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In Gen. 1:1-2, it states,

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (KJV)


But, the word void means completely empty, in this context. 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)?

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    I think trying to read this passage literally misunderstands the nature of the text. – Jecko Sep 14 '15 at 21:01
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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.”

Keil remarked,3

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.”

  • תֹהוּ (“formless”)

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.

  • בֹהוּ (“desolate”)

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.

Footnotes

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

References

Keil, Carl Friedrich. Commentary on the Old Testament. 1900. Reprint. Trans. Martin, James. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

  • "Most assume that the physical mass of the earth was created in v. 1. Again, the disjunctive vav precludes such an opinion." The second sentence is a non sequitur. In general, not stating that some proposition is true does not imply stating that said proposition is not true. In this specific case, the fact that (the disjunctive clause at the beginning of v. 2 does not mean that there is a sequential relationship between v. 1 and v. 2) does not imply that (said clause means that there is not a sequential relationship between v. 1 and v. 2). – Johannes Dec 9 '17 at 20:31
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The Hebrew word used here - wā-ḇō-hū, means vacant or void. The word 'Void' is sometimes translated as 'empty' (NIV, IST). The ISV translates the word as 'desolate'.

The term 'vacant' or 'void' simply means there is no inhabitant (you will often see the terms used on toilet room doors for people to see if anyone is in there). The planet earth was existing at that time so it means it was not just 'empty' - there was obviously something on it - just not people. It was a planet that was 'vacant' and ready for God to prepare for life. What was on the surface of the earth at that time was a deep black ocean with no light and VOID of any kind of life (Gen. 1:2).

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I recently answered a similar question, so I will repost my answer here with a few edits:

The problem with your interpretation of the word "void" is that it proceeds from a false premise of "Creatio Ex Nilho" (Creation from Nothing) which was a concept that arrived on the scene with Platonic philosophy. This is not to say that this philosophy is wrong (matter had to come from somewhere and have a beginning after all,) but simply that it does not apply to this text which was written from a perspective of "Creatio Ex Materia".

This is not to say that this is not, in fact, how God created, just that the text of Genesis was not written from this perspective. Under that assumption, the question becomes, what is creation? The etymological meaning of the verb בָּרָא (bara'), is "to cut out and put into shape,". Therefore, though akwardly worded, the earth could be formless and void ("Creatio Ex Nilho") and then be created ("Creatio Ex Materia"), because you had to first have some sort of material to cut, shape and fashion into creation.

Much as we can have an "empty" tupperware container which actually contains air, the earth can both contain primordial proto-matter and be empty at the same time because it is void of creation or anything meaningful. Not actually empty in terms of the Hebrew wording. In fact, the word we translate as void, בֹּ֫הוּ (Bohu) means just that in Hebrew - "An empty container to be filled" or " A void within oneself that desires to be filled."

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I think you may be picturing the planet earth as we understand it today where the ocean water is in [huge] depressions of the surface. Viewed that way the water is in/on the earth. However, the depiction is of a preexistent bottomless sea and the dry land is in the water; the inverse. The "earth" refers to "the land".

I prefer the translation "unformed and unpopulated" for the state of the dry land, reflecting the alliteration of the original.

As others have pointed out Ex Nihilo ("out of nothing") is the brainchild of gentile philosophers not Jews. Moses' cosmology, if he spoke in Greek, would be EX hUDATWS, "out of water". Peter uses that term "out of water". You might want to look up a philosopher named Thales.

Now if the abyss is bottomless, how can the land be anchored on the surface? This was a question that occupied the ancients. A student asked a not too bright professor on what the dry land rested since the abyss is bottomless. He said it "it rests on the back of a turtle". And the student asked "on what does the turtle rest?" He said "on another turtle". The student asked "and on what does that turtle rest?" And the professor said, "It's turtles all the way down!"

Obviously that's not why the ancient believed the land rested on the back of a turtle. It was because they imagined that the turtle was endlessly swimming.

We see in the Jewish scriptures to the mysterious "foundations of the earth" in Job and elsewhere.

