Despite strong traditional and often authoritative interpretative claims that were formed centuries after this ancient text was written and devoid of knowledge about its historical and literary context, the opening of Genesis 1 does not depict a creatio ex nihilo, that is a creation out of nothing. The Hebrew text is clear on this point and recognized by all biblical scholars. Rather, what the text of Genesis 1:2 informs us is that when God began to create, earth in some manner of speaking already existed as a desolate, formless, empty waste—tohû wabohû in Hebrew, literally “desolation and waste”—in the midst of a dark surging watery abyss (tehôm). This is the initial primordial state of creation that the creator deity inherits so to speak, and it is a prominent cultural feature in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths, from Egypt to Mesopotamia.
Both creation accounts in the book of Genesis not only belong to the larger historical world of the ancient Near East that produced them, but they are also part and parcel to a specific literary genre that was widely disseminated throughout this ancient landscape. In other words, the creation accounts of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4b-3:24 display the influences of older Near Eastern literary traditions, beliefs, and perspectives about the origins of the sky, earth, and mankind. This knowledge was revealed to us in part through the archaeological discoveries of the late 19th century.
In the latter half of the 19th century, archaeologists digging around the ancient site of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire found the literary remains of Ashurbanipal’s library. The Assyrian king, who reigned from 669 to 627 BCE, was somewhat of an antiquarian; he had his scribes collect and copy all existing texts that could be found. The tablets discovered at Nineveh in the later half of the 19th century were the remains of Ashurbanipal’s library and contained copies of much earlier Babylonian texts, going as far back as 2000 BCE! What startled linguists working on these cuneiform tablets in the 1870s was the mention of a great flood, a creation, and other similar themes and stories that were present in the narratives of Genesis 1-11. For the first time, scholars and theologians alike realized that stories such as the flood, creation, an original mythic paradise with a primordial pair and a tree of life were not unique to the Bible, but were in fact part and parcel to a larger literary and cultural matrix, from which the biblical authors freely drew.1
Up until this discovery, in other words, it was commonplace among theologians to regard the creation account(s) of Genesis as unique, divinely inspired, and in more fundamentalist circles even historical. With the discovery of other creation myths, however, informed readers were now able to see that the creation accounts in the book of Genesis belonged to a larger literary matrix, whose ideas and perspectives about the nature of the world and its origins were shared throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.
The old Babylonian creation account, the Enuma Elish, for example, which predates the Genesis accounts by at least a millennium, exhibits many parallels, both structurally and thematically, with the younger creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3. Even noting its highly mythological content and polytheistic nature, the Babylonian Enuma Elish narrates the creation of the sky, earth, and mankind in similar terms to those of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and in the same order. For example, in the older Babylonian creation account the creator deity initially subdues and conquers an original state of watery chaos personified as the goddess Tiamat, and then proceeds to divide her in two, that is separate the primordial waters into the waters above and the waters below. These waters are then kept apart by the creation of a firmament or the sky, effectively separating the waters above from the waters below. Next, the abode of the gods are attributed to the heavens together with the creation of the luminaries, stars, sun, and moon, to divide the years into months and days—indeed to create our 7-day week! The creation of the earth, that is dry habitable land, from the waters below then occurs, and finally mankind is created. Lastly, like the ending of Genesis 1:1-2:3, the Enuma Elish also ends by assigning rest for the god(s), and both speak of a divine counsel of some sort (Gen 1:26).
Biblical scholars now realize that this older mythic narrative must have served as a template for the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3, the Priestly writer. In other words, Genesis 1:1-2:3 was not a free composition of its author. This author obviously had literary precursors, one of which was the old Babylonian creation account the Enuma Elish, which the Israelites would have come into direct contact with during their captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BCE.
It needs to be stressed that it was less the direct influence of an older text that shaped the ideas and beliefs of the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and more so the worlview and beliefs of a shared cultural heritage that extended throughout the larger Mediterranean basin. In other words, the similarities between the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1:1-2:3 represent shared cultural perspectives and beliefs about the nature of the world and its origins. The Israelite scribes inherited these cultural perspectives and beliefs, adopted them, and freely modified them to suit their own purposes and monotheistic religious convictions. Many of the ideas and beliefs about the origins of the world expressed above in the Enuma Elish, and, as we shall see, similarly in the creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3, were also present in other creation myths from the ancient Near East. Nearly every surviving creation account from Egypt, for example, presents an original preexisting state of darkness, watery chaos, and a yet unformed landmass prior to creation. This is especially so in the case of the Egyptian cosmogony from Hermopolis, whose primordial state prior to creation is near identical to that presented in Genesis 1:2. Personified as preexisting gods, this particular cosmogony speaks of a primeval darkness, a primordial formless earth mass or hill, and the primordial surging waters, through whose separation the earth and heavens were formed and named.
