Genesis 1:1 Commentary - The Complete Pulpit Commentary
I. THAT this initial section is not history is apparent from the circumstance that the occurrences it describes belong to a period of time which antedates the dawn of history. That it is not science is evinced by the fact that, in some, at least, of its particulars, it refers to a condition of our globe concerning which even modern research has attained to no definite conclusions, while in all of them it claims to be regarded not as uttering the findings of reason, but as declaring the course of nature. That still less can it be myth must be obvious to any who will carefully contrast it with those heathen cosmogonies which it is said to resemble. Only the most absolute devotion to preconceived opinion can render one oblivious of its immense superiority, to them in respect of both simplicity of construction and sublimity of conception. The absurdities, puerilities, and monstrosities that abound in them are conspicuously absent from it. It alone ascends to the idea of a creation ex nihilo, and of a supreme Intelligence by whom that creation is effected. Unlike them, it is destitute of either local coloring or national peculiarity, being no more Jewish than it is Assyrian or Indian, Persian or Egyptian. The inspired original, of which heathen creation-stories are the corrupted traditions, it may be; impartial reason and honest criticism alike forbid its relegation to a common category with them. Since, then, it is neither history, nor science, nor mythology, it must be REVELATION; unless ill-deed it be regarded as either "the recorded intuition of the first man, handed down by tradition," a theory successfully demonstrated by Kurtz to be altogether inadequate, or the inductive speculation of some primitive cosmogonist, a solution of its genesis scarcely less satisfactory. To characterize it as a pious fraud, of post-Mosaic origin, written to uphold the Jewish week cycle and the institution of the Jewish sabbath, is not only to negative its inspiration, but to invalidate the Divine authority of the whole book, to which it serves as an introduction. Happily its inspiration is a much less violent supposition than its invention, and one which is susceptible of almost perfect demonstration. Rightly viewed, its inspiration is involved in the simpler question of its truthfulness. If the Mosaic cosmogony is true, it can only have been given by inspiration; and that it is true may be said to be, with rapidly augmenting emphasis, the verdict of science.
II. As to the precise manner in which it was imparted to its author, THE VISION THEORY of Kurtz, though declared by Kalisch to be "a complicated tissue of conjectures and assumptions utterly destitute of every, the faintest and remotest, Biblical foundation," is perhaps, with certain modifications, the best. Rejecting the idea of a series of creative tableaux without any solid substratum of actual fact, there is clearly nothing in the nature of the case to discredit the hypothesis that the far past may have been disclosed to the writer of this ancient document in the same fashion as we know the remote future was discovered to the later prophets. On the contrary, there is much in Scripture to warrant the assumption that, as Daniel heard "the speaking between the banks of the Ulai," and received dream-revelations of the four great world monarchies, and as John beheld visions and heard voices concerning the things which were shortly to come to pass, so the Jewish lawgiver, or the primitive Nabi to whom this revelation was imparted, may have beheld in sublime panorama the evolution of the light, the uplifting of the atmosphere, the parting of the waters, the placing of the orbs, the filling of the land, sea, and sky with life, while he listened with awestruck silence to the voices of Elohim, as they were uttered at the opening of each creative day. Something like this, Professor Lewis aptly remarks, appears necessary to explain the reception by the prophet's mind of those ineffable ideas of which previously he had no types or conceptions.
III. Though not poetical in the sense of being composed in ornate and figurative language, the present section may be truthfully described as rhythmical in structure, possessing an artificial and orderly arrangement, much obscured by its division in the English version into chapters and verses, which almost justifies its designation as The Primeval Song, or Hymn of Creation, with which may be compared the lyric poem in Psa 104:1-35; and the post-Exilian ode in Psa 136:1-26; in both of which a Hebrew bard recites the story of creation.
