As any writer will tell you, starting a story the right way is incredibly important. For Christians, then, it is important to examine exactly where the Bible begins: with Creation. Many people have done so over the years, and have presented a range of different interpretations. Having done some research on this topic myself, I have come to the conclusion that the Creation story in Genesis 1 does more than just set the scene for Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. But before I outline why I believe that, I think it is important to set down the assumptions I have about reading the Bible that influenced my understanding of this passage.
I believe that the Old Testament is best understood when read in Hebrew. Many people balk at this assertion, but I think it is important to recognize the significant difference between the English and Hebrew languages. Firstly, there are around 230,000 words in English as opposed to only 80,000 in modern Hebrew (these are rough approximations; see sources 1 and 2 at bottom). Secondly, Biblical authors tended to bundle several interrelated concepts into a single word. For example, the English words ‘angel’, ‘gods’, ‘God’, and ‘godlike’ are all represented in ancient Hebrew by the word 'elohiym'. Because of this, biblical translators had to select the word that they thought best represented the concept the verse was communicating, and in many cases they paraphrased or even changed what was originally written by the authors. I understand that many people believe these changes were justified or even necessary, but I personally believe that the greatest understanding of individual passages can be derived from reading the words of the original Biblical authors. If this assumption conflicts with your personal belief, I absolutely understand. If you continue reading this article, I would ask that you approach my interpretation with an open mind.
The last thing I want to say is: I'm no Bible scholar. There are interpretations and schools of thought around this that I either don't fully understand or I don't know exist. My motivation for writing these articles is to provide information to the casual layman based on religious research that I feel passionate about. With that being said, even with my limited knowledge I know that reading and studying the Hebrew Bible can be fairly intense. It's taken me a while to gather enough information to come to my conclusions: I'll be keeping things as light as possible here, but I know how it feels to be drowning in another language. If you find yourself losing track of all the words and their meanings, scroll down to the summary at the bottom of this article. I'll wrap things up there in preparation for the second part of the study, and it should give you a decent idea of the content covered in this part without overwhelming you with vocabulary. Alternatively, you can look up my article 'Reading the Bible in English AND Hebrew', which gives you a step-by-step picture guide showing how to do exactly what I'm doing.
The First Act of Creation
The very first verse of the Bible tells readers exactly what God is going to do: create the heavens, and the earth. The scene is set in Genesis 1 verse 2: we see that before God has made an official act of creation, the earth is 'without form and void' - and furthermore, 'darkness is upon the face of the deep'. We'll start with the first of these two phrases, which introduces the primary antagonists of the Creation story.
What? Antagonists in the Creation story? Well, the two words used in the first phrase might not be 'bad guys' as such, but it can help to think of them as energies or essences of reality that God overcomes to create the universe. The two Hebrew words in this phrase are תֹּהוּ (tohu: translated 'without form' or 'formless') and בֹּהוּ (bohu: pronounced and spelled hereafter as vohu, translated 'void'). Exploring the alphabetic meaning of these words (that is, the meaning derived from combining the symbolism of each constituent letter) yields some fascinating results, but for now the corporate meanings of these words will be sufficient. Tohu means formlessness, confusion, chaos, and vanity; vohu simply means an emptiness, void, or waste. Thus, Creation is in a state of formless emptiness, roiling in chaos to no purpose (or, in vain).
Furthermore, there is a great darkness (חֹשֶׁךְ chosek: literally darkness, but best taken metaphorically here) upon the face (פָּנִים paniym: used here with preposition -עַל (al) to mean 'in the presence of') of the deep (תְּהוֹם tehowm: depth, abyss, sea; symbolic of a place of chaos). In other words, present in this place of chaos - this tehowm of tohu and vohu - is a great darkness. Obviously things are physically dark, since there is not yet a sun or stars, but the metaphorical meaning of the word chosek is critically important here. In Exodus 10 God tells Moses to stretch his hand towards heaven, that darkness (chosek) might fall upon Egypt - "Even", God says, "darkness which may be felt". This kind of darkness is not an absence of light, but rather the manifestation of life without God: that miserable feeling of being lost, aimless, lifeless, and alone.
In other words, Creation begins in an utter void filled with chaos and totally absent from God. But verse two ends with the Spirit of God moving (רָחַף: rachaph) over the waters of the abyss. Rachaph literally means 'to be stirred, move' out of a powerful emotion. Jeremiah is rachaph with fear in Jeremiah 23:9; here, God is stirred with love. He looks out upon Creation, seeing the tohu, vohu, and chosek, and in verse 3 issues four words.
Let There Be Light
This verse is usually incorrectly assumed to denote the creation of physical light; even a cursory examination of the English Bible reveals that this is not the case, as the sun, moon, and stars are all created on the fourth day. Thus, though the Hebrew word used here (אוֹר, owr) can be translated as several different kinds of physical light, it is clear that something else is happening here. James Strong, author of Strong's Concordance, shows that owr can be defined as the light of life, prosperity, instruction, and of God's presence; St. Genesius adds that it can mean joy as in a bright countenance. Thus, God's very first act of Creation is to strike against the darkness and the chaos by creating pure Light. In verse 4, God sees the light he has made, and sees that it is good (Hebrew טוֹב: towb, pronounced and spelled hereafter as tov). He then divides the owr from the chosek.
Both of these actions are significant in their own right, the latter for reasons which will be explained later. For now I want to focus on the word tov, probably one of the single most significant words in the Bible. It is translated in a plethora of ways (see source below), and I have included a link to an article that does an excellent job unpacking the rich significance of this word. To summarize: if something is tov, it is equipped to either manifest or bring forth God's love and will into Creation both in the present and, either through itself or its descendants, continue to do so forever. This light that God created isn't simply 'good' in the rather flat sense of the English word: it is a force for life, welfare, happiness, abundance, and relationships with God that will continue forever. This force has existed since the dawn of time, permeates our world in the present day, and will continue to exist unto eternity.
