What are we to make of the repeated refrain, “And the evening and the morning were the [ordinal number] day” (as at Gen 1:5)?

I propose to gloss the sentence this way: “After an evening, and with the dawning of the next morning, the first day ended.” In the text, these sentences come after the descriptions of each day’s creation activities, implying that the evening and the dawn came after those activities. If this sentence were, instead, a recapitulation of the whole day—a day lasting from “morning” until “evening”—then it is hard to know why the word “evening” (עֶ֥רֶב, ereb) always occurs before “morning” (בֹ֖קֶר, boqer). It seems that, contrary to the usual Hebrew day which begins at sundown, each 24-hour day begins at dawn and ends with the conclusion of the following night.

How long is a “day” (as at Gen 1:5)?

In this text, a “day” (י֔וֹם or yowm) need not mean a standard 24-hour period, however much some insist on this. Elsewhere in the Bible itself we are told, “a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” (Psalm 90:4), a verse Peter seems to have recalled when he wrote, “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (1 Pet. 3:8) Moreover, the seven “days” are recounted on a divine scale, as for most of the time, God is the only actor. It is also a strong and perfectly acceptable argument to point out that, on the most plausible account of the meaning of the events described—an account that attempts to be squared with a respectful, good-faith, scientific observation of the God-made creation before us—the events would quite naturally (but also divinely) extend over billions of years. Given this, the purposes of the sentences seems clear enough: they divide up and order the events using a metaphor.

How many things here is God said to “divide” (as at Gen 1:4), and so, what might its significance be?

God is said to divide light from darkness (Gen 1:4); the waters under the sky (the sea) from those above (the clouds, I think; 1:7); day from the night (1:14); light from darkness again (1:18), but on my interpretation this really is the same insofar as it is the sun’s light, whether obscured by the proto-earth’s clouds or not, that performs this function. Moreover, although the text does not explicitly say so, the land is clearly “divided” from the sea (1:9). These “divisions” seem to distinguish the main components of the visible universe, which was at first “without form.” Hence with these actions God gives form to the world.

What is the purpose and significance of God’s declaration, as at Gen 1:4, that the things he has created are “good”?

This is a good illustration of the Bible’s understatement and tendency to require the reader to pay close attention in order to get the full message. The message here is not merely that God approves of his own creation, but that creation was, at first, good; but this changes, as we will see, with the Fall of Man in Gen 3. It is this change that makes the emphasis apropros.

Is there not a fair bit of repetition of verbal formulas in the six “days” of creation?

Indeed there is. As one can see in Gen 1:3-5, with “And God said…and there was…,” then “God saw…” and “it was good”; and all is followed by “the evening and the morning were the nth day”. Commentators make much of this repetition: there is the report that God said something, then there is the command (or “divine fiat”) itself, then a report of the action being done (the “fulfillment formula”), then God names the thing created, judges it good (the “approval formula”), and finally, the day comes to a close.

What is the “Spirit of God” and why is it said to move upon “the face of the waters” in Gen 1:2?

Here we are invited to picture the proto-earth as being one giant ocean, as a 2020 study theorizes actually happened in the proto-earth. It is precisely the Spirit of God that, in other places in the Bible, is said to be the original creator and mover of the universe. It helps to bear in mind that the word for “Spirit” here, רוּחַ or ruach, also means “breath or wind,” and that it is one of the products of “breath”—the Word of God—that is elsewhere said (and demonstrated in Gen 1) to be particularly creative. As Psalm 33:6 puts it, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath [ruach] of his mouth.” The notion that some agent of the Godhead was present to initially move things about is also consistent with theology going back to ancient times, not just in Aristotle’s Prime Mover argument but also on the view that divine intervention is always needed to sustain the universe in its existence and activity. So it is particularly apropos that God’s presence and activity are noted precisely in the first moments of the chaotic proto-universe.

What is the “light” that God created on the first day (Gen 1:3), particularly if not the Sun (created on the fourth day)?

The way to make this narrative cohere best both with common sense and with science is to envision the events of the narrative unfolding from a point of view on the very early proto-earth, making use of human-type perceptual equipment, not from way out in space or from some abstract, scientific point of view. Hence, we can imagine the light from the sun shining through the proto-earth’s gas cloud, there would be periods of light and periods of dark, as the gas blob began to rotate (Gen 1:5). Atmospheric conditions at some early point might well be such that there were no distinctive clouds visible from the planet surface, and so neither “firmament” nor solid ground or ocean, but merely a massive, slightly opaque dust cloud. So in fact the “light” might have been the Sun, but enshrouded by clouds of as yet unthinned and un-”divided”, formless dust and ice. Another possibility, that strikes me as being a little too anachronistic, is the notion that this is the light following the Big Bang. This general theory is explored in more detail below.

In Gen 1:2, what does “without form, and void” mean? How about “the deep” and the primordial “waters” and their “face”?

It seems what was initially created by God was something like “raw stuff,” Aristotelian matter without form; it was essentially chaotic, without order. It had to be given some shape or nature by God, and it did not originally have any such shape or nature. Hence, to say that the earth was “without form, and void” is to say that it was an amorphous, chaotic blob. That nicely coheres with scientific theories about the formation of the primordial earth out of a disc of dust and gas, floating formlessly in space. The early earth was deep, dark, wet (at least, full of frozen water molecules), chaotic, impenetrable mass of earth and (ice) water. That is what is meant by a “heaven and earth” that is nonetheless “without form, and void.” Then certainly “the deep” and “the waters” both might be understood as descriptions of such a chaotic and wet mass.

