Genesis 1.2 “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
If the text were going to talk about the manufacture of matter, of God making everything out of nothing, it would begin when no matter existed. But if it intends to talk about giving the cosmos purpose, meaning, roles, and function, that is, by bringing order out of chaos, it will start with the cosmos in existence, but in a chaotic state. And that’s just what it does.
The text is Genesis 1 is not meant to be a scientific treatise. The ancients didn’t know that stars were suns; they didn’t know the earth was spherical and moving through space; they didn’t know the sun was further away than the moon. We need to interpret it the way they meant it, as an ancient explanation of how the universe cam to be the way it is. For them, that was not science, but a repudiation of the mythologies of their era.
In the ancient Near East, the existence of chaos was of primary interest. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians all said that the forces of chaos governed the universe: the raging sea, the darkness, warfare, and death. Their gods demonstrated their power and prowess by defeating or holding the forces of chaos back. Genesis, by contrast, has no God at battle with chaotic forces, or even such forces being held at bay, but a clear and systematic progression from disorder to order.
I’m not saying that this verse indicates that the earth had no shape, or that the universe was empty of contents. Sheer reasoning tells us that the words are about functionality and purpose, not what’s there and what isn’t.
And by the way, the grammar doesn’t allow for a gap in time separating the events of verse 1 from the situation described in verse 2. Verse 1 was a title heading; this verse is a description of the situation before God begins his work of the rest of the chapter.
Bringing order out of chaos
We launch in: “The earth…” What this is doing is setting the scene, letting us know that the earth will be the vantage point of the observer in all that is to follow.
“Was.” It doesn’t or can’t mean “became.” The syntax and word order would be otherwise. This is the way it was, not a description that something happened to it to make it this way. Again, the set-up is to describe what gave it form and purpose, not some tragedy that happened that needs to be remade.
“Formless and void.” The thought being expressed is not the contrast of nothingness vs. something, but of chaos and the coming order. What was here has yet to have any functionality or purpose to it—that’s the point. Genesis is interested in an organized world in contrast to a chaotic one, and not in the speculative question of something vs. nothing.
“Darkness was over the surface of the deep.” Isaiah 45.7 tells us that God created darkness as well as light. The darkness is not to be perceived as some kind of force outside of God’s control, as may have been portrayed by the ancient mythologies. Here there is nothing menacing or sinister at war with God; it is simply a demonstration that has yet to do his work. “The deep” was a mythological force of chaos, but it’s not personified here, so there is no sense of evil. There is no cosmic battle between spiritual forces. What the author has written is a very different kind of account than anything else existing at the time, and it was written to dispute their explanations.
“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” This isn’t a wind that God is blowing over the surface; that was a mythological concept. Instead it’s a graphic symbol of his power at work. Like a cloud over the landscape or a bird poised in position, God’s power and presence dominate the scene.
Why does any of this matter? We are learning that God is the one who can bring meaning and order out of an empty, dark wasteland. It’s a theme that will recur often through the Bible, whether it’s making…
- …the barren and “worthless” desert into a purposeful land flowing with milk and honey
- …a small insignificant tribal group into a nation achieving God’s purposes on earth
- …the agony and emptiness of death overcome by the joy of resurrection
- …the womb of a virgin burst forth with life
- …the soul of someone dead in their sins to be born again into a person of light and life