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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 1

Verses 1-2

The Creative Beginning, 1-2.

Genesis 1:1 is to be taken as a heading to the present section, (Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3,) corresponding to the headings of the other sections. Comp. Genesis 2:4; Genesis 5:1; Genesis 6:9; Genesis 10:1; Genesis 11:10, etc . This first section has not the common formula, “These are the generations,” etc . : for this first chapter is a history of creations, not of generations . This is a distinction to be kept constantly in mind . See below, on Genesis 1:2, and notes on chap . 2:4 .

In the following notes an effort is made to indicate as fully as practicable the grammatico-historical meaning of the language of this most ancient Scripture. The world is full of attempts to “reconcile Genesis and geology:” we assume no such task, but endeavour to keep prominent the query, whether the vast amount of learned labour bestowed upon such attempted reconciliation has not been wasted over a false issue. Our exposition does not essay to solve the mysteries of creation, but merely to determine, as far as the original meaning and usage of his words admit, the most obvious import of the Hebrew writer’s language. See Introduction, pp. 56-67.

1. In the beginning At the commencement of that series of events with which the creation and history of the human race are associated . Here is no necessary reference to the origin of matter, but simply to the opening of an epoch .

God created ברא אלהים ; a plural noun with a singular verb . Some have supposed this plural form of the name of God to be a relic of primitive polytheism, but its construction here with a verb in the singular, and its frequent use in the Hebrew Scriptures as the name of the One only God, forbids such a conclusion . The plural form of the name denotes rather the manifold fulness of power and excellency that exists in God. Not without reason have many Christian divines suggested that in this plural of majesty may also be an intimation of the plurality of persons in the Godhead. No sound logician, however, would cite this as a proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is to be mentioned only as a suggestion a profound intimation of the plurality of Eternal Powers in the Creator. It will be noticed that the writer does not here formally state the existence of God; much less does he attempt to prove his existence; but he simply assumes it as a fact. The word ברא , which means, primarily, to cut, to cut down, (a meaning preserved in the Piel form of the verb, Joshua 17:15; Joshua 17:18,) and thence by a natural and easy process, to construct, to fashion, to produce, is in the Kal and Niphal always used to denote divine creations. It is never used to denote human productions. In Genesis 1:21 it denotes the creation of “great sea-monsters;” in Genesis 1:27, the creation of man; (comp. also Genesis 5:1-2; Genesis 6:7; Deuteronomy 4:32; Psalms 89:47;) in Psalms 89:12, the establishing of the north and the south; in Isaiah 4:5, the creation of “a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night;” in Isaiah 45:7, the creation of darkness and evil, and in Isaiah 57:19, the creation of “the fruit of the lips” praise to God, or prophecy . This varied usage of the word shows, that to create out of nothing is not its legitimate meaning: for pre-existing material is commonly supposed . Hence the meaning to found, to produce, to cause to arise. Applied thus uniformly to divine creations, ברא is a more elevated word, and also more specific, than עשׂה , to make, which occurs much more frequently . This latter word is also used of divine creations, and so far may be said to be interchangeable with ברא . Thus in Genesis 1:7, “God made the firmament” Genesis 1:16, “God made two great lights” Genesis 1:25, “God made the beast of the earth” Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man” Genesis 1:31, “Every thing that he had madeGenesis 2:2, “His work which he had madeGenesis 5:1, “In the likeness of God made he him” Genesis 9:6, “In the image of God made he man” Exodus 20:11, “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth . ” But though applied to every thing to which we find ברא applied, the word עשׂה has a much wider and more general application, referring to any work of man, as to make a feast, (Genesis 19:3; Genesis 21:8; Genesis 26:30;) to make a heap of stones, (Genesis 31:46;) to do wickedness, (Genesis 39:9;) to do or show mercy, (Exodus 20:6;) to accomplish a desire, (1 Kings 5:8;) and so in a great variety of ways .

