This question concerns the phrase in Gen 1:1, "heaven and earth" as commonly translated in most English versions. The two Hebrew words are "shamayim" and "eretz". I observe that in the book of Genesis:

  • "Shamayim" consistently and solely refers to only the "air" or atmosphere (and not the entire cosmos), eg, Gen 1:1, 8, 9, 14, 15, 17, 20, 2:1, 2;19, 20, 6:7, 17, 7:3, 11, etc. Further, in Gen 1:8, "shamayim" is explicitly defined (in this passage) as the space between the waters below (rivers, lakes, etc) and the waters above (clouds etc).
  • "Eretz" consistently and soley refers to arable land (and not planet earth), eg, Gen 1:1, 2, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 2:1. Further, "eretz" is explicitly defined in Gen 1:10 as arable ground.
  • Each day of creation week uses the same formula and begins with "and God said …", and ends with, "the evening and morning were the nth day." Thus, the first day of creation week begins with Gen 1:3. This suggests that the description in Gen 1:2 implies that God had previously created planet earth (as we call it, ex-nihilo) and had now come to create our world on the previously created planet.
  • Hebrew has perfectly good words for sun and moon but these are studiously avoided in the description of Day 4's activities. Again, this suggests that while the light from these previously existing bodies became visible on day 4, the sun and moon had been created (ex-nihilo) previously.
  • There is no record in Gen 1 of God creating planet earth. Gen 1:1&2 acts as an introduction and Gen 2:1-3 acts as a conclusion.

Therefore, in view of this, would a better translation of Gen 1:1 be something like, "In the beginning God created the sky/atmosphere and land"? That is, is the subject of Gen 1 the creation of our world (for the first time) rather than the entire cosmos?

  • 2
    Are you familiar with the work of Van Wolde (e.g. her 2009 article in JSOT)? She claims that ברא, traditionally translated as "create", rather means "separate", i.e. "in the beginning God created השׁמים and הארץ". It would align nicely with your current suggestion, which I also agree with. See also the discussion on this answer about Rashi's "in the beginning of God's creating ..." which would also align nicely with your suggestion that creation only really starts in Gen. 1:3.
    – user2672
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 21:50
  • @Keelan - Many thanks for these helpful suggestions. Certainly on the first three days God only separated and did little creating: Day 1 separated light from darkness; day 2 separated water above from water below; day 3 separated land from water.
    – user25930
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 22:06
  • You are making the distinction that the first day started at v3 with the light. Why is that the obvious start point? Day one, starts at verse 1. In the beginning heavens and the earth and light. Day one formless raw materials in a pile and energy. If not then the raw materials existed before day one and then day one is not day one after all. Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 23:15
  • 2
    The reason for day 1 beginning is v3 is that it follows the same formula as all the other; "and God said …" V1 & v2 form a heading and 2:1-3 form a conclusion in Semitic chiastic structure. Day 1 cannot begin in v1 because it breaks the formula of all the other days.
    – user25930
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 6:54

2 Answers 2


Hugh Ross gives the traditional interpretation in The Genesis question: scientific advances and the accuracy of Genesis (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001) in the section, “The Heavens and the Earth” on page 18. Hugh depends heavily on the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament which defines שָׁמַיִם:

      2407a      שָׁמַיִם (šāmayim) heaven, heavens, sky. (ASV and RSV similar).

Cognates are found in Ugaritic šmm, Akkadian šamû (singular, “rain”; plural, “heaven”), Aramaic, Arabic, and South Arabic.

The usage of šāmayim falls into two broad categories, 1) the physical heavens, and 2) the heavens as the abode of God. Under the first category, heaven includes all that is above the earth, and any given passage may include all or merely a part of the whole. Heaven and earth together constitute the universe (Gen 1:1).

Austel, H. J. (1999). 2407 שׁמה. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 935). Chicago: Moody Press.

Here is the Wordbook’s definition of אֶרֶץ:

       אֶרֶץ (ʾereṣ) earth, land, city (-state), (under) world.

