Genesis 1:2 Commentary - Expository Notes of Dr. Constable (Old and New Testaments)
2. Conditions at the time of creation 1:2
Gen 1:2 probably describes what we now call the earth before God created it. Here "earth" refers to the whole planet, though the same English word also refers to the earth and the heavens (when combined with "heaven," Gen 1:1), and to dry land (Gen 1:10).
". . . no clear biblical text testifies to the origins of chaos or of the Serpent, nor to the reason for their existence." [Note: Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 181.]
"Deep" (tahom) describes the world. In the Old Testament tahom refers to the ocean, which the ancient world regarded as symbolic of chaos and evil that needed overcoming and which Yahweh overcame. However its use in the Pentateuch helps us understand the writer’s intent in using this term here.
". . . he calls the global ocean (the ’deep’) in Gen 1:2 a ’desert.’ This is not apparent in the English translation ’formless,’ but the NASB notes it in the margin as a ’wasteland.’ . . . Moses uses this term (Deu 32:10) to describe the desert wasteland where Israel wandered for forty years. Why call an ocean a desert? What better way to teach the people that the God who will lead them out of the wilderness and give them the promised land is the same God who once prepared the land for them by dividing the waters and producing the ’dry land’? The God of the Pentateuch is One who leads his people from the wasteland to the promised land." [Note: Sailhamer, "Exegetical Notes . . .," pp. 80-81.]
Some scholars believe that references to the Spirit of God in the Old Testament indicate the power or influence of God, not the third person of the Trinity. Some conservative scholars believe that, though the Spirit was really the third person of the Trinity, people living during the Old Testament period did not associate the Spirit with God Himself. They thought of the Spirit as a power or influence of God. However there are several indications in the Old Testament that informed Israelites identified the Spirit as God (cf. Gen 1:2; 2Ki 2:9; Psa 104:30; Eze 3:12-14; Eze 11:1; Zec 4:6). [Note: See Leon J. Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, and idem, The Prophets of Israel, pp. 85-87.]
"Waters" is also capable of being interpreted the same way as "deep." It probably refers to what covered the earth, but it also suggests chaos.
Here we learn that the earth was "formless and empty" (a hendiadys meaning unorganized, unproductive, and uninhabited) before God graciously prepared it for human habitation (cf. Jer 4:23-27). A hendiadys is a figure of speech in which the writer expresses a single complex idea by joining two substantives with "and" rather than by using an adjective and a substantive.
Moses pictured the Spirit as a wind-the words are identical in Hebrew-moving over the unorganized creation. As God did His work of creating by means of His Spirit, so believers are to do our work by His Spirit (Zec 4:6; Romans 8; Eph 5:18).
"Hitherto all is static, lifeless, immobile. Motion, which is the essential element in change, originates with God’s dynamic presence." [Note: Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis, p. 7.]
Gen 1:2 seems to me to describe conditions that existed before God created the earth. Whereas Gen 1:1 explains the creation of the universe, Gen 1:2 pictures its pre-creation condition. Gen 1:3-31 explain the process of creation by which God formed what was formless and filled what was void.
There are two basic theories of the creation process that have grown out of interpretations of Gen 1:2.
The gap theory
Statement: The classic statement of this theory contains the following ideas, though there have been many variations on this theory.
2. Gen 1:1 reveals the creation of a perfect heaven and earth very different from what we see around us now.
3. A preadamic race of humans inhabited this original creation.
4. Lucifer (unfallen Satan), whose "headquarters" was in the Garden of Eden, ruled over this race of people.
5. When Lucifer rebelled-many advocates see this in Isaiah 14 and or Ezekiel 28 -sin entered the world.
6. Part of God’s judgment of this rebellion was the destruction of the earth with a flood (in Noah’s day) followed by a global ice age, which accounts for the fossils. [Note: For a creationist explanation of the ice ages, see Ken Ham, Andrew Snelling, and Carl Wieland, The Answers Book, pp. 12-13, 77-87.]