Another word of kindred meaning is יצר , to form, to fashion . This is used in Genesis 2:7-8, “The Lord God formed man of the dust;” and “the man whom he had formed;” and also in Genesis 1:19: “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air . ” It is used of the forming of the dry land, (Psalms 95:5;) and of leviathan to play in the broad sea, (Psalms 104:26;) of the fashioning of a graven image, (Isaiah 44:12;) and of clay by the hand of a potter . Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 64:8. These three synonyme words are used together in Isaiah 43:7; Isaiah 45:18: “I have created him for my glory; I have formed him; yea, I have made him.” The distinction to be drawn between these words seems to be this: ברא denotes especially the bringing something into being; causing something to arise which had not appeared before; עשׂה is a less dignified expression, indicating in general the same idea, but often applied to things and predicated of subjects which are never construed with ברא . The word יצר , on the other hand, conveys the idea of giving particular form or shape to something . In this narrative of creation the three words are all alike applied to the divine production of man and beast upon earth. Comp. Genesis 1:21; Genesis 1:25-27, and Genesis 2:7-8; Genesis 2:19.

The heaven and the earth Rather, the heavens and the land . What mean these words? It has been the prevailing assumption that in this first verse of the Bible they must stand for the entire universe. They have been explained as equivalent to the primordial matter of the universe; the original substance out of which the universe was subsequently formed. But why not allow the sacred writer to explain his own words? In Genesis 1:8, we are told that God called the firmament (or expanse above the land) Heaven, and in Genesis 1:10, the dry ground is called ארצ , Land . According to the constant usus loquendi of the Hebrew language, שׁמים , heavens, denotes the ethereal expanse above us, in which the luminaries appear to be set, and the birds fly, and from which the rain falls . Comp . Genesis 1:14-15; Genesis 1:17; Genesis 1:20; Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28; Genesis 1:30; Genesis 2:19-20; Genesis 6:7; Genesis 6:17; Genesis 7:3; Genesis 7:11; Genesis 8:2, etc. This may be safely said to be the common and almost universal sense of the word. When occasionally used of the abode of God, it is from the natural conception of him as the Most High, who is exalted above the heavens. Psalms 57:5; Psalms 57:11; Psalms 113:4. The word is dual in form, perhaps from some notion of the expanse as a divider of the waters above and below it, as described in Genesis 1:7. Tayler Lewis regards the word as more probably a plural which originated in the effort of the early world to penetrate in thought beyond the visible heaven, and conceive of a heaven beyond that, and a heaven of heavens higher still, from which God looks down to “behold the things that are in heaven (that is, the nearer heavens) and the earth.” Psalms 113:6. It is equally plain that the Word ארצ , land, denotes (not the cubic or solid contents of the earth, considered as a globe; such a conception seems never to have entered the Hebrew mind) an area of territory, a country, a region . The word occurs over three hundred times in this Book of Genesis alone, and in most of those places it can have no other meaning than that which we give above, and in no place does it require any other word to represent it than our word land. The word earth, in our modern usage, is so commonly applied to the matter of the earth, or to the world considered as a planet, or solid sphere, that it misleads us when used as a translation of the Hebrew ארצ .

Verse 2

2. And the earth was without form and void Having stated in the first verse the great fact of the creation, the writer now proceeds to unfold the manner and order of that creation . Here we must differ from those critics who understand Genesis 1:1 of the primordial matter of the universe, and the following verses of a subsequent series of growths . The analogy of the entire Book of Genesis confirms the view of those who regard Genesis 1:1 as a heading or general statement of the substance of the whole following section, which the succeeding verses go on to elaborate in detail . So Genesis 2:4; Genesis 5:1; Genesis 10:1; Genesis 11:10; Genesis 11:27, etc . , are respectively the headings of so many sections of this ancient Book of the Beginning and Generations of human history. In every instance, after first positing a general statement of his subject, the writer proceeds to narrate the details which his statement involves. The words used in the first verse needed an explanation, which the rest of the chapter at once supplies. The statement, so often made, that the conjunction and ( ו ) at the beginning of Genesis 1:2 forbids the supposition that Genesis 1:1 is a summary of the whole chapter, is seen to be futile by a comparison of the immediate sequence of other headings of sections named above. The words תהו ובהו are rendered by Onkelos waste and empty; by Aquila, emptiness and nothing; by Vulgate, empty and void; and by the Sept . , invisible and unformed . The words appear in the same form again in Jeremiah 4:23. They here describe the land as waste and empty, and the context shows that it was as yet covered with waters, so as to form a part and condition of the deep, over the surface or face of which there was darkness. Whether light had ever beamed upon that deep, or how the land and the waters came to be so intermixed, are questions on which the writer utters no sentiment .

