The word הארץ ('the earth') appears a very large number of times in the six-day creation account spanning Genesis 1:1 to 2:1.

It seems clear to me that the usages in 1:1 and 2:1 are special - the only two cases where the word forms part of the phrase "heavens and the earth" which appear to 'bookend' the creation narrative and are often interpreted as referring to the entire ordered universe, including the heavens and the earth and everything in them."1.

This question is about the use of the word in 1:2 :

2The 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. ESV

All the other instances of the word appear to correspond with the 'earth' that appeared and was named in verses 9-10, the 'dry land':

9And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. ESV

However is seems less likely that the occurrence in verse 2 has a similar meaning because

  1. It precedes the defining usage in verse 10
  2. It refers to something that is 'without form and void', which isn't compatible with the rather well-defined concept introduced later

For this reason is seems to me that the word as used in verse 2 has a different and third unique meaning among the usages in this passage.

  • Is such an idea supportable from a Hebrew linguistic perspective?
  • If so can the word mean something broad like 'universe' or 'creation'?

1 see the NET notes


3 Answers 3


Short Answer: Based on the textual evidence, it may not be a third usage, but in fact the same as the second usage. In other words, the land (as opposed to the waters or heavens) was formless and void.

There are two key pieces of evidence from the text that support this conclusion:

  • Gen. 1:2 does not merely say the earth was formless and void, but also that "darkness was over the face of the deep". "The deep" is a term commonly used to refer to the deep waters. In other words, the picture here is not of an empty nothingness, but of dark, deep waters and purposeless / fruitless land.

  • In Gen. 1:9 it is not that dry land appeared out of nowhere, but rather, that as the waters were gathered the dry land appeared. The picture seems to be that the land was underneath the waters, and until the waters were collected the land was not visible, but as the waters were collected (i.e. into oceans and whatnot) the dry land appeared.

Regarding your two observations:

1) While the usage in verse 2 does "precede the defining usage" in verse 10, it should be noted that Genesis was not written to an audience without an established language system. (E.g. the same could be said of "God" in verse 1.) The term "land" already had a semantic range prior to the writing of Genesis 1, so the appearance of "land" in verse 2 prior to verse 10 is not significant.

2) "Without form" and "void" should be understood in context. In the immediate context we see the appearance of both land, water, as well as the ability to hover "above" the waters (think "heavens"). Thus, while the "land" was formless and void, that does not imply its absence or non-existence.

Regarding your specific additional questions:

  • As you've already noted, this definition is indeed supported by Hebrew linguistics.

  • I am not aware of any usage of "land" to refer to the entire universe or all of creation.

As a side note, it is worth mentioning that:

  • Later Hebrew (and biblical) tradition holds that "the earth was formed out of water and by water" (2 Pet. 3:5) which matches this interpretation well, and

  • When Moses wrote the flood narrative (only a few chapters later) he wrote it and the creation narrative in such a way that they use similar terminology and imagery, linking the two events stylistically. I bring this up because in the flood narrative the land does exist but it is under the water, and only appears when the waters recede.

  • When Moses wrote the Promised Land narrative near the end of the Pentateuch, he also wrote that in such a way that it used similar terminology to the Genesis account, linking these two events stylistically as well. Again, we see here waters parting and dry land appearing as the waters recede.

Hope that helps!

  • 1
    This does help, and sits well with the NET translator notes on the usage in verse 2: "That is, what we now call “the earth.” The creation of the earth as we know it is described in vv. 9-10. Prior to this the substance which became the earth (= dry land) lay dormant under the water." I've noticed that some Gen usages have the article and a few don't. Do those with the article refer to 'the earth' as a whole, and those without refer to 'earth' as in 'the ground' or 'soil'? Commented Aug 16, 2014 at 17:03
  • @JackDouglas Regarding your last question, I'm not sure. That would probably be a good question to post separately for the Hebrew language experts to unpack for us.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 15:06
  • @Jack Douglas You might find this article interesting jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5394-earth It discusses the modern meanings of the word earth and goes into it's biblical usage.
    – seedy3
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 22:42
  • thanks @seedy3 that is interesting. I wonder about the assumption that the ancients took their own imagary literally any more than we do however — it seems at least perfectly plausible that the 'ends of the earth' (et al) was as symbolic for them as it is for us. Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 7:41

As modern day Westerners, we forget that middle-easterners from 2 to 5 thousand years ago had a very different picture of the universe. Reading the Enûma Eliš and Eridu Genesis are very revealing in this regard. Here is a pictographic representation of what these people from long ago would have envisioned the universe:

enter image description here

When reading Genesis one, is is most helpful to keep this concept of the universe in mind. As such, "the heavens and the earth" is most like saying "the universe" while simply "the earth" is probably referring to the disk of earth formed from and rising up from the primordial waters.

