Genesis 1 is perhaps one of the Bible’s most well-known and quotable opening lines. Many can recite the King James Version, “In the beginning …”. Theologians like to point out the priestly nature of the first chapter of Genesis, how it describes God’s supreme power in the universe and reflects temple imagery elsewhere in Scripture. But, not many people talk about Genesis 1 as an ancient catalog of observations demonstrating an essential grasp of natural science.
In the Hebrew Bible, from which the Old Testament is translated, the opening phrase reads Bereshit bara elohim. This grammatical construction begins with a Hebrew preposition (be) instead of the usual verb. This results in an emphasis on the preposition, which is, in this case, temporal. The translation should read “When in the beginning, …” which is reflected in some English translations, like the Common English Bible (CEB) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and scholarly commentaries. The temporal introduction suggests the biblical narrative interjects ongoing activity.
Why is it controversial? Because it suggests there is something extant before creation, and it threatens some theologies of creation ex nihilo, from nothing. Why does it matter? Conceptually, the text supports the idea that the first words in the biblical account pick up amid life and action. While this might seem strange to modern readers who have already propped up a theological lens of creatio ex nihilo, it was a concept rooted in the most basic ancient understanding of the Universe. According to many ancient creation narratives, divine beings made some order and sense of a chaotic origin. In this way, Genesis 1 looks and sounds like other ancient writings but is unique. It is the Israelites’ story of a unique encounter with a unique God. Genesis 1 describes primitive scientific observations of the world the ancient authors inhabited.
Wiliam P. Brown, in his book The Seven Pillars of Creation, reads Genesis 1 alongside theories of the Big Bang to show alignment between the two observations. The seven days of creation in Genesis 1 are not literal but are used analogously to describe the sequence of how the earth and universe and everything in it came to be. Just like in the Big Bang Theory, Genesis 1 begins with darkness and a chaotic void (tohu wabohu) and then a flash of light. While evolution theories describe this occurrence over billions of years, and the ancient Israelite account uses days to represent passing time, the observations hold as an expression of analysis for what is needed for each phase, i.e., light is necessary for the growth of plants; celestial containment (the firmament) to allow birds to fly, and bodies of water for oceanic lifeforms. God’s creation of the world begins with a distinction between inhabitable domains and grows more sophisticated, with animals for each habitation and finally with humans. Genesis 1 provides human perspective observations about the structure of the universe. The bridge between ancient mythos and modern science is not so great and recalls a quote from the movie Thor:
“Your Ancestors Called it Magic, but You Call it Science. I Come From a Land Where They Are One and the Same.”Thor, from the movie Thor, 2011
The first chapter of Genesis provides a description of creation that highlights the unique interjection of the ancient Hebrew God. The reader observes not only a description of God’s power and direction over creation but also describes a unique understanding of the elements of life, ecology, and sustenance for all creation.
Dr. Erica Mongé-Greer, holding a PhD in Divinity from the University of Aberdeen, is a distinguished researcher and educator specializing in Biblical Ethics, Mythopoeia, and Resistance Theory. Her work focuses on justice in ancient religious texts, notably reinterpreting Psalm 82’s ethics in the Hebrew Bible, with her findings currently under peer review.
In addition to her academic research, Dr. Mongé-Greer is an experienced University instructor, having taught various biblical studies courses. Her teaching philosophy integrates theoretical discussions with practical insights, promoting an inclusive and dynamic learning environment.
Her ongoing projects include a book on religious themes in the series Battlestar Galactica and further research in biblical ethics, showcasing her dedication to interdisciplinary studies that blend religion with contemporary issues.