In this series of posts we’re addressing the question as to whether there is a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 (or 1:2 and 1:3). You can read more about the implications of this in the first post of this series. In this post I’m looking at the plausibility of a gap in the text by looking closely at the Hebrew grammar.
The grammar in these first verses turns out to be a little complicated/unusual. In fact, one ancient Jewish sage asked the question,
Why was the world created with a bet?
He’s referring to the fact that the very first letter of the Hebrew Bible is the letter ב or bet. The reply to his question was,
Just as the bet is closed at the sides but open in front [Hebrew reads from right to left], so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind.
If we stay away from this type of interpretation and stick with grammar we find that there are four views on how the grammar of these first three verses work. I’m not going to go through all four, I’m only going to explain the view that I hold. If you are interested, you’ll find a nice overview of the four views and a defense of the other one that is most plausible in Gordon Wenham’s commentary on Genesis (Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary 1. Nashville: Nelson, 1987.)
The Grammar of Genesis 1:1-3
First I want to point out that Genesis 1:2-3 starts off a typical sequence of verbs that mark out Hebrew narrative. I’m going to explain in a bit of detail how this works because I’ll use this information in the next post.
In Hebrew the basic conjugation of the verb is considered the qatal form (קטל). When we think of conjugations we think of tenses like past, present, and future. But the qatal conjugation in Hebrew is sometimes found to express future, sometimes past, and sometimes present. So the verb doesn’t work with tenses as we normally expect. In fact, there’s some disagreement as to just how the Hebrew verb does work. I’m going to skip that disagreement and go to what most people agree on, that is that Hebrew verbs tend to work together in chains to create certain typical meanings.
One type of verb chain, for example, can be formed to create a sequence that expresses a series of consecutive future events. A different combination of Hebrew verb forms can be used to create a chain which expresses purpose, another for consecutive commands, and another, as in this case, a series of consecutive past events. The verb chain that is used to denote consecutive past events is sometimes set up with the qatal verb form I just mentioned followed by a chain of vayyiqtol form verbs. In Gen 1:2-3 we have one finite qatal verb, it’s the “was” of “the earth was formless and void.” Verse 3 then begins with a wayyiqtol verb which starts the chain of events in the rest of this narrative section. So here in Gen 1:2-3 we have a verb chain made up of a qatal (v. 1) plus a vayyiqtol (vv. 2 and following) that sets up a series of consecutive past events. This is one of a few very important structures for Hebrew narrative.
Maybe this will help you picture what’s going on grammatically, the grammar divides this text into three main parts (here it corresponds to the versification) that are somehow related:
1:1-part 1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:2-part 2: Now the earth was [qatal] formless and void and darkness [was] over the surface of the deep and the spirit/wind of God was-hovering [participial] over the face of the waters—
1:3-part 3: God said [vayyiqtol], … God saw, … God divided, … God called, … and there was, …
We have two basic questions at this point. The first question deals with how Gen 1:2 (the qatal portion of the sequence) relates to the stream of action that follows (the series of vayyiqtol verbs). The second question deals with how Gen 1:1, which stands outside the verb chain altogether, fits in with the rest of the narrative.
Question 1: Background for the Action
The first thing to point out is that the standard word order in a Hebrew sentence is verb then subject. However, in Gen 1:2 we have just exactly what we find in English, that is, subject then verb. What does that mean? It means that if we translate the sentence as “the earth was formless and void” then we’ve translated using the normal English construction which is noun then verb. But in Hebrew we do not have the normal construction. That would miss some of the meaning of the sentence so we have to add something to our translation.
I’ve added the word “now” because what frequently happens with verb chains of this nature is that the qatal portion of the verb chain explains the state of affairs that serves as the background to the string of past action that follows. This exact same construction is found in Gen 3:1, 4:1, 16:1, 21:1, 24:1, 39:1, and 43:1, as well as some other places in Genesis as we will see later. These similar structures are important because even though this is not the only way new narratives are begun in Genesis, it is a common and important way.
It’s interesting that in the ESV, the translation reflects the qatal-wayyiqtol structure by starting the narrative with “now” (e.g. “Now the serpent was…”) in each of these cases except in 1:2 and 21:1 (but these should also include the “now” if the translation were to be completely consistent). Also in every one of these cases you see that the qatal portion provides necessary information for the narrative events that follow. You need this background information in order to get up to speed so you can “jump on the narrative train.”
