Ex Materia or Ex Nihilo? Creation in Genesis 1:1-2

Exactly what took place “in the beginning” has been the subject of considerable controversy across the life of the text of Genesis. Did God create out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), thereby bringing existence into being from non-being? Or does the text depict God as creating out of pre-existing materials (creatio ex materia)? Whatever we conclude, careful attention to grammar and syntax, comparison to other Ancient Near Eastern cosmological worldviews, and the theological assumptions we import to the text can make all the difference. With this in mind, I have compiled 40 quotations from a variety of highly-reputable academic sources from both within and without the Judeo-Christian tradition commenting on whether the creation account of Genesis 1:1-2 truly represents a creatio ex nihilo and why it matters.

Unless otherwise noted, all emphasis within the quotes is my own. I highly encourage you to dive into any of these works if you are able. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ideas, arguments, and claims made below.

“The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that 1:1-2 describe primeval chaos — a world that is “unformed and void,” containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1-2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a myth about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world. Only upon its completion is this structure “very good.”

Marc Zvi Brettler, “How to Read the Jewish Bible” (Oxford University Press, 2007), 41

“Whatever the origin of the Adam and Eve story, it stands in sharp contrast to the Priestly account of creation that now forms the opening chapter of the Bible. The opening verse (Gen 1:1) is majestic in its simplicity: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Originally, the Hebrew was written without vowels. The vowels were added later as points above and below the consonants. The consonantal text can also be translated as: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. . . .” The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, similarly begins with a temporal clause. (There is another possible reflection of the Babylonian myth in Gen 1:2. The Hebrew word for “the deep” [tehom] is a cognate of the name of the Babylonian monster Tiamat in Enuma Elish.) If the opening words are translated as a temporal clause, it is clear that we are not speaking of creation out of nothing. Already when God set about creating the heavens and the earth, there was a formless void (tohu wabohu), and the wind or spirit of God was hovering over the waters. God proceeds to bring order out of chaos simply by uttering commands.

John J. Collins, “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books” (Fortress Press, 2018), 79

“The biblical accounts of the creation of the world have their background in ancient Near Eastern mythology, in which creation is often depicted as the deity’s victory over the forces of chaos, represented by threatening waters, as a result of which the god is established as a supreme king. A large number of references show that this concept was well-known in Israel also. … Although the watery chaos is still there [in Genesis 1], there is no conflict between it and God, as in the ancient myth. God creates in unfettered freedom by his word or command, and creation is brought about by the separation of the elements of the universe, which produces an ordered and habitable world. Hence creation is not so much dealing with absolute beginning, creation from nothing — though this idea appears later, as in 2 Maccabees 7:28 — as with the world order as perceived by human beings.”

J. R. Porter, “Creation” in “The Oxford Guide to the Bible,” ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 1993),

“It is widely agreed that Genesis 1:1-2 constitutes a remarkable premise for creation, namely, that disordered chaos (expressed in Hebrew onomatopoetically as tohu wabohu) was already “there” as God began to create. That is, God did not create “from nothing,” but God’s act of creation consists in the imposition of a particular order upon that mass of undifferentiated chaos. For much of the Bible, the energy of chaos (antiform) continues to operate destructively against the will of the Creator, and sometimes breaks out destructively beyond the bounds set by the decree of the Creator. It is an interesting example of “imaginative remembering” that much later, in 2 Maccabees 7:28, the tradition finally asserts “creation out of nothing,” a view that since then has predominated in later church traditions of theological interpretation.”

Walter Brueggemann, “An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 54

“Overall, however, the Priestly cosmogony does not exemplify a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, “creation out of nothing.” Syntactically, the first verse of Genesis is a dependent clause (“When God began to create the heavens and the earth . . .”) rather than a complete sentence (i.e., “God created the heavens and the earth.”) Indeed, the notion of creatio ex nihilo did not clearly emerge as a doctrine until the second century CE (G. May, Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought [tr. A.S. Worrall; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994], 35-38, 62-84). The vigor and intensity with which both modern and ancient commentators have argued opposing positions betrays the fact that more than simply syntactical precision is at stake; deeply conflicting theological convictions underlie the various ways in which God is viewed in relation to the cosmos. For the Priestly author, however, the preexistence of chaos in no way intrudes on or limits God’s transcendent character, but rather underlines the divine role as the creative orderer of the cosmos. Whereas God is comfortable with preexistent “chaos” in the Priestly cosmogony, many modern interpreters are not.”

William P. Brown, “The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible” (Eerdmans, 1999), 40

“It has long been observed that in the contexts of bara no materials for the creative act are ever mentioned, and an investigation of all the passages mentioned above [which use the Hebrew word bara] substantiate this claim. How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that bara implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that “create” is a material activity. To expand their reasoning for clarity’s sake here: Since “create” is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the contexts never mention the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e., out of nothing). But one can see that the whole line of reasoning only works if one can assume that bara is a material activity. In contrast, if, as the analysis of objects presented above suggests, bara is a functional activity, it would be ludicrous to expect that materials are being used in the activity. In other words, the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained by indication that bara is not a material activity but a functional one.”

