Cosmology, the Study of Origins

by WordExplain

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 1:1

How Did Our World Get Here?

An Exegesis of Genesis 1:1 - 2:3

By James T. Bartsch


Day One of Creation: the Heavens and the Earth

Genesis 1:1. God's creation of the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1. The Beginning of God’s Creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In this simple (ten words in English, seven in Hebrew), yet incredibly profound opening statement of the Bible, several foundational truths appear. “In the beginning” refers to the origin of time in regard to the cosmos; “God” refers to the Powerful One, whose existence is assumed and needs no proof, and who is the sole agent; “created” means, in this context, that He made out of nothing (ex nihilo); “the heavens” refers to the fact that God created space (the framework of the universe in which all stars would soon come to be); and “the earth” denotes that God created the matter comprising planet Earth.

Someone, perhaps Kent Hovind, remarked in a speech once that time here in the created order exists in a triad of past, present, and future; that space exists in a triad of length, width, and height; and that matter exists in a triad of solid, liquids, and gas.

According to Thomas Constable, Dr. Constable's Notes on Genesis,

There are some evangelical scholars who believe that “Verse 1 describes, in very general, introductory terms, the same creation activity that God did on all six days of creation (1:2-31). It is a topic sentence that introduces the whole creation account that follows.[42] I prefer this view.” 

He cites, in footnote 42 above, other scholars who hold this view, namely George Bush, Edward J. Young, Bruce K. Waltke, Allen P. Ross, and Victor P. Hamilton). Another way of stating this view is to assert that Genesis 1:1 is a merism, a figure of speech for totality (Constable). This view is not preferable for the following reasons:

First, if Genesis 1:1 is merely a topic sentence, or an introductory merism, then we are left with no specific statement as to how or when the earth came into existence, and this, in the beginning portion of the beginning book of the Bible which purports to do that very thing! That would be a bizarre and unfortunate omission by the author of Genesis, in my view.

Second, there are eleven unambiguous topical statements in the Book of Genesis, and none of them is worded this way. (These are the toledot passages, found in Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12,19; 36:1, 9; 37:2. These toledot passages are typically translated, “these are the records of the generations of _______________.”)

Third, if Genesis 1:1 does not refer to God’s specific creation of the earth, then we are left with a most peculiar literary device. Suddenly in Genesis 1:2, the author begins to discuss the condition of the earth that has no specific record of having been created. That, in my view, is unthinkable.

Fourth, God, in His commandment concerning the Sabbath Day, clearly stated that He had made both the heavens and the earth and everything in them in six days (Ex. 20:8-11). It seems evident from this Divine commentary that Genesis 1:1 records God’s actual creation of two entities, the heavens, and then the earth. So Genesis 1:1 is the opening statement of what occurred on Day One, not merely a topical statement, or merism, the details of which would appear subsequently.

In the beginning” refers to the beginning of the created cosmos, the physical universe. God, of course, is eternal, and had no beginning. Some evangelicals label the beginning of which John spoke (John 1:1-2) as the “absolute beginning,” placing it before the beginning of which Moses wrote here in Genesis 1:1. But I see no valid exegetical reason why Moses and John cannot be referring to the same beginning. After all, both Gen. 1 and John 1:1-13 discuss the creation of the world and the entire universe. So the initial beginning the Bible discusses in those terms is here in Genesis 1:1. John’s beginning refers backwards to this event. In any case, it is difficult to use the term absolute beginning for either passage, since God and the Word were already there before the beginning (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1-3). It is best to understand that the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4), the abode of God, existed before the creation of the cosmos, as did angels, who apparently witnessed God’s creation of the earth with great joy (Job 38:4-7). That would imply, of course, that entities, both created and uncreated, existed and continue to exist outside the cosmos. That means that the cosmos is not infinite in regard to time, space, or matter. It also affirms the existence of a spiritual universe existing outside of our present material universe, albeit interacting with it.

God” – Elohim is the generic word for God. “Its basic meaning is ‘strong one, mighty leader, supreme Deity.’ The form of the word is plural, indicating plentitude (sic) of power and majesty and allowing for the NT revelation of the triunity of the Godhead” (Ryrie Study Bible note). In Genesis 1:1-2:3, Elohim, God, appears a startling 35 times in 34 verses! Clearly, God is the featured subject of this overwhelmingly theological historical narrative! (Incidentally,  I would also add that the always-plural Elohim allows for the truth that God is the most complex Being in all the universe. He is one God, but He manifests Himself in multiple persons, namely the Trinity, or better yet, Triunity.)

