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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 1

Verse 1

THE CREATIVE WEEK (Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3).

(1) In the beginning.—Not, as in John 1:1, “from eternity,” but in the beginning of this sidereal system, of which our sun, with its attendant planets, forms a part. As there never was a time when God did not exist, and as activity is an essential part of His being (John 5:17), so, probably, there was never a time when worlds did not exist; and in the process of calling them into existence when and how He willed, we may well believe that God acted in accordance with the working of some universal law, of which He is Himself the author. It was natural with St. John, when placing the same words at the commencement of his Gospel, to carry back our minds to a more absolute conceivable “beginning,” when the work of creation had not commenced, and when in the whole universe there was only God.

God.—Heb., Elohim. A word plural in form, but joined with a verb singular, except when it refers to the false gods of the heathen, in which case it takes a verb plural. Its root-meaning is strength, power; and the form Elohim is not to be regarded as a pluralis majestatis, but as embodying the effort of early human thought in feeling after the Deity, and in arriving at the conclusion that the Deity was One. Thus, in the name Elohim it included in one Person all the powers, mights, and influences by which the world was first created and is now governed and maintained. In the Vedas, in the hymns recovered for us by the decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions, whether Accadian or Semitic, and in all other ancient religious poetry, we find these powers ascribed to different beings; in the Bible alone Elohim is one. Christians may also well see in this a foreshadowing of the plurality of persons in the Divine Trinity; but its primary lesson is that, however diverse may seem the working of the powers of nature, the Worker is one and His work one.

Created.—Creation, in its strict sense of producing something out of nothing, contains an idea so noble and elevated that naturally human language could only gradually rise up to it. It is quite possible, therefore, that the word bârâ, “he created,” may originally have signified to hew stone or fell timber; but as a matter of fact it is a rare word, and employed chiefly or entirely in connection with the activity of God. As, moreover, “the heaven and the earth” can only mean the totality of all existent things, the idea of creating them out of nothing is contained in the very form of the sentence. Even in Genesis 1:21; Genesis 1:27, where the word may signify something less than creation ex nihilo, there is nevertheless a passage from inert matter to animate life, for which science knows no force, or process, or energy capable of its accomplishment.

The heaven and the earth.—The normal phrase in the Bible for the universe (Deuteronomy 32:1; Psalms 148:13; Isaiah 2:0). To the Hebrew this consisted of our one planet and the atmosphere surrounding it, in which he beheld the sun, moon, and stars. But it is one of the more than human qualities of the language of the Holy Scriptures that, while written by men whose knowledge was in accordance with their times, it does not contradict the increased knowledge of later times. Contemporaneous with the creation of the earth was the calling into existence, not merely perhaps of our solar system, but of that sidereal universe of which we form so small a part; but naturally in the Bible our attention is confined to that which chiefly concerns ourselves.

Verses 1-31

EXCURSUS B: ON THE NAMES ELOHIM AND JEHOVAH-ELOHIM.

Throughout the first account of creation (Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3) the Deity is simply called Elohim. This word is strictly a plural of Eloah, which is used as the name of God only in poetry, or in late books like those of Nehemiah and Daniel. It is there an Aramaism, God in Syriac being Aloho, in Ohaldee Ellah, and in Arabic Allahu—all of which are merely dialectic varieties of the Hebrew Eloah, and are used constantly in the singular number. In poetry EJoah is sometimes employed with great emphasis, as, for instance, in Psalms 18:31 : “Who is Eloah except Jehovah?” But while thus the sister dialects used the singular both in poetry and prose, the Hebrews used the plural Elohim as the ordinary name of God, the difference being that to the one God was simply power, strength (the root-meaning of Eloah); to the other He was the union of all powers, the Almighty. The plural thus intensified the idea of the majesty and greatness of God; but besides this, it was the germ of the doctrine of a plurality of persons in the Divine unity.

In the second narrative (Genesis 2:4 to Genesis 3:24), which is an account of the fall of man, with only such introductory matter regarding creation as was necessary for making the history complete, the Deity is styled Jehovah-Elohim. The spelling of the word Jehovah is debatable, as only the consonants ( J, h, v, h) are certain, the vowels being those of the word Adonai (Lord) substituted for it by the Jews when reading it in the synagogue, the first vowel being a mere apology for a sound, and pronounced a or e, according to the nature of the consonant to which it is attached. It is generally represented now by a light breathing, thus—Y’hovah, ‘donai. As regards the spelling, Ewald, Gesenius, and others argue for Yahveh; Fürst for Yehveh, or Yeheveh; and Stier, Meyer, &c, for Yehovah. The former has the analogy of several other proper names in its favour; the second the authority of Exodus 3:14; the last, those numerous names like Yehoshaphat, where the word is written Yeho. At the end of proper names the form it takes is Yahu, whence also Yah. We ought also to notice that the first consonant is really y; but two or three centuries ago j seems to have had the sound which we give to y now, as is still the case in German.

But this is not a matter of mere pronunciation; there is a difference of meaning as well. Yahveh signifies “He who brings into existence;” Yehveh “He who shall be, or shall become;” what Jehovah may signify I do not know. We must further notice that the name is undoubtedly earlier than the time of Moses. At the date of the Exodus the v of the verb had been changed into y. Thus, in Exodus 3:14, the name of God is Ehyeh, “I shall become,” not Ehveh. Had the name, therefore, come into existence in the days of Moses, it would have been Yahyeh, Yehyeh, or Yehoyah, not Yahveh, &c.

