December 4, 2020

Transforming the Original Wilderness

al-peney hamayyim, J M Smith

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
Transforming the Original Wilderness (Genesis 1:2)

• • •

“Now the land was an uninhabitable wasteland, covered with water and thick darkness. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1.2)

The early chapters of Genesis were designed to help the Jewish people come to terms with their identity and place in the world. Though we don’t know for certain who wrote these texts and how they came to introduce the Scriptures, we know that the final composition and editing of the Torah (as well as the rest of the Hebrew Bible) took place during and after the Babylonian Exile. These chapters spoke to that situation.

The Exile was the greatest defeat imaginable for Israel. When the Temple was destroyed, they lost not only a national landmark, but also their very identity as a people who worshiped the God enthroned there. They had proclaimed him King above all gods on Mt. Zion, and therefore Jerusalem’s downfall provoked a deep theological crisis. In essence, the Hebrew Bible was put together to answer the questions raised by that crisis, to restore Israel’s faith in God as King, to assure them of their identity as God’s people, and to encourage them to look forward to the day when God would be vindicated and his Kingdom established forever.

Though many people in our day want to read the early chapters of Genesis in terms of modern scientific categories, they were not put in the Torah to address such issues. Rather, they are the “Old Stories” — the foundational narratives that helped the Jews in exile remember who God was, why they were created, and what God’s plan for them in the world might be.

Genesis 1 tells the story of how God turned a wilderness into a good land, established his temple there, appointed human beings to be his priests to represent him to the rest of the world, and sat down on his throne to rule.

The Original Creation
Many Bible students, including myself, do not think that the majority of Genesis 1:1-2:3 describes God’s original creation. Most of it is not about how God made the stuff of creation from nothing. Rather, everything from Gen. 1:2-2:3 is about how God brought order to chaos in a creation that already existed.

Having said that, I take the Bible’s opening verse, Genesis 1:1, to be about the original creative act of God, and think it should be translated as it has been traditionally: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Let me make a few observations about this verse.

  • The time frame is indistinct. “In the beginning” simply looks back to a time before the events described in Gen. 1:2 and following.
  • The perspective is from the human viewpoint. “The heavens and the earth” evokes all kinds of images for us. We who have seen pictures taken through powerful telescopes, witnessed space travel, and have even viewed our own planet from the perspective of space tend to import those images into our reading of this verse. However, its first readers would not have had those pictures in their minds at all. We might better translate this phrase, “the skies and the land.” The perspective is as if we were standing in front of a great landscape, looking out over it. We might wave our arm across the scene and say, “Way back in the beginning, it was God who made all this — the skies and the land.”
  • It tells us God created everything. The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a literary device called a merism: a phrase using words representing the far ends of a spectrum to indicate the totality of everything in between. So, for example, we say, “My little boy was covered from head to toe with mud”; i.e. he was completely covered. Gen. 1:1 is telling us God made everything.

If Genesis 1:1 describes God’s original act of creation, making something out of nothing, then the story that begins at 1:2 is telling us about further developments in God’s creative work.

© 2000 Graphic by Irv Davis

God Orders His Creation
The author’s focus changes in verse 2, which begins with a little word indicating a new subject, which is unfortunately often left out of English translations — “Now…”. I think the following rendering of the verse does it justice: “Now the land was an uninhabitable wasteland, covered with water and thick darkness. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

You will notice that, once more, I have rendered “earth” as “land.” I became convinced many years ago that the author of Genesis is not referring to the earth as we today would think of it — the planet, the globe. That simply was not the way people thought about the world in those days. They thought about the horizontal surface upon which they lived — the land. And most people thought about their own particular land.

Therefore, I think it likely that, from Israel’s perspective, it is the Promised Land that is in view here. If we take the two “creation” stories of Genesis 1 and 2 as complementary, this makes sense. For in Genesis 2, we learn nothing about the earth in toto, we learn about a specific place that God prepared for his people, the garden in Eden.

What happens then, beginning at Genesis 1:2?

