What Happened on the First Day of Creation? A Study of Genesis 1:1-1:2

The First Day of Creation

The glory of the Bible is that, unlike the writings of other ancient nations which demonstrated a belief that water was the primal material before the existence of any gods, it claims that God was in the beginning and that He created all that is.  Both the Gap theory and a relatively new theory, which posits that the six-day-creation-clock didn’t really start ticking until God uttered the words “Let there be light” in verse three, suggest that the first day didn’t start in verse one but in either verse two or verse three, respectively.  Let us simply analyze, biblically and linguistically, the full range of the key Hebrew words in Genesis 1:1–2 and see what they mean and if they support the idea that a time gap exists in those verses.  (English words for which the Hebrew equivalent is given are italicized.)

 

In the beginning God created (ברא bara) the heavens and the earth (את השׁמים ואת הארץ et hashayim ve’et ha’aretz).  The earth was without form, and void (ובהו תהו tohu vavohu); and darkness was on the face of the deep (תהום tehom). And the Spirit of God was hovering (מרחפת merachefet) over the face of the waters (המים על־פני al pnei hamayim).

 

Bara and Asa

 

The first key word isברא  created (bara) which is used a total of 53 times in the Old Testament.  The basic and majority times used form of the word, which is used in Genesis 1, has the general meaning of create, shape or form.  It has been suggested that the word bara used here in Genesis 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 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) notes concerning asa and its distinction from bara:

 

The word [asa] occurs with great frequency in the Genesis account of creation, which is the first great act of God in history. The significant interchange between the words bara’ “create” and ‘asa is of great interest. 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, connoting primarily the fashioning of the object with little concern for special nuances.

 

The use of bara’ in the opening statement of the account of creation seems to carry the implication that the physical phenomena came into existence at that time and had no previous existence in the form in which they were created by divine fiat. The use of ‘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 God is disparaging those who put their trust in idols rather than in Him, the true God and Creator of all.  Notice that the three words that are used, create, form and make all describe the same event – the creation of the heavens and earth.

 

For thus says the LORD,

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:

“I am the LORD, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:18)

 

This verse is incredibly specific, especially 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 as Creator of 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.  Put simply, it means that 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, the sea, and all that is in them…”) is not parallel in thought to Genesis 1 is to ignore the evidence in favor of one’s own theory.

 

The Heavens and Earth

 

Thus far verse one has told us the when of creation – in the beginning, and then the how – God created something completely new (bara), which only God can do.  Now we are up to the what, which is of course: the heavens and the earth.  The question before us is understanding what precisely that means since immediately in verse two we are told that the earth was formless and void (תהו ובהו tohu vavohu); the earth must have not been fully complete.  Thus, just what did He create?  What are we to understand by the heavens and the earth?  Did He create them complete or could that term be understood as the material that He would later form, as if He first created the clay and then worked it into a suitable form?

 

The answer to this enigma lies in the fact that there is no single word for universe in Hebrew, which is confirmed by the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “The Hebrews had no proper word for ‘world’ in its wide sense of ‘universe.’ The nearest approach to such a meaning is in the phrase ‘the heavens and the earth.’”[i]  Thus, stating that God created the heavens and the earth is equivalent in our day to saying that He created the universe; it encompasses all that is.[ii]  Bible commentators Keil and Delitzsch note the significance of the first creative act found in the Bible:

 

[…] there is nothing belonging to the composition of the universe, either in material or form, which had an existence out of God prior to this divine act in the beginning (Keil & Delitzsch Genesis 1:2).

