The earth of genesis 1: 2 abiotic or chaotic? Part I

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Andrews University Seminary Studies 35.2 (Autumn 1998) 259-276.

Copyright © 1998 by Andrews University Press.





Spanish Adventist Union

Portevedra, Spain

The famous German scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), well-known

advocate of Formgeschichte, tried to demonstrate that the battle in which

Yahweh defeated the sea monster of the chaos was related to the Hebrew

account of creation in Genesis 1. He assumed that the Babylonian creation

account, with its Chaoskampf or battle between the creator-god and the powers

of the chaos, was the basis for the mythical imagery that appears in the Bible.1

Since the discovery of the Ugaritic myths, the existence of a conflict

between Yahweh and the sea dragons (Leviathan and Rahab in poetical texts

of the OT) has been widely accepted.2 This Canaanite conflict motif has

been related to the biblical creation story as "a missing link" which supports

the apparent Chaoskampf in Gen 1:2. Frequently, the Chaoskampf that appears

in the Babylonian Enuma elish and the Ugaritic Baal myth is considered the

main foundation of any cosmogony in the Ancient Near East (ANE).3 For

instance, J. Day assumed that Gen 1:2 is a demythologization of the original

Chaoskampf myth of ancient Canaan.4 R. J. Clifford and J. J. Collins have

proposed that Genesis 1 begins with a mythical combat between the dragon

1 H. Gunkel, Genesis ubersetzt and erklart, HKAT 3/1 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck &

Ruprecht, 1901); reprinted with introduction by W. F. Albright in The Legends of Genesis:

The Biblical Saga and History (New York: Schocken, 1974).

2 A. Cooper, "Divine Names and Epithets in the Ugaritic Texts," in Ras Shamra

Parallels, ed. Loren Fisher (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1981), 3:369-383.

3 See C. Kloos, Yhwh's Combat with the Sea: A Canaanite Tradition in the Religion of

Ancient Israel (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 70-86; J. Day, God's Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea:

Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


4 Day, 53.


of chaos and the divine sovereign.5

Gunkel stated that the Hebrew term tehom in Gen 1:2 had a Babylonian

background.6 He suggested that tehom derived directly from Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of the primordial ocean in the Enuma elish. Since Gunkel's statement, many scholars have assumed some kind of direct or indirect connection between the Babylonian Tiamat and the Hebrew tehom.7 Many have accepted that

the Hebrew tehom in Gen 1:2 has a mythological foundation in Tiamat, the

goddess of the Enuma elish, in which Marduk the storm god fights and defeats

Tiamat the sea dragon, thus establishing the cosmos.8

The expression tohu wabohu, "emptiness and waste," in Gen 1:2 is of-

ten considered a reference to this primordial "chaos," in strict opposition

to "creation." The phrase is taken to refer to the earth in an abiotic or lifeless

state, with no vegetation, animals, or human beings.9

Gunkel also posited the theory, later supported by other scholars, that

the ruah elohim in Gen 1:2c corresponds to the winds that Marduk sends

against Tiamat, thus assuming that it is an expression that describes the pri-

mordial chaos.

The object of this three-part article is to discover whether in Gen 1:2

there is any evidence for the mythological battle between the creator-god

and the powers of the chaos, Chaoskampf, such as Gunkel and many other

scholars maintain.10 If we found such evidence, we would need to take heed

5 R. J. Clifford and J. J. Collins, eds., Creation in the Biblical Traditions, CBQ

Monograph Series 24 (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1992), 32-

33. See also R. J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible, CBQ

Monograph Series 26 (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1994).

6 H. Gunkel, "Influence of Babylonian Mythology upon the Biblical Creation Stories,"

in Creation in the Old Testament, ed. B. W. Anderson, Issues in Religion and Theology 6

(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 25-52; first published in Schopfung und Chaos in Urzeit und

Endzeit (1895).

7 B. S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (London: SCM, 1960), 36; B. W.

Anderson, Creation versus Chaos: The Reinterpretation of Mythical Symbolism in the Bible

(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 15-40; K. Wakeman, "The Biblical Earth Monster in the

Cosmogonic Combat Myth," JBL 88 (1969): 313-320; idem, God's Battle with the Monster: A

Study in Biblical Imagery (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 86ff.

8 For a translation and discussion of this text, see A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, 2d

ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); see also the translation by E. A. Speiser in

"The Creation Epic," ANET, 60-72. The most recent translation can be seen in S. Dalley,

Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1991), 233-274.

