Genesis 1

  • Question from DM, United Kingdom

    At the beginning the spirit of God hovered over the waters, but water was only created later in the genesis account. Was there a pre-genesis physical existence of the earth?

    At first glance this does seem confusing, but it is not that hard to get to grips with. The first line of Genesis ‘In the beginning God made the Heavens and the Earth’ should be regarded as an introductory title to the following story. The word ‘waters’ that the Spirit ‘hovers over’ is in fact untamed chaos. Literally in Hebrew the word means ‘the deep’, which can mean the sea, but also represents this sense of chaos.

    In Old Testament Jewish religious thought there was a constant battle going on between the God who brings about order and the anarchy that results in God’s absence. The sea, as something that instilled fear in the minds of people living at that time, thus became a metaphor for all the things of this world that threatened to overwhelm God’s order. Certain phrases used in Genesis chapter 1 are thus crucial – notably that God divides the waters (chaos), brings forth dry land (order) and put the water (chaos) in its place – above and below the dry land. Interestingly, in the story of Noah, the ‘waters under the Earth’ combine with ‘rain’ (the waters above) to wipe out God’s ordered world that has gone horribly wrong (see Genesis 7 verse 11). The fact that chaos ensues at God’s command reaffirms God’s control over chaos, even using it to further his own orderly ends.

    Reading the passage that way it would seem here was no pre-Genesis existence of the Earth and certainly the author of Genesis was not indicating any such thing. However, we must be careful to ensure that we do not take Genesis as a literal description of the process of creation. This passage was held to be true because of what it revealed about God’s nature, not what it revealed about the world ‘in the beginning’.

    [As an interesting aside, the word spirit – actually spirit of God in the text – is in a feminine form in this verse and ‘hovering’ takes a female gender as well, which is actually quite rare in the Hebrew language.]

    I hope this answers your question DM.

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