Chapter OneSummary Overview of Genesis 1:1-2:3
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The first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, opens doors to many questions
that fill us with curiosity and inevitably lead to controversy. The large number
of these questions and issues makes the task of the commentator formidable.
So many items demand attention that dealing with them in the detail
they deserve can result in the big picture being lost in the flood of details.
In the treatment of Genesis 1 that follows, the text has been divided into
admittedly fragmented segments (1:1-5; 1:6-13; 1:14-31; 2:1-3) so that
some continuity could be maintained from Original Meaning comments
through Bridging Contexts to Contemporary Significance. Before we embark
on that fragmented path of discovery, it is important briefly to look at the
whole of Genesis 1 and get the big picture conveyed by the entire literary
unit at all three levels.
Genesis 1 is a simple but majestic account of
God's bringing order to the cosmos. The literary
balance between days 1-3 and days 4-6 results
in highlighting day 7 as the climactic moment,
when God takes up his residence and history begins under his exclusive sovereignty.
Disdaining the myth-laden concepts of the ancient world and disregarding
any attempt at scientific sophistication either ancient or modern,
the text charts a course of theological affirmation that results in a picture of
an ordered, purposeful cosmos with God at the helm, masterfully guiding its
course. The cosmos functions just as it was designed to function-it was
good. People are portrayed as the pinnacle of creation, endowed with dignity
as those made in the image of the Creator. They are made in order to
serve God, not as slaves but as partners, whom he delegates to do his work
in the world. They enjoy his favor (blessing), and he provides what they
In the context of Genesis, chapter 1 is intended
to show that the world was not always as it is
now. The chaos of sin and the struggle to survive
were not part of the original picture. God's initial
work dispelled the chaos and brought everything into perfect order and
equilibrium. It is important to understand that hope for the future does not
depend on the attempt to achieve something that has never been but to
restore what has been lost. God's intent was not to be distant or inaccessible.
The corruption of the cosmos that plagues humanity does not testify to
his inability to harness chaos or to any inadequacy in his person or power.
God demonstrates his grace that instead of resolving the chaos of sin through
judgment and destruction, he chose a path of reconciliation and restoration-but
that already moves beyond Genesis 1.
Fallen human nature inevitably adopts a diluted,
diminished, and in other ways corrupted concept
of deity. Just as the Israelites had difficulty rising
above the common view in their world that portrayed
gods with needs and whims, so it is also difficult for us to rise above
the common views of our world. Our world does not reduce God by distributing
his power to other deities. Rather, we reduce God by making him a figurehead.
We too often portray him as standing back from a world that runs
on its own. We banish him to the hidden corners of our lives while we amble
through life, pursuing our own ambitious goals driven by narcissism, hedonism,
and materialism and refusing to allow God to bridle our self-sufficiency. We
need a revitalized concept of who God is, and Genesis 1 is the appropriate
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In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was
over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was
hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4 God
saw that the light was good, and he separated the light
from the darkness. 5 God called the light "day," and the
darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and
there was morning-the first day.
In this first chapter, we will probe many of the
methodological issues that must be examined
before we can proceed. Particularly verses 1-2
require an analysis of each phrase in order to set
the context for the rest of the commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:3.
Literary Introduction (1:1)
In the beginning. It sounds so simple, yet behind it lurk many of the ultimate
questions of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics. Unfortunately, it
is often the sad duty of the exegete to penetrate the sublime in pursuit of the
tedious. The moment we begin to ponder the phrase, its cloudlike simplicity
dissipates to reveal rugged mountain peaks. In the beginning of what?
Many readers may have never specifically asked themselves this question, but
most have an answer in their heads. We realize that it is not the beginning
of God and therefore not the beginning of everything. Is the author suggesting
a beginning of something abstract, such as time or history? Is it perhaps
a more scientific beginning-like the beginning of matter or the
universe ("the heavens and the earth")? Is it possible that we are trying too
hard and that the beginning is literary (i.e., the beginning of the story)?
What about something more personal: our beginning as a human race?
Before we pursue the answer to this question, however, we need to consider
our methodological assumptions. The questions just posed work on
the assumption that the word "beginning" must (as in English) indicate the
beginning of something. But does the Hebrew usage carry the same implication?
One of the greatest obstacles we face in trying to interpret the Bible
is that we are inclined to think in our own cultural and linguistic categories.
