“In the Beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
Genesis 1:1 begins with a remarkable declaration. “In the beginning” is best understood absolutely. The Hebrew lacks the article. Omission of the definite article is common in temporal phrases. The absence of the article with bereshith does not necessarily mean this is in the construct form. It is not “In the beginning of God’s creating”, but “In the beginning God created”. The heavens and the earth had no existence before this time. Verse 1 can not be considered a title or a summary of the succeeding verses of the chapter. If this were true then we are left without knowledge of the origin of the heavens and the earth. Verse 1 is best taken traditionally as a main clause describing the first act of creation. Verses 2-31 describe subsequent phases of God’s creative actions. The phrase “in the beginning” (bereshith) refers to the absolute beginning of created things. It is a statement of the origin and creation of the time-space-matter continuum which constitutes our physical universe. Time, space, and matter must simultaneously co-exist. One entity is only meaningful when measured in relation to the other two. Matter must exist in time and space. Space contains time and matter. Time is only measurable in relationship to space and matter. Although time is unseen, it is still a created entity. The focus of this discussion will be limited to the origin and creation of time.
The English word “created” is translated from the Hebrew word bara. In the Qal form the Hebrew verb bara is used only to refer to the creative work of God. Usually it refers to ex nihilo creation. It does not always preclude the use of preexisting material (cf. Isaiah 65:18). Men can “make” (asah) and “form” (yatsar) things out of other substances. Only God can “create” (bara) out of nothing. It is used only to refer to divine creation. It does not always preclude the use of primeval material. In this case the object of creation, the heavens and the earth, shows that no pre-existent material was used in the original creation. This is not to say that asah can not refer to ex nihilo creation. Asah can refer to the creation of things by God as well as the formation of things by man.
Exodus 20:11 states: “For in six days the Lord made (asah) heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them”.
Nehemiah 9:6 states: “Thou alone art the Lord. Thou hast made (asah) the heavens, the heavens of heavens with all their host, and the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them.” These are direct references to ex nihilo creation.
Hence, if in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, there is nothing belonging to the composition of the universe, either in material or form, which had an existence out of God prior to this divine act in the beginning. 1
Genesis 1:1 teaches creatio ex nihilo, “creation out of nothing”. Other Scriptures also support the doctrine of ex nihilo creation: Amos 4:13; Ps. 33:6; Rom. 4:17; Heb. 11:3.
To calculate the beginning of time as well as the age of the earth, Genesis 1:1 must be properly understood. God is the Creator and Sustainer of everything in the universe. No word for universe exists in Old Testament Hebrew. The two-fold whole, the heaven and the earth, speaks of that which we call the universe. God is eternal and lives outside of time. God created time which means He is not bound by it. Man knows nothing but the constraints and calculations of time. Man’s finite mind cannot fathom either eternity past or eternity future. Because no man was present “in the beginning” he must rely on God the Creator for information as to the origin of all things.
Augustine taught that all things, including time, were created ex nihilo. Before the beginning of creation there was no such thing as time. You cannot have “time” before time existed. The Manichees asked what God did before the creation of the world?
Grant to them, O’ Lord, to think well what they say, and to see that where there is no time, they cannot say “never.” What therefore, He is said “never to have made,” what else is it but to say, that in no time was it made? Let them therefore see that there could be no time without a created being, and let them cease to speak that vanity. Let them also be extended unto those things which are before, and understand that thou, the eternal Creator of all times, art before all times, and that no times are coeternal with Thee, nor any creature, even if there be any creature beyond all times. 2
Clement of Alexandria writes:
And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things that exist. 3
Some have attempted to blunt the impetus of Genesis 1:1. This is especially true among those who wish to believe that time, space, and matter existed before the biblical account of creation. At least three other interpretations have been proposed in order to allow for the pre-existence of the time-space-matter continuum.
1. Verse 1 is merely a heading or a title to Genesis chapter 1. This view claims that verses 2-31 merely describe the subsequent phases of God’s organization of pre-existent chaotic matter. The origin of matter is left undisclosed. The reader is left without knowledge of the origin of the universe. The driving force of this interpretation is the very reason why it must be regarded as incorrect. Verse 2 begins with a waw consecutive (and), which connects the different acts of creation with verse 1. If verse 1 is merely a title then there is a contradiction between verse 1 and verse 2. This interpretation supposes that the earth pre-existed God’s creative activity, yet verse 1 clearly states that God created the earth.
2. Verse 1 is a temporal clause subordinate to the main clause of verse 2. This would be translated - In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth, the earth was formless and void. The intent of this interpretation is to allow for the existence of the earth before God’s organization of it. This view teaches that material, “the earth”, previously existed and was not created from nothing. God’s creative activity was simply the altering and reshaping of preexistent matter. The grammar of the text shows that this interpretation is incorrect.4 Verse 2 is a circumstantial clause and verse 1 contains the main clause.
3. Verse 1 is in the genitive or construct state and should be translated - In the beginning of God’s creating. The claim is made that since “in beginning” (bereshith) does not have the article it may therefore be construed as a construct. In response to this it should be noted that the absence of the article does not imply the construct state. Temporal phrases often lack the article (e.g. Isa 46:10; 40:21; 41:4, 26; Gen. 3:22; 6:3, 4; Mic. 5:1; Hab. 1:12). It can also be shown that “in beginning” may have an absolute sense (cf. Isa. 46:10; cf. Prov. 8:23). If this interpretation were true there would be little reason for mentioning verse 1, “in the beginning,” at all. 5
Genesis 1:1 should be translated and interpreted as an absolute statement. “In the beginning” refers to the absolute beginning of created things. Time is an entity created by God. Since time was created by God, time had a beginning. The origin of time was “in the beginning”. Before the beginning, the creation of the heavens and the earth, the Scripture teaches that there was nothing but God. The age of the earth can be calculated by starting at the beginning of time, the date of the creation of the earth.
1 C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Genesis), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), vol. 1. p. 47.
2 Augustine, Confessions 11.30.40, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Phillip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), p. 174.
3 Clement, Miscellanies 6.16, Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Phillip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), p. 174.
4 E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), p. 3-6.
5 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), p. 12.
Copyright 2008 by Joe Fogle. All rights reserved.