How could the Holy Spirit have moved upon the waters before the earth was created?

Q. Most English Bibles translate the first word in the Old Testament, bereshith, as “in the beginning.” This implies that the statement that follows is telling us what was created first: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” So if this is the case, how is it possible that the Holy Spirit “moved upon the the face of the waters,” as it says in the next verse? The waters had not been created yet!

One may argue that the word “earth” in the first verse includes the entire face of the planet, including the oceans—the water. However, this only works in English. In ancient (and modern) hebrew, the word ‘eretz, “earth,” specifically refers to dry land alone, not water (mayim). See Rashi, who discusses this question and translates bereshith slightly differently. However my question specifically refers to the usual Christian translation.

Thank you for your question. I discuss essentially the same question in the following post, so I think that if you read it, you will find an answer to your own question:

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

It is possible grammatically to translate the opening of Genesis this way: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth …” At least two English Bibles, the Common English Bible and the Living Bible, translate it that way. But you’re right, overwhelmingly English Christian Bibles translate it as, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And as I say in the post for which I have provided the link above, I think that is the correct translation. The solution to the problem is instead that the ancient Hebrews regarded water as effectively equivalent to “nothing.” As I say in that post, for them, de aqua was the equivalent of ex nihilo.

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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