In the beginning …

Genesis 1:1–5 forms part of the lectionary readings for the first Sunday after Epiphany, which is January 10th. In this passage, the Bible begins with God and His creative activity.

Genesis, like the rest of Scripture, does not try to prove God’s existence. Instead, it assumes that He exists. After all, Genesis was written for a people who already believed in God.

Admittedly, other ancient cultures had their own creation stories involving their many gods and goddesses. Genesis tells about the creation of all things by the one true God.

Three Hebrew terms are used in the Genesis account to speak of God’s creative work. The word used in 1:1 means to make something new. There it refers to the creation of the universe from nothing (sometimes referred to by the Latin phrase, ex nihilo).

A different Hebrew term described the creative action in verse 25. This word means “to fashion.” Unlike the previous term, this one indicates shaping something that previously existed. God first brought the universe into being, and then used this material to fashion His creatures.

A third term for God’s creative work is used in verse 24, which says that the land would “produce” living creatures according to their kinds. In the original, it literally means “to cause to come forth.”

The Hebrew word for “God” in Genesis 1:1 is Elohim, a widely used plural form emphasizing the Creator’s majesty and power. The word allows for the Trinity without falling into the trap of polytheism (belief in many gods and goddesses).

We are not told when the triune God began His work, just that it was “in the beginning.” God has always existed (Ps 90:2). The heavens and the earth, however, had a definite beginning point in time.

In Hebrew speech, pairs of opposites were often used to express totality. In Psalm 139:2, for example, David’s phrase “You know when I sit and when I get up” means God knew everything about David. Similarly, the phrase, “the heavens and the earth,” in Genesis 1:1, means that God created all things—spiritual beings, physical beings, matter, energy, time, and space.

In the Genesis account, it’s helpful to remember that God is involved in, but distinct from, His creation. People have often made the mistake of venerating parts of creation rather than the Creator. We could not truly appreciate a great painting without considering the painter, and neither can we fail to recognize God as the master designer of the universe.

Verse 2 reveals that in its early stage, the primordial earth was “undeveloped and empty,” a phrase that translates the rhyming Hebrew words tohu wabohu. The idea is that the earth was chaotic, not ordered. Also, because the earth was barren, God would spend the days of Creation forming and filling it.

According to a view called the gap theory, an extended period of time passed between the events of verse 1 and those of verse 2. First, God created the heavens and the earth. Later, as a byproduct of Satan’s rebellion against God, the earth was changed to a formless state. Then God recreated it.

Those who reject the gap theory declare that the temporarily formless state of the earth need not be considered in negative terms. God simply chose to create by beginning with formless matter, and then giving it form. So, there was only one creation.

Verse 2 refers to the water on the surface of the earth. Water is shapeless; it is the same all over. Water suggests the formlessness of the earth in its early stage.

Furthermore, “darkness covered the surface of the deep.” This was because, according to the events of Creation week, God had not yet brought the sun and the other celestial lights into existence.

Meanwhile, the Spirit of God was “hovering” over the waters of the earth. The Spirit was like a mother bird brooding over her eggs. Here we see that God was about to bring forth life on His new world.

The same Hebrew term rendered “was hovering” in verse 2 is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 to speak of an eagle that “hovers” over the nest when it stirs up the young. The picture Scripture paints is not one in which God sets the universe in motion and passively allows natural forces to operate, but one in which He is directly involved in every aspect of Creation.

The biblical account reveals that the universe has not always existed and that it did not come into existence through natural and impersonal forces. Instead, God created the heavens and the earth in a miraculous way.

For instance, Genesis 1:3 indicates that the one true and living God simply issued His command—“Let there be light”—and it was so. Since it is not until the fourth day of creation that God brings the sun into existence (vv. 14–19), the light present during the first three days did not correspond to what is presently known.

The “light” mentioned in verse 3 contrasts sharply with the “darkness” noted in verse 2. God’s provision of light is the first step in the process of bringing order out of chaos and making the earth hospitable for humans.

In later biblical usage, light came to symbolize life and blessing, while darkness represented death and ruin (2 Sam 22:29; Job 30:26; Pss 49:19; 56:13; 112:4; Isa 9:2; 53:11; 58:8, 10; 59:9; 60:1–3). With the incarnation of the Messiah, the salvation and joy of the Triune God has been made available to all who put their trust in the Son (John 1:4–5).

