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Among the most memorable and iconic verses from the King James Bible is the one with which it begins: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Other translations follow suit, including the NIV, ESV, and NASB. And like the KJV, these translations consider this verse to be a complete sentence comprised of a prepositional phrase followed by the sentence’s subject, main verb, and direct objects. The import of this verse is debated: Is it a summary statement for the entire narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:4? Is it a description of the creation of the universe and what follows (i.e. vv. 2ff) is the preparation of the land for humanity? Is it prescient commentary on the discoveries of modern science? This final suggestion is the track Ray Comfort takes. In Scientific Facts in the Bible he writes,
Science expresses the universe in five terms: time, space, matter, power, and motion. “In the beginning [time] God created [power] the heavens [space] and the earth [matter]…And the Spirit of God moved [motion] upon the face of the waters.” The first thing Scripture tells us is that God controls all aspects of the universe.
While I would concur that the point of Genesis 1 is to communicate the god of Israel’s sovereignty over the cosmos, I would disagree with Comfort’s assessment of Genesis 1:1-2 that it is communicating the findings of modern science.
Genesis 1 in Historical Context
“A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” This maxim seems simple enough but is often ignored by apologists like Comfort. To fully appreciate any biblical text, we must consider how it functions both in its literary and historical contexts. Failure to do either will invariably result in reaching errant conclusions. With regards to Genesis 1:1-2, we must seek to understand how those verses fit in the context of Genesis 1 and related biblical texts as well as the historical circumstances in which they were written. We will consider the historical context first.
Other than fundamentalists and a few evangelicals, few biblical scholars believe that the book of Genesis was written by Moses. There are a variety of reasons for thinking this: the book of Genesis is anonymous, Moses never claims to be its author, no other character in the Pentateuch claims Moses is its author, etc. One of the clearest evidences is the presence of literary seams in the narratives of Genesis itself. For example, the story that began in Genesis 1:1 reaches its natural conclusion in 2:4a – “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” Then in the second half of the verse we find the beginning of a second creation story that extends all the way to chapter four. That these are two separate narratives is confirmed primarily through their divergent plots and secondarily through distinctive themes, vocabulary, and style. Given its affinities with texts in the book of Leviticus, a work heavy laden with references to the Israelite cult and its priests, the story of Genesis 1 is considered to be part of the Priestly source, abbreviated with the letter P.
To what era does P belong? That question is hotly debated among biblical scholars and for good reason. But elements of P show clear signs of belonging to an era later in Israelite history. Norman Gottwald notes that “[i]t is only with Ezekiel during the exile and with Ezra and the Chronicler after the exile that close affinities with P appear.” This evidence suggests that P appeared either before the Babylonian Exile began or not long after it commenced. So, then P, at least as a written source, can be tentatively dated to the sixth century BCE.
This information may seem mundane but the reason I have briefly discussed it has to do with Comfort’s flawed hermeneutic. The text of Genesis 1 fits in with a particular historical context that is completely foreign to our own. Our expectation of its author should not be that he is aware of the vastness of the cosmos or that he is describing the beginning of time. His worldview is thoroughly ancient Near Eastern, albeit nuanced with his own particular interests as a member of the Israelite cult with its worship of Yahweh. This historical context assists us in understanding Genesis 1 in its literary context.
Genesis 1 in Literary Context
If to rightly understand Genesis 1:1-2 we must consider it in its historical context, what does that look like? Specifically, in what way does Genesis 1 in general help us understand Genesis 1:1-2 particularly?
For starters, the plot of the narrative shows God solving a problem, namely that the world is cloaked in darkness and submerged in water: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (v. 2). Thus, God’s first creative acts are the creation of light (v. 3), the separation of waters via a dome (vv. 6-7), and the separation of water under the sky into sea and land (vv. 9-10). But how did the world get this way?
