Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

Q. It would seem that strictly on the basis of the Genesis creation account, one could conclude that matter is eternal, because in the beginning there were the unformed (already existing) waters. That is, if one reads the first sentence as a sort of header, as you and others do.

I agree that if we take the first sentence (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) as a heading that summarizes the eventual action of the entire creation account, then we do find primeval waters already existing before God began to create anything else, and this would be eternally-existing matter.  But rather than allow such metaphysical considerations to influence the way we interpret the account, let’s look carefully at the text, draw our conclusions from there, and then think about the implications.

I see the first sentence as a summary introduction because while it announces that God created the shemayim and the ‘erets, the actual crafting of those two things is only described as the account progresses.  On the second day: “God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters’ . . . God called the vault shemayim.”  On the third day: “God said, ‘ . . . let the dry ground appear.’ . . . God called the dry ground ‘erets.”  So the creation of these two things is anticipated in the opening line, but they are actually created as the account progresses.

We often miss this because English versions typically translate these two Hebrew terms as “heavens” and “earth” in the first sentence, and “sky” and “land” later in the account.  (Accordingly, in Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, a book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, we suggest that the opening of the creation account be translated instead, “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  That’s what the account is really talking about.)

Further confirmation that the first sentence of the creation account is a summary introduction comes from the way the account ends with a matching summary conclusion:  “Thus the shemayim and the ‘erets were completed, and all their hosts,” that is, their population—the sun, moon, and stars; birds, animals, and people; etc.  The process of creation, according to the Genesis account, was to make habitable realms and then populate them.  The shemayim and the ‘erets—the sky and the land—are the two prominent realms mentioned in summary statements at the beginning and end of the account.

This means, however, that the narration of the actual creation itself begins at a point where “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  Does this mean that matter, at least in the form of these primeval waters, actually does exist eternally, and that God did not create the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing)?

We need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.”  Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos.  It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves.  “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness.

So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.  We can’t get from here to there through a literal reading of Genesis; we need to do a bit of cultural and cosmological translation first.  But once we do, we realize that the Bible is not saying that matter coexisted eternally with God.  Instead, by depicting creation de aqua (as Peter writes in his second letter: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water”), Genesis is actually claiming that it was ex nihilo, as we would say today.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?”

  1. I really like your explanation. I wonder what you think of John Walton’s insights that the waters represent chaos and God is creating an ordered system, which was what was important to the original readers according to him. That is, the first Creation story progresses from less (functional) order to more (functional) order in stages and does not really care much about materials, as that was not the ancient focus.

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