In the beginning, Bereshith, is neither "from eternity," as in Joh 1:1; nor "in wisdom" (Chaldee paraphrase), as if parallel with Pro 3:19 and Psa 104:24; nor "by Christ," who, in Col 1:18, is denominated ἀρχὴ; but "at the commencement of time." Without indicating when the beginning was, the expression intimates that the beginning was. Exo 20:11 seems to imply that this was the initiation of the first day's work. The formula, "And God said," with which each day opens, rather points to Exo 20:3 as its proper terminus a quo, which the beginning absolute may have antedated by an indefinite period. God Elohim (either the highest Being to be feared, from alah, to fear,—Hengstenberg, Delitzsch, Keil, Oehler, &c; or, more probably, the strong and mighty One, from aūl, to be strong—Gesenius, Lange, Tayler Lewis, Macdonald, Murphy, &c.) is the most frequent designation of the Supreme Being in the Old Testament, occurring upwards of 2000 times, and is exclusively employed in the present section. Its plural form is to be explained neither as a remnant of polytheism (Gesenius), nor as indicating a plurality of beings through whom the Deity reveals himself (Baumgarten, Lange), nor as a plural of majesty (Aben Ezra, Kalisch, Alford), like the royal "we" of earthly potentates, a usage which the best Hebraists affirm to have no existence in the Scriptures (Macdonald), nor as a cumulative plural, answering the same purpose as a repetition of the Divine name (Hengstenberg, Dreschler, and others); but either
(1) as a pluralis intensitatis, expressive of the fullness of the Divine nature, and the multiplicity of the Divine powers (Delitzsch, Murphy, Macdonald); or,
(2) notwithstanding Calvin's dread of Sabellianism, as a pluralis trinitatis, intended to foreshadow the threefold personality of the Godhead (Luther, Cocceius, Peter Lombard, Murphy, Candlish, &c.); or
(3) both. The suggestion of Tayler Lewis, that the term may be a contraction for El-Elohim, the God of all superhuman powers, is inconsistent with neither of the above interpretations That the Divine name should adjust itself without difficulty to all subsequent discoveries of the fullness of the Divine personality and nature is only what we should expect in a God-given revelation. Unless where it refers to the angels (Psa 8:5), or to heathen deities (Gen 31:32; Exo 20:3; Jer 16:20), or to earthly rulers (Exo 22:8, Exo 22:9), Elohim is conjoined with verbs and adjectives in the singular, an anomaly in language which has been explained as suggesting the unity of the Godhead. Created. Bara, one of three terms employed in this section, and in Scripture generally, to describe the Divine activity; the other two being yatzar, "formed," and asah, "made"—both signifying to construct out of pre-existing materials (cf. for yatzar, Gen 2:7; Gen 8:19; Psa 33:15; Isa 44:9; for asah, Gen 8:6; Exo 5:16; Deu 4:16), and predicable equally of God and man. Bara is used exclusively of God. Though not necessarily involved in its significance, the idea of creation ex nihilo is acknowledged by the best expositors to be here intended. Its employment in Exo 20:21, Exo 20:26, though seem ugly against, is really in favor of a distinctively creative act; in both of these instances something that did not previously exist, i.e. animal life and the human spirit, having been called into being. In the sense of producing what is new it frequently occurs in Scripture (cf. Psa 51:12; Jer 31:12; Isa 65:18). Thus, according to the teaching of this venerable document, the visible universe neither existed from eternity, nor was fashioned out of pre-existing materials, nor proceeded forth as an emanation from the Absolute, but was summoned into being by an express creative fiat. The New Testament boldly claims this as a doctrine peculiar to revelation (Heb 11:3). Modern science explicitly disavows it as a discovery of reason. The continuity of force admits of neither creation nor annihilation, but demands an unseen universe, out of which the visible has been produced "by an intelligent agency residing in the unseen," and into which it must eventually return. Whether the language of the writer to the Hebrews homologates the dogma of an "unseen universe" (μηΜ φαινομεμνον), out of which τοΜ βλεποìμενον γεγονεìναι, the last result of science, as expressed by the authors of the above-named work, is practically an admission of the Biblical doctrine of creation. The heavens and the earth (i.e. mundus universus—Gesenius, Kalisch, &c. Cf. Gen 2:1; Gen 14:19, Gen 14:22; Psa 115:15; Jer 23:24. The earth and the heavens always mean the terrestrial globe with its aerial firmament. Cf. Gen 2:4; Psa 148:13; Zec 5:9). The earth here alluded to is manifestly not the dry land (Exo 20:10), which was not separated from the waters till