Order from chaos

What, exactly, is Genesis 1:1 talking about?

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
Genesis 1:1-2 (English Standard Version)

“When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was a shapeless, chaotic mass, with the Spirit of God brooding over the dark vapors.”
Genesis 1:1-2 (The Living Bible)

The traditional view of Genesis 1:1 —in both Jewish and Christian scholarship— is that the text is talking about a creation ex nihilo, or a creation from nothing. Before Genesis 1:1 there was nothing, then God created the universe, and in six days1 this creation was completed. On the seventh day, God rested from his divine work.

This traditional view is still the predominant Christian view, but it’s one that is influenced by multiple biblical writers, not just the author(s) of Genesis. Our journey through this text is not to create a unified theology, but to gain a deeper understanding of what the writer/editor of the text intended to say and what the listener/reader would have taken from the text. Whether Christian writers in the first century CE taught creation ex nihilo is not much of our concern.

With that in mind, the idea that Genesis 1:1-2 should be lumped together with vv.3-5 doesn’t make much logical sense. When did God create the earth? Was it on the second day or the first? When did God create the sky? On the third day as the text states, or on the first, as the traditional view must hold?2 Did God create the sky and earth only to recreate it later? There are too many contradictions for this to make sense.

What makes more sense, to me at least, is that vv.1-2 are summaries that describe what will be explained in detail in the coming text. The author is stating that this is the beginning of the world, the explanation of why we’re here and why things are the way they are. Verse 1 is the thesis statement: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Verse 2 is descriptive and provides background information. Verse 3 is where the narrative begins.

Naturally, this brings up an uncomfortable question: did God actually create everything from nothing? The answer seems to be a resounding “We don’t know.” The text doesn’t tell us. Later writers might expand on this, but the writer of Genesis doesn’t explain it to us.

Further, this interpretation puts the whole story on its head. Rather than being a narrative about how specific things materially came into existence, it’s a tale about the functional origin of things.3 In other words, Genesis 1-3 is about God ordering the universe from primordial chaos. We see a transition from unnamed matter to a universe of law and order.

In further posts we will explore why an ordering of chaos rather than a creation from nothing makes more sense in the Bible’s Near East context.

1

Whether literal or figurative. More to come on that in future posts.

2

The argument I make below doesn’t rely on this understanding of “days” because creation is the act of separating and ordering. The sky or the earth were made from preexisting material, but they weren’t fully created until they were named by God.

3

John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One” is particularly informative on the difference between functional and material creation.