John H. Walton, “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” (IVP Academic, 2009), 42

“Interpreters are accustomed to read the first statement of the creation account in Gen 1:1 as a statement of creatio ex nihilo, or “creation out of nothing,” which presupposes that nothing existed prior to G-d’s creation of the world. In English, Gen 1:1–2 would then read, “in the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void …” But such a statement conflicts with other depictions of creation in the Bible, e.g., Job 38; Ps 74; and Isa 51, which indicate that G-d overcame a chaos monster as part of the process of creation in which a pre-existing world of chaos was brought into order. Close analysis by the medieval biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040–1105) of the initial words of Gen 1:1, beˇre ̄”sˇît ba ̄ra ̄” “lhym, indicate that they cannot be read as “in the beginning G-d created,” because the term beˇre ̄”sˇît is a construct form that lacks a definite article. The verb, ba ̄ra ̄”, cannot be read as a perfect verb, but it must be rendered as an infinitive that forms a construct chain with the terms that precede and follow. Consequently, the verse must be read as, “in (the) beginning of G-d’s creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void …” The result is a statement in which the earth pre-existed creation in a state of chaos that was put into order by G-d. G-d’s act of creation then becomes a model for human action in the world, viz., the task of human beings modeled on G-d becomes one of overcoming chaos in the world and placing the world into order.”

Marvin A. Sweeney, “Genesis in the Context of Jewish Thought” in “The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation,” ed. Craig A. Evans, Joel N. Lohr, and David L. Peterson (Brill, 2012), 661-662

“Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second century c.e. Not only did creatio ex nihilo lack precedent, it stood in firm opposition to all the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. As we have seen, the doctrine was not forced upon the Christian community by their revealed tradition, either in Biblical texts or the Early Jewish interpretation of them. As we will also see it was not a position attested in the New Testament doctrine or even sub-apostolic writings. It was a position taken by the apologists of the late second century, Tatian and Theophilus, and developed by various ecclesiastical writers thereafter, by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Creatio ex nihilo represents an innovation in the interpretive traditions of revelation and cannot be explained merely as a continuation of tradition.”

James N. Hubler, “Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas” (University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 102

“The general Greek understanding of the origins of the world could be summarized as follows. God is not to be thought of as having created the world. Rather, God is to be thought of as an architect, who ordered preexistent matter. … This idea was taken up by most Gnostic writers, who were here followed by individual Christian theologians such as Theophilus of Antioch and Justin Martyr. They professed a belief in preexistent matter, which was shaped into the world in the act of creation. In other words, creation was not ex nihilo …. However, the conflict with Gnosticism forced reconsideration of the issue. In part, the idea of creation from preexistent matter was discredited by its Gnostic association; in part, it was called into question by an increasingly sophisticated reading of the Old Testament creation narratives. Reacting against this Platonic worldview, several major Christian writers of the second and third centuries argued that everything had to be created by God.”

Alister E. McGrath, “Christian Theology: An Introduction” (Blackwell, 3rd ed., 2001), 297-98

“The concept of creatio ex nihilo began to be adumbrated in Christian circles shortly before Galen’s time. The first Christian thinker to articulate the rudiments of a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was the Gnostic theologian Basilides, who flourished in the second quarter of the second century. Basilides worked out an elaborate cosmogony as he sought to think through the implications of Christian teaching in light of the platonic cosmogony. He rejected the analogy of the human maker, the craftsman who carves a piece of wood, as an anthropomorphism that severely limited the power of God. God, unlike mortals, created the world out of ‘non-existing’ matter. He first brought matter into being through the creation of ‘seeds’, and it is this created stuff that is fashioned, according to His will, into the cosmos.”

Gerhard May, “Schoepfung Aus Dem Nichts: Die Entstehung Der Lehre Von Der Creatio Ex Nihilo” (Arbeiten Zur Kirchengeschichte, Vol 48) (Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1978), 63-85 ; as quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, “The Christians as the Romans saw Them” (Yale University Press, 2003), 88–89

“God’s creation as described at the beginning of the Bible is not a creative act out of nothing. The conception of creatio ex nihilo first came to the fore in Hellenistic Judaism (2 Macc. 7:28). After the heading of Gen. 1:1 comes a description of the world before God’s first deed, the generation of light. Three elements characterize the world at this time: tōhû wābōhû (formless and void), ḥōšek (darkness), and tĕhôm (the deep). Present in Mesopotamian myths and even Old Testament texts, this triad alludes to Chaos. The term tĕhôm betrays an inherent conception of Chaos.”

Hermann Spieckermann, “Creation: God and World,” in “The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion,” ed. John Barton (Princeton University Press, 2014), 275

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” On the basis of this well-known rendering, it can be argued that the ancient Israelites believed in creation ex nihilo, that is, creation out of nothing. This happens not to be the case. . . . A stricter, non-interpretive translation of the same verse is “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth,” which indicates that this verse is not a sentence but a circumstantial clause in a long, complicated sentence spread out over three biblical verses. It describes the state of matter in the cosmos before God set about ordering the chaotic mix of darkness, earth, wind, and water to create the heavens and the earth.”

