5.3 Exegetical Points
“In the Beginning…”
The first word of Genesis 1, “In the beginning”, provides the traditional Jewish title for the book. The ambiguity of the Hebrew grammar in this verse gives rise to two alternative translations, the first implying that God’s first act of creation was the heavens and the earth, the second that the heavens and the Earth already existed in a “formless and void” state, to which God brings form and order:
- “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void… God said, Let there be light!” (King James Version).
- “At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, when the earth was (or the earth being) unformed and void . . . God said, Let there be light!” (Rashi, and with variations Ibn Ezra and Bereshith Rabba).
The Name of God
Two names of God are used, Elohim in the first account and Yahweh Elohim in the second account. This difference formed one of the earliest ideas that the Pentateuch had multiple origins.
“Without Form and Void”
The phrase traditionally translated in English “without form and void” is tōhû wābōhû. The Greek Septuagint (LXX) rendered this term as “unseen and unformed”, paralleling the Greek concept of Chaos. In the Hebrew Bible, the phrase is being used only in one other place, Jeremiah 4:23. There Jeremiah is telling Israel that sin and rebellion against God will lead to “darkness and chaos,” or to “de-creation,” “as if the earth had been ‘uncreated.’”
The Rûach of God
The Hebrew rûach has the meanings “wind, spirit, breath,” but the traditional Jewish interpretation here is “wind,” as “spirit” would imply a living supernatural presence co-extent with yet separate from God at Creation. This, however, is the sense in which rûach was understood by the early Christian church in developing the doctrine of the Trinity. Most English translations render this phrase as “the Spirit of God.”
The “deep” is the formless body of primeval water surrounding the habitable world. These waters are later released during the great flood, when “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth” from under the earth and from the “windows” of the sky. (Genesis 7:11). The word is cognate with the Babylonian Tiamat, and its occurrence here without the definite article indicates its mythical origins.
The Firmament of Heaven
The “firmament” of heaven, created on the second day of creation and populated by luminaries on the fourth day, denotes a solid ceiling which separated the earth below from the heavens and their waters above.
Great Sea Monsters
It is the classification of creatures to which the chaos-monsters Leviathan and Rahab belong (cf. Isaiah 27:1, Isaiah 51:9, Psalm 74:13-14). In Genesis 1:21, the proper noun Leviathan is missing and only the class noun great tanninim appears. The great tannînim are associated with mythological sea creatures such as Lotan which were considered deities by other ancient near eastern cultures; the author of Genesis 1 asserts the sovereignty of Elohim over such entities.
The Number Seven
Seven was regarded as a significant number in the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel, denoting divine completion. It is embedded in the text of Genesis 1 (but not in Genesis 2) in a number of ways, besides the obvious seven-day framework: the word “God” occurs 35 times (7 × 5) and “earth” 21 times (7 × 3). The phrases “and it was so” and “God saw that it was good” occur 7 times each. The first sentence of Genesis 1:1 contains 7 Hebrew words, and the second sentence contains 14 words, while the verses about the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3) contain 35 words in total.
Man and the Image of God
The meaning of the “image of God” has been much debated. The medieval Jewish scholar Rashi believed it referred to “a sort of conceptual archetype, model, or blueprint that God had previously made for man;” his colleague Maimonides suggested it referred to man’s free will. Modern scholarship still debates whether the image of God was represented symmetrically in Adam and Eve, or whether Adam possessed the image more fully than the woman.