Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a
Did God’s spirit play a role in creation? As it is with so many questions we have for scripture, it depends on whom you ask. For many Christians around the world and throughout the millennia, Genesis 1:2 has been read as a direct reference to the Holy Spirit’s role in the creation of the world. Others have read the passage differently, however, including Jewish interpreters and many historical-critical scholars. Some Christians have also been hesitant to identify the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:2 out of a concern for avoiding anachronistic or supersessionist readings of the Jewish Torah. Can a clear answer be found?
To begin, we might look at two prominent English translations of 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 (KJV; see also, NIV).
…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (NRSV; see also, NJPS).
One of the difficulties that contributes to these divergent translations is the variety of ways in which the Hebrew word ruach can be rendered into English: “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” In a general sense, ruach refers to air in motion. A “spirit” is thus conceived imaginatively as a type of air that can be in motion inside of the body, potentially affecting it in ways both healthful and detrimental.
Like many words in Hebrew that strike modern readers as having a wide semantic range, there is no indication that ruach is a homograph. That is, it is not like the English words “bat,” “down,” or “fine,” each of which has more than one semantically unrelated meaning. Instead, certain modern languages operate with distinctions between “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit” that did not exist in biblical literature and among its earliest interpreters. In Genesis 1:2, ruach simply means more than any one these English words can express.
We see this wide semantic range when we read how other parts of biblical tradition answer the question of the role of God’s spirit in creation. When modern translators render the word ruach into English, we are forced to make a choice and leave something out that the Hebrew does not. The translations below are my own.
By a word of the Lord, the heavens were made
and by the breath of his mouth all their host (Psalm 33:6).
By his spirit the heavens were made beautiful,
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent (Job 26:13).
When you [God] hide your face, [the creatures] are dismayed.
When you gather their breath, they die
and they return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are vitalized
and you renew the face of the ground (Psalm 104:29–30).
In these passages, the lines between God’s breath/wind/spirit are blurred. But whatever this ruach of God is, it clearly plays a role not just in the creation of life but also in our animation.
The animating power of God’s spirit is especially evident in the ways that these passages influenced the interpretation of one another. In Psalm 104, for example the psalmist exclaims that God gives the breath of life (Psalm 104:30a), which echoes God breathing life into the first human being (Genesis 2:7). The Psalm also shares a key root from Genesis 1:1, bara’ “created”, which I translate above as “vitalized.” According to Psalm 104, then, God’s is the life-giving spirit that energizes all of creation.
Early Jews of the Second Temple period also perceived that God’s spirit played an animating role in creation. See, for example, the poem that concludes the Hellenistic era book of Judith:
Let all your creatures serve you,
for you spoke, and they were made.
You sent forth your spirit, and it formed them;
there is none that can resist your voice
(Judith 16:14 NRSV; see also, 4 Ezra 6:38–40; 2 Baruch 21:4; 23:4–7).
Clearly, even if the question is obscure in Genesis 1:2, elsewhere scripture readily sees God’s spirit as playing a role in creation. Moreover, many of the earliest interpreters of the Bible, pre-Christian Jews, also saw God’s spirit as the animating force of life in creation. To be clear, this ruach of God was not seen as the Holy Spirit and third person of the Trinity that is confessed in later Christian tradition. Nonetheless it does seem to be an aspect of God’s person—a “personal touch,” if you will—that God put into life itself.
The scholars who endeavor to answer the question of whether God’s spirit played a role in creation in Genesis 1:2 often do so through deep dives into philological study and comparative ancient Near Eastern evidence.1 This research is important and necessary but from a homiletical perspective, it is only one part of the equation that should make up our interpretation of the passage.
We should also consider the other parts of our respective canons that weigh in on the question as well as the interpretive traditions to which we are heirs. For example, Origen (Homilies on Isaiah 4.1) and Tertullian (De Baptismo 4) saw the spirit as a bird “hovering” over the waters in Genesis 1:2. This imagery, when coordinated with the New Testament (for example, Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32) creates a version of Genesis 1 (like a cover song) in which the Holy Spirit takes part in creation. In Jewish interpretation, the late antique collection of midrashim called Genesis Rabbah preserves a tradition in which the spirit in Genesis 1:2c was likened to that of the anticipated Jewish messiah (Genesis Rabbah 2:4; see also, Isaiah 11:2).
The ruach of Genesis 1:2 is one that can and has had many different meanings to many different interpreters. Rather than trying to uphold a supposedly original meaning as the only right one, we might recognize our location socially and religiously, celebrating what has been handed down to us while also recognizing the value of what others may see in the scripture. This too is a dynamic gift that gives glory to God’s life-giving spirit of creation.
- Arguably the more challenging issue in translating this verse is the confusing syntactical relationship between the first and second halves, an issue I do not discuss here. A classic study is Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–11: A Commentary, trans. J. J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 106–10. More recently see Michael DeRoche, “The rûaḥ ʾĕlōhîm in Gen 1:2c: Creation or Chaos?” in Ascribe to the Lord: Biblical and Other Studies in Memory of Peter C. Craigie, ed. L. Eslinger and G. Taylor. JSOTSup 67 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), 303–18.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Grand designer of all things,
The light and darkness, the dome in the midst of waters, the sky and dry land, the vegetation, the seasons, the swarms of living creatures, birds and great sea monsters, creeping things and wild animals, and us; all these were brought into being with a word on your lips. And it was good. Amen.
With a voice of singing, Kenneth Jennings