The first book of the Bible, Genesis, takes its name from its first words, “In the beginning,” as genesis means “beginning.” The book of Genesis in general, Genesis 1 to 3 in particular, records the beginning of creation and human history. Moses penned Genesis in roughly 1400 BC as the first of a five-part book called the Pentateuch, meaning “book in five parts.” The Genesis account of creation was most likely directly revealed to Moses by the same Holy Spirit who was present in Genesis 1:2, since Moses was not present for the creation event. Genesis is not an exhaustive treatment of early history but rather a theologically selective telling of history that focuses on God and mankind while omitting such things as the creation of angels or the fall of Satan and demons.
The first line of Genesis says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”1 The two subsequent chapters of the Bible are devoted to speaking about creation. Brilliantly, the Bible opens with the one true, eternal God as both the author and subject of history and Scripture. Consequently, everything else in history and Scripture is dependent upon God and is only good when functioning according to his intentions for it from creation.
Only in the last century has undeniable evidence forced the natural sciences reluctantly to agree with what Scripture has always taught: the universe had a beginning. It is an amazing testimony to the truth of Scripture. The scientific consensus that the universe had always been pretty much as it currently is (Steady State) was so strong that Einstein overrode the implications of his theory of general relativity and added a cosmological constant to make them consistent the prevailing view. The opening phrase, “In the beginning,” speaks of an inauguration of a history, a space and a time when the Lord worked. Implicitly, it anticipates an end, a time when he will bring history to an end and create a new heavens and a new earth.2
In Genesis 1:1, the word used for created is the Hebrew word bara, which means “creation from nothing.” The other Hebrew word used in a creative sense in Genesis is asah, translated “make” or “made,”3 which means “to fashion or shape,” or “to make something suitable,” such as making loincloths out of fig leaves4 or making the ark.5 Bara emphasizes the initiation of an object, whereas asah emphasizes the shaping of an object. Along with statements where God does initial creation (the heavens and the earth6), the only other things bara’d are the living creatures7 and human beings.8 When people create we are doing asah, not bara. We can take things that God has given us such as seed and land to plant crops and harvest food, but in so doing we are not creating food from nothing but rather creating it from the gifts given to us by God in creation.
In the creation account we see that God created (bara) “the heavens and the earth.” This phrase could be more literally translated “the skies and the land,” since the heavens are not the place where God lives, but the place where stars move9 and birds fly.10 The Hebrew word eretz, usually translated “earth,” in Genesis 1 does not mean the planet but the land under the water,11 separated from water,12 where vegetation grows13 and animals roam.14 Elsewhere in Scripture it usually means the Promised Land. The phrase “skies and land” is a Hebraic way of saying “everything”15 from the skies above to the earth below, like saying from top to bottom or head to toe, including space-time, mass-energy, and the laws that govern them. In other places in Scripture, the phrase includes the sun and moon, which could in turn mean that the sun and moon were created as a part of this first creation.16
The land or earth is “without form and void”17 before God prepared them for humans. Ancient Greek cosmology said that what originally existed was essentially a formless hunk of mud, which God then formed from chaos into cosmos. This ideology has had great sway in many Christian interpretations of Genesis 1:2, including the first English translation of the Bible overseen by William Tyndale, which translated it as “void and empty,” thereby sadly setting in motion a precedent for many future Bible translations and Bible commentators, including Martin Luther.18
However, the same language for “without form (tohu) and void (bohu)” used in Genesis 1:2 is used elsewhere in Scripture in reference to uninhabited land. Examples include Deuteronomy 32:10, which speaks of “a desert land, and in the howling waste (tohu) of the wilderness.” Isaiah 45:18 says that God “formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create [bara] it empty [tohu], he formed it to be inhabited!).” Perhaps the closest parallel is Jeremiah 4:23, where God prophesied the future state of Judah, a nation doomed to exile by its sin: “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.” Here, “without form and void” does not mean chaos, but it means empty of humans; “no light” does not mean there is no sun but that the land is without God’s blessing.
Similarly, in Genesis 1:2 “without form and void” is the condition of the land before God made it good, filling it with light and life. The best understanding is not that God created primordial chaos and formed earth out of it, but that God created everything out of nothing and that the land existed for some unstated period of time in a desert-like, empty state. The dawn of God’s light signals the arrival of his blessing. Then, God took six literal days to prepare the land for human habitation, as recorded in Genesis 1–2. This work is forming (asah) already-existing material, not creating (bara) from nothing. Historically, this is also the teaching of Augustine.
The creation of heavens and earth in the first verse is a concrete, historical, scientific fact. But the text simply does not tell us when it happened, only that it was sometime before the preparation of the land for humans to dwell with God. “In the beginning” means that there was an inauguration, but not when that moment was. Therefore, Genesis 1:1 leaves open both the possibilities of a young and an old earth.
The creation account goes to great lengths to make it clear that the God who created (bara) everything according to the first verse is the same God who prepared (asah) the land for humans to dwell with him in the remainder of Genesis 1 and 2. The God of creation is also the God of covenant relation who cares for us and pursues us for relationship.
When we care for someone, we make great efforts to prepare a place for them to dwell safely. This is what God did for us in creation. What aspect(s) of God’s creation do you most appreciate because of His attention to detail?