Is Genesis 1:1 a Summary of Gen. 1:2–31, a Heading, or an Initial Act of Creation? (Part One)

The initial posts of this series examined the leading Hebrew words of Genesis 1:1. The posts that followed focused on whether Gen. 1:1 is a grammatically independent statement, as the vast majority of English versions translate it, or whether it is grammatically subordinate to 1:2 or 1:3, as some late 20th and early 21st century translations render it. I examined the two alternative renderings of Gen. 1:1 over against the traditional rendering on the basis of four interrelated lines of inquiry—grammar, style, theology, and historical precedence in translation. These are the common lines of argument put forward on behalf of one or both alternatives. In the first three instances (grammar, style, and theology) I found the alternative renderings lacking in persuasiveness. When these findings are coupled with our fourth line of inquiry—that is, historical precedence in translation—the probability scales become weighted heavily in favor of the traditional view that Gen. 1:1 is a grammatically independent statement. It consequently signifies an absolute beginning. Assuming that Gen. 1:1 is best interpreted as a grammatically independent statement and absolute beginning, however, raises for us another issue: What is the relation of Gen. 1:1 to what follows? In the next two posts I will examine this interpretive issue.

Scholars who consider Gen. 1:1 to be a grammatically independent statement differ on how it relates to what follows. Some commentators consider Gen. 1:1 to be a summary of the creative events outlined in Gen. 1:2–31. Samuel R. Driver (1846–1914), a major scholar of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, is representative of this view. He noted that Gen. 1:1 “gives a summary of the description which follows, stating the broad general fact of the creation of the universe; the details of the process then form the subject of the rest of the chapter” (The Book of Genesis, 6th ed., [London: Methuen, 1907], 3). Other commentators view Gen. 1:1 as something of a heading. Claus Westermann (1909–2000), a major 20th cent. German interpreter, suggested Gen. 1:1 “is not the beginning of an account of creation, but a heading that takes in everything in the narrative in one single sentence—and it is much more than a mere heading. It speaks of the creation of heaven and earth in the same way as do the hymns of the praise of God” (Genesis 1–11, [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994], 94). Still other commentators take Gen. 1:1 to be a reference to the initial act of creation, to which 1:2 and 1:3 provide subsequent details. Gordon J. Wenham (b. 1943), a contemporary British interpreter, holds this view (Genesis 1–15, [Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998], 11–13).

Each of these views is correct in what it affirms: namely, that Gen. 1:1 is a grammatically independent statement, not subordinate to either 1:2 or 1:3. Each is also correct in seeing Gen. 1:1 as indicating an absolute beginning. Each view is also theoretically plausible. However, the latter view—a sequential understanding of Gen. 1:1 in relation to what follows—provides a more coherent explanation of the relation between 1:1 and what follows. There are several reasons for this, which we will spell out here and in a subsequent post.

Grammatically and syntactically, the initial conjunction of 1:2 (וְ [ve], pronounced vӗh), which is attached directly to the subject of the initial clause, “the earth” (הָאָ֗רֶץ: hā’ārets) (hence: ‎וְהָאָ֗רֶץ: vehā’ārets), indicates that a grammatical connection between 1:1 and 1:2 is assumed. The Septuagint (a major pre-Christian era Greek translation) rendered וְ (ve) with an adversative conjunction (δέ [de]: “yet” or “but”). In standard English translations, the conjunction וְ (ve) is typically treated in one of three ways. Older versions (Geneva, KJV, Webster, Darby, ERV, Douay-Rheims, ASV) and some recent versions (NASB, NAB 2010) render it as a continuative conjunction “and.” Some versions translate it disjunctively: “Now …” (JPS 1917, NIV 1984, NJB, NET, TNIV, HCSB 2005, NIV 2011, LEB, CSB 2017). Still other versions simply leave it untranslated (RSV, NKJV, TANAK, NRSV, NAB 1991, GNT, NLT, NASB 95, CJB, ESV, CEB).

The initial reference to “the earth” in 1:2 resumes the last noun mentioned at end of the opening statement (1:1) (see my earlier posting on the “heavens and earth”). In Hebrew grammar, this is called a disjunctive clause (conjunction + noun [here = the subject of 1:2] + verb) (cf. Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990, 2004], 129). Disjunctive clauses can indicate differing types of relations to what precedes, including continuity, contrast, circumstances, cause, or comparison (cf. Waltke and O’Connor, 650–51). In the context of the opening of Genesis, 1:1 provides an introductory statement concerning the initial act of creation (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”). Gen. 1:2 next describes the nature of the earth prior to the spoken word (“Now the earth was …”). Gen. 1:3 then presents the spoken word as the means of providing shape to the initial creation (“Then God said …”). We can describe the disjunctive nuance of 1:2 as being circumstantial. That is, it provides the circumstances between the initial act of creation in 1:1 and the rationale for the spoken word of 1:3.

Given the grammatical and syntactical relation of Gen. 1:2–3 to 1:1 as noted above, I will proceed on the assumption that Gen. 1:1 is sequentially related to what follows, not merely a summary of the chapter or a book title. In the next post, I will provide a couple of additional reasons why a sequential understanding of Gen. 1:1 does better justice than the alternative summary and title explanations. In the interim, I encourage you to take a closer look at Gen. 1:1–3 in standard English translations. (See, for convenience, the many available English [and other] versions available at https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/.)

by James P. Sweeney, Ph.D.
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament
Director of the Master of Divinity Program

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