Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible
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Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible
Genesis 1:2

Genesis 1:2 "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

 - II. The Land

היה  hāyah, "be." It is to be noted, however, that the word has three meanings, two of which now scarcely belong to our English "be."

1. "Be, as an event, start into being, begin to be, come to pass." This may be understood of a thing beginning to be, אוריהיyehiy'ôr, "be light" Genesis 1:3; or of an event taking place, ימיםמקץויהיvayehîymîqētsyāmîym, "and it came to pass from the end of days."

2. "Be," as a change of state, "become." This is applied to what had a previous existence, but undergoes some change in its properties or relations; as מלחגציבותהי  vatehîynetsîybmelach, "and she became" a pillar of salt Genesis 19:26.

3. "Be," as a state. This is the ultimate meaning to which the verb tends in all languages. In all its meanings, especially in the first and second, the Hebrew speaker presumes an onlooker, to whom the object in question appears coming into being, becoming or being, as the case may be. Hence, it means to be manifestly, so that eye-witnesses may observe the signs of existence.

ובהוּתהוּtohûvābohû, "a waste and a void." The two terms denote kindred ideas, and their combination marks emphasis. Besides the present passage בהוּ  bohû occurs in only two others Isaiah 34:11; Jeremiah 4:23, and always in conjunction with תהוּ  tohû. If we may distinguish the two words, בהוּ  bohû refers to the matter, and תהוּ  tohû refers to the form, and therefore the phrase combining the two denotes a state of utter confusion and desolation, an absence of all that can furnish or people the land.

השׁך  choshek, "darkness, the absence of light."

פגים  pānîym, "face, surface." פנה  panah, "face, look, turn toward."

תהום  tehôm, "roaring deep, billow." הוּם  hûm, "hum, roar, fret."

רוּח  rûach, "breath, wind, soul, spirit."

רחף  rāchaph, "be soft, tremble." Piel, "brood, flutter."

והארץ  vehā'ārets, "and the earth." Here the conjunction attaches the noun, and not the verb, to the preceding statement. This is therefore a connection of objects in space, and not of events in time. The present sentence, accordingly, may not stand closely conjoined in point of time with the preceding one. To intimate sequence in time the conjunction would have been prefixed to the verb in the form ותהי  vatehîy, "then was."

ארץ  'erets means not only "earth," but "country, land," a portion of the earth's surface defined by natural, national, or civil boundaries; as, "the land of" Egypt, "thy land" (Exodus 23:9-10).

Before proceeding to translate this verse, it is to be observed that the state of an event may be described either definitely or indefinitely. It is described definitely by the three states of the Hebrew verb - the perfect, the current, and the imperfect. The latter two may be designated in common the imperfect state. A completed event is expressed by the former of the two states, or, as they are commonly called, tenses of the Hebrew verb; a current event, by the imperfect participle; an incipient event, by the second state or tense. An event is described indefinitely when there is neither verb nor participle in the sentence to determine its state. The first sentence of this verse is an example of the perfect state of an event, the second of the indefinite, and the third of the imperfect or continuous state.

After the undefined lapse of time from the first grand act of creation, the present verse describes the state of things on the land immediately antecedent to the creation of a new system of vegetable and animal life, and, in particular, of man, the intelligent inhabitant, for whom this fair scene was now to be prepared and replenished.

Here "the earth" is put first in the order of words, and therefore, according to the genius of the Hebrew language, set forth prominently as the subject of the sentence; whence we conclude that the subsequent narrative refers to the land - the skies from this time forward coming in only incidentally, as they bear upon its history. The disorder and desolation, we are to remember, are limited in their range to the land, and do not extend to the skies; and the scene of the creation now remaining to be described is confined to the land, and its superincumbent matter in point of space, and to its present geological condition in point of time.

We have further to bear in mind that the land among the antediluvians, and down far below the time of Moses, meant so much of the surface of our globe as was known by observation, along with an unknown and undetermined region beyond; and observation was not then so extensive as to enable people to ascertain its spherical form or even the curvature of its surface. To their eye it presented merely an irregular surface bounded by the horizon. Hence, it appears that, so far as the current significance of this leading term is concerned, the scene of the six days' creation cannot be affirmed on scriptural authority alone to have extended beyond the surface known to man. Nothing can be inferred from the mere words of Scripture concerning America, Australia, the islands of the Pacific, or even the remote parts of Asia, Africa, or Europe, that were yet unexplored by the race of man. We are going beyond the warrant of the sacred narrative, on a flight of imagination, whenever we advance a single step beyond the sober limits of the usage of the day in which it was written.

Along with the sky and its conspicuous objects the land then known to the primeval man formed the sum total of the observable universe. It was as competent to him with his limited information, as it is to us with our more extensive but still limited knowledge, to express the all by a periphrasis consisting of two terms that have not even yet arrived at their full complement of meaning: and it was not the object or the effect of divine revelation to anticipate science on these points.

Passing now from the subject to the verb in this sentence, we observe it is in the perfect state, and therefore denotes that the condition of confusion and emptiness was not in progress, but had run its course and become a settled thing, at least at the time of the next recorded event. If the verb had been absent in Hebrew, the sentence would have been still complete, and the meaning as follows: "And the land was waste and void." With the verb present, therefore, it must denote something more. The verb היה  hāyâh "be" has here, we conceive, the meaning "become;" and the import of the sentence is this: "And the land had become waste and void." This affords the presumption that the part at least of the surface of our globe which fell within the cognizance of primeval man, and first received the name of land, may not have been always a scene of desolation or a sea of turbid waters, but may have met with some catastrophe by which its order and fruitfulness had been marred or prevented.

