In genesis,

1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. link

Is this "Heaven" the heaven for the dead or the cosmos except the earth?


5 Answers 5


In antiquity, the culture of Mesopotamia and the Levant had a well established (though ultimately incorrect) cosmology of their universe. In this cosmology the "Heavens" were the place in which the gods (or God) resided. The people of Mesopotamia did not know that a "Cosmos" even existed and believed that the stars in the sky were actually embedded in a dome called the firmament. The Heavens were thought to exist above this firmament and the dead were actually thought to go to the underworld which was beneath the earth.

Jewish culture really did not have any firm consensus on the afterlife, but instead focused on life here and now and little to no scripture in the Torah was devoted to the afterlife. Simply put, the Torah did not state what happened after death and therefore perspectives on life after death varied widely in Jewish culture. There was a believe in a "world to come" but this was not thought to be like heaven and views on what that meant varied widely.

So the short answer to your question is "neither". The heavens were thought to be the dwelling place of the divine and the location the waters above the sky (or storehouses of precipitation). You may find it helpful to review these depictions of Mesopotamian Cosmology:

The Three-Story Universe From Chapter 13 of "God, Reason and the Evangelicals" by N.F. Gier, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Idaho

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  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Upvoted.
    – Mark
    Feb 6, 2021 at 21:27

The word "heaven" is used in at least three different senses in the Old Testament: 1. The sky. The place of clouds and birds. (Job 35:5 "Look to the heavens and see. Behold the clouds ...") 2. Outer space. The place of planets and stars. (Deut 4:19 "... when you lift your eyes to the heavens, and you see the Sun and Moon and the stars ..." 3. The place from which God lives and has his throne. (1 Kings 8:30 "Hear in heaven, your dwelling place ...")

I think the most likely reading of Genesis 1:1 is that it is talking about heaven in the sense of "outer space". In the beginning, God created space -- the universe -- and then within this universe he created the Earth.

I must disagree with Mr Harfield's answer. While the stars and planets occupy outer space, they are not space itself. It seems very logical to me to say that God first created space, and then a little later he created objects to populate that space. If someone said, "We built a warehouse, and then a few days later we put our stock of merchandise in it", I don't think anyone would take this as some baffling contradiction: "Isn't a warehouse a place where you store merchandise? How could a warehouse exist without merchandise?" For of course the answer is obvious: You could have an empty warehouse. Likewise, it makes perfect sense to say that God first created empty space, and then put things in it.

  • Even before you build the warehouse, the "space" it will occupy already existed and you could not create this. And it stretched imagination that a pure vacuum requires creation. Nevertheless, let us both put forward our views without dispute. Jun 5, 2015 at 0:37
  • @DickHarfield I'm not ridiculing you, just disagreeing. Yes, the analogy breaks down at some point, as every analogy does. Whether vacuum required creation ... well, are you assuming that before God began creation, space already existed? I'd say no, that God must have created it. Apparently you disagree.
    – Jay
    Jun 5, 2015 at 6:34
  • Depends on whether you believe "nothing" requires an act of creation. Jun 5, 2015 at 6:45
  • ... and whether you consider empty space to be "nothing". As a software developer, I routinely work with "nothing" as a very definite thing that has to be created. I'm reminded of a book I read years ago where a character is trying to explain Hindu-Arabic numerals to someone who is only familiar with Roman numerals. The old-timer says, "You have a symbol for nothing?" And he replies, "Sure. You have a word for nothing."
    – Jay
    Jun 5, 2015 at 6:55
  • @Jay, I agree with your assessment of the need for space. This pattern is repeated several times in the narrative. God creates room for something and then populates it. Light/Night are later populated with heavenly bodies. The Sky/Sea is later populated with birds/fish. The earth is separated from the sea and populated with creatures. There is even evidence that the Male/Female separation hints at God building a holy space for his Spirit (the use of "built" and "side" which hint at sacral architecture).
    – DonJewett
    Mar 29, 2018 at 18:04

To start, will be useful make a confrontation between the verse at issue (1) with verses 6-8.