the third day, but the entire mass of which our planet is composed, including the superincumbent atmosphere, which was not uplifted from the chaotic deep until the second day. The heavens are the rest of the universe. The Hebrews were aware of other heavens than the "firmament" or gaseous expanse which over-arches the earth. "Tres regiones," says Poole, "ubi ayes, ubi nubes, ubi sidera." But, beyond these, the Shemitie mind conceived of the heaven where the angels dwell (1Ki 22:19; Mat 18:10), and where God specially resides (Deu 26:15; 1Ki 8:30; Psa 2:4), if, indeed, this latter was not distinguished as a more exalted region than that occupied by any creature—as "the heaven of heavens," the pre-eminently sacred abode of the Supreme (Deu 10:14; 1Ki 8:27; Psa 105:16). The fundamental idea associated with the term was that of height (shamayim, literally, "the heights"—Gesenius, Furst). To the Greek mind heaven meant "the boundary" (οὑρανος, from ὁρος—Arist.), or, "the raised up" (from ὀρ—to be prominent—Liddell and Scott). The Latin spoke of "the con cavity" (coelum, allied to κοῖλος, hollow), or "the engraved" (from coelo, to engrave). The Saxon thought of "the heaved-up arch." The Hebrew imagined great spaces rising tier upon tier above the earth (which, m contradistinction, was named "the flats"), just as with regard to time he spoke of olamim (Gr. αἰῶνες). Though not anticipat Lug modern astronomical discovery, he had yet enlarged conceptions of the dimensions of the stellar world (Gen 15:5; Isa 40:26; Jer 31:37; Amo 9:6); and, though unacquainted with our present geographical ideas of the earth's configuration, he was able to represent it as a globe, and as suspended upon nothing (Isa 40:11; Job 26:7-10; Pro 8:27). The connection of the present verse with those which follow has been much debated. The proposal of Aben Ezra, adopted by Calvin, to read, "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was" is grammatically inadmissible. Equally objectionable on the ground of grammar is the suggestion of Bunsen and Ewald, to connect the first verse with the third, and make the second parenthetical; while it is opposed to that simplicity of construction which pervades the chapter. The device of Drs. Buckland and Chalmers, so favorably regarded by some harmonists of Scripture and geology, to read the first verse as a heading to the whole section, is exploded by the fact that no historical narration can begin with "and." To this Exo 1:1-22. It is no exception, the second book of Moses being in reality a continuation of the first. Honest exegesis requires that Exo 1:1 shall be viewed as descriptive of the first of the series of Divine acts detailed in the chapter, and that Exo 1:2, while admitting of an interval, shall be held as coming in immediate succession—an interpretation, it may be said, which is fatal to the theory which discovers the geologic ages between the creative beginning and primeval chaos.
And the earth. Clearly the earth referred to in the preceding verse, the present terrestrial globe with its atmospheric firmament, and not simply "the land" as opposed to "the skies" (Murphy); certainly not "the heavens" of Gen 1:1 as well as the earth (Delitzsch); and least of all "a section of the dry land in Central Asia" (Buckland, Pye Smith). It is a sound principle of exegesis that a word shall retain the meaning it at first possesses till either intimation is made by the writer of a change in its significance, or such change is imperatively demanded by the necessities of the context, neither of which is the case here. Was. Not "had become." Without form and void. Literally, wasteness and emptiness, tohu vabohu. The words are employed in Isa 34:11 and Jer 4:23 to depict the desolation and desertion of a ruined and depopulated land, and by many have been pressed into service to support the idea of a preceding cosmos, of which the chaotic condition of our planet was the wreck (Murphy, Wordsworth, Bush, &c). Delitzsch argues, on the ground that tohu vabohu implies the ruin of a previous cosmos, that Jer 4:2 does not state specifically that God created the earth in this desolate and waste condition; and that death, which is inconceivable out of connection with sin, was in the world prior to the fall; that Jer 4:2 presupposes the fall of the angels, and adduces in support of his view Job 38:4-7—a notion which Kalisch contemptuously classes among "the aberrations of profound minds," and "the endless reveries" of "far-sighted thinkers." Bush is confident that Isa 45:18, in which Jehovah declares that he created not the earth tohu, is conclusive against a primeval chaos. The parallel clause, however, shows that not the original state, but the ultimate design of the globe, was contemplated in Jehovah's language: "He created it not tohu, he formed it to be inhabited;" i.e. the Creator did not intend the earth to be a desolate region, but an inhabited planet. There can scarcely be a doubt, then, that the expression portrays the condition in which the new-created earth was, not innumerable ages, but very shortly, after it was summoned into existence. It was formless and lifeless; a huge, shapeless, objectless, tenantless mass of matter, the gaseous and solid elements commingled, in which neither organized structure, nor animated form, nor even distinctly-traced outline of any kind appeared. And darkness (was) upon the face of the deep. The "deep," from a root signifying to disturb, is frequently applied to the sea (Psa 42:8), and here probably intimates that the primordial matter of our globe existed in a fluid, or liquid, or molten form. Dawson distinguishes between "the deep" and the "waters," making the latter refer to the liquid condition of the globe, and the former apply to "the atmospheric waters," i.e. the vaporous or aeriform mass mantling the surface of our nascent planet, and containing the materials out of which the atmosphere was afterwards elaborated. As yet the whole was shrouded in the thick folds of Cimmerian gloom, giving not the slightest promise of that fair world of light, order, and life into which it was about to be transformed. Only one spark of hope might have been detected in the circumstance that the Spirit of God moved (literally, brooding) upon the face of the waters. That the Ruach Elohim, or breath of God, was not "a great wind," or "a wind of God," is determined by the non-existence of the air at this particular stage in the earth's development. In accordance with Biblical usage generally, it must be regarded as a designation not simply "of the Divine power, which, like the wind and the breath, cannot be perceived" (Gesenius), but of the Holy Spirit, who is uniformly represented as the source or formative cause of all life and order in the world, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual (of. Job 26:13; Job 27:3; Psa 33:6; Psa 104:29; Psa 143:10; Isa 34:16; Isa 61:1; Isa 63:11). As it were, the mention of the Ruach Elohim is the first out-blossoming of the latent fullness of the Divine personality, the initial movement in that sublime revelation of the nature of the Godhead, which, advancing slowly, and at the best but indistinctly, throughout Old Testament times, culminated in the clear and ample disclosures of the gospel The special form of this Divine agent's activity is described as that of" brooding'' (merachepheth, from raehaph, to be tremulous, as with love; hence, in Piel, to cherish young—Deu 32:11) or fluttering over the liquid elements of the shapeless and tenantless globe, communicating to them, doubtless, those formative powers of life and order which were to burst forth into operation in answer to the six words of the six ensuing days. As might have been anticipated, traces of this primeval chaos are to be detected in various heathen cosmogonies, as the following brief extracts will show:—
1. The Chaldean legend, deciphered from the creation tablet discovered in the palace of Assurbanipal, King of Assyria, 2. c. 885, depicts the desolate and void condition of the earth thus:—
"When above were not raised the heavens,
And below on the earth a plant had not grown up;
The abyss also had not broken up their boundaries;
The chaos (or water) tiamat (the sea) was the producing-mother of the whole of them," &c.
2. The Babylonian cosmogony, according to Berosus, commences with a time "in which there existed nothing but darkness" and an abyss of waters, wherein resided most hideous beings, which were produced of a twofold principle … The person who presided over them was a woman named Omoroea, which in the Chaldean language is Thalatth, in Greek Thalassa, the sea, but which might equally be interpreted the moon".
3. The Egyptian account of the origin of the universe, as given by Diodorus Siculus, represents the heaven and earth as blended together, till afterwards the elements began to separate and the air to move. According to another idea, there was a vast abyss enveloped in boundless darkness, with a subtle spirit, intellectual in power, existing in the chaos.
4. The Phoenician cosmogony says, "The first principle of the universe was a dark windy air and an eternal dark chaos. Through the love of the Spirit to its own principles a mixture arose, and a connection called desire, the beginning of all things. From this connection of the Spirit was begotten mot, which, according to some, signifies mud, according to others, a corruption of a watery mixture, but is probably a feminine form of too, water. From this were developed creatures in the shape of an egg, called zophasemin.
