In the Beginning
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
These are exciting days in which to be studying Genesis. They are especially exciting for theologians and other students of the Bible, for much has recently been written on Genesis and there is new openness to looking at the book in the light of scientific data and theories as well as at science in the light of the Bible. They are also exciting from the viewpoint of recent developments in science, particularly those bearing on the origins of the universe.
Science has undergone what can almost be described as a revolution. For generations the prevailing view of the universe had been what is known as the steady state theory. That is, the universe has always been and will always be. It is ungenerated and indestructible. Such a view was materialistic and atheistic. It contained no place for God. In recent years this view has given way to the theory that the universe actually had an instant of creation. It came into being 15 to 20 billion years ago in a gigantic fireball explosion that sent suns and planets tumbling outward from this center into the form we observe them now. Moreover, they are still moving outward. In contrast to the steady state idea, this is called the big bang theory in reference to the instant of creation.
The change in scientific thinking goes back to 1913, when an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Vesto Melvin Slipher, discovered through his study of the shifting light spectrum of very distant stars that the galaxies in which these stars were found appeared to be receding from the earth at tremendous speeds—up to 2 million miles per hour. Six years later, in 1919, another American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, used Slipher’s findings to formulate a law for an expanding universe, which pointed to a moment of creation. Meanwhile, Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity were shaking Newtonian physics. And two Bell Telephone laboratory scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were using new and sophisticated electronic equipment to pick up background radiation from all parts of the universe, which they now identified as the leftover “noise” of that first great explosion.
To be sure, there are still many problems. Current scientific theory puts the origin of the universe at a point approaching 20 billion years ago, which some Christians find unacceptable. Again the big bang theory, even if true, tells us nothing about the thing or One who caused it. Nor does it throw light on why the universe has such astonishing complexity and order or how life originated or many other things. Yet this is still exciting if for no other reason than that “the Big Bang theory sounds very much like the story that the Old Testament has been telling all along,” as Time magazine wrote.
Robert Jastrow, Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute, puts it even more strongly. He is known for two very popular books, Red Giants and White Dwarfs and Until the Sun Dies. Now, in God and the Astronomers, he writes of the dismay of scientists who are brought by their own method back to a point beyond which they cannot go. “There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event.… This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover.… At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
None of this should make the theologians smug, however. They should remember that they have not been without difficulties in their attempts to understand Genesis and that the ancient Hebrews were not without wisdom when they forbade anyone under thirty to expound the first chapter to others.
The significance of Genesis is not in its proof or disproof of scientific theories, however, any more than the significance of science is in its proof or disproof of the Bible. It is important for its teaching about the origin of all things, which is what the word “Genesis” means. Genesis takes us back to the beginnings, and this is very important because our sense of worth as human beings depends in part on our origins.
In a smaller but very dramatic way, we have recently witnessed something like this in American pop culture. In early 1977 a serialized presentation of Alex Haley’s Roots, a book in which this distinguished black author traced the historical origins of his family back through their days of slavery in the old South to his African progenitors, was first aired on American television. This series was a success of such proportions that it astonished planners and producers alike. By the end of its seven-night run, Roots commanded 66 percent of the television audience—about 130 million people—and had become the most watched television program ever. It has been rebroadcast, both here and abroad, and has caused hundreds of colleges to provide Roots courses. In the aftermath of that historical week in January, thousands of Americans scrambled into libraries to search out their own family origins. The National Archives in Washington found itself flooded with requests for ancestral information. What caused this astonishing phenomenon? Some have suggested that it was Haley’s frank and wise handling of the racial issue. But Haley did not think this was the explanation, nor do many others.
The reason for the popularity of Roots is that it discovered a sense of present dignity and meaning for one black family by tracing its link to the past and thus also providing a direction for the future. In this it gave a sense of meaning to us all.
In an earlier age this would not have been so important, because many people at least still had a sense of history. They knew where they had come from and hence had an optimistic outlook on what the future would hold. But that has evaporated in current culture so that, as a number of writers have correctly pointed out, this has become the “now” generation in which any firm anchor to the past has been lost. We have been told that the past is meaningless. Everything is focused on the present. We are told by the advertisers that “we only go around once.” We should forget about the past and not worry about the future. It sounds like good philosophy. But the loneliness and anxiety of a philosophy like that is almost intolerable. Consequently, when Roots came along many identified with Haley’s search for the past and for dignity.
R. C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier Valley Study Center, has analyzed this in terms of secularism, which means “living within the bounds of this age” (from the Latin saeculum, meaning age). It is to live with our outlook confined to this period alone—without the past, without a future, above all without God, who is in both past and future and controls them. He writes of the secular man,
Man in the twentieth century has been busily engaged in a quest for dignity. It is a very earnest quest. The civil rights movement developed the cry, “We are human beings; we are creatures of dignity; we want to be treated as beings of dignity.” So also have others. But the existentialist tells us that our roots are in nothingness, that our future is in nothingness, and he asks, “Think, man, if your origins are in nothing and your destiny is in nothing, how can you possibly have any dignity now?” …
If our past history tells us that we have emerged from the slime, that we are only grown-up germs, what difference can it possibly make whether we are black germs or white germs, whether we are free germs or enslaved germs? Who cares? We can sing of the dignity of man, but unless that dignity is rooted substantially in that which has intrinsic value, all our songs of human rights and dignity are so much whistling in the dark. They are naïve, simplistic and credulous. And the existentialist understands that. He says, “You’re playing games when you call yourselves creatures of dignity. If all you have is the present, there is no dignity, only nothingness.”
This is what Alex Haley saw and what those many thousands of Americans saw who took their clue from Haley and began to search through libraries for their history. It is what makes Genesis important. Genesis is important because it gives us our origins—not merely the origins of one particular family but the origins of matter, life, values, evil, grace, the family, nations, and other things—in a way that unites us all.
Without the teachings of this book, life itself is meaningless. There are even parts of the Bible that are meaningless. Without this book, the Bible would be like the last acts of a play without the first act, or a meeting of a corporation’s trustees with no agenda. Henry M. Morris has written, “The books of the Old Testament, narrating God’s dealings with the people of Israel, would be provincial and bigoted, were they not set in the context of God’s developing purposes for all mankind, as laid down in the early chapters of Genesis. The New Testament, describing the execution and implementation of God’s plan for man’s redemption, is redundant and anachronistic, except in the light of man’s desperate need for salvation, as established in the record of man’s primeval history, recorded only in Genesis.… A believing understanding of the Book of Genesis is therefore prerequisite to an understanding of God and his meaning to man.”
All Things Wise and Wonderful
In our study of Genesis we are going to look at each of these matters in detail, but as we start we can cast our eyes ahead over a few of them. They are a part of those many things both “wise and wonderful” that confront us in the Word of God.
- The first great matter of the Bible, the one related most directly to our origins, is God, who has no beginnings at all. He is the first subject mentioned: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
This sentence is among the most profound statements ever written, which we shall see when we come to study it in greater detail. But even here we must see that these words already take us beyond the farthest point that can be viewed by science. Science can take us back to the big bang, to the moment of creation. But if that original, colossal explosion obliterated anything that came before it, as science suggests, then nothing before that point can be known scientifically, including the cause of the explosion. The Bible comes forward at this point to tell us simply, “In the beginning God.…” We may want to bring God down into our little microscope where we can examine him and subject him to the laws of matter, of cause and effect, which we can understand. But fret as we might, God does not conform to our desires. He confronts us as the One who was in existence before anything we can even imagine and who will be there after anything we can imagine. Ultimately it is he alone with whom we have to do.
- The opening chapters of Genesis also tell us the origin of man, the matter we have been looking at most closely in this chapter. Without this revelation we may look to ourselves in this present moment and conclude, as did the French philosopher René Descartes, “I think; therefore I am.” But beyond that even the simplest philosophical question confounds us. Our son or daughter asks, “Daddy, where did I come from?” and we answer with an explanation of human reproduction. “Yes, but where did you and Mommy come from?… Where did Grandma come from?” The questions baffle us apart from the divine revelation.
John H. Gerstner, professor of church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tells a story concerning Arthur Schopenhauer, the famous nineteenth-century philosophical pessimist. Schopenhauer did not always dress like a product of Bond Street—he often dressed more like a bum—and he was sitting in a park in Berlin one day when his appearance aroused the suspicions of a policeman. The policeman asked who he thought he was. Schopenhauer replied, “I would to God I knew.” As Gerstner points out, the only way he could have learned who he was would have been to find out from God, who has revealed this to us in Genesis.