9 See D. T. Tsumura, "The Earth in Genesis 1," in I Studied Inscriptions from Before the

Flood, ed. R. S. Hess and D. T. Tsumura (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 326-328.

10 See for example, B. K. Waltke, Creation and Chaos (Portland, OR: Western

Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974). This author points out that there are three main

to Gunkel's affirmation: "If it is the case, however, that a fragment of a

cosmogonic myth is preserved in Genesis 1, then it is also no longer allowable

to reject the possibility that the whole chapter might be a myth that has

been transformed into narrative."11 But if, on the contrary, there is no linguistic

or biblical foundation for that assumption, the creation account would no

longer be a myth or compilation of myths similar to those of ANE literature.

The creation story would then be a true, reliable, literal, and objective account

of the origin of life on this planet.

To achieve this goal, these articles about the earth described in Gen 1:2

will analyze the Hebrew terms tohu wabohu, tehom, and ruah elohim in the

OT and their equivalents in the ANE literature.
The Hebrew Text of Gen 1:2

Weaares hayeta tohu wabohu wehosek al--pene tehom

weruah elohim merahepet ‘al--pene hammayim

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was

over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was

hovering over the waters (NIV).

Gen 1:2 is formed by three circumstantial clauses:

(1) We ha’ares hayeta tohu wabohu: "Now the earth was formless and empty"

(2) wehosek al---pene tehom: "darkness was over the surface of the deep"

(3) weruah elohim merahepet ‘al- pene hammayim: "and the Spirit of God

was hovering over the waters."

In Semitic languages a circumstantial clause describes a particular con-

dition.12 Verse 2 presents three clauses that describe three circumstances

or conditions that existed at a particular time, which is defined by the verb

interpretations of Gen 1:1-3 within Protestant thinking. These he calls the theory of the

postcreation chaos (or theory of the restitution), in which chaos occurred after the original

creation; the theory of the initial chaos, according to which chaos occurred in connection

with creation; and the theory of the precreation chaos which he himself defends, according

to which chaos occurred before the original creation (18, 19); and other authors such as: A.

P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 106-107, 723; V. P. Hamilton,

The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-11, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 117. As can

be seen, the explanation and interpretation of Gen 1:2 are founded on chaos, whether

before, during, or after creation.

11 Gunkel, "Influence of Babylonian Mythology," 26-27.

12 For a discussion of the function of the circumstantial phrase in Hebrew, see W.

Gesenius-E. Kautzch, Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, trans. A. E. Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon

Press, 1910), 451, 489; Paul Jouon and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Subsidia

Biblica 14 (Roma: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1991, 2:581.

form of the three clauses.13 In this verse the three coordinated clauses begin

with a waw followed by a noun that functions as the subject of the clause.

The theme of the verse 2 is the earth; this is the great central theme,

not only in the rest of Genesis 1, but also of the whole Bible.14 The earth

is the center and object of biblical thought.15

The exegesis of Gen 1:2 has been considered by scholars such as M. Alexandre,16 P. Beauchamp,17 V. P. Hamilton,18 D. Kidner,19 S. Niditch,20 A. P. Ross,21 N. M. Sarna,22 L. I. J. Stadelmann,23 G. von Rad,24 G. J. Wenham,25 Westermann,26 and E. J. Young.27

15 "Clauses describing concomitant circumstances are introduced by the conjunction v of accompaniment.... When the circumstances described are past or future, a finite form

of a verb is employed. For the past a perfect aspect is used, e.g. Uhbv Uht htyh Crxhv ‘the

earth having been a formless void' (Gen 1:2)" (R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline,

2d ed. [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976, 1992]), 83. In this case the verb haya is

in Qal perfect 3 feminine singular hayeta. As C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch point out: "The

three statements in our verse are parallel; the substantive and participial construction of the

second and third clauses rests upon the htyhv of the first. All three describe the condition

of the earth immediately after the creation of the universe" (Commentary on the Old

Testament, trans. J. Martin ([Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 1:49).

14 For further bibliographical references on Gen 1:1-3 from 1885/86 to 1966, see C.

Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. J. J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg,

1984), 75-76.