The next fact is that the union of these two names—Jehovah-Elohim—is very unusual. In this short narrative it occurs twenty times, in the rest of the Pentateuch only once (Exodus 9:30); in the whole remainder of the Bible about nine times. Once, moreover, in Psalms 1:1, there is the reversed form, Elohim-Jehovah. There must, therefore, be some reason why in this narrative this peculiar junction of the two names is so predominant.

The usual answer is that in this section God appears in covenant with man, whereas in Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3 He was the Creator, the God of nature and not of grace, having, indeed, a closer relation to man, as being the most perfect of His creatures (Genesis 1:26), but a relation different only in degree and not in kind. This is true, but insufficient; nor does it explain how Jehovah became the covenant name of God, and Elohim His generic title. Whatever be the right answer, we must expect to find it in the narrative itself. The facts are so remarkable, and the connection of the name Jehovah with this section so intimate, that if Holy Scripture is to command the assent of our reason we must expect to find the explanation of such peculiarities in the section wherein they occur.

What, then, do we find? We find this. The first section gives us the history of man’s formation, with the solemn verdict that he was very good. Nature without man was simply good; with man, creation had reached its goal. In this, the succeeding section, man ceases to be very good. He is represented in it as the object of his Maker’s special care, and, above all, as one put under law. Inferior creatures work by instinct, that is, practically by compulsion, and in subjection to rules and forces which control them. Man, as a free agent, attains a higher rank. He is put under law, with the power of obeying or disobeying it. God, who is the infinitely high and self-contained, works also by law, but it comes from within, from the perfectness of His own nature, and not from without, as must be the case with an imperfect being like man, whose duty is to strive after that which is better and more perfect. Add that, even in the first section, man was described as created “in God’s image, after His likeness.” But as law is essential to God’s nature—for without it He would be the author of confusion—so is it to man’s. But as this likeness is a gift conferred upon him, and not inherent, the law must come with the gift, from outside, and not from himself; and it can come only from God. Thus, then, man was necessarily, by the terms of his creation, made subject to law, and without it there could have been no progress upward. But he broke the law, and fell. Was he, then, to remain for ever a fallen being, hiding himself away from his Maker, and with the bonds of duty and love, which erewhile bound him to his Creator, broken irremediably? No. God is love; and the purpose of this narrative is not so much to give us the history of man’s fall as to show that a means of restoration had been appointed. Scarcely has the breach been made I before One steps in to fill it. The breach had been caused by a subtle foe, who had beguiled our first parents in the simplicity of their innocence; but in the very hour of their condemnation they are promised an avenger, who, after a struggle, shall crush the head of their enemy (Genesis 3:15).

Now this name, Y-h-v-h, in its simplest form Yehveh, means “He shall be,” or “shall become.” With the substitution of y for v, according to a change which had taken place generally in the Hebrew language, this is the actual spelling which we find in Exodus 3:14 : namely, Ehyeh ‘sher Èhyeh, “I shall be that I shall be.” Now, in the New Testament we find that the received name for the Messiah was “the coming One” (Matthew 21:9; Matthew 23:39; Mark 11:9; Luke 7:19-20; Luke 13:35; Luke 19:38; John 1:15; John 1:27; John 3:31; John 6:14; John 11:27; John 12:13; Acts 19:4; Hebrews 10:37); and in the Revelation of St. John the name of the Triune God is, “He who is and who was, and the coming One” (Genesis 1:4; Genesis 1:8; Genesis 11:17). But St. Paul tells us of a notable change in the language of the early Christians. Their solemn formula was Maran-atha, “Our Lord is come” (1 Corinthians 16:22). The Deliverer was no longer future, no longer “He who shall become,” nor “He who shall be what He shall be.” It is not now an indefinite hope: no longer the sighing of the creature waiting for the manifestation of Him who shall crush the head of his enemy. The faint ray of light which dawned in Genesis 3:15 has become the risen Sun of Righteousness; the Jehovah of the Old Testament has become the Jesus of the New, of whom the Church joyfully exclaims, “We praise Thee as God: we acknowledge Thee to be Jehovah.”

But whence arose this name Jehovah? Distinctly from the words of Eve, so miserably disappointed in their primary application: “I have gotten a man, even Jehovah,” or Yehveh (Genesis 41:0). She, poor fallen creature, did not know the meaning of the words she uttered, but she had believed the promise, and for her faith’s sake the spirit of prophecy rested upon her, and she gave him on whom her hopes were fixed the title which was to grow and swell onward till all inspired truth gathered round it and into it; and at length Elohim, the Almighty, set to it His seal by calling Himself “I shall be that I shall be” (Exodus 3:14). Eve’s word is simply the third person of the verb of which Ehyeh is the first, and the correct translation of her speech is, “I have gotten a man, even he that shall be,” or “the future one.” But when God called Himself by this appellation, the word, so indefinite in her mouth, became the personal name of Israel’s covenant God.

Thus, then, in this title of the Deity, formed from the verb of existence in what is known as the future or indefinite tense, we have the symbol of that onward longing look for the return of the golden age, or age of paradise, which elsewhere in the Bible is described as the reign of the Branch that shall grow out of Jesse’s root (Isaiah 11:4-9). The hope was at first dim, distant, indistinct, but it was the foundation of all that was to follow. Prophets and psalmists were to tend and foster that hope, and make it clear and definite. But the germ of all their teaching was contained in that mystic four-lettered word, the tetragrammaton, Y-h-v-h. The name may have been popularly called Yahveh, though of this we have no proof; the Jews certainly understood by it Yehveh—“the coming One.” After all, these vowels are not of so much importance as the fact that the name has the pre-formative yod. The force of this letter prefixed to the root form of a Hebrew verb is to give it a future or indefinite sense; and I can find nothing whatsoever to justify the Assertion that Jehovah—to adopt the ordinary spelling—means “the existent One,” and still less to attach to it a causal force, and explain it as signifying “He who calls into being.”