 

That is to say, God essentially created the building blocks before beginning construction.  The term the heavens and the earth here might be thought of as the raw material, the elements that God created out of nothing that He would form and fashion later to His liking.  Consider that before God created anything, there was only God.  There was no universe, no vacuum of space, nothing whatsoever.  There was only God.  Thus as part of His creative act, He had to create a dimension that was apart from Him – in which He could further manipulate and form the basic elements according to His will.  Keil & Delitzsch again comment:

 

This is also shown in the connection between our verse and the one which follows: “and the earth was without form and void,” not before, but when, or after God created it. From this it is evident that the void and formless state of the earth was not uncreated, or without beginning. At the same time it is obvious from the creative acts which follow (vv. 3-18), that 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: Genesis 1:1)

 

Tohu Vavohu

 

“The earth was without form, and void (תהו ובהו tohu vavohu)” (Genesis 1:2a)

 

Verse two tells us that the matter God created was still in no particular shape or form.  There was no planet earth as we know it today, but the raw material that God had created, (according to Genesis 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 Genesis 1:2, according to the TWOT,

 

refers not to the result of a supposed catastrophe (for which there is no clear biblical evidence) but to the formlessness of the earth before God’s creative hand began the majestic acts described in the following verses. As Jeremiah 4:23 indicates, the earth always has the potential of returning to tohu wabohu if God decides to judge it. (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.[iii]  The Hebrew והארץ היתה vehaaretz hayta is what is known grammatically as a copulative clause.[iv]  The Hebrew letter vav (or waw) attached to the noun (the earth) acts as a type of parenthetical[v] statement 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 as a result of God recreating it.

 

Tehom, the Deep

 

The rest of verse 2 seems to indicate that the creation of the heavens and the earth was water.  That is to say, that all of the matter of the universe was comprised of water and that water was formless.

 

…and darkness was on the face of the deep (תהוםtehom). And the Spirit of God was hovering (מרחפת merachefet) over the face of the waters (על־פני המים al panei hamayim). (Genesis 1:2b)

 

The apostle Peter comments on the creation of the world from water, “…that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water” (2 Peter 3:5)

 

It is also interesting to note that several ancient creation myths (cosmologies) had water as the original and eternal substance from which gods subsequently emerged.[vi]  The Bible, of course, demonstrates the superiority of God over His creation since He is the one who made the waters, and not the one emerging from the waters.  These ancient myths, I believe, are a distorted memory of the true creation account in which water was the first substance God created.

 

Tehom accurately describes well the water that was there in the beginning.  It is best translated as deep, depths, or abyss.  According to A. S. Yahuda, a word similar to tehom appears in the ancient language of Akkadian, which has a very similar meaning, thus helping us to better understand its use in the Bible:

 

[…] [tamtu] is conceived in its primordial condition as […] the primeval water as a sea, an ocean, before the earth was created by the heaping up of mud on the shore of this tamtu. (Yahuda 1933: 128)

Physicist Dr. Russel Humphreys, in his book, Starlight and Time, describes his theory based on the observations of this verse, how water might have then been transformed into the other known elements, “…this verse suggested to me that the original material God created, the deep, was pure water, which He then transformed into other materials”[vii] (Humphreys 2004: 72).

 

Merachefet, God’s Energizing of His Creation

 

The last word to analyze is מרחפת (merachefet): “And the Spirit of God was hovering (מרחפת merachefetover the face of the waters (על־פני המים al panei hamayim).” (Genesis 1:2b) The word is also found also in Deuteronomy 32:11[viii] and denotes the fluttering, hovering, or brooding motion of a bird over its nest.

 

As an eagle stirs up its nest,

Hovers (מרחפת merachefet) over its young,

Spreading out its wings, taking them up,

Carrying them on its wings, (Deuteronomy 32:11)


The purpose of the act of brooding by a bird over its nest is to provide warmth and nurturing to its young.  The movement is that of the bird gently shaking and moving its body in fairly small motions.  It also contains the idea of the bird covering its young with its wings, enveloping them in order to bring them to maturity.[ix]

 

It seems that at this point God began to energize the raw material that He made in verse 1.  The oscillation on the face (or surface) of the deep, which is really what the hovering could be compared to, created the movement of the inert elements.  It is interesting that all matter and energy at their core are simply wavelengths; “matter acts as both a particle and as a wave” (Koehler 1996).

 

We saw above that the Hebrew letter vav attached to the front of the word hayta (was) created a type of parenthetical statement.   The fact that מרחפת (merachefet) is a transitive participle substantiates that verse 2 is not a new thought or even the first act of God but a clarification of what came before it in verse 1.

