‘Beginnings’ before Genesis 1:1?
Does the dependent clause reading of Genesis 1:1 support the compatibility of the Bible with ‘billions of years’?
A minority of interpreters translate Genesis 1:1 as a dependent clause, i.e. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth …”. It is found in several modern translations (New American Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Common English Bible, Good News Translation), showing that it is backed by some Old Testament scholars.
The dependent clause reading of Genesis 1:1 is also sometimes put forward as a riposte to young-age views (Top Ten Biblical Problems for Young Earth Creationism—Answered). Why? It supposedly allows for a form of gap theory. Instead of placing a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, this version places the ‘gap’ before verse 1. The idea is that Genesis 1:1 is only the beginning of a specific story that doesn’t rule out previous ‘beginnings’ before it. This is commonly linked to verse 2, which describes a “formless and empty” state with an undifferentiated “deep”, and this is supposedly said to have existed for some time before Genesis 1:1.
Must we accept the dependent clause reading of Genesis 1:1?
However, there are several reasons to reject such a reading.1 For instance, it creates a grammatically long and awkward sentence that is out of step with the terse sentence structure of the rest of Genesis 1. In contrast, the traditional reading is grammatically easy and matches well the terse sentence structure of Genesis 1.2
Anything before Genesis 1:1?
Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, let’s accept the dependent clause view. What does such a view imply? Noted supporter of this view, Hebraist Dr Robert Holmstedt writes:
… the grammar of Gen. i 1 points forward only; it does not comment about whether this basic creative event was unique or whether there were others like it … . Grammatically, the introduction to Genesis simply indicates that it is this particular rēʾšît [Hebrew word for “beginning”] from which the rest of the story as we know it unfolds.3
However, this does not tell us that there are ‘beginnings’ before Genesis 1:1. On this view, the ‘beginning’ is only prospective, but says nothing about what may have happened before. In other words, nothing may have happened before Genesis 1:1. This view is entirely consistent with Genesis 1:1 being the beginning of all reality. Indeed, the fact that it’s the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth tells us this is a very generic beginning that is likely meant to be understood in a universalistic fashion.
Origins of “the great deep” in Genesis 1:2
How might this comport with the idea that Genesis 1 doesn’t depict the origins of the “deep” in verse 2? It doesn’t have to depict the origins of the deep for it to be implied by Scripture. For instance, John 1:1 opens with en archē (“in the beginning”), which is a literary reference to the LXX translation of Genesis 1:1. However, John 1:3 goes on to state that “all things came into being through” the Word. The comprehensive scope of John 1:3 in close association with a literary reference to Genesis 1:1 just two verses prior makes it very likely John understood Genesis 1 to refer to the creation of all things without exception, which would include the “deep” of verse 2 (Process theism).4
Interestingly, John Walton offers another option:
… we propose that tōhû and bōhû together convey the idea of nonexistence (in their functional ontology), that is, that the earth is described as not yet functioning in an ordered system. (Functional) creation has not yet taken place and therefore there is only (functional) nonexistence.5
However, Walton’s ‘functional origins only’ thesis regarding Genesis 1 is implausible (Is Genesis 1 only about functional creation?). But if he is still right that “tōhû and bōhû together convey the idea of nonexistence”, then Genesis 1:2 would function as a poetic description of nonexistence rather than a state of matter from which the world was shaped.
Nonetheless, the dependent clause reading does allow ‘beginnings’ before Genesis 1. But do ‘beginnings’ before Genesis 1:1 provide any evidence that the Bible is compatible with deep time? Not at all. On this reading, the Bible doesn’t say how long the “deep” existed before Creation Week. It may have only existed momentarily.
Genesis 1 is history
More importantly, the rest of Genesis 1 makes it impossible to read deep time history into this “deep” of Genesis 1:2. For instance, Genesis 1 is not concerned merely with the creation of the earth; it also concerns the creation of the heavens (Unbinding the rules). This is reiterated especially on Day 2 and Day 4 of Creation Week, which are either prominently or exclusively focused on God’s creative activities relating to the heavens. Day 4 (Genesis 1:14–19) is exclusively focused on the heavens and describes the creation of the sun, moon, and stars. Moreover, it puts their creation after the creation of the land and vegetation (Day 3), which explicitly conflicts with the order of events posited by deep time.
Of course, long-agers have responses to these issues. They say things like ‘the rest of Genesis is figurative’ (see Is Genesis poetry / figurative, a theological argument (polemic) and thus not history?), ‘Genesis 1 depicts functional origins rather than material origins’ (Is Genesis 1 only about functional creation?), or ‘Day 4 only refers to the appearance of stars on the Earth’s surface and not when they actually started existing’ (How could the days of Genesis 1 be literal if the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?). There are powerful responses to these ideas. However, these claims are irrelevant to the dependent clause reading of Genesis 1. They are separate (and conflicting!) claims that must be argued for separately from the dependent clause reading of Genesis 1:1.
The fundamental question we address in the origins debate is: ‘Does the Bible conflict with deep time?’ Biblical exegesis is crucially relevant to this question. However, the origins debate is not simply an exegetical issue. We use exegesis to answer the questions we’re asking. And while the text wasn’t written (at the human level) specifically to answer all our questions, it may still answer them. But sometimes it may not.
This is the case with respect to the dependent clause reading of Genesis 1:1. If it is true, then it provides no relevant data for our question: ‘Does the Bible conflict with deep time?’ It offers no evidence supporting the notion that the Bible is compatible with deep time. It tells us nothing about what might’ve come before Genesis 1:1, and it does not speak to the issues within Genesis 1 that present conflicts with deep time, such as the creation of vegetation before the sun. Even if Genesis 1:1 doesn’t refer to the beginning of all reality (outside God), the Bible still conflicts with the ‘billions of years’ scheme of the modern secular academy.
References and notes
- Sarfati, J., The Genesis Account, Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, GA, p. 89–90, 2015. Return to text.
- For sustained defences of the traditional reading of Genesis 1:1, see: Chambers, N.J., Genesis 1 and Creation Ex Nihilo: A Reconsideration, PhD Thesis, University of Durham, 2017; Wilson, J., Linguistic Traits of Hebrew Relator Nouns and Their Implications for Translating Genesis 1:1, Answers Research Journal 11: 1–21, 2018; and Wilson, J., Syntactical Features of Hebrew Genitive Clauses and Their Implications for Translating Genesis 1:1, Answers Research Journal 11:341–58, 2018. Return to text.
- Holmstedt, R.D., The Restrictive Syntax of Genesis I 1, Vetus Testamentum 58(1):66, 2008. Return to text.
- Moreover, John 1:1–3 and other passages that speak of God creating “all things” (e.g. Colossians 1:16–17) show that the Bible also teaches creatio ex nihilo. Erasmus, J., The Kalām Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment, Springer, Cham, Switzerland, pp. 17–27, 2018. Return to text.
- Walton, J.H., The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, IVP, Downers Grove, IL, Kindle Locations 452–454, 2009. Return to text.