You mention the concept of the earth being formless and void. Nearly all of the early accounts of creation mention primordial waters, a type of chaotic, formless substance out of which the earth sprang - a type of proto-universe. The concept of creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing) did not come along until the Greek philosophers.

  • This is really really helpful, thanks. If you have time, I'd appreciate a slightly more direct addressing of the question of whether the word has three different distinct meanings in Genesis 1. I've edited in the graphic and some links - if you don't like what I've done please say so or roll the change back. Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 20:41
  • 1
    Actually, this graphic appeared in my History of the Near Ancient Middle East textbook (thought I do not remember the exact title at the moment; I'd have to see if I can locate my old syllabus) and it is based on multiple sources and multiple scholars have created similar graphics. For example: i.sstatic.net/fLJA0.jpg. This is not a conclusion I am coming to, this is a statement made by multiple scholars in multiple commentaries and text books. Are you of the position that the ancients believed the earth was not flat? Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 20:28
  • 2
    @JamesShewey I am aware that you did not come up with the image yourself; I have seen it many times before. What I am saying is that the scholars who did make it merely looked at ancient descriptions of cosmology, including a misunderstanding of the biblical text, and pasted them all together into a single "unifying" picture. This image (and those like it) represent their conclusion, not evidence. Using this graphic to support this model of ancient Hebrew cosmology is a logical fallacy. In other words, you have not presented any evidence by pasting this picture, only a flawed conclusion.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:02
  • 2
    @Jas3.1 This is not just based on descriptions, but also real artwork drawn by people of the period- take these for example. Taken with descriptions in the Enûma Eliš and many other texts, it would be a stretch to say the ancients didn't perceive their universe this way. Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 4:06
  • 1
    @JamesShewey Whether artwork or literature, they are ancient descriptions. And they vary drastically from culture to culture, other than obvious stuff like "stars are up, land is down". Regardless, it is a fallacy to just assert that the Bible makes the same silly errors that these other cultures made just because Hebrew culture was also old. The biblical record clearly does not teach the same nonsense that some of those pictures taught. (That the sky was actually a bent-over goddess, etc.)
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 5:04

You phrase your latter of your two questions as 'Can the word mean something broad like “universe” or “creation”?' I presume that you mean Can the word 'earth' in v. 1 be meant by the author as half of a merism the total of which is meant as 'the whole cosmos? I shall offer my answer to that in a moment.

It seems to me your first question is whether the Hebrew itself can support the idea that 'earth' in verse 2 is meant in a third way, different from that either in verse 1 or that in verse 9-10. Given what I answer below to your latter question, I see no reason to think that that in verse 2 must be different from that in v. 1.

Now, in regard to whether v. 1 involves a merism. I do not believe that that question can adequately be answered by an appeal narrowly to a knowledge/opinion of the Hebrew. This is because, short of some science-fictional ideas to the contrary, the nature of our efforts to explain the origin of the natural cosmos is an effort that presupposes that the proper audience of our efforts thereto is a ground-based human audience (ourselves, and our fellow terrestrial humans both present and future).

It obviously is a fact that there exist among humans different stories and ideas as to the origins of the natural cosmos. These cosmologies, of course, include both theistic and non-theistic stories, both ancient and modern. Their multiple existence commands of us an explanation for it.

The basic explanation for the existence of multiple cosmologies among us is an explanation having at least two of exactly three parts:

(a) The single primary part, that we have a natural drive to know, and to understand, how and why the natural realm came to be.

The two second parts are:

  • (b) we do not always agree with whatever such story that we have inherited; and

  • (c) human expansion from any local land often has included one or both of: (i) mis-remembering some of the details of the inherited cosmology; (ii) forgetting of the inherited cosmology, allowing the outlying population to innovate in terms of (a).