  • The God who created all that is now takes a particular land, an uninhabitable land, and transforms it.
  • The original condition of this land is seen in 1:2. It is a wilderness, a wasteland, unfit for human habitation.
  • However, the Spirit of God is there to begin the process of transformation.
  • God brings order and life to this wilderness over the course of six days.
  • During the first three days, God forms the land.
  • During the second three days, God fills the land.
  • On the sixth day, God brings this transformation process to its climax by making human beings to rule as his representatives and to extend his blessing throughout the whole world.
  • On the seventh day, God rests.

In addition, there is a key conceptual feature of this chapter that we must see. It is recognized by many commentators, and explained in brilliant detail by John H. Walton in his book, The Lost World of Genesis One. That is that fact that God is being portrayed in this chapter as the King who is constructing his temple.

Temples in the Ancient Near East, including Israel’s temple, were designed as microcosms of creation. There is a wealth of biblical material that reinforces the idea that the Tabernacle and the Temple were designed with features representing the universe for the purpose of communicating that God is King over all. The word “Temple” itself can be translated “palace” — it is a royal term. The Temple is where God takes his throne.

It should not surprise us, then, that Israel’s “creation” story is told in terms of God transforming a wilderness into a temple. By the Spirit, God speaks into the darkness to shine light on the site he has chosen for his dwelling place. Then he forms his temple, hangs heavenly lamps in it and fills it with life and provision. Next he appoints his priestly representatives to rule and blesses them. Finally God “rests” — a word that indicates a king taking his throne and commencing his rule.

This portrayal was designed to reestablish Israel’s sense of God as well as her own identity and calling as God’s people. Israel herself began as a people wandering in an uninhabitable wilderness. God prepared a good land for her and established his dwelling place among the people. They were to be his priests, to represent him throughout all the world. They were called to extend his blessing and the glory of his rule to all people.

If the Jewish people were going to understand what had happened to them and why they were now lamenting “by the rivers of Babylon,” far from home, having seen the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, their nation, and their lives, they must first go back to God’s original plan, review it, and take hope from it. For the same God who transformed the wilderness into a good land and dwelt among them as King was able to do it again. He could bring an end to the wilderness of their exile, restore their fortunes, regather them to the Promised Land, and return in glory to reign in their midst.

And this same God is our God! — the God who transforms the wilderness! The God who comes to dwell with us. The God who blesses us and works through us to extend his blessing throughout the world.

We haven’t even gotten out of the first chapter of the Bible yet, and already the Divine end game is clear.

And so we pray, “May your Kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”


  1. Ok, before all the arguments start up: where do you keep finding this amazing artwork?

    • I read this post and the first thought that popped in my noodle is this…

      You mean Ken Hamm isn’t God’s ambassador when it comes ot defending creation? 😛

  2. Thank you for sharing John Walton’s thoughts. I read and internalized his ideas a while back. Reading the Bible as it was meant to be understood is a challenge. We also have to understand for whom this story was created.

    I am sure you will get many responses to this post. I know I will be pondering this well into this day.

  3. I wish I could remember the title of a two hour documentary I watched, probably on the Discovery Channel, that used CGI imaging and fossil/geological findings to show the formation of planet Earth. You all mostly know that as a Catholic I am far from being a YEC beleiver, and YET……

    …..the physical evidence very much matches the basics of Genesis, if one is willing to accept a far different timeline. The swirling black mass, the rain, the heat, the rise of the one central land mass, followed by simple life forms all seem to be showing the magnificence of God, as well as reminding us that His ways are not our ways, and His “time” is nothing like our own concept thereof.

    It was again a reminder in the wilderness that our lives are like that of a may-fly, come and gone in hours, and yet the Creator of Everything, who Rules over all that is, still knows our name, loves us, and cares about in our brief stint here….because He loves us, and this is just a short lesson at a waystation before we get to go Home.

  4. Incredible stuff! God is now seeking to once again transform His land and people into power, purity, and redemption!

    Do you leave open the possibility of evolution in the creation story?

