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1) Gen 1:1–2: “God” (Elohim) can refer to any deity. However, here it depicts the sovereign originator of the whole universe.[1]

These verses correlate with an Egyptian funerary spell (ca. 2134–1991 BC) from the Book of the Dead.[2]

The incantation states, “I am he that closeth and he that openeth, and I am but One. I am Ra at his first appearance. I am the great god, self-produced; His names together compose the cycle of the gods; Resistless is he among the gods.”[3]

People living in Egypt believed that when the sun god formed the universe, he began to rule as king over his creation.[4]

Consequently, Moses’s original audience—the Israelites who had recently escaped from Egypt— understood the concept of a creator ruling over what he made. Only the identity of this Lord was new to them (Exod 3:13–14).


Due to the nuances of Hebrew grammar, specifically the vowels employed by Moses, a good translation of this passage starts with “In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, the earth had been formless and empty.” [5]

The Hebrew word (reshith) appears fifty one times in the Old Testament.[6] It means “beginning of” (Cf. Gen 10:10; Gen 49:3; Deut 21:17),[7] with one exception (Isa 46:10).[8]

Thus, Gen 1:1 does not function as a topic sentence. It describes the state of our world at the time when the Lord began his creative work.[9]

Typically, the term refers to a time-period, such as the year of succession of a king to the throne, rather than to a single point (Deut 11:11–12; Jer 28:1).[10]


In the early chapters of Genesis, usually the verb “create” (bara) occurs in association with “bless” (barak). The Lord’s purpose in creating intertwined with his desire to bless (Gen 1:21–22; Gen 1:27–28; Gen 2:3–3).


Although the text does not specify that God created from nothing, Ps 148:5 lends credence to the view of ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) creation, as does Prov 8:12, 22–31, when the personification of Wisdom speaks.[11]

The phrase “heaven and earth” is a common Hebrew example of merism. This literary device names polar opposites with the understanding that they include both them and everything in between.[12]

In other words, God created the entire cosmos, all that exists (Isa 44:24).[13]


Verse two opens with the perfect tense: “The earth had been (hayah) formless and empty,”[14] another indication that this sentence does not occur later in time than the first verse. In Hebrew, the perfect tense describes a completed act.[15]

Thus, Moses described the situation before the activity of verses 3–31 commenced.[16]


Intriguingly, Gen 1:2 resembles these opening lines of the Babylonian creation epic entitled Enuma Elish:[17]

When on high the heaven had not been named, firm ground below had not been called by name, naught but [the] primordial [water god Apsu, their begetter,  and the water goddess] Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all, their waters commingling as a single body; no reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared, when no gods whatever had been brought into being, uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined.[18]


Both Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 begin by describing the state of the world before the creating began.

In the Genesis account, Moses portrayed the formulation of order from disorder. Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) descriptions, he communicated no sense of forces of chaos being restrained, nor of any personified force of evil, such as Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of the primordial depths.[19]

Even though the deep waters obeyed the Lord’s commands (Ps 104:6), the combination of the words “formless” (tohu) and “empty” (bohu) still implies a dreadful situation (Isa 34:11; Jer 4:23).[20]

God did not create the earth to remain in chaos (Isa 45:18),[21] but to function as a place of order.[22]


Moses wrote, “And the spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”

The same Hebrew word means “wind,” “breath,” “spirit,” and “Spirit.”[23]

This creative activity involved God at work in the organization of the cosmos, not the destructive force connoted by translating ruakh as “wind.”[24]

Therefore, we can best translate ruakh as “Spirit” in Gen 1:2.[25]

Like the glory cloud or flame appearing in other covenants (Gen 15:17; Exod 19:9; Matt 17:5; Acts 2:1–4), the Spirit acted as a divine witness to the covenant of creation.[26]

Due to the polytheism in surrounding nations during the Old Testament era, Moses focused upon the existence of one God. Introducing an idea such as the Trinity would have sowed confusion and tempted Israel to expand their number of gods. Israelites viewed “the spirit of the Lord” as an emanation of God’s power and authority, akin to “the hand of the Lord” (2 Ki 3:15; Ezek 1:3).[27]


In a related language called Ugaritic, the Hebrew word for “hovering” depicts the action of birds,[28] such as a vulture circling over an awaited feast,[29] or an eagle hovering over its brood (Deut 32:11; Matt 3:16). An Assyrian emperor described himself as one whose wings were spread like an eagle’s over his land to faithfully tend to his people.[30]

Likewise, the awesome presence of God mysteriously and protectively fluttered over the primordial waters.[31]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Gen 1:1–2. What was the cosmos like at the beginning of God’s creating? How was the spirit of God at work? What aspects of these verses would have surprised Moses’s original audience?




Go to Let There Be Light (Gen 1:3–5)

[Related posts include God Separates the Waters (Gen 1:6–8); Let Us Make Humanity (Gen 1:26); A Reversal of Creation (Gen 7:5–16); In the Beginning Was the Word (John 1:1–2); The Firstborn of All Creation (Col 1:15–18); and Author and Date of Genesis]

[Click here to go to Chapter 1: God Establishes His Cosmic Temple through Creation (Genesis 1:1–13)]


[1]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 15.

[2]P. Le Page Renouf, The Book of the Dead (London: Society of Biblical Archaeology, 1904), 40,

[3]Renouf, The Book of the Dead, 17, 35,

[4]Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 86.

[5]Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 104.

[6]Result of Logos 7 word study on “רֵאשִׁית” (reshith).

[7]S. Rattray and J. Milgrom, “רֵאשִׁית” (reshith) in TDOT 13:268–72,  270.

[8]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 104.

[9]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 104.

[10]Walton, Genesis, 68–9.

[11]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 14.

[12] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 302.

[13]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 15.

[14]Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, “הָיָה” (hayah) in Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB) (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000), 224,

[15]F. W. Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (GKC) (ed. Emil Kautzsch; trans. Arthur Cowley; Oxford: Clarendon, 1910), 309,

[16]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 116–7.

[17]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 107.

[18]E. A. Speiser, trans., “Enuma Elish (The Creation Epic),” in ANET, 1:1–8, 60–61.

[19]Walton, Genesis, 73.

[20]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 15–6.

[21]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 109.

[22]Walton, Genesis, 73.

[23]William L. Holladay, “רוּחַ” (ruakh) A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (CHALOT) (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 334–5.

[24]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 17.

[25]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 114.

[26]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 16.

[27]Walton, Genesis, 76–7.

[28]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 115.

[29]Walton, Genesis, 78.

[30]Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East, 153.

[31]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 17.