In the beginning [rêʼshîyth] God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering [merahepheth] over the waters (Genesis 1:1–2).
One important difference between young-earth creationists and old-earth creationists is the interpretation of “beginning” [rêʼshîyth] in Genesis 1:1. Did God create “the heavens and the earth” in a moment, or was it an ongoing process? Did earth and the universe appear in an instant—as Greek goddess Athena did from the head of Zeus, fully grown in a suit of armor—or did they develop over a period of time?
The answer to this question may be found in the exact meaning of the Hebrew word rêʼshîyth. Bible versions uniformly render it as “beginning” in Genesis 1:1, and Brown, Driver, and Briggs define it in their lexical dictionary as: “first, beginning, best, chief.” Yet to understand its precise meaning—whether it suggests a moment or a process—it’s necessary to analyze its usage elsewhere in the Bible.
How Merahepheth Is Used
A clue comes from the Hebrew word merahepheth, rendered “hovering” over the waters. Merahepheth—and its root râchaph—is a little-used word. In Mosaic usage (first five books of the Bible), it refers to the nurturing of God. In Deuteronomy 32:11 it appears as an eagle hovering over her nest.1 If the same concept applies to Genesis 1:2, it makes a powerful statement about God and his relation to creation.
In Genesis 1:2, merahepheth is a participle, for which “the active participle emphasizes durative, linear action (i.e., as action which is prolonged and uninterrupted). Occasionally the participle is used for actions which are in reality repeated or plural rather than durative. The participle is atemporal (not time-bound), dependent upon the context for its tense (whether past, present, or future). Past Time: expresses durative, linear uninterrupted action in the past.”2
How rêʼshîyth Is Used
The durative, ongoing action surrounding merahepheth in Genesis 1:2 suggests the same may be true of rêʼshîyth in the previous verse.
Regarding rêʼshîyth: almost twenty instances refer to firstfruits of agriculture or the best of livestock brought to God.3 Firstfruits are obviously a process. Does a farmer bring zucchini to God when it is 4” long, or when it has grown to 8”? Must a yearling lamb be 365 days old, or approximately a year old? Agricultural produce and livestock undergo a process of development before they can be brought to God as firstfruits. Bringing firstfruits is a moment, but the firstfruits themselves represent a process.
Two instances (including this one) of rêʼshîyth refer to sexual proclivity:4
Reuben, you are my firstborn, My might and the beginning [rêʼshîyth] of my strength (Genesis 49:3, NASB).
The same reasoning for firstfruits applies to human offspring. Conception is a moment, and the birth of a son is a moment; yet there is a nine-month process in the production of a firstborn son.
Five instances of rêʼshîyth refer to “chief” as in “Amalek was first among the nations” (Numbers 24:20, NIV).5 This type of leadership is not a moment but a process; Amalek’s position of leadership was not a one-time coronation: it had to be both developed and maintained.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for a continuing process is found in two instances of rêʼshîyth that clearly refer to an ongoing period:
The beginning [rêʼshîyth] of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar (Genesis 10:10, NASB).
. . . in the beginning [rêʼshîyth] of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month . . . (Jeremiah 28:1, NASB).
(We use the NASB in some of the above verses because—for reasons the authors find hard to understand—the NIV and some other Bible versions translate rêʼshîyth with words other than “beginning.” When the translation is not indicated, NIV is the default translation we refer to.)
“Beginning” as a Process, Not a Moment
In summary, in all instances in the Bible for which the temporal element can be discerned, rêʼshîyth refers to a beginning process or period; none clearly refer to a beginning moment. Hence the use of rêʼshîyth elsewhere in the Bible suggests that Genesis 1:1 refers to an ongoing creation process. This means that when God created the “heavens and the earth,” they did not spring into existence immediately, fully formed. Instead, the rêʼshîyth, the “beginning” in Genesis 1:1, was a process similar to the growth of produce or livestock.
If it is established that rêʼshîyth is a beginning period, how long does it extend? Does it stop with the earth being formless and empty and dark? Does it continue up until God’s Sabbath rest following the creation of humans?
Our opinion, based on the biblical text, is the former: the “beginning” included the process of creating the universe and an early Earth covered with water. Then the Holy Spirit hovered lovingly like an eagle over her nest as the balance of God’s creative process unfolded: removing the conditions of formlessness and emptiness as described in Genesis 1:3–2:1.
This textual review shows that the use of the Hebrew word rêʼshîyth in Genesis 1:1 offers support for the old-earth creationist position. The exact process God used to form “the heavens and the earth” can probably never be discerned by humans, but we can say with some confidence that it was a combination of divine action and the laws of physics which we believe God ordained “in the beginning.”
- The only other usage of the word is in Jeremiah 23:9 as a man “shaken” by God’s holiness.
- J. Paul Tanner, Hebrew Syntax: A Quick-Reference Manual for Hebrew Exegesis, 11th rev. ed, (Middletown, DE: J Paul Tanner, 2020), 26.
- Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Leviticus 2:12, 23:10; Numbers 15:20–21, 18:12; Deuteronomy 18:4, 26:2, 10, 33:21; 1 Samuel 2:29; 15:21; Psalm 105:36; Proverbs 3:9; Jeremiah 2:3; Ezekiel 20:40, 44:30, 48:14.
- Genesis 49:3; Deuteronomy 21:17
- Numbers 24:20; Job 40:19; Jeremiah 49:35; Daniel 11:41; Amos 6:1.