The creation stories in the Bible
Interpretations of Genesis 1:1:
"In the beginning, God...."
Genesis 1:1 in English translations of the Bible;
Most English versions of the Bible have translated this verse
starting: "In the beginning, God created...."
||21st Century King James Version, King James Version, and Webster's Bible
Translation: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."
||American Standard Version, Darby Bible, English Standard Version, Holman
Christian Standard Bible, and New Living Translation: "In the beginning God
created the heavens and the earth."
||Bible in Basic English: "At the first God made the heaven and the
||Concordant Version: "Created by the Elohim were the heavens and the
||Jewish Publication Society (3rd ed.) When God began to create heaven and
Aryeh Kaplan's "The Living Torah and the New Jerusalem Bible:"
"In the beginning God created heaven and earth."
||The Living Bible: "When God began creating the heavens and the earth..."
||New American Bible: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and
the earth ..."
||New Revised Standard Version: "In the beginning when God created the
heavens and the earth."
||New World Translation: "In [the] beginning God created the heavens and
||World English Bible "In the beginning God created the heavens and the
Any new translation that deviates too much from this traditional rendering
might well not meet the expectations of many Christians, and be rejected. So we
can expect to see future translations to follow this wording, even though it may
be not particularly accurate.
Genesis 1:1: the word "heaven" or "heavens:"
The Masoretic text (MT) is the accepted version of the Tanakh -- the Jewish
Scriptures. It is used as the source text for translations of the Hebrew
Scriptures (Old Testament) in both Protestant and Catholic Bibles. Genesis 1:1 is the first verse of the first chapter of
the first book of the Pentateuch, and
thus of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible. One attempt at a literal translation
is: "beginning filled God the heavens and the
As noted above, almost all translations refer to the "heaven" or "heavens." However,
the late noted expert Jewish interpreter of the Bible,
Harry M. Orlinsky (1908 - 1992) commented that neither word is valid. He wrote:
"The common rendering 'heavens' has no authority. Hebrew shamayim is
plural (or dual) in form (a singular form does not exist in biblical
Hebrew). Actually, shamayim means nothing more than 'sky,' and this should
perhaps have been the term employed here. ... It should be kept in mind that
our notion of 'heaven(s),' with its theological associations, is foreign to
our verse. 2
Most biblical experts, who are not conservative
Protestants, believe that the ancient Hebrews adopted the cosmology of nearby
Pagan cultures. Biblical references to the Earth, firmament, Heaven, Sheol, etc.
in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) described a
flat Earth with a metal dome called the
firmament above the land. Sheol -- the location of the dead -- was underground.
Heaven was on top of the firmament. Thus, if God created the Earth and sky,
ancient Hebrews might have interpreted that as creating the entire universe.
Unfortunately, if Genesis 1:1 were translated into English correctly, many
people would interpret it literally in terms of today's cosmology. God would be seen as having merely creating or forming the Earth and sky -- not
the entire universe. This is incompatible with Christian and Jewish theology.
Thus we are probably stuck with a mistranslation now and for the foreseeable
future. This is not an auspicious beginning to a Bible translation!
Genesis 1:1: the word "created:"
According to Wikipedia:
"The ambiguity of the Hebrew grammar in this verse gives rise to two
||The first implying that God's first act of creation [out of nothing] was heaven and
The second that 'heaven and earth' already existed in a 'formless
and void' state, to which God brings form and order:" 3
The former is often referred to as "creation ex nihilo" -- the concept that God created the
Earth and the rest of the universe out of nothing. This is the historical
Christian interpretation of the first Genesis creation story and is grounded on
St. Thomas Aquinas' "Summa Theologiae," 7
and on other early Christian writings.
The latter interpretation is called "creatio ex
materia." God is seen as having formed the universe out of pre-existing material, perhaps
by bringing order out of chaos. Augustine appears to have adopted this position.
St. Thomas Aquinas commented that "Augustine uses the word creation in an
equivocal sense, according as to be created signifies improvement in things; as
when we say that a bishop is created." 7
One understanding of "created:" God created the universe out of nothing:
The above Bible translations imply "creation ex nihilo."
This is the historical Christian position.
