Genesis 1:1 Commentary - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)
(1) In the beginning.—Not, as in Joh. 1:1, “from eternity,” but in the beginning of this sidereal system, of which our sun, with its attendant planets, forms a part. As there never was a time when God did not exist, and as activity is an essential part of His being (Joh. 5:17), so, probably, there was never a time when worlds did not exist; and in the process of calling them into existence when and how He willed, we may well believe that God acted in accordance with the working of some universal law, of which He is Himself the author. It was natural with St. John, when placing the same words at the commencement of his Gospel, to carry back our minds to a more absolute conceivable “beginning,” when the work of creation had not commenced, and when in the whole universe there was only God.
God.—Heb., Elohim. A word plural in form, but joined with a verb singular, except when it refers to the false gods of the heathen, in which case it takes a verb plural. Its root-meaning is strength, power; and the form Elohim is not to be regarded as a pluralis majestatis, but as embodying the effort of early human thought in feeling after the Deity, and in arriving at the conclusion that the Deity was One. Thus, in the name Elohim it included in one Person all the powers, mights, and influences by which the world was first created and is now governed and maintained. In the Vedas, in the hymns recovered for us by the decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions, whether Accadian or Semitic, and in all other ancient religious poetry, we find these powers ascribed to different beings; in the Bible alone Elohim is one. Christians may also well see in this a foreshadowing of the plurality of persons in the Divine Trinity; but its primary lesson is that, however diverse may seem the working of the powers of nature, the Worker is one and His work one.
Created.—Creation, in its strict sense of producing something out of nothing, contains an idea so noble and elevated that naturally human language could only gradually rise up to it. It is quite possible, therefore, that the word bârâ, “he created,” may originally have signified to hew stone or fell timber; but as a matter of fact it is a rare word, and employed chiefly or entirely in connection with the activity of God. As, moreover, “the heaven and the earth” can only mean the totality of all existent things, the idea of creating them out of nothing is contained in the very form of the sentence. Even in Gen. 1:21; Gen. 1:27, where the word may signify something less than creation ex nihilo, there is nevertheless a passage from inert matter to animate life, for which science knows no force, or process, or energy capable of its accomplishment.
The heaven and the earth.—The normal phrase in the Bible for the universe (Deu. 32:1; Psa. 148:13; Isaiah 2). To the Hebrew this consisted of our one planet and the atmosphere surrounding it, in which he beheld the sun, moon, and stars. But it is one of the more than human qualities of the language of the Holy Scriptures that, while written by men whose knowledge was in accordance with their times, it does not contradict the increased knowledge of later times. Contemporaneous with the creation of the earth was the calling into existence, not merely perhaps of our solar system, but of that sidereal universe of which we form so small a part; but naturally in the Bible our attention is confined to that which chiefly concerns ourselves.
EXCURSUS B: ON THE NAMES ELOHIM AND JEHOVAH-ELOHIM.
Throughout the first account of creation (Gen. 1:1 to Gen. 2:3) the Deity is simply called Elohim. This word is strictly a plural of Eloah, which is used as the name of God only in poetry, or in late books like those of Nehemiah and Daniel. It is there an Aramaism, God in Syriac being Aloho, in Ohaldee Ellah, and in Arabic Allahu—all of which are merely dialectic varieties of the Hebrew Eloah, and are used constantly in the singular number. In poetry EJoah is sometimes employed with great emphasis, as, for instance, in Psa. 18:31 : “Who is Eloah except Jehovah?” But while thus the sister dialects used the singular both in poetry and prose, the Hebrews used the plural Elohim as the ordinary name of God, the difference being that to the one God was simply power, strength (the root-meaning of Eloah); to the other He was the union of all powers, the Almighty. The plural thus intensified the idea of the majesty and greatness of God; but besides this, it was the germ of the doctrine of a plurality of persons in the Divine unity.
