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A natural reading of Gen 1:1 with it's immediate context is that it is part of the first day of creation

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.   ESV

However, Gen 2:1 concludes the sixth day with:

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.   ESV

Is there any strong reason to dismiss the idea that Gen 1:1 is intended to be a prologue, referring to the entire six days of creation, and also functions as a 'bookend' paired with Gen 2:1 to textually demarcate the six day period. I'd be especially interested to know if there is something in the Hebrew text that excludes this reading.

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While I don't have the specific answer to your question, here's a link to a blog post I did on Gen 1:1. –  Lance Roberts Feb 16 '12 at 18:47
    
John Sailhamer wrote book called Genesis Unbound that postulates: "The biblical record of that act of creation is recounted in Genesis 1:1 ... Beginning with Genesis 1:2, the biblical narrative recounts God's preparation of a land for the man and woman He was to create. That "land" was the same land later promised to Abraham and his descendants." In that case Gen. 1:1 is a prologue to everything that happened before the six days. It's a tempting theory to me. –  Jon Ericson Feb 16 '12 at 23:44
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"Day 1" makes a refreshingly different issue to probe over the endless debate on the meaning of "1 day". –  Caleb Feb 16 '12 at 23:44
    
@JonEricson: Doesn't that reading of Gen 1:1 kind of go hand in hand with the premises behind the "framework" view of the creation story? –  Caleb Feb 16 '12 at 23:46
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@Caleb: I haven't read the book myself, so I don't know. However, Matt Perman said in his review:' As Sailhamer writes, the author of Genesis "does not expect to be understood as writing mythology or poetry. His account, as he understands it, is a historical account of creation"' I believe he holds literal 6 days of the promised land, not the entire universe. (But this is probably grist for another full question.) –  Jon Ericson Feb 17 '12 at 0:01

4 Answers 4

The NET Bible notes address this question directly, spelling out the two alternative interpretations:

sn In the beginning. The verse refers to the beginning of the world as we know it; it affirms that it is entirely the product of the creation of God. But there are two ways that this verse can be interpreted: (1) It may be taken to refer to the original act of creation with the rest of the events on the days of creation completing it. This would mean that the disjunctive clauses of v. 2 break the sequence of the creative work of the first day. (2) It may be taken as a summary statement of what the chapter will record, that is, vv. 3-31 are about God’s creating the world as we know it.

Moreover, the notes go on to indicate that the NET translators strongly favour the latter interpretation:

...The following narrative strongly favors the second view, for the “heavens/sky” did not exist prior to the second day of creation (see v. 8) and “earth/dry land” did not exist, at least as we know it, prior to the third day of creation (see v. 10).

Emphasis is my addition In both cases

This shows that there is no strong reason against interpreting verse 1 as a summary statement of the six days of creation as it is unlikely to have escaped the attention of the NET translators (and as Frank has indicated in his answer).

Given the repetition of the distinctive phrase1 "the heavens and the earth" in 1:1 and 2:1, it seems most likely that this is a deliberate bookend narrative device where the intervening verses are summarized at each end:

1:1In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. ESV

2:1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. ESV


1 The NET notes say: "This phrase is often interpreted as a merism, referring to the entire ordered universe, including the heavens and the earth and everything in them."

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This is good. (+1) Any thoughts on Gone Quiet and Ron Maimon's conclusion that 2:3 is the other bookend (and not 2:1 as you noted)? –  Jas 3.1 Sep 3 at 21:00

I have often wondered the same thing. Here's what we can get from the text itself:

The word in 1:1 is בָּרָא , which means "created". This is different from עָשָׂה , "made", in 2:2. The difference as I have been taught is that "create" (בָּרָא ) means "out of nothing", while "make" is the more usual "making of stuff from stuff". Interestingly, 2:3 contains both:

כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת.

because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made. (source)

Some initial creation was needed on day 1 (because the world was תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (without form). Day 2 didn't involve making anything, just separation. After that we have the earth bringing forth vegetation etc, and some indirect "let X happen" followed by "and it was so" without actually specifying the creation verb. I don't see בָּרָא again until 2:3, though you might want to check my work (I read the text; I didn't check a concordance).

So what does this all mean? בָּרָא clearly applies to the first act and is brought back in 2:3 to conclude the story. "Bookends" is a nice way to characterize it. It doesn't seem like בָּרָא applies to all the creative acts of the first six days, but that doesn't preclude a reading of 1:1 being an introduction. Nothing else is possible until that happens, so it could be both introduction and first action.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Man, switching between L-to-R and R-to-L languages on a word-by-word basis is hard. :-) –  Gone Quiet Feb 16 '12 at 18:56
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@JonEricson Oh, you're right! (Assuming you meant 1:27, not 1:23.) Ok, the world, certain creatures, and man get created out of nothing (contrast this last with the second creation story in chapter 2), so the word is not unique at beginning and end. –  Gone Quiet Feb 16 '12 at 19:25
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Thanks! One thing: I was thinking "heavens and the earth" were the bookend rather than "created". Then "created" in 1:1 would be in opposition to "finished" in 2:1 - does that make sense in the Hebrew? Are "created" and "finished" antonyms? –  Jack Douglas Feb 16 '12 at 20:43
    
@JackDouglas, oh, I thought you meant that "creation (from nothing)" and "finished" were the bookends. I suppose "the heavens and the earth" in 1:1 and 2:1 also make nice bookends. –  Gone Quiet Feb 16 '12 at 21:14
    
@JackDouglas Reading it as literature, it could very well be something akin to what you're describing - an inclusio. –  swasheck Apr 6 '12 at 14:55

Something interesting I noticed in the Hebrew of Gen 1 is that almost every verse begins with a waw-consecutive. That is a grammatical construct that indicates a direct, chronological sequence. That is, "A [wc] B [wc] C" means "A and then B and then C." It's very common in prose narratives, and is usually translated simply as "and." (My translations of it usually are "and then.")

