One way of reading Gen 1:1 with its 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. Commented Feb 16, 2012 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. Commented Feb 16, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 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.) Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 0:01

5 Answers 5


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 Gone Quiet'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 "this 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.

  • I'm going to check that about Kaiser tonight. There are some scholars who argue that the tolodoths mark the beginning of a section and others who argue for the end. I want to make sure Kaiser teaches on the end.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 at 21:23
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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
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 19, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 19, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 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.


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."

  • 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
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 21:00

Genesis 1:1-2, in fact, can be equally translated in two ways; by taking the Hebrew word 'b-reishit' either as a 'construct' or in the 'absolute'. This fact, in itself, renders the possibility of translating the first two verses (Gensis 1:1-2) into two strikingly different but equally valid translations. These two equally valid translations in turn give us two creation accounts and therefore, two beginnings. As such, Genesis 1:1 is an independent absolute original perfect creation and Genesis 1:3-31 is an account of a dependent later work of re-creation subsequent to chaos on earth as in Genesis 1:2. For clear details relating to God's works of creation and re-creation, renovation and restoration, please visit:> http://christianreading.com/jm...

"A natural reading of Gen 1:1 with it's immediate context is that it is part of the first day of creation"- This statement in itself lays bare the Author's bias. An objective reading of Gen.1:1 should lead anyone to conclude that it is not in anyway an incomplete work of creation. This creation fact is amply made clear by an OT Scholar [http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/science-the-bible-and-the-promised-land]. Most theologians affirm that Genesis 1:1 is a completed work of creation that is perfect and beautiful. This rules out the common assumption or belief that Genesis 1:1 is part and parcel of the first day of creation. In fact, objectively speaking, the first day begins with the appearance of light on earth, subsequent to God's commanding it to appear. For a detailed explanation and appropriate interpretation of Genesis 1 creation accounts, visit:> http://christianreading.com/jmartins/

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    I've amended the opening of the question - my bias is actually in the opposite direction but I'd like to keep the question neutral on that issue. Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 11:01
  • btw why two answers? Can you edit one of them to include the content of both or did you mean to post that way? Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 11:02
  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! I think you can benefit a lot if you see the kind of answers that this site is looking for. Be sure to visit the tour to learn more about this site. Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 15:19
  • Welcome to BH.SE! Please take our site tour. and check out what makes us different from other sites that study the Bible. Be sure to fully include any information from external sources in your answer that is pertinent to answering the question. I've combined your other post with this one as this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum.
    – Dan
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 18:41

The commoner translation of this Hebrew expression (השׁמים ואת הארץ) is “the heavens and the earth”.

Anyway, the comparison between the identical terms שׁמים - inside the verses 1, 6-8 – triggers the conclusion that even if we translate there “the heavens and the earth” this expression must be understood to an ‘expression level’ (terms’ group), not through a word-for-word understanding.

What could be the clues to conclude so?

According the traditional view, the term translated “heavens” (שׁמים) appears in the Hebrew text always in the plural form, as it were prevented to appear in a singular (grammatical) number. For an example, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance states that this term is a “dual of an unused singular shameh {shaw-meh’}; from an unused root […].”

‘Unused’ root? Unused ‘singular’? Why someone had mint a verbal root (along with the derivative singular of it) if it – all things considered – would be result useless to the subsequent Hebrew speakers?

So, the conviction that ‘heaven’ (singular form of ‘heavens’) cannot appear originally in Bible text is very dubious. Indeed, it is impossible that in all the global Hebrew text (of the Bible) we cannot come across cases in which the singular number (‘heaven’) would be a more apt term respect to the plural number (‘heavens’) of this word.

Think about this, too.

A common Hebrew idiom (in the Bible text) is “X [a given singular term] of Y [a plural form of the same term]”, as we may see – only some examples - in ‘servant of servants’ (עבדים עבד) – Gen 9:25; ‘Holy of Holies’ (קדשׁים קדשׁ) – Exo 26:33, etc.; ‘the song of songs’ (שׁירים[-ה] שׁיר) – Son 1:1; ‘king of kings’ (מלכים מלך) – Eze 26:7.

