Heavens and Earth in Genesis 1:1 

In previous posts we looked at the first three words of the Bible, “In-the-beginning God created … We noted that the first verb of the Bible relates to (God’s) creative activity (bārā“created), while the first subject of the Bible is “God (Elohim). 

This time we’ll look at the two objects of the verb, “the heavens and the earth” (אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ’ēt haššāmayîm ve’ēt ha’ārets). Both are designated in Hebrew with object markers (אֵת’ētpronounced as ate), the second of which (reading right to left) also has a conjunction (וְ, pronounced vӗh = “and”). The two objects themselves both have definite articles, “the heavens” and “the earth. The two nouns are commonly found together throughout the Scriptures.

The first wordשָׁמַיִם (šāmayîm), pronounced sha-ma´yim, is used only in the plural (the singular form of this word, שָׁמַי [šāmay], is not used)šāmayîm can mean the sky, against which the stars are visible (as in the rich poetic imagery of Judges 5:20, “From the sky the stars fought” [NET]). It can also indicate the symbolic spiritual abode of God (cf. Isaiah 66:1, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Heaven is my throne,’” or, as the NET, “The heavens are my throne” [הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם כִּסְאִ֔י])It is these very “heavens” (haššāmayîm [‎הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם]), according to the psalmist (Ps. 19:2 [English 19:1]), that declare “the glory of God” (‎כְּבֽוֹד־אֵ֑ל)! 

It may be observed, in connection with Gen. 1:1, that many contemporary English translations render šāmayîm (שָׁמַיִםas a plural, “the heavens” (ASV, RSV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NAB, NJB, NLT, CEB, et al). However, a number of past and present versions also prefer the singular, “the heaven” (Geneva Bible 1599, KJV, ERV 1885, JPS 1917, JPS TANAKH 1985, NET). This is how the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, rendered it too (τὸν οὐρανόν = the heaven). 

The second term (אֶ֫רֶץֶ), pronounced ’eh´rӗtscan refer to the inhabited earth (Exod. 16:35, 1st use), the earth as a whole (Gen. 18:25), the land of a particular territory (whether Egypt, Israel, or elsewhere) (Gen. 11:28; Exod. 16:35, 2nd use), or simply the ground (Gen. 18:2; 33:3). In the present instance, however, as part of an introductory statement about creation without qualification (assuming berē’šît [בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית]: “In-[the]-beginning” is absolute {we’ll look at this in a future post}), it likely means the earth as a whole.

Together, again assuming an absolute beginning, the two objects—“the heavens and the earth”—most plausibly speak of all of created realityThere is precedence for this understanding elsewhere in Scripture. In Gen. 14:19, 22, Melchizedekpriest of God Most High (El ‘Elyon), blesses Abr(ah)am by God Most High, Creator [or Possessor] of heaven and earth”—that is, of all of created reality (see similarly Gen. 24:3; Isa. 66:1; and Ps. 89:12 [English 89:11]). (In Gen. 14:19, 22 English versions conventionally render šāmayîm as “heaven, not “the heavens.”) Assuming Gen. 1:1 designates an absolute beginning, British commentator, Gordon J. Wenham, translates the two objects together as “everything”: “In the beginning God created everything (Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1, [Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998], 15; italics added). 

The author of Hebrews, in a clear reflection on Genesis 1, fittingly reminds his readers that creation is apprehended by faith, “By faith we understand the universe [lit. the ages] to have been framed by the spoken word of God, with the result that what is seen came into being not-from-visiblethings (Heb. 11:3, my translation). related article of faith is the (eschatological) expectation of the biblical authors that the present heavens and earth will one day give way in God’s purposes to a “new heavens and new earth” (Isa. 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21), a grand subject that will have to wait for another occasion! 

James Sweeney, PhD
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament Studies
Director of the Master of Divinity program