‘In the Beginning, God created…’ Certainly this ranks among the most recognisable opening phrases of any literature known to mankind, yet what does it really mean? Do we ever stop to ask, ‘in the beginning of what?’
When we read ‘In the beginning’, it’s a bit like ‘Once upon a time’. They both immediately set us up for a story to follow, but we have no context. Following ‘Once upon a time, we then get, ‘there lived so and so, in a kingdom ruled by a wicked somebody’ – or whatever. We now have the context and we’re off to the races. We don’t actually ask ‘once upon what time? – as in what historical year did this take place. That has no bearing – it’s a fairy tale.
With ‘In the beginning’, we really ought to ask ‘in the beginning of what? Because our natural presumption may be quite wrong. Unlike the fairy tale, this matters a great deal, especially if we believe it’s TRUE. We naturally assume it means, ‘in the beginning of everything! What else could it mean? First there was only God, then God created everything: the whole universe – time and space. But hold on. That’s not what the text says. It says, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. We then make a quick interpretational adjustment and think, well, ‘the heavens and the earth’ must actually mean ‘the universe and everything’. That’s bad interpretational practice – it’s called ‘eisegesis’, reading into the text what we already assume it means.
Most biblical scholars view the first sentence as the title. It’s saying, ‘This is the story about God, heaven and earth. The context follows – and the starting point? Now the earth was without form and void. So here we already have an earth to begin with. But in our story of the beginning of everything, the earth doesn’t feature for 9.5 billion years! We start with the ‘big bang’, expansion, a quantum soup, gravitational formation of starts and galaxies, supernova explosions creating the elements necessary for life – and finally our sun and the earth – with human life arriving 5 billion years later.
So here’s my speculation. The biblical creation story is not telling us that story. Gen 1 is the story of God, the earth, and us. Not that God didn’t create the universe as well. But that’s a very different story, for another day.