Thus, one of the ideas that the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 inherited from his larger cultural and literary world about the nature of his world and its origin was that the creation of the earth and the skies, of ordered life in general, was the result of separating light from primordial darkness (1:4), of separating a primordial surging water mass (tehôm) into the waters above and the waters below (1:6-7) to form a space in its midst (1:6), wherein the heavens were named (1:8) and the luminaries by which the cosmos progressed in an orderly fashion were created (1:14), and finally by forming habitable land from a primordial formless and empty (tohû wabohû) earth mass and separating it out from the waters below and naming it “earth” (1:9).
In general terms, then, the authors and cultures of these ancient Near Eastern creation myths, Genesis 1:1-2:3 included, did not conceive of creation as an act of creating matter, but an act of creating order, form, purpose, a habitable land with tamed and separated waters out of an initial primeval state of surging untamed waters, darkness, and a yet to be named and formed life-supporting earth. Whether speaking of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Egyptian cosmogonies, or Genesis 1:1-2:3, the emphasis is placed on presenting the creation of an habitable ordered world from an initial state of formlessness, darkness, and untamed waters, through the creator deity’s act of separating the initial primordial matter, assigning functions or setting boundaries to the separated elements, and naming or calling into existence each component of the world, as it was perceived by the peoples and cultures of the ancient Near East. The idea of the creation of matter out of nothing was simply not a perspective adopted by the cultures of the ancient Near East, the Israelites included. The closest thing we have to the idea of creation out of nothing are a couple of Egyptian creation myths that pose a single creator deity as the origin of life, and from whose body, sky, earth, water, etc. emerge. In other words, the idea that the world commenced through the creation of matter from nothing simply did not exist. Moreover, such an idea would not only have been inconceivable to the peoples and cultures of this ancient landscape, but inferior to the views they did hold about the creation of the habitable world.
That is to say, our ancient Near Eastern forerunners, the biblical scribes included, deemed that the creation of an orderly world, of a habitable land with tamed and separated waters and a heaven that provided light, order, and signs for the measurement of days, months, years, and even holy festivals from an initial state of darkness, untamed waters, and unformed earth was a more powerful statement to make about the creator deity and the habitable, ordered world in which they lived. More significantly, the act of creating order from disorder, light from darkness, form from formlessness answered the specific concerns ancient peoples of the Near East had living in, as they perceived it, a hostile world with forces that regularly needed to be controlled. So presenting a creator deity who could, and did in fact, tame the forces of nature, subdue darkness, control the seas, create life from bareness, form from formlessness—in short, an habitable life-bearing land from an earth that was or had become desolate, was a direct result of how the ancients perceived the world they lived in and the forces that acted upon it. This was the message behind such creation stories. The creator deity had full control over the destructive forces that continually threatened life, order, and the goodness of the earth. Most significantly, as we will see below, the ability of Yahweh to subdue chaos, form light from darkness, create a fertile and habitable earth from formless inhabitable desolate land also had a very significant and immediate meaning to the historical audience for which Genesis 1:1-2:3 was composed.
But besides these cultural beliefs, worldview, and the literary heritage that the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 inherited, there are sound textual data that support the idea that our biblical scribe did not compose a creation account depicting the creator deity creating the earth and the skies out of nothing. For the text itself clearly makes the opposite claim.