 

God Speaks

 

The sequence of events is that the first thing that God did was to create the heavens (space) and the earth (material) – that is, He created a place or dimension outside of Himself and then the matter to work with, which we are told was without form and empty.  Then God, hovering over the face of the deep, decreed light to exist.  These are the first recorded words of God, but in fact, the third creative act.

 

This view can be strongly defended from the Hebrew grammar.  The typical sequence of a narrative is to start with a verb in the simple past tense[x] (Genesis 1:1 begins with bara – created in the simple past tense) thereby signifying something new or dramatic to the story.   Verse 2 we saw 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[xi].  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.  Hebrew expert Dr. 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 Genesis 1 uses the sequential past tense.  Consequently, according to the grammar, there is no break between verse 1 and the rest of the chapter.

 

Thus, there is no reason to try to place millions 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, nor was there a previous world that fell only to be recreated, nor was there even a geologic creation some billions of years earlier.  The first three verses of Genesis 1, the first day, all occurred within 24 hours just like the rest of the days as we shall see.


[i] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia “World”

[ii] This is not to overlook the speculation that there may be parallel universes.  However, by definition the word universe should encompass all that exists in the dimension of time and space.

[iii] For further discussion see: Weston W. Fields, (1976) Unformed and Unfilled p. 58.

[iv] For a further discussion on the copulative clause see: Kautzsch and Cowley, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, p. 484, section 154a, footnote 1.

[v] Joüon, P., & T. Muraoka, (2003; 2005: electronic version, Logos Software) note the use of the copulative clause (also known as the vav explicativum):

On the other hand, a nominal or verbal clause with Waw forms a sort of parenthesis and precedes the main clause as in Gn 13.2 ואברהם כָּבֵד מאד now Abraham was very rich … ; 24.16 now the young girl was very beautiful…; Jon 3.3 now Nineveh was an enormous city; Gn 48.10 וְעֵינֵי ישׂראל כָּֽבְדוּ מִ ֫זֹּקֶן now the eyes of Israel were heavy because of old age; Josh 4.10 “whilst the priests … stood (עֹמְדִים) in the middle of the Jordan … the people hurriedly crossed over (וַיְמַהֲרוּ וַיַּעֲבֹ֫רוּ).” This same type of clause is also found used in an independent fashion: 1Kg 1.1 (at the very beginning of a narrative) now King David was old, advanced in age; Gn 37.3 now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons.

[vi] “In almost all primitive creation stories in Egypt, the eternal substance that existed in the beginning and whose origin is not explained is water, the primeval ocean, Nun.”  (Redford 1992: 398)

[vii] See Humphreys 2000: Appendix C, section 15 for a detailed, mathematical explanation of the physics involved.

He also notes that he based “a theory about the origin of the planetary magnetic fields on the possibility that the earth and other bodies in the solar system were originally created as pure water” (Humphreys 2004: 73).  He remarks that his theory has been extremely successful in predicting measurements of the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune.

[viii] The word is in the Pa’al form in Jeremiah 23:9.

[ix]Keil and Delitzsch confirm this “The creative Spirit of God, the principle of all life (Psalm 33:6; Psalm 104:30), which worked upon the formless, lifeless mass, separating, quickening, and preparing the living forms, which were called into being by the creative words that followed. רחף in the Piel is applied to the hovering and brooding of a bird over its young, to warm them, and develop their vital powers (Deuteronomy 32:11). In such a way as this the Spirit of God moved upon the deep, which had received at its creation the germs of all life, to fill them with vital energy by His breath of life.” (K&D 1866 Genesis 1:2)

[x] Dr. Randall Buth notes “in telling stories, the past tense is used with a special word order to grammatically signal events as a break in the flow of the story.  It marks a discontinuity.  That is, something is put in front of the verb […]  This is done when the author wants to break the time flow of the story, or when the author wants to mark a boundary of unity […]”  (Buth 2005:52).   There could be no better way to indicate that Genesis 1:1 is an absolutely new and dramatic event than by using the simple past tense (also commonly referred to as the perfect or qatal tense).

[xi] This is commonly known in Hebrew grammar as the vayyiqtol tense.