Tag Archives: Moses message

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.





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.



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):


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.




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”.



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.



Genesis 1 – In The Beginning – Moses’ Message

Introduction to Genesis 1-3 Study:

The ultimate goal in our handling of Genesis 1-3 is to try and determine what Moses intended to convey to the reader – his big picture, his forest, Moses’ message.

  • We will work our way there a little bit at a time over the coming weeks.
  • Today’s longer handling is the exception.


Somewhat atypically, we will study Genesis by looking at the trees first and not the forest.

  • And by trees I mean the words – the text itself.


As we embark on this journey through the trees…

  • We will see that the text doesn’t say things we thought it did.
  • Or that it says things we weren’t aware of.


Along the way we will contend with scholarly approaches to Genesis 1-3.

  • How Genesis relates to science.
  • The historicity of Genesis.
  • Etc., etc., etc.


Admittedly, we will focus mainly on John Sailhamer and John Walton’s approaches.

  • We will certainly cite others as well – Bruce Waltke, John Currid, Hugh Ross, et al.


Importantly, we will go to the deep well of Scripture itself.

  • We need to see how other Biblical writers saw Genesis 1-3.
  • These inspired writers need to be heard.
  • What they say and don’t say about Genesis 1-3 will take us a long way.


Controversy Caution:

Many interpretations of Genesis 1-3 are rife with controversy.

  • Sometimes, with good reason and with bad, dividing lines are arbitrarily drawn.

“The first chapter of Genesis lies at the heart of our understanding of what the Bible communicates about God as Creator. Though simple in the majesty of its expression and the power of its scope, the chapter is anything but transparent. It is regrettable that an account of such beauty has become such a bloodied battleground, but that is indeed the case” – John Walton.


“Even among those who take Genesis 1 as God’s Word and as a true statement of the facts, there remain significant differences of opinion about what the text actually says. We must never forget that good and godly people can find themselves on opposite sides of basic questions about these chapters” – John Sailhamer.


Taking these statements under advisement we can forge ahead into the trees.

  • I would like to say with no baggage, but that is pretty much impossible.


Moses’ Message:

But first…

  • I want us to be aware of something quite significant.
  • The creation story does not stand alone.
  • Moses wrote it as part of a larger story contained in the Pentateuch.
  • Though it may tell us scientific relatable facts, his approach was certainly informed, for the most part, by Israel’s story – God, God’s people, and God’s future as N.T. Wright would say – not modern scientific concerns.


It is important to point this out so that we don’t lose sight of Moses’ message.

  • A message that was certainly not centered on the scientific concerns of Biologos or Ken Ham or Hugh Ross or Peter Enns or us.


To further drive this point home, we need to look at some possible examples of Moses’ message in the creation story.

  • Certainly some speculation will be involved, but the point will be made.



Moses’ Message Intro:

When Moses wrote the Pentateuch (including Genesis) he presumably already knew the creation story, the flood story, the call of Abraham, the story of Joseph, etc.

  • As we said, the story of God, God’s people and God’s future.
  • If so, he was looking at God’s creation through the lens of what God had already done on behalf of Israel.
    • How could he not?
  • And as with the Apostle Paul, for example, part of this “lens” was the nature and context of his call by God.


Thinking this way begs the question about Moses’ “beginning”.

  • Moses’ story, like the universe’s story and Israel’s story had a beginning.


Moses’ “beginning”:

  • Exodus 3:2–6 (ESV) — 2 And the angel of the Lord [Yahweh] appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the Lord [Yahweh] saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God [Elohim] of your father, the God [Elohim] of Abraham, the God [Elohim] of Isaac, and the God [Elohim} of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God [Elohim].


I suggest a connection can be made between creation as Moses’ tells it, and the context of his call by God.

  • Without Moses’ “beginning” we presumably would not have the Pentateuch – including Genesis.
  • And this connection might reveal a few of Moses’ messages.



1) Moses’ Message (and context) – A Theodicy?

How does this connection suggest a theodicy?


The God that created (bara) the heavens and earth is the God that revealed Himself to Moses in the midst of Israel’s captivity and slavery in Exodus 3.

  • An Israel who was seeking deliverance from slavery and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant with the giving of the Promised Land.
  • An Israel waiting for the serpents head to be crushed.
  • An Israel anticipating fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.


Now how strange is that?

  • Moses, a slave, in the captivity of a pagan power, is extolling the power of God as Creator and the goodness of His creation.
  • In the midst of these circumstances (including 40 years of wandering) He identifies “Elohim” as Creator in Gen. 1:1 – not the competing Egyptian or Mesopotamian gods of creation.


So, what kind of God allows His people to end up in slavery serving other “gods” or sets them free only to wander in the desert?

  • An answer is found in the creation story.


It may look bleak now, but the Creator God is a God of action in history.