- Genesis gives the origin of the human family that is—moderns especially must take note—not something that has been dreamed up by fallen men and women but something established by God even before the fall for our good. People have added to God’s provision, but not by way of improvement. They have added polygamy, prostitution, promiscuity, divorce, and homosexuality. But these are corruptions of God’s original order and bring frustration, misery, and eventual judgment on those who practice them. People are blessed only as they return to God’s original plan for the home, the ordering of the sexes, and the responsibilities within marriage of both husband and wife.
- Genesis tells us of the origins of evil, at least so far as man is concerned. I give this qualification for two reasons. First, because the account of the fall involves temptation by the serpent and we are not told by Genesis where the serpent came from. (There are hints of it elsewhere.) Second, because there are philosophical questions about how evil could even come into a world created by a good and holy God.
This much is told us in Genesis: The evil that involves mankind is the product of our own choice, expressed as a rebellion against God, and it has affected us so totally that there is now nothing we can do to restore ourselves or regain that position of privilege and responsibility that we lost by rebellion. It is as if we had jumped into a pit. Before the jump we had the capacity for self-determination. We could use that capacity to remain on the edge of the pit or to jump in. But once we had exercised our freedom of choice in the matter by jumping, our choice was gone in that area and thereafter there was nothing we could do to restore our former state of blessedness. Moreover, because it was our choice and not that of another, we are guilty for what we have done and now quite rightly stand under the inevitable judgment of God.
- We can do nothing. But God can—God can do anything—and the wonder of the gospel appears in the promise of One who would come to undo the results of Adam’s transgression. The origins of salvation are therefore also to be found in this book.
This is true in two senses. First, there are promises of a Savior to come, as I have indicated. When Adam and Eve sinned and God came to them in the garden, he first rebuked the sin. But then he spoke of hope in the person of One who should crush the head of Satan. Speaking to the serpent he said, “He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). As the book goes on, this cryptic statement is elaborated and explained. God spoke to Abraham of a descendant who would be the source of divine blessing to all nations: “Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring [singular] all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:17–18; cf. Gal. 3:8). Still later, Jacob spoke of him as a descendant of the tribe of Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his” (Gen. 49:10).
The second way Genesis foreshadows the coming of Christ is by its record of the institution and performance of the sacrifices, which he alone fulfilled.
- A sixth and very important origin in Genesis is the doctrine of justification by faith, clearly seen first in the experience of Abraham. We are told: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). If righteousness was “credited” to Abraham, then Abraham had none of his own. It was the gift of God. Moreover, it was credited to him not on the basis of his works, love, service, or obedience, but on the basis of his faith, that is, on the basis of his taking God’s word in the matter of salvation. In reference to this statement Paul later wrote, “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:23–25).
- Genesis also contains the first teaching in the Bible of the sovereign election of God in salvation. When Adam and Eve sinned, they did not come to God. They hid from him. He took the initiative in seeking them out and in beginning to teach the means of salvation through the death of the Mediator. It was the same with Abraham. Abraham did not seek God. He did not even know who the true God was. But God called Abraham and made him the father of a favored nation through whom the Redeemer should come. God chose Isaac and not Ishmael. He chose Jacob and not Esau. In the New Testament Paul uses these examples to show that salvation does not “depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.… God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9:16, 18).
- Finally there are the origins of divine judgment. In the story of God’s encounter with fallen Eve and Adam, we see accountability and a certain degree of judgment, but for the most part judgment is set aside or postponed. This is not so in the judgment of the flood under Noah, through which all but Noah and his immediate family perished. This is brought forward in the New Testament as a reminder of the reality and inescapability of the final judgment (2 Peter 3:3–10).
Back and Forward
When the secularists came along in the middle of the last century and cut the society of their day off from any sense of history, the deed was greeted with cries of joyous appreciation and great glee. To be freed from the past, particularly from the biblical past with its God of moral standards and threats of judgment, seemed to be true liberation. Man was free! And if he was free, he could do as he pleased—which is what he had wanted to do all along—without fear of God or judgment! Unfortunately, secular man did not see at what price this ghost of liberty had been won. Free of the past? Yes! And of the future too! But now man was adrift on a great sea of nothingness, a bubble on the deep, having come from nothing and drifting to a meaningless shore. No wonder that contemporary man is empty, miserable, frustrated. He is on the verge of a monumental breakdown. He gained freedom (so-called) but at the loss of value, meaning, and true dignity. No wonder he is searching for his roots, as Haley’s video phenomenon reminds us.
Fortunately, men and women can go back … and forward too. But the past and future are not in Haley. They are in the Bible where we find ourselves as we truly are—made in the image of almighty God, hence, creatures of value; fallen tragically, yet redeemable by God through the power and grace displayed in Jesus Christ.
Fact or Fiction?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis raises many questions. One is whether it is to be understood as fact or fiction. This is a question we must settle early, for our views about the nature of the book will determine how we interpret it.
If the story of the fall of Adam and Eve into sin is fiction, perhaps “theological fiction,” as some would call it, it may be intended to give insight into what is basically wrong with us as individuals. It may show our frailty, sin, even our attitude of rebellion against God. But if it is not historical, if there was no literal fall, then there was no previous state of innocence and no guilt for having fallen from it. In other words, we are not sinful because of our own willful rebellion against God. We are simply sinful. We need a helper, perhaps a Savior. But we do not need to confess our sin and repudiate it. Similarly, if the flood is not history but only a myth created to teach certain eternal truths, the story may teach that God does not like sin. But it loses the fearful truth that God intervenes in history to judge sin and will judge it totally and perfectly at the end of time.
Is Genesis fact or fiction? Is it to be understood as a recounting of literal events? Or is it something like inspired poetry in which “spiritual” but not “historical” truths are taught? There are many who opt for fiction. Liberals have done this for years, calling Genesis “myth” or “fable.” Recently even some prominent evangelicals have been willing to take this position.
All Scripture from God
The starting point for answering whether Genesis is fact or fiction—though it does not settle everything—is that Genesis is a part of Holy Scripture and has therefore been given to us by God and speaks with his authority. We think here of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” When Paul wrote those words he had Genesis in mind as much as any other portion of Scripture. So if we accept his teaching, as all Christians should and must, this will have bearing on how we view Genesis.
The inspiration of Genesis does not settle everything concerning whether it is fact or fiction, for God can inspire fiction (for his own holy purposes) as well as he can inspire historical narration. Poetry is not always factually true, yet God inspired the poetry of the psalms. Our Lord told parables, which are stories told to make a clear spiritual point. Still, the inspiration of Genesis is not without bearing on the matter at hand in that it at least tells us that the book is the revelation of God to men (through the agency of the human writer) and not the gropings of any single man or men after the meaning of God or creation. When liberals talk of myth, fable, or fiction it is the latter conception they have in mind. They are putting Genesis on a level with any other document that may have come down to us from ancient times. But it is not like any other document if it is truly given to us by revelation.
E. J. Young, former professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary (until his death in 1968), stated the matter succinctly: “The Bible is either a revelation of God, or it is simply the gropings of the Hebrew nation and the presentation of the best that they could find.” If it is a revelation from God, then “God has told us about the creation, and we [should] believe that it is historical, that is, that it actually took place, because God has so spoken.”
The Assumption of Scripture
The second point bearing on our question is the teaching—or, perhaps more accurately, the assumption (since the issue is not handled in a formal way)—of the rest of Scripture that Genesis is historical. Put as a question the issue is: Does the rest of the Bible view the Book of Genesis as fiction, or does it view it as fact?
This is the point with which Francis Schaeffer begins his short study of Genesis in Space and Time. His position is that the mentality of the whole Scripture is that “creation is as historically real as the history of the Jews and our own present moment of time. Both the Old and the New Testaments deliberately root themselves back into the early chapters of Genesis, insisting that they are a record of historical events.” As a case in point, Schaeffer cites the 136th psalm, which praises God for his enduring love. The psalm begins with a doxology but then passes on to the reasons why we should praise him. The first of these reasons is his work of creation:
who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.
