Genesis 1:1a – In the Beginning

Last week we laid the foundation for our study of Genesis 1-3.

  • We looked at what we called Moses’ Message – the big picture of Moses’ intent or voice.
  • From here on out, we will dig into the details of the text.
  • As we do so, we will occasionally reflect on our Moses’ message theme.

 

Today we consider two opposing views on how to understand Genesis 1:1.

  • One that sees verse 1 as an introduction to everything that follows (John Walton).
  • One that sees verse 1 as a creation event separate from everything that follows (John Sailhamer).

 

It is necessary to spend some time covering these views.

  • Each leads to a drastically different handling of the rest of Genesis 1.

 

Observation Time:

Genesis 1:1 (ESV) — 1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

 

What happened in this verse?

What was created? 

God created (“bara”)…

 

1) “the heavens and the earth” (“shamayim” and “eretz”)

What are “the heavens and the earth”?

Is this all of creation – the universe?

Is this literally heaven and earth or is this a figure of speech for something?

 

Apparently this “bara” of God was “in the beginning” (“reshit”).

What does this mean? It doesn’t say.

How long was the beginning? It doesn’t say.

Is this describing a creation event, or is it an introduction to the telling of creation?

In other words, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth”?

Or, “God created ‘in the beginning’” (whatever “the beginning” might be)?

 

The meaning of Genesis 1:1 and the answers to our above questions are elusive.

  • Sound believers are all over the map, and each have their reasons.

 

What we need to know:

  • We need to know what “in the beginning” (reshit) means.
  • We need to know what “created” (bara) means.
  • We need to know what “heavens and the earth” (shamayim and eretz) mean.
  • We will cover “in the beginning” today.

 

 

1) “RESHIT” – IN THE BEGINNING

 

Big Picture Agreement:

Before we begin, I want to reprise our Moses’ Message lesson with some commonly accepted big picture implications of Genesis 1:1 – in other words, with some agreement.

  • “…with the use of the word ‘beginning,’ the author establishes that God has a plan and a purpose…a beginning to God’s action…a continuation…and ultimately a conclusion” – John Sailhamer.

“The world is thus a part of a divine plan. History is a part of the plan and is moving towards its conclusion” – Sailhamer.

 

Michael Bird frames this as follows, “creation is the presupposition of the gospel”.

  • Bruce Waltke frames the big picture as the Kingdom of God.
  • Kenneth Mathews says, “The author has at the outset shown that creation’s ‘beginnings’ were initiated with a future goal intended, an eschatological purpose”.

 

Gordon Wenham makes a very interesting observation based on the relationship between the author’s choice and placement of the Hebrew words.

  • All of which suggests, he says, that “‘Creation’ and ‘blessing’ are linked in the divine purpose, a purpose eventually to be realized through Abra[ha]m.”

 

All of these are covenant actions of Moses’ purposeful, relational God.

  • Isaiah 46:11b (ESV) — 11b I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

 

And finally, Kenneth Mathews makes a point on which all our scholars agree.

  • Genesis 1:1 makes clear that, “God exists outside time and space; all that exists is dependent on his independent will.”
  • This harkens back to the polemical point from last week.

 

Meaning:

What does “reshit” mean?

“In the Bible the term always refers to an extended, yet indeterminate duration of time—not a specific moment. It is a block of time which precedes an extended series of time periods” – John  Sailhamer.

  • The word “usually introduces a period of time rather than a point in time” – John Walton.
    • “early part”, “beginning period”, “first occasion”, “first part” and “first installment”.

 

It appears that Walton and Sailhamer share similar views of “reshit”.

  • Both even use the following same verses to establish this meaning.

 

Analogy Verses:

  • Job 8:7 (ESV) — 7 And though your beginning [reshit] was small, your latter days will be very great.
  • Job 42:12a (ESV) — 12 And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning [reshit].
  • Jeremiah 28:1 (ESV) — 1 In that same year, at the beginning [reshit] of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying,
    • See also 26:1, 27:1, 49:34

 

Reshit in Job:

  • Reshit “refers to the early part of Job’s life, before his misfortunes overtook him” – Sailhamer.
  • “It was an unspecified, but lengthy, period in Job’s life” – Sailhamer.
  • It refers to the “early part of Job’s life” – Walton.

 

Reshit in Jeremiah:

“When the Bible speaks of the reigns of Israel’s kings, the word reshit is used in a unique reckoning system. The first period of a king’s reign usually was not counted as part of the official length of his reign. An unspecified period was allowed during which the king actually reigned, but it was not officially counted as part of his reign. After that period—whatever its duration—the years of the king’s reign were counted in consecutive order” – John Sailhamer.

  • It refers to “the beginning period of Zedekiah’s reign” – Walton.
  • This “reshit” was at least four years and five months long.

 

However, when it comes to applying all of this to Genesis 1:1, they come to completely different conclusions.

 

Sailhamer’s Take:

  • He suggests that “we may have imported into this little word a meaning which Moses never meant to convey”.
  • The author of Genesis 1:1, “apparently had in mind a ‘beginning’ that was longer than a mere moment.”

