Genesis 1:1-2 — not a Creation ex nihilo

Despite strong traditional and often authoritative interpretative claims that were formed centuries after this ancient text was written and devoid of knowledge about its historical and literary context, the opening of Genesis 1 does not depict a creatio ex nihilo, that is a creation out of nothing. The Hebrew text is clear on this point and recognized by all biblical scholars. Rather, what the text of Genesis 1:2 informs us is that when God began to create, earth—that is the material substance earth; the Hebrew ’eretz (earth) never means the planet Earth (see below)—already existed as a desolate, formless, inhabitable waste—a tohû wabohû in Hebrew—in the midst of a dark surging watery abyss (tehôm). This is the initial primordial state of creation that the creator deity inherits so to speak, and it is a prominent cultural feature in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths, from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

Moreover, as we shall see, there are specific theological reasons for why the author of Genesis 1 composed a creation account where the creator deity creates dry, habitable, life-supporting earth from this primordial, unformed, desolate, and immersed earth mass. And these reasons were also shaped by this author’s cultural and literary contexts, as well as by the specific historical circumstances in which this author and his audience found themselves. And our author’s theological argument—his message—should not go ignored or interpreted away simply because it does not conform to our beliefs and views about the nature of the world and its origins. Rather, our task is to be honest to this ancient text by faithfully reproducing its author’s beliefs and worldview—not those of readers living millennia later!

Both creation accounts in the book of Genesis not only belong to the larger historical world of the ancient Near East that produced them, but they are also part and parcel to a specific literary genre that was widely disseminated throughout this ancient landscape. In other words, the creation accounts of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4b-3:24 display the influences of older Near Eastern literary traditions, beliefs, and perspectives about the origins of the sky, earth, and mankind. This knowledge was revealed to us in part through the archaeological discoveries of the late 19th century.

In the latter half of the 19th century, archaeologists digging around the ancient site of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, found the literary remains of Ashurbanipal’s library. The Assyrian king, who reigned from 669 to 627 BCE, was somewhat of an antiquarian; he had his scribes collect and copy any existing texts that could be found. The tablets discovered at Nineveh in the later half of the 19th century were the remains of Ashurbanipal’s library and contained copies of much earlier Babylonian texts, going as far back as 2000 BCE! What startled linguists working on these cuneiform tablets in the 1870s was the mention of a great flood, a creation, and other similar themes and stories that were present in the narratives of Genesis 1-11. For the first time, scholars and theologians alike realized that stories such as the flood, creation, an original mythic paradise with a primordial pair and a tree of life were not unique to the Bible, but were in fact part and parcel to a larger literary and cultural matrix from which the biblical authors freely drew.

Up until this discovery, in other words, it was commonplace among theologians to regard the creation account(s) of Genesis as unique, divinely inspired, and in more fundamentalist circles even historical. With the discovery of other creation myths, however, informed readers were now able to see that the creation accounts in the book of Genesis belonged to a larger literary matrix, whose ideas and perspectives about the nature of the world and its origins were shared throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.

The old Babylonian creation account, the Enuma Elish, for example, which predates the Genesis accounts by at least a millennium, exhibits many parallels, both structurally and thematically, to the younger creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3. Even noting its highly mythological content and polytheistic nature, the Babylonian Enuma Elish narrates the creation of the sky, earth, and mankind in similar terms to those of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and in the same order. For example, in the older Babylonian creation account the creator deity initially subdues and conquers an original state of watery chaos personified as the goddess Tiamat, and then proceeds to divide her in two, that is separate the primordial waters into the waters above and the waters below. These waters are then kept apart by the creation of a firmament or the sky, effectively separating the waters above from the waters below. Next, the abode of the gods are attributed to the heavens together with the creation of the luminaries, stars, sun, and moon, to divide the years into months and days—indeed to create our 7-day week! The creation of the earth, that is dry habitable land, from the waters below then occurs, and finally mankind is created. Lastly, like the ending of Genesis 1:1-2:3, the Enuma Elish also ends by assigning rest for the god(s), and both speak of a divine counsel of some sort (Gen 1:26).

Biblical scholars now realize that this older mythic narrative must have served as a template for the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3, the Priestly writer. In other words, Genesis 1:1-2:3 was not a free composition of its author. This author obviously had literary precursors, one of which was the old Babylonian creation account the Enuma Elish, which the Israelites would have come into direct contact with during their captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BCE.

It needs to be stressed that it was less the direct influence of an older text that shaped the ideas and beliefs of the creation account in Genesis 1, and more so the worldview and beliefs of a shared cultural heritage that extended throughout the larger Mediterranean basin. In other words, the similarities between the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1:1-2:3 represent shared cultural perspectives and beliefs about the nature of the world and its origins. The Israelite scribes inherited these cultural perspectives and beliefs, adopted them, and freely modified them to suit their own purposes and monotheistic religious convictions. Many of the ideas and beliefs about the origin of the world expressed above in the Enuma Elish, and, as we shall see, similarly in the creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3, were also present in other creation myths from the ancient Near East. Nearly every surviving creation account from Egypt, for example, presents an original preexisting state of darkness, watery chaos, and a yet unformed landmass prior to creation. This is especially so in the case of the Egyptian cosmogony from Hermopolis, whose primordial state prior to creation is near identical to that presented in Genesis 1:2. Personified as preexisting gods, this particular cosmogony speaks of a primeval darkness, a primordial formless earth mass or hill, and the primordial surging waters, through whose separation the earth and heavens were formed and named.

Thus, one of the ideas that the author of Genesis 1 inherited from his larger cultural and literary world about the nature of his world and its origin was that the creation of the earth and the skies, of ordered life in general, was the result of separating light from primordial darkness (1:4), of separating a primordial surging water mass (tehôm) into the waters above and the waters below (1:6-7) to form a space in its midst (1:6), wherein the heavens were named (1:8) and the luminaries by which the cosmos progressed in an orderly fashion were created (1:14), and finally by forming habitable land from a primordial formless and empty (tohû wabohû) earth mass and separating it out from the waters below and naming it “earth” (1:9).

In general terms, then, the authors and cultures of these ancient Near Eastern creation myths, Genesis 1 included, did not conceive of creation as an act of creating matter, but an act of creating order, form, purpose, a habitable land with tamed and separated waters out of an initial primeval state of surging untamed waters, darkness, and a yet to be named and formed life-supporting earth. Whether speaking of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Egyptian cosmogonies, or Genesis 1, the emphasis falls on presenting the creation of a habitable ordered world from an initial state of formlessness, darkness, and untamed waters, through the creator deity’s act of separating the initial primordial matter, assigning functions or setting boundaries to the separated elements, and naming or calling into existence each component of the world, as it was perceived by the peoples and cultures of the ancient Near East. The idea of the creation of matter out of nothing was simply not a perspective adopted by the cultures of the ancient Near East, the Israelites included. The closest thing we have to the idea of creation out of nothing are a couple of Egyptian creation myths that pose a single creator deity as the origin of life, and from whose body, sky, earth, water, etc. emerge. In other words, the idea that the world originated through the creation of matter from nothing simply did not exist. Moreover, such an idea would not only have been inconceivable to the peoples and cultures of this ancient landscape, but inferior to the views they did hold about the creation of the habitable world.

That is to say, our ancient Near Eastern forerunners, the biblical scribes included, deemed that the creation of an orderly world, of a habitable land with tamed and separated waters and a heaven that provided light, order, and signs for the measurement of days, months, years, and even holy festivals from an initial state of darkness, untamed waters, and unformed earth was a more powerful statement to make about the creator deity. More significantly, the act of creating order from disorder, light from darkness, form from formlessness answered the specific concerns ancient peoples of the Near East had living in, as they perceived it, a hostile world with forces that regularly needed to be controlled. So presenting a creator deity who could, and did in fact, tame the forces of nature, subdue darkness, control the seas, create life from bareness, form from formlessness was a direct result of how the ancients perceived the world they lived in and the forces that acted upon it. This was the message behind such creation stories. The creator deity had full control over the destructive forces that continually threatened life, order, and the goodness of the earth. Most significantly, as we will see below, the ability of Yahweh to subdue chaos, form light from darkness, create a fertile and habitable earth from a formless inhabitable earth mass also had a very significant and immediate meaning to the historical audience for which Genesis 1:1-2:3 was composed.

But besides these culturally shared beliefs about the nature of the world and its origin and the literary heritage that the author of Genesis 1 inherited, there are sound textual data that support the idea that our biblical scribe did not compose a creation account depicting the creator deity creating the earth and the skies out of nothing. For the text itself clearly makes the opposite claim.

First, as many Hebraists have noted, Genesis 1:1 opens with a temporal clause. This is a complex grammatical topic, but simplified, the way in which the first word has come to be vocalized, indeed the first letter (ב) implies that grammatically the word is in the construct state, that is a noun which is followed by another noun. Thus, a literal translation of Genesis’ first word, bere’shît, is “in the beginning of.” And this is exactly what we find as the proper understanding of bere’shît when this same word appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. So, for example, the Hebrew of Jeremiah 27:1, bere’shît mamelekhet yihôyaqim, is properly translated: “In the beginning of the kingdom of Jehoiakim.” But the grammatical problem in Genesis 1:1 is that bere’shît is not followed by a noun but rather a verb-subject pair: bere’shît bara’ ’elohîm. Thus a literal rendering of the first three words of Genesis 1:1 is impossible: “In the beginning of God created.” Thus many modern translations have sought to capture the temporal aspect in the opening word of the book of Genesis by rendering the Hebrew: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” or “In the beginning when God created…” or even “When God began to create…”

The idea that creation narratives commenced with a temporal clause that indicated when the creator deity began his creative act is also attested in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths. The Enuma Elish opens with a temporal clause which doubles as the text’s title: “When on high the heavens had not yet been named, nor earth below pronounced by name…” Likewise, Genesis’ second creation account also begins with a temporal clause: “In the day when god Yahweh made earth and skies…” (2:4b).

Another interesting parallel between the Enuma Elish’s opening statement and that of Genesis 1:1 is the reference to an earth that has not yet been named—that is, not yet been created or called into existence. The rhetorical problem is: by what name do you call the primordial matter before that matter is named and created as earth? Although using the word “earth,” the Enuma Elish responds by alluding to the primordial matter that will become earth: “when earth was not yet named.” Genesis 1:1 similarly reproduces this idea but employs a different literary technique: referencing the earth that will be (1:9) as initially tohû wabohû, without form and void (1:2). What is implied might be rendered as: “In the beginning when God created the skies and the earth, and that which would become earth was without form and void…” And indeed this reading is supported by the text itself, when in verses 9-10 dry habitable land is created and named “earth” for the first time! So if earth proper, that is dry habitable land, was not created nor named until the 3rd day, then what existed prior to earth’s creation must have been none other than a formless, nameless mass of desolate “earth” for lack of a better word. Earth, then, has a very specific meaning in this creation narrative. Earth is dry, habitable, life-bearing land (v. 10). And this, our text informs us, was created from a preexisting wet, formless, waste of non-life-supporting matter or “earth” (v. 2).

This is the proper message conveyed in Genesis 1:1-10 (see below), and once again it depicts the creator deity in his most powerful and omnipotent role—creating form, life-bearing earth with tamed and separated seas by subduing, separating, and setting life-supporting boundaries to an initial and primordial formless chaotic mass of desolate “earth” and water. This is how the ancient Israelites perceived their world and its origins, not out of nothing—a statement that would have been vacuous to them—but rather through the subduing of the forces of the seas, of destruction, of chaos, of bareness, etc. Thus similar to the Enuma Elish, Genesis 1:1 must also be seen as a temporal clause doubling as the text’s title: “In the beginning when God created the skies and the earth, and the [yet to be created and named] earth was formless and desolate…”

Thus not only is the idea of preexistent matter part and parcel to the mindset and worldview of the ancient Near East, but the syntax and grammar of Genesis’ opening sentence, like other creation myths of the ancient Near East, strongly support the fact that the Israelites too depicted the creator deity in a role of subduing, separating, and creating the very components of the world from a preexistent state of formless, desolate matter.

Second, the precise meaning of the verb bara’ also highlights the creative act as one of separating. There are three verbs used in the two creation accounts of Genesis to speak of making or creating: bara’ “to create,” ‘asah, “to make,” and yatsar “to form.” The verb bara’, at least in the context of Genesis 1, connotes the act of creating by means of separating out, or distinguishing. The skies and the earth, we are told, only come into existence by separating them out from the preexistent primordial matter, by setting their boundaries, and by naming them. Thus, it is not until verse 9 that the earth, that is dry land, is created at the moment when it is separated out and distinguished from the waters below, and thenceforth named: “And God called the land “earth” (1:10). Likewise, the skies (shamayim), that is the waters above, only come into existence through an act of separating, subduing, and partitioning them off from the waters below, both of which were originally part of the primordial deep (tehôm). What is therefore implied in Genesis’ opening statement is that the skies and the earth came into existence through a creative act of separating them out from primordial matter—exactly how many Egyptian cosmogonies also begin.

Third and most significantly is the fact that the text itself explicitly asserts that neither the skies nor the earth were created ex nihilo! For the text, and more so the message of its author, clearly depict the creation of the earth proper from a formless, desolate, and void (tohû wabohû) yet named “earth,” and the skies from an original watery chaos (tehôm). That is, both the creation of the skies (shamayim) in verses 6-8 and the creation of the earth (’eretz) in verses 9-10 do not occur from nothing!

