Was the Universe Created from Nothing?

This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, THE BEGINNING: a new translation and commentary for Genesis 1. Specifically, it is the technical description of my translation of the first two verses.

As we’ll see, it’s pretty clear from the grammar that the author did not have creatio ex nihilo in mind. Rather, he assumed the existence of some sort of dark primordial substrate prior to the creation of light, God’s first act of creation[1].

Let’s begin with a translation that reflects the underlying Hebrew grammar:

When Elohim first created the skies and the land, the earth had been formless and void; and darkness covered the face of the Deep[2] but the spirit of Elohim hovered above the surface of the waters (Gen 1:1-2)

Since this claim stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, I want to take some time to dig into the details of the actual Hebrew text. Essentially, I will show that the verbal structure of the first two verses express a past perfect verbal clause (also called a pluperfect). 

Let’s begin with a literal translation of the Hebrew. In the verse below, both the English and the Hebrew are to be read from right to left:










{first, began, beginning}

{in, when}

NOTE: The words enclosed in braces {} reflect reasonable alternatives according to a number of authoritative Hebrew lexicons.

For example, in the text above, ‘when’ and ‘in’ are offered as translation options for the Hebrew preposition בְּ ()[3]

In Hebrew, some prepositions are inseparable from their object and always occur as a prefix. In this case, the word, bəreishit is a compound word formed by prefixing the preposition bə to the noun, reishit ( + reishit = bəreishit). Likewise, ‘first’ and ‘beginning’ are reasonable alternatives for the Hebrew noun, reishit. Also note that in Hebrew, subjects and verbs are usually ordered verb-first (unlike English in which the subject is written first). If the verb and subject of this verse are reordered according to natural English grammar  we read:

{In, When} {first, beginning} Elohim created…

bə: We now have to decide which of the alternatives to use – ‘in’ or ‘when’? This preposition can have a wide range of meanings, but by far the most common is ‘in’. Based on frequency alone, ‘in’ would be the obvious rendering. However, bə can also be translated as ‘when’, especially where the context involves the passage of time. This is manifestly the case in vv 1:1-2, suggesting that bə is reasonably (if not preferably) translated using ‘when’ (see, for example, Gen 2:4 and 4:8). As will be discussed below, the meaning of vv 1:1-2 centers on the question of the temporal order of the two verses. Time is manifestly in view here and therefore  ‘when’ is arguably the better choice in this particular case to express the meaning of the preposition, .

reishit: The noun, reishit, has as its root the letters, ראש (Resh -Aleph-Shin). Words derived from this root often cannote a meaning of ‘primary’, ‘chief’, ‘begin’, ‘first’ or “first-in-line”, “head of”, and so forth. Harris’s Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) is more specific, namely, reishit means

“…first, beginning, choicest, first or best of a group. [Reishit is] a feminine noun derived from the root [Resh-Aleph-Shin], it appears fifty times in nearly all parts of the [Old Testament]. [Its] primary meaning is “first” or “beginning” of a series.”

Accordingly, we can now retranslate bəreishit bara Elohim as “When first created Elohim”, or as we would render in English:

When Elohim first created…

And the earth had been: As mentioned previously, the Hebrew text of this phrase, וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה (vəhaaretz haytah), has been traditionally rendered as, “The earth was” (e.g., RSV, NIV, JPS, KJV,NAS, TNK, and many others). These older translations, however, fail to reflect what scholars have recently learned about the verbal system in biblical Hebrew and its underlying grammar – especially concerning the manner in which Hebrew expresses two or more actions that occur in the past in time-relative order.

In English this is easily handled by the past perfect tense (also called the pluperfect or the “flashback” tense[4]). For example, consider the following sentence:

When Alex began writing his first novel, he had been in London for over eight years.

In this sentence we learn that Alex did not begin writing his novel until he had been in Longon for eight years. Likewise, if haytah in v 1:2 is translated as a past perfect verb, then verses 1:1-2 would read,

When Elohim first created the skies and the land, the land had been

In this translation some sort of substrate was in existence when God executed His first creative act, the creation of light.

But how do we know that  hayta should be translated as a past perfect verb? It is to this question we now turn.

Until recently, the grammar of biblical Hebrew was thought to be unable to express explicitly a past perfect construction. Whether a verb was past perfect was to be inferred from its context. Recently, scholars[5] have been able to show that, in addition to context, Hebrew verbs can express the past perfect by the way in which the author structures his verbal clauses.

In vv 1:1-2, the key observation is that the ordering of the verbal clauses in these two verses demonstrate that the verb in the second clause of 1:1, (hayta), is in the past perfect.

Here’s how: in English the past perfect is formed using the auxiliary verb “had” with the main verb’s past participle. For the verb “to be”, the past perfect is “had been”.  In Hebrew, unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Three conditions must be met:

  1. The preceding verbal clause must contain a verb in the perfect aspect (similar to the English past tense).
  2. The subject of the verb in question must be prefixed with the Hebrew letter ו (waw).
  3. The subject in the second clause must precede the verb (non-standard verbal ordering in Hebrew).

Let’s examine the sequence of verbal clauses using  haytah as a reference.

  1. The preceding verb, bara, is a perfect verb.
  2. The subject of the second verse is preceded by a ו (waw).
  3. The subject (vəhaaretz – the earth or land) of the second verse precedes its verb (haytah).

All three requirements are met! I argue that that grammar rather definitively advances the idea that God’s first creative act was light and that it was performed in the presence of a preexistent substrate.

  1. [1]The opposite view, Creatio Ex Materia (creation from something), was the position taken by Philo and a number of the early Church fathers. I go into some detail on the history of the development of Christian development of ex nihilo creation in my book, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece
  2. [2]The Hebrew word from which Deep is translated, Tehom, occurs as a proper name, i.e., the name of something. Within the last fifty years or so, Tehom has been philologically related to the name of the sea goddess, Tiamet, in the creation epic Enuma Elish. Scholars theorize that the ancient author meant to demythologize Tehom.
  3. [3]In Hebrew, some prepositions are inseparable from their object and always occur as a prefix. In this case, the word, bəreishit is a compound word formed by prefixing the preposition bə to the noun, reishit (bə + reishit = bəreishit).
  4. [4]For the sake of simplicity, I use the word ‘tense’ to note when a verbal action takes (took) place – past, present, or future. In Hebrew, the concept of tense does not exist. Rather, Hebrew verbs are categorized according to their ‘aspect’, i.e., when (or if) their action has completed. If a verbal action is completed, the verb is referred to as a ‘perfect’ verb. If the verb has yet to complete, the verb is referred to as ‘imperfect’. In this document, the English past tense is treated as equivalent to the Hebrew perfect aspect.
  5. [5]More formally known as The Anterior Construction. Recently, its grammar has been thoroughly described by Zion Zevit, “The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew”, SBL Monograph Series No. 50.
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