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

In the previous post we noted that scholars who consider Gen. 1:1 to be a grammatically independent statement (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) differ on how it relates to what follows. We noted that some commentators consider Gen. 1:1 to be a summary of the creative events outlined in Gen. 1:2–31. Other commentators view Gen. 1:1 as something of a heading for the book. Still others take Gen. 1:1 to be a reference to the initial act of creation, to which 1:2 and 1:3 provide subsequent details. I noted that 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, and hence also indicates an absolute beginning. Each view, moreover, is also theoretically plausible. However, I noted that the third view—that is, 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. I gave some initial grammatical and syntactical reasons for taking Gen. 1:1 to be sequentially related to what follows. In the present post, I’ll provide two additional reasons why a sequential understanding of Gen. 1:1 does better justice than the explanations that it is either a summary of the chapter or a book title.

Logically-speaking, the summary and title explanations of Genesis 1:1 effectively leave 1:2 as the beginning of the creation account. To cite the New English Translation (NET) as an example of one of many contemporary renderings: “Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.” Even if one leaves the initial conjunction וְ (ve) untranslated (as many versions do), is still difficult to understand this as the opening statement of the creation account. It not only assumes a prior reference to “the earth” (הָאָ֗רֶץ: hā’ārets), but also a sequential relation to something prior. For it is logically impossible to conceive of how the earth “was” without an initial act of creation (which 1:1 provides) or how the earth pre-existed God’s creative activity. The same is true of the relationship between 1:2 and 1:3, for the initial vav-relative of 1:3 (‎וַיֹּ֥אמֶר: vayyō’mer: “then he [namely, God] said …”) ties 1:3 grammatically (and logically) to 1:2. British commentator Gordon Wenham reflects this sequential understanding well in his own translation of Gen. 1:1–3, “1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2Now the earth … 3Then God said …” (Genesis 1–15, 2). The recent 2017 Christian Standard Bible similarly captures this sequence in its rendering: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. 3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Another relevant passage that can be brought into discussion is Gen. 2:1. It is commonly rendered as “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude” (NRSV). In Hebrew, in keeping with the style of Genesis, this summary statement of what precedes (i.e., Gen. 1) begins with a verb (‎וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃: Lit. “And-[thus]-they-were-completed [, namely,] the-heavens and-the-earth and-all-their-array”). {Note that “the-heavens and-the-earth and-all-their-array” are the three compound subjects of the verb וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ [vaykullû], but they follow the verb in keeping with common Hebrew word order: verb followed by subject. See posting 2.} This reinforces the point made in an earlier posting: Genesis prefers to begin sentences or clauses summarizing what precedes with verbal constructions (as here in 2:1; cf. Gen. 25:34, “Thus-he-despised [, namely,] Esau, his birthright”; 49:28b [referring to Jacob], “Thus-he-blessed them, each one with his corresponding blessing he blessed them”). This fitting summary statement of Gen. 2:1 thereby indicates that Gen. 1:1 is not intended as a mere summary statement of the chapter or a book title. As John H. Sailhamer astutely observes in reference to Gen. 1:1, “the fact that [Gen.] 2:1 is already a well-formed summary of 1:2–31 suggests that 1:1 has another purpose” (The Pentateuch as Narrative, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], 82 n. 2).

In the present and previous posts, I noted that scholars who consider Gen. 1:1 to be a grammatically independent statement differ on whether it is a summary of the chapter, a heading for the book, or the initial statement of a series of sequential statements. In the previous post I gave some initial grammatical and syntactical reasons for taking Gen. 1:1 to be sequential. In the present post, I provided two additional reasons why a sequential understanding of Gen. 1:1 does better justice than the alternative explanations. In subsequent posts I will look further at the nature of the content of Gen. 1:2 and 1:3. Based on the present and previous posts, however, I will proceed on the assumption that Gen. 1:1 is sequentially related to what follows, not merely a chapter summary or a book title. Before proceeding on to 1:2 and 3, however, it is appropriate to reflect briefly on the opening statement of Genesis in relation to the remainder of Genesis, the Torah (first five books), the Old Testament (Tanak), and the Bible as a whole. We’ll do this in the next post.

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

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.

 

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