Translating Genesis 1:1, 2

Gen 1:1

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Paraphrase: When time began, God brought the entire universe into existence.  He did not use any preexisting materials.  He made everything from nothing as only God can do.


Gen 1:2

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

Now the earth was formless and empty and darkness was on the face of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering on the face of the waters.

Paraphrase:  Now after God had brought all things into existence, He did not yet arrange and order everything such that the earth was inhabitable.  In fact, the earth was a swirling mass of various elements without any rhyme or reason to it.  Neither was there any light; everything was dark and a confused watery mass. (Ps 104:6)  In spite of all this, however, God had not abandoned His creation.  The Holy Spirit was hovering over this dark, swirling, confused mass waiting for the moment when God would begin to transform this chaos into a cosmos.


What is the difficulty in translating these verses?

It’s difficult to know the relationship between verse 1 and verse 2.  Was the formless and empty earth already in existence when God began to “create”?  Or did the earth become this way after God created it?


Doesn’t the grammar of the Hebrew help us to resolve this?

The grammar here involves a vav conjunction on a noun which rules out the idea that verse 2 is sequential with verse 1.  The vav conjunction on the noun argues against that and indicates that this clause is itself dependent on some other independent clause.  It should not therefore be translated “Now the earth became formless and empty…”  Verse 2 is describing an existing state of affairs for some other main clause in the context.  These are called circumstantial clauses because they provide the circumstances under which some other action was performed, see Gesenius.  Typically, we would expect it to be dependent to the preceding clause.  In this case, the translation would be:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth at this time was formless and empty


What is wrong with this interpretation?

It means that God’s work was not creatio ex nihilo.  Instead, God’s work of “creation” meant Him going to work on this formless and empty mass and working it into something orderly and beautiful.


Why can’t Genesis 1:1 mean this?

Because it contradicts Heb 11:3 which teaches us that “the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.”  This is a clear statement that God created ex nihilo.


Is there another way to understand verse 2?

Yes, Edward Young suggests that we see verse 2 as dependent on verse 3, not verse 1.  In this case, the earth being formless and empty would be describing the conditions under which God said, “Let there be light!”  Verse 1 would be describing the fact of God’s creating everything ex nihilo.  Then the following verses would be explaining in more detail how God did this.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Now when said, “Let there be light!” the earth was formless and empty…


Does it not seem strange that a circumstantial clause like this would precede the verb that it is modifying?

It is not what we would expect but neither is it unheard of.


In light of this understanding, how did the earth come to be formless and empty?

There are only two possibilities here.  Either God created the world this way or the world became this way after God had created it.


What can be said of this first option; i.e. that God created the world formless and empty?

Isaiah explicitly denies this using the same words as in Genesis 1:2.  He writes:

For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place לֹא־תֹהוּ, But formed it to be inhabited), “I am the LORD, and there is none else. (Isaiah 45:18)

In spite of this, Edward Young defends this view asserting that verse 2 does not necessarily describe a negative state of affairs.  He even asserts that God could have called the earth in verse 2 “good” as God does after the other days of creation.  1


What about the second option?

This is the only option left us and leave us wondering what might have happened between the time God created the world and it became formless and empty.  Bush writes:  “They [תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ] are in fact the very words which a Hebrew writer would naturally use to express the wreck and ruins of a former world, if such an one were supposed to have existed.”   source    Von Rad argues vigorously against any attempt to read this in light of ANE mythology.  He writes, “These sentences cannot be overinterpreted theologically.”  source  This means that these verses are very intentionally worded so as to show forth the unique worldview of the author.




 Wenham gives four possible translations of these first two verses:

The first translates v1 as a dependent clause modifying הָיְתָה in v2.

In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless…”

The second is very similar but v2 is seen to be parenthetic and v3 is the main clause.

In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, (now the earth was formless…), God said…”

The third translates v1 as a summary statement of all that follows, a kind of topic sentence.

In the beginning, God was the Creator of heaven and earth. The rest of the chapter expands on this.

The fourth also takes v1 as a main clause and v2, 3 as acts of creation following this.

The difference between #3 and 4 is that #3 assumes that the תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ of v2 is preexistent to God’s creative work. Only #4 is a creatio ex nihilo. Genesis vol 1, p11.



  1. Edward J. Young, “The Relation of the First Verse of Genesis One to Verses Two and Three,” Westminster Theological Journal 21, no. 2 (1958): 145.

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