  5. Good post. So you are combining the Walton and Sailhamer views?

    • You could say that. Sailhamer also sees the temple imagery but when I studied under him, he emphasized that more when teaching about the garden in Gen. 2. Of all the commentators, Walton gives the most detail when discussing the Ancient Near East context about kings and temples. Peter Enns picks up on this in his new book on Adam.

      I also like many things that Waltke says.

  6. Mike, great post. I agree completely that we tend to read our own questions and concerns into this text, and few people take the time and care to read it according to the needs and thoughts of the original readers. I also agree completely that Genesis 1:1 is a summary theological statement, and that the rest of the chapter is God’s fashioning the now existing earth and heavens (or sky). Looking at the six days as the description of cosmic creation, I think, not only leads to aburdities (light is created on day one, but the sun not till day three; besides, how would you calculate a “day if there was no sun) but also seems to deny the doctrine or creation ex nihilo. That is, if the chapter is describing the process of creation (with verse one an introduction and the rest of the chapter a description of the process) then God did not create out of nothing, but out of the already pre-existing materials of verse 2. Your analysis, on the other hand, allows verse one to be a simple statement that God made everything (which would imply that materials of creation) and the rest of the chapter is God “forming” (days 1-3) and “filling” (days 4-6) the unformed and unfilled (which is what formless and void mean) creation. Thank you.

    Two things I might disagree with you about (though they are minor in the big picture).

    First, while,I agree that “earth” is better translated “land” and that the focus is Palestine, I don’t see why the forming and filling would have to be limited to that land. In other words, though Palestine was central in the author’s thinking, Palestine itself becomes a microcosm of the whole earth, and thus, the whole earth is seen as God’s temple.

    Secondly, I would understand the first readers to be the Israelites about to enter the promised land (from the wilderness) . That is, while the passage may have been edited during the exile, it was written much earlier, and had the needs of those people in view. And they would need to understand that the Land God provided was not a wilderness, but a place of God’s forming and filling, His creation. He made the land, it belongs to Him, and it is His temple. They are invited to take their place as the chosen priests of God, offering Him praise and service in thankfulness.

    I may be wrong on these. I am still thinking. And again, these are minor issues perhaps, but they may help others to work through these things.

    • Good points, Dan. Let me respond.

      1. There are two possible ways of reading the relationship between Genesis 1 and 2. The first is to see them as complementary. If so, then I think the “land” interpretation is best, because the “land” in Gen 1 then parallels the “garden” in ch. 2 where God placed humans. But there is a second way, and I may eventually be persuaded to see it this way. That would be to view the story of Gen 2 as occurring after Gen 1. If that is the case, then Gen 1 is about God’s cosmic temple (to use Walton’s phrase) — and the whole world and universe is in mind. Furthermore, the “humanity” that is created in Gen 1 is not Adam and Eve but humankind. Gen 2 then takes the story further and shows how, in the midst of the world God created (Gen 1), he planted a garden and chose the first covenant man and woman.

      At this point, I still lean toward the first interpretation for a number of reasons that I won’t elaborate now.

      2. It is entirely possible that the generation of Israelites entering the land heard these stories and that they were told this way from early on to encourage them as you have suggested. Within the story of the Pentateuch that makes a lot of sense. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the final form of the text as we have it was not complete until much later, and the exiles faced the same kinds of issues. I think it can be taught either way without doing damage to the text.

  7. By the way, for those interested, please note the following parallels between the fashioning of the land in Genesis one and the fashioning of the tabernacle/temple:

