Genesis (Study 2)—In the Beginning (1:1)
Genesis begins with this verse: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” A first point of interest comes in what God created: the heavens and the earth. In our Christianese, we often say that, when we die, we will go to heaven, imagining heaven as that place or location where God lives. Yet Scripture tells us often that God is spirit, both implying and sometimes stating outright that God is everywhere. Therefore, this first verse of the Bible is not declaring that God made places for both us and him to live. These heavens and earthall relate to the entire created matter we understand as our universe.
The Hebrew word here for heavens does, in fact, mean sky—that which is above us. And therefore, it includes that which is also far above us of the celestial realm. In the Old Testament, the word for heaven always appears in the plural. The Hebrew plural can indicate multiple or expansiveness. That is not unique to the Hebrew. We do that in English, especially when referring to the expanse overhead in the states of America’s Great Plains. Without interruption of hills and mountains, we tend to talk about the Dakota or Montana skies. (I picked Montana for my example because John Denver has a song about those “wild Montana skies.”) But when looking up at night at the vast array of stars and thinking how magnificent the heavensappear, we are not misusing the term by stating it in its plural (even though actually there is only one sky or heaven above); we are using the plural to express the expansiveness. Just so does the Old Testament.
And there is a reason for the OT’s expression of expansiveness beyond merely to indicate there is a lot of space up there. The theological point is to contrast it with the earth—our interactive region with which we’re much more familiar. Even though God does not live “in heaven” as a place, the OT often speaks of God in the heavens in such a manner. Jacob’s ladder reached to the heavens. Moses opened the path in the Red Sea by stretching his staff toward the heavens. Solomon called to God to “hear in Your dwelling place in heaven.” Job cried out that his “witness is in the heavens, and my advocate is in the heights.” And these are but a few of the seemingly countless times God is referred to as being in the heavens. The point, however, is not that God is bound to a location. (We know this because other verses, such as 2 Chronicles 2:6 proclaim just the opposite: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Him.”) The use of heavens in the OT is for our perspective benefit. The heavens are above and beyond us. Therefore, God uses the heavens as a type of metaphor as his location to show that heis above and beyond us. The heavens are not his home as the earth is ours; again, he is spirit, and he is, therefore, everywhere. But God wants us to understand his unlimited, transcendent qualities and therefore uses that which is beyond us as a synonym of sorts for that perspective.
We also see that clearly in the New Testament. Unlike in the Hebrew OT, the Greek New Testament includes the word translated heaven both in the singular and in the plural. However, when used in the singular, it is used to denote the actual sky (as in Mt 16:2 in discussing the red sky of fair weather or in John 1:32 as John the Baptist speaks of the Spirit descending as a dove out of the sky).
When used in the plural in the NT, the heavens always speak of that realm of the divine. For example, the countless expressions of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew are actually “the kingdom of the heavens” in the Greek. Likewise, the Lord’s Prayer starting, “Our Father who art in heaven,” is literally, “Father of us, the [one] in the heavens.” All this discussion is consistent with the Bible’s attempt to contrast that with which we are familiar to that which is above and beyond us—that which is of God.
But returning to Genesis 1:1, God’s intent in revelation is that we understand that he has made everything—from the existence we can see and touch (the earth) to the existence that stretches to exhaustion our furthest imaginations (the heavens).
The next idea we may consider when reading that first verse of Genesis is its opening phrase “In the beginning.” In the beginning of what? There may be a couple of ways to consider what is beginning. We may be talking about the beginning of God’s formativeactivity. I chose the word formativein order to imply a subtle difference from creativeactivity. We may equate creativewith bringing something about from nothing; and there is good reason to do so (which we will get to soon). Formative, on the other hand, implies something already existing that will be altered in shape, in form. So then, according to which perspective should Genesis 1:1 be read?
The New Revised Standard Version chooses the formativeapproach. In that version, the translators included a word not in the Hebrew in order to get their point across. There we read, “In the beginning whenGod created the heavens and the earth,” as a temporal clause rather than as an independent one. Read in that way, we find verse 2 as the main focus of the discussion: when God began creating, the heavens and earth were formless and empty. The implication is that the matter was there; it was just not yet shaped into our earth and universe yet.