Since in both texts we found the same term שׁמים (commonly translated ‘heaven’/’heavens’, or the like) someone may conclude – by ‘instinct’ - the two terms are focusing the same ens. But, if we include the ‘hint’ triggered by the specific context we discover that it isn’t the case. In the verses 6-8 God explain us that only in the ‘day’ 2, after the separation of the ‘waters from the waters’ was created enough space to obtain an expansion (רקיע), called, in other terms – by God himself – ‘heaven’ (verse 8). So, it’s necessary conclude that the שׁמים of verse 1 is different from the שׁמים of the verse 8.

Perhaps, is this conclusion able to trigger a contradiction of the Bible text? No, even if the two terms are identical. Why? Because the translation of the Bible (in the same manner work all other languages when they are translated, anyway) proceeds not only by words modality but also by (often, idiomatic) an expressions‘ modality.

Allow me to make an example from the Bible Greek text (since the same translating principle is applied to all languages). In Luke 3:14 we found a compound term συκοφαντησητε, drawn by συκον (‘fruits of a fig-tree’), and φαινω (‘to show’).

Now, if we perform here a by-words-translation what is come from it is: “you should be fig-alleging”. It seems that in this translation something doesn’t work (although it is literally correct), but what? The kind of translation modality. In fact, if we accept the fact that this term, really composed by two subunits is an idiom, in that case the translation (in idiom modality) gives light to the meaning (I allow you to discover this apt meaning drawn by this modality, if you don’t have ever heard about it).

Returning to your question, if we choose to translate Gen 1:1 taking into an account the possibility that הארץ ואת השמים (literally, through a by-word translation, ‘the heavens and the earth’) really formed an idiomatic expression, through a by-expression translation we will reach a better reading, and simultaneously, we will be able to remove every possibility to trigger a Bible contradiction.

See, please the following enlightening comments (bold is mine):

John Nelson Darby (Synopsis of the Bible): “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.’” [on Gen 1:1].

Matthew Henry (Commentary on the Whole Bible): “[…] 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.” [on Gen 1:1].

Jamieson, Fausset & Brown (Commentary): “the heaven and the earth – the universe.” [on Gen 1:1].

Keil&Delitzsch (Commentary on the OT): “'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.” [on Gen 1:1].

Nice to mention, also Sumerian lexicon did possess a word for ‘Universe’, EN.KI. Also in this event, this term is a compound one, EN + KI. The by-word reading? “Heaven + Earth”.

As we see, reaching the conclusion that “heavens and earth” (in the specific context of Gen 1:1) must be translated through a by-expression modality, is fully justified. As we have said before, this kind of translation respects the difference between the שׁמים of verse 1 (part of an idiom – together with , with the meaning, ‘Universe’) and the שׁמים of verse 8 (the ‘[astronomically] local space expansion’, that is 'the firmament', where birds fly and clouds float).

You asked, “Is this ‘Heaven’ the heaven for the dead or the cosmos except the earth?”. The right answer – on the basis of what is said above - is ‘Neither of them’. Really, it is the ‘Universe’.


The common English translation of the Hebrew text in Genesis 1:1 (In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth) says that heaven and the earth were created on the first day, meaning that this heaven must be the heaven we talk of as being for the dead. The cosmos except the earth is (if we ignore the vacuum between heavenly bodies, which does not require creating) largely composed of the sun, moon, stars and planets. According to Genesis 1:16, these were not created until day four and were therefore not included in the statement in Genesis 1:1.

On the other hand, some experts in biblical Hebrew say that verse 1:1 should be translated as "When God began to create heaven and earth ..." This allows the creation of heaven and earth to be the continuous process that includes the creation of the sun, moon, stars and planets (Genesis 1:16). Now it is possible to read Genesis 1:1 as being the creation of the cosmos (and the heaven for the dead, although this is not made clear).


Alimghty God cannot be fitted into our finite understanding of time and space. That HE created the heaven or heavens is a fact. Whether a space for separate entities including a space for our known universe and another space for supernatural beings is up for consideration. Gen.1:8 does talk of a separate 'heaven' from the heaven in Gen.1:1 as the former describes what is created therein and the latter is not referred to again in the creation account as the rest of the passage deals exclusively with the creation of the earth (matter) and all that is involved with the earth. That space of 'heaven' in Gen.1:1 is brought into holy writ elsewhere. {I could be completely incorrect but I am not too far away from knowing the whole truth as I am drawing near to the end of my pilgrimage and I shall see HIM as HE is}.


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