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THE EARTH OF GENESIS 1:2
ABIOTIC OR CHAOTIC?
As the third and final part of the study of Gen 1:2,1 this article seeks
to analyze the impact of the phrase ruah elohim merahepet al pene
hammayim on the question of the state of the earth as depicted in this
verse. Gunkel, along with other scholars after him, assumed that ruah
elohim refers to winds that Marduk sends against Tiamat.2 Others have
postulated that this phrase refers to divine creative activity. To reach my
conclusion, I will analyze the phrase and its use in the Hebrew Bible and
in languages cognate to Hebrew.
Etymology of ruah elohim
The Hebrew expression ruah elohim is commonly translated in
English Bibles as "Spirit of God" (KJV, NASB, RSV, NIV). In the Greek
the phrase is translated as pneu?ma qeou?
Symmachus, and Theodotion use the same translation. The Vulgate
coincides, translating spiritus Dei ferebatur.
The term ruah appears in the OT 378 times in Hebrew, generally in
feminine, and eleven times in Aramaic (only in Daniel).3 The basic
meaning of ruah is "wind [something that is in motion and has the power
to set other things in motion] and breath."4
According to BDB, ruah elohim means "spirit of God, energy of life."
1 See Roberto Ouro, "The Earth of Genesis 1:2: Abiotic or Chaotic?" AUSS 36 (Autumn
1998): 259-276; and AUSS 37 (Spring 1999): 39-53.
2 H. Gunkel, Schopfung and Chaos in Urzeit and Endzeit (1895); see notes in first article
of the series.
3 E. Jenni
and C. Westermann, Diccionario Teologico Manual
tras. R. Godoy (Madrid: Cristiandad, 1985), 2:915.
4 Ibid., 2:917; see also TWOT, 2:836-837.
60 SEMINARY STUDIES 38 (SPRING 2000)
spirit."5 KBS has "'Der Geist Gottes'; als Wiedergaben sind moglich: a) der
Geist Gottes schwebte, b) der/ein machtiger Wind (= Sturm) wehte, c)
der/ein Gotteswind (= Gottessturm) wehte; b) und c) sind dabei nicht streng
zu scheiden." Schokel translates: "aliento, halito, aliento vital, respiracion,
resuello, soplo, resoplido, . . . aliento de Dios."6 It is evident that the word
ruah can mean both spirit and wind.
Western Semitic languages contain words cognate to the Heb ruah: the
Ugaritic rh, "wind, aroma"'; the Aramaic rwh, "wind, spirit"; and the Arabic
ruh, "vital breath"; and rih, "wind." The word is absent in the Eastern Semitic;
for instance, in Akkadian saru is used for "wind, breath.8 Jastrow observes that
in the Targumim, Talmudic, and Midrashic literature ruah is interpreted as
"spirit, soul; the holy spirit, prophetic inspiration, intuition.9
Ruah elohim in the OT
The phrase ruah elohim appears sixteen times in Hebrew and five
times in Aramaic.10 Its natural meaning would be spirit or wind of Elohim.
The term elohim is the usual Hebrew word for "God"; however,
J.M.P. Smith has suggested that it may also function as a superlative
meaning "strong," "powerful," "terrible," or "stormy."11 However, as D.
W. Thomas remarks, it is difficult or even impossible to find OT
examples of the use of the divine name only as an epithet of intensity.12
5 E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers
of English (Jerusalem: The University of Haifa, 1987), 610.
6 L. A. Schokel, Diccionario Biblico Hebreo-Espanol (Madrid: Trotta, 1994), 692.
7 See C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (U7), Analecta Orientalia 38 (Roma: Pontificium
Institutum Biblicum, 1965), n. 2308.
8 Jenni and Westermann, 2:914-915.
9 M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the
Midrashic Literature (New York: Title, 1943), 2:1458.