Without any apparent break and certainly without any indication that he is now beginning to write in a historical rather than in a poetical or less than literal vein, the poet then goes on to list a second reason why God should be praised: his work of delivering Israel from Egypt:
to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
His love endures forever.
and brought Israel out from among them
His love endures forever.
with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;
His love endures forever.
The psalm continues to speak of the dividing of the Red Sea, God’s leading of the people through the wilderness, the defeat of the kings who had been occupying the land into which they came (Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan—it cites them by name), the gift of the land, and then finally, the blessings of God to Israel in what was then the present time:
to the One who remembered us in our low estate
His love endures forever.
and freed us from our enemies,
His love endures forever.
and who gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.
What is involved here? Obviously a view of history and of God’s specific acts in history according to which there is natural continuity between the acts of God in creation and the events of the present day. This means that the Genesis account is to be taken as history.
A person may still say, “I believe that Genesis is put forth in the Bible as if it were history, but I do not believe its account.” This would be an honest person holding to convictions. But what we cannot say is, “I believe that the Genesis account is profoundly and spiritually true and that the Bible teaches this; it is poetry.” The one who says that is either dishonest or else is a faulty interpreter of the Bible’s teaching.
The Teaching of Jesus
A special aspect of the attitude of Scripture to Genesis is the teaching of Jesus Christ. This obviously carries special weight. We do not suggest that if Jesus did not specifically teach that the events and personages of Genesis were real events and real personages that the teaching of the rest of the Bible could therefore be abandoned. But it is surely of interest to those who profess to follow Jesus as their Lord to know what he said. His teaching has special weight if only because we revere the Lord highly.
Did Jesus consider the accounts of Genesis historical? Indeed he did! He quoted them as fact to prove other points in contention. When the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask a question about divorce—“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”—Jesus replied by a specific reference to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He said, “Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:3–6). Jesus’ reply assumes God to be the Creator of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, as well as being the One who instituted marriage. In fact, it shows Christ’s belief in the compatibility of the two parallel accounts of creation (in Genesis 1 and 2), since his reply contains a mutually supportive reference from each chapter.
In Mark 13:19, Jesus spoke of “the beginning, when God created the world.”
The Ancient Cosmologies
None of this will have much weight with those who consider the Genesis accounts to be mere versions of those clearly mythical accounts of creation that circulated in the ancient east both before and after the time Genesis was written. There are the Babylonian Epic of Creation and the cosmologies of Egypt and Phoenicia. These have similarities to the accounts in Genesis. If Genesis is merely one of them, must we not think that Jesus was mistaken in his view of creation or at least (some have suggested this) merely adapted his teaching to the viewpoints of his day, though he himself knew better, being God?
The opinion of the recognized dean of archaeologists, William F. Albright, is helpful at this point. Albright was not an evangelical—though he became increasingly conservative as his studies progressed—yet he spoke openly about the lack of similarity between Genesis and the other ancient accounts. His own view was that Israel was a “rarely endowed people” who selected “the most vital elements in their religious literatures,” combined them into “a new and richer synthesis,” purified them by “the monotheism of Moses, and spiritualized [them] by the inspired insight of the Prophets.” In other words, it was an almost purely human process. Yet in spite of this basic humanistic orientation, Albright argued that it is difficult to see how this early “mythological structure can be connected in any direct way whatsoever with the biblical story.”
Albright argued that the Babylonian Epic does have certain superficial resemblances to the Genesis account. It has seven tables, while the Jewish account represents creation as having taken place over a period of seven days. At some points the language is similar. But beyond that, hardly anything is the same. The Hebrew account is monotheistic. Its language is terse. The Babylonian account is polytheistic, verbose, and crassly mythological.
At the beginning there are two monsters, represented as dragons: Apsu, the freshwater subterranean ocean, and his consort Tiamat, the saltwater ocean that surrounds the earth. From these two spring a generation of deities, the last of which become so powerful that Apsu and Tiamat plot to destroy them. The result is a titanic struggle in which Tiamat is slain. Her body is split in two. The upper half is formed into the heavens. The lower half is formed into the earth. Men and women are made from the blood of Qingu, Tiamat’s chief minister. The text says, “Punishment they imposed on him, his blood-vessels they cut open, with his blood they created mankind.” Albright maintains, and I agree with him, that nearly anyone can see the vast gulf separating this obviously mythological account from the serious, historical account in Genesis.
Don’t scholars still argue that the Genesis account is myth? Yes, some do. But I am reminded of a remark made by C. S. Lewis. He said that when some learned scholar tells him that portions of the biblical narrative are myth, he does not want to know what his credentials are in the area of his biblical scholarship but rather how many myths he has read. Myths were Lewis’s business, and it was his testimony that the biblical accounts were not among them.
Some will still argue that we are missing the point. For whether the language of Genesis 1 is mythical or not, these will still think it inadequate for giving a truly factual (by which they mean “scientific”) account of creation. Let us think this through. The account of creation might have been written in one of three ways: 1) in scientific language, 2) in straightforward historical prose, or 3) in poetry. Poetry is out, for the reason that it does not go far enough. It does not tell us what we most want to know. This leaves scientific language and historical prose.
What would it take for the account of creation to be written in scientific language? My opinion is not worth much at this point, but I quote from Frederick A. Filby who has been a professor of chemistry in England for many years. He has registered his convictions in Creation Revealed.
The sciences which probe most deeply into the ultimate facts of matter and life are probably astro- and nuclear physics and biochemistry. But these sciences are written, not so much in languages as in symbols. It takes many pages of symbols to discuss the nature of a single atom of hydrogen. It has been estimated that to give a complete account of the position of the groups and bonds in a single virus of “molecular weight 300 million” would take a 200-page book.
If the scientific description of a single hydrogen atom, or of a virus too small to be seen without a microscope, takes a book, what hope is there of ever giving a scientific account of the creation of man and the universe? Yet Genesis 1 in its original form uses only 76 different root words. If Genesis 1 were written in absolute scientific language to give an account of creation, there is no man alive, nor ever has there been, who could understand it. If it were written in any kind of scientific language, only the favored few could comprehend it. It would have to be rewritten every generation to conform to the new views and terms of science. It could not be written in our mid-twentieth century scientific language, for no earlier generation could have grasped its meaning, and to our children it would be out-of-date. The scientific description of the “how” of the universe is beyond the understanding of any human brain, but Genesis 1 was written for all readers, not for none.…
What then would be the best method for the Creator to use for (1) making a beginning to his book and (2) establishing that the God of the Bible is also the God of creation—in language simple enough for all men in all time?
The answer is … Genesis 1 … the most amazing composition in all the world’s literature, using only 76 different word-forms fundamental to all mankind, arranged in a wonderful poetical pattern yet free from any highly colored figures of speech. It provides the perfect opening to God’s book and establishes all that men really need to know of the facts of creation. No man could have invented it: it is as great a marvel as a plant or a bird. It is God’s handiwork, sufficient for Hebrew children or Greek thinkers or Latin Christians; for medieval knights or modern scientists or little children; for cottage dwellers or cattle ranchers or deep sea fishermen; for Laplanders or Ethiopians, East or West, rich or poor, old or young, simple or learned … sufficient for all! Only God could write such a chapter … and he did.
I find that statement of conviction by a well-trained scientist compelling. Moreover, it is to the point, for the most fundamental of all issues is whether or not God has spoken in Scripture as the Bible claims he has. In the last chapter, I spoke of origins and beginnings, many of which are dealt with in Genesis. But Genesis serves another purpose, and that is to force us back to origins in the matter of our own thought values. It forces us to this: Has God spoken? Has he spoken here? Answer that in the negative, and all is chaos. Answer yes, and all that follows will become increasingly clear.
In the Beginning God
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
When we say that Genesis is to be understood historically—as fact rather than fiction—we do not mean that we can understand it fully just because we are historical creatures. Genesis is history, but some of it is beyond us. This is nowhere more apparent than in its first four words.
I say “four words.” But in the Hebrew the words corresponding to our phrase “In the beginning God” are just two: Berasheth … Elohim. Yet, as the late distinguished physicist Arthur Compton once said, these words are “the most tremendous ever penned.” Another scholar, John Gerstner, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has written that even if all other evidences for the doctrine were lacking, “the first four words of the Book of Genesis are sufficient proof of the Bible’s inspiration.”2 Why? It is because of the statement’s profundity. The ancient Jewish people were not scientists. They were not even profound theologians or philosophers. So the fact that a relatively primitive people have bequeathed us a book embodying the most profound wisdom—the case with these opening words, as well as other passages—should convince us at the beginning that the book has been given to us by God.
