World creation in Gen 1 - ex nihilo or from preexisting matter?

Nov 2016
The first three verses of ´Genesis´ (Gen 1:1-3) are in the Hebrew original:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. ב וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. 2 And / now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר. 3 And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light

More exactly:

1 )
2 In the beginning (be´reschit) God (singular: bara) created (plural: elohim) heaven (plural: ha´schamajim) and (we) earth (ha´aräz).

2 )
3 Now / and (we) the earth (ha´aräz) was (hajetah) unformed / desolate (tohu) and (wa) void / empty (bohu) and (we) darkness (choschäk) over the face (al´pene) of the deep / abyss (tehom) and (we) the spirit (without article: ruach) of God (plural: elohim) hovering / brooding / fluttering (merachäpät) upon the face (al´pene) of the waters (plural: ha´majim).

3 )
4 And (wa) said (jomär) God (plural: elohim): Let there be (jehi) light (or), and (wa) it became (jehi) light (or).

There are two ways of assigning the first two verses to each other:

The conventional interpretation: verse 1 describes the absolute beginning of creation, the result of which is described in more detail in verse 2 with regard to the state of the earth. In verse 3 the creative design of the initial state then begins.

The unconventional interpretation, which has become increasingly accepted in recent decades: The state of the world described in verse 2 is pre-existent and precedes the process of creation in time. Verse 1 therefore gives a summary of the events of chapter Gen 1. Verse 2 accordingly describes a pre-existent initial state of the world, without any statement being made as to whether this state itself once had a beginning or whether it is beginningless.

The advocates of the conventional interpretation A assume, as I said, that verse 1 begins with a chronological report of the world creation. Elohim (= God) suddenly brings forth - possibly ex nihilo - heaven (plural form: shamajim) and the still imperfect earth. They further assume that the perfection of the ´desert´ earth and the creation of a second physical heaven (vault, firmament) will be described in the further course, which is added to the (thus interpreted) supreme ´divine´ heaven of verse 1.

The following arguments, among others, speak against the interpretation A:

A creation ´through the word´ (plagiarized from the older Egyptian myth about the world creation by god Ptah), as it takes place up to the sixth ´day´, is not recognizable in verse 1. What is directly created by ´the word´ is the light, the firmament (heaven), the celestial bodies, the animals and possibly also the humans. When other acts of creation are performed, the ´Earth´ functions as mediating organ of the divine will.

What concerns the human creation in Gen 1:27, it is not clear whether it takes place as formation process from already existing material as in Gen 2 or ´through the word´ as with the light, the sky, the heavenly bodies and the animals. It means "And God spoke: Let us make humans" and then in the next sentence: "And God created humans". That it concerns thereby a material formation process, is the usual view, can however only from Gen 2 be opened up, which is questionable inasmuch as the respective passages of different authors originate with possibly different perspectives on humans creation. Since both passages were subject to a joint final editing, however, it is permissible to interpret Gen 1:27 from Gen 2, even if the wording speaks against it.

For representatives of Interpretation B, the nonmentioning of a creation ´through the word´ in verse 1 thus proves the preexistence of the imperfect earth described in verse 2, which only reaches perfection in the further process of creation ´through the word´ in verse 1. According to Interpretation B, verse 1 refers to this perfection and thus to a final state, which only occurs after the sixth ´day´ - instead of an imperfect initial state, as claimed by Interpretation A, which is burdened with the additional assumption of a divine heaven.

That a heaven is created not only in verse 1, but also in verse 7 - there as ´vault´ (raqia) - raises the question of the relationship between these two ´heavens´ (identical or different, and if the latter, in what way). In the ancient oriental religions, also in Judaism, as a rule a plurality of heavens were assumed, which stand in a hierarchical relation to each other.

Only in passing: both in verse 1 and in verse 8 (where the vault is called ´heaven´) the Hebrew ´schamajim´ (plural without possible singular) appears, in verse 1 with article ´ha´, in verse 8, because as proper name, without the article. The Hebrew word appearing in Gen 1 for ´water´ (plural: majim) is conspicuously contained in ´schamajim´. In the Talmud, this composition is recognized either as sham + majim (place of water) or as esh + majim (fire and water). The former is more likely.

However, a differentiation between different skies is not explicitly stated in Gen 1 and therefore cannot be proven. Arguably, the doubly mentioned creation of ´heaven´ in verses 1 and 7 can therefore not be used by advocates of either interpretation. But it tends to strengthen the unconventional interpretation B (pre-existent matter), because it does not require the additional assumption of a hierarchy of heavens (Ockham's razor), which is unprovable for Gen 1.

Another argument requires a look at the original Hebrew text. Verse 2 begins with a ´now / and´ = ´wa´, which precedes the word for ´earth´ without a space (as is usual for ´wa´ in Hebrew). To be read from the right:

והארץ ("and the earth")

In the common English translations, ´and / now´ gives the impression that it leads to a statement about the preceding sentence (verse 1) sequentially. This corresponds to Interpretation A, which interprets verse 2 as the explanatory continuation of verse 1. However, the syntactic nature of verse 2 in the Hebrew original contradicts this. There are two uses of ´wa´, if it is at the beginning of the sentence:

If the sentence position is ´wa + verb + subjekt´, then it is a sequential construction, i.e. the sentence introduced with ´wa´ follows the preceding sentence.

If, however, the proposition is ´wa + subject + verb´, then the proposition is not a sequence, but a circumstance determination of the proposition following it.

In verse 2, ´und´=´wa´ is followed by the subject ´Earth´ and only then by the verb ´was´. It thus provides background information for verse 3, in which Elohim speaks "´": "Let there be light´", etc.

Verse 3, on the other hand, is an example of a sequential use of ´wa´: There the verb ´spoke´ follows the original Hebrew verb for ´and´ and then the subject ´elohim´.

From this follows: Verse 1 does not precede verse 2 chronologically, from which it follows again that it is most likely a chapter heading or chapter summary.
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Mike McClure

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
You can't create something out of nothing and if God is there than it is not nothing. God is something.

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
Every religion and culture has their own creation myth. The Christian version is no more true than any of the others.


Forum Staff
Apr 2010
T'Republic of Yorkshire
You will note that the religion subforum us now called Religious History.

This is not history.