Per our text, earth proper is “dry land,” the material life-supporting substance earth, which does not get created until verses 9-10, when the creator deity himself calls it into existence through an act of separating, defining, and naming it. Furthermore, it is not created out of nothing. For again, per our text, this earth which only comes into existence in verses 9-10 was created from an initial formless, undefined, desolate, and unnamed “earth” that was originally submerged in the surging deep (1:2). Why this author explicitly presents the creation of earth from this initial state of tohû wabohû is addressed below. In any event, the text is quite clear: earth, that is dry land, was not created ex nihilo!

Much of the confusion, or plain inaccuracy, behind modern claims of the earth’s creation out of nothing not only arise from a misunderstanding of Genesis 1:2 and a lack of knowledge about its author’s culturally conditioned beliefs and worldview, but also in thinking that the Hebrew word for earth (’eretz) means the planet Earth. The text and its cultural context nowhere support this modern assumption (treated more fully below). Rather, what is created is dry life-bearing land, the earth below one’s feet, formed from desolate, undefined, primordial, yet to be named “earth.” So to be honest about our ancient text and the message of its author, there is no creation of the planet Earth imagined here! Such an idea would have been utterly inconceivable per our author’s culturally conditioned perception and knowledge about his world, or in this case lack thereof.

Likewise, neither the text nor its author presents the creation of the skies out of nothing. For what is to become the skies or the heavens (shamayim) is the firmament, the raqî‘a, which God creates in order to separate the initial primordial teeming waters into the waters above and the waters below. I suppose one could argue that the text does present the creator deity making this raqî‘a out of nothing (1:7), but not in the sense that there was nothing preexistent prior to its creation. For again the text clearly states that this raqî‘a, which was conceptualized by the ancient Israelites as a solid transparent barrier holding back the waters above (see below), was created as a tool for the deity to separate and keep separate these initial primordial untamed waters, half of which are now held above this barrier. It is this barrier or raqî‘a that gets named “the skies,” and its primary function was to keep back these waters above.

Finally, a grave theological problem is unavoidably created when one wrongly imposes later theological claims of creatio ex nihilo onto the text of Genesis 1:1-10—a text, as we have seen, which clearly states otherwise. Since the creation of earth in verses 9-10 happens through the shaping and naming of an initial formless preexisting “earth,” and the creation of the skies in verses 6-8 happens as a direct result of subduing and dividing the primordial untamed waters, then in imposing an erroneous and later theological assertion of creatio ex nihilo one is forced to conclude, since the text does not present the creation of shamayim out of nothing nor the creation of ’eretz out of nothing, that the creator deity was unable to do so! This is absurd, yet unavoidable if we follow this line of erroneous thinking to its end. For, if it was the deity’s original intention to create the skies and the earth out of nothing—or let’s put this more accurately—if it was the original intention of the biblical scribe to present his god creating the skies and the earth out of nothing, then why did he not do this?

In other words, in imposing an erroneous theological assertion of creation from nothing onto this ancient text what you end up with as the creator deity’s supposed first act of creating matter out of nothing is the creation of a formless, meaningless, lifeless, and desolate “earth” covered by a surging watery abyss surrounded in bleak darkness—all of which then needed to be re-created! Not a flattering portrait of a creator deity, and certainly not what our author intended. This is just one example of the violence done to these ancient texts and to the beliefs of their authors when later readers force their own beliefs and views onto these texts. According to this forced modern reading, the conclusion that must be drawn is that the creator deity could not do what he intended to do on his first go: the earth and skies proper need to now be created a second time from the matter that this deity supposedly created in verse 2! This translates to presenting a creator deity that textually didn’t, and theologically couldn’t, create the earth and the skies ex nihilo! An absurd conclusion drawn when one erroneously imposes modern assertions onto an ancient text whose real message is ignored, neglected, or interpreted away. It’s time we were honest to this ancient piece of literature and its author, and stop imposing our worldview and beliefs onto his text!

Last but certainly not least, as mentioned earlier the composition of a creation account displaying a deity that could force a formless and desolate state (tohû wabohû) into habitable life-bearing land had a direct significance for the audience of Genesis 1:1-2:3. It’s time we took a look at this.

Before God commences the act of creating the habitable world, the author of Genesis 1 informs us that what was to become earth existed in a state of formlessness and desolation—a tohû wabohû in Hebrew. This image was not only shaped by the ideas and beliefs shared throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, but it was equally influenced by the specific historical circumstance of the author and his audience—at least how he and his audience perceived it. The rare Hebrew expression tohû wabohû or tohû alone and the image it invoked were unique to the literature of the 6th century BCE. That is we only find this image and this vocabulary in other texts from the 6th century BCE, and specifically to depict the historical crisis so often alluded to in these texts. Paying attention to these textual details allows us to see more clearly what the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 hoped to convey through his creation account, and more importantly to whom!

