The Language and Grammar of Genesis One and Two
The claim is often made that the creation accounts of Gen 1 (really 1:1 – 2:3) and Gen 2 (really 2:4 – 2:25) are contradictory. Thus, it is suggested that even if chapter 1 had been written with a literal intent, chapter 2, with its supposed contradictions, would render a literal reading impossible. The principal difference in the two chapters is that chapter 1 deals with creation from a panoramic view while chapter 2 is concerned specifically with the how of the creation of man and the what of man’s role in’s creation. Let us analyze biblically and linguistically the key passages the full range of the key Hebrew words in Gen 1:1–2, the grammar of chapter 1 and also 2:4, 2:5-7, and 2:19.
Genesis 1:1 is the first act of creation and not simply a title which is substantiated by the Hebrew grammar. The typical sequence of a narrative is to start with a verb in the simple past tense. (Buth 2005:52) Gen 1:1 begins with bara – created in the simple past tense thereby signifying something new or dramatic to the story. Verse 2 is a parenthetical statement explaining what is meant exactly by the creation of the “earth”. The action picks up again in verse 3 with the use of a sequential past tense (vayyiqtol). The use of a different kind of Hebrew verb marks quite clearly that the writer understood the actions of verse 3 to be a continuation of the previous two verses. Dr. Randall Buth notes that this is the normal storytelling construction in biblical Hebrew.
The sequential past tense is used to present the next event in the story or the next event in a sentence. If the writer wants to mark a break in the flow of the story for any reason, then they do not use the sequential past tense. For a past event they would need to put something other than the verb at the beginning of the sentence and then use a simple past tense (Buth 2005: 52).
Not only is verse 3 a continuation of verse 1, but the entire creation account of Gen 1 uses the sequential past tense. Consequently, according to the grammar, there is no break between verse 1 and the rest of the chapter and hence no gap of years between any of the first three verses since they are all part of that first day. Light was created on the first day, along with the very building blocks necessary for even the light to shine, which was energized by the movement of the Holy Spirit over the face of the deep. There exists, therefore, no reason to believe that the length of the first day was any different than that of any other, neither was there a previous world that fell only to be recreated, nor was there even a geologic creation some billions of years earlier (as the Gap Theory suggests). The first three verses of Gen 1, the first day, all occurred within 24 hours just like the rest of the days.
Bara and Asa
Before God created anything, there was only God. There was no universe, no vacuum of space, nothing whatsoever. There was only God. He created something completely new (bara), a space/dimension (from nothing) called שמים shamaim (heavens) which he filled with ארץ eretz (earth-material) which was in the process of being formed and was not completed. Keil & Delitzsch underscore the connection between verses one and two “it is evident that the void and formless state of the earth was not uncreated, or without beginning…the heaven and earth, as God created them in the beginning, were not the well-ordered universe, but the world in its elementary form; (Keil & Delitzsch 1866: Gen 1:1) God essentially created the building blocks before beginning construction. The term “earth” here must be directly interpreted by verse two and hence understood as the raw material, the elements that God created out of nothing that He would form and fashion later to His liking. The creation of light was the third creative act.
A key word in Genesis 1:1 is ברא (bara) created and is used a total of 53 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The basic and most widely used form of the word (used in Gen 1) has the general meaning of create, shape or form. It has been suggested that the word bara used here in Gen is a different type of action than the word עשׂה (asa – do, make, fashion or produce) used in Exodus 20:11 where God says that he made the heavens and earth in six days.
Bara and asa are for the most part synonymous with one important distinction between them: bara is used only of God’s actions and never of man’s. There are countless examples of where man can asa (do or make); however, only God can bara. There is by implication creation ex nihilo, but the major thrust of the word bara lies in its use by God only and on the initiation of something new. The TWOT notes concerning asa and its distinction from bara: “The word bara’ carries the thought of the initiation of the object involved. It always connotes what only God can do and frequently emphasizes the absolute newness of the object created. The word ‘asa is much broader in scope…“’asa may simply connote the act of fashioning the objects involved in the whole creative process.” (TWOT: 1708 asa)
As the TWOT notes, the use of asa is a broader term than bara, but we see from the context in which the words are used that they can be used interchangeably to a large extent. Perhaps the best example is Isaiah 45:18 where the three words that are used, create, form and make all describe the same event – God’s creation of the heavens and earth. “…who created (bore בורא) the heavens, who is God, who formed (yotzer יוצר) the earth and made (oseh עושׂה) it, who has established it, who did not create (braha בראה) it in vain, who formed (yatzarah יצרה) it to be inhabited…” (Isa 45:18)
This verse is incredibly specific in regards to the creation of the earth. First of all, God declares that He is the one who created (bore בורא) the heavens – which could also be translated asof the heavens. Next He says that He is the former (yotzer יוצר) and the maker (asah עושׂה) of the earth, a seeming confirmation of the supposed distinction of bara and asa. However, God continues by saying that He created it, where the word it, is the third person singular feminine possessive suffix (the word it is attached to the word created). The word it must refer to earth because the earth is a singular feminine noun and heavens is a dual masculine noun. Clearly and unmistakably God declares that He created, formed, and made the earth. Thus, to suggest that Exodus 20:11 (“For in six days the LORD made [asa] the heavens and the earth…”) is not parallel in thought to Gen 1 is to ignore the evidence in favor of one’s own theory.