According to KB3 (p. 87), this word appears approximately 2400 times in the OT. More specifically, THAT I, p. 229, remarks that ʾereṣ is the fourth most frequently used noun in the OT, appearing 2504 times in the Hebrew sections and 22 times in the Aramaic sections.

The first two meanings listed above are far and away the most crucial. That is, ʾereṣ designates either (a) “the earth” in a cosmological sense, or (b) “the land” in the sense of a specific territorial designation, primarily the land of Israel.

In the former meaning, we are informed first (Gen 1:9–13) that God created the earth on the third day. All is done here by the divine fiat. The earth is not the product of a primordial substance, as is the case in the Babylonian Enuma Elish where the earth is formed from part of the cadaver of the fallen and slain deity Tiamat. It is a sphere that is totally under the control of divine sovereignty.

Hamilton, V. P. (1999). 167 אֶרֶץ. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 74). Chicago: Moody Press.

Here is Hugh’s description of שָׁמַיִם and אֶרֶץ in his section:

Hebrew differs significantly from English in many respects, including the size of its vocabulary. While English words number in the millions, biblical Hebrew encompasses only slightly more than three thousand words. To understand the meaning of shamayim and ’erets (“heavens” and “earth”) requires more than knowing the definition of each term. ’Erets has six different meanings: the soil; the territory or land possessed by an individual, family, tribe, or nation; a city state; the territories of all peoples and nations; the underworld; or all the land and water, as well as the foundations that support them (what we now know as the planet Earth). Shamayim, a plural form (hence, “heavens”), has three meanings: the part of Earth’s atmosphere where rain clouds form, that is, the troposphere; the abode of the stars and galaxies; and the spirit realm from which God rules. (New Testament writers and both ancient and modern rabbis sometimes used the ordinals “first,” “second,” and “third” to identify which of these “heavens” they meant.)14(2 Cor. 12:2)

Hugh draws this conclusion based on the plural and definite articles:

Hashamayim we ha’erets (“heavens” plural and “earth” singular with the definite articles and the conjunction) carries a distinct meaning, just as the English words “under” and “statement” or “dragon” and “fly” put together as compound nouns take on specific meanings. Hashamayim we ha’erets consistently refers to the totality of the physical universe: all of the matter and energy and whatever else it contains., 16 All of the stars, galaxies, planets, dust, gas, fundamental particles, background radiation, black holes, physical space-time dimensions, and voids of the universe—however mysterious to the ancient writer—would be included in this term.

Then, here is Hugh’s final conclusion:

According to Genesis 1:1, the entire universe came into existence, brand new, a finite time ago, by the creative action of God. This statement reverberates throughout the pages of Scripture.

Hugh’s scientific explanation (not agreed upon by everyone with a traditional view):

New scientific support for a hot big-bang creation event, for the validity of the space-time theorem of general relativity, and for ten-dimensional string theory verifies the Bible’s claim for a beginning. In the final decade of the twentieth century, astronomers and physicists have established that all of the matter and energy in the universe, and all of the space-time dimensions within which the matter and energy are distributed, had a beginning in finite time,, 19 just as the Bible declares.

  • Thanks Perry. My definitions above were based on the use in this passage and throughout Genesis. It is perfectly obvious that planet earth was NOT created on day 3. Further, we have an explicit definition of eretz in Gen 1:10 as arable land (for this passage anyway). Thus, I would politely disagree with Hugh Ross here (and in many other places from what I have heard him say.)
    – user25930
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 6:59
  • Further, I cannot find a single instance in the entire OT where eretz is used in a cosmological sense, ie, planet earth (such is modern idea anyway!). The meaning is either arable land or the population that subsists on the land. However, I would be very happy to be corrected.
    – user25930
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 7:01
  • Actually, it was V. P. Hamilton, not Hugh Ross, who said the Earth was created on day 3.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 10:01
  • OOPS - sorry, Perry; thanks for the correction.
    – user25930
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 10:07
  • In this instance I agree with Hugh Ross (although in many other topics I disagree with him). The concept of a physical 'Universe' described with a whole of Heavens plus Earth (it's not odd hypothize an original plural of this last term, so that the text said 'Earths') was present also in the Sumerian civilization. in fact, to mean 'Universe' they said EN-KI, that is Heaven + Earth. Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 15:18