The exceptions to the waw-consecutive in Gen 1 are verse 1 and verse 2. Not seeing it in verse 1 is expected; a narrative can't start with a waw-consecutive. Not seeing it in verse 2 surprised me. Part of why it isn't on verse 2 is that verse 2 begins with a noun and a waw-consecutives can only be on verbs. Most Biblical Hebrew sentences begin with verbs.

If there had been a waw-consecutive on verse 2, that would indicate that verse 2 followed verse 1 chronologically. All other things being equal, the lack of a waw-consecutive can't be used to say either way conclusively.

However, I don't believe all other things are equal. God creates in verse 1 (it has to start somewhere) and then verse 2 tells us the state of the creation when it was created. And as Jon and this answer point out, there are two other instances of bara' in Gen 1. First, in verse 21 at the creation of the sea creatures and birds. Secondly, it appears 3 times in 1:27 at the creation of man and woman.

Edit to address a comment Jack makes on Monica's answer.

As to if Heaven and Earth could be the bookends, I would point you to Gen 2:4a.

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, [NASB]

There is the bookend, Gen 1:1-2:4. In hermeneutics, it's called an inclusio and often will repeat an entire phrase. It has both key elements, "created" (bara') and "heavens and earth."

There are scholars who regard the repeated statements of "these is the account of" in Genesis as ending sections. Walter Kaiser in The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? makes the point of these marking out sections of Moses' source material.* I was unclear if he sees them as ends of a section or beginnings.

The Hebrew word for "account" is toledoth. In the Septuagint of Genesis, it is translated consistently with genesis.

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Interesting! Not only does 2 begin with a noun, but when you get to the action (past the description of the then-state of the world), the phrase where a vav-consecutive could have gone also begins with a noun (ruach). As you say, the absence of the vc doesn't automatically support OP's theory, but its presence would challenge it. –  Gone Quiet Feb 16 '12 at 21:19
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It's worth noting, too, that the commentary of Rashi takes all of 1:1-3 to be one long compound sentence: "In the beginning of God's creation... when the earth was without form and void... God said, 'Let there be light...'" His reasoning is based on the form of the Hebrew word bereishith, which is in construct form ("the beginning of"), and on a couple of other exegetical considerations; but this understanding might also dovetail with your point about vv. 1-2 not containing any verbs with waw-consecutive. –  Alex Feb 17 '12 at 3:29
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@Alex: This slightly misstates Rashi's reasoning--- he is not reinterpreting "Bereshith", but reinterpreting "bara" (the second word) to be "bro" (which is a nonexistent construction). He then assumes that "Bereshith bro Elohim et .." means "In the beginning of God's creating the". This reading is extremely creative, but it doesn't pass the smell test. The KJ and usual translations are fine in this regard--- it means what it says--- In the beginning, God created the skies and the Earth. Rashi has a religious motivation with zero textual backup. –  Ron Maimon Feb 19 '12 at 19:39
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@RonMaimon, it is true that Rashi is not reinterpreting bereishith, nor did I ever say he did. He says that bereishith presupposes a following gerund ("there is no reishith in the Bible that is not connected to the next word"), requiring bara to be reinterpreted as bero. What about that "doesn't pass the smell test," and what is the "zero textual backup"? What arguments can you bring to bear against it? –  Alex Feb 19 '12 at 21:20
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@FrankLuke: good point, and indeed Rashi there quotes that verse as an example of elliptical construction (with reishith and acharith there requiring an assumed davar, "word" or "matter"). ("Connected to the next word" means that the first word is in the construct state, "the X of" Y.) So he does allow that bereishith bara could theoretically mean "in the beginning [of everything] He created heaven and earth," but then rejects that on the grounds that 1:2 presupposes water to already exist, which would conflict with the notion that the first creations were heaven and earth. –  Alex Feb 20 '12 at 1:04

The answer to the question

There is no problem with this interpretation--- it is the way it reads most naturally in Hebrew.

On chapter division

The chapter division between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is placed at an awkward spot--- it falls 3 verses short of a real textual boundary, which represents the break between an Elohist narrative and Yahwist narrative.

The textual boundary is obvious in any translation--- it is right at the end of Genesis 2:3, beginning of Gen 2:4, where the name Yahweh is used for the first time. The verse is "These are the narratives of the heavens and the Earth on the day that Yahwheh God made Earth and heavens". It is a natural start to the Yahwist narrative, which then continues to describe the garden of eden, and the creation of plants and things, in a different order than in the first chapter.

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