15 So Keil and Delitzsch, 1:48.

16 M. Alexandre, Le Commencement du Livre: Genese I- V (Paris: Beauchesne, 1988), 76-87.

17 P. Beauchamp, Creation et Separation (Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1969), 149-174.

18 Hamilton, 108-117.

19 D. Kidner, Genesis (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1967), 44-45.

20 S. Niditch, Chaos to Cosmos (Atlanta: Scholars, 1985), 18.

21 Ross, 106-107.

22 N. M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schoken, 1970), 22, 34 n. 23; idem.,

Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 6-7.

23 L. I. J. Stadelmann, The Hebrew Conception of the World, Analecta Biblica 39 (Rome:

Biblical Institute, 1970), 12-17.

24 G. von Rad, El Libro del Genesis (Salamanca: Sigueme, 1988), 58-60.

25 G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 15-17.

26 Westermann, 102-111.

27 E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed,

1979), 15-42.

The Semichiastic Structure of Gen 1:2

The Hebrew text of Gen 1:2 presents an incomplete antithetical chiastic

structure (i.e., a quasi- or semichiastic antithetical structure, because it

lacks the section A' which is antithetical to A) marked by the following

linguistic and semantic parallelism:

A Weha’ares hayeta tohu wabohu: "Now the earth was formless and empty"

B wehosek ‘al--pene tehom: "darkness was over the surface of the deep"

B' weruah elohim merahepet ‘al--pene hammayim: "and the Spirit of God

was hovering over the waters."

The grammatical, semantic, and syntactic chiastic parallelism is clearly

defined by the microstructures B \\ B'(\\ stands for antithetic parallelism)

in which the expression "over the surface" ‘al - pene is repeated. Grammatically

speaking, this expression is a preposition + plural masculine noun construct

(prep. + p.m.n. cstr.).28

The grammatical and semantic parallel ‘al --pene tehom // ‘al - pene

hammayim represents a second example of paired words, tehom // ham-

mayim that appears in Ezek 26:19 and Ps 104:6; and mayim // tehom that

appear in Ezek 31:4; Hab 3:10; Jonah 2:6; Ps 33:7; 77:17; Job 38:30. Notice

also the parallelism between mayim // tehomot and ruah in Exod 15:8.29 The

antithetic concept is clearly indicated by the opposite or contrasting pair

of words hosek "darkness" \\ ruah elohim "Spirit of God." The noun hosek

is grammatically a masculine singular (m.s.n.), and ruah elohim is a feminine

singular noun construct (f.s.n.cstr.) plus a masculine plural noun (m.p.n.).

However, they present an exact syntactic correspondence and parallelism.

Both have the same syntactic function, that of a subject.30

Another syntactic aspect is important in this antithetic chiasm: the construct

relation in ‘al - pene tehom and ‘al pene hammayim.31 This aspect of the Hebrew

syntax is of great importance to the significance and the semantic and etymological origin of tehom, as will be seen in the second part of this article.

A particular type of parallelism used in prose is the gender-matched

parallelism. Gen 1:2 is an example of this type of parallelism, since it represent

28 Williams, 10-11.

29 J. S. Kselman, "The Recovery of Poetic Fragments from the Pentateuchal Priestly

Source," JBL 97 (1978): 163.

30 For a study of the biblical grammatical, semantic, and syntactic parallelism, see A.

Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

31 See B. K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax

(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 240-241.

the gender-matched pattern: Feminine + masculine // masculine + feminine

// feminine+masculine.32

Tohu wabohu in the Old Testament and

the Literature of the Ancient Near East
Before specifically considering this point, we must briefly analyze the

Hebrew terms ha’ares and hayeta in Gen 1:2. The most used Egyptian term

for "earth" is t3. The antithesis for this term is the formula pt-t3, "heaven"

and "earth," by which it makes reference to the whole cosmos. The usual

hieroglyphic symbol t3 represents a flood plain with grains of sand all around.

In Sumerian and Akkadian there is a distinction between "earth" (ki or ersetu)

and "country" (kur, kalam, or matu). In Akkadian ersetu means "earth," in

opposition to "heaven." "Heaven and earth" (samu u ersetu) means the universe.

In Ugaritic ‘rs means "earth, ground, inferior world." The earth is also opposed

to "heaven" and the clouds.33 Ugaritic literature also gives an extraordinary

example of a pair of words, ars // thmt, chiastically related as in Gen 1:2:

tant s'mm ‘m ars // thmt ‘mn kbkbm.34

The pair of words ‘eres // tehom also reveals an example of inclusive structure in the six days of the creation, where ‘al -- pene tehom before the first day (Gen 1:2) matches ‘al -pene ha’ares after the sixth (Gen 1:29).35

The Hebrew ‘eres occupies the fourth place among the most frequent

nouns in the OT. The term appears 2,504 times in Hebrew and another 22

32 See W.G.E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, JSOT Supplement Series 26 (Sheffield:

JSOT, 1986), 53.