What word is used for “create” in Gen 1:1 and why does it matter?

TThe word in Gen 1:1 for “create,” בָּרָ֣א or bara, is used here, while in other contexts, a word meaning “made,” עָשָׂה or asah, is used. The distinction appears to be that between creating out of nothing and assembling out of pre-existing parts—between originating and transforming. Basically, God is said to bara things out of nothing, while he asah them by assembling them from pre-existing things.

So did God create the universe ex nihilo in Gen 1:1, according to the Bible? What reason is there to think so?

Yes, although perhaps the text does not say so in a way that would satisfy a critical philosopher on the point. The argument, briefly stated, is theological: the first sentence of the Bible is, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” Is there anything other than the heaven and the earth? The author doubtless did not think so; and if so, then this statement amounts to saying that God created everything there was to create. Peter in Acts 4:24 is perhaps more explicit on this point: “Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that is in them”. Even more pointed is a verse that Grudem rightly makes much of in this connection: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Heb. 11:3) Unless the author here is saying—as he very probably is not—that visible things are made out of invisible things, this implies that all visible things are made ex nihilo.

Is Gen 1:1 to be translated as part of an adverbial phrase or as an independent main clause?

In other words, is it “God created” or is it “When God created, …” with either Gen 1:2 or 1:3 the consequent of “when”? In the first case, God created a primordial universe, then structured and filled it; in the second case, God created a complete universe, and thereafter that previously good universe was reduced to chaos—as if there were a “gap” between 1:1 and 1:2. This is a common theory, but, without getting into the tedious details, there is nothing in the text to support it. For one thing, “when” does not appear in the text. Moreover, the notion that God would begin with an unshaped, empty universe makes excellent sense considering that the rest of Genesis 1, he is shaping and filling the universe.

God is said to create the heaven and the earth in Gen 1:1, and yet he creates “heaven” in 1:6-8 and “dry land” or earth in 1:9-10. Is this a contradiction?

No. There are various ways of explaining this, but the way that makes most sense to me is that what is created is neither heaven in the sense of the sky (which does not appear until the second day, Gen 1:6) nor earth in the sense of dry land (which does not appear until the third day, 1:9). So what is it? We are told its features, or rather, its lack of features: it is “without form, and void,” it is described as “the deep,” which has “waters” that are evidently not gathered-together “seas” (such seas do not appear, with the dry land, until the third day, 1:10). Indeed, the very fact that “waters” need to be separated from “waters” in order to make a “firmament” or expanse, which is only then (second day, 1:8) to be called “heaven” or “sky,” means that the initial “heaven and earth” are very strange and primordial indeed. Hence, to say that God created “the heaven and the earth” is simply to say that God created the universe.It is possible that we should interpret “heaven” here to mean the spiritual dwelling-place of God, but presumably that existed well before the material universe or “earth” in that sense (this is discussed more below).

What did God create first, precisely (Gen 1:1)?

As the text says, he created “the heaven and the earth.” This is a phrase that Sailhamer calls a hendiadys—a unitary concept formed out of two words conjoined with “and”—to mean the entire universe. This does not mean that he first created everything in all its glory and detail, because in the very next sentence, he says the earth that he just created was “without form, and void.” Also, see the next question.

Why is the plural form of the Hebrew word elohim, employed for “God” (Gen 1:1)?

Why is אֱלֹהִ֔ים, or elohim, used for a singular God in Gen 1:1 and so many places later? Indeed, and not only that, why is a pluralized word meaning “in our image” (בְּצַלְמֵ֖נו, betzalmenu) used (1:26), if “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4)? A common and traditional explanation is theological: this is because the Holy Spirit and Jesus were part of the Godhead, and it was, apparently, acceptable to refer to the Godhead using the plural. While true enough, it does not seem this is why the plural was used here, because the author of this text presumably did not believe in a trinitarian Godhead and hence not intend to refer to one. But perhaps the author was inspired to use the plural, for reasons he himself did not quite understand. Another traditional explanation, however, is possible: this was what is called in Hebrew grammar the emphatic plural or the plural of majesty.By using the plural form (for the noun) with singular verb forms, the author conveys particular respect or emphasis. So this was not any old god; it was God.

What is the function of Genesis 1?

There is, as one commentator pointed out, a polemic at work in Genesis 1. This polemic does not aim to undermine modern science, of course—but instead ancient pagan religions. Genesis stands against ancient religions that taught that different gods were responsible for different pieces of the creation, that some were champions of chaos and evil, that matter pre-existed the gods, that the gods were limited, had foibles, and were even mortal. Only one divine personage matters here, and it is not the highest god of some pantheon. It is the god with a capital “g,” God himself, El Shaddai, God Almighty—named Lord, or Yahweh, i.e., he whose essence is to exist, and whose existence is sovereign. The text, qua polemic, replaced pantheons of capricious and deeply flawed gods with a single all-powerful creator god.