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Genesis 1:1
The Heavens and the Earth

Hebrew Text

xrah taw <ymvh - The heavens and the earth

Here the universe is described in terms of opposites. This is called a merismatic word pair that expresses comprehensiveness (NIDOTTE, 1997, Vol.4,160). This bipartite division of the universe was common in Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, and Ugaritic. In the Egyptian Hymn to Atum the phrase "to the height of heaven and to the breadth of earth" is used (TDOT, I:389). There seems to a chiastic structure here and the next several verses of Genesis. Heaven and earth are named, but then the reverse order is talked about. In Rabbinic literature there is debate as to what was created first, the heavens or the earth (Bowker, 1969, 102-3).

<ymvh - The heavens

The Hebrew word <ymv, "heavens" is dual in form, meaning literally "two heavens." There are several explanations for this. Some scholars take it as an abnormal plural (Stadelmann, 1970, 39). Egypt conceived of two heavens, or two skies. The heaven of day, and the heaven at night. This may have been originally behind the dual form of <ymv. Another view is that the first heaven may be everything between the earth and the firmament, or the atmosphere. The second heaven would be everything above the firmament which would be the dwelling place of God. There is also the highest heaven, called the zenith. In Ugaritic El dwells at the source of the two deeps. This could be where the heavenly and subterranean oceans meet at the horizon. The heavens are said to be stretched out over the abyss. The earth also is stretched over the abyss, or subterranean waters. I will go into more details about heaven in verse 6.

The phrase "heaven of heavens" is the superlative expression for heaven by the Hebrews meaning "the highest heaven." This was the common way they stressed something. This does not mean there are many heavens; but many ancient writers believed in a number of heavens.

In the New Testament Paul is caught up into the third heaven where God especially dwells (2 Chore. 12:2). The three heavens may be; the atmosphere below the firmament, the firmament containing the stars, and above the firmament where God dwells. The book of Enoch tells of ten heavens in detail (Charlesworth, 1983, 22). Others in Rabbinic literature say there are seven heavens (Cohen, 1975, 30).

It should be noted that the heavens are named, but not created until verses 6-8 and the earth not until verses 9-10. This is also found in other ancient literature. One example is in Enuma Elish which starts, "When above the heavens had not (yet) been named, (and) below earth had not (yet) been called by a name; (When) Apsu primeval, their begetter, Mummu, (and) Ti’amat, she who gave birth to them all, (Still) mingled their waters together" (Heidel, 1942, 18). These are negative statements whereas Genesis one is positive statements.

Ancient Near Eastern Literature

The word <ymv probably comes from the Proto-Semitic relative pronoun plus the noun, sa-maii meaning "place of water" The Assyrian name for "heavens" is sa me which they thought meant "place of the waters" (NIDOTTE, 1997, Vol.4, 160). The Egyptians pictured heaven as an ocean which the sun sailed in his boat across the sky daily.

There is one very interesting Babylonian text where heaven is divided into three regions; upper, middle, and lower heaven each made of a different precious stone (Livingstone 1986, 83).

xrah - The earth

Not only is the earth the antithesis to heaven, vertically, but earth in the sense of land is also antithesis to sea, horizontally. Earth can also mean the Underworld in certain contexts. The Underworld is said to be in the earth, or in the depths of the earth, or under the earth.

In Sumerian and Akkadian the earth can be divided three parts, the upper earth where man lives, the middle of the earth where the water god Ea ruled, and the lower earth of the underworld. This corresponds to the three-fold division of the heavens. This tripartite division of the earth is also seen in the OT. Sheol is under the water in Job 26:5. In Jonah 2:2,3 Sheol is associated with the sea. The Rabbis divided the earth into seven layers which corresponds to the seven layers of heaven. According to Genesis 1:9 the earth seems to be submerged under the waters of the deep, or mingled with the waters.

Church Fathers

Justin Martyr, a gentile, was born around 110 AD in Samaria and was martyred about 165 AD under the rule of Marcus Aurelius. Justin Martyr as seen earlier believed like Plato that matter was eternal. He quotes the LXX to show that the heavens and earth were created out of the invisible and unfurnished matter in Genesis 1:2, but not from Plato’s world of ideas (First Apology, Chapter 59; Address to the Greeks, Chapter 30). Justin defends the Christian faith by showing the antiquity of the scriptures, and that the great Greek philosophers and writers (like Plato and Homer) must have borrowed their ideas from scripture.

Tatian, an Assyrian, was a student of Justin Martyr who lived about 110-172 AD. In his old age he fell into errors maybe because of infirmities and severe asceticism. He wrote Diatessaron which is a harmony of the four gospels, and Address to the Greeks. He believed that the creation of the earth in Genesis 1:1 referred to matter.

Theophilus of Antioch the earliest Church historian lived about 115-181 AD and succeeded Ignatius. He believed that matter was created in Genesis 1:1, and not the literal earth.

Origen follows Philo who follows Plato in Timaeus by interpreting the earth and heavens in Genesis 1:1 as corporeal and incorporeal intelligible matter. Philo saw the heavens and the earth as belonging to the world of Ideas in Genesis 1:1 which was confirmed by the creation of man mentioned twice. Origen defends his view in his theology, the First Principles (II, 9,1; Van Winden 1962, 210-11).

Basil sees a literal earth and Heavens created in Genesis 1:1. He sees matter as created by God, not eternal, but he does not equate matter with the earth in Genesis 1:1-2 as Ambrose does.

Ambrose equates the creation of the earth with matter (visible substances) and the heavens with invisible substances (probably following Origen) in Genesis 1:1. A literal earth was not created in Genesis 1:1, but just the matter or elements that make up the earth (Van Winden 1962, 212). Ambrose usually follows Basil’s commentary, but differs with him on a literal earth. Ambrose differs with Greek philosophers who say matter is eternal.

Augustine states, "in the beginning God made heaven and earth, but the very earth which God made was invisible and without form before God arranged the forms of all things by ordering and distinguishing them in their places and ranks" (Against the Manichees, Book 1:5; 1991, 53). Matter was created in verse one, and it was ex nihilo. Augustine says, "God made all things from nothing. For, though all formed things were made from this matter, this matter itself was still made from absolutely nothing" (Ibid, Book 1:10, 57-8). So in Genesis 1:1 heaven is the invisible or spiritual creation, and earth the visible formless matter.

Next - Genesis 1:2 - The Pre-Creation State