The cause for (b) may be a complex matter, such as that including socio-psychological and political issues. But the fact of (b) seems to be the main reason why there are multiple cosmologies among humans.

But, it is extremely important to note that, given our natural drive to know and understand how and why the natural realm came to be, neither or both (b) or (c) tells us either:


  • (X) whether humans themselves initially had one cosmology or multiple cosmologies, and

  • (Y) Whence the initial cosmology or cosmologies.


For (X), it is conceivable that humans originated either: (mc) in multiple independent social cultural locations (societies) and, thus, possibly with multiple independent different cosmologies; or (sc) in a single society and, thus, possibly with a single cosmology.

Now, the barest Biblical conception of the origin of cosmology is this latter (sc): humans originated in a single society, and thus most naturally began with a single cosmology.

But, regardless of the origin of cosmology, per se, there seems to be one most basic universal distinction which is presupposed in our drive to have an origin of the cosmos: the Terrestrial Default Binary. This binary is formed by the fact that we normally are bound to the life-supportive and life-filled half of our cosmos.

Obviously, then, our normal ground-bound frame of reference in this binary could be your 'earth' in Genesis 1:1. This would explain the claim, by many, that the Hebrew phrase 'heaven and Earth', typically is meant as a merism: an all-inclusive term for the entire natural cosmos: the Great Wide Far Up There and the Great Wide Down Here. Heaven and Earth.


And I notice that 'erets' in vs. 9-10 does not include the h' prefix of that in v.1.

Heaven and Earth = h'shamayim ve'et h'erets.

Finally, we cannot accurately assume that Genesis 1 is an account purely of God's creation acts. Instead, it seems to be more a report as to what God did. The distinction here may be subtle, and then some, until we see what the account says that God did.

First, the account reports that God not only observes things, but names things. And the basic route to naming a given thing is to observationally distinguish it from its counterpart. Verse 1 does this implicitly. But verse 1 does so for the whole cosmos: h'shamayim ve'et h'erets

According to the above-mentioned Terrestrial Default theory, the first observational distinction which the account reports regarding Earth herself is that within which she abides from her immediate wider cosmic context: the directional light of the Sun. The moonlight does not rule the day, nor is the moonlit night thereby called 'Day'.

That is, according to this Terrestrial Default theory, v. 4 is not describing any action, on God's part, upon the light and dark. Rather, it is describing merely an observation, on His part, of the fact that h'eretz abides the distinction (from an 'unmoving' space-based point of view, Earth rotates). Therefore does God name the distinction, and this specifically in terms of Earth: Day and Night.

So, according to this theory, the first five verses are a progression, and a particular one. The account, which includes Genesis 2, begins with an initial prime distinction, and the direction of that prime distinction is that followed by the rest of the account: General-to-special. Heaven and Earth....Man and Woman.

Second, given what the account says, the account is conspicuous for what it does not say: It reports that God names things, but only five things. The account has many more than five things! (vv. 5, 8, 10)

The narrative fact is that God made humans in God's image and likeness. The empirical natural fact is that humans have the capacity to develop a language from scratch, and this most effectively and quickly from a combination of human bio-cognition enviromental cognition and socio-interactive cognition.

If we unpack the implications of all this, the Terrestrial Default theory of Genesis 1 concludes, only to begin with, that there is a particular initial conversation that God had with Adam:


  1. God: 'Yam.'
  2. Adam: 'Mayim.'
  3. God: 'Shamayim.'
  4. Adam: 'H'shamayim.'
  5. God: 'Erets.'
  6. Adam: H'erets.'
  7. God: 'Day and Night.'


That's seven exchanges, the final one containing not only one, but two names. This is in keeping not only with the total seven recursions which the Terrestrial Default theory finds in the binary account (Genesis 1-and-2), but with the final, seventh stage of that recursion: Adam finally finds his humanity, as well, instantiated in binary. And that final stage in the exchange naturally is the first two things that God names. That is, in five names together does God identify to Adam the non-living half of Earth's life-support system.

This is how I reason both (1) that 'earth' in vs. 1-2 is not the same as that in vs. 9-10; and (2) that 'earth' in vs. 1-2 is, within the proper frame of reference of both humans and God, our own ground-bound half of a merism (heaven and earth) that the account's author means for 'The Entire Created Cosmos That Humans Naturally Observe'.


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