Genesis 1:1-2 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 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.
Welcome back to Genesis. We’re at the beginning of what has already been—and I imagine will continue to be—a remarkable journey through this ancient book of God. Several people have come to me to share stories of God’s having burdened them (even before knowing that I had planned on preaching through Genesis) to read through Genesis, to test certain aspects of their lives up against Genesis, and to go to Genesis to counsel others. God’s kind providence is near and clear. Be encouraged, Grace Church, God is at work among us.
In case you missed it (or in the way of a reminder), last week I preached on half of Genesis 1:1—not half of the words; half of the meaning. There are two main thrusts in Genesis 1:1—the God of creation and the act of creation. Again, last week I preached on the God of creation (eternal, omnipotent, God of gods, and ruler of all he has made). This week, then, I mean to preach on the act of creation according to 1:1-2.
Before we pray and I get into the text I need to share a bit about the structure of this sermon.
The process and practice of preaching has been likened to the preparation and serving of a meal. Throughout the day the chef spends time in the kitchen, carefully selecting ingredients, carefully preparing and combining the different dishes, carefully baking and cooking, and carefully determining how to best present and share the meal. For the most part chefs do this alone. Those who will eventually eat the meal are largely unaware of all that went into preparing the food they eat. Then, of course, comes mealtime. At that point the diners sit down and enjoy the fruit of the chef’s labor. For the most part, all they know are the benefits of the chef’s work.
Again, in a number of ways preaching is a lot like that. The preacher spends a good number of hours during the week reading, praying, thinking, and writing about the text in ways most of the congregation never knows about. Then, on Sunday morning, the preacher serves the fruit of his labor to the church to eat, enjoy, and be changed and sustained by. Good preaching always includes some measure of sharing what went on in the “kitchen” in order to help the congregation see how the preacher arrived at his conclusions from the text, but for the most part “kitchen issues” remain in the kitchen.
Because of the nature of this particular text and the questions it raises, we’re going to spend far more time in the kitchen than usual. Even at the risk of this seeming more like a lecture I feel the need to help you all understand the issues at stake and why I believe the text means what I’m going to suggest it means. Nevertheless, I do think that this is the best approach to this text in order to set us up well to eat and drink in abundance in the weeks to come.
With that, would you pray with me that the structure of the sermon wouldn’t take away from the glory of the text, that God would make the nature of his creative work in these two verses clear to us, that we’d give him all the glory he deserves for it, and that we would live our lives increasingly consistently with the nature of God and the world he’s made?
IN THE BEGINNING, GOD CREATED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH
As I mentioned, the structure of this morning’s sermon is a bit unusual (at least for me). The reason for this approach is that these two verses have been taken in two significantly different ways (by very godly people) and I want to argue for one of them in particular.
The first way that godly men and women have read this passage (and the one I want to argue against) is that v.1 is a summary statement of all that is to follow in 1:2-2:25. In this view, it is taken to be a stand-alone sentence that describes in simple terms what chapters 1 and 2 unpack in detail. Under this reading of 1:1, 1:2 is generally understood to be a description, not of God creating ex nihilo, but of his reordering his earlier creation that had fallen into chaos. Various ideas are offered as to how and when God’s earlier creation had fallen into chaos, but it is generally acknowledged that we cannot be certain. This view is probably the predominant view among scholars today.
The second way to read this passage (which is the one I want to argue for) is the one the Christian church had accepted, almost without question up until relatively recently. In essence, the traditional reading of Genesis 1:1-2 is that v.1 is the actual act of creation (there was nothing outside of the triune God himself before v.1 and then v.1 declares God’s creation of time and space). V.2 then describes the original and good (though unformed and unfilled) creation of God, with 1:3-2:3 describing the good forming and filling of the earth.
With these two ideas in mind, for the remainder of this sermon I want to ask and answer a series of questions from the text to show you how I came to believe the traditional reading before explaining why all of this matters.
QUESTIONS FROM 1:1-2
- Is Genesis 1:1 a summary statement of God’s work of creation or is it the initial act of creation?
- Does “heavens and … earth” refer (as a figure of speech) to everything that was made or to the two specific realms of created space?
- Does v.2 refer to matter that had been previously created (and corrupted) or the original state of God’s (good) creation?
- Are “deep” and “waters” two separate things or one (and what are they)?
- Is “Spirit of God” the best translation of the original or is “wind” (and what is He/it doing)?
As I work through these questions please keep in mind that God meant something specific when he inspired Moses to write these things down. Any lack of clarity is because sin has marred our ability to see clearly. God’s word is clear. Our minds are fuzzy. There is one right and good and perfect understanding of this passage and it is our job to work carefully to find it. In that sense, then, it is not about what I think or others think or what the most scholars have concluded or what the oldest scholars have believed. It’s about what God meant his people to understand. By the grace of God the Spirit of God will guide us.
Is Genesis a Summary Statement or the Initial Act of Creation?
Genesis 1:1-2 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Answering that question well requires a good deal of careful study, consideration, and prayer (time in the kitchen). And even then it can be difficult to gain well-placed confidence. For your sake and God’s glory I have done these things to the best of my ability over the course of a number of weeks. Further, on this side of that study, consideration, and prayer, I’m more humbled but also more strengthened in my conviction that Genesis 1:1 is not a summary statement, but a description of God’s first creative act. While there is room for discussion, and while each Christian would do well to wrestle with this to the point of conviction on their own, the nature of God, the biblical context, and the weight of history helped settle the matter in my mind.
The primary arguments for v.1 being a summary statement are: 1) the Hebrew wording of the verse, and 2) an interpretation of v.2 as a description of preexisting material chaos resulting from sin entering into the world after God’s original creation (a view that is incompatible with v.1 being God’s good creation). I’ll address point number 2 in a few minutes when we consider v.2. Without getting deep into the weeds regarding the first point, let me simply say this: there is nothing in the wording that necessitates that it be a summary statement. That is, there is nothing in the text itself or the surrounding context that requires us to read it that way.
On the other hand, Genesis 1:1 seems to be a description of God’s original act of creation because: 1) it is the simplest reading of the text, 2) it is the way the church has almost universally understood the text up until very recently, and 3) it makes the most sense with the way v.2 and the rest of the first two chapters ought to be read.
In saying it is the simplest reading of the text I mean that apart from looking to make room for certain presuppositions (like modern science which, of course, would have been totally foreign to the original author and audience), the ancient reader would have (and did) read the passage in the way I’m suggesting. And in saying that it is the way the church has almost universally understood the text I mean what one commentator (James Jordan, CSD, 17) puts very well, “it is a fact that before the modern era, nobody in the history of the church for over three thousand years ever questioned the chronology of the Bible…”. That is, it was almost universally agreed that Genesis 1 contains a straightforward chronology of the creation of the heavens and the earth, all of which began with God’s initial act in 1:1.
To this end, John Calvin (in his commentary on Genesis, 34) matter-of-factly wrote, “Therefore [Moses’s] meaning is, that the world was made out of nothing. Hence the folly of those is refuted who imagine that unformed matter existed from eternity; and who gather nothing else from the narration of Moses than that the world was furnished with new ornaments, and received a form of which it was before destitute”.
This is a significant matter (not necessarily as a matter of one’s salvation, but) in that anything other than the traditional reading of Genesis 1:1 is a significant break from historical Christianity, it at least begs the question of our highest authority (science or scripture), and, as we will see shortly, alternative interpretations of v.1 make the resulting interpretations of Genesis 1:2 difficult to reconcile with God’s nature and the rest of the bible.
Alternatively, the traditional reading of Genesis 1:1 provides a brief but wonderful picture of the very first moments of time and space (which is entirely missing from other views), a seamless transition to v.2 which (as we will see) paints a remarkable picture of the world in its earliest stage, and (which we’ll see in the coming weeks, and a consistent picture of God having made that which is good.