33 TDOT, 1:388-392.

34 R. E. Whitaker, A Concordance of the Ugaritic Literature (Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1972), 613.

35 Kselman, 164. For this type of inclusion or construction see D. N. Freedman's

"Prolegomenon" to G. B. Gray, The Forms of Hebrew Poetry (New York: KTAV, 1972),

xxxvi-xxxvii. However, according to D.T. Tsumura the nature of the relationship between

ha’ares "earth" and tehom "abyss, ocean" in Gen 1:2 is a hyponym. According to Tsumura, in

modern linguistics, the relationship of meaning is called hyponym which sometimes is

explained as inclusion. (i.e., what is referred to in the term A includes what is referred to in

the term B). The former is preferred over the latter because a relationship of sense exists

among lexical items rather than a relationship of reference. Thus the hyponym can be used

also in a relationship between terms that have no reference. In Tsumura's own words: "Our

term ‘hyponym' therefore means that the sense [A] of the more general term ‘A’ (e.g. ‘fruit')

completely includes the ‘sense’ [B] of more specific term ‘B’ (e.g. ‘apple'), and hence what

‘A' refers to includes what ‘B’ refers to. In other words, when the referent [B] of the term

‘B’ is a part of/belongs to the referent [A] of the term ‘A’, we can say that ‘B’ is hyponymous

to ‘A,’ ("A 'Hyponymous' Word Pair: 'rs and thm (t) in Hebrew and Ugaritic" [Bib 69

(1988): 258-269, esp. 259-260]). Therefore, in Gen 1:2 there is a hyponym in which tehom

"ocean" is a part of the ha’ares "earth."


times in the Aramaic sections. The word tires designates: (1) cosmologically,

the earth (in opposition to heaven) and solid ground (in opposition to water);

(2) physically, the soil on which humans live; (3) geographically, certain regions

and territories; (4) politically, certain sovereign regions and countries. In

the most general sense, ‘eres designates the earth that together with the "heaven,"

samayim, comprises the totality of the universe. "Heaven and Earth" is an

expression designating the whole world (Gen 1:1; 2:1, 4; 14:19, 22; etc.).

In addition to a bipolar view of the world, there is also a tripolar view:

for instance, heaven-earth-sea (Exod 20:11; Gen 1:10, 20 and others); heaven-

earth-water beneath the earth (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8). But what is important

to the OT is not the earth as part of the cosmos but what lives on it (Deut

33:16; Isa 34:1; Jer 8:16; etc.): its inhabitants (Isa 24:1, 5-6, 17; Jer 25:29-30;

Ps 33:14; etc.), nations (Gen 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; Deut 28:10; etc.), and kingdoms

(Deut 28:25; 2 Kgs 19:15; etc.). Thus the term "earth" may designate at the

same time--as it does in other languages--the earth and its inhabitants (Gen

6:11; etc.). In its physical use, ‘eres designates the ground on which human

beings, things, dust (Exod 8:12), and reptiles (Gen 1:26; 7:14; 8:19; etc.) are.36

The verb haya (to be) that appears in Gen 1:2 as hayeta in Qal perfect

3 f.s. is translated by the majority of the versions as "was" but may also be

translated "became," as it appears in some versions. However, the syntactic

order and the structure of the clause do not allow this translation here. The

syntactic order in Gen 1:2 (first the subject and then the verb) is used to indicate

the addition of circumstantial information and the absence of chronological

or sequential occurrence. For that reason the translators of the LXX translated

hayeta as "was" and not as "became."37 Besides, the Hebrew letter waw that

appears at the beginning of Gen 1:2 is a "circumstantial waw" because it is

joined to the subject "the earth" and not to the verb. Therefore it is better

translated as "now." The translators of the LXX, who were very careful in

the translation of the Pentateuch, translated it in that way.

The initial state of the earth in Gen 1:2 is described as tohu wabohu.

This expression is translated into English as "formless and empty" (NIV).

In the Greek versions it is translated as aoratoj kai akatskeuastoj,

"invisible and unformed" (LXX); kenwma kai ouqen, "empty and nothing"

(Aquila); qen kai ouqen "nothing and nothing" (Theodotion); and argon

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