In the second narrative (Gen. 2:4 to Gen. 3:24), which is an account of the fall of man, with only such introductory matter regarding creation as was necessary for making the history complete, the Deity is styled Jehovah-Elohim. The spelling of the word Jehovah is debatable, as only the consonants ( J, h, v, h) are certain, the vowels being those of the word Adonai (Lord) substituted for it by the Jews when reading it in the synagogue, the first vowel being a mere apology for a sound, and pronounced a or e, according to the nature of the consonant to which it is attached. It is generally represented now by a light breathing, thus—Y’hovah, ‘donai. As regards the spelling, Ewald, Gesenius, and others argue for Yahveh; Fürst for Yehveh, or Yeheveh; and Stier, Meyer, &c, for Yehovah. The former has the analogy of several other proper names in its favour; the second the authority of Exo. 3:14; the last, those numerous names like Yehoshaphat, where the word is written Yeho. At the end of proper names the form it takes is Yahu, whence also Yah. We ought also to notice that the first consonant is really y; but two or three centuries ago j seems to have had the sound which we give to y now, as is still the case in German.
But this is not a matter of mere pronunciation; there is a difference of meaning as well. Yahveh signifies “He who brings into existence;” Yehveh “He who shall be, or shall become;” what Jehovah may signify I do not know. We must further notice that the name is undoubtedly earlier than the time of Moses. At the date of the Exodus the v of the verb had been changed into y. Thus, in Exo. 3:14, the name of God is Ehyeh, “I shall become,” not Ehveh. Had the name, therefore, come into existence in the days of Moses, it would have been Yahyeh, Yehyeh, or Yehoyah, not Yahveh, &c.
The next fact is that the union of these two names—Jehovah-Elohim—is very unusual. In this short narrative it occurs twenty times, in the rest of the Pentateuch only once (Exo. 9:30); in the whole remainder of the Bible about nine times. Once, moreover, in Psa. 1:1, there is the reversed form, Elohim-Jehovah. There must, therefore, be some reason why in this narrative this peculiar junction of the two names is so predominant.
The usual answer is that in this section God appears in covenant with man, whereas in Gen. 1:1 to Gen. 2:3 He was the Creator, the God of nature and not of grace, having, indeed, a closer relation to man, as being the most perfect of His creatures (Gen. 1:26), but a relation different only in degree and not in kind. This is true, but insufficient; nor does it explain how Jehovah became the covenant name of God, and Elohim His generic title. Whatever be the right answer, we must expect to find it in the narrative itself. The facts are so remarkable, and the connection of the name Jehovah with this section so intimate, that if Holy Scripture is to command the assent of our reason we must expect to find the explanation of such peculiarities in the section wherein they occur.
What, then, do we find? We find this. The first section gives us the history of man’s formation, with the solemn verdict that he was very good. Nature without man was simply good; with man, creation had reached its goal. In this, the succeeding section, man ceases to be very good. He is represented in it as the object of his Maker’s special care, and, above all, as one put under law. Inferior creatures work by instinct, that is, practically by compulsion, and in subjection to rules and forces which control them. Man, as a free agent, attains a higher rank. He is put under law, with the power of obeying or disobeying it. God, who is the infinitely high and self-contained, works also by law, but it comes from within, from the perfectness of His own nature, and not from without, as must be the case with an imperfect being like man, whose duty is to strive after that which is better and more perfect. Add that, even in the first section, man was described as created “in God’s image, after His likeness.” But as law is essential to God’s nature—for without it He would be the author of confusion—so is it to man’s. But as this likeness is a gift conferred upon him, and not inherent, the law must come with the gift, from outside, and not from himself; and it can come only from God. Thus, then, man was necessarily, by the terms of his creation, made subject to law, and without it there could have been no progress upward. But he broke the law, and fell. Was he, then, to remain for ever a fallen being, hiding himself away from his Maker, and with the bonds of duty and love, which erewhile bound him to his Creator, broken irremediably? No. God is love; and the purpose of this narrative is not so much to give us the history of man’s fall as to show that a means of restoration had been appointed. Scarcely has the breach been made I before One steps in to fill it. The breach had been caused by a subtle foe, who had beguiled our first parents in the simplicity of their innocence; but in the very hour of their condemnation they are promised an avenger, who, after a struggle, shall crush the head of their enemy (Gen. 3:15).