There is some Hebrew grammatical support for this reading. But it is far from conclusive. In fact, reading verse 1 as its own independent clause also has Hebrew grammatical support. We find difficulties like this more so in a more primitive language such as Hebrew, which has no punctuation and is limited to about 75,000–80,000 expressions (as opposed to the more than double that amount in English with punctuation galore). But there are a couple avenues of appeal that, I believe, swing this to the side of an independent clause. A look back at history reveals that the Septuagint, the Syriac manuscripts, pre-modern-era Hebrew scholars, and church fathers (those philosophers and interpreters of the first few centuries after Christ) all, without exception, treat Genesis 1:1 as an independent clause. While preponderance of tradition does not render an absolute verdict, some pretty heavy counterarguments would be required to jettison all this prior scholarship of those immersed in the language and much closer to its original writing.
The clincher for me, however, is in a parallel structure found in the New Testament. The apostle John begins his Gospel attempting to mimic the beginning of the Old Testament in order to show the completion of the revelation of God found in Jesus. Therefore, he begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The structure treats the opening clause as independent, revealing John’s understanding of the structure of Genesis 1:1.
Yet, deciding that Genesis 1:1 is an independent clause does not settle the question of whether the beginning is of God’s formative or creative activity. Some scholars insist that Genesis 1:1 is merely a section heading for what follows. In other words, verse 1 is a summary title that God created (or fashioned) everything, and then goes on in verse 2 and following to show how he did so. Again, the point is to insist that verse 1 does not argue that God created from nothing. As support, these scholars point to Genesis 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, and 10:10—all summary title verses explaining what is to follow. Yet, each of these support examples is of a genealogy. There is no support example that is not a genealogy. Therefore, to insist on parallelism here is hardly convincing. Furthermore, in each summary title of the genealogies, explicit reference is made in the Hebrew to what follows, as the detail for the summary statement. That kind of connection is not found in Genesis 1:1.
However, there is a different sort of connection starting verse 2 that demonstrates subsequence rather than sub-detail. The KJV provides “and” as the first word of verse 2. Most modern translations render that Hebrew expression as “Now.” Either way, the point is to show that subsequentto the creation, we find matter that is formless and empty. And that points back to the independent clause of verse 1 actually presenting the idea that God created the heavens and the earth from nothing.
Additional support is in the Hebrew word for created—bara’. It is almost exclusively used in reference to God’s creative work, thus making it different from the Hebrew ‘asah, which is more often translated as madeor fashioned(as in Genesis 1:7).
One other idea comes to mind in reading that first verse of Genesis. We’ve talked about what God created and that this creation of God was the beginning of all his creative activity. However, we may notice that there is no explanation given for who this God is. Genesis begins with a presumption of God, and I think that is significant.
Christians often attempt to debate with atheists or agnostics regarding the existence of God. And there are some brilliant minds who lay out arguments of classical apologetics: ontology (from perfection of idea to reality), teleology (from design to designer), and cosmology (from effect to first uncaused cause), demonstrating reasonableness (if not proof) for belief in God’s existence. There are also some scholars who pursue evidentiary apologetics, starting with miracles (most notably the resurrection of Jesus), attempting to reasonably prove the supernatural event to work back to the need for a supernatural cause. But a third category of apologetics is the one I want to rely on for our study. It is called presuppositional apologetics. Rather than trying to prove God’s existence through reason, the presuppositionalist lays out meaning for life based on his or her presupposition of God’s existence and compares it to the non-theist’s meaning for life based on his or her presupposition that God doesn’t exist. And in this (through recognition of issues of purpose and morality), we find the theistic viewpoint more satisfying.
An individual’s persuasion of Christianity will never arrive simply through reasonable argumentation because Christianity ultimately finds its realization in a relationship of the whole spirit. Apologetics can be useful to break down obstacles preventing individuals from considering the cross, but ultimately the embrace of the cross is the embrace of God, an activity of both mind and heart.