“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). I’ve always read that as a summary statement for the rest of Genesis 1. In that way, the book of Genesis opens with a concise statement of what God did in the beginning and then proceeds to fill in the details with the account of the six days of creation.
But I’m beginning to see Genesis 1:1 in a new light. What if Genesis 1:1 is not merely a summary statement? Could that simple opening line be telling us something more than we find in the six-day creation account? Could it even be a prior event to the six days of creation? Here are four reasons (beginning with the strongest and proceeding to the weakest in my view) to read Genesis 1:1 as something more than a six-day summary.
- Linguistic and Contextual: The phrase “heavens and earth” in Genesis 1:1 is most likely a reference to everything. So “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth” means “In the beginning God created everything.” But the six-day narrative doesn’t tell us how God created everything; it begins with material that already existed. Before day one begins, Genesis 1:2 reads “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (NIV). (Don’t let the “formless and empty” confuse you. There was an earth; it just wasn’t a nice place. Perhaps we should think of it as a water-covered planet Mars.) Since the six-day account does not include a reference to the origin of the earth and waters of Genesis 1:2, but instead assumes their existence and since God created everything according to Genesis 1:1, Genesis 1:1 is telling us something more than the six-day account tells us.
- Literary Discourse: A literary-discourse analysis of Genesis 1 lends support to the view that Genesis 1:1 is a prior event to the six days of creation. According to C. John Collins, “The verb created in Genesis 1:1 is in the perfect, and the normal use of the perfect at the very beginning of a pericope is to denote an event that took place before the storyline gets under way.” From Genesis alone, Collins finds the following support for his conclusion: Genesis 3:1; 4:1; 15:1; 16:1; 21:1; 24:1; 39:1. (Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, chap. 4.)
- Tradition: According to theologian Henri Blocher, Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, and the majority of orthodox theologians understood the “formless and empty” earth of Genesis 1:2 to be the result of God’s creative act in Genesis 1:1. (In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis, 64.) It’s fairly easy to see why they would have made that connection. None of the six days of creation include the origin of the “formless and empty” earth of Genesis 1:2 so it must have begun with God’s creative act in Genesis 1:1. Blocher proceeds to discount this view, but its appeal to tradition is impressive and it corresponds with our reasons above.
- Theological: Traditional Jewish and Christian theology advocates creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing and reading Genesis 1:1 as something more than a summary of the six days supports that view. In fact, if we don’t read Genesis 1:1 as a reference to creation out of nothing, no one can say where the concept originated (Collins, see below). And that’s because creatio ex nihilo is not explicitly stated in Scripture, but it is implied in many verses: Ps. 90:2; John 1:3; Rom. 4:17; Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11. If Genesis 1:1 is merely a summary of the six days of creation, the closest we get to creatio ex nihilo in Genesis 1 is creatio ex aqua. Creatio ex aqua is supported by Peter who wrote, “the earth was formed out of water and by water” (2 Pet. 3:5). But if only God is eternal, everything else had a beginning and that includes the waters of Genesis 1:2. God must have made the waters of Genesis 1:2 and the only point at which that could have happened in Genesis 1 is “in the beginning” (v. 1).
While I think those are strong reasons to view Genesis 1:1 as something more than a summary statement, I don’t think it is wise to discard the summary view. Why? Because if God created everything as Genesis 1:1 asserts, that everything must include the light, sky, dry land, vegetation, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, birds, land animals, and humans created during the six days. Genesis 1:1 must encapsulate all that God brought forth during the six days of creation, but for the reasons above, it also must go beyond the six days of creation by telling us that God created the watery earth of Genesis 1:2 and the billions of galaxies that we know to exist.
In conclusion, Genesis 1:1 is more complex than I had originally assumed. I think it makes the most sense to view the opening line of Genesis as the prior event to the six days of creation and as the summary statement of all that occurred during the six days.