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We read in the creation account:

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.—Genesis 1:2 (ESV)

The word translated "waters" is Strong’s (4325):

Dual of a primitive noun (but used in a singular sense)
water; figuratively, juice; by euphemism, urine, semen:-- + piss, wasting, water(-ing, (-course, -flood, -spring)).

Is the Water: Hydrogen and Oxygen, Primordial Fluid, Jewish Mythological Poetry, or other?

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There really is no way this can be answered definitively, but it would still be a valuable question to show how various commentators have understood this in the past. – Dan Feb 12 '13 at 15:55
I’ve listed most answers in the question; i’m curisous what this community thinks the 'water' is. – Derek Scott Feb 12 '13 at 17:37
I see that. I wasn't suggesting an edit. I was just commenting with my thoughts :) – Dan Feb 12 '13 at 17:43
I think your question was better as originally worded. – Dan Feb 12 '13 at 18:16
@Jack: I took a stab at making this a question that works well for the site. Derek: feel free to answer the question yourself if you feel lead! Also we can meet in our site's chat and go over things there. (Comments are great, but chat works better for real discussions.) It was an interesting question to answer and I hope we get some more opinions on it! – Jon Ericson Feb 12 '13 at 19:36

The NET Bible notes are helpful here:

tn The Hebrew term תְּהוֹם (tÿhom, “deep”) refers to the watery deep, the salty ocean – especially the primeval ocean that surrounds and underlies the earth (see Gen 7:11).

sn The watery deep. In the Babylonian account of creation Marduk killed the goddess Tiamat (the salty sea) and used her carcass to create heaven and earth. The form of the Hebrew word for “deep” is distinct enough from the name “Tiamat” to deny direct borrowing; however, it is possible that there is a polemical stress here. Ancient Israel does not see the ocean as a powerful deity to be destroyed in creation, only a force of nature that can be controlled by God.

sn The water. The text deliberately changes now from the term for the watery deep to the general word for water. The arena is now the life-giving water and not the chaotic abyss-like deep. The change may be merely stylistic, but it may also carry some significance. The deep carries with it the sense of the abyss, chaos, darkness—in short, that which is not good for life.

(The acronym tn stands for "translator's note" and sn for "study note".)

So there are are actually two uses of water imagery in the text. The first specifically relates to the ocean, which is a symbol of death (see Jonah 2) and the second is plain water, which can be a symbol of life (see Psalm 107:35).

On the other hand, the words are sometimes used in parallel to mean the same concept:

From whose womb does the ice emerge,
and the frost from the sky, who gives birth to it,
when the waters become hard like stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen solid?
—Job 38:29-30 (NET)

Jonah's poem also uses מַיִם (mayim) to signal the dangerous situation he is in; the water is going to drown him without divine intervention. So we need to look at the context of Genesis 1 to understand what the author intends by the word.

Life springs from water

The creation account abounds with life and water is a critical component. The water doesn't contain life yet. Verse 2 hints at the general arc of the creation narrative: emptiness transformed to abundance. The Spirit of God hovering over the deep prompts the author to shift from desolate imagery to imagery with the potential for life. The same word is repeated in verse 6 (thrice), 7 (twice), 9, 10, 20, 21, and 22. Day 5 is particularly striking:

God said, “Let the water swarm with swarms of living creatures and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” God created the great sea creatures and every living and moving thing with which the water swarmed, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” There was evening, and there was morning, a fifth day.—Genesis 1:20-23 (NET)

Clearly, the water sustains life! Meanwhile, the first word (תְּהוֹם "deep, sea, abysses") does not show up in Genesis until God uses in to destroy life in the days of Noah. The context shows that "the water" in Genesis 1:2 is a symbol of life.

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Jon, “…The creation account abounds with life and water is a critical component.” Well stated - I love this answer. But the water of Genesis 1:2 has no “life” in it, for life was yet to be created. – Derek Scott Feb 12 '13 at 19:01
Jon, I love your view on this last point - very artistic. Specifically "…desolate imagery to imagery with the potential for life." Opposite’s if you will, and they abound in scripture too: Separation of Darkness - light. Lion - Lamb. Creator of all - nestled in a Mary’s womb. This is one of my favorite items in scripture, that is, the contra-patterns God weaves like a brilliant master. – Derek Scott Feb 12 '13 at 19:32
@Derek Scott: Thanks. On further reflection, that probably belongs in the answer itself and not in the comments (which are second class citizens here ;-). – Jon Ericson Feb 12 '13 at 19:40
Reviewing other creation texts such as the Enuma Elish and Eridu Genesis as well as Egyptian creative accounts could be informative here. They all share this feature of having a primordial waters. This appears to be some type of proto-universe substance. Remember that that the concept of creation ex-nilho did not come along until greco-roman times. Therefore it appears that this proto-substance just always was like God himself. – James Shewey Aug 11 '14 at 20:51

The waters in Genesis 1:2 appears to be literal, and here is an explanation.

When the Apostle Paul described our new birth in 2 Cor 4:6-7, he was using the imagery found in the creation account in Genesis. That is, the Spirit of God who indwells us provided us the new birth. Light is therefore called out of darkness, according to the Apostle Paul.

In John 4:14 water is the image of life. Jesus gives us eternal life (water) by means of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit therefore uses "water" to give us eternal life. For example, when the believer is "born again," his spiritual death is washed away with the water of eternal life. This new birth occurs through the water and the Spirit, and therefore Jesus indicated that one is therefore "born again" (John 3:5).

As a quick sidenote, sins and transgressions are removed by blood, but spiritual death is removed through the washing of "water." This is the gist of Romans 5. Please click here, then here, then here, and then here. Please note that blood (for sin) and water (for death) are the two the aspects of our salvation.

It appears then that the water in Genesis 1 was therefore literal, and this water was used in the preparation of life on the earth. According to Hebrews 12:26-27 the earth was at one time "shaken" in pre-biblical times. As we know, the flood of Noah did not remove all created things of the earth (e.g., sea creatures were not destroyed in the flood of Noah much less the occupants of the ark), but at a future time, the earth will be shaken so that all created things will be removed "again." Can we infer from Hebrews 12:26-27 that at one time the earth was shaken so that all created things at one time in pre-history were removed from the earth? Was there a gap of an indefinite period of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 when this happened (dinosaurs?), when both the Spirit and water appeared to make all things new?

In other words, the Spirit of God uses water so that the earth is born again, and to provide "eternal life" to the believer, who is born again. In both cases, the pre-existent state was a state of "darkness and void" from which light subsequently then emanates. In the former case, the world was born again "through water and Spirit," and in the latter case the believer is born again "through water and Spirit."

Not to confuse the matter, but to reinforce this point we know that John the Baptist indicated that unbelievers who rejected Jesus will be baptized not with water, but with fire (Luke 3:16). In a similar vein, the Apostle Peter indicated that the earth will not be again immersed into water, but with fire (2 Peter 3:7). The idea here is that what is intended to remain, the cleansing is with water; and what is not intended to remain, the cleansing is with fire.

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Hi Joe, "darkness and void from which light subsequently then emanates.” The scripture never makes this claim. The scripture does say, “And God said let there be light and there was light." Gen.1:3 If this water is literal, as you pointed out, then the light must be literal too. So, what is light in Genesis 1:3? – Derek Scott Feb 21 '13 at 10:26
The light is the very glory of God. Please see 2 Cor 4:6-7, where the believer is "born again" by the light of the indwelling Spirit of God, through whom the earth (in the Genesis account) too was "born again." In both cases, the rebirth was "through water and Spirit" (John 3:5). – Joseph Feb 22 '13 at 1:19

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