10 See A. Even-Shoshan, A New Concordance of
the Old Testament (
Sefer, 1990), 1064-1066. The Hebrew texts are Gen 1:2; 41:38; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:2;
1 Sam 10:10; 11:6; 16:15, 16, 23; 18:10; 19:20, 23; 2 Chron 15:1; 24:20; Ezek 11:24. The
Aramaic texts are Dan 4:5, 6, 15; 5:11, 14.
11 J M.P. Smith, "The Use of Divine Names as Superlatives," American Journal of Semitic
Languages 45 (1928-29): 212-220; see also Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary,
trans. J. J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 107. In a similar vein, G. von Rad points
out that ruah elohim should be translated as "God's storm = a terrible storm," noting that
the phrase is related to the description of the chaos and does not yet refer to creation (El
Libro del Genesis [
12 D. W. Thomas, "A Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the
Superlative in Hebrew," VT 30 (1953): 209-224.
THE EARTH OF GENESIS 1:2: ABIOTIC OR CHAOTIC? 61
G. J. Wenham clearly affirms that reducing elohim to merely a superlative
seems improbable since in other biblical texts the word always means
"God." Moreover, there is no other example in the OT in which the
expression ruah elohim means "strong or powerful wind"; in fact, it
always refers to God's Spirit or Wind."
Contemporary scholars are divided between two basic interpretations
of ruah elohim. One understanding is that ruah elohim refers to the
Creator of the Universe, to the Deity's presence and activity." The
second holds that ruah elohim refers to an element sent by God, as part
of the description of the chaos.15 In a similar vein, E. A. Speiser translates:
13 G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1987),1:17. Cf. also A. P. Ross,
Creation and Blessing: A
Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (
1988), 107; V. P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapics:
Eerdmans, 1990), 111; and E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One (
and Reformed, 1979), 37, n. 37. See, for instance, Gen 41:38; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:2;
Sam 10:10; 16:14, 16; 18:10; 19:20, 23; 1 Chron 24:20; Ezek 11:24.
14 Scholars who favor this interpretation include: I. Blythin ("A Note on Genesis 1:2" VT
12 : 120-121); U. Cassuto (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: From Adam to Noah
I. Abrahams [
Testament, SBT 27 [
& T. Clark, 1897], 1:59); S. R. Driver (The
Book of Genesis [
Gorg ("Religionsgeschichtliche Beobachtungen zur Rede vom `Geist Gottes,"' Word and World
:129-148); V. P. Hamilton, 111-112;D. Kidner (Genesis [
D. Lys ( Ruach' Le Souffle dans lAncien Testament [
176-182); R. Luyster ("Wind and Water: Cosmogonic Symbolism in the Old Testament," ZAW
93 : 1-10); K. A. Mathews (Genesis 1-11:26, New American Commentary [Broadman &
Holman,1996],131,135); W. H. McClellan ("The Meaning of Ruah Elohim in Genesis 1, 2," Bib
15 : 517-527); S. Moscati ("The Wind in Biblical and Phoenician Cosmogony," JBL 66
:305-3 10); J. P. Peters ("The Wind of God," JBL 30 :44-54 and JBL 33 :81-86);
Genesis, Kommentar zum Alten Testament [
426); N. H. Ridderbos ("Genesis i. 1 and 2," Studies on the Book of Genesis, Old Testament
Studies 12 [
eaux et de la terre ferme dans le recit sacerdotal," NRT 103 : 528-530); J. Skinner (A
Critical and Exegetical
Commentary on Genesis,
H. Steck (Der Schopfungsbericht der Priesterschrii: Studien zur literarkritischen and
von Genesis 1,1-2,4a [
Ruprecht, 1981; L. Waterman ("Cosmogonic Affinities in Genesis 1:2," American Journal of
Semitic Languages 43 : 177-184); Wenham, 17.
15 Scholars who support this position include E. Arbez and J. Weisengoff ("Exegetical
Notes on Genesis 1:1-2," CBQ 10 :147-15C)); W. Eichrodt (Theology of the Old Testament,
01d Testament Library, trans. J. A. Baker [
("Das Chaos in der biblischen and in der phonizischen Kosmogonie," Kliene Schriften [
Mohr, 1963] 2:258-262); K. Galling ("Der Charakter der Chaosschilderung in Gen 1,2," ZTK47 :
151-155); R. Kilian ("Gen 12 and die Urgotter von Hermopolis," VT 16 : 420-438); W. H.
