I Do Not Understand the First Verse of the Bible

Published on 05/29/17

Introduction

People often raise objections to theism in general or a point of theology in particular because they do not understand it. An atheist might say she cannot believe in a God who created a world so full of evil. An anti-trinitarian might say he cannot believe in the doctrine of the Trinity based on other statements claiming that God is one.

To be sure, age-old questions such as these are worth discussing. They are much bigger than our minds’ ability to comprehend, and they require considerable time to address fully in a satisfying way. But does the lack of a satisfying answer or a complete understanding of a concept require that we discard it from our beliefs? Are we only to believe what we fully understand?

The Claim of “In the Beginning”

The first proposition made in the Bible is as challenging to our understanding as it is simple to understand. Genesis 1:1 makes a straightforward claim that leaves many questions unanswered. It might be the most pregnant verse in the Bible, full of inferences, requirements, and expectations, while making essentially on affirmation: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” (1) Little is offered in the form of explanation, argumentation, or anticipation of the many questions that arise in the reader’s mind. It is simply a declaration that sets the stage for all that is to follow. A four hundred year old translation of a four thousand year old claim is the keystone to the Christian worldview, and one’s reading of the rest of the Bible is largely determined by how he views the very first verse.

A common folk definition of theology is faith seeking understanding, and there is certainly much about Genesis 1:1 we can understand. As the writer of Hebrews stated, “through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.” (2) We may not understand “how” the worlds were framed by the word of God, but we do understand by faith “that” they were framed by the word of God, and that this framing took placed when “God created.”

The ten words of Genesis 1:1 promote the theology of a personal God (Elohim, the subject) who created (bara, the verb) at some point in the past (beroshith, “in the beginning”) the known cosmos (hashamayim and haeretz, called “the heaven and the earth”), and who is referred to in both plural and singular language (3) simultaneously. These ten words also refute several beliefs, theories, and philosophies such as the denial of God’s existence (atheism), the belief in two gods (dualism) or many gods (polytheism), or that all is god (polytheism), or that all is god (pantheism), while also leaving no room for the theory that the cosmos is eternal (materialism), (4) or suggesting some sort of evolutionary process involved in creation (Darwinism, et. al.).

The Responses to Genesis 1:1

While Genesis 1:1 purports to have the answer to the question, “where did I come from,” it certainly does not claim to explain how this origin happened. If theists themselves confess that Genesis 1:1 does not answer every question then how much more so their atheist friends. For nearly two hundred years the popular view of Genesis 1:1ff. interprets it as anything but factual, much less scientific. Even Christian theologian Marcus Dods stated in 1854, “If any one is in search of accurate information regarding the age of this earth, or its relation to the sun, moon, and stars, or regarding the order in which plants and animals have appeared upon it, he is referred to recent text-books in astronomy, geology, and paleontology. No one for a moment dreams of referring a serious student of these subjects to the Bible as a source of information.” (5)

Others, however, see the amount of information given as sufficient. Leupold avers, “Man will go back in his thinking to the point where the origins of all things lie; he will desire to know how the world as well as all that is in it, and, most particularly, how he himself came into being. Here is the record, complete and satisfactory from every point of view, even if it does not perhaps answer every question that prying curiosity might raise. He, however, who will ponder sufficiently what is here actually offered, will find facts of such magnitude as to stifle unseemly curiosity as to secondary matters.” (6)

Both the theistic worldview and the atheistic worldview hold that an unusual event catalyzed the existence of the universe. (7) For the theist, the unusual event was God creating life with the words, “Let there be…” For the atheist, the unusual event is often termed a “big bang,” wherein a sudden explosion, presumably caused by nothing, resulted in the universe and all that is within it. Both theists and atheists believe there was a time when people did not exist, and a beginning to life as we know it. And both theists and atheists claim humility as the correlating characteristic of their positions, and hubris as the flaw in their opponent’s view. (8)

The atheist may very well admit (and often does), that he himself does not have the answer to every question about “the beginning.” But the one thing of which he is certain is that the answer is not found in the words of Genesis 1:1, and, therefore, other explanations must be given. For the theist, Genesis 1:1 is the answer, and all questions surrounding the origin of the universe are referred back to those opening words of the Scriptures. The theist is confident in the truth of “In the beginning, God created,” though he too is left with many questions he cannot answer.

Conclusion

As a theist I believe the claim made by Genesis 1:1, though there is plenty about it I do not understand. I do not understand how God has no beginning, the five year old boy in me still wondering, “Who made God?” I do not understand why God decided to create at all, and when He did, and how He did. I do not understand God creating the world knowing all the evil that would taint His creation, and the problem of suffering. And I do not have an answer to every question my skeptic, atheist, and doubting Christian friends have for me in relation to Genesis 1:1. I hardly understand the verse myself. But if I am going to believe only the parts of the Bible that I understand, I am not going to get past the first verse.

(1) This is the wording of the venerable King James Version of 1611. The earlier Tyndale translation approached the nouns in an anarthrous fashion (“created heaven and earth”) while many modern English translations give a plural rendering of the first noun, “the heavens” (cf. RSV, NAS, et. al.).

(2) Cf. Hebrews 11:3

(3) The word “God” in Genesis 1:1 is a plural, not a dual or a singular, while the verb “created” is in the singular number, not plural.

(4) “It is correct to say that the verb bara , “create,” contains the idea of both complete effortlessness, and creatio ex nihilo , since it is never connected with any statement of the material.” Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), p. 49.

(5) Marcus Dods, The Book of Genesis (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1854), p. 1.

(6) H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis , Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), p. 35.

(7) Biblically speaking the cosmos is presented as more of a bi-verse than a universe.

(8) “Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it; and I have given the evidence to the best of my ability. We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man will all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man , as quoted in Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction_ (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2011), p. 372.

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