Finally, the pre-Mosaical form of the name is most instructive, as showing that the expectation of the Messiah was older than the time of the Exodus. The name is really man’s answer to and acceptance of the promise made to him in Genesis 3:15; and why should not Eve, to whom the assurance was given, be the first to profess her faith in it? But in this section, in which the name occurs twenty times in the course of forty-six verses, there is a far deeper truth than Eve supposed. Jehovah (Yehveh) is simply “the coming One,” and Eve probably attached no very definite idea to the words she was led to use. But here He is called Jehovah-Elohim, and the double name teaches us that the coming One, the future deliverer, is God, the very Elohim who at first created man. The unity, therefore, and connection between these two narratives is of the closest kind: and the prefixing in this second section of Jehovah to Elohim, the Creator’s name in the first section, was the laying of the foundation stone for the doctrine that man’s promised Saviour, though the woman’s seed, was an Emmanuel, God as well as man.

Verse 2

(2) And the earth.—The conjunction “and” negatives the well-meant attempt to harmonise geology and Scripture by taking Genesis 1:1 as a mere heading; the two verses go together, and form a general summary of creation, which is afterwards divided into its several stages.

Was is not the copula, but the substantive verb existed, and expresses duration of time. After creation, the earth existed as a shapeless and empty waste.

Without form, and void.—Literally, tohu and bohu, which words are both substantives, and signify wasteness and emptiness. The similarity of their forms, joined with the harshness of their sound, made them pass almost into a proverb for everything that was dreary and desolate (Isaiah 34:11; Jeremiah 4:23). It expresses here the state of primæval matter immediately after creation, when as yet there was no cohesion between the separate particles.

Darkness.—As light is the result either of the condensation of matter or of vibrations caused by chemical action, this exactly agrees with the previous representation of the chaos out of which the earth was to be shaped. It existed at present only as an incoherent waste of emptiness.

The deep.—Tĕhôm. This word, from a root signifying confusion or disturbance, is poetically applied to the ocean, as in Psalms 42:7, from the restless motion of its waves, but is used here to describe the chaos as a surging mass of shapeless matter. In the Babylonian legend, Tiàmat, the Hebrew tĕhôm, is represented as overcome by Merodach, who out of the primæval anarchy brings order and beauty (Sayce, Chaldean Genesis, pp. 59, 109, 113).

The Spirit of God.—Heb., a wind of God, i.e., a mighty wind, as rendered by the Targum and most Jewish interpreters. (See Note on Genesis 23:6.) So the wind of Jehovah makes the grass wither (Isaiah 40:7); and so God makes the winds His messengers (Psalms 104:4). The argument that no wind at present existed because the atmosphere had not been created is baseless, for if water existed, so did air. But this unseen material force, wind (John 3:8), has ever suggested to the human mind the thought of the Divine agency, which, equally unseen, is even mightier in its working. When, then, creation is ascribed to the wind (Job 26:13; Psalms 104:30), we justly see, not the mere instrumental force employed, but rather that Divine operative energy which resides especially in the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. But we must be upon our guard against the common error of commentators, who read into the text of these most ancient documents perfect doctrines which were not revealed in their fulness until the Gospel was given. It is a marvellous fact that Genesis does contain the germ of well-nigh every evangelical truth, but it contains it in a suggestive and not a completed form. So here this mighty energising wind suggests to us the thought of the Holy Ghost, and is far more eloquent in its original simplicity than when we read into it a doctrine not made known until revelation was perfected in Christ (John 7:39).

Moved.—Heb., fluttered lovingly. (See Deuteronomy 32:11.) This word also would lead the mind up to the thought of the agency of a Person. In Syriac the verb is a very common one for the incubation of birds; and, in allusion to this place, it is metaphorically employed, both of the waving of the hand of the priest over the cup in consecrating the wine for the Eucharist, and of that of the patriarch over the head of a bishop at his consecration. Two points must here be noticed: the first, that the motion was not self-originated, but was external to the chaos; the second, that it was a gentle and loving energy, which tenderly and gradually, with fostering care, called forth the latent possibilities of a nascent world.

Verse 3

THE CREATIVE DAYS.

(3) And God said.—Voice and sound there could be none, nor was there any person to whom God addressed this word of power. The phrase, then, is metaphorical, and means that God enacted for the universe a law; and ten times we find the command similarly given. The beauty and sublimity of the language here used has often been noticed: God makes no preparation, He employs no means, needs no secondary agency. He speaks, and it is done. His word alone contains all things necessary for the fulfilment of His will. So in the cognate languages the word Emir, ruler, is literally, speaker. The Supreme One speaks: with the rest, of hear is to obey. God, then, by speaking, gives to nature a universal and enduring law. His commands are not temporary, but eternal; and whatever secondary causes were called into existence when the Elohim, by a word, created light, those same causes produce it now, and will produce it until God recalls His word. We have, then, here nature’s first universal law. What is it?