    • First, the tabernacle was designed by God.  Again and again Moses is told, “Make sure you follow the pattern I show you”.  It was not an arbitrary arraignment.
    • Secondly, Moses would be writing Genesis one right about the same time that God was giving him instructions on building the tabernacle.  
    • Third, both the temple and tabernacle had four stages: the bringing together of the materials, the creation of the structure of form of the building, the creation of the items which would fill the building, and the resulting presence of God, who then dwells or rests in his temple.
    • Fourth, while we are not told how long the tabernacle took to complete, we are told that the temple took seven years to build, and had a seven day dedication.  Furthermore, the number seven is used of the lampstand.
    • Fifth, Genesis 1 does not name the sun and moon, but merely refers to them as “lights”, to “give light” upon the world.  This is the same word, and same purpose, as describing the lampstand in the temple.
    • Sixth, the phrase in 2:1 about the conclusion of God’s work, (“God had finished the work he had been doing”) is repeated in Exodus 40:33, when “Moses finished the work” of setting up the tabernacle.  In fact, the only times the Hebrew words used in Genesis 2:1 for “finished” and “work” occur in the Old Testament are in texts that refer to the tabernacle or temple.
    • Seventh, the beginning of the work in Genesis 1:1 we find an unusual phrase: “the breath (or spirit) of Elohim” (much more rare than “the breath or spirit of Yahweh”.  We see it again in Exodus 31:3 and 35:31 where it describes how God has given Bezalel skill to create the articles for the tabernacle.

    • One clarification on point six above. What I meant to say is that the Hebrew words for “work” and “finished” occur TOGETHER only in Genesis one and in passages describing the building of the tabernacle/temple.

    • Thank you! I’d heard about the parallels before, but never had them explained.
      There’s also a little parallel between the words of God in the creation account and the giving of the Law: With ten words God established the earth, and with ten words he ordered society. In Genesis 1, the phrase “God said” appears ten times, and the ten commandments are also known as the decalogue, or the ten words. Does anybody know a New Testament parallel for that one?

      • There’s a good few uses of tens in Revelation, mostly relating to earthly power (ie. law of a sort). The Beast with Ten Horns, for instance, or the ‘ten regions’ of the world.

        I vaguely recall reading an article about Hebrew thinking on numbers – ten is associated with law, seven with completeness, twelve with multitudes and so on. In a way, numerological schemes like this are meant to be felt rather than thought about – if we today read a horror novel in which there is a Council of Thirteen, we just know it means ‘bad’ without having to tease out each possible implication of the number (though that’s not to stop additional parallels being drawn in on top, of course).

        • I was thinking maybe there was something more specific to God speaking, like Jesus saying 10 things to parallel the 10 words of creation an 10 words of the law, not just 10’s in general. The beattitudes stop a 9 🙁

  8. David Cornwell says

    Thank you for a view of the creation narratives that extricate them from our own narrow and constrictive boundaries and permits the release of the boundless engergies of a God who was buidling a temple then, and continues through His Spirit to bring into fruition His present and coming Kingdom.

    Think of what it means to bow down before, worship, and pray to such a God.

  9. Wow, what a good beginning to life experiences this day. Waking to brilliant sun in the land of rain and then to discover something more to worship in the presence of our Immortal God is beyond description. In my desire to understand God’s Word and learning to be faithful in obedience, His Spirit amazes me in stretching my limited understanding into transformation from earthly things. Amazing grace, how can it be that God should love one as me . . .yet He does. Thank you (in my fledgling walk with Christ came a teacher who revealed the picture Hebrew language that goes deeper than English . . .no I’m not skilled in teaching, but desire to learn though.) Thank you

  10. Perhaps (I may be totally off) Rashi may agree with your reading into the first part of Gen 1:1, with regard to the interpretation that Gen 1:1 is about the original creative act of God. I think more and more people are having problems with a chronological reading (sequence of creation steps) that distracts one from the beauty of text.

    Just to add here Rashi’s re-phrasing:”In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and earth…” which lines up with the common usage:”In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim…”

    The Promised Land is a beautiful way of tying up many concepts in this part of the text. Reminds me of how Hatikvah ends with “Eretz Zion ve’Yerushalayim” (Land of Zion and Jerusalem), maybe the desire and hope has come full circle to the origin.

  11. “Rather, they are the ‘Old Stories’ — the foundational narratives that helped the Jews in exile remember who God was, why they were created, and what God’s plan for them in the world might be.”

    “Old Stories”–or as they’re also called, myths. Sigh…it’s a damn shame that so many people treat the word myth as an insult.

