Two questions from starting to read through the Bible in a year

Q. I just started reading through the Bible in a year with my church. There are things that have stuck out that I am needing to have answered. It’s like God is having me answer harder questions or address them.

1. At the beginning of Genesis, it says that the earth was formless and void and the waters … wait … the earth was there? Formless and void, and there was already water? Can you talk to me about this?

2. And what about when Jacob was fighting with the angel or God, and he couldn’t win, and then he wrenched his hip?

First, I commend you for going on the adventure, with others in your church, of reading through the Bible. I’ve heard other people say similar things when they’ve started reading continuously in the Bible: They notice all kinds of things they never saw before when they were taking a verse-at-a-time or chapter-at-a-time approach, and this has raised all kinds of new and challenging questions. But these are the kinds of questions that really help us go deep in our knowledge of God and his word.

In fact, my motto on this blog is, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” (That’s why I call it Good Question.) So thank you for asking your questions here. Let me refer you to some other posts I’ve written that offer some thoughts in response to similar questions that others have raised.

1. Regarding your question about the water in the opening creation account in Genesis, please see this post:

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

In that post I suggest that 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.

As for your question about the earth, let me refer you to a post on one of my other blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage:

Day 1 according to ancient cosmology

There I suggest that saying that the land had no shape or contents is equivalent to saying that it had not yet been differentiated from the waters. It’s a kind of verbal shorthand, in which something the listener already knows to exist is described before it existed. It’s like saying, “The New York Yankees were called the Highlanders for the first few years of their franchise.” The “Yankees” were not really called the “Highlanders” then, because there were no “Yankees,” and never had been. What is intended is this: “The team that eventually became known as the Yankees was at first called the Highlanders.” In the same way, the Genesis account begins by explaining that what would eventually become the land had not yet been differentiated or populated. The case is the same with the sky, which will eventually separate the “waters above” from the “waters below.” Right now it’s just “waters” – “the deep,” covered in darkness But the Spirit of God is hovering over it all, sizing up the possibilities and making a plan.

2. Regarding Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (who in some way seems to embody a manifestation of God on earth), please see this post:

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

In that post I suggest that God was trying to demonstrate something in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers. When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.

The thoughts I’ve shared in summary here are developed at more length in the posts I’ve provided links to.

Once again, I commend you for stepping up to the challenge and adventure of reading through the Bible. Hang in there, keep reading, keep asking your questions, and keep looking for the answers to them!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. 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 New International Version (NIV) 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 was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. 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.

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