Ziony Zevit, “What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?” (Yale University Press, 2013), 51

“As for the antiquity of the world, it appears that in backward extending eternity, not only did God exist, but so also did the world, although chaotic in structure. Still, it did exist, and the divine creation merely set boundaries and organized the matter in that chaos. This moment of creation, as noted, is none other than the moment of the establishment of God as separate from chaos and as its organizer…Creation is not ex nihilo, but from confusion, from chaos. It is the differentiation of being from confusion, which is not nothingness but a distortion of being, and, retrospectively, it understands this. Language alone is what creates this substance and is capable of making it non-chaotic.

Itzhak Benyamini, “A Critical Theology of Genesis: The Non-Absolute God” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 9-10

“The first primordial material is apparently water, which entails the danger of liquidity. At first, the abyss was water, and water is tohu vavohu, and perhaps the abyss (tehom) is close to vohu.

Water, which is most definitely primordial, is now divided in two: order was created within it, meaning that the beginning of differentiation was within water, between water of one kind and water of another kind. This is an extension of the division between light and darkness. Differentiation is from a single thing to a pair of things: water above and water below, like male and female, like light and darkness, in a binary relation.

This can also be viewed from a slightly different angle: the firmament is a tool of separation, like the essence of light and its function. A tool was created, which enters something in order to divide it in half, and then to commingle with one of the halves. Thus, light separates darkness and becomes half of what was created out of the darkness. The firmament separates water from water and then combines with one half of the water.

This shows that the tools were created ex nihilo (but matter was not created ex nihilo), by bootstrapping, produced by the act of separation that they effectuate. The moment before their creation, they did not exist, but at the moment of their creation, they, in turn, create something else, which is separate from its Other but also from within it. Thus, though slightly differently, creation takes place on the following day as well, when the water within the lower water recedes, and the dry land is revealed. In retrospect, it may be said that the water is a tool of separation not just as material but also because of its liquidity, its flow, which reveals the dry land …. It was stated that the earth already existed, but now we hear that it was created. This is because earth was no longer the confused reality that it was at first. Now it is the name erets (land), which was given to yabasha (dry land), in that it is distinct from water.”

“The rivers were not created by God. They existed before creation. They surround the earth and irrigate it. Like God and Adam, they are partners in the work of creation (which is fertilizing and irrigating, and not creation ex nihilo).”

Itzhak Benyamini, “A Critical Theology of Genesis: The Non-Absolute God” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 14-15, 27

“It is, indeed, in the context of the struggle against Gnosticism that many scholars locate the emergence of the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Certainly, the way Theophilus interprets Genesis would have served him well in his struggle against Gnosticism, and it may well be that struggle that led him to see the significance of creation ex nihilo. For the critical role of creation ex nihilo in the thought of Theophilus (and Tertullian) needs some explanation: the older apologist Justin seems much close to traditional Platonism with his assertion that God created the cosmos out of “unformed matter” (1 Apol. 10, cf. 59).”

Andrew Louth, “The Fathers on Genesis,” in “The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation,” ed. Craig A. Evans, Joel N. Lohr, and David L. Peterson (Brill, 2012), 566

“There is not an initial conflict and combat between the creator God and the watery forces of chaos….Nevertheless, the primordial sea, תהום, which alludes to Tiamat, and over whose waters the spirit of God purposefully hovers, is there before creation begins (Gen 1:2). And after the creation of light on the first day, which makes the counting off of the seven days of creation possible, God’s first act of creation is to divide the primordial sea in half and to place a firmament in between to keep the halves separate (Gen 1:6–7). The primordial sea, in Genesis as in Enuma Elish, preexist creation, and the initial stages of creation consist of the creator dividing the primordial waters to create a tripartite world, with the celestial waters above, the infernal waters below, and the earth in between.”

Paul K. -K Cho, “Myth, History, and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible” (Cambridge University Press, 2019) 79

1: A tradition over two millennia old sees 1.1 as a complete sen­tence: “In the beginning God cre­ated the heavens and the earth.” In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a tem­poral clause. This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin—including the one that starts at 2-4b. Hence the translation, “When God began to cre­ate heaven and earth.” 2: This clause describes things just before the process of creation began. To mod­ern people, the opposite of the cre­ated order is “nothing,” that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the oppo­site of the created order was some­ thing much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force we can best term “chaos.” In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water. In 1.9, God creates the dry land (and the Seas, which can exist only when water is bounded by dry land). But in 1.1-2.3, water it­self and darkness, too, are primordial (contrast Isa. 45.7). In the midrash, Bar Kappara upholds the troubling notion that the Torah shows that God created the world out of preexistent material. But other rabbis worry that acknowl­edging this would cause people to liken God to a king who had built his palace on a garbage dump, thus arrogantly impugning His majesty (Gen. Rab. 1.5). In the an­cient Near East, however, to say that a deity had subdued chaos is to give him the highest praise.”