Let there be light: and there was light.—The sublimity of the original is lost in our language by the cumbrous multiplication of particles. The Hebrew is Yhi ôr wayhi ôr. Light is not itself a substance, but is a condition or state of matter; and this primæval light was probably electric, arising from the condensation and friction of the elements as they began to arrange themselves in order. And this, again, was due to what is commonly called the law of gravitation, or of the attraction of matter. If on the first day electricity and magnetism were generated, and the laws given which create and control them, we have in them the two most powerful and active energies of the present and of all time—or possibly two forms of one and the same busy and restless force. And the law thus given was that of gravitation, of which light was the immediate result.

Verse 4

(4) And God saw.—This contemplation indicates, first, lapse of time; and next, that the judgment pronounced was the verdict of the Divine reason.

That it was good.—As light was a necessary result of motion in the world-mass, so was it indispensable for all that was to follow, inasmuch as neither vegetable nor animal life can exist without it. But the repeated approval by the Deity of each part and portion of this material universe (comp. Psalms 104:31) also condemns all Manichæan theories, and asserts that this world is a noble home for man, and life a blessing, in spite of its solemn responsibilities.

And God divided . . . —The first three creative days are all days of order and distribution, and have been called “the three separations.” But while on the first two days no new thing was created, but only the chaotic matter (described in Genesis 1:2) arranged, on day three there was the introduction of vegetable life. The division on the first day does not imply that darkness has a separate and independent existence, but that there were now periods of light and darkness; and thus by the end of the first day our earth must have advanced far on its way towards its present state. (See Note, Genesis 1:5.) It is, however, even more probable that the ultimate results of each creative word are summed up in the account given of it. No sooner did motion begin, than the separation of the air and water from the denser particles must have begun too. The immediate result was light; removed by a greater interval was the formation of an open space round the contracting earth-ball; still more remote was the formation of continents and oceans; but the separations must have commenced immediately that the “wind of Elohim” began to brood upon and move the chaotic mass. How far these separations had advanced before there were recurrent periods of light and darkness is outside the scope of the Divine narrative, which is not geological, but religious.

Verse 5

(5) God called the light Day . . . Night.—Before this distinction of night and day was possible there must have been outside the earth, not as yet the sun, but a bright phosphorescent mass, such as now enwraps that luminary; and, secondly, the earth must have begun to revolve upon its axis. Consequent upon this would be, not merely alternate periods of light and darkness, but also of heat and cold, from which would result important effects upon the formation of the earth’s crust. Moreover, in thus giving “day” and “night” names, God ordained language, and that vocal sounds should be the symbols of things. This law already looks forward to the existence of man, the one being on earth who calls things by their names.

And the evening and the morning.—Literally, And was an evening and was a morning day one, the definite article not being used till Genesis 1:31, when we have “day the sixth,” which was also the last of the creative days.

The word “evening” means a mixture. It is no longer the opaque darkness of a world without light, but the intermingling of light and darkness (comp. Zechariah 14:6-7). This is followed by a “morning,” that is, a breaking forth of light. Evening is placed first because there was a progress from a less to a greater brightness and order and beauty. The Jewish method of calculating the day from sunset to sunset was not the cause, but the result of this arrangement.

The first day.—A creative day is not a period of twenty-four hours, but an œon, or period of indefinite duration, as the Bible itself teaches us. For in Genesis 2:4 the six days of this narrative are described as and summed up in one day, creation being there regarded, not in its successive stages, but as a whole. So by the common consent of commentators, the seventh day, or day of God’s rest, is that age in which we are now living, and which will continue until the consummation of all things. So in Zechariah 14:7 the whole Gospel dispensation is called “one day;” and constantly in Hebrew, as probably in all languages, day is used in a very indefinite manner, as, for instance, in Deuteronomy 9:1. Those, however, who adopt the very probable suggestion of Kurtz, that the revelation of the manner of creation was made in a succession of representations or pictures displayed before the mental vision of the tranced seer, have no difficulties. He saw the dark gloom of evening pierced by the bright morning light: that was day one. Again, an evening cleft by the light, and he saw an opening space expanding itself around the world: that was day two. Again darkness and light, and on the surface of the earth he saw the waters rushing down into the seas: that was day three. And so on. What else could he call these periods but days? But as St. Augustine pointed out, there was no sun then, and “it is very difficult for us to imagine what sort of days these could be” (De Civ. Dei, xi. 6, 7). It must further be observed that this knowledge of the stages of creation could only have been given by revelation, and that the agreement of the Mosaic record with geology is so striking that there is no real difficulty in believing it to be inspired. The difficulties arise almost entirely from popular fallacies or the mistaken views of commentators. Geology has done noble service for religion in sweeping away the mean views of God’s method of working which used formerly to prevail. We may add that among the Chaldeans a cosmic day was a period of 43,200 years, being the equivalent of the cycle of the procession of the equinoxes (Lenormant, Les Origines de l’Histoire, p. 233).

Verse 6

(6) A firmament.—This is the Latin translation of the Greek word used by the translators of the Septuagint Version. Undoubtedly it means something solid; and such was the idea of the Greeks, and probably also of the Hebrews. As such it appears in the poetry of the Bible, where it is described as a mighty vault of molten glass (Job 37:18), upheld by the mountains as pillars (Job 26:11; 2 Samuel 22:8), and having doors and lattices through which the Deity pours forth abundance (Genesis 7:11; Psalms 78:23). Even in this “Hymn of Creation” we have poetry, but not expressed in vivid metaphors, but in sober and thoughtful language. Here, therefore, the word rendered “firmament” means an expanse. If, as geologists tell us, the earth at this stage was an incandescent mass, this expanse would be the ring of equilibrium, where the heat supplied from below was exactly equal to that given off by radiation into the cold ether above. And gradually this would sink lower and lower, until finally it reached the surface of the earth; and at this point the work of the second day would be complete.

