Genesis 1:1 Commentary - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments
The Creative Beginning, 1-2.
Gen 1:1 is to be taken as a heading to the present section, (Gen 1:1 to Gen 2:3,) corresponding to the headings of the other sections. Comp. Gen 2:4; Gen 5:1; Gen 6:9; Gen 10:1; Gen 11:10, etc . This first section has not the common formula, “These are the generations,” etc . : for this first chapter is a history of creations, not of generations . This is a distinction to be kept constantly in mind . See below, on Gen 1:2, and notes on chap . 2:4 .
In the following notes an effort is made to indicate as fully as practicable the grammatico-historical meaning of the language of this most ancient Scripture. The world is full of attempts to “reconcile Genesis and geology:” we assume no such task, but endeavour to keep prominent the query, whether the vast amount of learned labour bestowed upon such attempted reconciliation has not been wasted over a false issue. Our exposition does not essay to solve the mysteries of creation, but merely to determine, as far as the original meaning and usage of his words admit, the most obvious import of the Hebrew writer’s language. See Introduction, pp. 56-67.
1. In the beginning At the commencement of that series of events with which the creation and history of the human race are associated . Here is no necessary reference to the origin of matter, but simply to the opening of an epoch .
God created ברא אלהים ; a plural noun with a singular verb . Some have supposed this plural form of the name of God to be a relic of primitive polytheism, but its construction here with a verb in the singular, and its frequent use in the Hebrew Scriptures as the name of the One only God, forbids such a conclusion . The plural form of the name denotes rather the manifold fulness of power and excellency that exists in God. Not without reason have many Christian divines suggested that in this plural of majesty may also be an intimation of the plurality of persons in the Godhead. No sound logician, however, would cite this as a proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is to be mentioned only as a suggestion a profound intimation of the plurality of Eternal Powers in the Creator. It will be noticed that the writer does not here formally state the existence of God; much less does he attempt to prove his existence; but he simply assumes it as a fact. The word ברא , which means, primarily, to cut, to cut down, (a meaning preserved in the Piel form of the verb, Jos 17:15; Jos 17:18,) and thence by a natural and easy process, to construct, to fashion, to produce, is in the Kal and Niphal always used to denote divine creations. It is never used to denote human productions. In Gen 1:21 it denotes the creation of “great sea-monsters;” in Gen 1:27, the creation of man; (comp. also Gen 5:1-2; Gen 6:7; Deu 4:32; Psa 89:47;) in Psa 89:12, the establishing of the north and the south; in Isa 4:5, the creation of “a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night;” in Isa 45:7, the creation of darkness and evil, and in Isa 57:19, the creation of “the fruit of the lips” praise to God, or prophecy . This varied usage of the word shows, that to create out of nothing is not its legitimate meaning: for pre-existing material is commonly supposed . Hence the meaning to found, to produce, to cause to arise. Applied thus uniformly to divine creations, ברא is a more elevated word, and also more specific, than עשׂה , to make, which occurs much more frequently . This latter word is also used of divine creations, and so far may be said to be interchangeable with ברא . Thus in Gen 1:7, “God made the firmament” Gen 1:16, “God made two great lights” Gen 1:25, “God made the beast of the earth” Gen 1:26, “Let us make man” Gen 1:31, “Every thing that he had made ” Gen 2:2, “His work which he had made ” Gen 5:1, “In the likeness of God made he him” Gen 9:6, “In the image of God made he man” Exo 20:11, “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth . ” But though applied to every thing to which we find ברא applied, the word עשׂה has a much wider and more general application, referring to any work of man, as to make a feast, (Gen 19:3; Gen 21:8; Gen 26:30;) to make a heap of stones, (Gen 31:46;) to do wickedness, (Gen 39:9;) to do or show mercy, (Exo 20:6;) to accomplish a desire, (1Ki 5:8;) and so in a great variety of ways .
Another word of kindred meaning is יצר , to form, to fashion . This is used in Gen 2:7-8, “The Lord God formed man of the dust;” and “the man whom he had formed;” and also in Gen 1:19: “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air . ” It is used of the forming of the dry land, (Psa 95:5;) and of leviathan to play in the broad sea, (Psa 104:26;) of the fashioning of a graven image, (Isa 44:12;) and of clay by the hand of a potter . Isa 29:16; Isa 64:8. These three synonyme words are used together in Isa 43:7; Isa 45:18: “I have created him for my glory; I have formed him; yea, I have made him.” The distinction to be drawn between these words seems to be this: ברא denotes especially the bringing something into being; causing something to arise which had not appeared before; עשׂה is a less dignified expression, indicating in general the same idea, but often applied to things and predicated of subjects which are never construed with ברא . The word יצר , on the other hand, conveys the idea of giving particular form or shape to something . In this narrative of creation the three words are all alike applied to the divine production of man and beast upon earth. Comp. Gen 1:21; Gen 1:25-27, and Gen 2:7-8; Gen 2:19.
The heaven and the earth Rather, the heavens and the land . What mean these words? It has been the prevailing assumption that in this first verse of the Bible they must stand for the entire universe. They have been explained as equivalent to the primordial matter of the universe; the original substance out of which the universe was subsequently formed. But why not allow the sacred writer to explain his own words? In Gen 1:8, we are told that God called the firmament (or expanse above the land) Heaven, and in Gen 1:10, the dry ground is called ארצ , Land . According to the constant usus loquendi of the Hebrew language, שׁמים , heavens, denotes the ethereal expanse above us, in which the luminaries appear to be set, and the birds fly, and from which the rain falls . Comp . Gen 1:14-15; Gen 1:17; Gen 1:20; Gen 1:26; Gen 1:28; Gen 1:30; Gen 2:19-20; Gen 6:7; Gen 6:17; Gen 7:3; Gen 7:11; Gen 8:2, etc. This may be safely said to be the common and almost universal sense of the word. When occasionally used of the abode of God, it is from the natural conception of him as the Most High, who is exalted above the heavens. Psa 57:5; Psa 57:11; Psa 113:4. The word is dual in form, perhaps from some notion of the expanse as a divider of the waters above and below it, as described in Gen 1:7. Tayler Lewis regards the word as more probably a plural which originated in the effort of the early world to penetrate in thought beyond the visible heaven, and conceive of a heaven beyond that, and a heaven of heavens higher still, from which God looks down to “behold the things that are in heaven (that is, the nearer heavens) and the earth.” Psa 113:6. It is equally plain that the Word ארצ , land, denotes (not the cubic or solid contents of the earth, considered as a globe; such a conception seems never to have entered the Hebrew mind) an area of territory, a country, a region . The word occurs over three hundred times in this Book of Genesis alone, and in most of those places it can have no other meaning than that which we give above, and in no place does it require any other word to represent it than our word land. The word earth, in our modern usage, is so commonly applied to the matter of the earth, or to the world considered as a planet, or solid sphere, that it misleads us when used as a translation of the Hebrew ארצ .
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Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments
Daniel D. Whedon (1808-1885) was a prominent university professor, theologian, and author. He served as Professor of Ancient Languages at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; as Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Michigan; and as editor of the Methodist Quarterly Review from 1856 to1884. He authored numerous books including Commentary on the New Testament (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1860); Commentary on the Old Testament (New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1873); What is Arminianism? (Toronto: W. Briggs, 1879); and Essays, Reviews, and Discourses (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1887).