Schmidt (Die Schopfungsgeschichte der Priesterschrift: Zur
62 SEMINARY STUDIES 38 (SPRING 2000)
"an awesome wind sweeping over the water."16
The suggestion that ruah should be interpreted in Gen 1:2 as "wind"
appears already in the Tg. Onq.: "And the wind from the Lord was blowing
over the surface of the waters." However, this translation is not found in the
Tg. Ps.-J. and Tg. Yer. McClellan finds the translation "wind" supported by
Rabbinic literature originally attributed to Rabbis Ibn Ezra and Saadiah.17
However, Cassuto rejects this interpretation as inappropriate to the text.18
H. M. Orlinsky defends the translation "wind" in Gen 1:2c by
affirming that the biblical version of the creation derives to a great extent
from the Mesopotamian creation stories in which wind has an important
role.19 In the Enuma elish, Anu begets the four winds, which are associated
with Tiamat and created earlier than the universe (I:105, 106). When
Marduk resolves to destroy Tiamat, the four winds help him: "The south
wind, the north wind, the east wind, (and) the west wind" (IV: 3). Then
Imhullu is created: "the evil wind, the whirlwind, the hurricane" (lines IV:
45, 46).20 Later Marduk sets the evil wind free and leads it to the mouth
of Tiamat (IV: 96-99). The north wind, then, helps to carry the remains
of Tiamat to "out-of-the-way places" (IV: 132). This account deals with a
theme totally different from the one found in Gen 1:2; therefore, the
mention of the winds in the Enuma elish does not truly support the
translation "God's winds" in Gen 1:2.21
In the same article Orlinsky
also appeals to Rabbi
century A.D.), who affirms that on the first day of Creation ten elements
were created. Among these were rwh wmym, translated as "wind and
water." As Young points out, if this translation is correct, it simply shows
ancient Hebrew exegetical use.22
Uberlieferungsgeschichte von Genesis 1, 1-2,4a und 2,4b-3,24 [Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener,
1973], 81-84); J.M.P. Smith ("The Syntax and Meaning of Genesis 1:1-3," American Journal of Semitic
Languages 44 [1927/28]:108-115); P. J. Smith ("A Semotactical Approach to the Meaning of the Term
ruah 'elohim in Genesis 1:2," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 8 : 99-104); L.I.J. Stadelmann
(The Hebrew Conception of the World: A
Philological and Literary Study [
1970], 14-15); B. Vawter (On Genesis: A New
von Rad, 58-59; Westermann, 106-108.
16 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, AB (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 3, 5.