First, as many modern Hebraists have noted, Genesis 1:1 opens with a temporal clause. The precise meaning of its first word, bere’shît, is literally “in the beginning of.” This is a complex grammatical topic, but simplified, the way in which the first word has come to be vocalized, indeed the first letter, bet, implies that grammatically the word is in the construct state, that is a noun which is followed by another noun. A literal translation is “in the beginning of.” And this is exactly what we find as the proper understanding of bere’shît when this same word appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. So, for example, the Hebrew of Jeremiah 27:1, bere’shît mamelekhet yihôyaqim, is properly rendered: “In the beginning of the kingdom of Jehoiakim.” But the grammatical problem in Genesis 1:1 is that bere’shît is not followed by a noun but rather a verb-subject pair: bere’shît bara’ ’elohîm. Thus a literal rendering of the first three words of Genesis 1:1 is impossible: “In the beginning of God created.” Thus many modern translations have sought to capture the temporal aspect in the opening word of the book of Genesis by rendering the Hebrew: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” or “In the beginning when God created…” or even “When God began to create…”
The idea that creation narratives commenced with a temporal clause that indicated when the creator deity began his creative act is also attested in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths. The Enuma Elish opens with a temporal clause which doubles as the text’s title: “When on high the heavens had not been named, nor earth below pronounced by name…” As does the beginning of Genesis 2:4b: “In the day when god Yahweh made earth and skies…”
Another interesting parallel between the Enuma Elish’s opening statement and that of Genesis 1:1 is the reference to an earth that has not yet been named, that is not yet been created. How do you name the primordial material of an earth that has not yet been created? Although using the word “earth,” the Enuma Elish responds by referencing the primordial matter that will become earth: “when earth was not yet named.” Genesis 1:1 employs the same idea in its preliminary reference to earth as tohû wabohû, without form and void. What is implied might be rendered: “In the beginning when God created the earth and the skies, that which would become earth existed without form and was void.” And indeed this reading is supported by the text itself, when in verses 9-10 dry habitable land is created and named “earth” for the first time! What existed prior to earth’s being separated out from the primeval untamed waters, called into existence, and named in verse 10 is apparently a formless, nameless mass of desolate “earth” for lack of a better word. This is the proper message conveyed in Genesis 1:2, and once again it depicts the creator deity in his most powerful and omnipotent role—creating form, life-bearing earth with tamed and separated seas by subduing, separating, and setting life-supporting boundaries to an initial and primordial formless chaotic mass of desolate “earth” and water. This is how the ancient Israelites perceived their world and its origins, not out of nothing—a statement that would have been vacuous to them—but rather through the subduing of the forces of the seas, of destruction, of chaos, etc. And like the Enuma Elish, Genesis 1:1 must also be seen as a temporal clause doubling as the text’s title: “In the beginning when God created the skies and the earth, and the [yet to be created and named] earth was formless and desolate…”
Thus not only is the idea of preexistent matter part and parcel to the mind set and worldview of the ancient Near East, but the syntax and grammar of Genesis’ opening sentence, like other creation myths of the ancient Near East, strongly support the fact that the Israelites too depicted the creator deity in a role of subduing, separating, and creating the very components of the world from a preexistent state of formless, desolate matter.
Second, the precise meaning of the verb bara’ also highlights the creative act as one of separating. There are several verbs used in the two creation accounts of Genesis: roughly, bara’ “to create,” ‘asah, “to make,” and yatsar “to form.” The verb bara’ connotes the act of creating by means of separating out, or distinguishing. The skies and the earth, in other words, only come into existence by separating them out from the preexistent primordial matter, by setting their boundaries, and by naming them. Thus, it is not until verse 9 that the earth, that is dry land—“earth” never refers to the planet, but to the land—is only created at the moment when it is separated out and distinguished from the waters below, and named: “And God called the land “earth” (1:10). Likewise, the skies (shamayim), that is the waters above, only come into existence through an act of separating, subduing, and partitioning them off from the waters below, both of which were originally part of the primordial deep (tehôm). What is therefore implied in Genesis’ opening statement is that the skies and the earth came into existence through a creative act of separating them—exactly how many Egyptian cosmogonies also begin.
Third and most significantly is the fact that the text itself explicitly asserts that neither the skies nor the earth were created ex nihilo! For the text, and more so the message of its author, clearly depicts the creation of the earth from a formless, desolate, and void (tohû wabohû) and the skies from an original watery chaos (tehôm). In other words, both the creation of the skies (shamayim) in verses 6-8 and the creation of the earth (eretz) in verses 9-10 do not occur from nothing!
Per our text, earth proper is “dry land,” the material substance earth, that does not get created until verses 9-10, when the creator deity himself calls it into existence through an act of separating, defining, and naming it. And it is not created out of nothing. For again, per our text, this earth which only comes into existence in verses 9-10 was created from an initial formless, undefined, desolate, and unnamed “earth” that was originally submerged in the surging deep (1:2). Why this author explicitly presents the creation of earth from this initial state of tohû wabohû is addressed below. In any case, the text is quite clear: earth was not created ex nihilo!