The matter God created in Gen 1:1 was still in no particular shape or form: “The earth was without form, and void (תהו ובהו tohu vavohu)” (Gen 1:2a) There was no planet earth as we know it today, but the raw material that God had created (according to Gen 1:2b) was still in no special shape. It was still unformed and unorganized. These words do not in any way suggest that there had been an earlier creation, as proposed by the Gap Theory. They do not suggest that the earth was a wasteland waiting to be recreated. The word tohu in Gen 1:2, according to the TWOT: “Refers not to the result of a supposed catastrophe…but to the formlessness of the earth before God’s creative hand began the majestic acts described in the following verses.” (TWOT Tohu)
Furthermore, the text says that the earth “was without form and void” and not “became without form, and void” as the Gap Theorists argue. (See also: Fields 1978:58). The Hebrew והארץ היתה vehaaretz hayta is what is known grammatically as a copulative clause. (See Kautszch and Cowley 1910:484) The Hebrew letter vav (or waw) attached to the noun (the earth) acts as a type of parenthetical statement (See: Joüon, P., & T. Muraoka 2005) that is to suggest a reading: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Now the earth was without form, and void.)” Thus the earth was desolate and void (tohu vavohu) at the very beginning of God’s creation and did not become (per the Gap Theory) as a result of God recreating it.
Genesis 2:5 – 2:7
A casual reading of Genesis 2:5 to 2:7 “Before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown…there was no man to till the ground…” in English it appears to critics to indicate that man was created before plants and shrubs. Is this referring to all of the vegetation on the entire planet or is it more defined? The vegetation referred to is designated by the word field, which appears twice in the text. שׂיח השׂדה (siach hasadeh) plant of the field and עשׂב השׂדה (esev hasadeh) herb of the field are the technical terms that we must not overlook. Both of them are in the construct state, which simply means that two nouns are considered one unit. It is very similar in English where bicycle tire is not referring to bicycle and tire, but a type of tire, that is, the tire of a bicycle. So too, we could just as well translate these as field plant and field herb – two specific items. Keil & Delitzsch clarify that the planting of the garden, not the creation of the plants, is what is being referred to:
The growing of the shrubs and sprouting of the herbs is different from the creation or first production of the vegetable kingdom, and relates to the growing and sprouting of the plants and germs which were called into existence by the creation… שׂדה [sadeh] is not ‘the widespread plain of the earth, the broad expanse of land,’ but a field of arable land, soil fit for cultivation, which forms only a part of the “earth” or “ground.” Keil & Delitzsch 1866: Gen 2:5-2:7)
Genesis 2:19 is frequently considered to be a contradiction to chapter one since it would seem God first formed Adam and then the animals “God formed every beast…and brought them to Adam…” (Gen 2:19) The Hebrew word formed (ויצר vayitzer) is in the past tense. This form, however, can potentially express a simple past tense and the past of the past, known grammatically as the past perfect (see: Buth: 1994 and C. John Collins 1995; ESV, NRS use this form as well). The past perfect is used to express any action that happened prior to another, both occurring in the past. For example, Johnny had eaten three hamburgers before he ordered dessert. The past perfect, had eaten was finished before the action of ordering. Thus the word vayitzer can signify either the simple past or past perfect and formed could just as well have been translated as had formed. (See Pipa: 1998) The Hebrew supports either which would then yield a plausible translation, “Out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field…and brought them to Adam…” The use of the past perfect here, grammatically speaking, clears up the order of creation events perfectly: God first created the animals, then created man and then brought the animals that He had created to man.