In his study of this verse, Gerstner reflects on a statement made one day in his high school physics class. The professor said, “The greatest question which has ever been asked is why there is something rather than nothing.” At the time the young student was impressed. But he gradually came to see that this is not a profound question at all. In fact, it is not even a true question. Because if nothing really is nothing, then nothing defies conception and the choice vanishes. What is “nothing”? If you think you can answer that question, you are the person least qualified to answer it. As soon as you say, “Nothing is …,” nothing ceases to be nothing and becomes something. “Nothing is what the sleeping rocks dream of,” said Jonathan Edwards. Therefore, as Gerstner observes, “Anyone who thinks he knows what nothing is must have those rocks in his head.”
What was “in the beginning”? If the alternative is between God and nothing, there is really no choice. For nothing is nothing, and we are left with the statement “In the beginning God.”
We must deal with an objection. Some modern translations of Genesis begin differently from the New International Version and the King James Version, and the casual reader as well as the technical scholar might therefore ask whether everything we have said so far is wrongheaded. In some modern translations the opening words of Genesis are treated as a dependent or temporal clause rather than an independent clause, which changes the statement from an affirmation that God was in the beginning before all things to a statement that at some indefinite point in the past both God and matter existed and that God then began to form matter into the universe we know today. We see this translation in a footnote to the Revised Standard Version, which reads, “When God began to create.…” We see it in the New English Bible: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth.…” Even the Living Bible says, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was at first a shapeless, chaotic mass.…”
The implications of these translations are clear. Whether or not they are accurate—we will come to that question in a moment—they clearly deny (or at least overlook) an absolute creation. They make matter preexistent and therefore do not give us an absolute beginning at all.
What shall we say about this interpretation? It is a possible translation, otherwise we would not have it in even some of our Bibles. The word bereʾshith can be taken as a construct. But the fact that this is a possible translation does not mean that it is correct. In fact, when we begin to look into the matter deeply there are several reasons why the older translation should be preferred.
First, there is the normal simplicity of the Hebrew sentence. If the opening clause of Genesis 1 is dependent, then the sentence actually concludes in verse 3 where God speaks and light comes into existence. This means that the sentence is quite long, possessing not one but two subordinate parts (the second being a multiple subordinate clause), and the real flow of the sentence would be: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth being at that time formless and empty, darkness being over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God hovering over the waters—God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” This is unlike a true Hebrew sentence, especially an introductory sentence. It is often the case in German that a series of dependent clauses will begin a sentence and the verb will come twenty or thirty words later at the end, a feature of the language that Mark Twain once described as “falling down stairs.” But this is not the case with Hebrew. Certainly there are dependent clauses. But these are not complex, and one is hard-pressed to believe that, in this case especially, a complicated initial sentence is intended to begin the simple and classically straightforward account of creation that occurs in this chapter. Julius Wellhausen was no conservative—he was, in fact, one of the key figures in the development of the documentary theory of the Pentateuch—but he called the translation we are objecting to “desperate.”
Second, as has often been shown, the word “create” (the second word of the sentence in Hebrew) is used of God alone and characteristically refers to his bringing into being something that is entirely new. Of course, God also forms things from existing material, but when that happens another word (usually “make” or “made”) is used. “Create” refers to the production of new things from nothing. It is an inappropriate word if the creation referred to in these verses is merely the formation of the earth from preexistent matter.
Third, Genesis is a book of beginnings. But in telling us of these beginnings it has clearly failed at the most crucial point if, in fact, the best it can say is that at the very start matter just happened to be around.
Why is it that so many modern scholars and even some translators prefer to subordinate the first clause? E. J. Young suggests that the real reason is that the Babylonian Epic of Creation, which I referred to in the last chapter, begins this way and that these scholars have a prejudicial desire to have the Genesis account conform to it. The Babylonian account begins: “When on high the heavens were not named, and below the earth had not a name.…” It goes on in that vein for seven lines, introduces another temporal clause, and then gets to the main clause. By subordinating the opening clauses of Genesis 1, the scholars succeed in making Genesis somewhat parallel to the Babylonian account. But, as I have argued, Genesis does not begin that way. It begins by speaking of that absolute beginning of all things, which is God, and then provides us with the most profound insight into the question of origins. It overwhelms us with the profoundly simple statement: “In the beginning God.”
A Set of Denials
The phrase also instructs us concerning the nature of God who alone is the origin of all things. It suggests some negative statements and some positive statements.
The clearest negative statement is the denial of atheism. If God was in the beginning, then there was and is a God. How can it be otherwise? To say less would be to say God is dependent on creation, being subject to the same laws, and therefore could not be at the beginning of creation as Genesis says he was. A second denial is materialism. When the text says that God was in the beginning, before creation, it sets him apart from creation and therefore apart from the matter of which all else is made. Ours is not an entirely materialistic universe. Moreover, since God created matter, matter did not always exist, which is what a true philosophy of materialism teaches. Finally, the opening statements of Genesis deny pantheism. Pantheism is the philosophy that God is in matter or is matter. It underlies most pagan or animalistic religions. But if God created matter, then he is separate from it and is superior to it. Any religion that worships matter is idolatrous.
These and many other false philosophies err because they begin with man or matter and work up to God, if indeed they go so far. But Genesis stands against them all when it begins with God and sets him forth as the originator of all things.
The Bible’s God
It is not only through the suggestion of these negatives about God that Genesis 1:1 instructs us. It also suggests some very important positive characteristics.
First, when Genesis begins with the words “In the beginning God,” it is telling us that God is self-existent. This is not true of anything else. Everything else depends on some other thing or person and ultimately on God. Without these prior causes, the thing would not exist. We recognize this truth when we speak of the laws of “cause and effect.” Every effect must have an adequate cause. But God is the ultimate cause and is himself uncaused. God has no origins; this means: first, that as he is in himself he is unknowable, and second, that he is answerable to no one.
Why should God’s self-existence mean he is unknowable? It is because everything we see, smell, hear, taste, or touch has origins and consequently we can hardly think of anything except in these categories. We argue that anything we observe must have a cause adequate to explain it, and we look for such causes. But if God is the cause beyond everything, then he cannot be explained or known as other objects can. Like Robert Jastrow, whom we quoted in chapter 1, A. W. Tozer has pointed out that this is one reason why philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God. These disciplines are dedicated to the task of accounting for things and are impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. The scientist will admit that there is much he or she does not know. But it is quite another thing to admit that there is something that we can never know and which, in fact, we do not even have a technique for discovering. To avoid this the scientist may attempt to bring God down to his level, defining him as “natural law,” “evolution,” or some such principle. But God eludes him.
Perhaps, too, this is why even Bible-believing people seem to spend so little time thinking about God’s person and character. Tozer writes, “Few of us have let our hearts gaze in wonder at the I AM, the self-existent Self, back of which no creature can think. Such thoughts are too painful for us. We prefer to think where it will do more good—about how to build a better mousetrap, for instance, or how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. And for this we are now paying a too heavy price in the secularization of our religion and the decay of our inner lives.”
God’s self-existence also means that he is not answerable to us, and we do not like that. We want God to give an account of himself, to defend his actions. But while he sometimes explains things to us, he does not have to and often does not. God does not have to explain himself to anyone.
Second, that God existed “in the beginning” means that he is self-sufficient. Self-existence means that God has no origins. Self-sufficiency means that God has no needs and therefore depends on no one. This is not true of us. We depend on countless other things—oxygen, for example. If our supply of oxygen is cut off, even for a few moments, we die. We are also dependent on light and heat and gravity and the laws of nature. If even one of these laws should cease to operate, we would all die immediately. But this is not true of God. These things could go—in fact, everything could go—yet God would still exist.
Here we run counter to a widespread and popular idea of God that says God cooperates with man and man with God, each thereby supplying something lacking in the other. It is imagined, for example, that God lacked glory and created us to supply it. Or again, that God needed love and therefore created us to love him. Some talk about creation as if God were lonely and created us to keep him company. But God does not need us.