The Spirit of God moved ( מרחפת , brooding, comp . Deuteronomy 32:11) upon the face of the waters The Divine Spirit hovered down upon the deep, as the mighty Agent by whose power the darkness will be made to vanish, and beauty and order arise out of desolation and emptiness . Observe, here is no broad statement that darkness prevailed through the entire universe of God; nor is the deep or the waters to be identified with the entire surface of the globe. FIRST DAY LIGHT, 3-5.

Verse 3

3. And God said Or, Then says God . Having stated the condition of things at the time and place of the fiat of the “omnific word,” the writer now denotes a sequence by introducing the future or imperfect tense-form of the verb . The perfect tense of the preceding verbs, ברא (Genesis 1:1) and היתה , (Genesis 1:2,) puts the reader back to an ideal standpoint the beginning; the future tense of ויאמר denotes a point of time future from that standpoint, though really in the past . Every creation of this chapter is preceded by these words, God said, from which doubtless arose the sublime New Testament conception that the worlds ( ages) were made by the WORD of God . Hebrews 11:3. Hence, too, the doctrine of the Logos in John 1:1-3.

Let there be light: and there was light Well might Longinus and others call attention to the sublimity of this passage . The natural meaning is, that at the fiat of the Almighty light supernaturally broke in upon the confused deep, and revealed its desolate and empty condition . Whence the light proceeded, by what means it was produced, and how large an area it illumined, are questions as idle to essay to answer as, Of what did God create the great sea monsters, (of Genesis 1:21,) and how many of them did he make? We are told in the verses next following that “God divided the light from the darkness, and called the light Day and the darkness Night . The old question, Why this production of light on the first day, when the luminaries first appear on the fourth day? may be anticipated here . The making of an expanse to divide the waters above and the waters below, (Genesis 1:6-7,) and the chaotic condition of the land and waters as previously described, warrant the conclusion that the atmosphere far into the upper heavens was filled with impenetrable mist, utterly shutting out the light of the sun and moon and stars. These luminaries were, of course, in existence, but at the time of this “beginning,” and from that portion of the earth’s surface here described, they were concealed. We know what it is now to have an impenetrable fog settle upon a region and abide for days. Comp. Acts 27:20. The plague of darkness which covered Egypt for three days was such as could be felt, and prevented any one from moving from place to place . Exodus 10:21-23. Is it, then, difficult to conceive a darkness covering all that region where God planted the garden of Eden, so dense as utterly to shut the celestial luminaries from view? We may, indeed, suppose that the light produced by this word of God was the light of the sun, forced through the intervening clouds and mist without dispelling them for three days. The sun would, in such a case, have been invisible. But as the earth continued its axial revolution, day and night were alternately produced, and thus God divided between the light and the darkness. Nothing hinders our supposing such a mode of producing the light, and dividing the light from the darkness.