Much of the confusion, or plain inaccuracy, behind modern claims of the earth’s creation out of nothing not only arise from a misunderstanding of Genesis 1:2 and a lack of knowledge about its author’s culturally conditioned beliefs and worldview, but also in thinking that the Hebrew word for earth, eretz, means the planet Earth. The text and its cultural context no where support this modern assumption. Rather, what is created is dry life-bearing land, the earth below one’s feet, formed from desolate, undefined, primordial yet to be named “earth.” So to be honest about our ancient text and the message of its author, there is no creation of the planet earth imagined here!
Likewise, neither the text nor its author presents the creation of the skies out of nothing. For what is to become the skies or the heavens (shamayim) is the expanse, the raqî‘a, which God creates in order to separate the initial primordial teeming waters into the waters above and the waters below. I suppose one could argue that the text does present the creator deity making this raqî‘a out of nothing (1:7), but not in the sense that there was nothing preexistent prior to its creation. For again the text clearly states that this raqî‘a, which was conceptualized by the ancient Israelites as a solid transparent barrier holding back the waters above, was created as a tool for the deity to separate and keep separate these initial primordial untamed waters, half of which are now above this barrier. It is this barrier or raqî‘a that gets named “the skies,” and its primary function was to keep back these waters above.
Finally, a grave theological problem is unavoidably created when one wrongly imposes later theological claims of creatio ex nihilo onto the text of Genesis 1:1-10—a text, as we have seen, which clearly and explicitly states otherwise. Since the creation of earth in verses 9-10 happens through the shaping and naming of an initial formless preexisting “earth” and the creation of the skies in verses 6-8 happens as a direct result of subduing and dividing the primordial untamed waters, then in imposing an erroneous and later theological assertion of creatio ex nihilo one is forced to conclude, since the text does not present the creation of shamayim out of nothing nor the creation of eretz out of nothing, that the creator deity was unable to do it! This is absurd; yet unavoidable if we follow this line of erroneous thinking to its end. For, if it was the deity’s original intention to create the skies and the earth out of nothing—or let’s put this more accurately—if it was the original intention of the biblical scribe to present his god creating the skies and the earth out of nothing, then why did he not do this? In other words, in imposing an erroneous theological assertion of creation from nothing onto this ancient text what you end up with as the creator deity’s supposed first act of creating matter out of nothing is the creation of a formless, meaningless, lifeless, and desolate “earth” covered by a surging watery abyss surrounded in bleak darkness—all of which then needed to be re-created! According to this reading, the creator deity could not do what he intended to do on his first go. This translates to presenting a creator deity that textually didn’t, and theologically couldn’t, create the earth and the skies ex nihilo! An absurd conclusion drawn by imposing erroneous modern-day assertions onto an ancient text whose real message is ignored, neglected, and interpreted away.
Last but certainly not least, as mentioned earlier, the composition of a creation account displaying a deity that could force a formless and desolate state (tohû wabohû) into habitable life-bearing land had a direct significance for the audience of Genesis 1:1-2:3. It’s time we took a look at this.
Before God commences the act of creating the habitable world, the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 informs us that the earth, or what was to become the earth, existed in a state of formlessness and desolation—a tohû wabohû in Hebrew. This image was not only shaped by the ideas and beliefs shared throughout the ancient Mediterranean landscape, but it was equally influenced by the specific historical circumstance of the author and his audience—at least how they perceived it. The rare Hebrew expression tohû wabohû or tohû alone and the image it invoked were unique to the literature of the 6th century BCE. That is we find the same image in other texts from the 6th century BCE and specifically to depict the historical crisis so often referred to in these texts. Paying attention to these textual details allows us to see more clearly what the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 hoped to convey through his creation account, and more importantly to whom!
So, foreseeing the imminent doom of Judah by the Babylonians in the earlier 6th century BCE and the coming desolation of the land and the turning of fruitful fields into wildernesses, Jeremiah professes:
I looked on the earth and behold, it was formless and desolate (tohû wabohû), and to the heavens, and they had no light (Jer 4:23).