 

In Genesis 1:1, “reshit” is “time before time” – Sailhamer.

  • This means “that God created the universe during an indeterminate period of time before the actual reckoning of a sequence of time began” – John Sailhamer.
  • So, Gen. 1:1 is an undetermined period of time that comes before the six days.

 

In fact, if the author wanted to see it was merely an introduction…

  • He could have used other words that left no doubt.
  • Specifically, “rishonah” and “techillah” – Sailhamer.

 

Gordon Wenham (as well as Hamilton and Mathews) agrees with Sailhamer.

“V 1 is a main clause describing the first act of creation. Vv 2 and 3 describe subsequent phases in God’s creative activity.”

 

BTW – The agreement with Sailhamer about the meaning of “reshit” does not mean agreement with his particular conclusions.

 

Walton’s Take:

“All of this information [Job, Jeremiah, grammar and toledot considerations] leads us to conclude that the ‘beginning’ is a way of talking about the seven-day period rather than a point in time prior to the seven days” – John Walton.

  • So for Walton, Genesis 1:1 refers to an introduction to the seven days and not a “separate act of creation”.
  • In other words, the creation for verse 1 is actually the six days starting in verse 3.

 

Bruce Waltke agrees with Walton,

  • He says that “reshit” refers to “the six days of creation, not something before the six days”.

 

Visual Summary of each View (Genesis Unbound – John Sailhamer):

visual-sailhamer-view

For Sailhamer, the implications of “reshit” for Gen. 1:1 are seen visually in the above pic.

  • Creation of the “heavens and the earth” happened “in the beginning”.
  • The beginning was not an introduction but an undetermined amount of time in which God created.
  • The seven days of creation are a separate “creation” time event (of which our current history is a part) from the “reshit” time event.
  • This view raises all sorts of questions about how to handle Genesis 3 and following.
    • Like, “what is created in the later verses?”
  • We will deal with those in due time.

 

 

visual-walton-view

For Walton, the implications of “reshit” for Genesis 1:1 are seen visually in the above pic.

  • This graphic makes clear that “the beginning” was not a separate event.
  • It was the intro/beginning to the creation described in detail in the rest of Genesis.
  • This view raises questions about how verse 2 fits with the rest of creation.
    • Like, “how is formless and void compatible with the first day of creation?”
    • And, “it appears stuff already existed before the first day – what is that all about?”
    • We will deal with those in due time.

 

 So where do we go from here?

  • The typical line against Sailhamer’s view is a grammatical one (definite articles and such).
  • Something I am woefully unequipped to dive into.
  • However, Gordon Wenham dives into it and sees it as not convincing.

 

Problem with Walton’s view:

(1) The first problem is the most straightforward.

  • We saw earlier with the Job and Jeremiah texts that Walton said, “reshit” “introduces a period of time”.
  • The problem is that in both examples “reshit” is not just an introduction to a later period of time.
  • It was “time before time”.
  • Job’s “reshit” and Zedekiah’s “reshit” (4 years and 5 months) were actual lengths of time.
  • If you want to call 4+ years an introduction, then so be it.

 

(2) The second problem stems from John 1:1.

  • John 1:1 (ESV) — 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
  • The parallel to Genesis is obvious.
  • But what is the parallel?

 

In John 1:1 was Jesus “existing” or “in operation” in the beginning, or is the text an introduction to His “existing” or being “in operation”?

  • Obviously John was pointing to Jesus’ prior “existing”, His eternality.

 

Likewise, did creation exist or was it “in operation” in Gen 1:1, or is the text just an introduction to its coming existence?

  • It seems the parallel with John 1:1 would suggest that there was already some creation “going on”.

 

Answers:

In our observations we had three questions about “reshit”.

  • (1) What does it mean?
  • (2) How long was it?
  • (3) Is it describing a creation event, or is it an introduction to the telling of creation?

 

(1) We have dealt the first.

  • See above discussion.

 

(2) We don’t know the answer to the second.

  • How does this uncertainty relate to the age of the earth debate?
  • Is it friendlier to one or the other?
  • It would appear we should at least be less dogmatic about our belief on this issue.
  • BTW – Sailhamer says that when his kids would ask about the dinosaurs, he would tell them they lived “in the beginning”.

 

(3) We have given two possibilities for the third question.

  • Admittedly, I tend to side with John Sailhamer and the others of his ilk.
  • But that certainly doesn’t put it to rest, as we will see in later verses.

 

Reshit – Moses’ Message (the big picture):

Sailhamer speculates as to why “reshit” and why it was allotted only one small verse.

“It was no accident or mere happenstance that he picked the Hebrew word reshit to begin his narrative of God’s dealings with the world and with humankind. He did not want us to focus on the method or process God used to create the stars and sun and moon and earth, but rather intended to draw our attention to God’s special preparation of the land as a place for humankind to dwell in safety” – John Sailhamer.

 

 

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