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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
@James Or the substance exudes from God's being. It is because God is, and by extention, so also is everything else. That would be an acceptable monotheistic take, at least, as the Hebrews were. – fredsbend Apr 13 at 19:23

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

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.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

Is this an answer or a question? – Dan Mar 13 at 18:30
I consider it an answer and interpret the 'waters' of Genesis 1:2 to be describing the fluid characteristics of space-time. – Robert Lockett Mar 13 at 22:10
Ok, thanks for clarifying. We are certainly open to this perspective, but we require answers to "show their work", which means clearly connecting the dots starting from the text. In this case, it would be helpful to cite experts who share this perspective. We don't simply want to know what you know, but how you know it. Think of it like math homework, giving the answer doesn't count without showing how you derived/prove the answer. – Dan Mar 13 at 22:37
Yes, you would need to edit the post to add this homework, not comment about it. – Dan Mar 13 at 23:38
Okay Dan, you have forced me to work harder and do some homework. Thank you. It was a good test of my patience. I have done my hermaneutics homework. I have at least learned that I am interpreting by way of eisegesis which makes what I have to share immediately suspect, and for good reason. Be that as it may I do hope you will consider it. – Robert Lockett Mar 16 at 13:26

in my understanding, the "water" was created in the beginning together with heaven and earth(heaven, earth includincluding water). Because, After this verse we did not read any verse that God said " let there be a water" or that said "God created water"

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looking up waters in Hebrew I find the word was the 13th letter in Hebrew alphabet and the meaning has several related meanings waters / people /nations/languages and tongues. I believe it to be meant to be the people or angels of the first heaven that were being separated and the firmament was then called the new heaven. God faithful were to remain above the firmament with him and the unfaithful were gather together and he called them sea. to be with you know who. same is the case of noah the waters went to battle. to end all life on earth. Hebrew for ark means a box or chest not a boat. the waters above the firmament rain down from heaven to remove all evil from the earth. then after the war was over. see what the dove returned with, a olive branch, meaning peace.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Welcome to the forum, Clarence. It appears you take the scriptures to be full of metaphors rather than being literal, is that correct? Can you provide some evidence that the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet has the symbolic meanings you mentioned? – WoundedEgo Apr 25 at 10:51

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