Supportive of this option is 2 Maccabees 7:27-29. This is a book in the
Apocrypha, a group of books
that is included in Roman Catholic translations of the Bible, and was in the
version of the Bible that the early Christians used -- the Septuagint. They
are rejected by most Protestant denominations as not being a valid part of
the biblical canon. The Jerusalem Bible translates this passage as:
"My son, have pity on me; ... I implore you, my child, observe heaven
and earth, consider all that is in them, and acknowledge that God made
them out of what did not exist, and that mankind comes into being in the
same way. ..." 4
Unfortunately, the passage is ambiguous. It specifically says that God created the
universe out of nothing. However, it also says that humans came into existence
in the same way. Since Genesis states that God created Adam by molding him out of
Maccabees might imply that, God also formed the universe out of preexistent material.
The Qur'an -- the holy book of Islam -- appears to support "creation ex nihilo" according to some
English interpretations of the original Arabic text:
||Surah 21:56: "He said, 'Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He
Who created them (from nothing): and I am a witness to this (Truth)'."
Surah 35:1: "Praise be to Allah, Who created (out of nothing) the heavens and the
earth ..." 4
A second understanding of "created:" God created the universe out pre-existing material:
There are many verses in the Bible that refer to God "making" the heavens or
the Earth. Example are Psalms 33:6, Proverbs 8:23, John 1:3, Romans 4:17, and 1
Corinthians 1:28. These passages could be interpreted as either ""creation ex nihilo"
or "creatio ex
Two other Bible translations of Genesis 1:1 -- ones which emphasize the literal meaning of
the Hebrew text -- might imply that the latter is possible:
||The Amplified Version: "In the beginning God (prepared, formed,
fashioned, and) created the heavens and the earth."
||Young's Literal Translation: "In the beginning of God's preparing the
heavens and the earth ..."
This concept is supported by one passage in the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament). It states that God formed the universe out of invisible material
that already existed:
||Hebrews 11:3: "... 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." (King James Version)
This verse is less obscure in the Living Bible paraphrased translation: "...
we know that the world and the stars -- in fact all things - were made at God's
command and that they were all made from things that can't be seen."
The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary supports this concept. Commenting on
the first verses of Genesis 1, they wrote:
"Creation begins when God imposes order on primeval, nonpersonal chaos
by calling light into existence. ... It seems to picture a chaotic storm
churning over the primordial dark and mysterious abyss of infinite and
formless waters. Out from this, God summons order, thus creating the
universe. ... Nothing is said of the origin of the chaos or of God's
activity prior to creation." 5
Joseph Smith was the founder of the original Mormon church which has since evolved into the LDS Restorationist movement of about a
hundred Mormon faith groups including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints. He supported "creatio ex materia." He wrote about Genesis 1:1:
"... the word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau, which
does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize--the same as a
man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had
materials to organize the world out of chaos--chaotic matter ..." 8
Genesis 1:1: the word "God:"
The Masoretic Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 refers to "Elohim" --
a word representing multiple Gods. The single form in Hebrew is: "Eloah." Some would suggest that an accurate literal translation would
be: "beginning filled the Gods the heavens and the
The apparent reference to plural deities is
reinforced by the use of "us" and "we" in Genesis 1:26 and in other verses of
Many attempts have been used to harmonize these
references to multiple Gods with the concept of monotheism:
||Some Christians suggest that referring
to God in the plural is a reference to the Trinity: one deity composed of three
persons -- God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy
||Some religious historians note that Genesis
1:1, and the rest of the first creation story, was adapted from an earlier
Pagan creation myth from Babylon. The ancient Hebrews who incorporated it
into Genesis may have left the original reference to polytheism intact.
||To the ancient Hebrews, the majesty and
awesomeness of God was so great that he was referred to in the plural. "Elohim"
then becomes similar to the "royal we."
||Elohim refers to more than Yahweh; the term
refers to God, and other heavenly entities "... down in rank through the angelic
"Genesis 1:1," Wikipedia, at:
"Notes on the New JPS Translation of the Torah," Jewish Publication
"Creation according to Genesis," Wikipedia, at:
"Ex nihilo," Wikipedia, at:
- Charles M Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's one-volume commentary on the
Bible," Abington Press, (1991), Page 3.
James Patrick Holding, "How Many "E"s in Elohim? Does the Plural Form of
God's Name Indicate Polytheism?," Tekton Apologetic Ministry, at:
St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," Question 45, Article 1, New Advent,
Joseph Smith, "Journal of Discourses," F.D. Richards, Vol. 6 (1844), Pages
4-6. Online at:
Copyright © 2008 to 2011 by
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2008-MAY-31
Latest update: 2010-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson