I have an interpretation of the waters of Genesis 1:2 that may be of help to some.
The ancient Hebrews were an odd lot for their time. And it is no different really for those in new testament times. Their scriptures say very peculiar things. And here we have to be very careful. I am imputing a lot of my own thinking and prejudice. I do not think what follows concerning physics is what the men who penned these words pictured. That is very dubious indeed. This portion is not exegetical. It is eisegetical interpretation, and it can be shaky ground. So do take this interpretation of Genesis 1:2 carefully. I need to make it clear that I am testing this and it will likely remain something I find fascinating but will never be essential or doctrinal. I find the fact that it seems to fit fascinating.
Having said that, the first two verses of Genesis tell us that 1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Okay, let’s just accept that for arguments sake here. Great, so God created the universe, now what? Well, it tells us, 2 “Now, the earth was formless and empty…” Some translations render it -‘formless and void’. And this is where the idea I am testing comes in. In light of the recent confirmation of gravity waves predicted by General Relativity, Genesis here looks to be talking about space (or as physicists call it, space-time).
There is no matter or energy (no ‘earth’ as it were). One question that emerges is, ‘how could mere space be taken in any sense to be earth?’ The text says, ‘the earth was formless and void’, not ‘space’, and not ‘the universe’. In a biblical context, I have always taken the earth to represent ‘the universe’, or ‘the world’. Exegetically, I think it is rather clear that the writers and audience at that time took ‘heavens’ to mean ‘space and sky’ and ‘earth’ to mean ‘our planet’. Either way, this curious fit, still fits.
We must ask, “are earth and space time in any sense the same?” Well, as physicists have learned, they are at least so critically related, that one cannot exist without the other. It seems obvious to me that matter (mass-energy) cannot exist without space and we will revisit that. But can space-time exist in isolation? We will get to that too and deal with one enormous problem with that proposal.
The rest of verse 2 says, “…and the spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the deep”. Some translations render it, ‘over the surface of the waters’. Well, space is not like waters, and it does not have surface of any kind, does it? Actually, as has now been observed, it is like a liquid in some ways. Some physicists have even proposed that space is a super-fluid. The idea that space-time has surface is a little trickier to grasp, but yes to that as well. It does. We’ll cover all of it.
Here in the ancient texts we have something that is real. It exists. But it is a great deep, and void, or perhaps undefined. Some, including myself, have considered that this may mean chaos or ‘nothing’. However, the text says (and we must always refer to the text) that there is ‘surface’ (or ‘face of the...’) and then uses an ancient Hebrew term for ‘waters’. This suggests structure of some kind, which would not be chaos and certainly not ‘nothing’. I think it is reasonable to consider it to be conveying the idea of some kind of primeval creation at its most basic level. I think a helpful analogy is a painting by an artist. At its most basic level, a painting is mere canvass.
We can’t yet call it a painting, but we cannot call it ‘nothing’ either. If a friend came in, looked at your empty canvass and asked, “What is that?”, you might reply, “That is Mt. Shasta!” if you had enough vision. In the same way, is it reasonable to think that when the text says that the ‘earth was formless and void’, that God is telling us his vision at this stage, even though it is currently mere canvass. If that is correct, then here God does not see canvass, he sees his goal, and to him, all of creation is but details, it is the earth he has in mind.
Interestingly, space-time, like energy, remains undefined other than mathematically. Physicists cannot tell us what they are, only what they do. In another article, Barry Evans correctly notes that physicists use metaphor to describe the way gravity works. To describe gravity, they speak of the ‘fabric of space time’. And recent experiments have confirmed Einstein’s prediction that certain phenomenon such as very large lopsided spinning objects and massive collisions produce gravity waves in the fabric of space time.
In other words, space acts as a linked matrix or fabric of some kind but 3dimensionally. Great concentrations of matter like our sun, displace and distort that space much as a bowling ball would displace a mattress and cause other nearby objects to roll toward it. That is the illustration most people use to convey what we have learned about its behavior. The bowling ball analogy illustrates in 2 dimensions, what space actually does in 3. I think these physicists are right. There is a great deal of explanatory power here.
The frustration comes when you try to get a straight answer from them about ‘what space actually is’. Countless Google searches for articles and videos will leave you frustrated. It is almost as if they purposely evade the question by giving all sorts of irrelevant information concerning theories about dark matter and dark energy (what the math tells us about their behavior, but not its essence). Though they do not know they always shift our minds back to thinking in material terms. They sometimes remind me of magicians.
This is space-time we are speaking about, not matter. It is a type of volume, not the material things that fill the volume. Space is the backdrop on which matter resides much like paint is hung upon a canvass. It is real. And it is not nothing. It has structure but is not material, just as canvass is real, but is not paint. What gravity shows us is that space does have surface, but only in that odd context of multiple dimensions. It is not a 2 dimensional surface, but a 3 dimensional surface. That is tough for us to picture mentally. Such are the ways of physics and of the God who created them.
