Genesis 1:1 Commentary - Commentary Series on the Bible by Peter Pett
‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’
“In the beginning”. This phrase is signifying the beginning of existence as we know it, the beginning of our universe. The writer is considering the beginning as it relates to man. It does not refer to the creation of God, Who has no beginning, nor necessarily to the creation of the angelic or spiritual world which is outside the scope of the universe as we know it. This was the point at which God began His exercise of creation of the world which would lead to the creation of man. Thus it is not the beginning of all things, but of all things physical, of all things as far as man was concerned.
That the ‘heavenly world’ was already in existence comes out later in that God speaks to them in Gen 1:26; Gen 3:22, and calls on the cherubim in Gen 3:24. God did, of course, create that heavenly world too, and we may read it into the words ‘created the heavens’. The writer certainly did believe that all things that are were created by God. But that is a spiritual world, not a physical one, and not prominently in mind here. Here action is concentrated on the earth and its environs. But in the end it is indicating that all things came from God.
“God” - the word is ‘ elohim ’ which is in the plural signifying three or more. It is the plural of El (or strictly eloah, which in the Bible is used in poetry), the Hebrew and Canaanite word for a divine or supernatural being. It can also be used of supernatural beings such as angels or other world beings (e.g. 1Sa 28:13) or of the ‘gods’ of other nations, but there it is used with a plural verb. The plural here, however, which is used with a singular verb, is intensive indicating that God is greater than the norm. He is complex and great beyond description. The writer did not however think in terms of a trinity (as shown by its use with a singular verb), although we may see that as nascent within it.
“Created” - the word is ‘ bara ’. It is never used in connection with creative material, and there is no suggestion in the account of any such material. In this form (qal) it is only ever used of the divine workmanship, and always indicates the production of something new. It never has an accusative of material. While it is not directly stated it thus implies creation from nothing, but that is not its main emphasis. Its main emphasis is the sovereign activity of God. It is used three times in this account, - of the first creation of the ‘world stuff’, of the creation of animal life and of the creation of man ‘in the image of God’. These were seen as three unique beginnings, where what was added was totally new and not obtained from what already existed. But the stress is on the fact that they were created by God.
God first creates the ‘stuff’ of the Universe, ‘the heavens and the earth. From then on He will act upon the earth and adjust it and shape it so that it produces a world suitable for life, bringing in the activity of the heavens in the fourth day. Then He will create life. Until the creation of life all will be produced from what was first created. We note here that light precedes life. Without light there could be no life. This idea will later be taken up by the Apostle John and spiritualised (Joh 1:1-18).
“The heavens and the earth” - this is probably not to be seen as including ‘the heaven of heavens’ (1Ki 8:27; Neh 9:6) or the ‘third heaven’ (2Co 12:2), which are spiritual realms, but has in mind the heavens in relation to the earth, the whole physical cosmos (see on 2:1). The writer is not speculating on questions that we would like to know the answer to, such as the creation of supernatural beings, he is considering God’s preparation for the creation of man.
As the Psalmist says, ‘by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all their host by the breath of His mouth’ (Psa 33:6). These are the physical heavens whose formation is later described. The spiritual heavens are referred to indirectly in Gen 1:26.
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Commentary Series on the Bible by Peter Pett
Dr. Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD is a retired Baptist minister and college lecturer. He holds a BD (good honours) from King's College London and was trained at what is now the London School of Theology (formerly London Bible College).