Biblical Cosmology

I was accused of improper hermeneutics. So I will add to my response in case it wasn’t sufficiently clear that imposing a modern day cosmology onto the ancient text makes for bad hermeneutics and this becomes an impossibility of arriving at a true and correct conclusion, due to conflicting paradigms and axioms

In order to properly exegete, hermeneutics demands proper understanding of the context of the text. This is not limited to text only but can include a broader context such as the cosmology of the day.

I apologize for assuming there was a basic understanding of Biblical cosmology, I will elaborate as concisely as possible the main points relevant to the interpretation of earth and heaven

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The earth is flat just like a seal makes a flat imprint on clay or wax

“That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, And the wicked be shaken out of it? "It is changed like clay under the seal; And they stand forth like a garment.” ‭‭Job‬ ‭38:13-14‬ ‭NASB‬‬

The edge of the earth is like a garment encircling the waters, meaning it’s not a sphere

“Who has ascended into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped the waters in His garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name or His son's name? Surely you know!” ‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭30:4‬ ‭NASB‬‬

The earth does not spin, move or totter.

“He established the earth upon its foundations, So that it will not totter forever and ever.” ‭‭Psalms‬ ‭104:5‬ ‭NASB

The earth is covered by a dome even after the flood of Noah

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” ‭‭Psalms‬ ‭19:1‬ ‭KJV‬‬

OP rightly points out

”"Eretz" consistently and soley refers to arable land (and not planet earth)”

If this is the model of the earth in Genesis then whether it’s translated land or earth it’s one and the same because unlike in modern cosmology the earth can mean a planet, in Biblical cosmology it meant the plane which was made of earth and had water in some places and exposed portions in other places.

OP rightly points out

”Shamayim" consistently and solely refers to only the "air" or atmosphere (and not the entire cosmos)”

And if the heaven was under the firmament dome whether you called it sky or heaven is irrelevant because unlike modern cosmology that interprets heavens to be a vast expanse of vacuum, in Biblical cosmolgy it was one and the same, the sky and the heaven where localized above the earth and beneath the firmament

So Genesis 1:1 whether you change the words to mean land and sky doesn’t change the cosmology and doesn’t change how everything looked.


The rest is my original post which included a shorter version of the answer and why current cosmolgy does not describe the Biblical cosmology.

Assuming a vast vacuum Cosmos

The question you ask is injecting a modern day secular pseudoscientific interpretation of the universe which has no proof and defies the second law of thermodynamics.

You ask

That is, is the subject of Gen 1 the creation of our world (for the first time) rather than the entire cosmos?

“Rather than entire cosmos” is assuming that the shâmayim that we observe today is explained by what secular scientists claim are seeing. And that outside a globe earth is a vast vacuum of space the end of which we cannot see. I challenge you to explain this vast expanse of vacuum space next to the open system atmosphere of the earth.

The biggest issue with the current model is that earth is an open system with pressure in the atmosphere next to a vacuum of space. That defies the second law of thermodynamics.

In order to have a gas pressure the gas must have something to press upon. So what is earth’s atmosphere pressing upon, or how is the earth’s atmosphere contained in order to maintain an atmospheric pressure and prevent the vacuum of space reaching equilibrium with the earth’s atmosphere, thereby sucking out the atmosphere into space?

In the current model there is nothing to press upon because earth is not contained inside a container and we can go to the moon and send man-made satélites into space. That means that in the current secular understanding earth, is an OPEN system and it has to be if matter is exchanged, men and rockets leaving and meteors, meterorites and returning rockets can come in.

