In the Beginning:
Creation Out of Nothing or Something?
In the beginning, what was it like as the world began? Was the origin out of nothing (creation ex nihlio) or was chaos ordered? These questions grow out of the account of creation found in Genesis 1-2:4a.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth (‘eres), the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “let there be light”; and there was light.
I am interested in the question of chaos. Does this text demonstrate that God sets about to order the chaotic world? Is chaos completely ordered or is it able to break through those bonds at any time?
This question of chaos is intriguing because modern science has introduced the idea that chaos is all around us with our actions being connected in ways we could not possibly imagine. The idea is that when a butterfly flaps its wings in South American this can lead to a Tsunami in Indonesia. Within scientific circles there is also the sense that life, as we know it began out of nothing, but this nothing was actually something.
In these first few verses of Genesis we begin to form a picture of who God is and how God acts. God is the creator of Heaven and Earth. God was there before the beginning. God speaks and creation begins. That before the first act we know that God was and chaos was.
God’s act of creation is described using three different words.
God made (asa) the firmament, heavenly bodies, sea animals and birds, land animals, and humanity;
God distinguished (hibdil) light and darkness, the waters above and the firmament below, the water and dry land;
God created (bara) sea creatures, birds, humanity.
All that God made in this creative act was called good. God is the one who created the heavens and earth and speaks to start the process of creation. The word spoken is a command brought to the “unformed and void, with the darkness over the surface of the deep” (1:3).
The writer of this creation story, commonly called P or the Priestly writer, shows how at the heart of God's acts is order. Everything is to have a place and function. The structure of this first creation story follows the same pattern: God said, God saw, and God pronounces creation good. The disorder prior to creation is summoned and commanded into a new state. The first act is a command, “let there be light” (Gen 1:3). In the priestly history found in the Pentateuch, God gives commands and people are to obey. Unruly creation is brought to order by the deity.
This unruly chaos can be undone by the word of God.
In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened ( Gen 7:11).
The heavens open and the waters erupt. The firmament that God made to hold back the waters of chaos collapses. The chaos that God ordered in creation can also be released and allowed to flood the earth once again.
One of the textual questions found in Gen 1:1-3 is over “while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (1:2). Is this a wind from God, the breath of God, or God? This can be translated as “a mighty wind swept over the surface of the waters (Von Rad, Speiser, Schmidt, and Westemann) or “the breath of God” or “the Spirit of God” sweeping, hovering over the waters (Cassuto, Kidner, Gipsen, Skinner, Proscksch, Wenhem). The image of the wind of God sweeping over chaos until that moment when it is time to begin ordering and creating the heavens and earths, provides an image of God as present before creation begins. God is not created; God does the creating.
This text is attributed to a time of exile in which the Babylonians have defeated and captured Israel. A creation story created out of this time, asserts that God is still there hovering over creation and will bring about creation’s well being. To say to those in exile that the God of Israel is the Creator of all of life is a comforting powerful word.
When people are living a life that seems formless and void, when darkness appears to be all around, to say to the exiled that God can take that chaos, can take the formless and void and give it new meaning, make the light reappear. Creation is not from nothing, but God can order the already existing chaos. There is a sense of comfort in knowing that when you are in exile, when it appears that God is gone; God is the one who can break in and reorder the world, making it good. God is before creation bringing order in what looks like a chaotic world.
 Bruce K. Waltke, “The creation Account in Genesis 1:1-3, Part III: The Initial Chaos Theory and the Precreation Chaos Theory,” Bibliotheca Sacra 133 (July 1975, 337.
 Robert B. Coote and David Robert Ord, In the Beginning: Creation and the Priestly History, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 51, 56.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 1, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 25.