Verse 7

(7) God made the firmament.—This wide open expanse upon earth’s surface, supplied by the chemistry of nature—that is, of God—with that marvellous mixture of gases which form atmospheric air, was a primary necessity for man’s existence and activity. In each step of the narrative it is ever man that is in view; and even the weight of the superincumbent atmosphere is indispensable for the health and comfort of the human body, and for the keeping of all things in their place on earth. (See Note, Genesis 1:8.) And in this secondary sense it may still rightly be called the firmament.

The waters which were under the firmament . . . the waters which were above the firmament.—While this is a popular description of what we daily see—namely, masses of running water congregated upon earth’s surface, and above a cloudland, into which the waters rise and float—it is not contrary to, but in accordance with, science. The atmosphere is the receptacle of the waters evaporated from the earth and ocean, and by means of electrical action it keeps these aqueous particles in a state of repulsion, and forms clouds, which the winds carry in their bosom. So full of thoughtful contrivance and arrangement are the laws by which rain is formed and the earth watered, that they are constantly referred to in the Bible as the chief natural proof of God’s wisdom and goodness. (See Acts 14:17.) Moreover, were there not an open expanse next the earth, it would be wrapped in a perpetual mist, unvisited by sunshine. and the result would be such as is described in Genesis 2:5, that man could not exist on earth to till the ground. The use, however, of popular language and ideas is confessedly the method of Holy Scripture, and we must not force upon the writer knowledge which man was to gain for himself. Even if the writer supposed that the rains were poured down from an upper reservoir, it would be no more an argument against his being inspired than St. Mark’s expression, “The sun did set” (Mark 1:32), disproves the inspiration of the Gospels. For the attainment of all such knowledge God has provided another way.

Verse 8

(8) God called the firmament (the expanse) Heaven.—This is a Saxon word, and means something heaved up. The Hebrew probably means the heights, or upper regions, into which the walls of cities nevertheless ascend (Deuteronomy 1:28). In Genesis 1:1, “the heaven” may include the abysmal regions of space; here it means the atmosphere round our earth, which, at a distance of about forty-five miles from the surface, melts away into the imponderable ether. The work of the second day is not described as being good, though the LXX. add this usual formula. Probably, however, the work of the second and third days is regarded as one. In both there was a separation of waters; but it was only when the open expanse reached the earth’s surface, and reduced its temperature, that water could exist in any other form than that of vapour. But no sooner did it exist in a fluid form than the pressure of the atmosphere would make it seek the lowest level. The cooling, moreover, of the earth’s surface would produce cracks and fissures, into which the waters would descend, and when these processes were well advanced, then at the end of the third day “God saw that it was good.”

Verse 9

(9) Let the waters be gathered together.—The verb, as Gesenius shows, refers rather to the condensation of water, which, as we have seen, was impossible till the surface of the earth was made cool by the radiation of heat into the open expanse around it.

Unto one place.—The ocean bed. We must add the vast depth of the ocean to the height of the mountains before we can rightly estimate the intensity of the forces at work on the third day. Vast, too, as the surface of the ocean may appear compared with the dry land, it is evidently only just sufficient to supply the rain necessary for vegetation. Were it less, either the laws of evaporation must be altered, with painful and injurious effects, or much of the earth’s surface would be barren.

Let the dry land appear.—Simple as this might appear, it yet required special provision on the part of the Creator; for otherwise the various materials of the earth would have arranged themselves in concentric strata, according to their density, and upon them the water would have reposed evenly, and above it the air. But geologists tell us that these strata have been broken up and distorted from below by volcanic agencies, while the surface has been furrowed and worn by the denuding power of water. This was the third day’s work. By the cooling of the crust of the earth the vast mass of waters, which now covers two-thirds of its surface, and which hitherto had existed only as vapour, began to condense, and pour down upon the earth as rain. Meanwhile the earth parted with its internal heat but slowly, and thus, while its crust grew stiff, there was within a mass of molten fluid. As this would be acted upon by the gravity of the sun and moon, in just the same way as the ocean is now, this inner tidal wave would rupture the thin crust above, generally in lines trending from northeast to south-west. Hence mountain ranges and deep sea beds, modified by many changes since, but all having the same final object of providing dry land for man’s abode.