History: This is a very old theory that certain early Jewish writers and some church fathers held. Thomas Chalmers promoted it in 1814. [Note: See his Daily Scripture Readings, 1:1.] Chalmers’ purpose was to harmonize Scripture with Scripture, not Scripture with science. [Note: Waltke, Creation and . . ., p. 20.] Darwin’s Origin of Species first appeared in 1859, but Chalmers published his theory in 1814. Franz Delitzsch supported it in 1899. [Note: Franz Delitzsch, A System of Biblical Psychology, p. 74-76.] G. H. Pember’s book Earth’s Ancient Ages (1907) gave further impetus to this view. Many Christian geologists favored the view because they saw in it "an easy explanation for the fossil strata." [Note: John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, p. 92.] Harry Rimmer supported it [Note: Modern Science and the Genesis Record, 1941.] as did Arthur W. Pink. [Note: Gleanings in Genesis, 1922 ] L. S. Chafer held it [Note: Systematic Theology, 1947-48, 6:67.] but did not emphasize it. Arthur Custance is one writer who has defended it fairly recently. [Note: Without Form and Void, 1970.]
Arguments and Responses:
1. The first word in Gen 1:2 (Heb. waw, "and") is a conjunction that indicates consecutive occurrences. (This verbal form, by the way, is the basic characteristic of narrative in the Hebrew Bible. [Note: Longman and Dillard, p. 54.] ) It introduces something that happened after what precedes. Response. The verb tense and word order in this sentence do not permit this use of this conjunction (Gen 1:1-2). Rather here, as is normal, the conjunction indicates a break in the consecutive order of events and introduces a circumstantial (independent) clause (Gen 1:2) that describes something in a preceding clause (Gen 1:1). This is a waw disjunctive, not a waw consecutive. A better translation of the waw would be "now." In short, the Hebrew grammar does not support a chronological gap between Gen 1:1-2.
2. The verb (hayata, "was") can and should read "became." The translators have rendered it this way in many other places in the Old Testament. Response. This is a legitimate translation, but "became" is not always the best translation (cf. Jon 3:3; Zec 3:3). Here the translation should be "was."
3. The chaos (tohu wa bohu, "waste and void," perhaps another hendiadys) describes an evil condition (cf. Isa 24:1; Isa 45:18; Jer 4:23). Response. This is usually the case, but not always (cf. Deu 32:10; Job 6:18; Job 12:24; Job 26:7; Psa 107:40). It is not so here.
4. "Darkness" is a symbol of evil in Scripture (cf. 1Jn 1:5). This supports the badness of the condition that resulted from Satan’s rebellion. Response. This is true in some cases, but not always (cf. Psa 104:19-24). Furthermore evening was part of the days God declared good.
5. The two primary words for "create" (bara and asah used respectively in Gen 1:1 and Gen 1:25) refer to two different kinds of creativity. Bara usually refers to primary creative activity. Since Moses used bara in Gen 1:1 this was the original creation and not just a general description of the process that follows (in Gen 1:3-5 or Gen 1:3-31). If Gen 1:1 was a general description he would have used asah since some of what God created in the six days He formed out of previously existing material (e.g., man and woman). Response. These two words are not so distinct. For example, Moses used bara of the creation of man out of previously existing material (Gen 1:27), and he used asah of the whole creation as the primary creative activity of God (Exo 20:11). Furthermore, he used bara of the creation of some animals (Gen 1:21) and asah of the creation of other animals (Gen 1:25). The real difference between these two words is that Moses used bara only of divine activity, and he used asah of both divine and human activities. [Note: See Thomas J. Finley, "Dimensions of the Hebrew Word for ’Create’ (bara)," Bibliotheca Sacra 148:592 (October-December 1991):409-23.] Thus, bara and asah are very close together in meaning. We should not distinguish them on the basis of bara describing primary creative activity and asah referring to the reforming of previously existing material.
6. Adam was to "replenish" the earth (Gen 1:28, AV) implying a previous race. Response. The Hebrew word used means "fill," not "refill." Many modern English translations so render it.
Summary: Though many evangelicals still hold the gap theory, few Hebrew scholars do because the Hebrew grammar does not favor a chronologically sequential reading of Gen 1:1-2. Rather, Gen 1:2 in some way clarifies Gen 1:1. [Note: For a good explanation of the gap theory, as well as the atheistic evolution, theistic evolution, progressive creation, and fiat creation views, see James M. Boice, Genesis , 1:37-68. See also Henry M. Morris, "The Gap Theory," Creation Ex Nihilo 10:1 (December 1987-February 1988):35-37; and Ham, et al., pp. 16, 157-75.]