    • David Cornwell says

      Exactly. Words like “facts” and “logic” are pitted against “myth” in ways that often cause a huge uproar.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        1) I first heard the term “Old Stories” used in this manner in a Manly Wade Wellman novel; there the context was supernatural dangers which had been forgotten.

        2) Chaplain Mike said once that “facts” vs “myth” (with “FACT” winning) was originally fallout from the Industrial Revolution in early Victorian times, approaching the “Old Stories” (in this case, the Bible) as “an engineering textbook” of FACT, FACT, FACT. The mess of Dispensationalism dates from this period, attempting to reconcile every FACT in the Engineering FACTbook called The Bible.

        3) When mentioning (2) to someone recently, my informant told me that much of modern Neo-Paganism is based on Victorian “reconstructive history” of the same (Victorian) period, and that the Neo-Pagans he’s encountered claim that their Victorian-era “Neo-Pagan Bibles” “make a lot more sense” than the original Bible. If we today still think in post-Industrial Revolution terms of Engineering and FACTbooks, Neo-Pagan holy works “reconstructed” during that era WOULD “make a lot more sense”.

  12. Joseph (the original) says

    maybe this is bit of a tangent, but what does Ezekiel’s new temple (Eze 40) represent? the intended fulfillment of Israel as God intended?

    another reference/representation of the gospel? a symbolic New Testament preview???

    and is there any reason to think this ‘new temple’ has anything to do with the 1,000 year reign of Jesus mentioned in the book of Revelation chapter 20?

    somewhere in my theological peregrination i have pondered just what these references mean & if they are related at all…

    anyway, the temple concept is what caused this rabbit trail…

    • I can’t speak to the details of that, Joseph. What I can say is that the Temple represented God’s presence and rule in Israel and that, in the face of its destruction, it would make sense for Israel to think of their restoration in terms of a new Temple where God once more displayed his glory. In the NT, Jesus presents himself as the Temple, the place where heaven and earth meet, where God reveals his glory. He fulfills what the Temple represented. N.T. Wright’s new book, Simply Jesus, is very good on this.

  13. This is great! I’d like to see the YEC try to pull some gospel out of Gen. 1. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why many of my LCMS brethren can’t accept this position as well within orthodoxy. Genesis 1 is not a scientific treatise! I feel like this take on meaning of the creation story is actually more in harmony with coherent biblicism than YEC is.

    However, I did hear (in a Rob Bell video) that the structure of the Hebrew text is poetic. Can anyone verify this?

    • Hi Miguel

      I’m not an expert (in fact, my Hebrew is incredibly rusty) but there seem to be two reasons for suggesting the passage as poetry.

      First, the whole passage is marked by repetition and numerology, which feel out of place in a strictly narrative account.

      Second is the lack of definite articles before the numbers of the days, something that Gleason Archer, an expert in this field, says only happens in poetic, not narrative Hebrew.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I understand that the repetitive refrain and parallelism of ideas and concepts are characteristic of classic Hebrew poetry.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I’d like to see the YEC try to pull some gospel out of Gen. 1.

      In a way, they have, Miguel.

      Gen 1 (approached as a book of FACTS FACTS FACTS) IS their entire Gospel.

    • “This is great! I’d like to see the YEC try to pull some gospel out of Gen. 1. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why many of my LCMS brethren can’t accept this position as well within orthodoxy. Genesis 1 is not a scientific treatise! I feel like this take on meaning of the creation story is actually more in harmony with coherent biblicism than YEC is.”

      Miguel- as a fellow LCMSer, could you clarify what you mean by this statement? I am confused.

      • It seems that many LCMS’ers are way into YEC and a literal 6 days creation, even using the Mohler defense of linking it to Christology. I don’t feel this is a fair treatment of the text; it approaches it more like a scientific treatise than a work of poetry. I think CM’s take better accounts for genre, theological implication, and historical background of the authoriship, which are pretty important factors.

  14. Here are my sloppy notes from an OT class where my professor contends that Genesis 1 is actually a song. There’s some encouraging stuff in here, if you can decipher my note-taking.

