Biblical Commentary

Genesis 1:1-5



Scholars generally agree that the creation story in Genesis is divided into two accounts from two sources. The first account is Genesis 1:1—2:4a (or 2:3—scholars disagree whether 2:4a belongs to the first or the second account) and was written by P. The second account is Genesis 2:4b—3:24, and was written by E.

The creation story “is cast in the form of a prose poem. It is written in terse, controlled phrases with rhythmic repetitions, the slow ascent of the cosmic drama culminating in the creation of humankind and the serene postscript describing the sanctification of the seventh day. In sparse, austere language, it speaks of God, the world, and humans in relationship to each other and reveals the basic and unalterable dependence of the world on the presence of God. (It) tells, with the assurance of faith, of life’s foundations, and it is in the light of this faith that it must be read and understood” (Plaut, 17).

The six days of creation form two groups of three, and there is a correspondence between the pairs formed by the respective days of the two groups:

Day 1: Light (1:3-5) Day 4: Lights (1:14:19)
Day 2: Dome (1:6-8)Day 5: Fish/birds (1:20-23)
Day 3: Earth/seas/vegetation (1:9-13) Day 6: Animals/people (1:24-31)

Days 1 & 4: The correspondence between Light and Lights is obvious, if somewhat confusing. We are familiar with the Lights of Day 4 providing illumination, so we are left to wonder how God provided Light on Day 1. However, if God could create the sun and moon on Day 4, he could surely provide illumination by other means on Days 1-3.

Days 2 & 5: On Day 2, God created the dome to separate “the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome.” This created the habitat for the creatures of the seas and sky that God would create on Day 5.

Days 3 & 6: On Day 3, God gathered the water together to allow dry land to appear—separated the Earth from the Seas. This created the habitat for the land animals and people that God would create on Day 6. Also, on Day 3, God created vegetation, and on Day 6, he authorizes the use of vegetation to feed people and animals. It won’t be until Genesis 9:3 that God authorizes humans to use animals for food.

There were, then, eight creative acts in the six days of creation. Days 3 and 6 each have two creative acts, the Earth/Sea separation and vegetation for Day 3 and land animals and people for Day 6.

Of course, the word “day” cannot have its usual meaning until the sun and moon are created on the fourth day (v. 14). We must allow for poetic license here, as throughout the creation account. We must remember that the writer’s purpose is not to transmit scientific data but to tell exiled Israelites that God is the creative force behind the universe—and to encourage them with the knowledge that, in spite of their current circumstances, they are in the hands of a loving and all-powerful God who will redeem them. We should also remember that, to God, a thousand days are as an evening’s watch (Psalm 90:4).

The creation for each day follows a basic pattern, but with enough variation to maintain our interest:

• “God said”—God is the creator and God’s word is the creative force
• “Let there be” or “Let the”—God commands creation
• “and there was”—God’s command is executed
• “And God saw that (the creation) was good”—God evaluates the creation
• “God called”—God names the creation
• “And there was evening and there was morning, the (number) day”

On Days 1, 3, 4, and 5, God pronounces the creation “good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On Day 2, there is no such pronouncement—perhaps because the work of Day 2 (separating waters-above from waters-below) will not be fully concluded until Day 3 (with the gathering together of the waters-below). On Day 6, after creating humans, God “saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (v. 31)—presumably God’s commentary on creation in general and on human creation in particular.

Days 5, 6, and 7 each include a blessing—of birds and sea life (v. 22)—of humans (v. 28)—and of the seventh day (2:3). Days 5 and 6 were the days when God populated the earth with living beings of various kinds. Day 7, of course, was the day that God rested.


1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless(Hebrew: to·hu) and empty. (Hebrew: wa·bo·hu) Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit (Hebrew: weruah elo·him—wind/spirit/breath of God) was hovering over the surface of the waters.

The original Hebrew for verse 1 is ambiguous and allows various translations:

• The NIV translates verse 1 as an independent sentence—”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Verse 2 describes the formless nature of the initial stage of that creation—”Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.” This wording suggests that God created the heavens and earth from nothing (often referred to as ex nihilo—Latin for “from nothing”).

• But the NRSV translates verse 1 as a dependent clause supporting verse 2—”In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (v. 1), “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (v. 2). Note the “when” in the first verse. This makes it sound as if the formless, empty earth existed prior to God’s creative act, and the creation was a matter of organizing the existing chaos—making something lovely out of something not lovely. This wording suggests that God did not create the heavens and earth from nothing (ex nihilo) but rather made something good from something not good.

Both translations are defensible, and scholars are divided on this matter:

• Von Rad strongly favors verse 1 as an independent sentence (as in the NIV, where God creates from nothing). He says, “Syntactically perhaps both translations are possible, but not theologically” (Von Rad, 48).

