Whoever you are, and whatever the depths and agony of your trials, God is hovering over you: he loves you, he is near to you, and he can rescue you. We see a living picture of his rescue unfold in the subsequent six days of creation. God does not stand aloof from the world in all its chaotic agony. His caring, brooding presence is very near, and he is at work.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. —Genesis 1:1-2
If we are going to get anything out of Genesis, then we must prepare ourselves.
Basil of Caesarea (330-79) said at the beginning of his Hexaemeron, a series of sermons on Genesis 1,
How earnestly the soul should prepare itself to receive such high lessons! How pure it should be from carnal affections, how unclouded by worldly disquietudes, how active and ardent in its researches, how eager to find in its surroundings an idea of God which may be worthy of Him!
And John Calvin (1509-64) said in his commentary on Genesis, “The world is a mirror in which we ought to behold God.” “If my readers sincerely wish to profit with me in meditating on the works of God, they must bring with them a sober, docile mild, and humble spirit.”
So remember that the author of these words, Moses, saw an appearance of God at the burning bush, and God spoke with him “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exod. 33:11; cf. Num. 12:6-8). And don’t forget the power of these words, “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
The Hebrew word for “beginning” is ראשׁית (rēshīt), which may also mean “starting point” or “first,” and is closely related to ראשׁ (rōsh), which means “head.” The word God translates אלהים, Elōhīm, which may be the plural for אל (el), the generic word for god. The plural does not in itself teach the doctrine of the Trinity, that there is one God and three persons in the godhead, but is more likely a “plural of majesty.” God is not just god, he is GOD. Elōhīm. GOD! The very sound of this word, naming as it does the Creator of the universe, should fill us with awe, dread, and love.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Before there was an earth and atoms, life and light, time and tide, there was God. He is eternal, which does not mean that he is very old, but that he had no beginning. He always was, is, and will be. Many have mockingly asked, “What was God doing before he created the world?” In his Commentaries on Genesis, Calvin relates a humorous answer he had read to this question:
When a certain impure dog was in this manner pouring ridicule upon God, a pious man retorted that God had been at that time by no means inactive, because he had been preparing hell for the captious.
We cannot speak reasonably of what God was doing “before creation,” because before creation there was no time as we know it—there was no “before.” Certainly there was nothing that brought God himself into existence.
The Hebrew verb for create is ברא (bārā); it is only ever used with God as the subject. What did God create? The “heavens and the earth.” Heaven, שׁמים (shamayīm), also means sky. Earth, ארץ (erets), also means land and ground. These words do not have a special meaning in Genesis 1:1; but when put together like this, “heaven and earth,” that is, “sky and ground,” “everything that’s up and everything that’s down,” they emphasize that God made everything. Only God himself is not made.
There are no time indications in these first two verses. The earth (erets) was formless and empty. There is some lovely alliteration here in the original, the earth was תהו ובהו, tōhu va bōhu. These words are neither “good” nor “bad” but are exceedingly and perhaps unpleasantly bland. Tōhu can refer to a barren wasteland, “a barren and howling waste” (Deut. 32:10; also Job 6:18). It can refer to futility (1 Sam. 12:21) and meaninglessness (Isa. 29:21). Bōhu appears only three times in the Old Testament. Isaiah 34:11 describes how “God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation,” and Jeremiah uses just the same phrase as Genesis 1:2: “I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty (tōhu va bōhu); and at the heavens, and their light was gone” (Jer. 4:23). We will return to Jeremiah’s hugely significant phrase in a moment.