Day and Night?
Now, at this point we've arrived at verse five. Having read that, you're probably starting to laugh at my exposition. If I'm right and everything up until this point is about metaphorical light and darkness, why does God call the light 'Day' and the dark 'Night'?
I want to remind you again that the sun, moon, and stars are categorically not created until the fourth day. The concept of a physical 'day' and 'night' as we perceive of them in our concept of a 24-hour rotation of the earth cannot exist yet. Thus, something else is again going on here.
The Hebrew word for 'day' is יוֹם (yowm), and the word for 'night' is לַיִל (layil). Yowm comes from a root meaning to be hot, as in the day when the light is present. Strong notes that the Hebrew conception of a 'day' can be literal (i.e. sunrise to sunset) or figurative (a space of time in which the light is present). Layil properly means 'a twist away of the light'. Thus, one interpretation of this verse is that God is naming the light, owr, as yowm, a time in which the light is present; he is also naming the darkness, chosek, as layil, a time in which the light is twisted away. This is shown in the second half of verse five, wherein the evening (Hebrew עֶרֶב: ereb) and the morning (Hebrew בֹּקֶר: boqer) constitute the first day. These words do tend to denote a literal evening or morning when they appear later in the Bible, but the former word comes from a root simply meaning 'to grow dark' and the latter translates more or less as 'the coming of the light'. One possibility, then, is that God is showing that a day - whether literal or figurative - consists of times when the light is intimately present and times when it is not. Think of Genesis 3:8 when the Lord enters the garden of Eden; the implication here is that His is now present in a more direct and accessible way than He was previously.
All this is, of course, speculation. People explain this verse by saying anything from 'God created physical light before he created the sun', to 'Moses (the reputed author of Genesis) just didn't fully understand science'. Given that I am taking a stance that leans more towards understanding owr as a source of metaphysical rather than physical light, it makes more sense to take this verse metaphorically.
In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over a vohu (a huge abyss) that was tohu (formless; chaotic) and chosek (dark; absent of God). This restless void moves God with love and He creates owr (light): a pure, metaphysical force that brings life, prosperity, welfare, joy, and most importantly, His own presence into the world. He separated the owr from the chosek (bear in mind that creation-by-separation technique - we'll see it again in later acts of Creation) and said that the owr was tov (good), a word that means something is equipped to bring about God's love and will for Creation in the world - forever. This light permeates our existence and is impossible to escape, no matter how hard you'd like to try. There will be seasons where the owr feels near, and seasons where it feels far away, but it is always there. This is God's first act of Creation.
Sources listed in order of appearance in article:
- Words in the English language: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/how-many-words-are-there-in-the-english-language/
- Words in the Hebrew language: https://hebrew-academy.org.il/2010/10/17/%D7%9B%D7%9E%D7%94-%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%99%D7%A9-%D7%91%D7%A9%D7%A4%D7%94-%D7%94%D7%A2%D7%91%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%AA/
- Elohiym: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H430&t=KJV
- Tohu: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H8414&t=KJV
- Bohu/Vohu: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H922&t=KJV
- Chosek: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2822&t=KJV
- Paniym: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H6440&t=KJV
- Tehowm: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H8415&t=KJV
- Rachaph: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H7363&t=KJV
- Owr: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H216&t=KJV
- Towb/Tov: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2896&t=KJV
- 'Tov': https://archive.andsonsmagazine.com/12/%D7%98%D7%95%D6%B9%D7%91-explosive-word
- Yowm: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3117&t=KJV
- Layil: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3915&t=KJV
- Ereb: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H6153&t=KJV
- Boqer: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H1242&t=KJV
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on July 06, 2019:
Great article. I've always been of the opinion that science and religion agree because they both came from one source; it's just mankind hasn't worked it all out. Interestingly enough, our solar system is younger than the universe as a whole, therefore, our God certainly stands true with creating "light" first. The Big Bang was quite a show before our Earth was made by God.
I enjoyed the Hebrew references and the sources you provided. Thanks.
John Welford from Barlestone, Leicestershire on June 30, 2019:
The parallels over Flood Myths are very interesting. As your source indicates, the existence of the Genesis story can be accounted for quite easily by virtue of having been lifted from the Gilgamesh legends of Babylonia. In turn, this is hardly surprising if we accept the strongly evidenced belief that the first 5 books of the OT were composed during the years of exile in Babylon.
As for flood myths in general, there is the possibility that they relate to ancient oral traditions that go back to the end of the ice age, when there would have been many catastrophic floods caused when natural barriers gave way under the pressure of glacial meltwater.
Caleb Kapsner (author) from Minneapolis, MN on June 29, 2019:
Thank you for sharing your opinion! The marked similarities between the mythologies - particularly Creation myths, as you noted - of vastly different ancient cultures has always been of interest to me. One example is the re-occurrence of a 'Flood Narrative' (link below) throughout a number of different religious traditions. There are, of course, any number of people who would argue whether or not the Biblical Creation/Flood stories, the Garden of Eden, and other Genesis accounts are myths or not, but from my own Christian perspective I think it's important to focus instead on the ways these stories inform our understanding of the rest of the Bible.
Thank you again for your comment!
John Welford from Barlestone, Leicestershire on June 28, 2019:
As poetry, the Creation myth is extremely beautiful, but it is important to recognize that it is just that - a myth. Indeed, there are two such myths in Genesis, with Genesis 2 almost certainly having been written by a different hand than Genesis 1. Every ancient civilization on Earth had its creation myth and it is fascinating to see the many different ways that early people devised to explain where everything came from.