Now this name, Y-h-v-h, in its simplest form Yehveh, means “He shall be,” or “shall become.” With the substitution of y for v, according to a change which had taken place generally in the Hebrew language, this is the actual spelling which we find in Exo. 3:14 : namely, Ehyeh ‘sher Èhyeh, “I shall be that I shall be.” Now, in the New Testament we find that the received name for the Messiah was “the coming One” (Mat. 21:9; Mat. 23:39; Mar. 11:9; Luk. 7:19-20; Luk. 13:35; Luk. 19:38; Joh. 1:15; Joh. 1:27; Joh. 3:31; Joh. 6:14; Joh. 11:27; Joh. 12:13; Act. 19:4; Heb. 10:37); and in the Revelation of St. John the name of the Triune God is, “He who is and who was, and the coming One” (Gen. 1:4; Gen. 1:8; Gen. 11:17). But St. Paul tells us of a notable change in the language of the early Christians. Their solemn formula was Maran-atha, “Our Lord is come” (1Co. 16:22). The Deliverer was no longer future, no longer “He who shall become,” nor “He who shall be what He shall be.” It is not now an indefinite hope: no longer the sighing of the creature waiting for the manifestation of Him who shall crush the head of his enemy. The faint ray of light which dawned in Gen. 3:15 has become the risen Sun of Righteousness; the Jehovah of the Old Testament has become the Jesus of the New, of whom the Church joyfully exclaims, “We praise Thee as God: we acknowledge Thee to be Jehovah.”
But whence arose this name Jehovah? Distinctly from the words of Eve, so miserably disappointed in their primary application: “I have gotten a man, even Jehovah,” or Yehveh (Genesis 41). She, poor fallen creature, did not know the meaning of the words she uttered, but she had believed the promise, and for her faith’s sake the spirit of prophecy rested upon her, and she gave him on whom her hopes were fixed the title which was to grow and swell onward till all inspired truth gathered round it and into it; and at length Elohim, the Almighty, set to it His seal by calling Himself “I shall be that I shall be” (Exo. 3:14). Eve’s word is simply the third person of the verb of which Ehyeh is the first, and the correct translation of her speech is, “I have gotten a man, even he that shall be,” or “the future one.” But when God called Himself by this appellation, the word, so indefinite in her mouth, became the personal name of Israel’s covenant God.
Thus, then, in this title of the Deity, formed from the verb of existence in what is known as the future or indefinite tense, we have the symbol of that onward longing look for the return of the golden age, or age of paradise, which elsewhere in the Bible is described as the reign of the Branch that shall grow out of Jesse’s root (Isa. 11:4-9). The hope was at first dim, distant, indistinct, but it was the foundation of all that was to follow. Prophets and psalmists were to tend and foster that hope, and make it clear and definite. But the germ of all their teaching was contained in that mystic four-lettered word, the tetragrammaton, Y-h-v-h. The name may have been popularly called Yahveh, though of this we have no proof; the Jews certainly understood by it Yehveh—“the coming One.” After all, these vowels are not of so much importance as the fact that the name has the pre-formative yod. The force of this letter prefixed to the root form of a Hebrew verb is to give it a future or indefinite sense; and I can find nothing whatsoever to justify the Assertion that Jehovah—to adopt the ordinary spelling—means “the existent One,” and still less to attach to it a causal force, and explain it as signifying “He who calls into being.”
Finally, the pre-Mosaical form of the name is most instructive, as showing that the expectation of the Messiah was older than the time of the Exodus. The name is really man’s answer to and acceptance of the promise made to him in Gen. 3:15; and why should not Eve, to whom the assurance was given, be the first to profess her faith in it? But in this section, in which the name occurs twenty times in the course of forty-six verses, there is a far deeper truth than Eve supposed. Jehovah (Yehveh) is simply “the coming One,” and Eve probably attached no very definite idea to the words she was led to use. But here He is called Jehovah-Elohim, and the double name teaches us that the coming One, the future deliverer, is God, the very Elohim who at first created man. The unity, therefore, and connection between these two narratives is of the closest kind: and the prefixing in this second section of Jehovah to Elohim, the Creator’s name in the first section, was the laying of the foundation stone for the doctrine that man’s promised Saviour, though the woman’s seed, was an Emmanuel, God as well as man.
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Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)
Charles John Ellicott (1819 - 1905) was a distinguished English Christian theologian, academic and churchman. He briefly served as Dean of Exeter, then Bishop of the united see of Gloucester and Bristol.
His works include:
- An Old Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1897. (Editor)
- A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1878.