Second Law of Thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics says that when energy changes from one form to another form, or matter moves freely, entropy (disorder) in a closed system increases.

If you have pressure (like earth’s atmosphere) next to a vacuum (like space) unless the pressure is contained, it will move to fill the space.

This is how a closed system works according to Wikipedia.com. Even they describe a closed system.

The second law is about the likely behavior of a system where no energy or matter gets in or out. The bigger the system is, the more likely the second law will be true.

Compare the pressure here on the earth

760 torr 101325 Pa

And the pressure in space

1×10−17 torr 1.322 × 10−11 Pa

The difference is enormous.

That is impossible according to science to have an open system next to a vacuum as strong as space and for it to defy the second law of thermodynamics.

Pressure needs a container

Pressure is a force exerted by the substance per unit area on another substance. The pressure of a gas is the force that the gas exerts on the walls of its container. When you blow air into a balloon, the balloon expands because the pressure of air molecules is greater on the inside of the balloon than the outside.

That means in order to have atmospheric pressure next to a vacuum of space the atmosphere must have a container to press upon. But there is no container in the current understanding of earth and space.


You cannot smuggle into existence an ever expanding “cosmos” that has been fabricated and only exists in the mathematical models of secular pseudoscience.

Therefore if the Biblical model is correct and is all that we have to go by then shâmayim must mean the heavens comprised of sky inside the firmament, the firmament and waters above it. And erets within the Biblical model is the ground placed on pillars, covered by a firmament with waters on the outside and the earth has waters on it.

Therefore whether you call it sky and land or earth and heavens in the Biblical model it’s one and the same.


Therefore as a side note in the Biblical model we cannot have alien invasions, comets hitting the earth or asteroids colliding with the earth. This is only possible in the secular fabrication of the earth traveling at enormous speeds through endless vacuum of space while maintaining an atmosphere without a container.

  • This is my issue with hermeneutics that superimposes a non Biblical paradigm ontop of the. Iblical paradigm. It gives rise to these kinds of questions that reinterprets what the authors meants into something that had nothing to do with Biblical Cosmology. Mixing axioms from one paradigm to another is a recipe for erroneous conclusions. Just like evolution vs Creation does, Big Bang ves six day creation does, infinite vacuum space vs heaven firmament does. It’s imposing on a text cognitive dissonance and it needs to be acknowledged if and when this occurs. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 17:24
  • Some of your assertions are incorrect - while the pressure of our atmosphere is 101325 Pa at the surface of the earth, it diminishes to zero with altitude. At about 80 km altitude at is effectively non-existent and open space begins. Gravity acts as the container for our atmosphere as it does on every planet in the universe including the sun. Therefore I do not understand the physics of what you are suggesting.
    – user25930
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 19:27
  • What is gravity? Show me gravity and it can’t be in some mathematical form. Show me where I can find mass attracting mass without imposing a model Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 20:40
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    @Autodidact...Your updated answer clarifies much and you are, overall, correct. Thanks. That image comes straight from Logos Bible Software. Good. However, a few comments of my own. First, your initials comments about thermodynamics in your answer and your comments on gravity with Mac's Musings were not necessary--irrelevant since Genesis is not scientific as you clarified. Second, Shamayim is not only the atmosphere under the dome. Shamayim is the dome. In Genesis 1:8, the Raqia (firmament/dome) is called Shamayim.
    – XegesIs
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 1:52
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    Shamayim in the Hebrew Bible is the universe or the cosmos, but from an ancient, terrestrial point of view, not from a modern, scientific satellite point of view. Even today, in indigenous peoples in Africa and the Amazon forest, indigenous peoples who have never seen a TV, never went to school and never been in a city, and that dont know anything about NASA and satellites, perceive the sky almost the same way as ancient peoples. They dont know how planet earth looks like and how big outer space is. It's modern science that gives us this view and understanding. It's education and tech.
    – XegesIs
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 1:57

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