“God created” – The Hebrew word bara here means that God created, out of nothing (Latin ex nihilo), both the earth and the framework in which he situated it. Moses used the word bara eight times in Genesis, and each time it refers to the creative act of God (Gen. 1:1, 21, 27; 2:3, 4; 5:1, 2; 6:7). We can also observe in these passages that Moses used bara, to create, and asah, to make, as synonyms (Gen. 2:3, 4; 5:1; 6:7). “In biblical Hebrew, the verb bara (create) always has God for its subject and never mentions the material from which He created” (Boyd, p. 189).

the heavens and the earth” – Some take this phrase as a merism, a figure of speech for totality (Thomas Constable, Notes on Genesis). In this view, Genesis 1:1 is merely an introductory or summary statement of what God did in Genesis 1:3-31, which, it is assumed, are the actual days of creation. But if that were the case, there is no specific statement in this chapter of the actual creation of the earth. That would be bizarre, considering that this chapter purports to be an explanation of how the world and the entire universe originated. To illustrate how counterintuitive this view is, let me quote Constable’s opening statement regarding Genesis 1:2: “Verse 2 probably describes what we now call the earth in its pre-formed—like a lump of clay—existence, before God gave it form and filled it.” But he has already stated that Gen. 1:1 does not describe God's act on Day One of creation. So where did this earth that hadn't been created in Gen. 1:1 come from? Where is the account of the creation of this "pre-formed" earth if Gen. 1:1 is merely a merism?

Scripture is its own best commentary, and Moses clearly stated that “in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Exod. 20:11). So it makes much more sense to understand both Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 as the initial part of day one of creation, the foundational state of that which God would momentarily upgrade. So Genesis 1:1 is a statement of part of what God created on the first day. It is NOT a merism.

God created “the heavens” (hashamayim). The word heavens (shamayim) always appears in the plural in the Hebrew Bible. That is appropriate, not only because of the vastness of the heavens, but because of their plurality. There are three distinct heavens in the Bible, the third being the abode of God (2 Cor. 12:2). The other two heavens are the heavens in which God placed the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14-19), and the heavens in which birds fly (Gen. 1:6-8, 20) (more about these heavens later.) “The heavens” (hashamayim) of which Moses wrote in Genesis 1:1 are what we today would call “outer space”, for God had as yet apparently created no atmosphere around earth to support life and in which birds could fly. What was the composition of the heavens at the end of Genesis 1:1? Based on what is stated in the rest of Gen. 1, the initial condition of the heavens is that they were the "space" framework in which God placed an aqueous matrix of matter, the earth, and in which He would later (on the fourth day) place the sun, moon and stars (Gen. 1:14-19). By the end of Genesis 1:1, the only matter that existed in the heavens was the earth, as yet in its incomplete state (as Genesis 1:2 further details). Most of what we call “outer space” today has nothing in it, at least nothing visible to the eye. There are enormous voids between stars, galaxies, and galaxy groups. Today, outer space is cold because there is relatively little light (energy) out there. So the fact that one can measure temperature in deep space when little that is tangible exists out there indicates that something is there – a framework of darkness and coldness. That would be the condition of the heavens at the end of Genesis 1:1 – dark and cold – and empty – with the lone exception of the earth, which God had just placed there. Since there were no stars or planets or light (energy) whatever – the initial condition of the heavens was totally empty compared to outer space today, which is actually teeming with light waves both visible and invisible (including cosmic microwave background) from distant stars and galaxies. The only exception to this emptiness would have been the earth, the second item that God created on day one.

God created “the earth” (haarets). The Hebrew word erets refers either to the whole planet or to a portion thereof. Consequently it is sometimes translated earth, sometimes land. The context controls the particular meaning. For example, the term erets in Gen. 1:1 refers to the whole planet and is translated earth. In Gen. 1:2 we are given additional details about the earth just after God created it – it was formless, void, dark, and aqueous. Here again, erets refers to the whole planet, and it is translated earth. On the third day, God commanded the dry land (yabbasah) to appear (Gen. 1:9). God named the dry land (yabbasah) earth (erets) (Gen. 1:10). So here only a portion of the planet is designated as earth – the dry land. That narrower terminology is used elsewhere. Reference is made in Gen. 2:11 to the land (erets) of Havilah. The gold of that land (erets) is good (Gen. 2:12). Further reference is made to the land (erets) of Cush (Gen. 2:13). Surprisingly enough to the English reader, Yahweh commanded Abram to depart from his country (lit. “your earth” – erets) “to the land (lit. “earth” – erets) which I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). There are Jewish people today who speak of Erets Israel – the land or “earth” which belongs to Israel. (See, for example, the reference to the “Erets Israel lobby” in the summary immediately below the title of the linked article on ynetnews.) It is appropriate to note here that while the creation account (Gen. 1:1-2:3) is very much Theo-centric (God-centered) in relation to the Cause of creation, it is very much Geo-centric (earth-centered) in relation to the products of creation. This can be deduced from the following frequencies of occurrence in Genesis 1:1-2:3: The noun light (‘owr) appears six times (Gen. 1:3, 4, 5, 18). The verb to give light (‘owr) occurs twice (Gen. 1:15, 17). The word light(s) (better, light-bearer(s) (ma’owr) (lit., “from light”) appears five times (Gen. 1:14, 15, 16). The word expanse (raqiya’) (KJV firmament) appears nine times (Gen. 1:6, 7, 8, 14, 15, 17, 20). The word shamayim (usually translated heavens, but three times as sky) appears eleven times (Gen. 1:1, 8, 9, 14, 15, 17, 20, 26, 28, 30; 2:1). But the word earth (erets) is the runaway winner, appearing 21 times (Gen. 1:1, 2, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30; 2:1). As far as God is concerned, Earth is very much the center of the universe!

(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB 1995.)

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Updated February 8, 2022