|The Orion Nebula (NASA)|
How did God create the universe? You might be surprised to find out. The description in Genesis 1 could not use the specialized vocabulary we have today to talk about physics and astronomy. So it used the closest available equivalents to bring its point across.
An example is the word “waters” in Gen. 1:2. What do you think when you read “the Spirit of God was hovering* over the surface of the waters” (Gen. 1:2)? Do you get a picture of a sea or ocean that looks pretty much like the earth looks today? But the Bible says the seas were not made until the third day of Creation (Gen. 1:10). If these waters were not seas, what were they?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the first part of the verse, which says: “And the earth was formless and empty” (tohu va’vohu in Hebrew; Gen. 1:2a). In modern Hebrew, the expression tohu va’vohu means ‘all mixed up’ or confused. That the earth was formless means exactly what it says: the earth hadn’t yet been given any form, which means, of course, that the earth didn’t exist yet. And it was empty (or void) because, you guessed it, what we call the earth wasn’t there yet.*
* The phrase “tohu va’vohu” does not imply that an already existing earth was destroyed, as the Gap Theory teaches. This was a 19th century attempt to harmonize the Bible with Evolution. It claimed that there was a gap between Gen. 1:1 and Gen. 1:2. But Genesis 1:1 is not describing a prior creation. It’s simply a section heading, describing the topic of the following section. Other similar section headings appear in Gen. 3:1, 5:1, etc.
Instead there was just this dark, confused mass of “waters.” By comparing this description to other Ancient Near Eastern writings, it’s clear that what the writer is talking about is what’s often called the ‘primeval chaos’: a time when everything was a confused mess, before the Creator sorted it out in the Creation.*
* In other Near Eastern cultures, this chaos was personified as a god or goddess. But in the Hebrew Bible, it is presented in a purely materialistic manner, in opposition to polytheism.
What this means is that this is not just a description of an unformed earth. It’s the description of a chaotic universe. The “waters” that appear here are not ordinary waters: they’re more like flood waters that carry along huge amounts of dirt and rocks and other materials mixed into them. But these primeval waters held all the elements of the entire universe all mixed up together in a dark watery stew. In fact, all there was in the entire universe at that moment in time was this dark watery soup. As Peter put it, “the heavens and the earth were formed long ago out of water and by water by the Word of God” (2 Pet. 3:5).*
* The beginning of the universe in a dark primeval soup is not entirely unlike the idea in modern astronomy that the universe started in a super-dense high-energy state. Both agree that the universe began as a non-solid substance that held within it all the potential of what that universe was to become, but which was itself quite different than what the universe later became. But while astronomy claims that this early dense ball of energy abruptly appeared out of nothing for no discernible reason, the Bible offers the Creator as a much more plausible explanation for its existence.
On the second day of the Creation, God separated the primeval waters that would become the earth from the waters that would become the rest of the universe (Gen. 1:6-7). He did this by pushing them apart (or “dividing” them) with an expanse called the firmament (raqiah in Hebrew). This name, which indicates something ‘spread out,’ refers to the amazing ability of this firmament, or what today we call (outer) space, to separate “the waters that were below the firmament and the waters that were above the firmament” (Gen. 1:7). Since Genesis is written from an earth-centered (geocentric) point of view, its concern is primarily to describe how the earth came to be. But we can imagine that this rapidly expanding firmament (outer space) not only separated the waters of the proto-earth from all the rest, but also separated the waters into many other pockets, too, that would soon become all the stars and planets, a vast and sudden expansion in the size of the universe.*
* Modern science also talks about an incredibly vast and rapid “inflation” of the universe at a very early time in its history.
On the third day, God began to work on the orb of primeval water that would become the earth. This is when he said, “Let the waters under the heavens be collected to one place and let the dry land appear…. And God called the dry land ‘earth’ and the collection of water he called ‘seas’” (Gen. 1:9,10). This is when he separated out all the things we call minerals and rocks and dirt from the primeval waters, making a separation between the solid parts of the earth and the seas and other liquids and gases.
Then, on the fourth day, God turned his attention to the rest of the universe, and turned all the rest of the primeval waters into the sun, the moon, and all the stars and planets (Gen. 1:14-18).*
* It’s interesting that modern astronomy has identified water as being relatively abundant in space. This includes a massive concentration recently discovered in the large gas cloud of the Orion nebula (see picture above).
Many people are confused by the creation of the “lights” of the sun and moon and stars on the fourth day because light itself was already created on the first day (Gen. 1:3-4). But even modern astronomy talks about a ‘first light’ of the universe that was emitted not from any stars, but from the universe itself in an early stage of its existence. This was the first step in bringing order into a chaotic universe.*
* This early light corresponds to the ‘first light’ of the universe preserved in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This light was not produced by stars, but is radiation left over from the earliest universe itself. In Hebrew, the heavenly bodies are not actually called “lights” (as often translated) but “luminaries,” in other words, things that contain or shine forth light. This word is appropriate both to the sun and stars that create light as well as to the moon and planets that merely reflect light.
Once we take account of this succession of steps in the Creation account, it becomes clear that the waters over which the Spirit hovered were quite different than modern seas. They were instead the non-solid stuff of the universe out of which all that we see was made: the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, etc. God took chaos, and out of the chaos created order and life.*
* Although there are several interesting points of correspondence between the Biblical account and the explanations of modern science, there are also many differences between the two. The most striking difference is in the time scale of these events. Science claims a period of 100 million years before the creation of the earliest stars, while the Bible teaches only four days. One of the reasons given for the great length of time before the appearance of the earth (about 9 billion years) is that the explosion of the Big Bang would necessarily have resulted mostly in hydrogen and some helium, without any heavier atoms. To account for heavier elements, there must have been a long period of time in which the earliest stars, made of these lighter elements, would be able to produce the heavier elements found in the universe today. The Biblical account has no need of such long stretches of time, since God was able to create the full range of elements right from the start.
(For more on this topic, see the index category Creation.)