Verse 5

5. God called the light Day By whatever means or method God caused “the light to shine out of darkness,” (2 Corinthians 4:6,) it is important to observe that he called that light Day. Why now should we take it on ourselves to say, as so many expositors have ventured to do, that “day” in the first chapter of Genesis means a vast cosmogonic period or age? Shall we permit the sacred historian to define his own terms, as he most certainly assumes to do, or foist into his words the speculative theories of modern times? “The Hebrew word yom, (day,)” says Professor Guyot, “is used in this chapter in five different senses, just as we use the word day in common language: 1. The day, meaning light, without reference to time or succession. 2. The cosmogonic day, the nature of which is to be determined. 3. The day of twenty-four hours, in the fourth cosmogonic day, where it is said of the sun and moon, ‘Let them be for days, and for seasons, and for years.’ 4. The light part of the same day of twenty-four hours, as opposed to the night. 5. In Genesis 2:4, the week of creation, or an indefinite period of time . ” Creation, or the Biblical Cosmogony, pp . 50, 51 .

Could any thing be more uncritical, arbitrary, and dogmatic than this deliverance of a Christian scientist? If we may put five different meanings upon one simple word, when the writer himself so definitely gives his own meaning, what may we not make the Bible say? The definition No. 4 above is the one which we adopt, (not, however, limiting it to twenty-four hours,) as being that of the sacred writer himself, and this, we believe, will be sufficient to meet the demands of this entire narrative of creation. The length of this day is not told. It was the period of light, whether twelve hours or a much greater length of time. So far as mere length of time is here denoted, there may have been but one day and one night in a year of our time. This would accord with Professor Warren’s hypothesis of the beginning of human life within the Arctic circle. (See his Paradise Found; the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole. Boston, 1885.)

And the evening and the morning were the first day Better, And there was evening and there was morning, one day. That is, the first day had its evening and its morning. We are not to understand the morning as equivalent to the day, and the evening to the night, nor are we to construe one day as grammatically in apposition with evening and morning. The simplest meaning is, that this first day, like all other days, had an evening and a morning. Evening was probably mentioned before morning in accordance with the ancient custom of reckoning days from evening to evening; not to indicate that the primeval darkness constituted the first evening.

Verse 6

SECOND DAY HEAVENS, Genesis 1:6-8.

6. Let there be a firmament Hebrews, רקיע ; Sept . , στερεωμα ; Vulg . , firmamentum . The Hebrew word properly means something spread out; mar gin, expansion . It means the expanse, the open space above the surface of the land through which an observer looks away to what appears a vast concave surface above him . This open sky is metaphorically called the “firmament;” but we are not to suppose that the ancients, any more than the moderns, believed in a solid metallic firmament . The poetical language of Job 37:18; Isaiah 40:22; Psalms 78:23, etc . , no more implies such a belief than similar metaphors in the poetry of the present day.

In the midst of the waters Between the waters below and the waters above, as is immediately explained.

Let it divide Let it serve as a divider of the waters below, (namely, the deep,) and the waters that float in cloudy masses above the face of the deep. Psalms 148:4.

Verse 7

7. God made the firmament By his almighty fiat the dense mist that hung over the face of the deep, and was itself a vast expanse of waters, was lifted up to find a local habitation on high . Thus was formed the vast reservoir of the heavens, from which the rains descend to fertilize and refresh the land . “Next to the light,” says Jacobus, “is the law of the atmosphere, so essential to life in the vegetable and animal world. Here it is set forth as supporting the floating vapour, and keeping in suspense a fluid of greater specific gravity than itself. The formation of clouds is referred to by Job in language which reveals an acquaintance with the laws here established by the Creator: ‘He maketh small the drops of water: they pour down rain according to the vapour thereof; which the clouds do drop and distil upon man abundantly.… Dost thou know the balancings of the clouds?’” Job 36:27-28; Job 37:16; compare also Genesis 2:6. “But why, it may be asked, did he not speak of this storehouse of waters as diffused through the firmament, instead of placing it above it? We answer: This would have been to convert the firmament of sense into the atmosphere of science, and phenomena into natural philosophy, which doubtless God could have done, but did not see fit to do . ” Barrows .