Mohaminedes aka Rashi suggests that the "spirit of God" in verse 1 is actually the breath of God blowing by which he was suspended, hence "he walks upon the wind". (I'm at work and don't have the references). I think this is correct.

So "unformed and unpopulated" refers to the fact that the land had not been raised out of the abyss and placed on foundations yet nor had the 6 days of making occurred.

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The term תהו [TEU] is mentioned 20 times in the TaNaKh (Gen 1:2; Deu 32:10; 1Sam 12:21 [twice]; Job 6:18; 12:24; 26:7; Psa 107:40; Isa 24:10; 29:21; 34:11; 40:17, 23; 41:29; 44:9; 45:18-19; 49:4; 59:4; Jer 4:23). The term בהו [BEU] is mentioned only 3 times (Gen 1:2; Isa 34:11; Jer 4:23), always together with תהו [TEU].

Both terms depend from the general concept "to be empty", but each of them define a different nuance of meaning. Also for logic we have to conclude that, ab initio, a relative difference did exist.

In one of the mention listed above (Isa 34:11) both terms are present, inside a parallelistic structure, so we will able to infer from it the relative difference between the two terms.

We read there (I've reported the two terms in bold), in the second part of the verse: Isa 34:11b ונטה עליה קו־תהו ואבני־בהו ("And he shall stretch out upon it the line of waste, and the plummets of emptiness." [Darby]).

Anyone can see the proportion (in math-style) the verse shows: קו ('measuring line') : תהו (TEU) = אבני ('plumb line'; lit. 'stones') : בהו (BEU).

We may note that Isaiah - through the use of an antithetic parallelism - does put in contraposition two couple of terms. On the one hand, the evident measurableness concerning the concept inside קו ('measuring line'), compared to the immeasurability of the תהו (TEU)'s dimension. And, on the other hand, the compactness and the fullness of the אבני ('plumb line'; lit. 'stones'), compared to the voidness of the בהו (BEU).

So, a Gen 1:2a translation like the following, "The Earth happened to be chasmic and desolate [...]", gives no room to the 'contradiction' Aston shows.

Note: the transliterations of the term abovementioned ground themselves on the very ancient school of thought of those we may call - through a neologism - 'holographemists' (for example, Yoseph ben Mattitiahu [Josephus], Origen of Alexandria, Jerome of Stridon, Moshe Sephardi, Gioachino da Fiore, Roger Bacon, Louis Cappell, Gregory Sharpe, and many others). They were scholars who believed the Hebrew alphabet contained real vowels (not mere matres lectionis, nor vowel sound added by Masoretes through their diacritical system) as proper graphemes, just like consonants.

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    Why do you transliterate ה with "E"? The common thing would be to use h. Also, either transliterate with vowels, or without: either təhû or thw. The consonantal script (with matres lectionis) is widely accepted nowadays... – user2672 Mar 7 '18 at 20:02
  • Because this is the logical conclusion reached by the school of tought I've mentioned. For example, regarding the Origen way to consider the so-called quiescent letters William Jones wrote: "He [Origen] gives the Hebrew text in Greek letters [in his Exapla] where he uniformly expresses what the Masorites call the quiescent letters, the Aleph, He, Vau, and Jod, by vowels [...]. He always treats the Ain and Heth as vowels [...]. All this diametrically opposite to the system of the Masorites [Horae Biblicae, p. 177]. – Saro Fedele Mar 7 '18 at 21:35
  • Any contemporary references? – user2672 Mar 7 '18 at 21:37
  • One example is Walter Kenaston, author of a Hebrew Interlinear Bible. He refuses the necessity of a vocalic pointing of the TaNaKk text. He believes the original tongue possessed real vowels, and sustains that 5 vowels were represented by the 5 Hebrew letters Aleph, He, Yod, Ayn, and Waw. – Saro Fedele Mar 7 '18 at 21:45
  • Another example is André de Mol and the way he transliters the TaNaKh into his computer program E-Sword. – Saro Fedele Mar 7 '18 at 21:46

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