    Four Lines of Argument that Genesis 1 is a Song:

    1. Recurring formula – Gen. 1 has what the psalms have. Same thing going on, but the days are different.

    The 6 days are serialized:

    • 1st day – light
    • 2nd day – sky and sea
    • 3rd day – land. Boundary that divides sea and sky.
    • 4th day – Sun, moon, starts. The elements of light. (Why weren’t they on day 1? Because songs don’t have to make sense). First light, then the elements of light. First structure, then contents.
    • 5th day – Fish and birds. Inhabitants of sky and sea. Structure/setting then contents.
    First God locates, then he creates elements for the location
    • 6th day – Domesticated animals – human beings. Farmers for the land

    Setting Contents
    1 Day 4
    2 Day 5
    3 Day 6

    God speak two times on Day 3. Most emphasis here on good farmland as a setting.
    God speaks four times on Day 6. 2 times + 2 times. The longest day.

    How many times did God speak when he created the world?
    10 times.
    There’s 10 commandments. How God created the whole world = How God created His people. God creating you just like He created the world (!)
    Remember, this is set up as a song.

    2.Expanding Versification

    Each day gets successively longer. It works like an ode.
    It’s not developing like a story.

    ???3. Heptadic Structure

    • 1st verse of bible has 7 words (in Hebrew). A clue that it’s heptadically organized
    • Next line is 14 words
    • Mentions earth 21 times, heaven 21 times
    • 35 words in the last day
    • 35 times God is mentioned. (See Psalms 78 & 105)

    For music, you don’t have to be literally, historically accurate. You have to be accurate to the structure. Dynamically interested, not historically interested.

    Commit to the fact that one God did it by giving a setting first then putting the contents in after that. That’s the point of Genesis 1. Sing this everyday, and you’ll believe it.

    4. Preponderance of Participles

    A participle describes your participation in an action.
    Instead of saying God created the earth, it says God is the creator of the earth. Puts more attention on God.
    Songs prefer participles. Hymnic in genre.
    Not a scientific treatise. A hymn.


    What’s the purpose of a piece of music at he beginning?

    1. To commit

    A hymn is about praising God.
    The bible doesn’t begin by telling you something. It begins by offering you something to tell to God.

    2. To confess

    “Praise God!” is not praise. Saying things about God is praise. “You saved me, you delivered me…” etc.
    A father wants to hear “You’re the greatest dad in the world.” It’s showing appreciation by responding in a way that lifts you up. “This is what you did, and I’m not going to forget that.”

    Get around to using declarative sentences. Declare something about God!

    Real praising is about the one being praised. It’s about the “what” and “why.” It gets you out of yourself and into God. Even saying “We thank you” is self-focused. No Hebrew word for thank.

    What to praise God for in Genesis 1:

    1. God is One (not many)

    2. What does he do?

    • He creates boundaries. A setting giver. An identifier. Go to the beach and look where
    the water come to. God did that.
    (Other creation stories, their gods put people wherever. No boundaries with people).
    • He gave us land and assured us land will survive. Then he put us in land … good
    land. Fertile land that produced its own crops.

    3. He finished it off. God is a finisher. That’s what Sabbath is all about.
    This song sets the record straight. There’s only one God, he does things decently, and he won’t leave me hanging. As opposed to all the pagan gods…

  15. If I may, I’d like to respond to Mark Galli in the iMonk Bulletin Board at top right. I disagree. Lent spurs me to prayer and encourages me to charity. It’s an alarm clock for the bleary. It’s a walking stick on the path. It’s a magnifying glass for the half blind. This is probably due in no small part to my lack of devotion to prayer on a full time, all the time, basis. Indeed, if I prayed at all times as Paul instructs, I might not need this tool as a reminder. It would seem extraneous and redundant. But since I am a spiritual dim-wit, the lenten practice helps hone both the spiritual layups and the three pointers as well. Every time I go for that wine or candy or whatever, I am tapped on the shoulder. I don’t feel pressed by obligation but rather it is a warm invitation to dinner of another kind and I appreciate the invitation.