God does not need worshipers. Arthur W. Pink, who writes on this theme in The Attributes of God, says, “God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That he chose to do so was purely a sovereign act on his part, caused by nothing outside himself, determined by nothing but his own mere good pleasure; for he ‘worketh all things after the counsel of his own good will’ (Eph. 1:11). That he did create was simply for his manifestative glory.… God is no gainer even from our worship. He was in no need of that external glory of his grace which arises from his redeemed, for he is glorious enough in himself without that. What was it [that] moved him to predestinate his elect to the praise of the glory of his grace? It was, Ephesians 1:5 tells us, ‘according to the good pleasure of his will.’ … The force of this is [that] it is impossible to bring the Almighty under obligations to the creature; God gains nothing from us.”
Some will conclude that the value of men and women is thereby lessened, but this is not the case. It is merely located where alone it is possible to sustain our value. According to our way of thinking, we have value because of what we imagine we can do for God. This is prideful, foolish, and vain. According to the biblical perspective, we have value because God grants it to us. Our worth is according to the grace of God in creation and to his election of us to salvation.
God does not need helpers. This truth is probably harder for us to accept than almost any other, for we imagine God as a friendly, but almost pathetic grandfather figure, bustling about to see whom he can find to help him in managing the world and saving the world’s race. This is a travesty. To be sure, God has entrusted a work of management to us. He said to the original pair in Eden, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). He has given those who believe on him a commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). But none of these aspects of God’s ordering of his creation has a necessary grounding in himself. He has chosen to do things in this way, but he did not have to. Indeed, he could have done them in any one of a million other ways. That he did choose to do things thus is solely dependent on his own free will and does not give us any inherent value to him.
God does not need defenders. We have opportunities to speak for God before those who would dishonor his name and malign his character. We ought to do so. But even if we do not, we must not think that God is deprived by it. God does not need to be defended, for he is as he is and will remain so regardless of the sinful and arrogant attacks of evil men. A God who needs to be defended is a God who can defend us only when someone is defending him. He is of no use at all. The God of the Bible is the self-existent One who is the true defender of his people.
All this is of great importance, for when we notice that God is the only truly self-sufficient One, we may begin to understand why the Bible has so much to say about the need for faith in God alone and why unbelief in God is such sin. Tozer writes: “Among all created beings, not one dare trust in itself. God alone trusts in himself; all other beings must trust in him. Unbelief is actually perverted faith, for it puts its trust not in the living God but in dying men.” If we refuse to trust God, what we are actually saying is that either we or some other person or thing is more trustworthy. This is a slander against the character of God, and it is folly, for nothing else is all-sufficient. On the other hand, if we begin by trusting God (by believing on him), then we have a solid foundation for all of life.
Because God is sufficient, we may begin by resting in that sufficiency and so work effectively for him. God does not need us. But the joy of coming to know him is in learning that he nevertheless stoops to work in and through his children.
Third, the truth that God was “in the beginning” means that he is eternal. It means that God is, has always been, and will always be, and that he is ever the same in his eternal being. We discover this attribute of God everywhere in the Bible. Abraham knew God as “the Eternal God” (Gen. 21:33). Moses wrote, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:1–2). The Book of Revelation describes him as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6; cf. 1:8; 22:13). The same book tells us that the four living creatures that surround the throne of God call out day and night, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
That God is eternal has two major consequences for us. First, he can be trusted to remain as he has revealed himself to be. God is unchangeable in his attributes. So we need not fear, for example, that although he has shown his love towards us once in Christ he may nevertheless somehow change his mind and cease to love us in the future. God is always love. Similarly, we must not think that although he has shown himself to be holy he may nevertheless somehow cease to be holy and therefore change his attitude toward our transgressions. Sin will always be sin, because it is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 14), who is unchangeable. We may extend this by saying that God will always be holy, wise, gracious, just, and everything else that he reveals himself to be. Nothing that we do will ever change him. Again, God is unchangeable in his eternal counsel or will. He does what he has determined beforehand to do, and his will never varies. This is a source of great comfort to God’s people. If God were like us, he could not be relied on. He would change, and as a result of that his will and promises would change. We could not depend on him. But God is not like us. He does not change. Consequently, his purposes remain fixed from generation to generation.
The second major consequence for us of God being eternal is that he is inescapable. If he were a mere man and if we did not like either him or what he was doing, we might ignore him, knowing that he might change his mind, move away from us, or die. But God does not change his mind. He does not move away. He will not die. Consequently, we cannot escape him. If we ignore him now, we must reckon with him in the life to come. If we reject him now, we must eventually face the One we have rejected and come to know his own eternal rejection of us.
The God Who is There
In this lies the profundity of the first verse in the Bible. Indeed, we can go farther and say that in some sense this verse may even be the most important verse in the Bible, for at the outset it brings us face-to-face with the God with whom we have to do. This God is not an imaginary god. He is not a god of our own inventions. He is the God who is—the One who is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 4).
Sometimes we wish we could change him. We are like the man who was climbing up a steep mountain on his way to the summit when he began to slip. Unable to stop himself, he slid back down the treacherous incline toward a cliff that plunged a thousand feet to the canyon floor. He was sure he would be killed. But just as he was about to go over the edge he threw his hands out and managed to catch a small branch. There he hung. He had saved himself. But he could not get back onto the incline, and he knew it was just a matter of time until his grip loosened and he fell. He was not a very religious man. But this was obviously the time to become one, if ever. So he looked up to heaven and called out, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?”
He did not expect an answer. So he was greatly surprised when a deep voice came back, saying, “Yes, I am here, and I can help you. But first you are going to have to let go of that branch.”
A long pause! Then the man looked up and called out again, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?”
There is no one else. There is only God, the One who was in the beginning and who ever shall be. But he is able to help. More than that, he is willing to help and even urges his help on us. How wonderful it is that we meet him at the beginning. Genesis 1 gives us a chance to come to terms with him and receive the help he offers, knowing that we will certainly meet him at the end.
God the Creator
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
In chapter 3 I referred to a question that has been thought to be profound but actually is not: Why is there something rather than nothing? This is not profound for the reason that it is not even a true question. The question seems to offer us a choice between something and nothing. But what is nothing? As soon as we answer that, saying, “Nothing is …,” nothing ceases to be nothing and becomes something. If nothing really is nothing, nothing defies description. In fact, it defies mental conception of any kind. So the question really boils down to: Why is there something?
In this form the question is not meaningless. On the contrary, it is one of the truly big philosophical questions. It can be stated in different forms—Where did the universe come from? Who made the atom? How did everything get to be as it is?—but in essence these are the same basic questions. Something is there—an immense, intricate, and orderly something. It was there before we were, for we cannot even imagine our existence without it. But how did it get there? And how did it get to be as we detect it?
Genesis 1:1 is the answer to these questions. It tells us that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
The Christian Answer
There are other answers to the question of the origins of the universe, however, and it is these plus the Christian answer that we now want to consider. How many answers are there? Like all truly big questions, the possibilities are not numerous. In this case, there are just four.
First, there is the view that the universe had no origin. That is, there was no origin because in some form the universe always existed. Matter existed. This has been the dominant view of both ancient and modern science until relatively recent times, and it is still held by some. Second, there is the view that everything has a beginning and that this beginning was the work of a good personal being. This is the Christian view. Third, everything came into existence through the work of a personal being who is evil. Fourth, there is now and there always has been a dualism. This last view takes several forms depending on whether one is thinking of a personal or impersonal, moral or immoral dualism, but the views are related. This was the outlook of the ancient cosmologies referred to earlier, of which the Babylonian Epic is an example. It is still the characteristic view of the eastern religions and mysticism.
What are we to say concerning these four possibilities? The easiest to dismiss is number three, which gives a personal but evil origin to the universe. It says, in effect, that Satan is the creator. This is easiest to dismiss because it does not give an adequate explanation of the origin of the good. Evil can be conceived as a corruption of the good—Satan can rebel against the Christian God—but it is not really possible to think of good as having emerged out of evil. In the former case, evil can be a misuse of otherwise good traits or abilities. But in the second case, there is no place for the good to come from. We may state the problem in a slightly different way. For a power to be evil it (or he) must possess the attributes of intelligence and will. But since these attributes are in themselves good, he must be getting them from a good power. And this means that the good power must have existed previously and that the evil power is therefore not the origin of all things.
