This is a follow-up to Most Open Translation of Genesis 1:1-1:19, part 2 in a series. The original text there was read (simplified) as:
“At creation, God created the heaven and the earth and lit it. The next day, he created an expanse called “heaven” and with it split water-earth into sea and clouds. The third day, he made land appear and vegetation grow in it. The fourth day, he put the Sun and Moon in the expanse of heaven to henceforth light the earth.”
This simplified version avoids interpretational differences yet tells of the events that took place in a sensible way. This makes sure we don’t lose sight of the important things when we later nitpick the verses.
In understanding the phrasing of the verses accurately, we must try to read Hebrew unambiguously. I maintain that this is impossible. It seems to me bad luck, or on a bad day, ironic, that a language sporting ambiguous tenses, non-specific verbs and nouns, lack of distinction between singular and plural as well as ambiguous distinction between existed and will exist, should have been used to pass down to Man such an important account of how the world came about.
Nevertheless, it’s our lot to understand the verses and try to overcome the specifics for proper understanding of the general meaning. I maintain that such meaning would have been understood by Moses and the men of his time, and will again avoid later interpretations and constructions; at least for verses that are consistent and can be made sense of.
Where there seems to be a logical contradiction, I will use reason to analyze it (as we use reason to read words and sentences); I will however not engage in unproductive sophistry.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
This reads well; I can find no dispute among scholars or believers over that it is God doing the creating, that creating is what he is doing, and that he here creates the heaven and creates the earth.
Some texts have created as fattened or formed (and interestingly, God as Shaper), but adherents to this idea will then have to concede there is no account of the creation of earth in the Torah. It’s not really considerate of the omnipotence of God to not see Genesis as the account of the origin of the world and Man.
While much has been written on the subject of where the matter and everything else came from that God in this case formed the world and Man from (“heavens and earth” as “Universe and everything in it” interpretation), it is for the moment a philosophical discussion that does not lend itself well to understanding the truth of God’s word.
Worth noting here is that the same word for (the) heaven, (ha)shamayim, is used throughout Genesis 1. Does it make sense to read this verse as a separate act of creation, when this is the case? Certainly not, it requires only looking at the verses of Day 1 and 2, and also reading the rest of Genesis this way removes all conflicts. For now, we will read this verse as an introduction to the account — summarizing it and placing it in time. As Genesis 2 and the other chapters have introductory first verses to place the account in time, so does Genesis 1.
Alternative interpretations of “In the beginning” include “At the start [of a stream] [of events or time]“. Much has been written about what time this refers to; it is certainly included in Day 1 in most Bible versions, but considering it an intro like for the other chapters, we decide that “the start” refers to “The start of creation (of the world and all in it)” for now, and see if it holds. (An alternative would be for it to refer to “The start of the creation story“, but this would make no sense. It would then read rather like, “In the start of this chapter, God created the heaven and the earth.” – followed by accounts of creation of same.)
Thus, then, reading Genesis 1:1 as a summary introduction:
And the earth was unformed and empty, and darkness on the face of the deep. And the movement of God-spirit above the face of the waters.
(Here are some alternative interpretations. I will abbreviate such as “AI” from now on.)
AI of was: is, though there is no distinction of tense, as we know. AI of unformed: formless, waste. AI of empty: void. Darkness is used as the opposite of light. AI of face: surface. AI of above: over. Waters are usually taken as plural, though there is no distinction from singular, as we know.
Here, the tense (earth was/is) is of significance (and therefore a subject of scholarly dispute): If it’s the past tense, then the earth existed and God “merely” formed it to the world we know. If not, then he also created the water-earth.
While to me both acts are equally impressive, and I seek no philosophical dispute over whether the matter for our world came from another part of the Universe or a formless, existing water-earth, there is deeper insight to be had from these verses.
Looking at the bigger picture again, it becomes clear from the rest of Genesis 1 that the earth was at first a body entirely of water and then land was made to appear.
In all the AIs, the meaning conveyed is that on the scene is a formless water-earth with a surface over which the spirit of God moved. Why would this be told in the account? The reason must be rather like, “In this time, earth was a water-earth that had not yet formed, and it was empty, and surrounded from its surface outwards by darkness.” — in other words, devoid of the things God will later create.
There is a word that remains a mystery in these verses: deep. While the other subjects match clearly subjects in the world of Man, I have found no scholarly explanation of what is referred to. Certainly, space could be made to match, or it may refer to the depth of the waters, as land has not yet appeared. All text and translations match in this respect, as with created, so I will have to abandon this mystery. I am not here to hold nouns ransom, especially considering the polysemy of ancient Hebrew.
And God said, “Be, Light”, and light! And God saw the light, that (it was) good, and God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light “day”, and the darkness called “night”. And the evening existed and the morning existed, one day.
The first of these verses introduces the creation by incantation used in later verses. I say creation, because the second verse of Day 2 shows the correlation between the command and its realization. I am sure this is not in conflict with scholars or believers; that God can directly cause events by incantation.
The second verse introduces the division of creation into days. This gets us into the (again) unspecified length of time of the Hebrew word for day here. I will not argue with scholars interpreting it as such; certainly there is support for this in the Bible. I will also not argue with anyone claiming that an omnipotent God could (or could not) perform the acts in genesis in a 24-hour day. Notice, however, that the Sun has not yet been made to signify the passing of 24-hour days.
Certainly, the second verse reads as the end of a collective or ordered act of creation. Before Day 1, there was no heaven and no earth. Now there is, and God has established that night and day is good by creating light and letting it light the earth.
While so far, this is not much of an attack at Genesis, but more of an attack at philosophical and sophistical quandaries imagined or forced to be found in Genesis, I will continue through Day 2 to Day 4 in my next article. This, again, is to let you (and myself) reflect on whether my thoughts match the bigger picture; especially related to the one seen by prophets.
I am very interested in further sources, particularly on Genesis 1:1 as summary introduction, and scholarly accepted meanings of the word deep in Genesis; what the word would mean to a man of the scribes when reading the account.