Does “heavens and earth” Refer to All that Was Made or to the Two Specific Realms of Created Space?
This reading of Genesis 1:1 (that it describes God’s first act of creation) begs an immediate and significant question: What, specifically, did God create? We find our answer in the second half of v.1.
Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
God’s first act of creation was to make “the heavens and the earth”. But what, specifically, does this mean? Again, there are two prevailing possibilities (alluded to in the question itself). One possibility is that “heavens and earth” is a poetic expression (called a merism), simply indicating everything that has been made. It’s like saying day and night to indicate the entire 24 hours, or summer and winter to indicate an entire year. In this reading the heavens are not meant to be thought of as distinct from the earth. To separate them and study them individually would be like trying to separate “watermelon” into “water” and “melon” to find the fuller meaning of the term. The compound actually loses its meaning if you try to separate it into water and melon.
The other possible reading is that Genesis 1:1 speaks of two distinct realms of creation; of the heavenly, spiritual realm where God and angels dwell and the saints go when they die, and of the earthly, physical realm which we can observe. In this view, typically, the heavenly realm is seen as the place, then, where the angels fell (but is beyond the scope of Genesis) and the earthly realm is the subject of the actual creation account.
The advocates of both possible readings agree that there is a heavenly spiritual realm and an earthly physical realm. Likewise, the advocates of both possible readings agree that God made both of them and everything in them. The only question is which Moses had in mind in this particular declaration. There are strengths and weaknesses for both views in my opinion but (unlike some of the other decisions we need to make) not much is at stake in figuring out which is right, as both are true. All of that leads us to and sets us up for a couple more critical questions.
Does v.2 Refer to Matter that Had Been Previously Created (and Corrupted) or the Original State of God’s (Good) Creation?
Once again, what was God’s first act of creation like? At that first moment, what was there? For the answer to that question, let’s turn our attention to the first part of the second verse.
Genesis 1:2a The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.
There seems to be unending debate today over the precise meaning of this verse—its relationship to v.1, the meaning of its phrases, and so on. The various interpretations present no small differences in implication.
Once again, the view that I’m arguing against suggests that this passage does not describe creation ex nihilo (God’s original act of creation out of nothing), but the chaotic state that God’s previous creation had fallen into. Those who argue for this view typically do so on the basis of the meaning of the words in the verse (“without form,” “void,” and “darkness”) and an underlying conviction concerning the age of the earth.
Thus we read commentary like this: “It is clear from the contents of verse 2 that something is drastically wrong at the outset. Two clauses set down the circumstances as chaotic; the first states that the earth was ‘waste and void’, or ‘formlessness and emptiness'” (Ross, CB, 106). Consequently (some argue), “Essentially the work of creation is a correction of chaos. Emptiness, formlessness, darkness, and the deep are replaced or altered with a creation that is pronounced good and is blessed by God (Ross, CB, 74-75).
The words of the passage, once again, they argue, imply judgment, evil, and death (which wouldn’t be there if v.2 described an initial, intermediate, and good state of creation). In conclusion, then, “[Genesis 1:2 describes] not the results of divine creation but a chaos at the earliest stage of this world. [However,] it is not the purpose of Genesis to tell the reader how the chaos came about” (Ross, CB, 107).
While I understand and (on some level) appreciate this attempt to take God’s word seriously, I do not find it very convincing (less so than I did before studying it closely).
Instead, once again along with the vast majority of theologians throughout Church history, I believe the passage describes “The completed universe that God made [which] at the beginning was formless, empty and dark, but it was still good and still a completed act” (Jordan, CSD, 40).
Further, “nothing in [1:2] implies chaos. Is a lump of clay ‘chaotic’ just because it has not yet been formed into a vase or a man? Is an empty room ‘chaotic'” (Jordan, CSD, 40) because it has not yet been furnished and decorated? Is a dark house sinful or evil because it has not yet been wired for light? The answer to each of these rhetorical questions is obviously “no”. Again, there is nothing in the language of the verse that indicates (much less necessitates) chaos or any kind of sin, evil, or corruption.