• Brueggemann notes that either translation is possible and says, “The very ambiguity of creation from nothing and creation from chaos is a rich expository possibility. We need not choose between them, even as the text does not” (Brueggemann, 29).

• Roop notes that either translation is possible and that the ambiguity frees us “to focus on the central affirmation of the text, God creating a livable world” (Roop, 25).

• Wenham understands verse 1 as an independent sentence, as in the NIV, with the effect that God created the earth ex nihilo—from nothing (Wenham, 11).

• Gene Tucker takes the other side, saying, “The second verse describes what ‘existed’ before creation…. Consequently, in the Old Testament view, creation was not ex nihilo, but out of chaos” (in Craddock, et. al., 301).

The early church fathers were likewise divided:

• Augustine said, “Scripture called heaven and earth that formless matter of the universe, which was changed into formed and beautiful natures by God’s ineffable command” (Louth, 1). In other words, God organized the chaos rather than creating from nothing.

• Nemesius of Emesa said that God “brought all things into being out of nothing” (Louth, 2).

• Basil the Great said, “It appears, indeed, that even before this world an order of things existed of which our mind can form an idea but of which we can say nothing” (Louth, 2). In other words, God organized the chaos rather than creating from nothing.

• Rather than defending one interpretation or the other, Chrysostom advised caution: “Let us accept what is said with much gratitude, not overstepping the proper limit nor busying ourselves with matters beyond us” (Louth, 3).

Several scriptures suggest that God created ex nihilo (Genesis 1:1-3; Exodus 20:11; Psalm 104:24; Jeremiah 10:12; John 1:2-3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; 11:3) (Towner, 18). One is explicit: “For thus says Yahweh who created the heavens, the God who formed the earth and made it, who established it and didn’t create it a waste, who formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18).

“In the beginning” (v. 1). The phrase, “In the beginning,” “anticipates the ‘end’ of the universe and human history” (Mathews, 126). That comment causes us to remember that the Bible deals with the end of time as well as its beginning—and that the New Testament closes with the Book of Revelation, which focuses on eschatology (last things) just as the Old Testament opens with the Book of Genesis, which focuses on creation (first things).

“In the beginning” cannot mean the absolute beginning, because God is eternal and had no beginning. “In the beginning,” therefore, must refer only to the beginning of creation.

Now the earth was formless (to·hu) and empty (bo·hu) (v. 2a). To·hu means a wasteland or wilderness such as the deserts with which the Israelites were familiar. These deserts were difficult places—hot in the day and cold at night. Food and water were scarce, as were landmarks by which a person could navigate. People familiar with the desert could survive in it, but their lives were not easy. People unfamiliar with the desert or careless of its dangers could not survive. Bohu means “void” or “empty.” The similar sounds (tohu and bohu) and meanings (wasteland and void) reinforce the idea that the world was, at this stage, formless and empty—an inhospitable world, to say the least.

It is easy enough to conceive of such a place. Many planets in our solar system are empty, dark, and deep. Jupiter, for instance, is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. In 1995, a NASA spacecraft penetrated Jupiter’s atmosphere and found very high winds there. At the base of Jupiter’s atmosphere, pressures are so great that they turn hydrogen gas into a liquid (Encarta).

Try to imagine taming Jupiter’s hostile environment to sustain human life. That is the kind of challenge that God faced in the first stage of creation when the world was formless, empty, dark, and deep. But every creative enterprise begins with some sort of chaos. It takes vision and skill to turn a pile of building materials into a house. It takes vision and skill to turn a muddy lot into a landscaped yard. Imagine the vision and skill required to transform a chaotic world into a place fit for human habitation.

Darkness was on the surface of the deep (v. 2b). The scriptures speak frequently of light, darkness, and the deep:

• Light symbolizes God (Isaiah 60:19-20), Jesus (John 8:12; 9:5; 12:35), Christians (Matthew 4:6), spiritual understanding (Psalm 119:105-106, 130), spiritual health (Luke 11:34), and salvation (Psalm 27:1).

• Darkness, the absence of light, symbolizes evil (John 3:20) and a lack of spiritual enlightenment and health (Luke 11:34; Acts 26:18).

• “The great deep” is a forbidden, dangerous place (Genesis 7:11). The book of Job uses the phrase “deep darkness” to describe a gloomy, forbidding place (Job 10:21) filled with terror (Job 24:17) and associated with eyes red with weeping (Job 16:16). People familiar with the sea know the dangers associated with the deep. When the author of Genesis describes the world as a place where “darkness was on the surface of the deep,” the picture is one of a gloomy, forbidding place.