John D. Levenson, “Introduction and Annotations to Genesis” in “The Jewish Study Bible,” ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Jewish Publication Society: Oxford University Press, 1999) 13

“In its cosmology—that is, its understanding of the structure and different parts of the universe—this account of the creation conforms to that generally current in the ancient Near East. (In some OT passages this cosmology is described in more detail.) The pre-existent watery waste (1:1–2) was divided into two by the creation of a solid dome or vault (the sky, 1:6–8), so that there was water both above and below it. The lower mass of water was then confined to a limited area, the sea, revealing the dry land, which God called ‘the earth’ (1:9–10). (According to Gen 7:11 the sky had ‘windows’ which when opened allowed the rain to fall.) The heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars, moved across the vault of the sky, giving light and following a prescribed programme (1:14–18)….

….1:2 refers to the situation before God’s creative action began. There is no question here of a creatio ex nihilo, a ‘creation out of nothing’. The earth (h ̄aʾ ̄ares) already existed, but it was a ‘formless void’ (t ̄ohˆu w ̄ab ̄ohˆu)—not a kind of non-existence but something empty and formless, without light and covered by the water of the deep (t ̆ehˆom). There are echoes here of the Near-Eastern cosmologies. The word rˆuah, rendered by ‘wind’ in NRSV, can also mean ‘spirit’ (see NRSV marg.). Whichever is the correct interpretation, NRSV’s ‘swept’ is a participle, denoting a continuous action; it should perhaps be rendered ‘was hovering’.”

R. N. Whybray, “Genesis” in “The Oxford Bible Commentary: The Pentateuch,” ed. John Muddiman and John Barton (Oxford University Press, 2001) 58-59

“Since we are told that the darkness, which was spread over everything, was ‘upon the face of the deep,’ it follows that the water of the deep formed the uppermost layer, which was in direct contact with the surrounding darkness; this agrees with the specific statement in Psa. civ 6: ‘Thou didst cover it’ [mas.] ‘with the deep as with a garment’ (the Targum and other ancient versions read, ‘Thou didst cover her,’ that is, Thou didst cover the earth with the waters of the deep); ‘the waters stood above the mountains.’ Just as the potter, when he wishes to fashion a beautiful vessel, takes first of all a lump of clay, and places it upon his wheel in order to mould it according to his wish, so the Creator first prepared for Himself the raw material of the universe with a view to giving it afterwards order and life. In this chaos of unformed matter, the heaviest materials were naturally at the bottom, and the waters, which were the lightest, floated on top. This apart, the whole material was an undifferentiated, unorganized, confused and lifeless agglomeration. It is this terrestrial state that is called  תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ tohu and bohu.

As for the earth, it was tohu and bohu,’ that is to say, the unformed material from which the earth was to be fashioned was at the beginning of its creation in a state of tohu and bohu, to wit, water above and solid matter beneath, and the whole a chaotic mass, without order or life.”

Umberto Cassuto, “A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part I” (Varda Books, 2005) 22-23

“On the first three days God creates the major domains of the cosmos by creating new things and using them to separate the primeval materials of chaos…. “In the beginning when God created,” or “When God began to create.” The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshot) required a dependent relation—it is the “beginning of” something–and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when the details of classical Hebrew grammar had been forgotten. The idea of creatio ex nihlo is dependent on the later rendering. The original grammar, creation is a process of ordering and separation that begins with preexisting chaotic matter. This distinctive clause portrays the primordial state as a dark, watery chaos, an image similar to the primordial state in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek traditions. Unlike those other traditions, the chaos here is not a god or gods, but mere matter. The wind from God (verse 2) is the only divine substance and seems to indicate the incipient ordering of this chaos.”

Ronald Hendel, “Genesis” in “The HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Edition,” ed. Harold Attridge et al. (Society of Biblical Literature: HarperOne, 2006), 5

“At this point we must address another difficulty posed by Genesis 1:1-3, perhaps a more profound one: does Genesis 1:2 describe primordial elements, such as darkness and abyss, which existed before creation? How are these elements related to God, i. e., are they eternal, coexistent with God, or were these elements created by God? The wording of the biblical verses does not give us a reason for choosing the latter. To be sure, the belief in primordial elements from which the Cosmos has emerged, or was created, is shared by many cultures. Yet, the idea that primordial elements coexisted with God (from which it follows that God was not the only eternal entity before Creation) may be potentially more problematic for a monotheistic religion. The author of Genesis, however, does not give us a clue about the way in which he coped with this subtle theological question, if he recognized it at all.” 

Menahem Kister, “Tohu wa-Bohu, Primordial Elements and Creatio ex Nihilo” in Jewish Studies Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Mohr Siebeck, 2007),  241

“The account of creation in Gen 1 depicts God bringing order to the chaos of a primordial earth. While Genesis 1:1 and Hebrews 11:3 support the idea that in the very beginning, God created matter out of nothing, the concept of creatio ex nihilo is not explicitly stated in the Bible. Given this, the potential ambiguity of interpretation in Gen 1:1–2 is often used to suggest that God was working with pre-existing raw materials. However, the emphasis on God alone acting to create the cosmos makes a powerful assertion about the nature of creation and the uniqueness of God. The biblical writers were not concerned with the question of where matter ultimately came from. Their appeal to God as creator was designed to enhance His sovereignty, not explain the origin of the universe. The explicit doctrine of creation from nothing developed in early Christianity in opposition to philosophical ideas about the eternal nature of matter.” 