5. The Indian mythology is very striking in its resemblance to the Mosaic narrative." The institutes of Menu affirm' that at first all was dark, the world still resting in the purpose of the Eternal, whose first thought created water, and in it the seed of life. This became an egg, from which issued Brahma, the creative power, who divided his own substance and became male and female. The waters were called nara, as being the production of Nara, or the Spirit of God, who, on account of these being his first ayana, or place of motion, is named Naray-na, or moving on the waters. A remarkable hymn from the Rig Veda, translated by Dr. Max Muller, also closely approximates to the Scriptural account:—
"Nor aught nor naught existed; yon bright sky
Was not, nor heaven's broad woof out-stretched above.
The only one breathed breathless by itself;
Other than it there nothing since hath been.
Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled
In gloom profound—an ocean without light."
6. The description of chaos given by Ovid is too appropriate to be overlooked:—
"Ante mare et tellus, et, quod tegit omnia, caelum,
Unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
Quem dixere chaos; rudis indigestaque moles quia corpere in uno
Frigida pugnabant calidis, humentia siccis,
Mollia cum duris, sine Pendere habentia pondus"
('Metamor.,' lib, Isa 1:1).
Yet not more remarkable are these indirect confirmations of the truthfulness of the Biblical cosmogony than the direct corroborations it derives from the discoveries of modern science.
(1) The nebular hypothesis of Laplace, which, though only a hypothesis, must vet be admitted to possess a high degree of probability, strikingly attests its authenticity. That eminent astronomer demonstrated that a huge chaotic mass of nebulous matter, revolving in space on its own axis with a sufficient velocity, and gradually condensing from a high degree of heat, would eventually, by throwing off successive rings from the parent body, develop all the celestial orbs that presently compose our planetary system. Though for a long time regarded with suspicion by Biblical scholars, and at the first only tentatively thrown out by its author, Kant, yet so exactly does it account for the phenomena of our solar system as disclosed by the telescope, that it may now be said to have vindicated its claim to be accepted as the best solution science has to give of the formation of the universe; while further and more dispassionate reflection has convinced theologians generally, that so far from conflicting with the utterances of inspiration, it rather surprisingly endorses them.
(2) The researches of physical philosophy in connection with hydrodynamics have successfully established that the present form of our earth, that of (the solid of revolution called) an oblate spheroid, is such as it must necessarily have assumed had its original condition been that of a liquid mass revolving round its own axis.
(3) Geological science likewise contributes its quota to the constantly accumulating weight of evidence in support of the Mosaic narrative, by announcing, as the result of its investigations in connection with the earth's crust, that below a certain point, called "the stratum of invariable temperature," the heat of the interior mass becomes greater in proportion to the depth beneath the surface, thus leading not unnaturally to the inference that "the earth has assumed its present state by cooling down from an intensely heated, or gaseous, or fluid state".
The visible universe.
I. ONE, yet NOT SIMPLE.
1. One. In age, origin, and nature one, "the heavens and the earth" also constitute one vast system. Cohering physically through the force of gravitation, which, in its ultimate analysis, is simply an expression of the Divine power, they are unified spiritually by Christ, who is the impersonation of the Divine wisdom and love (Joh 1:3, Joh 1:9; Col 1:15, Col 1:17). Hence, as constituting one stupendous system, they are not independent, but mutually influential—physically according to science, spiritually according to Scripture (Luk 15:7, Luk 15:10; Eph 3:10; 1Pe 1:12, &c.). Yet—
2. Not simple, but complex, consisting of two parts—of this mundane sphere, with its diversified contents of men, animals, and plants; and of those shining heavens, with their starry hosts and angelic races. Hence the histories of those two realms may be widely divergent—an inference which astronomy warrants as to their physical developments, and revelation endorses with regard to their spiritual experiences. Hence to argue from the one to the other is to reason hypothetically; as, e.g; to conclude that the planets must be inhabited because the earth is, or to affirm that the Divine treatment of the human and angelic races must of necessity be alike.