The image conveyed here is remarkably similar, if not exact, to that of Genesis 1:2: the earth is in a condition of formlessness and desolation—the exact same condition as depicted in Genesis, tohû wabohû—and darkness prevails. Is this a vision of the primordial state of creation as depicted in Genesis 1:2? Not quite. But the prophet does borrow the image to depict the harsh realities and outcome of the Babylonian destruction of the land of Judah and its people in 587 BCE. In other words, the language and image that Jeremiah and other exilic writers of the 6th century used to portray the utter annihilation of the land of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, who decimated its land, burnt Jerusalem and Yahweh’s temple down to the ground, and left the land barren and covered in ashes, was the same language and image used to describe the preexistent state of creation—tohû wabohû.2
In fact, references to Judah specifically, and the earth in general, as a tohû wabohû, a wasteland, a barren, sterile, and desolate wilderness, were typical exilic and post-exilic descriptions of the aftermath of the Babylonian destruction as they laid siege to the land and utterly destroyed and burnt everything they encountered, from cities to fields. Thus in another text from the prophetic tradition of the late 6th century BCE, the author of deutero-Isaiah, attempting to console the exilic community and/or the returnees, has Yahweh utter these words:
For thus saith Yahweh, he who created (bara’) the heavens, the very god who formed (yatsar) the earth and made (‘asah) it, who himself established it—”He did not create (bara’) it a desolation (tohû), but formed (yatsar) it to be habitable” (Is 45:18).
The allusion to (re)creation is more apparent here than in Jeremiah’s text. At core it is a message of hope to the exilic community that Yahweh will turn Judah from a tohû wabohû—i.e., the wasteland left after the Babylonian destruction— back into habitable life-bearing earth.
The point I’m trying to make is that this specific vocabulary and imagery is unique to the exilic literature of the 6th century BCE and reflects these authors’ reality, or at least how they perceived their reality—as a desolation, a wasteland. Thus similar to these passages in Jeremiah and deutero-Isaiah, the author of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is also expressing the same idea in his creation account, and to the same audience and for the same purpose! In this case, the tohû wabohû of Genesis 1:2 serves two purposes: on the cosmic level it describes the primordial desolate and formless “earth” which the creator deity eventually forms into a habitable life-bearing land; and on the historic plane it describes the state of desolation and waste wrought by the Babylonian aftermath of 587 BCE. If this is so, then the Priestly creation account, like the Isaiah passage above, is a message of hope to the exilic community. It is an expression of the very hopes and reality of an exilic community and how this community perceived its own condition. It is an affirmative message: that as God had created an habitable earth from a preexistent formless waste (tohû wabohû), so too he can, and will, reestablish the land of Judah as habitable from its current condition of desolation and barrenness: “He did not create it a desolation (tohû), but formed it to be habitable.” The message and image reaffirms to this exilic community, the goodness and holiness in the created order of the world despite their current plight living in tohu! This is why creation from nothing meant nothing. What the Israelites sought to portray was a deity powerful enough to make, to convert, a desolate, formless, barren wasteland into a fertile, habitable, ordered, and blessed land. Both Genesis 1:1-10 and these passages from the prophetic tradition accomplishes this, and I might add marvelously well.
My central goal here was not to argue that Genesis 1:1-2 does not portray a creation out of nothing, which is certainly the case, but rather to demonstrate that the biblical scribe’s presentation of the origins of creation from a primordial watery chaos with unformed, desolate earth was shaped by the ideas and beliefs shared throughout the ancient world, and that the description of creation in Genesis is a subjective and biased account drawn from the perspectives, beliefs, and ideas about the world shared throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.
Thus modern readers who are ignorant of the literary and historical contexts of these ancient texts, a literary context that the biblical scribes themselves were well aware of and consciously drew from, but nonetheless feel qualified to pontificate on the meaning of these ancient documents are just being dishonest and disingenuous to these texts and the beliefs and views of their authors. Not only that, but this type of practice—pontificating meaning on an ancient text while willfully being ignorant of the cultural and literary contexts, beliefs, and worldviews advocated in the texts themselves—has the adverse effect of merely fueling more ignorance, and in turn generating staunch hypocritical views, since one now believes, out of ignorance, something about the text which the text in fact does not claim! Our goal is to be honest to the texts themselves on their own terms and to the beliefs of their authors—not ours.
- There are a number of good anthologies. For example: Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation (University of Chicago: Chicago, 1951); James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: Volume I. An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton University: Princeton, 1958); S. H. Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology: From the Assyrians to the Hebrews (Penguin: London, 1963); S. Brandon, Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East. London (Hodder & Stoughton, 1963); Michael Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Westminister: Louisville, 1978); and Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East (Paulist Press: New York, 2006).↵
- Mark Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (2010), 57-59.↵