We are so habituated by what the English word “earth” means to us in our scientific post-modern world that we seldom stop to ask if that’s the same meaning intended in the Hebrew word eretz.
When we read Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we picture the origin of the atmosphere, space, solar systems, and galaxies. We think of the creation of the planet in our solar system named “Earth,” whose shape is an oblate spheroid or a rotationally symmetric ellipsoid. This mental picture is natural, because the English term “Earth” is the name of the planet in this solar system on which humans reside. But in Genesis 1 “earth” does not mean the planet Earth. Genesis reports the origin of the “heavens and earth” as such terms meant in the author’s time and within his worldview, which did not include a twenty-first century acquaintance with astronomy. What does “earth” mean in Genesis 1? The answer is provided in the text itself. — Dr. Karen Winslow
It is rare to find such an accurately and succinctly put introduction to the textual problem at hand that I had to borrow this one to serve as my own introduction. This is quite shocking since it comes from a theologian in the Wesleyan tradition who has very different beliefs than myself. In fact it could be said we stand at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Nonetheless, this exemplifies something that I have repeatedly voiced here and at more more active website Contradictions in the Bible, that biblical scholarship proper is not about the reader’s beliefs or non-beliefs, not about finding our beliefs or scientific truths in these ancient documents, but about understanding and faithfully reproducing their beliefs. Dr. Winslow and I can agree on the point expressed above, because that the Hebrew eretz did not and does not signify the planet earth is a fact borne from reading the text on its own terms and in its own historical and literary contexts, regardless of the beliefs or non-beliefs of its readers. This is what I have been advocating as the objective study of the Bible. It is the texts and the culturally conditioned beliefs expressed in them that is the object of our study—and not what later readers believed or were told to believe about these texts.
So then what does eretz mean according to the ancient Israelite scribe that penned this text? What exactly does he portray God creating?
At the end of verses 6-8, we are left with an image of two parted bodies of water, the waters above (ha-mayim meal) and the waters below (ha-mayim mitahat), in the midst of which is open air. This open space was created by the arched barrier (raqî‘a) which God made and set in place to keep the waters above from falling and rejoining the waters below (something that actually does happen in this writer’s flood narrative). This solid domed barrier is then called “the skies” (sha-mayim), so that in the end it is the sky itself which holds back the waters above, and in return gives the sky its blue color.
The text then turns to the waters below the skies. These waters are collected together and subdued to form “seas.” It is from this body of water that we are informed dry land (yabbashah) appears.
And God said, “Let the waters under the skies be gathered to one place and let the dry land be seen.” And it was so. And God called the dry land “earth” and he called the collection of waters “seas.” And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:9-10)
There are several things to observe in these verses. First, we are informed that from the action of gathering the waters below the skies into tamed bodies of water, which are named “the seas,” dry land can now be seen. The Hebrew verb here is ra’ah, “to see,” and it is the same verb used in verse 10 when our author writes, “and God saw that it was good.” In verse 9, this verb appears in a passive imperative construction: “let be seen the dry land.” Thus in no manner of speaking does verse 9 speak of the creation of earth, that is the dry land (yabbashah). This is a significant detail in the text. Rather, dry land emerges from the collected waters below; it is commanded to appear, to become visible. In other words, it was already there!
This narrative detail draws us back to verse 2, where yet to be created earth/dry land already preexisted in a state of formlessness and desolation (tohû wabohû), itself immersed in the surging waters of the primeval deep (tehôm). Again, it is best to understand “earth” in verse 2 as the material substance earth, which has as of yet not been formed, named, nor really created as dry habitable life-supporting land. All this happens on day 3 in verses 9-10. So, the preexisting formless and desolate material substance earth that was submerged in the watery deep of verse 2 only emerges as earth proper, that is life-sustaining land, after the creator deity has subdued the primeval forces that threaten life—the untamed waters and darkness. This is yet another example of the god subduing the primeval elements rather than creating matter out of nothing. The waters recede and are tamed to expose life-supporting dry ground.
We have therefore seen this creator god subdue, separate, place boundaries upon, and name the original primordial waters. And now we see him command into the light of day life-sustaining dry land from an original formless, vacuous piece of earth immersed in the depths of the waters below.
Second, far from presenting God creating Earth, a spherical planet orbiting a sun in one of many galaxies in infinite space (none of whose ideas existed to the authors of these texts and the god they portrayed in them!), the text of Genesis presents its god forming the substance earth, that is dry habitable and flat land, from an initial formless, vacuous, and desolate earth mass that now rests on the waters below and is encased within a finite area of space itself enclosed and defined by a solid domed barrier called the sky, which further functions to hold back the waters above!
In short, what the god of Genesis creates is this:
In other words, our author’s presentation and imagination of how God created the stuff of his world was shaped by his own subjective and culturally defined perceptions and beliefs about his world. These beliefs, which were accorded as “truths” for these ancient cultures, were deduced from what ancient man (mis)perceived on an empirical level: rain fell from water which existed above the skies; whereas natural springs, deltas, and flooding led to the belief that the earth “floated” on and was supported by waters that existed below the earth, below the dry ground beneath their feet. This belief, which for all intents and purposes functioned as “truth” for our author and his culture, was then legitimated by presenting the creator deity creating the world as the author himself perceived it to be! In the end, what the god of Genesis 1:1-10 creates miraculously conforms to ancient Near Eastern man’s perceptions and beliefs about the world, and not what we today know the world, and the larger cosmos, to be.
Thus any modern day Creationist who professes belief in the creation account of Genesis is just being plain ignorant about what these texts actual say and do not say, as well as being disingenuous toward these texts and the beliefs of their authors. This again exemplifies the problem at hand as well as our modern educational malaise. Fact is: No so-called Creationist believes the creation account in Genesis 1, but rather feigns belief out of ignorance. Why? Because these so-called Creationists are in truth not interested in the beliefs and views of these ancient authors and the texts they wrote; if they were they would educate themselves about these texts, their authors, the historical circumstances that produced them, their historical and literary contexts, audiences, etc. Instead, they are more interested in and concerned about their own beliefs and how these modern beliefs are legitimated by having recourse to an ancient text that has for better or worse become authoritative, all the while neglecting and discarding the very beliefs of the authors of these ancient texts so that they can ignorantly and hypocritically pontificate their own modern agendas.
Again, as a biblical scholar whose goal is to understand these texts and their authors on their terms, not ours, in their historical and literary contexts, not ours or those of later readers, and to faithfully reproduce their beliefs, not ours, I find the whole interpretive enterprise of Creationists, and fundamentalists in general, damaging, dishonest, and negligent of these ancient texts, their authors, and their beliefs.