If we can think of anything that is true about God alone, it is the ability to Create ex nihilo. The event that is the defining symbol of God’s sovereign, limitless power is Creation ex nihilo. That God created the heavens and the earth, from nothing that was already existing, is foundational. All of what we know and believe about God is built upon the divine attributes and invisible qualities implied by God’s creating the entire cosmos. Creation ex nihilo is so important to belief in an omnipotent and transcendent God that the first attacks on God’s existence focus on whether the Bible speaks the truth about His creative work.
Because Creation is so foundational, we do not accept any ambiguity about the statement: “God created the heavens and the earth.” Our most familiar English translations of Genesis 1:1 are so final, so certain. But could it be possible that the Hebrew text is ambiguous in this very issue? Could it be possible that the Hebrew text leaves open the possibility that God is still working? Our English translations convey the sense that God created in the beginning, and it was complete. Our translations give me the impression of a child who has returned from school with news of something exciting. “Dad, I made a robot! Now, let me tell you what I did…” Our translations give the feeling that they announce a finished work, with subsequent details given to convey exactly what happened. There is no sense of continuing activity. No sense of the possibility that the account might not be complete. The end of the work, not its beginning, is prioritized in the translations.
Consider the English Standard Version of Genesis 1:1-3–
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light
But compare this to the Jewish Publication Society translation of these same verses:
When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
And the Young’s Literal Translation, 3rd Revision:
In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth—the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness [is] on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters, and God Smith, ‘Let light be,’ and light is.
In the ESV (and NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, KJV, and most other modern English versions used by Protestants), the creation has a definite end. The period after “earth” makes it seem as if the rest of Genesis 1 is recounting an event only after it has been completely observed. However, look at the JPS version or the YLT version. These versions indicate that God’s work is beginning, but there is not a definite ending of the creating. We are watching something in progress. The omission of a period after “earth” allows the action to continue, and makes Genesis 1:1 an initiation of action, not a report of past events but of something continuing. Genesis 1:1 is an announcement that God is at work!
I was first made aware of these differences while reading Aviya Kushner’s The Grammar of God: a Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible. Her book is a window into her encounter with the English Bible through which we are able to look on the differences between the Hebrew and the English, the ways in which culture and language obscure and illuminate the Scripture. Kushner writes that some of the punctuation and capitalization—none of which is present in the Hebrew—“makes everything look confident, definite… here, this is where it starts, this is where it ends.” On the other hand, the Hebrew is more flexible than the English, and can be “ambiguous, rich, lyrical, evocative” with the thoughts and actions flowing into one another.
When I am guided through other English translations by Kushner, I can’t help but notice how the Protestant translations I usually read make it seem, as Kushner observed, that the work stops—that it ends here. Creation is not ongoing; it is not connected to God’s continuing action in the world. The Hebrew is much more fluid and make clear that the beginning is connected to what God is doing next. Reflecting on all this makes me ask the question: Could it be possible that Genesis 1:1 is connected to what God is doing now? While Kushner is Jewish, not a Jesus follower, her observations lead me to remember what Jesus says about His Father in John 5:
For this reason the Jews began to persecute Jesus continually because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now [He has never ceased working], and I too am working.” -John 5:16-17, AMP
When Jesus says, “My Father is working until now,” we have to ask ourselves two questions. What is God doing? And When did God start working? I suggest that Jesus is hinting at the Creation in Genesis 1:1. Creation never definitely ended, and God is still working at it. While God saw that the world He made was, in fact, good, God is continuing His creative work today. God’s creative work is a constant theme of the Bible, and if we use the Hebrew as a clue, His creative work has never stopped. There is no period after “earth,” because God never stopped working.
One might ask: “What is God doing? What is He creating?” God is doing so much in us and around us once we understand His work has never stopped. For example, He is creating in us a clean heart:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. -Psalm 51:10, ESV
and here as well:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. -Ezekiel 36:26-27, RSV
He is working to fulfill his promises to those who have faith in Him, even if those promises involve a new creation:
As it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. -Romans 4:17, ESV
He is working in us to His pleasure:
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. -Philippians 2:13, ESV
and He is working to create a nation for His Son:
And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” they will be called “sons of the living God.” -Romans 9:26
As we can see from these and many more examples not listed here, God has never stopped creating. He was creating all the way through the Scriptures, and He is at work creating in our lives up until now. When we read Genesis 1:1 with a period after “earth,” we must take care to remember that God is still at work on what he started in the beginning. After all, the tension between completing and laboring is something we are intimately familiar with. For example, although the heavens and the earth have been brought forth, the first time we hear “it is finished” is when Jesus speaks from the cross. And even though Jesus has declared His work done, He still lives in us today to do the work of the Father and to build up His body. What are the ways He is at work in and around you? How will you join him in working to His pleasure?