The fourth possibility, a dualism, is unsatisfactory too, although this is not as quickly apparent as in number three. The reason is that, although belief in a dualism has often been quite popular and has endured for long periods of history, it does not stand up under close analysis. For having stated the dualism, we immediately want to pass behind it to some type of unity that includes the dualism. Or else we choose one part of the dualism and make it prominent over the other, in which case we are really easing into one of the other possibilities.
C. S. Lewis has written about this problem, pointing to what he calls the “catch” in the system. According to dualism, two powers (spirits or gods), one good and one evil, are supposed to be quite independent and eternal. Neither is responsible for the other, and each has an equal right to call itself God. Each presumably thinks that it is good and the other bad. But Lewis asks, What do we mean when we say, as we do in stating this dualism, that the one power is good and the other bad? Do we mean merely that we prefer the one to the other? If that is all we mean, then we must give up any real talk about good or evil, and if we do that, then the moral dimension of the universe vanishes entirely and we are left with nothing more than matter operating in certain ways. We cannot mean that and still hold to the dualism. We have fallen back to possibility number one.
But if, on the contrary, we mean that one power really is good and the other really is bad, then we are actually introducing some third thing into the universe, “some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to.” And this standard, rather than the other, will turn out to be the true God. Lewis concludes, “Since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and he will be the real God. In fact, what we meant by calling them good and bad turns out to be that one of them is in a right relation to the real, ultimate God and the other in a wrong relation to him.”
So neither an evil origin for the universe, from which good arose, nor a dualism adequately accounts for reality as we know it. The real alternative is between the view that holds to an eternity of matter and the view that sees everything as having come into existence through the personal will of an eternal and moral God.
Let us look at Christianity’s chief competitor, materialism. The origins of this view are lost in the past, but the view is clearly very ancient. It is found in the scientism of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who taught that everything is composed of small building blocks of matter, conceived of as hard, indestructible particles. Epicurus called them atoms, which is where our word “atom” comes from. He probably derived his ideas from Democritus of Abdera who in turn was indebted to the little-known philosopher Leucippus. Leucippus may have gotten his ideas from a Phoenician philosopher named Moschus, who lived prior to 1000 b.c.
Today this view is the dominant philosophy of western civilization, although not in the form Epicurus gave to it. For one thing, we know that the atom can be divided. We have done it. Again, we have been taught by Einstein that energy and mass are interchangeable, which is mind-boggling. Knowledge of this should in itself shake the presuppositions of materialism, but for the most part it has not seriously shaken them, and the western world continues to be philosophically materialistic.
Today’s materialism usually does not deny that there is personality in the universe, but it conceives this as having arisen out of impersonal substance. It does not deny the complexity of the universe—even including such things as the intricacy of the atom—but it supposes that complexity came from that which was less complex and that in turn from something still less complex until eventually we arrive back at that which is ultimately simple, that is, to mere matter. Matter, it is supposed, always existed—because there is no further explanation. This view lies beneath most thought concerning evolution.
But this description of the origin of the universe has already introduced problems that the theory itself apparently has no means of solving. First, we have spoken of a form to matter and then of more complex forms. But where does form come from? Form means organization and perhaps purpose, too. But how can organization and purpose come from mere matter? Some would insist that organization and purpose were in the matter inherently, like genes in an egg or spermatozoa. But in addition to making nonsense of the theory—this is no longer mere matter—the basic question still remains unanswered, for the problem is how the organization and purpose even got there. At some level, either early or late, we have to account for the form; and, if this is the case, we soon find ourselves looking for the Former, Organizer, or Purposer.
Moreover, we have introduced the idea of the personal, and if we begin with an impersonal universe, there is no explanation for the emergence of personality. Francis Schaeffer writes: “The assumption of an impersonal beginning can never adequately explain the personal beings we see around us, and when men try to explain man on the basis of an original impersonal, man soon disappears.”
Genesis begins with the opposite answer. It maintains that the universe exists with form and personality because it has been brought into existence by an orderly and personal God. God was there before the universe came into existence, and he was and is personal. He created all we know, including ourselves. Consequently, the universe naturally bears the mark of his personality.
But we may be missing something at this point. We are arguing for the Christian view of origins, which is not at all unimportant. But in the very act of arguing we are likely to miss (or postpone) a true wonder at God’s creation, which is what a proper contemplation of these themes should cause. Biblical writers never fall into this pit. Consequently, when they look at creation they inevitably end up praising God, and when they praise God, one of the things they praise him for is creation.
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.
Can we not do that too? Our text tells us that God created “the heavens and the earth.” As we contemplate these great canvases of God’s work, are we not led to praise him?
How vast the heavens are! When we look up into the sky on a clear night we see perhaps 10,000 points of light. A few of these are the planets of our solar system that shine by reflected light. Thousands belong to the special grouping of stars known as the Milky Way, to which our sun belongs. Other thousands are entire galaxies, which shine as one point because they are so distant. We say 10,000 points because that is what we can see with unaided eyes. But these 10,000 are only the tiniest fraction of the existing stars. A typical galaxy contains billions of individual stars—our galaxy alone contains 200 billion stars. Its form is of a giant spiral rotating majestically in space, its glowing arms trailing behind it like the distended points of a pinwheel. Our sun is in one arm of the spiral. It makes a complete rotation in 250 million years. These figures are staggering. But this is only our galaxy. There are thousands of others visible to the naked eye and billions more within range of the 200-inch telescope on California’s Palomar Mountain.
As revealed to us by time exposure photography, these distant galaxies of stars display a seemingly unending array of beauty. Some are spirals like ours. Others are nearly spherical clusters. Others are flattened out like pancakes. Still others are irregular. All the stars in the heavens are clustered together in these intricate and beautiful groupings.
Again, the galaxies are scattered about in an irregular pattern. Between them there are vast amounts of space. The distance from one edge of an average galaxy to the other edge is approximately 600 thousand trillion miles. The average distance from one galaxy to another is 20 million trillion miles. If these numbers were to be written out in zeros, they would fill up several lines of type. So to avoid such large numbers astronomers generally use a unit of distance called the light-year, that is, the distance light travels in one year at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. A light-year is approximately 6 trillion miles. Translated into these terms, the size of an average galaxy is 100 thousand light-years, and the distance between them is 3 million light-years approximately.
The Andromeda Galaxy is the galaxy closest to our own Milky Way. It is separated from us by 2 million light-years. This means that the light coming to us now from Andromeda has taken 2 million years to get here. Put in other terms, it means that when we look at Andromeda what we see is the galaxy as it existed, not a moment ago, but 2 million years in the past.
Moreover, the galaxies are not fixed in space but rather are moving away from each other at tremendous speeds. Vesto Melvin Slipher, the first to discover this fact, found that the galaxies he could observe were moving away from the earth at several million miles per hour. His scientific followers, Milton Humason and Edwin Hubble, showed that the most distant galaxies were retreating from us at the rate of 100 million miles per hour. Moreover, everything is retreating from everything. Nothing is coming toward us, nor is anything coming toward any other galaxy. This means that the universe is expanding. By working backward from the present position of the galaxies and their known speed, astronomers have placed the origins of the universe approximately 15 to 20 billion years in the past.
We turn to the stars themselves and find equal evidence of variety, design, beauty, and mystery. Not all stars are alike, though they seem to follow a similar pattern as they are born, burn, grow old, and eventually die.
At any given moment millions of stars are being born in space. They are born as clouds of interstellar gas contract under the force of gravity acting between the atoms that compose them. As they contract the temperature rises. Finally, at the critical temperature of 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, the hydrogen within the ball of condensed gas ignites in reactions similar to those that occur in the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. The release of this energy halts any further condensing of the gas, and the star continues to burn in that fashion for many billions of years. Our sun is at this stage.