This is no surprise, since our own categories are often all that we have; but
it is a problem because our own categories often do not suffice and sometimes
mislead. The fact that the Hebrew word bresit can be translated "in the
beginning" does not mean we can now be content to explore the English
word "beginning" in English terms and categories. Linguistic and cultural
information must be derived from linguistic and cultural sources. In this case
we must explore the usage of this word in the Hebrew Bible and see if any
cultural information across the ancient Near East can help.
Certainly Hebrew can use resit to refer to the beginning of something. But
there is more to it than that. J. Sailhamer has pointed out the unique function
of the term as referring to an initial period or duration rather than to a specific
point in time. His case is supported most convincingly by passages such
as Job 8:7, which speaks of the early part of Job's life, and Jeremiah 28:1,
which refers to the beginning period of Zedekiah's reign. Often in keeping
records of a king's reign, his first year did not begin with his accession to the
throne, but with the first new year's day of his reign. Historians refer to the
partial preliminary year as the accession year. In Hebrew it was referred to as
the resit of his reign. This was an initial period of time, not a point in time. This
linguistic discussion therefore offers an alternative way of understanding the
"beginning," but how can we know that this was on the mind of the author?
None of these other verses are exact syntactical equivalents of Genesis 1:1.
When we couple the linguistic discussion with cultural information, however,
a clearer direction may be possible. Egyptian usage is particularly helpful
on this point. Egyptian creation texts make use of a similar concept. For
example, someone from Thebes speaks of the god Amun who evolved in
the beginning or "on the first occasion." Egyptologists interpret this beginning
not as an abstract idea but as a reference to a first-time event. Given
biblical usage and the Egyptian analogy, the Bible can be seen as presenting
the creation account as an initial, distinct period of time that served as a prelude
to human history. It would be a similar to the way that eschaton ("the latter
days") refers to an ending period of time, not an ending point of time.
The next question must concern what portion of the text was contained
in this initial period. Sailhamer is inclined to see it as an extended period of
time preceding the seven days. Another possibility is that the initial period
describes the entire seven days. In scholarly discussions of the twentieth
century, the options have been reflected in the renderings of 1:1-2a found
in popular translations today.
1. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the
earth was a formless void (NRSV)
2. When God began to create heaven and earth-the earth being
unformed and void . God said (NJPS)
3. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. [Now] The
earth was (NIV, KJV, NASB, NLT)
The NRSV rendering treats verse 1 as a dependent clause that finds its
main clause in verse 2. The NJPS considers the clause of verse 1 as dependent
on a main clause in verse 3, with verse 2 being parenthetical. The third
option, the traditional rendering, understands verse 1 as an independent
clause, which either refers to creative activity that preceded the seven-day
sequence or provides a literary introduction to the events of the seven days.
The grammatical issues are complex and will not be discussed in detail
here. The technicalities are thoroughly treated in the technical commentaries.
In brief, those who favor the dependent clause approach need to
emend the masoretic vocalization to achieve their end. They believe this
is justified by (1) the fact that there is no definite article on bresit, and by (2)
the grammatical comparison to the Akkadian creation account preserved inEnuma Elish (which begins with the dependent clause, "When on high .").
Against (1), research has shown that time designations in adverbial expressions
do not require the definite article; against (2), the Akkadian account
provides insufficient basis for emendation.
A further case can be made that the syntax of verse 2 favors the treatment
of verse 1 as an independent clause. Turning to the traditional translation, we
still must ask whether anything happens in verse 1. Does it refer to some creative
activity that preceded the seven days (in which something that can be
designated heaven and earth were created), or does it introduce and summarize
the activity of the seven days (during which heaven and earth were
created)? There are two evidences that I believe offer support for the second
option. (1) The book of Genesis typically operates literarily by introducing
sections with a summary statement. Thus, for example, beginning in 2:4 and
ten additional times throughout the book, a toldot statement introduces a
section (see introduction). (2) Even more persuasive is that the account of the
six days closes with the comment that "the heavens and the earth" were completed
Thus, Genesis uses literary introductions, and the six days accomplished
the creation of heaven and earth. It can therefore be concluded that the text
is not suggesting that anything was actually created in 1:1; rather, the verse
is a literary introduction, a summary of what follows. The "initial period"
indicated by the word bresit is not described in verse 1 but in chapter 1.
God created. The text next speaks of God's activity using the Hebrew
word bara, unanimously rendered "created." Again, however, we must be careful
to remember that to interpret the Bible accurately, we must understandbara in Hebrew terms. The verb occurs forty-eight times in the Old Testament
and has some curious features worth noting. (1) It takes only God as its subject
and therefore must be identified as a characteristically divine activity.