As you see clearly – even you do not read Hebrew – the two repeated term are identical, except the fact that the second term has the plural termination -im (ים-). In other words, the first term of all the idioms above mentioned are singular words, the second terms are plural forms of the first terms.

This is correct also by logical reasons. In fact, each of these expressions (above their peculiar syntax) have in common the idea of a math set that includes elements possessing identical characteristics (in the examples above, the set of the servants, the set of the holy [places], the set of the songs, the set of the kings). But, among all the elements of a given set there is a single element who stands out in sharp relief against all other elements of the set. Since this is a logical structure, it remain the same also in language different from Hebrew (for a single example, we may remind βασιλευς βασιλεων [‘king of kings’] in Rev 17:14).

In 1 Kin 8:27 we found the expression שׁמים(-ה)שׁמי, including the term at issue. Even though the term at issue – in this verse – appears (in Hebrew) always in a plural form, some translators, understanding the logical structure of the idiom, translate it with a ‘singular > plural’ sequence, as it must be (bold is mine):

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?”, KJV, along with ASV, Darby, ERV, Webster, Reina-Valera-Gómez. Even better, the LXX confirms this logical structure: “οὐρανὸς τοῦ οὐρανοῦ”, ‘heaven of heavens’.

As regards Gen 1:1, is there a possibility that שׁמים was originally intended to be a singular noun? We cannot discard this hypothesis. Again, the comparison between the שׁמים of verse 1 compared to the שׁמים of the verse 8 (as we have said above) drives us to conclude that this last שׁמים (v. 8) must be understood in a single-term way, whereas the שׁמים of the v. 1 must be understood in a group-term way, as an idiom.

But, as an idiom, what could be the meaning of it?

Let some commentators speak (the comments without a full reference can be easily found in BibleHub [in a free-way], or consulting the given version itself). As usual, the bold is mine:

Albert Barnes: “[This verse] asserts the creation of the heavens and the earth; that is, of the universe of mind and matter. […] This sentence [of] Gen 1:1 assumes the being of God, and asserts the beginning of things. Hence, it intimates that the existence of God is more immediately patent to the reason of man than the creation of the universe.”

Alberto Canen: “[…] by integrating ‘heavens and earth’ [the Bible writer] attempts to cover everything, all that exist [made of matter]. […] It is also possible that […] because in the Hebrew language there is no word that corresponds exactly to that idea [that is, the Greek kosmos], he [the Bible writer] uses this redundancy of ‘heavens and earth.’” [The Observer of Genesis, the Science Behind the Creation Story, 2014]

John Nelson Darby: “The fact is stated that God created all things, all man sees, all the material universe. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’.”

ESV [Gen 1:1 footnote]: “Heavens and the earth […] The text indicates that God created everything in the universe. […] God […] is the Creator of all things that exist.”

Matthew Henry: “[…] the heaven and the earth, that is, the world, including the whole frame and furniture of the universe, the world and all things therein, Act 17:24.”

Jamieson, Fausset & Brown: “the heaven and the earth – the universe.”

Keil&Delitzsch: “’In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ […] This sentence, which stands at the head of the records of revelation, is not a mere heading, nor a summary of the history of the creation, but a declaration of the primeval act of God, by which the universe was called into being.”

Giovanni Luzzi (Italian translation): “I cieli e la terra: modo ebraico per dire l’universo.” [“The heavens and the earth: a Hebrew mood to indicate universe”]

New Jerusalem Bible: “‘Heavens and earth’ are the ordered universe, the result of creation.”

Moreover, it seems to me that the quotation you (Jack Douglas) made of NET Bible footnote can be placed along the lines of the above commentators.

A final gem. Also Sumerians had a term describing the universe: AN.KI. It was a compound word, with the literal meaning of “heaven + earth”.

Getting back to your question (“Does Gen 1:1 refer to day 1 or the entire 6 days of creation?”) we may conclude that Gen 1:1 could have been phrased as a hyper-synthetical sentence which inform us that the physical creations (non-physical creations were yet performed) of God included the universe (as Keil&Delitzsch had yet noted), namely, the ”heaven[s] and earth”, and afterward, He – through Moses – entered into details, describing what He made, inside every creative periods of time.

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