Layer 1: Song (shirah)

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Layer 1: Song (shirah)
from The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach
by Gregg Davidson & Kenneth J. Turner

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . .
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
(Job 38:4, 7)

The opening line of the Bible makes two grand statements. One, there was a beginning. The universe did not always exist. The history of earth and the cosmos does not extend infinitely into the past. There was a definitive moment in which it began.[1] Two, that beginning owes its existence to a singular, omnipotent deity, identified later in the text as Yahweh—a name rich in meaning, signifying a God who is self-existent, self-defining, and ever-present.[2]

In the next phrase (Gen. 1:2) we are told that the world was tohu wabohu, usually translated as variations of “formless” (tohu) and “empty” (bohu). Emptiness is the easier term to understand, though it does not simply mean the absence of material items. It includes the sense of things missing that would normally be expected to be present. As an example from our own language and experience, we think of a house with no people or furniture as being empty, even though we know that it is not truly devoid of mate- rial substance. It is filled with the atoms that make up the air, specks of dust drift about the rooms, insects and spiders occupy its corners and crevices, and microorganisms thrive on every surface. The things we think should be there, however, are absent. In spite of the abundant molecules and microbes, it is an empty dwelling.

Formlessness is more nuanced. To be without form, in the Hebrew sense, includes lacking purpose, function, order, or meaning. Consider an analogy of a painter preparing to create a work of art. Before ever putting brush to pallet, a decision must first be made regarding the substrate. Will it be a wall for a mural, cold-press paper for a watercolor, or stretched canvas for an oil painting? The selection entails consideration of the purpose of the work, how it will function. What will be its form? Once selected, the painter now has a substrate, but it is empty—a blank surface that awaits filling with colors, textures, patterns, and images. God, as the ultimate Artist, recognized the need not only for things to fill empty spaces but also for those spaces to have purpose, order, and function.[3]

As God prepares to form and to fill, a curious statement is made. In the darkness, God’s Spirit moves over the face of the deep, over the waters. Note that this comes before the first creative act of day 1. The presence of a world shrouded in darkness and encased in a primordial sea is not preceded by the familiar command “let there be,” nor is it declared to be good. Modern readers struggle with this description, for it seems out of place. God speaks of something that is present that he must have brought into being, yet it precedes the events of the first day of creation.

The description becomes less troublesome when we give attention to the culture into which the story was first spoken. Among the nations of the ancient Near East, origin stories told of the pre-creation condition as a great landless sea that gave rise first to the gods, who were then responsible for the creation, often by accident, of humans. In some accounts, the primordial sea was represented by a god of chaos that had to be conquered by the other gods before land and order could be established.[4] Genesis 1:2 takes hold of this cultural notion and applies it as a powerful word picture. The great deep— without solid foundation or mortal life—represents a disordered and empty waste. It was ripe with potential awaiting God’s creative command, but it was not good. It was a condition that agents of darkness and chaos would wish to regain and reinhabit. Even after creation was complete, the sea continued to represent a source of potential chaos in Hebrew thinking. It was the home of the great sea monsters, Leviathan and Rahab,[5] and the source from which the evil beasts arose in the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and John (Dan. 7; Rev. 13). It was this condition of darkness and disorder and emptiness that God’s Spirit surveyed, subduing and bringing forth light and order and substance.


[1] Scholars disagree whether Gen. 1:1 explicitly teaches the doctrine of creation from nothing (ex nihilo), though clearly other biblical passages do (e.g., Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3). The expression “heavens and the earth” is a statement of totality; everything that is—the world as we know it—was created by God. See Averbeck, “A Literary Day,” 9–12.

[2] The Hebrew, Yahweh, is a variant of the verb “to be” (hayah). The name first appears in Gen. 2:4, specifically identifying the creator as the God of Israel who redeemed his people from Egypt. For more on the meaning of the name, see Turner, “Exodus,” 84–86.

[3] The phrase tohu wabohu is also employed in Jer. 4:23 in a context in which God looked at the corruption of the land and spoke of it as returning to a disordered, purposeless condition (lacking form), devoid of meaningful life (empty). We will revisit this understanding in subsequent layers.

[4] For example, Tiamat was the primordial god of chaos in Babylonian mythology. More detail on ancient Near Eastern creation myths is provided in Layer 3 (“Polemic”).

[5] Leviathan: Ps. 104:26; Isa. 27:1. Rahab: a powerful sea monster in Jewish folklore, referenced in Job 9:13; 26:12; Ps. 89:10; Isa. 51:9.

This post is adapted from from The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach
by Gregg Davidson & Kenneth J. Turner, released October 28th 2021. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

See and celebrate the multilayered grandeur conveyed by the first chapter of Genesis

The first chapter of the Bible’s first book lays the foundation for all that follows about who God is and what God is like. Our technology-age fascination with the science of origins, however, can blind us to issues of great importance that don’t address our culturally conditioned questions. Instead, Genesis One itself suggests the questions and answers that are most significant to human faith and flourishing.

Geologist Gregg Davidson and theologian Ken Turner shine a spotlight on Genesis One as theologically rich literature first and foremost, exploring the layers of meaning that showcase various aspects of God’s character:

  • Song
  • Analogy
  • Polemic
  • Covenant
  • Temple
  • Calendar
  • Land

Our very knowledge of God suffers when we fail to appreciate the Bible’s ability to convey multilayered truth simultaneously. The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One offers readers the chance to cultivate an openness to Scripture’s richness and a deeper faith in the Creator.



Gregg Davidson (PhD, University of Arizona) is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. His other works include Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.
Kenneth J. Turner (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at Toccoa Falls College. His other works include The Death of Deaths in the Death of Israel.

About Author

(PhD, University of Arizona) is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. His other works include Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.

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