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.
With regard to Genesis 1 and the creation of the world, one ancient Jewish sage (in the midrash Genesis Rabbah) asked the question,
Why was the world created with a bet?
He’s referring to the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letter ב or bet, which is the very first letter in the Hebrew Bible (the first word is bereshit or “In the beginning”).
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.
I prefer to stay away from midrashic explanations and stick with grammar and syntax. If we do that, we find there are four views on how the grammar of these first three verses work. I’m not going to go through all four views, 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
Genesis 1:2–3 starts off a typical Hebrew narrative sequence. 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 called 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 express a series of future events. A different verb chain expresses purpose, another a sequence of commands, and another expresses a narrative sequence. In Genesis 1 the series of past events starts in verse three with “And God said...” The next event is “And God saw…” All of these verbs are in another verb conjugation called, the wayyiqtol conjugation.
Interestingly, there is usually a sentence or two that precedes the wayyiqtol verb chain that “sets up” the narrative that is about to start. It gives us a glimpse of the background for the narrative sequence expressed by the wayyiqtol verb chain. This “set-up” text often uses the qatal verb I mentioned earlier. In fact, that’s what we have at the beginning of verse two: “Now the earth was (qatal) formless and void.”
Maybe this will help you picture what’s going on grammatically and syntactically. This text divides into three main parts:
1:1 – ????: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:2 – Background: 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 – Narrative sequence: And God said [wayyiqtol], …
And God saw, …
And God divided, …
And 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 wayyiqtol 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” (see the ESV) then we’ve translated using the normal English construction which is noun then verb. But in Hebrew we do not have the normal construction. So this translation glosses over some of the meaning of the sentence. A better translation will let us know there is non-standard word order in this sentence.
I’ve added the word “now” because this word order is disjunctive. In this case, as I mentioned above, this noun plus qatal verb explains the state of affairs that serves as the background to the narrative sequence that starts in verse 3. This qatal + wayyiqtol chain combination is very common. The 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 …” 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 a 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.
Now the earth was [qatal] formless and void
and darkness was over the surface of the deep
and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said [wayyiqtol], …
And God saw, …
And God divided, …
And God called, …
And there was evening, …
And there was morning…
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 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. It would almost be as if Moses knew that the earth was actually really old and didn’t want to contradict that teaching, so he intentionally constructed the text to leave room for that many billion years of time between the creation of the universe and the creation of our world. But that simply doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in this text. Moses is following 1) the typical pattern for the book according to which every major section has a header and 2) typical Hebrew grammar and syntax for narrative texts.
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. As we continue in this sequence of articles I’ll by trying to show that we simply don’t need a gap.