17 McClellan, 518.
18 Cassuto, 24.
19 H. M. Orlinsky, "The Plain Meaning of RUAH in Gen 1:2," JQR 48 (1957/58):174-182.
20 A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963),22, 37, 38.
for an analysis of the inconsistency in Orlinsky's arguments,
THE EARTH OF GENESIS 1:2: ABIOTIC OR CHAOTIC? 63
Contrary to Orlinsky's proposal, 34 of the 35 times that elohim appears
in the Gen 1 Creation account, it refers undoubtedly to the Deity.23
Moreover, in Gen 1:1 and 1:3, which are the immediate context of 1:2,
elohim clearly refer to the Creator.24 It would be difficult to accept that Gen
1:2c does not refer to divinity, especially when the Hebrew has numerous
other clear ways to describe a powerful wind or a heavy storm.25 In addition,
when ruah appears in the Hebrew genitive construction with elohim (or
YHWH) it always refers to some activity or aspect of the deity.26 As Moscati
indicates, elohim in Gen 1:2c has a personal meaning, and the attempt to
exclude God from this important stage of the Creation fails completely.27
Recently DeRoche suggested that the use of ruah, "wind," in Gen 8:1
and Exod 14:21 "leads to the division within the bodies of water, and
consequently, the appearance of dry land"; therefore, "the ruah elohim,
"wind or spirit of God" of Gen 1:2, "must also be a reference to the
creative activity of the deity."28 DeRoche concludes:
The ruah elohim of Gen 1:2c refers to the impending creative activity of the
deity. It is neither part of the description of chaos, nor does it refer to a
wind sent by Elohim, if by wind is meant the meteorological phenomenon
of moving air. It expresses Elohim's control over the cosmos and his ability to
impose his will upon it. As part of v. 2 it is part of the description of the
way things were before Elohim executes any specific act of creation.29
Nicolas Wyatt, in a recent article about the darkness in Gen 1:2,
concluded his exegetical study by pointing out that the logical structure of the
verse implies the initial stages in the manifestation of the deity; it is an unusual
account of a theophany. In this way, according to Wyatt, Gen 1:2 refers to
God's invisibility in the context of a primeval cosmogony.30
23 M. DeRoche, "The ruah elohim in Gen 1:2c: Creation or Chaos?" in Ascribe to the
Lord: Biblical and Other Studies in Memory of Peter C. Craigie, ed. L. Eslinger and G. Taylor,
JSOTSS 67 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), 307.
24 Moscati, 307.
25 Ibid.; cf. also Davidson, 16; Hamilton, 112. Whenever the biblical Hebrew refers to
a "strong, powerful or stormy wind" it uses expressions with no ambiguity at all such as ruah
gedola (1 Kgs 19:11; Job 1:19; Jonah 1:4; etc.); ruah se ara or se arot (Pss 107:25; 148:8; etc.);
ruah qadim is the stormy wind that destroys the ships (Ps 47:7; Jer 18:17; etc.)
25 See D.
Testament," in Biblical Essays, Proceedings of the Ninth Meeting of the Old Testament
27 Moscati, 308.
28 DeRoche, 314-315.
29 Ibid, 318; emphasis added.
30 N. Wyatt, "The Darkness of Genesis 1:2," VT 43 (1993): 546-552.
64 SEMINARY STUDIES 38 (SPRING 2000)
Finally, the concept "wind of God" becomes unsustainable when
the rest of Gen 1 is considered. Sarna points out that "wind" has no
function in the rest of the story." The uninhabited and empty earth
is covered by vegetation, animals, and human life. Darkness is
separated from light under the regulation of the luminaries.
Throughout Gen 1 there is a clear development of the elements that
appear in Gen 1:2.
Merahepet in Gen 1:2
Biblical Use of merahepet
Merahepet is a Pi'el feminine singular participle of the verb rahap,
"hover" (BDB); "hover, fly, flutter"32; "Zitternd schweben" (KBS). In
addition, the Targumic, Talmudic, and Midrashic literature interpret
mrhpt as "to move, hover, flutter."33 This meaning is supported by the
Ugaritic in which eagles are pictured as hovering over their prey, ready to
dart down upon it.34
Deut 32:11 uses this verb, also in the Pi'el. Here the Lord is pictured
nest, that flutters [rahap] over its young, spreading out its wings,
catching them, bearing them on its pinions" (RSV) The verb describes
the actions of the mother eagle after the young are out of the nest or,
when they are compelled to leave the nest. In this text merahepet can
only be construed as hovering or fluttering and cannot describe the
action of a "mighty wind."35 Following this analogy, ruah elohim in Gen
1:2 is described as a living being who hovers like a bird over the created
31 Sarna, Genesis, 6.
32 Klein, 614.
33 Jastrow, 1468.
34 Young, 36, n. 36.
Other scholars who agree with this interpretation are
McClellan, 526-527; Ross, 107; Wenham, 1:17; and Westermann, 107. T. Friedman points
out that the interpretation of ruah elohim in Gen 1:2 as "strong wind" is inappropriate
for this text because both in the biblical and Ugaritic texts the root *rhp describes the
actions of birds (living beings) and not the actions of the winds (inanimate phenomena);
see his "Weruah elohim merahepet a1~pene hammayim [Gen 1:2]," Beth Mikra 25 :
36 Young, 37.
THE EARTH OF GENESIS 1:2: ABIOTIC OR CHAOTIC? 65
Rhp in Ugaritic Literature
The Ugaritic term equivalent to the Heb rahap is the verb rhp.37 In
Ugaritic texts this verb is always associated with eagles.38 While C. H.