Verse 11

(11) Let the earth bring forth grass.—This is the second creative act. The first was the calling of matter into existence, which, by the operation of mechanical and chemical laws, imposed upon it by the Creator, was arranged and digested into a cosmos, that is, an orderly and harmonious whole. These laws are now and ever in perpetual activity, but no secondary or derived agency can either add one atom to the world-mass or diminish aught from it. The second creative act was the introduction of life, first vegetable, and then animal; and for this nothing less than an Almighty power would suffice. Three stages of it are enumerated. The first is deshe, not “grass,” but a mere greenness, without visible seed or stalk, such as to this day may be seen upon the surface of rocks, and which, when examined by the microscope, is found to consist of a growth of plants of a minute and mean type. But all endogenous plants belong to this class, and are but the development of this primary greenness. Far higher in the scale are the seed-bearing plants which follow, among which the most important are the cerealia; while in the third class, vegetation reaches its highest development in the tree with woody stem, and the seed enclosed in an edible covering. Geologists inform us that cryptogamous plants, which were the higher forms of the first class, prevailed almost exclusively till the end of the carbonaceous period; but even independently of this evidence we could scarcely suppose that fruit-trees came into existence before the sun shone upon the earth; while the cerealia are found only in surface deposits in connection with vestiges of man. Vegetation, therefore, did not reach its perfection until the sixth day, when animals were created which needed these seeds and fruits for their food. But so far from there being anything in the creative record to require us to believe that the development of vegetation was not gradual, it is absolutely described as being so; and with that first streak of green God gave also the law of vegetation, and under His fostering hand all in due time came to pass which that first bestowal of vegetable life contained. It is the constant rule of Holy Scripture to include in a narrative the ultimate as well as the immediate results of an act; and moreover, in the record of these creative days we are told what on each day was new, while the continuance of all that preceded is understood. The dry land called into existence on the third day was not dry enough to be the abode of terrestrial animals till the sixth day, and not till then would it bear such vegetation as requires a dry soil; and the evidence of geology shows that the atmosphere, created on the second day. was not sufficiently free from carbonic acid and other vapours to be fit for animals to breathe, until long ages of rank vegetation had changed these gases into coal. When, then, on the third day, “God said, Let the earth bring forth grass . . . herb yielding seed . . . tree.” He gave the perfect command, but the complete fulfilment of that command would be gradual, as the state of the earth and the necessities of the living creatures brought forth upon it required. For in God’s work there is always a fitness, and nothing with Him is hurried or premature.

Verse 14

(14) Let there be lights (luminaries) in the firmament (or expanse) of the heaven.—In Hebrew the word for light is ôr, and for luminary, ma-ôr, a light-bearer. The light was created on the first day, and its concentration into great centres must at once have commenced; but the great luminaries did not appear in the open sky until the fourth day. With this begins the second triad of the creative days. Up to this time there had been arrangement chiefly; heat and water had had their periods of excessive activity, but with the introduction of vegetation there came also the promise of things higher and nobler than mechanical laws. Now, this fourth day seems to mark two things: first, the surface of the earth has become so cool as to need heat given it from without and secondly, there was now a long pause in creation. No new law in it is promulgated, no new factor introduced; only the atmosphere grows clearer, the earth more dry; vegetation does its part in absorbing gases; and day by day the sun shines with more unclouded brilliancy, followed by the mild radiance of the moon, and finally, by the faint gleamings of the stars. But besides this, as the condensation of luminous matter into the sun was the last act in the shaping of our solar system, it is quite possible that during this long fourth day the sun finally assumed as nearly as possible its present dimensions and form. No doubt it is still changing and slowly drawing nearer to that period when, God’s seventh day of rest being over, the knell of this our creation will sound, and the sun, with its attendant planets, and among them our earth, become what God shall then will. But during this seventh day, in which we are now living, God works only in maintaining laws already given, and no outburst either of creative or of destructive energy can take place.

Let them be for signsi.e., marks, means of knowing. This may be taken as qualifying what follows, and would then mean, Let them be means for distinguishing seasons, days, and years; but more probably it refers to the signs of the zodiac, which anciently played so important a part, not merely in astronomy, but in matters of daily life.

Seasons.—Not spring, summer, and the like, but regularly recurring periods, like the three great festivals of the Jews. In old time men depended, both in agriculture, navigation, and daily life, upon their own observation of the setting and rising of the constellations. This work is now done for us by others, and put into a convenient form in almanacks; but equally now as of old, days, years, and seasons depend upon the motion of the heavenly orbs.

Verse 15

(15) To give light.—This was to be henceforward the permanent arrangement for the bestowal of that which is an essential condition for all life, vegetable and animal. As day and night began on the first day, it is evident that very soon there was a concentrating mass of light and heat outside the earth, and as the expanse grew clear its effects must have become more powerful. There was daylight, then, long before the fourth day; but it was only then that the sun and moon became fully formed and constituted as they are at present, and shone regularly and clearly in the bright sky.

Verse 16

(16) He made the stars also.—The Hebrew is, God made two great lights . . . to rule the night; and also the stars. Though the word “also” carries back “the stars” to the verb “made,” yet its repetition in our version makes it seem as if the meaning was that God now created the stars; whereas the real sense is that the stars were to rule the night equally with the moon. But besides this, there was no place where the stars—by which the planets are chiefly meant—could be so well mentioned as here. Two of them, Venus and Mercury, were formed somewhere between the first and the fourth day; and absolutely it was not till this day that our solar system, consisting of a central sun and the planets, with their attendant satellites, was complete. To introduce the idea of the fixed stars is unreasonable, for it is the planets which, by becoming in their turns morning and evening stars, rule the night; though the fixed stars indicate the seasons of the year. The true meaning, then, is that at the end of the fourth day the distribution of land and water, the state of the atmosphere, the alternation of day and night, of seasons and years, and the astronomical relations of the sun, moon, and planets (with the stars) to the earth were all settled and fixed, much as they are at present. And to this geology bears witness. Existing causes amply suffice to account for all changes that have taken place on our globe since the day when animal life first appeared upon the earth.

Verse 20

(20) Let the waters . . . in the open firmament.—The days of the second creative triad correspond to those of the first. Light was created on the first day, and on the fourth it was gathered into light-bearers; on the second day air and water were called into being, and on the fifth day they were peopled with life; lastly, on the third day the dry land appeared, and on the sixth day it became the home of animals and man.

Bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.—Literally, let the waters swarm a swarm of living soul. But the word soul properly signifies “breath,” and thus, after the long pause of the fourth day, during which vegetation was advancing under the ripening effects of solar heat, we now hasten onward to another creative act, by which God called into being creatures which live by breathing. And as vegetation began with a green tinge upon the rocks, so doubtless animal life began in the most rudimentary manner, and advanced through animalcules and insects up to fish and reptiles. The main point noticed in the text as to the living things produced on this day is their fecundity. They are all those creatures which multiply in masses. It does not, however, follow that the highest forms of fish and reptiles were reached before the lowest form of land animal was created. All that we are taught is that the Infusoria and Ovipara preceded the Mammalia. As the most perfect trees may not have been produced till the Garden of Eden was planted, so the peacock may not have spread his gaudy plumes till the time was approaching when there would be human eyes capable of admiring his beauty.

And fowl that may fly.—Heb., and let fowl, or winged creatures, fly above the earth. It does not say that they were formed out of the water (comp. Genesis 2:19). Nor is it confined to birds, but includes all creatures that can wing their way in the air.

In the open firmament.—Literally, upon the face of the expanse of heaven—that is, in front of it, upon the lower surface of the atmosphere near to the earth.

Verse 21

(21) God created great whales.—Whales, strictly speaking, are mammals, and belong to the creation of the sixth day. But tannin, the word used here, means any long creature, and is used of serpents in Exodus 7:9-10 (where, however, it may mean a crocodile), and in Deuteronomy 32:33; of the crocodile in Psalms 74:13, Isaiah 51:9, Ezekiel 29:3; and of sea monsters generally in Job 7:12. It thus appropriately marks the great Saurian age. The use, too, of the verb bârâ, “he created,” is no argument against its meaning to produce out of nothing, because it belongs not to these monsters, which may have been “evolved,” but to the whole verse, which describes the introduction of animal life; and this is one of the special creative acts which physical science acknowledges to be outside its domain.

After their kind.—This suggests the belief that the various genera and species of birds, fishes, and insects were from the beginning distinct, and will continue so, even if there be some amount of free play in the improvement and development of existing species.

Verse 22

(22) Be fruitful, and multiply.—This blessing shows that the earth was replenished with animal life from a limited number of progenitors, and probably from a small number of centres, both for the flora and for the fauna.

Verse 23

(23) The fifth day.—Upon the work of the first four days geology is virtually silent, and the theories respecting the physical formation of the world belong to other sciences. But as regards the fifth day, its testimony is ample. In the lowest strata of rocks, such as the Cambrian and Silurian, we find marine animals, mollusca, and trilobites; higher up in the Devonian rocks we find fish; in the Carbonaceous period we find reptiles; and above these, in the Permian, those mighty saurians, described in our version as great whales. Traces of birds, even in these higher strata, if existent at all, are rare, but indubitably occur in the Triassic series. We thus learn that this fifth day covers a vast space of time, and, in accordance with what has been urged before as regards vegetation, it is probable that the introduction of the various genera and species was gradual. God does nothing in haste, and our conceptions of His marvellous working are made more clear and worthy of His greatness by the evidence which geology affords.

Verse 24

(24) Let the earth bring forth.—Neither this, nor the corresponding phrase in Genesis 1:20, necessarily imply spontaneous generation, though such is its literal meaning. It need mean no more than that land animals, produced on the dry ground, were now to follow upon those produced in the waters. However produced, we believe that the sole active power was the creative will of God, but of His modus operandi we know nothing.

On this sixth creative day there are four words of power. By the first, the higher animals are summoned into being; by the second, man; the third provides for the continuance and increase of the beings which God had created; the fourth assigns the vegetable world both to man and animals as food.
The creation of man is thus made a distinct act; for though created on the sixth day, because he is a land animal, yet it is in the latter part of the day, and after a pause of contemplation and counsel. The reason for this, we venture to affirm, is that in man’s creation we have a far greater advance in the work of the Almighty than at any previous stage. For up to this time all has been law, and the highest point reached was instinct; we have now freedom, reason, intellect, speech. The evolutionist may give us many an interesting theory about the upgrowth of man’s physical nature, but the introduction of this moral and mental freedom places as wide a chasm in his way as the first introduction of vegetable, and then of animal life.

The living creature, or rather, the creature that lives by breathing, is divided into three classes. The first is behêmâh,” cattle: literally, the dumb brute, but especially used of the larger ruminants, which were soon domesticated, and became man’s speechless servants. Next comes the “creeping thing,” or rather, moving thing, from a verb translated moveth in Genesis 1:21. It probably signifies the whole multitude of small animals, and not reptiles particularly. For strictly the word refers rather to their number than to their means of locomotion, and means a swarm. The third class is the “beast of the earth,” the wild animals that roam over a large extent of country, including the carnivora. But as a vegetable diet is expressly assigned in Genesis 1:30 to the “beast of the earth,” while the evidence of the rocks proves that even on the fifth day the saurians fed upon fish and upon one another, the record seems to point out a closer relation between man and the graminivora than with these fierce denizens of the forest. The narrative of the flood proves conclusively that there were no carnivora in the ark; and immediately afterwards beasts that kill men were ordered to be destroyed (Genesis 9:5-6). It is plain that from the first these beasts lay outside the covenant. But as early as the fourth century, Titus, Bishop of Bostra, in his treatise against the Manichees, showed, on other than geological grounds, that the carnivora existed before the fall, and that there was nothing inconsistent with God’s wisdom or love in their feeding upon other animals. In spite of their presence, all was good. The evidence of geology proves that in the age when the carnivora were most abundant, the graminivora were represented by species of enormous size, and that they flourished in multitudes far surpassing anything that exists in the present day.