Douglas Mangum, Miles Custis, and Wendy Widder, “Genesis 1-11” (Lexham Research Commentaries; Lexham Press, 2012), Ge 1:1-2:3

“It is in any case a mistake to coerce an ancient text to conform to what is essentially a philosophical and theological theory. As we read on, we see that the author is thinking of creation as the production out of chaos of an ordered, liveable environment for the human race. A creation account is necessarily narrative, and it is characteristic of narrative that one event follows another. Creation follows chaos, but chaos is logically rather than chronologically prior to order. We shall see how the description of the great deluge as an event of un-creation reveals that chaos is a recurring possibility; it is inseparably constituent of physical reality. In this respect, therefore, Genesis 1 follows the same pattern as the Mesopotamian and Greek myths of origin. Unlike Enuma Elish and creation myths originating in Canaan, however, the biblical version does not represent creation as the sequel to a victory of the Creator Deity over the forces of chaos, not explicitly at any rate, but the holding in check of life-threatening forces—chaos, darkness, the storm wind. If we wish, we may read this as the first victory in a war which is destined to be prolonged as long as humanity lasts.” 

Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11” (T&T Clark, 2011), 30-31

“As we proceed with Genesis 1, the reader notices the appearance of several refrains. For each act of creation (one per day on days one, two, four, and five; two per day on days three and six) the text begins with the phrase וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים wayyo’mer ‘elohim ‘and God said’. Next, once the desired act is accomplished, the text informs us that God saw כִּי־טוֹב ki tob ‘that it was good’ (vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). And then finally, we read for each day of creation ‎וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר wahi ‘ereb wayhi boqer ‘and I was evening and it was morning’, plus the appropriately numbered days of creation (vv. 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).

Except wait—the second of these refrains does not occur on day two! And so again the reader of this text must ponder a question, not a linguistic anomaly, but rather a literary curiosity. Why would the author of our text have omitted mention of the fact that God saw the creation of the רָקִיעַ raqia’ ‘firmament’ (named more simply שָׁמַיִם šamayim ‘ski, heaven’; see v. 8) as good? The answer lies in the fact that the object of God’s creative activity on day two was the water. A close reading of vv. 1-3 (especially v. 2) reveals that water was preexistent matter, in the form of the deep (Hebrew תְהוֹם tɘhom)—which is to say, water is never created in Genesis 1, but rather is the dominant presence on the earth, comprised of תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ tohu wa-bohu ‘wild and waste’ (v. 2). This water, in turn, represents the cosmic sea or abyss, which in other ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies (most famously, the Babylonian story Enuma Elish) is symbolized by an evil deity (for example, the goddess Tiamat in said story [note that Babylonian Tiamat is cognate with to Hebrew תְהוֹםtɘhom ‘deep, abyss’, which, notwithstanding the lack of a feminine ending, is a feminine noun in Hebrew). In short, water, in the form of the salt water that cover the surface of the earth, is seen as an evil force. After all, this salt water is of no use: one cannot drink it, one’s animals will not drink it, and one cannot irrigate with it. In addition, the ocean is a potent force, which can wreck ships and destroy coastlines; most of us have witnessed the stormy sea and know its destructive power, and thus can understand why the ancients envisaged the watery mass in a negative light.”

Gary A. Rendsburg, “How the Bible is Written” (Hendrickson Publishers, 2019), 16-17

“The very existence of pre-existing elements, such as light, darkness, chaos, void, water, wind, and the deep, raise doubts about the singularity of God’s accomplishment. Yet there is no explicit mention of the creation of these elements in the account of Creation.

To demonstrate that God did indeed create these elements. Rabbi Gamaliel in Genesis Rabbah provides prooftexts to show that all seven were created, such as in Isaiah 45:7, where God says, “I form light and create darkness.” However, this proof raises as many questions as it resolves. The use of the verb “form” (yotzer) for the creation of light and “create” (boret) for the creation of darkness is significant. Something that is formed already exists, while something that is created is brought into being. This seems to hint that light pre-existed.”

Howard Schwartz, “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 2004), 73

This text does not narrate a creatio ex nihilo, as it can later be found in Judaism and Christianity. Quite the contrary, it emphasizes the fact that God did not create the darkness, symbol of evil, nor the tehom, i.e., the waters symbolizing chaos and darkness (that may allude to the sea serpent Tiamat who Marduk, according to the epic Enuma Elish, has to kill before creating the world and humankind). In Genesis 1, Elohim  integrates these things in his creation by transforming them (pushing back the waters and brightening up the darkness), but darkness and chaos are not “good” (on the first day of creation, only the light is characterized as “good”; Gen 1:4) “

Thomas Römer, “The Origin and the Status of Evil According to the Hebrew Bible,” in “Die Wurzel allen Übels Vorstellungen über die Herkunft des Bösen und Schlechten in der Philosophie und Religion des 1.–4. Jahrhunderts,” ed. F. Jourdan and R. Hirsch-Luipold (Ratio Religionis Studien III; Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 57)

