The Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1–2 states,
א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ ב
וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
First, notice that v. 2 commences with a disjunctive vav, i.e. וְהָאָרֶץ. One website explains the disjunctive relationship as follows:
The disjunctive relationship is non-sequential. The relationship between the two clauses is not based on a logical or temporal order. In English we might say, “I went to the store, and they went to the park.” The action of the first clause and the action of the second clause are not sequential.
The NET Bible footnote on Gen. 1:2 states,
The disjunctive clause (conjunction + subject + verb) at the beginning of v. 2 gives background information for the following narrative, explaining the state of things when “God said…” (v. 3). Verse one is a title to the chapter, v. 2 provides information about the state of things when God spoke, and v. 3 begins the narrative per se with the typical narrative construction (vav [ו] consecutive followed by the prefixed verbal form). (This literary structure is paralleled in the second portion of the book: Gen 2:4 provides the title or summary of what follows, 2:5–6 use disjunctive clause structures to give background information for the following narrative, and 2:7 begins the narrative with the vav consecutive attached to a prefixed verbal form.) Some translate 1:2a “and the earth became,” arguing that v. 1 describes the original creation of the earth, while v. 2 refers to a judgment that reduced it to a chaotic condition. Verses 3ff. then describe the re-creation of the earth. However, the disjunctive clause at the beginning of v. 2 cannot be translated as if it were relating the next event in a sequence. If v. 2 were sequential to v. 1, the author would have used the vav consecutive followed by a prefixed verbal form and the subject.
The reader would benefit from thoroughly understanding the NET Bible footnote.
Succinctly stated, Gen. 1:1 states that God created the heavens and the earth (as an objective fact). Gen. 1:2 then begins to explain how God created the heavens and the earth. (Note, “heaven(s)” is referring not to the spiritual domain, but rather, to the physical atmosphere immediately surrounding earth and extending into space.) There is absolutely no discussion in Genesis 1 of the creation of the spiritual domain often also referred to as “heaven.”
Contrary to popular thinking, Genesis doesn’t describe creatio ex nihilo, although that isn’t to say it didn’t occur. The creation of the earth is described first, then the creation of the heaven, although the creation of the earth is completed after the creation of the heaven.
In v. 2, the narrator relates how the earth was a formless and desolate mass, since it was entirely submerged in water.1
2 Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the abyss, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the water.
Carl Friedrich Keil remarked,2
“and the earth was without form and void,” not before, but when, or after God created it. From this it is evident that the void and formless state of the earth was not uncreated, or without beginning. At the same time it is obvious from the creative acts which follows (vers. 3–18), that the heaven and earth, as God created them in the beginning, were not the well-ordered universe, but the world in its elementary form.
Darkness existed over the surface of the abyss. Then the Spirit of God (i.e., the Holy Spirit) was brooding over the water (like a bird, i.e., dove). Most assume that the physical mass of the earth was created in v. 1. Again, the disjunctive vav precludes such an opinion. The Bible simply never relates when the physical mass of the earth was created ex nihilo. Instead, the reader is brought to v. 2 where the earth exists, but it is a formless and desolate mass, being entirely submerged in water.
To counteract the darkness over the surface of the abyss, God says, “Let there be light!” and there was light (v. 3). God sees that the light is good and divides it from the darkness (v. 4). Step by step, now, the earth begins to take form. Light will enable it to become visible (ὁρατός). It is being created, so to speak.
The light spoken into existence is called “day,” and the darkness which had already existed prior to the light is called “night” (v. 5). Then there was evening; then there was morning—“one day.”
It follows from this, that the days of creation are not reckoned from evening to evening, but from morning to morning. The first day does not fully terminate till the light returns after the darkness of night; it is not till the break of the new morning that the first interchange of light and darkness is completed...
God commands that there be a firmament (רָקִיעַ) which divides the water(s) above the earth from the water(s) covering the earth (v. 6). God then makes that firmament and “divided the water(s) under the firmament from the water(s) above the firmament.” And so it was.
Notice how God commands something to exist and then creates or makes it:
- And God said, “Let there be a firmament...” (v. 6)
- And God made the firmament... (v. 7)
Next, God calls the firmament “heaven” (שָׁמָיִם) (v. 8). Here, now, is the completion of the creation of heaven.
Then, God commands that the waters under “heaven” (the firmament) be gathered together so that the dry land may appear. “And so it was.” God calls the dry land “earth” (אֶרֶץ) (v. 10). Here, now, is the completion of the creation of earth; it is now visible.
From this point forward, God fills the heaven and the earth that have been created. The heaven is filled with fowl (vv. 20-21) and heavenly bodies (planets, moons, stars) (vv. 14-18). The earth is filled with grass, herbs, trees (vv. 11-12), aquatic creatures (vv. 20-21), beasts, insects, etc. (vv. 24-25), and especially humans (vv. 26-27).
In summary, the earth is created when the water is gathered together allowing the dry land, later called “earth,” to be visible and then filled and inhabited. The firmament is indeed made by God (seemingly ex nihilo) and called “heaven”; it is an expanse of atmosphere that separates water above it and below it. After each appears or is made, then they are filled.
In regards to the questions:
So, how could the Spirit of God move upon the face of the waters when the Earth was completely empty?
And how can something be considered empty when there is something inside it (waters)?
The narrator describes the earth as being תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (tohu vavohu) or “formless (unseen) and desolate.”
The earth is no longer תֹהוּ (tohu), “formless” or unseen, once it is no longer submerged in water. That is, it was formless and unseen underneath the water whereupon darkness existed. But, once light came into existence, and the waters are gathered into one place, the earth took form (i.e., no longer תֹהוּ). Thus, Gen. 1:2–10 describes the gradual elimination of the state of formlessness.
The earth is no longer בֹהוּ (vohu), “desolate,” once it is filled with animals (living creatures). Thus, Gen. 1:11–30 describes the gradual elimination of the state of desolation.
1 LXX: ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος—“unseen and unprepared.” It is interesting to note that the latter word, ἀκατασκεύαστος (“unprepared”), seems to depict the earth in stark contrast to the spiritual heaven which the LXX describes as ἑτοῖμος (“prepared”); cf. LXX 1 (3) Kings 8:39, 8:43, 8:49; 2 Chr. 6:30, 6:33, 6:39; Psa. 33:14.
2 Keil, p. 48
3 id., 51
Keil, Carl Friedrich. Commentary on the Old Testament. 1900. Reprint. Trans. Martin, James. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,