In fact, with Jesus’ first advent, His recreative activity in the lives of believers has begun (2 Cor 4:6). Also, with His second advent, the eternal state will be characterized by the light of God’s sacred, eternal presence (Rev 21:23).

During the third day of creation, as God reflected on the light He had commanded into existence, He concluded that it was “good” (Gen 1:4). In this case, the light served God’s benevolent purposes, especially in enabling humanity to fulfill its divinely ordained role in the world. From a broader biblical perspective, light is conducive for life—especially in terms of promoting, enhancing, or producing such—and so meets with God’s approval.

The divine is so sovereign in His rule that He even makes the darkness conform to His will (Ps 104:19–26). For example, in the creation account, He “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4).

In the above context, light and darkness, while distinct from one another, coexist together in harmony. In later biblical usage, they become mutually exclusive and incompatible entities (John 1:5; 1 John 1:5–7).

According to Genesis 1:5, God identified the light as “day” and the darkness as “night.” Also, the first day of creation was marked by the passage of “evening” and “morning.” In fact, six of the seven days are closed out in this way and parallel the Hebrew manner of reckoning time.

The idea is that night (which is between evening and morning) ends the day. Then, with the appearance of dawn’s first light, a new day begins, along with the new creative possibilities it brings.

There are differing views regarding how literally or figuratively the creation days should be understood. Some conjecture that the days of creation refer to prolonged epochs or ages of time. Yet, the ordering of the week in Exodus 20:8–11 undermines this view.

Others think the Creation days should be taken as literal, sequential, 24-hour time periods. After all, God’s creation of the universe involved the immediate appearance of complex physical entities.

In recent years, experts have noted that the days of creation form a rhythmical structure around which the Genesis narrative is arranged. When the text is read in a straightforward manner, one senses that the narrative has a dramatic and poetic literary quality.

Here one finds that the human author neither described all that happened nor explained how it happened. Rather, he unambiguously stated what happened, and he did so with an awareness of God’s sovereignty over time as Creator.

God’s next royal decree resulted in an “expanse” (Gen 1:6) being created. The Hebrew term denotes an inanimate piece of metal that has been hammered flat.

From the perspective of people on earth, such an expanse may have appeared as a hard and shiny barrier that could not be permeated. This vault in the sky was so solidly constructed that it ably separated the waters residing above (which fell from the clouds as rain) from the rivers, seas, and subterranean waters (the last of which came up from the earth).

The Creator-King’s act of separating the waters above from the waters below was an act of imposing order upon them. Indeed, what God commanded occurred just as He had intended (v. 7).

Then the Lord called the dome-like expanse “sky” (v. 8). God’s naming activity drew attention to His dominion over this aspect of the cosmos and ended the second day in the creation sequence.

At first, water covered the entire planet. Then, on the third day of creation, God separated dry ground and surface water, resulting in land and seas (v. 9).

The dry land was like an island surrounded by and floating upon water. Also, lakes and rivers on the land flowed back into the seas.

God called the dry ground “land” (v. 10; literally, “earth”) and the waters that were gathered together He called “seas.” These developments were “good” in His eyes because they were conducive to life.

After God decreed the dry land into existence, He then commanded the land to produce “vegetation” (v. 11) in abundance. This included grass and seed-bearing plants, as well as trees characterized by seed-bearing fruit.

The seeds from each of these, in turn, would produce the appropriate kinds of seeds and plants. All of this occurred as God intended.

The Creator-King regarded the fertility of the planet’s vegetation to be “good” (v. 12) because it produced and enhanced life, especially in providing food for air and land creatures, most notably humans (vv. 29–30). So ended the third day of creation (v. 13).

On the fourth day of creation, God decreed that there be bright lights in the expanse of the sky to create a separation of the day from the night. Throughout the ancient Near East, people venerated and feared a pantheon of deities. Among these, the sun and moon would have been foremost in the constellation.

In contrast, the Genesis account reveals that the luminaries were to serve as signs to mark off the seasons, days, and years (v. 14). It is also possible that the sun and moon serve as visual reminders of the power and majesty of God. Both functions would help people of faith as they worshiped the one true God during their regularly occurring religious celebrations and festivals.