“The root בָּרָא, Genesis 1, or creation by the word (contra Foerster) cannot explicitly communicate a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

William A. VanGemeren (Ed.) “New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis: Vol. 1 (Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 732

“If this is correct—and there is no other convincing attempt to trace the derivation of ברא—then the Priestly ברא is based on a concrete idea, something like יצר. We do not know if the word was used of creation by God in this concrete sense before Deutero-Isaiah and P. One must be cautious about attributing too much to the word as if it could of itself say something about the uniqueness of the creative act of God. It is clear that it was P’s intention to use a special theological word for creation by God. But it is not correct to regard this word as the only one and to neglect such words as עשׂה or יצר. Nor is it correct to read creatio ex nihilo out of the word as such as, for example, does P. Heinisch: “If not always, then for the most part, the word indicates creatio ex nihilo.” On the other hand A. Heidel is correct: “This concept (creatio ex nihilo), however, cannot be deduced from the Hebrew verb bārāʾ, to create, as it has been done.… There is no conclusive evidence in the entire Old Testament that the verb itself ever expresses the idea of a creation out of nothing,”

Claus Westermann “Genesis 1–11: A Commentary”  (Augsburg Publishing House, 1987), 99-100

“Corresponding to תהו ובהו, the [Septuagint] translator wrote ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος ‘unseen and unorganized.” Scholars have noted that ἀόρατος is a distinctive philosophical term in Greek, used by Plato to denote the “unseen” preexisting world of ideas (Sophist 246a״ c; Theaetatus 155e; Timaeus 51a; see Hanhart 1992: 367; Harl 1986: 87; Rosel 1994: 31). This choice of a Greek equivalent expresses something of Platonic cosmology in biblical guise, perhaps joining the cosmologies of Plato and Moses, as was a commonplace in Hellenistic Jewish thought, particularly in Alexandria. Hence, we may have a glimpse of the Hellenistic conceptual world of the [Septuagint] translator via the translation of this obscure Hebrew phrase. Note that the phrase is rendered in two words joined with a conjunction, exactly like the Hebrew Vorlage. But within the constraints of a literal translation, something of contemporary Platonic cosmology may shine through.

Ronald S. Hendel, “The Text of Genesis 1-11” (Oxford University Press, 1998), 19

“One apparent abstraction may not be one. The first Hebrew word, usually translated “in the beginning,” poses a somewhat esoteric and difficult problem of grammar. The way the word is written, it says not “in the beginning” but “in beginning of,” the natural continuation of which would be “Elohîm’s creating.” That requires modifying the traditional written form of the verb “create,” which for those who know Hebrew is in a perfect tense, the masculine singular bara’. Along with a number of others, I have translated it as, “When Elohîm began to create,” a more English way of saying, “In the beginning of Elohîm’s creating,” making the verb “create” by a change of vowels into an infinitive form, berō’….

…It seems clear that the storytellers were not thinking of what later philosophical and theological traditions, speaking Latin as they often did, called creatio ex nihilo, “creation from nothing,” namely, that the creator was not working with preexisting stuff. But in this story, something was there—the empty, shapeless “earth,” darkness, the “abyss,” the wind across waters. The latter is, by the way, I’m convinced, really wind, Elohîm’s wind. Most Christian translations turn the word into “spirit,” often capitalized. That strikes me as deciding on the basis of Christian Trinitarian theology a translation of what the biblical text—the basis of Christian theology, if theologians are to be believed—says and means. I’m not satisfied to do that. The theology needs to be based on what the text says as it says it—which does not ease theology’s job (but theology is not my job). The verb for the wind’s action, which I have translated “swept,” has sometimes been rendered as “brooded.” It’s an interesting image, but the verb is rare enough not to allow very wide interpretive boundaries.”

Edwin M. Good, “Genesis I-II: Tales of the Earliest World” (Stanford University Press, 2011) 11-12

“Although an impressive sequence of divine fiats – “Let there be . . . and it was so” – runs through Genesis 1, creation is not through fiat alone, but also substantially through fashioning. The overall picture is that of God as a craftsman fashioning initially shapeless material into something pleasing that evokes his delight in his handiwork – hence the repeated pronouncement that what has been made is “good,” and indeed, when taken as a whole, “very good” (Gen 1:31). Elsewhere, the Old Testament not infrequently depicts God as a potter who works with clay, fashioning not only humans but also the course of events. Although this is not the image used in Genesis 1, and other images may implicitly be present, there is nonetheless a real analogy in terms of the fashioning of something of value and delight out of material that is initially shapeless and barren and lacking in the qualities that the craftsman imparts to it.

Whatever one’s decision as to the best construal of the grammar and structure of 1:1–3,7 the picture of the initial state of the earth in 1:2 is clear: The earth is entirely covered with water in a situation of complete darkness.” 

