Houston, there is a God…
Let’s start off with a few considerations. First of all, Genesis 1.1 is a title. It’s the heading of the chapter—a literary introduction, summarizing what follows. In other words, the rest of the chapter is going to explain what is meant by “God created the heavens and the earth.” So nothing is being created, per se, in this verse, OK? It’s an introduction to what’s coming.
Secondly, it’s pretty obvious that it starts off with some assumptions: (1) There is a God, and (2) He is the one who gives every its purpose and meaning. These are called “presuppositions,” and everyone has them, no matter who you are or what you believe. The “pre-” part means “before” (as in pre-game warm-up), and the “suppositions” part is stuff you suppose—what you assume to be true. Everyone has presuppositions, so don’t think it’s unique to Christians. Some people presuppose that matter always existed. Some people presuppose that life has meaning. You’re getting the idea? There are things that all of us just assume (though we feel we have some evidence for our assumptions). Nevertheless, if we’re going to be honest, presuppositions are assumptions that we make ahead of time. A lot of times these presuppositions affect how we view evidence, and which evidences we choose to believe and which we choose to disregard. No matter how you cut it, for all of us it’s a matter of faith. We all choose to believe in something. But back to the text.
We should recognize that the chapter coming after this verse was not written to be a scientific explanation of things. That may be how we’d like to read it, but that wasn’t the author’s intent. We need to see that it was mainly written to state a position in contrast to the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors: the Babylonians, Sumerians, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians. They had all sorts of stories about how the gods came into being, and how they birthed the world. Genesis 1 is going to tell a very different version.
So where did God come from?
So where does the Bible claim God came from? It presupposes that God always existed, just as some people now claim that matter always existed. Which is true? Both are beyond the realm of science, so in either case, again, it’s a matter of faith: it depends on the evidence you know about and what you choose to believe.
Now, what in the world does the verse mean by “in the beginning”? The Hebrew word used here (ber’eshith) usually refers not to a point in time, but to an initial period, meaning that the beginning period is the seven days of Genesis chapter one. So when the Bible talks about creation, it’s presenting creation as an initial, distinct period of time that served as a prelude to human history, sort of like when we talk about the end times (Have you seen movies like “The Book of Eli” and “2012”?) as an ending period of time.
OK, what about God? The Hebrew word is Elohim. It’s a masculine plural word, common in their ancient cultures for deity. Here it’s showing us a presupposition: speaking already that God exists, and he wasn’t created. We’ll find that he’s going to be the main character (the protagonist for you literary types) of the whole book.
What does “created” mean?
The next word is “created.” The Hebrew word is bara’. The interesting observation about this word is that it’s used many times in the Old Testament, and it is never talking about making “a thing,” but something more abstract, as if in English we said, “I created a masterpiece.” The thrust of the verb “created” is not that God manufactured something out of something or something out of nothing, but that he assigned roles and functions to the object. You see, you can create a piece of art, but that doesn’t suggest you made the canvas. Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t, but that’s not the point. You’re the one who gave it purpose.
We could go even more abstract, and legitimately say that you can create a situation (“I created havoc!”) or a condition (“I created an atmosphere of cooperation.”). You see? It’s describing the role, function, or purpose. That’s the point. What the verse is saying is that in the initial seven-day period God brought the cosmos into operation (which defines existence) by assigning roles and functions. God gave everything its purpose.
I know this is technical, but, after all, it is Genesis 1.1, and there’s bound to be a lot of discussion about this verse, right?
We will discover soon enough, though I’m getting ahead of myself, that Genesis 1 as a whole is intended to show that the miserable condition of humanity that brings about the Covenant (agreement) that is coming in Genesis chapter 12 is not the result of some defect in God’s creative work. On the contrary, God made everything just right and set it up to function properly with purpose.
Ah, and what about “the heavens and the earth”? It’s a way of saying the totality of the universe (or multiverses?) in all their order and beauty.
So we’re only seven Hebrew words in, and already the Bible disagrees with…
…Atheism, because it says there’s a God.
…Polytheism, because it says there’s only one God. This is quite an amazing declaration since they lived in the middle of a pile of nations saturated with beliefs in many gods.
…Pantheism (that the universe is God, and God is the universe), because it says the universe is different and separate from God.
…Naturalism (all that exists is nature), because is says there is a supernatural being.
So, talk to me. What do you think?