II. VAST, yet NOT INFINITE.
1. Vast. Enlarged as were Shemitic notions of the dimensions of God's universe, modern astronomy, by the grandeur and sublimity of its revelations, gives definite shape to what were then only vague and shadowy conceptions. Imagination becomes bewildered in the attempt to comprehend the circle of the universe. Commencing with the sun, the central body of our planetary system, with a diameter about three times our distance from the moon, and passing, on her outward journey, no fewer than seven worlds in addition to our own, most of them immensely larger, she only reaches the outskirts of the first department of creation at a distance of 2,853,800,000 miles. Then, when to this is added that the nearest fixed star is so remote that three years are required for its light to reach the earth; that from some of the more distant nebulae the light has been traveling for millions of years; that the number of the stars is practically infinite; and that each of them may be the center of a system more resplendent than our own,—even then it is but a faint conception which she reaches of the dimensions of the universe (Job 26:14). Yet—
2. It is not infinite. Immeasurable by man, it has already been measured by God (Isa 40:12). Undiscoverable by science, its limits are known to its Creator (Act 15:18). The stars which man is unable to compute God calls by their names (Psa 147:4; Isa 40:26). That the universe must have a boundary is involved in its creation. Two finites cannot make an infinite. Hence the measured earth (Hab 3:6) and the bounded heavens (Job 22:14) cannot compose an illimitable universe. Still less can there be two infinites, one filling all space, and another outside of it. But Elohim is such an infinite (Isa 57:15; Jer 23:24); hence the universe is not such another.
III. OLD, yet NOT ETERNAL.
1. Old. How old God has not revealed and man has not discovered; geology and astronomy both say millions of years; one hundred millions at least, Sir W. Thomson alleges the sun to have been burning. Genesis gives ample scope to physicists in their researches by saying they may go as far back as "the beginning;" only that beginning they must find. For—
2. The universe is not eternal, though its antiquity be vast. The frequency and certainty with which Scripture enunciates the non-eternity of the material universe is one of its most distinguishing characteristics (Psa 90:1; Psa 102:25, Psa 102:26; Heb 1:10). This may also now be regarded as the last word of science: "We have thus reached the beginning as well as the end of the present visible universe, and have come to the conclusion that it began in time, and will in time come to an end".
IV. EXISTENT, YET NOT SELF-EXISTENT.
1. Existent; i.e. standing out as an entity in the infinite realm of space; standing out from eternity in the sphere of time; and also standing out from God, as essentially distinct from his personality. Yet—
2. Not self-existent, not standing there in virtue of its own inherent energy, being neither self-produced nor self-sustained; but standing solely and always in obedience to the creative fiat of Elohim, the almighty and self-existent God.
Chaos an emblem of the unrenewed soul.
I. WITHOUT ORDER: existing in a state of spiritual ruin, and requiting a special process of rearrangement to evolve symmetry and beauty from its confusion (2Co 5:16).
II. WITHOUT LIFE: being dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1); absolutely "void" in the sense of being untenanted by lofty thoughts, pure emotions, holy volitions, spiritual imaginations, such as are the inmates of sinless and, in great part also, of renewed souls.
IV. Yet NOT WITHOUT GOD. As the Spirit brooded over chaos, so does God's Holy Spirit hover over fallen souls, waiting, as it were, for the forthcoming and insounding of the commanding word to introduce light, order, life.
Consult other comments:
The Complete Pulpit Commentary
The Pulpit Commentary is a homiletic commentary on the Bible created during the nineteenth century under the direction of Rev. Joseph S. Exell and Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones. It consists of 23 volumes with 22,000 pages and 95,000 entries, and was written over a 30-year period with 100 contributors.
Rev. Joseph S. Exell M.A. (1849 - 1910) served as the editor of Clerical World, The Homiletical Quarterly and the Monthly Interpreter. Exell was also the editor for several other large commentary sets like The Men of the Bible, The Preacher's Homiletic Library and The Biblical Illustrator. Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones was the Vicar and Rural Dean of St. Pancras, London and the principal of Gloucester Theological College.