R. W. L. Moberly, “The Theology of the Book of Genesis” (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 43-44

“The first sentence of Genesis has often been translated: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” This traditional version seems a clear statement of the doctrine—now held by all monotheists—that God created our world out of nothing: apart from God there originally existed no other substance. But in his recent translation of Genesis, Everett Fox points out that the sentence could also read:

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste [tohu va-vohu],
darkness over the face of Ocean,
breath of God hovering over the face of the waters,
God said: Let there be light!

The New Revised Standard Version has also chosen to interpret the verse in this way. This reading presents a very different view of the creative process. God did not make the world out of nothing, since the waste of chaos and the primal sea were already in existence, and God merely imposed order upon the tohu va-vohu, using this intractable stuff as the raw materials of the universe. The question of which reading is correct may prove impossible finally to resolve. Right from the start, therefore, Genesis implies that we will find no clear-cut doctrinal statements in its pages. Also, one of these interpretations, at least, challenges one of our most basic religious beliefs, by suggesting that God was not responsible for the creation of primal matter. The fact that the Bible begins with a sentence that can be—and has been—read in two different ways warns us that we will often have to struggle to make sense of Genesis. We are dealing with ineffable matters, and a wholly straightforward style may not always be appropriate.

Karen Armstrong, “In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis” (Ballentine Books: Random House Publishing, 1996) 10-11 [e-book version]

“Genesis apparently is not describing creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing (Sacks, 4; Scullion, 16; however, Jacob, 1, does hold for creation from nothing; and Wenham, 14, is circumspect: “The phraseology leaves the author’s precise meaning uncertain”).

The primary transition is not from nothingness to being but from chaos to order. The creation process begins with something like a formless waste: tōhû . . .bōhû. The first word, tōhû, suggests something shapeless, formless, uninhabitable; and it may also be related etymologically to tĕhôm, “the deep” (Clifford, 2:4). Bōhû, in rhyming with tōhû—forming an assonant hendiadys—simply reinforces its effect. The text may also be read as referring primarily to emptiness: the earth is “an empty place. . . unproductive. . . uninhabited” (Tsumura, 1994a, 328).”

Thomas L. Bodie, “Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary” (Oxford University Press, 2001), 133

“That God created the world out of nothing seems the most natural way of reading the opening chapter of Genesis. However, as May himself rightly stresses, we must exercise caution when we come across the statement that God created the world out of nothing. Early sources in which this statement is found may merely express the idea of God’s omnipotence. In such cases creatio ex nihilo in its technical sense is not in play. This is generally believed to have resulted from the debate between pagans and Christians in the second century CE—which makes Galen an important witness. Indeed, it seems to have been designed in conscious opposition to a fundamental assumption of the Greek philosophical tradition (cf. also Dillon, this volume, §2). From Parmenides (fifth century BCE) onward it had been axiomatic for Greek philosophers that nothing comes into being from not-being. Accordingly, Plato in his extremely influential Timaeus pictures the divine Craftsman (‘Demiurge’) as bringing order to a pre-existing entity called the ‘Receptacle’ or ‘Mother of Becoming’ or ‘the Place’, which was soon identified by Plato’s readers with Aristotle’s material cause (see below, p. 133). This entity prevents God’s best intentions from being completely realized, thereby explaining such imperfections as remain in a cosmos marked by overall purposefulness and beauty. From the Judaeo-Christian point of view, however, the postulate of the Receptacle goes against divine omnipotence. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, then, seems to be intended as the exact counterpart of the Platonic and other Greek accounts of creation that were based on the axiom that being cannot come from not-being.”

Teun Tieleman, “Galen and Genesis” in “The Creation of Heaven and Earth: Re-interpretations of Genesis 1 in the Context of Judaism, Ancient Philosophy, Christianity, and Modern Physics” (Brill, 2005), 126-127

“What little was known about the universe in the early Middle Ages included the idea that it was created in toto in a supernatural act rather than shaped out of some pre-existing state of matter. It was a true creatio ex nihilo. Given that this is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and in view of the overwhelming impact of Christian thought on cosmology through a large part of history, it is not irrelevant to repeat that creatio ex nihilo is nowhere explicitly stated in the Bible, neither in the Old nor in the New Testament. It is a doctrine not to be found in the earliest form of Christianity, when the form of creation was rarely a matter of discussion. Only in the second half of the second century can the doctrine be found in its strict sense, as an ontological and theological statement that expresses the contingence of the creation and the omnipotence and absolute freedom of God.

St. Augustine went a step further by arguing that cosmic creation did not only mean that God caused the universe to exist, but also that creation was timeless and implied a continual existence of the world. He may have been the first to state that, paradoxically, the created universe has always existed. When the doctrine of creation out of nothing was first formulated, it quickly became accepted as almost self-evident. Church fathers of the third century, such as Tertullian, Hippolytes, and Origen, all found creatio ex nihilo to be a fundamental doctrine that must necessarily be true. When it was officially accepted by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, it had been widely adopted for a millennium.”