In the aftermath of the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians in the earlier 6th century BCE and the desolation of its land and the turning of fruitful fields into wildernesses, the author of Jeremiah professes: “I looked on the earth and behold, it was formless and desolate (tohû wabohû), and to the heavens, and they had no light” (Jer 4:23). The image put forth here is remarkably similar, if not the same, to that of Genesis 1:2: the earth is depicted in a state of formlessness and desolation, a tohû wabohû—and darkness prevailed. Is this then a vision of the primordial state of creation as depicted in Genesis 1:2? Not quite. Although the prophet does borrow the image of decreation, it is here used to depict the harsh realities and outcome of the Babylonian destruction of the land of Judah and its people in 587 BCE. In other words, the language and image that Jeremiah and other exilic writers of the 6th century used to portray the utter annihilation of the land of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, who decimated its land, burnt Jerusalem and Yahweh’s temple to the ground, and left the land barren and covered in ashes, was the same language and image used to describe the preexistent state of creation—tohû wabohû!

In fact, references to Judah specifically, and the earth in general, as a tohû wabohû, a wasteland, a barren, sterile, and desolate wilderness, were typical exilic and post-exilic descriptions of the aftermath of the Babylonian destruction as they laid siege to the land and utterly destroyed and burnt everything they encountered, from cities to fields. Thus in another text from the prophetic tradition of the early 5th century BCE, the author of deutero-Isaiah, attempting to console the exilic community has Yahweh utter these words:

For thus saith Yahweh, he who created (bara’) the heavens, the very god who formed (yatsar) the earth and made (‘asah) it, who himself established it—“He did not create (bara’) it a desolation (tohû), but formed (yatsar) it to be habitable” (Is 45:18).

The allusion to (re)creation is more apparent here than in Jeremiah’s text. At core it is a message of hope to the exilic community that Yahweh will turn Judah from a tohû wabohû—that is, the wasteland left after the Babylonian destruction—back into habitable life-bearing earth.

The point that I’m trying to make is that this specific vocabulary and imagery are unique to the exilic literature of the 6th century BCE and reflect these authors’ reality, or at least how they perceived their reality—as a desolation, a wasteland. In like manner, the author of Genesis 1 is also expressing the same idea in his creation account, and to the same audience and for the same purpose! In this case, the tohû wabohû of Genesis 1:2 serves a dual purpose: on the cosmic level it describes the primordial desolate and formless “earth” which the creator deity eventually forms into habitable life-bearing land; and on the historic plane it describes the state of desolation and waste wrought by the Babylonian aftermath of 587 BCE. If this is so, then the Priestly creation account, like the Isaiah passage above, is an expression of the very hopes and reality of an exilic community and how this community perceived its own condition. It is an affirmative message: that as God had created an habitable earth from a preexistent formless waste (tohû wabohû), so too he can, and will, reestablish the land of Judah as habitable from its current condition of desolation and barrenness: “He did not create it a desolation (tohû), but formed it to be habitable.” The message and image reaffirm to this exilic community, the goodness and holiness in the created order of the world despite their current plight living in tohû! This is why creation from nothing meant nothing. What the Israelites sought to portray was a deity powerful enough to make, to convert, a desolate, formless, barren wasteland into a fertile, habitable, ordered, and blessed land. Both Genesis 1:1-10 and these passages from the prophetic tradition accomplish this, and I might add marvelously well.

My central goal here was not to argue that Genesis 1:1-2 does not portray a creation out of nothing, which is certainly the case, but rather to demonstrate that the biblical scribe’s presentation of the origins of creation from a primordial watery chaos with unformed, desolate earth was shaped by the ideas and beliefs shared throughout the ancient world, and that the description of creation in Genesis 1:1-2 is a subjective account drawn from the perspectives, beliefs, and ideas about the nature of the world shared throughout the ancient Mediterranean basin.

Modern readers who are ignorant of the literary and historical contexts of these ancient texts, a literary context that the biblical scribes themselves were well aware of and consciously drew from, but nonetheless feel qualified to pontificate on the meaning of these ancient documents are just being dishonest and disingenuous to these texts and the beliefs and views of their authors. Not only that, but this type of practice—pontificating meaning on an ancient text while willfully being ignorant of the cultural and literary contexts, beliefs, and worldviews advocated in the text itself—has the adverse effect of merely fueling more ignorance, and in turn generating staunch hypocritical views, since one now believes, out of ignorance, something about the text which the text in fact does not claim! Again our goal is to be honest to the texts themselves on their own terms and to the beliefs and worlview of their authors—not ours.

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