Now this is very interesting and in some ways a bit disturbing. The way they confirmed the existence of gravity waves was by noticing that when space moves, matter moves with it. The instruments themselves (long tubes) were altered by the waves. This changed the time it took for photons to travel the distance, and it was measured. I think a good analogy is that the waves of space-time affect mass-energy the same way paint moves when you shake the canvass. It is as if the universe is a 3 dimensional canvass struck with 3 dimensional paint. That makes some people uneasy, and there is more and more talk in some circles that the universe resembles a hologram. Maybe this is not our real home but a mere shadow of it?
This business of waters in Genesis (and it is picked up by Peter in the New Testament 2 Peter 3:5) frustrated me in the past, because I could not make sense of it if taken in the literal sense Peter certainly must have meant. It was one of those areas I had to accept on faith, which is fine. But now it makes perfect sense, more than Peter and Moses could have known. They interpreted the concept in the only way they could understand at the time. Whatever the case, if correct, this interpretation I am playing with must not contradict scripture, but illuminate it.
What this means is that at bottom, matter and space must be the same thing, and in consideration of Peter’s words, matter (earth) was formed by water and out of the water. That would place the primeval structure of space-time as primary ( I would like to see the look on Peter’s face when he finds out that he was a physicist and didn’t know it). This would be like saying that paint and canvass are both made of atoms, and in turn electrons and protons, and quanta, etc. But here our paint analogy reaches its limits since we know paint is not made out of canvass.
The nature of space-time is not understood well enough to clarify its relationship to matter. Clearly, on some levels they are not the same, so I have no way to explain how mass-energy can be made out of space-time. But if this is what God is telling us, perhaps this is testable in some way, or can at least point physics in the proper direction. That would get their attention.
What this all means is, that when Genesis 2 says that the earth was formless and void , and that the spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the deep (or the waters) it could be telling us that space-time has surface, waves, and that it is the essential stuff that mass-energy is derived from. It is at least telling us that the earth at this point was mere canvas. God had yet to begin his masterpiece, first he created the canvas. Modern physics has discovered these things only very recently.
If this was to be the case, how did the Hebrews know this 3000 years ago when Einstein’s theory predicted it less that 100 years ago, and the gravity waves were only confirmed on September 14th 2015? I would hope it is obvious that the question is rhetorical. they could not have known.
This reminds me of a question I have had my whole life when hearing about God and the idea that God is spirit; “What is spirit?” If we do not even know what space time is (and it is immaterial), what energy is, or what consciousness is, then how can I know what spirit is? In fact, space time is probably the best natural metaphor for spirit that there is. Could they possibly be the same thing? That is not a rhetorical question. I have no idea. The scriptures do tell us (but not at what level) that God holds the universe together so that is why I ask. Talk about a tough question.
The biggest difficulty here is that Einstein’s theory (which is solidly confirmed by multiple confirmations) means that space-time and gravity waves cannot exist in the absence of mass energy (matter). This is the relatedness (theory of relativity). And this makes good intuitive sense actually. When something is intelligible, it is only intelligible because of its relationship to something else. In the absence of matter, what is space? Even if it exists it is simply void in relational terms. It is so basic and singular as to defy description. There is nothing to contrast it with and shed light to provide a distinction. It resides in darkness intellectually (relationally) speaking. This reminds me of the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is present, does it make a sound?” It will bake your noodle if you let it.
Fortunately the bible gives us a solution so we need not presume to argue with Albert Einstein. It not only gives us something to relate with it, but a conscious observer to boot; “and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters”. How lucky are we? Dodged a bullet there boy! As C.S. Lewis noted, “God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous."
With the absence of celestial bodies to produce gravity waves in that initial void, was the presence of God hovering over its 3D surface enough to make the void tremble? Or was space-time flat at this stage as the math of physics leads us to conclude given certain parameters? I don’t know. And though I do not fully comprehend these things, the perceived chasm between heaven and earth gets smaller with each question and the connections between Einstein and Genesis.
Could it be that the next step, when God said, “Let there be light” it resulted in mass energy coming into being to created elaborate unfolding relationships with itself and space-time, bringing intelligibility to the universe by giving breadth to structure, distinctions, and complexity? Only god knows, I am but a primitive soul at this time, but even at this simpler level the question is profound to me. That leaves me with a feeling of brotherhood with the ancients. I can worship God without full understanding. Just a glimpse of his genius is enough.
I also do not know if this interpretation is accurate, but sometimes I wonder if the author of DNA and its unfathomable layers of information content did not write the bible in a similar vein. Am I guilty of reading into the text? Yes. Does it fit? Surprisingly, yes.