So that is my explanation of how Gen 1:2 fits together with the narrative that follows in Gen 1:3-2:3; it provides the necessary background information to help us understand what’s happening when the narrated events pick up in 1:3. In my opinion this is the best explanation because it follows a standard Hebrew verb sequence and is a standard way of starting narrative texts within the book of Genesis.
Question 2: Heading for the Narrative
The next question is how Gen 1:1 fits together with the narrative that follows. Remember that this clause is outside the standard verb sequence or chain that commonly forms narrative texts in Hebrew and in Genesis in particular. I think the best way to understand what’s going on here is to look at how the structure of Genesis as a whole works.
Most commentators recognize that the book of Genesis is structured by the phrase “these are the generations of …” This phrase occurs in Gen 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, and 37:2. In every case this phrase serves as the heading for the material that follows. This phrase gives the whole book a sort of genealogical structure with 11 plus 1 parts. Sometimes the material that follows is a genealogy, as in Gen 5, and sometimes it is a narrative, as in Gen 3-4. Since the first heading “these are the generations” occurs in Gen 2:4, that leaves Gen 1:1-2:3 as a sort of prologue (that’s the 1 of 11+1). But it has no “these are the generations” heading. True, but it is not entirely without a heading if we see Gen 1:1 serving in this role.
The purpose of genealogies is not just to trace blood lines but to trace things like origins, rights, privileges, responsibilities, or obligations. The “generations” structure of Genesis traces all of these things back to the original creation rest because of the first heading “these are the generations of the heavens and the earth,” but it does not trace our lineage back to “these are the generations of God.” That would be my hypothetical heading if Gen 1:1 had the same type of heading as the rest of the book. But it doesn’t have that heading because that would be blasphemous. So it makes sense first that Gen 1:1-2:3 has a heading and second that it is different than the other headings.
But what about the structure of Gen 1:1-3? Is it similar to that of the other texts that start with the “these are the generations” headings?
When we look at the other headings that are followed by narratives we find that 1:1-3 has a grammatical structure similar to four of the passages directly following “these are the generations” headings (2:4-6, 6:9-12, 36:1-4, and 37:2). All but one of the other headings are followed by actual genealogies, not narratives (Gen5:1, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 36:9—though even two of these resemble the structure I’ve described above). The final heading in Gen 25:19 is followed by a grammatical structure that is also a common Hebrew verb sequence that begins narrative texts.
The point of all this is simply to say that it looks quite plausible, even probable, that Gen 1:1 serves as a header for the narrative text we find in Gen 1:1-2:3. That means we can modify the summary I showed earlier and make it look like this:
Title: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
When this account of events starts the earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God was hoveringover the face of the waters. At that time God said [vayyiqtol], … God saw, … God divided, … God called, … and there was, …
Relating the Grammar to the Possibility of a Gap
With regard to a gap, you’ll notice right off that there does actually seem to be room for one between Gen 1:1 and 1:2 (or 1:2 and 1:3) as some people have argued. However, as to whether the text teaches that there is a gap or not, the interpretation I’ve put forward doesn’t make it explicit. In fact, I would say that the text according to this reading is completely agnostic with respect to there being or not being a gap. In other words, there is room for a gap, but the text doesn’t teach that there is a gap.
Is that a big deal? I think so. The reason is that a lot of people who support the idea of a gap aren’t just arguing that there is room for a gap; they are arguing that the text teaches that there is a gap. They don’t want to be accused of shaping their understanding of Scripture based on scientific (spit twice between your fingers, pound your chest) data (that has imbibed the atheistic presuppositions of our modern society).
This is the bottom line: this text doesn’t in any way give any indication as to whether there is or is not a gap. So if I get to keep score (and I do) it will look like this:
Old earth: 0+1-1=0
Young earth: 0
In my opinion, the next post is where it gets good. In the next post we start getting down to what this text is trying to tell us. If you’re disappointed in this week’s scoring, maybe you’ll take heart at next week’s results:
Old earth: 0
Young earth: 0-1+1=0