What does “formless and void” mean, then? It simply means that God’s creation was initially unstructured and empty. It was good, but there was more work to do (which becomes plain as the rest of chapter 1 unfolds). The rest of Genesis 1 then describes God’s forming and filling the earth he made. Likewise, if “darkness” does not refer to judgment, sin, or evil, what does it mean? It means what the next verse tells us it means: that God had not yet created light; nothing more.
Overall, then, the picture of this passage paints seems to be this: God created the heavens and the earth, the physical and spiritual realms, in such a way that the physical realm was initially good but needing shape and fullness; in some ways like a lump of wet clay waiting to be molded into a beautiful vase and filled with flowers and water. Isaiah 45:18 Thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other.”
Are “deep” and “waters” Two Separate Things or One?
There are two more descriptions of creation in its original condition in v.2. Moses tells us that the earth contained something called “the face of the deep” and “the face of the waters”.
Genesis 1:2 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.
What are these things and are they distinct? By virtually every account “the deep” and “the waters” are the same thing—some type of unfilled and unformed body of water. It takes no particular shape and contains none of the fish or plants that will soon fill it. We can’t know more than what the text tells us about this, but what it tells us is fairly straight-forward and simple.
Is “Spirit of God” the Best Translation of the Original or Is “wind”?
All of this leads to our final set of questions. Is the second half of v.2 best translated as “Spirit of God” or as “mighty wind”? And what is the significance of it hovering over the face of the waters?
Genesis 1:2b And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Concerning the first question, let’s again listen to the words of Calvin as he articulates the traditional reading, “Interpreters have wrestled with this passage in various ways. The opinion of some that it means ‘the wind,’ is too frigid to require refutation. They who understand by it the Eternal Spirit of God, do rightly…” (Calvin, COG, 37). I love the candor (if not the impatience) of the reformers. Any other interpretation isn’t even worth our time, Calvin wrote. Indeed, context and biblical theology make plain that it is God’s Holy Spirit (rather than some impersonal wind) who is at work in this clause.
But what is the Holy Spirit of God doing? What does it mean that he was “hovering over the face of the waters?” In short, as we’ve just seen, God’s original creation was good, but it was empty and shapeless. The Holy Spirit is pictured as present and awaiting the Father’s next act of creation: forming and filling. Again, in the second part of v.2, we see that the Holy Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the formlessness, voidness, and darkness ready to do the Trinitarian work of ordering and filling the earth.
Psalm 104:29-30 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. 30 When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
How awesome it is to consider what was only hinted at in Genesis, but we now know in detail: Father, Son, and Spirit all working together to create, arrange, and fill the world for eternal triune praise.
Let me close with a summary and an application. In the way of a summary, Genesis 1:1-2 describes God’s initial act of creation and the original condition of creation. The act was to speak the heavens and earth into existence. Originally, the earth was good but undeveloped—unstructured and empty.
In the way of application, what are we to do with all of this? First, praise God. Who spoke the world into existence? Who was there when the world was made? Who made all things good? Behold our God alone!
Second, consider how this simple account of the beginning leaves us a pattern for life and faith (this is something we’ll see over and over—the Genesis account of creation is not merely an isolated event, it is filled with foreshadows and types and patterns that will last into eternity). Specifically, while God could have created everything (entirely full and ordered) in one word, he chose to do it over time and then invite mankind to join him in it. He does so in physical terms, we will soon encounter the dominion mandate—the job of man to form and fill the earth. He also does so in spiritual terms. We do not come into the Christian life fully sanctified. Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just hurry up and finish his work in you? We see in the goodness of God’s gradual unfolding of creation, the goodness of God’s gradual unfolding of our sanctification. In saving us God begins a good work in us that he gradually, but certainly sees through to completion and invites us to join him in it working out our own salvation in faith.
Our God is truly a God of wonders. Let’s join him in worship him even as we join him in participating in the ongoing work of creation (and new creation) as he’s called us to.