Gordon suggests the meaning "to soar" for the Ugaritic rhp,39 Gibson prefers
the verb "hover" in his translation of two sections of the Epic of Aqhat.
[Above him] eagles shall hover, [a flock] of hawks look down.
Among the eagles I myself will hover.40
Del Olmo Lete points out, just as Gibson does, that the Ugaritic rhp is a
cognate of Heb rahap.41
In conclusion, the use of rhp in the Ugaritic literature agrees with the
idea that this is an activity carried out by a living being. Thus the
appropriate translation of Gen 1:2c is "the Spirit of God was hovering
over the waters." To complete the analysis of the verse, its place within
its context must be studied.
Gen 1:2 in the Context of Gen 1
The interpretation of Gen 1:2 perfectly fits the literary structure of the
chapter. In v. 2 the author does not turn his attention to the "heavens," but
to the earth, where his audience is, and presents "the earth"--the familiar earth
with vegetation, animals, and human beings--as not yet existing. Therefore,
both the third (vegetation) and the sixth (animal and human life) days of
Creation are the climax of the literary structure of the Creation account, while
its zenith is reached with the creation of human beings on the sixth day.42
37 It appears in the transliteration of the text 1 Aqht.I.32: 1 bt . abh. nsrm. tr [hpn] (UT,
245); and 3 Aqht:20, 21, 3132:(20) nsrm. trhpn. ybsr. [hbld] (21) iym. bn. nsrm. arhp. an [k
l] (31) trhpn. ybsr. hbl. diy[m bn] (32) nsrm trhp. nt. l [aqht ] (UT, 249). See also M. Dietrich,
Loretz, and J. Sanmartin,
Die keilalphabetischen Texte
aus Ugarit (KTU), ALASP 8 (
Ugarit-Verlag, 1995). It is the transliteration of the text 1.18 IV 20, 21, 31, 32: (20) nsrm. trhpn
ybsr. [hbl. d] (21) iym. bn. nsrm. arhp. an [k. ] 1(31) trhpn. ybsr. hbl. diy[m. bn] (32) nsrm
trhp. 'nt. l [ .aqht] (KTU, 55); and 1.19132: l. bt. abh. nsrm. trbpn (KTU, 56).
39 UT 484.
See also S. Segert, A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language (
40 Ugaritic text 18 IV 20, 21, 31, 32; 19132. J.C.L. Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends
(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1978), 112,113. Del O1mo Lete uses the Spanish "revolotear," to
fly over, to flutter; Mitos y leyendas de
Gibson, "hovered, soared" (CML, 158).
42 Wenham, 1:6; B. W. Anderson, Creation versus Chaos: The Reinterpretation of Mythical
Symbolism in the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 187-191.
66 SEMINARY STUDIES 38 (SPRING 2000)
Gen 1:2 shows the earth as unproductive and uninhabited (tohu
wabohu) within the literary structure of Gen 1.43
[DAY 1] light and darkness [DAY 4] "sun" and "moon"
[DAY 2] two waters [DAY 5] fish and birds
[DAY 3] earth and seas [DAY 6] animals and man
vegetation on the earth
The earth became productive when God said, tadse haares dese ("let the
land produce vegetation," v. 11) on the third day. The "empty" earth, i.e.,
"yet uninhabited" became inhabited when God said watose haares nepes
hayya ("let the land produce living creatures," v. 24) and naaseh adam
besalmenu kidmutenu ("let us make man in our image, in our likeness," v.
