is also found in the Good News Bible in the footnote for Genesis 1.1.
  5. Tanakh, 70-71
  6. James Barr, “Was Everything that God Created Really Good?,” Brueggemann, Walter, Tod Linafelt and Timothy K. Beal ed., God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), 62.
  7. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 62.
  8. John H. Walton, Genesis, 67.
  9. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 114.
  10. Walton, Genesis, 74
  11. Walton, Genesis, 77