Earlier I noted a couple of different ways Genesis 1:1 has been understood. On one view, Genesis 1:1 is a summary of the entire creation narrative. But this is problematic since nowhere in Genesis 1:2-31 does the author describe the creation of the earth of v. 2. If v. 1 was a summary statement then readers would expect to be told about the creation of the earth, the darkness, and the water over which the wind/spirit of God hovered. The other view, that Genesis 1:1 is a statement about the initial act of creation and what follows is a description of God ordering the chaos is equally problematic. Did God intentionally create the earth such that it was a “formless void”? Why would it have been covered in water and darkness? Comfort’s view is problematic as well if for no other reason than he deliberately glosses over the state of the earth as “without form and void” (KJV) or why it was submerged in water. However, the problem of the state of the earth in Genesis 1:2 goes away if we consider the entire narrative as an ancient Near Eastern creation story.
Whereas the KJV (and many modern translations) open with the phrase “In the beginning,” many scholars have noted that the opening of Genesis 1 is a bit more complicated. Here I will be following the work of Mark Smith. First, there is no “in the beginning.” The Hebrew word brʾšyt that opens Genesis 1:1 lacks the definite article. In fact, in every occurrence of rēʾšît (“beginning” or “start”) with the preposition b (“in”) there is no accompanying definite article (Genesis 1:1; Jeremiah 26:1, 27:1, 28:1, 49:34). Second, wherever brʾšyt occurs it is always with reference to the beginning of something. In Genesis 1:1, brʾšyt is followed by the verb brʾ (“he created”) and the subject ʾĕlōhîm (“God”). Thus, the first three words of Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew could be rendered, “When God began to create” or “In the beginning of God creating” or something similar. Third, this makes v. 1 a dependent clause, forcing the question as to where the main clause would be. Verse 2 doesn’t seem a likely candidate since it appears to function as a description of the earth prior to God’s activity. It appears that v. 3 is the main clause – “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Fourth, the text isn’t speaking of creation ex nihilo since, according to v. 2, there is earth, darkness, and water upon which God acts. Their origins are not explained by the Priestly author. When God decrees the existence of light (v. 3) he does not need to decree the existence of darkness since it was already present in v. 2. Rather, he gives it a purpose – “the darkness he called Night” (v. 5). When in vv. 9-10 God forms land and sea, he does so not by creating land and sea but by pulling back the waters and thereby uncovering the land that those waters had been covering. In other words, God is working with preexistent material.
It is this last point that would surely make Comfort uncomfortable (pun intended). After all, it suggests either that 1) the story of Genesis 1:3ff is a second creation and we know nothing of the original creation in which the earth, darkness, and waters were formed or 2) it suggests that some physical material has always existed. Either way, it is not congruent with the standard view of creationists of creation ex nihilo. Moreover, it suggests that Genesis 1 has a lot more in common with other ancient creation myths than Comfort and his ilk would like to admit. In many ancient Near Eastern creation narratives, the world is formed from things already in existence. Examples abound and can be found in the Theogony of Dunnu, Enuma Elish, and many more. The point is, it doesn’t match Comfort’s “scientific” reading of Genesis 1:1-2. Instead, Genesis 1:1-2 makes the most sense when it is considered in its own historical and literary context.
 It should be noted that whereas the KJV renders hšmym as “the heaven,” most modern translations, recognizing that šmym is plural (and is always plural in the Hebrew Bible), renders it as “the heavens.”
 Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 58.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary, Library of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 84.
 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Bellflower, CA: Living Waters Publications, 2016), 8.
 D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 115.
 See Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 273n108.
 See Steven DiMattei, Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate: Being Honest to the Text, Its Author, and His Beliefs (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 46-50. For more on the style and vocabulary of P, see Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Brief Socio-Literary Introduction (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 274-275.
 Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, 278. For examples where Ezekiel and P exhibit parallels, see Richard Elliot Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses (New York: HarperOne, 2003), 15-16. It should be noted that Friedman dates P to before the Babylonian Exile. See Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 188.
 Mark S. Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 41-42, 213n2.
 Unless otherwise noted, all citations of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.
 Waltke and Fredricks (Genesis, 59) note this problem but offer no solution.
 Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, 43-59.
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