In verse 15, Moses depicted the luminaries as entities that the great King of creation used to do His bidding (Isa 40:26). Furthermore, in Genesis 1:16, the human author did not even name these entities, instead indirectly referring to them as “two great lights.” In particular, the “greater light” (the sun) illumined the planet during the daytime, while the “lesser light” (the moon) illumined the globe at night.

In ancient Near Eastern beliefs, the above sorts of duties were assigned to pagan deities. Yet, in the Genesis account, Israel’s one God remained firmly in control when He issued His decrees. We learn that the Creator-King sovereignly assigned the sun, moon, and stars to their respective roles, as His subordinates, of giving light to the inhabitants of the planet (v. 17), of marking off the seasons of the calendar, and of separating the light from the darkness (v. 18).

What God declared on the fourth day of creation met with His approval. It was “good,” for it promoted life. So, ended the fourth day of creation (v. 19).

The above separation of responsibilities can be seen in the remaining portions of the days of creation. For instance, just as the luminaries governed the day and night (Ps 136:7–9), so too the birds and fish ruled over the sky and sea (respectively).

Correspondingly, animals and humans exercised control over the land and its vegetation. Above all, people had responsibility for the entire planet.

At the start of the fifth creation day, God focused His attention on water and sky (created on the second day). He decreed that the sea bring forth swarms of aquatic creatures (both fish and other forms of life), while the expanse of the sky was to be filled with flying creatures of every kind (Gen 1:20).

The emphasis is on the rapid increase of the preceding creatures. Fertility and fruitfulness characterized their existence.

As verse 21 reveals, God created the great sea creatures and subjected them to His unchallengeable rule. He also created all the living creatures that swarmed in the ocean and every kind of bird that filled the sky. When God reflected on what He had brought into existence, He determined that it was beneficial for enabling life on earth to flourish.

Accordingly, God “blessed” (v. 22) all these creatures. The Hebrew term conveys the idea of endowing something with productivity or fruitfulness.

In this case, God gave the sea and air creatures the ability to reproduce for the purpose of ruling over their respective realms. In fact, His declaration of blessing ensured their success. So, with that the fifth day of creation ended (v. 23).

At the beginning of the sixth day, God populated the land and vegetation (created on the third day) with animals and humans. Three general classifications of animate life appear in verse 24.

“Livestock” refers to large domesticated creatures (such as cattle and sheep); creeping things denotes animals such as rodents, centipedes, and reptiles, which remained close to the ground as they traveled; and “wild animals” is a general category for all other undomesticated creatures of the field (such as beast-like carnivores and herbivores).

The Genesis narrative, based on the information appearing in the fifth and sixth days of creation, divided the animal world into three categories—sky, water, and land creatures. They in turn governed the realms they populated—sky, water, and land. Fittingly, the priests of Israel would later use these same categories to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals (Lev 11:1–19).

All the assorted species mentioned in Genesis 1:25, regardless of kind or size, were the work of God’s hand and He declared them to be “good.” Although His work was not yet finished, what He had created to this point was perfect. In addition, He provided for and sustained this vast array of creatures in such a way that they were able to flourish.

Key ideas to contemplate

Genesis is the book of beginnings. In this portion of Scripture, we find the beginnings of the material universe, human life, human sin, divine judgment on human sin, covenant promises, and the Israelite tribes—to name just a few.

Genesis provides a foundation for a great deal of what we know about life and our Lord. Moreover, from start to finish, Genesis is a book of history, and its account is trustworthy because the Spirit is its divine Author.

1. In the beginning … God created. Genesis insists that the universe owes its origin to an intelligent Creator, not an impersonal “force.” The origin of all that exists should be attributed to the one whom we call God. Furthermore, everything has come into existence because of our caring Creator.

2. And God saw that it was good. This planet Earth, and especially human life, are not to be seen as inherently evil. We must not regard our existence as dismal and think that we have to contrive some sort of escape from the world. Unlike the pessimists of our day, we can have an optimistic, joyful, and affirming attitude toward God and His creation.

3. And there was evening and there was morning. The creation account indicates that the Lord measured time. Our sense of history and awareness that our lives are regulated by days, weeks, months, and years of sunrises and sunsets all derived from God’s orderly arrangement. This means that our lives are neither endless nor senselessly repetitive.

4. God created every living creature. God is the source of life. Scientists might tinker with genes, as in the case of cloned animals produced in various laboritories. Yet, only the Creator bestows the ingredients needed for living organisms to survive and thrive.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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