Verse 26

(26) Let us make man.—Comp. Genesis 11:7. The making of man is so ushered in as to show that at length the work of creation had reached its perfection and ultimate goal. As regards the use of the plural here, Maimonides thinks that God took counsel with the earth, the latter supplying the body and Elohim the soul. But it is denied in Isaiah 40:13 that God ever took counsel with any one but Himself. The Jewish interpreters generally think that the angels are meant. More truly and more reverently we may say that this first chapter of Genesis is the chapter of mysteries, and just as “the wind of God” in Genesis 1:2 was the pregnant germ which grew into the revelation of the Holy Ghost, so in Elohim, the many powers concentrated in one being, lies the germ of the doctrine of a plurality of persons in the Divine Unity. It is not a formal proof of the Trinity, nor do believers in the inspiration of Holy Scripture so use it. What they affirm is, that from the very beginning the Bible is full of such germs, and that no one of them remains barren, but all develop, and become Christian truths. There is in this first book a vast array of figures, types, indications, yearnings, hopes, fears, promises, and express predictions, which advance onwards like an ever-deepening river, and when they all find a logical fulfilment in one way, the conclusion is that that fulfilment is not only true, but was intended.

Man.—Hebrew, Adam. In Assyrian the name for man is also adamu, or admu. In that literature, so marvellously preserved to our days, Sir H. Rawlinson thinks that he has traced the first man up to the black or Accadian race. It is hopeless to attempt any derivation of the name, as it must have existed before any of the verbs and nouns from which commentators attempt to give it a meaning; and the adâmâh, or “tilled ground,” of which we shall soon hear so much, evidently had its name from Adam.

In our image, after our likeness.—The human body is after God’s image only as being the means whereby man attains to dominion: for dominion is God’s attribute, inasmuch as He is sole Lord. Man’s body, therefore, as that of one who rules, is erect, and endowed with speech, that he may give the word of command. The soul is first, in God’s image. This, as suggesting an external likeness, may refer to man’s reason, free-will, self-consciousness, and so on. But it is, secondly, in God’s likeness, which implies something closer and more inward. It refers to man’s moral powers, and especially to his capacity of attaining unto holiness. Now man has lost neither of these two. (Comp. Genesis 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9.) Both were weakened and defiled by the fall, but were still retained in a greater or less degree. In the man Christ Jesus both were perfect; and fallen man, when new-created in Christ, attains actually to that perfection which was his only potentially at his first creation, and to which Adam never did attain.

Let them have dominion.—The plural here shows that we have to do not with Adam and Eve, but with the human race generally. This, too, agrees with the whole bearing of the first chapter, which deals in a large general way with genera and species, and not with individuals. This is important as an additional proof that God’s likeness and image belong to the whole species man, and could not therefore have been lost by the fall, as St. Augustine supposed.

Verse 27

(27) Created.—This significant verb is thrice repeated with reference to man. It indicates, first, that man has that in him which was not a development or evolution, but something new. He is, in fact, the most perfect work of the creative energy, and differs from the animals not only in degree, but in kind, though possessing, in common with them, an organised body. And next, it indicates the rejoicing of the Deity at the completion of His purpose.

Verse 29

(29) Every herb bearing seed . . . every tree.—Of the three classes of plants enumerated in Genesis 1:11, the two most perfect kinds are given to man for his food; while in Genesis 1:30 the birds and animals have not merely the cryptogamous plants of the first class, but every green herb granted to them for their sustenance. We are not to suppose that they did not eat seeds and fruits, but that the fundamental supply for the maintenance of animal life was the blade and leaf, and that of human life the perfected seed and ripe fruit. Man is thus from the first pointed out as of a higher organisation than the animal; and the fact that his food is such as requires preparation and cooking has been the basis, not merely of most of the refinements of life, but even of the close union of the family. For what would become of it without the common meal?

But undoubtedly the food originally assigned to man was vegetable; nor was express leave given to eat flesh until after the flood. Nevertheless the dominion given to man, in Genesis 1:28, over fish, bird, and animal, made it lawful for him to use them for his food; and the skins with which Adam and Eve were clothed on their expulsion from Paradise prove that animals had been already killed. After the fall, Abel’s sacrifice of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof, leads irresistibly to the conclusion that the flesh was eaten by the offerer and his family. In ancient times this was the rule. Flesh was not the staple of man’s diet, but the eating of it was a religious ceremony, at which certain portions were offered to God and burnt on His altar, and the rest consumed by man as the Deity’s guests. So we may well believe that until the flood the descendants of Seth partook of flesh rarely, and only at a sacrifice, but that after the flood a more free use of it was permitted.

Verse 31

(31) Behold, it was very good.—This final blessing of God’s completed work on the Friday must be compared with the final words of Christ spoken of the second creation, upon the same day of the week, when He said “It is finished.” Next we must notice that this world was only good until man was placed upon it, but then became very good. This verdict, too, had respect to man as a species, and is not therefore annulled by the fall. In spite, therefore, of the serious responsibilities attendant upon the bestowal of freewill on man, we believe that the world is still for purposes of mercy, and that God not only rejoiced at first, but “shall rejoice in His works” (Psalms 104:31). (Comp. Psalms 85:10; Romans 5:15, &c.)

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-1.html. 1905.