Eventually the hydrogen in the star begins to be used up. It starts to swell and redden. Such stars are called red giants. As the last of its fuel is burned off, the star begins its final collapse under the force of gravity. If it is relatively small, it condenses to a tightly compressed sphere called a white dwarf. In one of these dead stars a few cubic centimeters of matter weigh a ton. If the star is large, a different fate envelops it. Instead of compressing quietly, it blows itself up, thereby scattering its elements—now containing carbon, oxygen, iron, gold, and others—throughout the universe where they are eventually picked up by other suns or planets.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
And what of the earth? We need not consider the earth and its marvels fully at this point. We have looked at the heavens carefully since this is the last point in Genesis at which the heavens are mentioned for themselves. From this point the chapter passes on to consider God’s acts of creation on earth. (The sun, moon, and stars are mentioned only in regard to their giving light to the earth.) In a sense everything that occurs from this point on is about the earth. But we can note in passing that the marvels of the macrocosm (the world of large things) are repeated in the microcosm (the world of small things). Here we are confronted with electrons, protons, neutrons, neutrinos, and a seemingly endless variety of particles barely understood. The distances between these particles, proportionate to their size, are comparable to some of the distances involved in the solar system. If we were to take the simplest of atoms, the hydrogen atom, and blow it up billions upon billions of times to where the proton at its center would now be the size of a ten-inch soccer ball, the electron that circles this nucleus would now be the size of a golf ball and would be circling the proton at a distance of five miles. There would be nothing else within the circle!
To God Be the Glory
On the basis of the first verse of Genesis we can define God as the One who creates. We cannot create. We often use the word of human endeavors, and human beings are creative in the sense we give to that word. But if we are to be precise, we will say that at the best we only form or fashion things in imaginative ways, and even then, it is the case that we get our imagination as well as all other physical, mental, and spiritual gifts from God. Strictly speaking, we are craftsmen. We use preexisting material. But God does create, and he does so on what is to us a vast and incomprehensible scale. We do not know how God has done it. But he has willed creation, and as a result all we know, see, and are have come into being.
If God were not the Creator, he would be only a part of the world process, coming and going, waxing and waning. He could not help us. E. J. Young has written, “If he is only a little bigger than we are, if he is only a big brother and nothing more, if he is only a part of the whole, then we are all in it together, God, you and I, and then there are no standards. There is no absolute. It is every man for himself, and all modern philosophies and ideas that are being spread in our days—new morality, new theology, and so on—are all perfectly admissible if God is only a part of the world process. If it is so, it does not matter whether he is dead or alive.… Let us live for the moment, let us live for our enjoyment; there is no absolute; there us no standard of morality, for all changes. What may be right today may be wrong tomorrow; so let us get through life as best we can.”
But this is not the God of Genesis. “The Bible does not so speak. It tells us that God has created all things. That is why there is meaning in life, and why there are absolute standards that do not change. God tells us what is right and what is wrong, and that is why there is meaning in life. That is why you and I who believe in this God can very well say that our chief reason for existence is to glorify him and enjoy him forever.”
1. In the beginning. To expound the term “beginning,” of Christ, is altogether frivolous. For Moses simply intends to assert that the world was not perfected at its very commencement, in the manner in which it is now seen, but that it was created an empty chaos of heaven and earth. His language therefore may be thus explained. When God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth, the earth was empty and waste. He moreover teaches by the word “created,” that what before did not exist was now made; for he has not used the term יצר, (yatsar,) which signifies to frame or form, but ברא, (bara,) which signifies to create. Therefore his meaning is, that the world was made out of nothing. Hence the folly of those is refuted who imagine that unformed matter existed from eternity; and who gather nothing else from the narration of Moses than that the world was furnished with new ornaments, and received a form of which it was before destitute. This indeed was formerly a common fable among heathens,3 who had received only an obscure report of the creation, and who, according to custom, adulterated the truth of God with strange figments; but for Christian men to labour (as Steuchus does) in maintaining this gross error is absurd and intolerable. Let this, then, be maintained in the first place,5 that the world is not eternal, but was created by God. There is no doubt that Moses gives the name of heaven and earth to that confused mass which he, shortly afterwards, (verse 2,) denominates waters. The reason of which is, that this matter was to be the seed of the whole world. Besides, this is the generally recognized division of the world.
God. Moses has it Elohim, a noun of the plural number. Whence the inference is drawn, that the three Persons of the Godhead are here noted; but since, as a proof of so great a matter, it appears to me to have little solidity, I will not insist upon the word; but rather caution readers to beware of violent glosses of this kind. They think that they have testimony against the Arians to prove the Deity of the Son and of the Spirit, but in the meantime they involve themselves in the error of Sabellius:2 because Moses afterwards subjoins that the Elohim had spoken, and that the Spirit of the Elohim rested upon the waters. If we suppose three persons to be here denoted, there will be no distinction between them. For it will follow, both that the Son is begotten by himself, and that the Spirit is not of the Father, but of himself. For me it is sufficient that the plural number expresses those powers which God exercised in creating the world. Moreover, I acknowledge that the Scripture, although it recites many powers of the Godhead, yet always recalls us to the Father, and his Word, and Spirit, as we shall shortly see. But those absurdities, to which I have alluded, forbid us with subtlety to distort what Moses simply declares concerning God himself, by applying it to the separate Persons of the Godhead. This, however, I regard as beyond controversy, that, from the peculiar circumstance of the passage itself, a title is here ascribed to God, expressive of that power, which was previously in some way included in his eternal essence.
The God of Creation (1:1)
1 The account opens with a clear, concise statement about the Creator and the creation. Its simplicity belies the depth of its content. These seven Hebrew words are the foundation of all that is to follow in the Bible. The purpose of the statement is threefold: to identify the Creator, to explain the origin of the world, and to tie the work of God in the past to the work of God in the future.
The Creator is identified in 1:1 as “God,” that is, “Elohim” (ʾelōhîm). Although God is not further identified in v. 1 (cf. 15:7; Ex 20:2), the author appears confident that there will be no mistaking God with any other than the God of the patriarchs and the God of the covenant at Sinai. The proper context for understanding this verse, in other words, is the whole of the book of Genesis and the Pentateuch. Already in Genesis 2:4b, God (Elohim) is identified with the Lord (Yahweh), the God who called Abraham (12:1) and delivered Israel from Egypt (Ex 3:15).
From the perspective of the Pentateuch as a whole, the God in Genesis 1:1 is the God who has promised the patriarchs a good “earth” (ʾereṣ) and has redeemed them from Egypt. He is the “shepherd … deliverer” of Jacob’s blessing in 48:15–16. The purpose of 1:1 is not to identify God as such, but to identify him as the Creator of both the universe and the “earth,” which is the place of divine blessing.
It is not difficult to detect a polemic against idolatry behind the words of 1:1. By identifying God as the Creator, a crucial distinction is introduced between the God of the patriarchs and the gods of the nations—gods that to the biblical authors were mere idols. God alone created the heavens and the earth. The sense of 1:1 is similar to the message relayed to Jeremiah: “Tell them this,” Jeremiah said: “ ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens’ ” (Jer 10:11). Also Psalm 96:5 shows that the full impact of Genesis 1:1 was appreciated by later biblical writers: “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord [Yahweh] made the heavens.”
The statement in 1:1 not only identifies the Creator, it also explains the origin of the world. According to the sense of 1:1 (see Notes), the narrative states that God created all that exists. As it stands, the statement is an affirmation that God alone is eternal and that everything else owes its origin and existence to him. The influence of this verse is reflected in the thoughts found throughout the work of later biblical writers (e.g., Ps 33:6; Jn 1:3; Heb 11:3).
Equally important in 1:1 is the meaning of the phrase “in the beginning” (berēʾšît), especially within the framework of the creation account and the book of Genesis. The term “beginning” (rēʾšît; GK 8040) in biblical Hebrew marks the starting period of a measured frame of time, as in “the beginning of the year” (rēʾšît haššānâ; Dt 11:12). The conclusion of that period is called “the end” (ʾaḥarît; GK 344), as in Deuteronomy 11:12: “the end of the year” (ʾaḥ arît šānâ, lit. trans.; H.-P. Muller, THAT, 709). The “beginning” denoted by rēʾšît is not a momentary point of time but a time period. The length or duration of the period is not specified by the term.
In biblical texts that speak of a king’s reign, the first part of the reign is usually not counted as part of the length of his reign. Hence, in calculating the duration of a king’s reign, only the years of his reign after an initial period of time, a “beginning” (rēʾšît), were counted. The duration of this period was sometimes only a few months but sometimes as long as several years. In either case, the reckoning of a king’s reign was preceded by a notation of an initial duration of time called “the beginning of his reign” (cf. Jer 28:1).
If we take into consideration the author’s choice of words for “the beginning,” the text appears to be telling us in 1:1 that God created the universe “during an unspecified length of time.” That indefinite period of time was followed by a single seven-day week. By placing the creation of the universe (“heavens and earth”) within the rēʾšît of Genesis 1:1, the writer refuses to identify the length of creation with the seven-day week that followed.