Verse 8

8. God called the firmament Heaven Rather, called the expanse Heavens . Here the writer defines the meaning of the word “heavens,” which he had used in the first verse . And he further represents the luminaries as set in the expanse of the heavens, (Genesis 1:14-17,) and the winged fowls as flying upon its face, (Genesis 1:20,) and hence called the fowl of the heavens . Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28; Genesis 1:30. By a most natural process the word would become associated with things above, and be used to denote the dwellingplace of God . Hence, too, the notion of many heavens . Compare 2 Corinthians 12:3.

Verse 9


9. Let the waters… be gathered… the dry land appear The import of these words is, that the land was partially, if not wholly, hidden by the waters; thus further explaining the statement of Genesis 1:2, that it was desolate and empty, and made so by the dark overflowing deep. Now, by the divine fiat, the land is supernaturally elevated above “the face of the deep,” and the waters are made to flow off together into surrounding seas. How large a portion of land was thus made to appear is nowhere intimated. A very natural supposition is, that a large island was suddenly heaved up in the midst of the deep. And this was “the land” of the antediluvian world. On this land, thus raised in the midst of the seas, the garden of Eden was planted, and here man was first introduced. This miraculous elevation of the land from the waters we understand to be the true conception of 2 Peter 3:5, which, literally and accurately translated, is, “For it is hidden from them who will it, that the heavens were from of old, and the land ( γη ) from water and by means of water, consisting by the word of God . ” Thus Fronmuller, in loc . : “The earth originated out of water out of the dark matter in which it was comprehended and through water, that is, through the agency of water, which partly descended into the lower parts of the earth and partly formed the clouds in the sky.” But all was effected by God’s word.

Verse 10

10. God called the dry land Earth Or, called the dry (substance) land . The name “land” was given to the dry ground, as distinguished from the surrounding waters, which were named Seas. Here every thing is simple and plain, and as Genesis 1:6-8 explained how “God created the heavens,” (Genesis 1:1,) so Genesis 1:9-10 show how he created the land .

Verse 11

11. Let… earth bring forth grass In explaining this entire narrative as a supernatural preparation of the soil, climate, and vegetation of the region where the first man appeared, we do not go about seeking the secondary causes by which any of the divine fiats were brought to pass . The divine power by which the grass, herb, and fruit tree of one particular region was brought into existence is doubtless competent to originate all forms of matter and of life . But we have no good reason to expect in this Scripture an answer to the many mysterious questions of biology . Here we have revealed to us the Almighty personal God, infinite in ability and wisdom to originate all things; but how he brought into being the numberless things which now arrest the observation or attract the inquiry of men, we do not believe it is the purpose of this Scripture to explain . It is certainly supposable that he produced the vegetation of Eden miraculously, as Jesus made the water wine, and multiplied the loaves and fishes; but it does not follow that he produced all other vegetation in the same way. We note here three classes, or perhaps three stages, of vegetable life: grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit tree bearing fruit. In the first the seed is not taken into account; in the second it is the principal consideration; while in the third the fruit which envelops the seed is made most prominent.

Verse 14


14. Lights מארת , luminaries, or lightbearers, thus differing from אור , light, in Genesis 1:3. Light was made to shine out of the darkness upon the deep three days before these lightholders were made to appear in the expanse above the Eden land . Every interpreter has felt the difficulty of explaining this . For our hypothesis, see note on Genesis 1:3. The sacred writer speaks of these luminaries merely in their phenomenal relation to the land of Eden, and not as an astronomer of the nineteenth century A . D . He therefore fittingly assigns them to that day of the creative week when they first became visible from the land already described .

Let them be for signs, and for seasons That is, let them serve this purpose to the earth . Some suppose here a hendiadys, signs of seasons . This, however, is not necessary. There is also no sufficient reason for abandoning the natural meaning of the word signs, ( אתת ,) as indicating remarkable phenomena in the heavens which, according to the Scriptures, sometimes indicate great events of judgment or of blessing. Comp. Jeremiah 10:2; Joel 2:30; Matthew 2:2; Matthew 24:29; Luke 21:25. The luminaries also serve as signs to indicate different points of the compass signals to direct the path of the traveller on the land and on the deep . מועדים , seasons, or appointed times; from יעד , to fix, to appoint . The heavenly bodies serve to regulate and measure off these weekly, monthly, or yearly recurring seasons .

