A close reading of Genesis 1
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1, NIV).*
When we read this statement, because of the way we understand the words “heavens” and “earth,” an image comes to mind of our terrestrial sphere suspended in the unimaginable vastness of space. But this is not what the Genesis author intended.
The word translated “heavens” in Genesis 1:1, shemayim, is actually the very same word that the NIV and most other English versions translate as “sky” in several other places in this account:
God called the vault “sky” (1:8)
The water under the sky (1:9)
Lights in the vault of the sky (1:14, 15)
God set them in the vault of the sky (1:17)
Across the vault of the sky (1:20)
The birds in the sky (1:26, 28, 30)
Only in Genesis 2:1 do our translations once again render shemayim as “heavens.” But there is no reason to change the reference of the word from “sky” to something suggesting “outer space” in 1:1 and 2:1, unless we expect that the Genesis author is trying to furnish us with an objective scientific account of the universe’s origins. We should read the Bible for what it actually says, not for what we expect it to say. (This is difficult much of the time!) And so shemayim should be translated as “sky” consistently throughout this account.
The case is the same with the word translated “earth” in Genesis 1:1, eretz. The author clearly does not have in mind a spherical planet floating in deep space. Why not? Because the word translated “earth” here connotes instead “the dry land,” as we learn from the way it is translated in several other places as “land” or “ground”:
God called the dry ground “land” (1:10)
Let the land produce vegetation (1:11)
Plants and trees on the land (1:11)
The land produced vegetation (1:12)
Let the land produce living creatures (1:24)
Creatures that move along the ground (1:24, 26, 28)
[The NIV phrase “move along the ground” in vv. 24,25 represents a different term, adamah.]
However, the NIV translates the term eretz as “earth” in some other cases:
To give light on the earth (1:15, 17)
Let birds fly above the earth (1:20)
Let the birds increase on the earth (1:22)
Fill the earth and subdue it (1:28)
The face of the whole earth (1:29)
The beasts of the earth (1:30) [The NIV renders this same phrase as “livestock” in vv. 24,25; in our translation we have “wild beasts” each time.]
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed (2:1).
Once we know that the same term is used in all of these places, we recognize that the NIV, like most other English translations, is seemingly reflecting a modern cosmology. When we render the term eretz consistently as “land,” we get a much better picture of what the account is more likely picturing. Genesis 1:1 really says, In the beginning God created the sky and the land.
Since the account later describes how these two entities were specifically created (the sky on Day 2 and the land on Day 3), we should realize that this statement is like a newspaper headline: It is a summary of what will be described in the entire account. We should not think of it as describing the creation of the universe and planet earth, with some detail work to follow. Everything is to follow. We should therefore understand an implied “and this is how he did it” with this opening statement.
*To illustrate how English translations are influenced by the “paradigm effect” and so suggest a modern cosmology in an ancient book, we will introduce each section of this account by quoting it in the New International Version. We have chosen the NIV because it is a widely-read version with which, we expect, many of our readers will already be familiar. We are not singling out the NIV for criticism; every English translation similarly exhibits the influence of the “paradigm effect” in this passage. (This discussion has been updated from our 2005 book to interact with the latest update to the NIV, released in 2011.)