At the very beginning of the Old Testament, then, we read of darkness and the deep (v. 2). At the very end of the New Testament, we will hear the promise that there will be no more seas and no more darkness (Revelation 21:1, 25).

God’s Spirit ( weruah elo·him—wind/spirit of God) was hovering over the surface of the waters (v. 2c). Ruah can be translated “wind” or “spirit.” The NIV translates ruah elohim “Spirit of God.” Most commentators agree that the capital S in Spirit, suggesting the Holy Spirit, is inappropriate here. While the phrase “holy Spirit” is used three times in the Old Testament (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10-11), it will not be until the New Testament that God’s people will become aware of the Holy Spirit as a distinctive persona of God.

Those who suggest that “wind” is a better translation than “spirit” note that there are three parallel phrases here:

• “the earth was formless and empty”
• “Darkness was on the surface of the deep”
• “God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters”

The first two phrases have a dark quality, so they conclude that “wind from God” (NRSV) is appropriate here because it continues that dark quality (Wenham, 17). However, it seems equally logical to translate the third phrase “God’s spirit” (note the small s), because it counters the dark quality—injects a glimpse of light into the darkness—and provides a subtle transition from the darkness of the “formless and empty” to God’s creative work, which will begin with the very next verse when God says, “Let there be light” (v. 3).


3God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw the light, and saw that it was good. God divided the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” There was evening and there was morning, one day.

“God said” (v. 3). It is at God’s word that creation takes place. God’s word is not empty, but has power (Isaiah 55:11). When God speaks, things happen. Even the chaos obeys.

“Let there be light” (v. 3). God commands, but gently. The mood is jussive (a mood with which few people are familiar) instead of imperative (an order-giving mood with which we are all too familiar). The jussive, “Let there be,” is gentler—softer. God does not jerk the creation into existence, but speaks it gently into existence (Roop, 27).

“and there was light” (v. 3). The light comes into being at God’s word. The “lights in the expanse of sky” will not be created until verses 14 ff., so we do not know from whence the light of verse 3 comes. Certainly God has no shortage of resources to provide light. Perhaps God is the light at this point.

Light is God’s first creative enterprise, and we understand instinctively the rightness of that. It is difficult to create in darkness, and even more difficult to appreciate that which has been created. When we begin a creative process, we turn on the lights—or bring in floodlights—or adjust the lighting so that it suits our art. It is possible to create in darkness, as blind musicians demonstrate, but we prefer light. Darkness is something to overcome, not to embrace.

Light will continue to be an important motif in God’s dealings with people. During the plague of darkness in Egypt, God will provide light for the Israelites (Exodus 10:23). God will light their way at night during their wilderness journeys with a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). God will give them lights to light the tabernacle (Exodus 25:37). Moses’ face will shine so brightly that it will be necessary for him to wear a veil (Exodus 34:29-33). The Psalmist will pray, “Yahweh, let the light of your face shine on us” (Psalm 4:6)—and “Yahweh is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), and will assure the disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

God saw the light, and saw that it was good” (v. 4a). As noted above, God’s evaluation is part of the standard formula for God’s creative enterprise. Only on Day 2 do we do not hear it. The pronouncement “that it (the light) was good” (v. 4a) follows the creation of light (v. 3) and precedes the separation of “the light from the darkness” (v. 4b), so it is the light rather than the separation of light from darkness that God pronounces good.

God divided the light from the darkness” (v. 4). When God first created light, “the light …poured in and …removed chaos to a gloomy condition of twilight” (Von Rad, 52)—so God finds it necessary to separate light from darkness. “Every night, when the created world of forms flows together into formlessness, chaos regains a certain power over what has been created…. And every morning…something of God’s first creation is repeated” (Von Rad, 52-53).

For people in exile (as Israel was when the book of Genesis was written), remembering God’s bringing light out of darkness is a powerful, hopeful thought. Job will also find strength in that thought—”He uncovers deep things out of darkness, and brings out to light the shadow of death” (Job 12:22). In the book of Job, the word “light” appears in 28 verses.

God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night'” (v. 5). Kings have the sovereign right to assign names (2 Kings 23:34; 24:17), so God exercises his naming rights as king of the universe (Von Rad, 53). We will see this naming convention for the creative acts on Day 2—for the Earth and Seas (but not vegetation) on Day 3—but for nothing thereafter. God will later delegate the naming of animals to adam(2:19-20). Man will also name the woman (2:23; 3:20).

“There was evening and there was morning, one day” (v. 5). This formula will be repeated to conclude each of the six days of creation (vv. 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)

Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)

Louth, Andrew (ed.), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I: Genesis 1-11 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001)

Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary: Volume 1a – Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)

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Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)

Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)

Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan