Troublesome Topic: Possible Symbolism of Genesis 1

Genesis 1:1


In the beginning ELOHIM

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the heavens

and the earth,


In the beginning THE CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS created

the realms above the earth that are mostly unknown to us, and the realm we know and live in,

Genesis 1:2


and the earth was

shapeless and empty,

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and darkness

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was over the face of the sea,

and the Spirit of ELOHIM

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above the face of the waters.  (See comment below.)


at which time the earth was undeveloped and uninhabited, and there was a sense of gloom and hopelessness that hovered over the visible expression of the overwhelming and foreboding mass, but the Spirit of THE CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS was in action over the feelings that welled up from inside of that great mass of potential.   (See comment below.)



Possible Symbolism of Genesis 1

Genesis one is probably not intended as true symbolism, yet it can be argued that hints of symbolism are present. The people of ancient times loved symbolism, and it was not uncommon for them to find double and even triple meanings in a word or phrase. In Genesis 1:2 the Jewish mind may easily have stepped over into considering the symbolic meaning of various elements of this passages to see if they might enrich the passage. When a passage that seemed to lean toward a literal, factual interpretation was also full of words that in other parts of their literature were commonly used as imagery, they would at least consider the possibility of symbolism to see if it added to the impact of the passage.


It is not hard to see why ancient peoples saw darkness as a symbol for evil, for danger, and for fear. It was during the darkness of night that robbers and other evil men did their evil works. It was at night that dangerous animals prowled about. Saying that darkness was over the face of the watery depths was a type of negative; it showed the need for God to act. 


The face expresses what a person is thinking or feeling inside. In Scripture the outward expression of an internal attitude usually has to do with a relationship, either a close relationship, such as marriage, or a relationship with a huge disparity in authority, such as a ruler to a subject. In those contexts the face is used most often regarding expressions of favor or judgment. If this usage had any symbolism in it at all, it would have been stripped of the concept of relationship and would have pictured the water as hopeful, and expectant, knowing it had potential but needing God to act in order to bring out that potential.


The sea was seen by the ancients as dangerous and deadly. Sailors would leave and never come back. Storms were worse on the sea than on dry land. Also, since one cannot see very far into the deep water, one cannot know what terrible sea monsters may be lurking under there. The sea was often called the abyss, the place of death. The prior use of the term “darkness” seems to favor this being a symbol of foreboding and hopelessness, of danger and a lack of life.


In Hebrew “waters” only had a plural form; there was no singular form. However, it was used with singular and plural meaning, with context telling the reader what was intended. When the word “waters” was used in a plural sense, as we see at the end of verse 2, it represented an abundance of whatever was being talked about. It served as an adjective. If it stood alone, as it does in this passage, it simply means abundance in general.

The word for “waters” differs from the word used earlier and translated “sea,” “the deep” or even “the abyss.” The first one emphasizes the dark and fearful aspects of so much water, while this second reference emphasizes the potential held in so much water. The former seems to prohibit life, while the latter is life-giving. This is the first of many situations which demonstrate that God is good at turning negative situations into positive ones. It is also the first of many issues that involve two aspects pulling in opposite directions in order to create a final condition of balance.

Our lives can go one of two directions, they can be filled with turmoil, or filled with peace. If life is tumultuous it is usually our own doing. We can choose to focus on the unknowns, the things we have no control over; or we can choose to seek God’s peace. We can call life calm and peace-filled even though there are still unknowns. In order to have peace we must place the unknowns in His hands.

The next lesson is: The Chemistry of Water



“Elohim” can mean “god, ruler, judge, or divine one.” In my paraphrase column I try to emphasize that the God we are talking about is first of all the one that created all things, and based in His creative acts is also the proper owner of all things. Humans would later choose other gods for themselves, gods of their own making, but none of them have the power to create anything.

2: “created”

Although this word is used various times in Scripture of making something new, it does not have to have that meaning. Its usages include the ideas of “cutting, shaping, making or creating.” Cutting seems to be a prominent idea within this word, although it does not fit the creation narrative as well, unless you think of God’s work in dividing things He had made, but that work is expressed using a different word.


If one considers the emphasis of “empty” to be “uninhabited,” as I have done in the paraphrase column, it becomes a hint at the creation of man in God’s image. It also sets the stage for the pattern God will use for Creation Week: He makes something, and then he separates it into distinguishable sectors, some of which are opposite each other. He also creates things in an empty condition and then returns to fill them.

4: “darkness”

To see my discussion of that symbolism, see the comment which interrupts the text after verse 2.

5: “spirit of Elohim”

Now we are introduced to another member of the God-head, the Spirit of God. The ancient Hebrews were not as clear as we are about the three-in-one nature of God, however, they had an inkling that God was at least two “members,” God and His Spirit.

6: "hovered":

This Hebrew verb can be rendered “to flutter, hover or move gently and with care, also brood.” The first three options are closer to the main idea because it involves movement, while “brood” takes things a different direction because it involves sitting still. Why would the Spirit of God hover over the chaotic original mass of creation? I believe that Deuteronomy 32:11 gives us a good answer using this very word picture. There a mother eagle is pictured as hovering over her young in order to show them how to use their wings. She also stirs up the nest and finally kicks them out of the nest, but it starts with showing them an example. Therefore that last part of Genesis 1:2 is included in order to show us that the intent of God’s Spirit was to help created matter move from a chaotic, useless state, to a useful and organized condition.