  • God is always “hovering” and moving purposely in history.
  • He is always calling people out for His purposes.
  • He is always moving His story forward.


The point?

  • In spite of God’s people being enslaved, there is purpose in the midst of it, and hope for its end.
  • Since creation, God has been purposely moving the story of His people and their future forward.
  • So Moses and Israel can trust that God has a purpose for their slavery and he will act to deliver Israel.
  • After all, look how far Israel has come since creation and the fall.
  • And from Moses’ perspective, look what God did with him.



2) Moses’ Message (and context) – Purposeful Relationship?

How does the connection to Moses’ “beginning” suggest purposeful relationship?


We need to notice something so obvious in verse 1 we tend to pass right over it.

  • Who created the “heavens and the earth”?
  • The obvious answer is God.
  • But was it God “Yahweh” or God “Elohim”?


Interestingly, it is “Elohim” instead of “Yahweh” in Genesis 1:1.

  • This is the very name God used for himself when He called Moses.
  •  “I am the God [Elohim] of your father, the God [Elohim] of Abraham, the God [Elohim] of Isaac, and the God [Elohim} of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God [Elohim].


God’s use of this name for Himself in His call of Moses has a special flavor.

  • In Moses’ call, it is used in context of relationship, call, and covenant with the fathers of Israel.
  • It is relational.


So it might be that implicit in the use of “Elohim” in Genesis 1:1 is Moses’ first hand understanding that God is a relationship God.

  • This is how God revealed Himself to Moses – the “Elohim” of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  • Moses connects the God who created with the God who calls and covenants.
  • “Elohim” creates – “Elohim” calls and relates
  • They are the very same God.


The point?

  • For Moses, the God who creates is the God who relates to His people.
  • Moses knows this first hand.
  • The “Elohim” of Genesis 1:1 is also the “Elohim” of Abraham and Moses.
  • He is the purposeful relationship God.


BTW – God’s relational action in history is part of the larger Gospel message.


There is one more potential candidate for a Moses message unrelated to his call.


3) Moses’ Message – A Polemic?

Given the ANE relationship between primordial waters, chaos and creation, one can’t help but think Moses has something to say about competing claims of creation.

  • Specifically the creation stories of Mesopotamia and Egypt.


Some, of course, argue that the Genesis story is an untrue myth dependent upon these other stories.

  • John Currid (and really everybody) readily acknowledges the parallels between the Hebrew creation story and it neighbors.
  • He asks, “What are we to surmise regarding the relationship between Genesis 1– 2 and mythic ancient Near Eastern cosmogonic tales?” – John Currid.
  • He argues that, “the differences are monumental and are so striking that they cannot be explained by a simple Hebrew cleansing of [ANE] myth” – John Currid.


Currid suggests that given the following:

“In regard to the very nature of the creator, all societies of the ancient Near East, save the Hebrews, were polytheists. The gods themselves were immanent, that is, personified in various powers and elements of the universe. These gods were not omnipotent but were restricted in power to the capacity of the natural elements they personified” – John Currid.


That Moses, by way of a polemic, is drawing our attention to a massive contrast:

“To the contrary, the God of the Hebrews is presented as transcendent, that is, set apart from the cosmos. He works within the universe, but he is not part of it. The universe is God’s creation, but it is not God. The God of Israel, moreover, does not act humanly by reflecting the flaws of human nature. Mankind is created in his image and not the other way around. He is pure, just, righteous, and true. Yahweh is holy and wholly other – John Currid.


Moses’ purposeful relational “Elohim” created and fully controlled the “waters” and everything else.

  • The waters weren’t an eternal chaos or a god from which creation had to be wrestled.
  • “The water at creation (1:2) is certainly no deity, and it is not God’s foe that needs to be vanquished. It is mere putty in the hands of the Creator. There is no war between Yahweh and the gods of chaos in order to bring about creation. Yahweh is sovereign, and all the elements of creation are at his beck and call” – John Currid.


The point?

  • The purposeful relational “Elohim” who calls out His people, and is sovereign over their circumstances is also the one true God who made everything.
  • The ONE God that delivered Israel and parted the Red Sea is the ONE God who created the waters and controls them as He sees fit.
  • He has no equal.


After all, look at these two examples of God’s revelation to, and action on behalf of, Israel and Moses.

  • Deuteronomy 6:4 (ESV) — 4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
  • Exodus 14:21–22 (ESV) — 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.


It seems rather unlikely that, as Moses wrote the creation story, his experiences of God’s purposeful work in history, and God’s revelation to Moses about His nature were not integrally part of the fabric of the Genesis creation account.

  • They surely helped provide the grid on which Moses could make sense of such a Creator God.
  • A God so unlike the gods of his oppressors.


*I am aware of the various authorship theories concerning the Pentateuch. I take the view of John Sailhamer as outlined in his book The Meaning of the Pentateuch.