By commencing his history with a “beginning” (rēʾšît), a word often paired with “the end” (ʾaḥarît), the author also prepares the way for the consummation of that history at “the end of time,” ʾaḥarît. “Already in Genesis 1:1 the concept of ‘the last days’ fills the mind of the reader” (Procksch, 425).
The growing focus within the biblical canon on the “last days” (ʾaḥarît hayyāmîm) is an appropriate extension of the “end” (ʾaḥarît) already anticipated in the “beginning” (rēʾšît) of Genesis 1:1. The fundamental principle reflected in 1:1 and the prophetic vision of the future times of the “end” in the rest of Scripture is that the “last things will be like the first things” (Ernst Boklen, Die Verwandtschât der jüdisch-christlichen mit der Parsischen Eschatologie [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1902], 136): “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17); “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). The allusions to Genesis 1 and 2 in Revelation 22 illustrate the role these early chapters of Genesis played in shaping the form and content of the scriptural vision of the future (ʾaḥarît hayyāmîm).
1:1 / In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In Hebrew this sentence consists of seven words, mirroring the seven days of creation. “In the beginning” marks the start of time on earth. This is confirmed by the process of creation being presented in a sequence of days and by the creation of light first in order to mark the flow of time in days and nights (1:3–5). God (’elohim) is the generic term for the one deity. It is used so frequently that it virtually functions as a name. Its plural form conveys the multiplicity and self-sufficiency of God. That is, God, who is superior to all the gods, embodies in himself the qualities of all the gods that make up a pantheon. The ot uses “create” (bara’) restrictively: only God serves as its subject, and the material out of which something is made is never mentioned. The terms “the heavens” and “the earth,” being at opposite ends of the spectrum, stand for the totality of what God created. “Universe” is another possible translation for this phrase, but the ancient view of the cosmos was so different from today’s view that this English term would convey more than the ancient author intended.
1 ראשׁית “beginning” is an abstract noun etymologically related to ראשׁ “head,” and ראשׁון “first.” In temporal phrases it is most often used relatively, i.e., it specifies the beginning of a particular period, e.g., “From the beginning of the year” (Deut 11:12) or “At the beginning of the reign of” (Jer 26:1). More rarely, as here, it is used absolutely, with the period of time left unspecified; only the context shows precisely when is meant, e.g., Isa 46:10. “Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times (מקדם) things not yet done” (cf. Prov 8:22). The contexts here and in Gen 1 suggest ראשׁית refers to the beginning of time itself, not to a particular period within eternity (cf. Isa 40:21; 41:4; H. P. Müller, THWAT 2:711–12).
By prefixing ראשׁית “beginning” with the preposition ב “in” Genesis makes its first two words begin identically, for ברא also spells “he created.” Whether this is mere coincidence or literary conceit is open to question. The literary craftsmanship employed elsewhere in the chapter perhaps makes the latter likely. Elsewhere in these opening chapters ברא is always employed in close proximity to ברך “to bless” (1:21/22; 1:27/28; 2:3/3; 5:1–2/2;) suggesting that creation and blessing are linked in the divine purpose, a purpose eventually to be realized through Abra[ha]m (12:1–3) whose name (אברהם) consists of the same three letters + hm. (So D. F. Pennant, Bib, forthcoming.)
ברא “he created.” The verb is used in both the qal and niphal. An etymological connection with the piel בֵּרֵא “to cut,” “split” (e.g., Josh 17:15) is doubtful. It is particularly easy to read English notions of creation into the Hebrew verb, given the theological importance of the idea. It is therefore vital to examine usage carefully to determine its meaning. First, it should be noted that God, the God of Israel, is always subject of ברא. Creation is never predicated of pagan deities. Second, the text never states what God creates out of. Third, the most frequently named products of creation are man, (e.g., 1:27), and unexpected novelties (e.g., Num 16:30; Isa 65:17); more rarely mentioned are the sea monsters (Gen 1:21), mountains (Amos 4:13), and animals (Ps 104:30).
It is therefore clear that ברא is not a term exclusively reserved for creation out of nothing. For example, it can be used of the creation of Israel (Isa 43:15). Nevertheless, as with the word “create” in English, there is a stress on the artist’s freedom and power—the more so in the Hebrew as the word is used solely for God’s activity. W. H. Schmidt (Schöpfungsgeschichte, 166–67) correctly points out that though ברא does not denote creatio ex nihilo, it preserves the same idea, namely, “God’s effortless, totally free and unbound creating, his sovereignty. It is never mentioned what God created out of.”
That God did create the world out of nothing is certainly implied by other OT passages which speak of his creating everything by his word and his existence before the world (Ps 148:5; Prov 8:22–27) (Ridderbos, OTS 12  257). Though such an interpretation of Gen 1:1 is quite possible, the phraseology used leaves the author’s precise meaning uncertain on this point.
אלהים “God.” “The first subject of Genesis and the Bible is God” (Procksch, 438). The word is the second most frequent noun in the OT. It is derived from the common Semitic word for god il. As here, Hebrew generally prefers the plural form of the noun, which except when it means “gods,” i.e., heathen deities, is construed with a singular verb. Though the plural has often been taken to be a plural of majesty or power, it is doubtful whether this is relevant to the interpretation of אלהים. It is simply the ordinary word for God: plural in form but singular in meaning.
Strictly speaking, אלהים is an appellative, that is, it can be used of any deity. It is not a personal name, such as Yahweh, El Shaddai, Marduk, or Chemosh. Nevertheless, as with the English word “God,” it often acts almost as a proper name. Certainly in this chapter אלהים is a more appropriate word to use than יהוה (the Lord): it implies that God is the sovereign creator of the whole universe, not just Israel’s personal God (H. Ringgren, TDOT 1:267–84; W. H. Schmidt, THWAT 1:153–67).
It is important to appreciate the fact that Hebrew אלהים is not simply synonymous with English “God.” Thanks to secularism, God has become for many people little more than an abstract philosophical concept. But the biblical view avoids such abstractions. Westermann points out: “God in Gen 1 is one who acts and speaks.” His reality is seen in his acts; he is not an entity who can be conceived of apart from his works (139; cf. ET, 100).
השׁמים ואת הארץ “the heaven and the earth.” It is characteristic of many languages to describe the totality of something in terms of its extremes, e.g., “good and bad,” “big and little,” etc. Here we have an example of this usage to define the universe (cf. J. Krašovec, Der Merismus im Biblisch-Hebräischen und Nordwestsemitischen, BibOr 33 [Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1977] 1625).
On its own שׁמים means “sky” or “heaven,” i.e., the abode of God, while ארץ denotes the “earth, world,” which is man’s home. But in the OT, as well as in Egyptian, Akkadian, and Ugaritic, “heaven and earth” may also be used to denote the universe (M. Ottosson, TDOT 1:389–91; Stadelmann, Hebrew Conception of the World, 1–2; Gen 14:19, 22; 24:3; Isa 66:1; Ps 89:12).
Gen 1:1 could therefore be translated “In the beginning God created everything.” Commentators often insist that the phrase “heaven and earth” denotes the completely ordered cosmos. Though this is usually the case, totality rather than organization is its chief thrust here. It is therefore quite feasible for a mention of an initial act of creation of the whole universe (v 1) to be followed by an account of the ordering of different parts of the universe (vv 2–31). Put another way, ארץ may well have a different meaning in vv 1 and 2. Compounded with “heaven” it designates the whole cosmos, whereas in v 2 it has its usual meaning “earth.” According to Stadelmann (Hebrew Conception of the World, 127), “the term ארץ means primarily the entire area in which man thinks of himself as living, as opposed to the regions of heaven or the underworld.” The very different contexts show that it is wrong to identify the sense of ארץ in v 1 with its sense in v 2 too precisely (cf. N. E. Andreasen, Origins 8  13–19).
 Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 13–40). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Vol. 1, pp. 69–72). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Sailhamer, J. H. (2008). Genesis. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis–Leviticus (Revised Edition) (Vol. 1, pp. 50–51). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hartley, J. E. (2012). Genesis. (W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston, Eds.) (pp. 42–43). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Wenham, G. J. (1998). Genesis 1–15 (Vol. 1, pp. 13–15). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.