The no-gap theory
The crux of the Gen 1:2 interpretive problem lies in the identification of the chaos (tohu wa bohu, "formless and void") mentioned. There have been three primary views concerning the chaos referred to in this verse.
1. The chaos was a condition that resulted after God judged the earth that He had originally created good. [Note: Chalmers, Keil and Delitzsch, Pember, Scofield, Custance, et al., favored this interpretation.]
Explanation: Gen 1:1 refers to God’s original creation of the universe. Gen 1:2 is a reference to the form He gave it thereafter. Gen 1:3 refers to the beginning of the process of reforming the judged earth into the form in which we know it.
Vocabulary: We should translate the first word in the verse (waw) "and" or "then" (not preferable grammatically) and the verb (hayeta) "became" (possible but not preferable). We should interpret the chaos (tohu wa bohu) as an evil condition (not necessarily so).
2. The chaos was the condition that characterized the earth when God created it good. [Note: Luther; Young; Davis; Ross; J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, p. 29; Mark F. Rooker, "Genesis 1:1-3: Creation or Re-Creation?" Bibliotheca Sacra 149:595 (July-September 1992):316-23; and 596 (October-December 1992):411-27; Targum Neofiti; et al.; favored this view. See Gary Anderson, "The Interpretation of Genesis l:1 in the Targums," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52:1 (January 1990):23. The Targums are expanded translations of the Old Testament made during the Babylonian captivity in the Aramaic language.]
Explanation: Gen 1:1 states the creation of the universe as we know it, and it is a general statement of some kind. Gen 1:2 describes the earth at the time of its creation. Gen 1:3 describes God bringing order out of chaos, which continued through the six creative days.
Vocabulary: We should translate waw "now" (better) and hayeta "was" (also better). We should also take tohu wa bohu to mean either unformed or evil.
3. The chaos existed before God began creating the earth good. [Note: Bush; Waltke, Creation and . . .; idem, Genesis; Ross; Sailhamer, "Genesis;" et al.; advocated this view.]
Vocabulary: Advocates translate and interpret the key Hebrew words the same as in view 2.
". . . the disjuncture at Gen 1:2 is employed by the author to focus his creation account upon the land." [Note: Sailhamer, "Exegetical Notes . . .," p. 77.]
The more popular theory among evangelicals now is the no-gap theory in either one of the last two forms described above. Let me restate these last two views.
1. View 2 above: God created the earth in a formless and void state. He then proceeded to give it form and to fill it. [Note: Young, et al.]
"We would affirm that the first verse serves as a broad comprehensive statement of the fact of creation. Verse two describes the earth as it came from the hands of the Creator and as it existed at the time when God commanded the light to shine forth. The first recorded step in the process of fashioning the earth into the form in which it now appears was God’s remarkable utterance, ’Let there be light’ [Gen 1:3]." [Note: Ibid., p. 14.]
Problem: It seems unusual that God would create the earth formless and then form it. It seems more likely and consistent with His activity in Gen 1:3-31 that He would create it fully formed. [Note: Brevard S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, p. 30.]
Answer: The whole process of creation in Gen 1:3-31 is a movement from a more primitive to a more advanced stage of existence. I prefer this view.
2. View 3 above: Before God created the earth there was nothing where it now exists, and Gen 1:2 describes that nothingness. [Note: Waltke, et al.]
Answers: Gen 1:1 may be part of the first day of creation. Moses may have used these terms to describe, in terms that we can begin to understand (i.e., figurative terms), a condition that is entirely foreign and incomprehensible to us.
Consult other comments:
Expository Notes of Dr. Constable (Old and New Testaments)
Copyright 2012, Dr. Thomas Constable. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
Dr. Thomas Constable graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1960 and later graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Dr. Constable is the founder of Dallas Seminary’s Field Education department (1970) and the Center for Biblical Studies (1973), both of which he directed for many years before assuming other responsibilities. Today Dr. Constable maintains an active academic, pulpit supply, and conference-speaking ministry around the world. He has ministered in nearly three dozen countries and written commentaries on every book of the Bible. Dr. Constable also founded Plano Bible Chapel, pastored it for twelve years, and has served as one of its elders for over thirty years.