26). Therefore, the "unproductive and empty/uninhabited" earth became
productive, with vegetation, animals, and man created by God's fiat. The
Gen 1 creation account affirms that God created human beings "in his
image" and provided an inhabitable and productive earth for them.44
This analysis of the Heb of Gen 1:2 has sought to find answers to
difficult questions. Does Gen 1:2 describe a watery chaos that existed before
the Creation? Is there a direct relationship between Gen 1:2 and the
mythology called Chaoskampf? Do tobu wabohu, tehom and ruah 'elohim in
Gen 1:2 suggest a chaotic state or an abiotic state of the earth?
Our study of the OT and ANE literature has found that Gen 1:2 must
be interpreted as the description of the earth as it was without vegetation and
uninhabited by animals and humans. The concept that appears in Gen 1:2 is
an abiotic concept of the earth, with vegetable, animal, and human life
appearing in the following verses.
Additional support for the abiotic state of the earth is found in the
parallel between Gen 1:2 and 2:5, which is generally admitted.45
Gen 1:2: "The earth was formless and empty" //
Gen 2:5: "No shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of
the field had yet sprung up, for ... there was no man to work the ground."
Gen 1:2 provides the background for the development of the narration,
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 78; D. T. Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2--
A Linguistic Investigation, JSOT Supplement Series 83 (Sheffield, ENG: JSOT Press, 1989), 42.
44 Tsumura, 42-43.
45 See, for example, W. H. Shea, "Literary Structural Parallels between Genesis 1 and 2,"
Origins 16 (1989): 49-68.
THE EARTH OF GENESIS 1:2: ABIOTIC OR CHAOTIC? 67
which shows the earth full of life and inhabitants (Gen 1:11-12, 20, 24, 26).46
The earth is not described as being in a chaotic state after a previous
destruction, but as being barren and not yet developed. In addition to showing
the initial state of creation, the verse presents God as author of life, without
whom there can be no life. Life is present only in God's Spirit; the elements
of the earth are lifeless and awaiting the Spirit's command. Here God's Spirit
is about to create life, to change an abiotic state to a biotic state of vegetable,
animal, and human life through the divine fiat.
The objective of this research was to discover if Gen 1:2 contains
evidence of the existence of a mythological battle (Chaoskampf) between the
creator-god and the powers of the chaos, such as Gunkel and others have
suggested. This is an important question, for if Gunkel's presuppositions are
true, "it is also no longer allowable in principle to reject the possibility that
the whole chapter might be a myth that has been transformed into
narrative."47 On the contrary, if there is no linguistic and biblical foundation
for the assumption, it is more difficult to insist that the Genesis account is a
myth such as those of ANE literature.
In conclusion, it is of utmost importance to reiterate the differences
between the Hebrew cosmology and the Mesopotamian cosmogony. Sarna
explains: "The Hebrew cosmology represents a revolutionary break with the
contemporary world, a parting of the spiritual ways that involved the
undermining of the entire prevailing mythological world-view. These new
ancient world."48 Sarna found that "the supreme characteristic of the
Mesopotamian cosmogony" was "that it is embedded in a mythological
matrix. On the other hand, the outstanding peculiarity of the biblical account
is the complete absence of mythology in the classical pagan sense of the term.
... Nowhere is this non-mythological outlook better illustrated than in the
Genesis narrative. The Hebrew account is matchless in its solemn and majestic
simplicity.... The clear line of demarcation between God and His creation
was never violated. Nowhere is this brought out more forcefully than in the
Hebrew Genesis account."49
46 See D. L. Roth, "Genesis and the Real World," Kerux 9 (1994): 30-54.
47 H. Gunkel, "Influence of Babylonian Mythology upon the Biblical Creation Story,"
in Creation in the Old Testament, ed. B. W. Anderson, Issues in Religion and Theology, vol.
6 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984),26-27, emphasis added, first published in Schopfungund Chaos
in Urzeit and Endzeit (1895), 3-120.
48 N. M. Sarna,
Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of
Schocken, 1970), xxviii.
49 Ibid., 9-11, emphasis added.
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