Verse 16

16. Two great lights This designation of the sun and moon is of itself sufficient to show that the work of the fourth day is phenomenal and popular, not scientific . We know that the moon is but the small satellite of a relatively small planet, and a mere atom as compared with the magnitude of some of the stars. But to man it is one of the two great lightbearers.

He made the stars also The Hebrew is simply, and the stars. That is, they, too, were made and placed in the heavenly expanse. They now first appeared above the newly elevated land where man was about to be created.

Verse 20

FIFTH DAY FISH AND FOWLS, Genesis 1:20-23.

20. Bring forth abundantly Hebrews, Let the waters teem with creeping things, living beings . נפשׁ חיה , soul of life, or living soul, is in apposition with שׁרצ , creeping thing . These crawlers, or creeping things, are meant to include “whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas . ” ועו Š יעופ Š, and let fowls fly . In Genesis 2:19, the fowls are said to be formed out of the ground . All these creatures were first introduced by God’s word . They were creations, not evolutions . But their subsequent multiplication is conceived of as generations .

Verse 21

21. Great whales תנינם , dragons, sea-serpents, or some other of the great monsters of the deep . The Septuagint has τα κητη ; the Revised Version, great sea monsters .

Verse 24


24. Cattle… creeping thing… beast As the sacred writer distributes the growth of the vegetable kingdom into three classes, (see Genesis 1:11-12,) so also he presents three classes of land animals: בהמה , cattle, that is, the domestic animals; רמשׂ , creepers, that is, reptiles and insects of the land, corresponding to the creeping things ( שׁרצ ) of the waters; and חיתו ארצ , beasts of the land, that is, wild animals as distinguished from domestic cattle .

Verse 26

26. Let us make man in our image This form of speaking in the first person plural is explained by some as conformity to the usage of human dignitaries, who are accustomed to speak of themselves in this way; while others suppose that God here addresses the angels of his presence . Others, again, find in these words a reference to the plurality of persons in the divine nature, but the ancient readers of the record would not be likely to comprehend this meaning . Nevertheless, here may be the germ which, by successive revelations, was at last developed into the Christian doctrine of the Trinity . All things conceptual or phenomenal originate in the great, uncreated, self-existent Essence, the fountain of Deity, the Father . These things become thought and form by and through the Divine Word, by whom all things exist . These existences are objects of approval to the Spirit, the Sensibility, so to speak, of God . As God looks over the objects of creation, it is the divine feeling that pronounces them “very good . ” Accordingly, man bears the triune image of his God in having will, thought, and feeling, which correspond with our highest conceptions of Father, Word, and Spirit. Will, by which we mean the whole self-acting, conscious Ego; Thought, the only begotten and always begotten offspring of the self-acting, conscious Ego; and Feeling, or Sensibility, by which we appreciate and love; these are the personalities of man’s immortal nature. God is a spirit, and man’s immortal nature is a spirit also, bearing the divine triune impress of the Godhead. We should accordingly understand the “righteousness,” “true holiness,” and “knowledge” of Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10, as qualities or attributes of the divine image in which man was created, but not as constituting the image itself . The likeness was rather in the spiritual personality which made him Godlike as distinguished from all the rest of the animate creation . Likeness is not to be understood as something different from image, but rather as explanatory of it .

And let them have dominion This dominion is the natural superiority and headship which man holds over all the inferior orders of creation . Compare Psalms 8:5-8. Genesis 1:29-30, taken in connexion with chapter 9:3, have been supposed to show that previous to the flood man’s food was restricted to substances in the vegetable kingdom. This was probably the case; but, after all, these passages do not prove that animal food was prohibited before the flood; and possibly the skins mentioned Genesis 3:21, were those of animals slain, not for sacrifices only, but for food .

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Genesis 1". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.