This sentence, therefore, does not necessarily describe the state of the land when first created, but merely intimates a change that may have taken place since it was called into existence. What its previous condition was, or what interval of time elapsed, between the absolute creation and the present state of things, is not revealed. How many transformations it may have undergone, and what purpose it may have heretofore served, are questions that did not essentially concern the moral well-being of man, and are therefore to be asked of some other interpreter of nature than the written word.

This state of things is finished in reference to the event about to be narrated. Hence, the settled condition of the land, expressed by the predicates "a waste and a void," is in studied contrast with the order and fullness which are about to be introduced. The present verse is therefore to be regarded as a statement of the needs that have to be supplied in order to render the land a region of beauty and life.

The second clause of the verse points out another striking characteristic of the scene. "And darkness was upon the face of the deep": Here again the conjunction is connected with the noun. The time is the indefinite past, and the circumstance recorded is merely appended to that contained in the previous clause. The darkness, therefore, is connected with the disorder and solitude which then prevailed on the land. It forms a part of the physical derangement which had taken place on this part at least of the surface of our globe.

It is further to be noted that the darkness is described to be on the face of the deep. Nothing is said about any other region throughout the bounds of existing things. The presumption is, so far as this clause determines, that it is a local darkness confined to the face of the deep. And the clause itself stands between two others which refer to the land, and not to any other part of occupied space. It cannot therefore be intended to describe anything beyond this definite region.

The deep, the roaring abyss, is another feature in the pre-Adamic scene. It is not now a region of land and water, but a chaotic mass of turbid waters, floating over, it may be, and partly laden with, the ruins of a past order of things; at all events not at present possessing the order of vegetable and animal life.

The last clause introduces a new and unexpected clement into scene of desolation. The sentence is, as heretofore, coupled to preceding one by the noun or subject. This indicates still a conjunction of things, and not a series of events. The phrase אלהיםרוּח  rûach'ĕlohîym means "the spirit of God," as it is elsewhere uniformly applied to spirit, and as רחף  rîchēp, "brooded," does not describe the action of wind. The verbal form employed is the imperfect participle, and therefore denotes a work in the actual process of accomplishment. The brooding of the spirit of God is evidently the originating cause of the reorganization of things on the land, by the creative work which is successively described in the following passage.

It is here intimated that God is a spirit. For "the spirit of God" is equivalent to "God who is a spirit." This is that essential characteristic of the Everlasting which makes creation possible. Many philosophers, ancient and modern, have felt the difficulty of proceeding from the one to the many; in other words, of evolving the actual multiplicity of things out of the absolutely one. And no wonder. For the absolutely one, the pure monad that has no internal relation, no complexity of quality or faculty, is barren, and must remain alone. It is, in fact, nothing; not merely no "thing," but absolutely naught. The simplest possible existent must have being, and text to which this being belongs, and, moreover, some specific or definite character by which it is what it is. This character seldom consists of one quality; usually, if not universally, of more than one. Hence, in the Eternal One may and must be that character which is the concentration of all the causative antecedents of a universe of things. The first of these is will. Without free choice there can be no beginning of things. Hence, matter cannot be a creator. But will needs, cannot be without, wisdom to plan and power to execute what is to be willed. These are the three essential attributes of spirit. The manifold wisdom of the Eternal Spirit, combined with His equally manifold power, is adequate to the creation of a manifold system of things. Let the free behest be given, and the universe starts into being.

It would be rash and out of place to speculate on the nature of the brooding here mentioned further than it is explained by the event. We could not see any use of a mere wind blowing over the water, as it would be productive of none of the subsequent effects. At the same time, we may conceive the spirit of God to manifest its energy in some outward effect, which may bear a fair analogy to the natural figure by which it is represented. Chemical forces, as the prime agents, are not to be thought of here, as they are totally inadequate to the production of the results in question. Nothing but a creative or absolutely initiative power could give rise to a change so great and fundamental as the construction of an Adamic abode out of the luminous, aerial, aqueous, and terrene materials of the preexistent earth, and the production of the new vegetable and animal species with which it was now to be replenished.

Such is the intimation that we gather from the text, when it declares that "the spirit of God was brooding upon the face of the waters." It means something more than the ordinary power put forth by the Great Being for the natural sustenance and development of the universe which he has called into existence. It indicates a new and special display of omnipotence for the present exigencies of this part of the realm of creation. Such an occasional, and, for ought we know, ordinary though supernatural interposition, is quite in harmony with the perfect freedom of the Most High in the changing conditions of a particular region, while the absolute impossibility of its occurrence would be totally at variance with this essential attribute of a spiritual nature.

In addition to this, we cannot see how a universe of moral beings can be governed on any other principle; while, on the other hand, the principle itself is perfectly compatible with the administration of the whole according to a predetermined plan, and does not involve any vacillation of purpose on the part of the Great Designer.

We observe, also, that this creative power is put forth on the face of the waters, and is therefore confined to the land mentioned in the previous part of the verse and its superincumbent atmosphere.

Thus, this primeval document proceeds, in an orderly way, to portray to us in a single verse the state of the land antecedent to its being prepared anew as a meet dwelling-place for man.

Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible
Previous Part: Genesis 1:1/ Next Part: Genesis 1:3-5

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