Helge S. Krach, “Conceptions of Cosmos—From Myths to the Accelerating Universe:
A History of Cosmology” (Oxford University Press, 2007), 33

“To rabbinic Judaism the questions raised by Greek ontology were relatively remote. But the chief reason why it did not come to the formation of a specific doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is to be seen in the fact that it was not demanded by the text of the Bible. The mention of chaos in Genesis 1:1 could also support the view that an eternal material existed, which God had merely ordered in creating the world. Jewish thought is in its entire essence undogmatic; in the question of the creation of the world it did not find itself tied down by the statements in the Bible and so possessed wide room for manoeuvre for highly variant speculations on creation. It was left for the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages to develop in controversy with Arabic neoplatonism and Aristotelianism a specific doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. But even then this did not achieve sole validity, but the biblical statements about creation continued to be interpreted in various ways.”

Gerhard May, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought” (T&T Clark International, 2004), 24-25

“The story in Gen. 1.1–2.3 is a priestly document. It does not relate a creatio ex nihilo but describes the ordering of a chaotic cosmos. The narrative distinguishes between works of separation (days 1–3) and works of furnishment (days 4–6).”

Robert Crotty, “Creation” in “A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations” ed. Edward Kessler and Neil Wenborn (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 111-112

“Galen (129–c.211) was the first to indicate that the view of creation had to be altered to take into account Christian views of God, leading to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.”

James K. Aitken, “Ancient Authors” in “A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations” ed. Edward Kessler and Neil Wenborn (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 15

“The so-called priestly creation story, Genesis 1:1–2:4a, is also a contested text. The consensus among scholars (with which I agree) is that the first three verses depict God forming the world out of preexistent matter….We must recall that creatio ex nihilo is a doctrine that arises in a Greco-Roman environment. That is, it arose in a world in which the eternity of matter implied that the gods were constrained by its limitations when they created the world. But this particular problem is not something that the biblical writer ever faced or could even imagine.

This is an important clarification to make because many commentators make the strong claim that Genesis 1 refutes the doctrine. But if we are pursuing this question strictly from the perspective of what our textual witnesses allow, it would be fairer to say that God does not face any opposition to his creative endeavors as is the rule in the ancient Near East. True, matter is preexistent, but one must concede that this datum means something quite different when we import it into a Greco- Roman environment. For there the issue of preexistent matter connotes a significant qualification of divine power.”

Gary A. Anderson, “Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges” ed. Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl (University of Notre Dame Press, 2018) 16, 19

“Ancient Israel regarded history as unique, deriving form the foundational and unrepeatable divine act of being rescued in Egypt. Except in Ecclesiastes, time was not considered having relative beginnings. Thus while Genesis I does not insist on creatio ex nihilo, it may well assume an absolute Beginning, before which God did not create. Thus the wind, the water, and the darkness could not be conceived as that which is left over from some prior divine creation. Either they had to be uncreated, alien and impervious to the power of God, brought within God’s dominion by being reconceived as created by God. This would entail a gradual acceptance of creatio ex nihilo….

….we can make a distinction between two types of creator, one of which is compatible with this view of self-creation. Let us call an ‘ontological creator’ one who creates being from nothing; then a ‘cosmological creator’ would be one who is able to bring new order to the work. It may be just as ordered as the present order, but simply a different order, or it may be less ordered than the present order. In any case, however, it cannot be absolute chaos, since it must have a modicum of order if it is to have its own actuality. God is the cosmological creator of this world since his persuasive agency has been primarily responsible in bringing its order into being. We can even say that he brought it into being out go ‘practically nothing’, if we keep the necessary qualifications firmly in mind.

The notion of cosmological creation by divine persuasion may shed new light on the interpretation of Genesis 1. On the traditional interpretation of divine fiat, God’s statements ‘that it was good’ or ‘very good’ (e.g. Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) are very puzzling. Aren’t these at least superfluous? Why should an omnipotent Creator congratulate himself on feats which he should have no difficulty accomplishing? Yet in terms of our alternative, these play an essential role. Here God creates the world the way King Solomon builds the Temple. As King of the Universe he issues the necessary orders. Command is simply that mode of persuasion which is backed by authority. God persuades, but it is up to the world to actualize the divine vision. God’s statements of approval are the marks of divine evaluation on the degree to which the world in its activity of self-creation has actualized these commands.”

Lewis S. Ford, “An Alternative to Creatio ex nihilo” in Religious Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1983) 207, 210

“The notion of chaos indeed poses a particular problem, because Gamaliel’s proof-text does not even contain the word תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (formless void). The only other verse in Scripture where this term appears, Jer 4:23, has not been adduced here, presumably because it refers precisely to the kind of Urchaos which Gamaliel denies. Instead, Isa 45:7 has been chosen where God says “I make peace and create evil.” This proof-text indicates that Gamaliel associates pre-existing material with evil, insisting that this, too, was created by God.

Reading Gamaliel’s proof-texts, one can hardly avoid the impression that he made considerable efforts to prove something from Scripture that cannot be proven. His procedure shows that there is a fundamental gap between his own views and those of the biblical writers. While Gamaliel himself is deeply worries about the prospect of pre-existing matter implies in Gen 1:1-2, the biblical writers remain strikingly indifferent to this issue and formulate no particular teaching on this topic.”

Maren R. Niehoff, “Creatio ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity School, 2006), 47

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