God has chosen to start his self-revelation in the Scriptures with this simple, magnificent sentence: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It is the foundation for the Bible, the interpretive framework for history and the theme song of heaven itself. The profound depth and glorious scope of its meaning is exposed and explained in the biblical text that follows it, but even here the fundamentals are plain: God existed before and independently of the creation; God made everything that is not himself; there was a beginning, and that was the point at which God made everything. See it, hear it, sense it, learn about it: God made it. As there is a beginning, there is a progression (not a cycle). There was a beginning, there is a progression, there will be an end. Always, even from its first sentence, the Bible holds out an eschatological hope in which this marred, deformed and deforming creation is being moved to an end when it will be replaced with perfection, a perfection in which the Creator’s glory will be transparent and we can have a place.
With verse 1 declaring that God made the universe out of nothing, verse 2 narrows the focus of Genesis 1 onto making the earth a “good” place for the gloriously variegated company of living things with which God intends to populate it. “The first verse of Genesis briefly records the creation of the universe in its essential form, and the second verse singles out a part of this universe, viz., the earth, and describes its condition in some detail.” [John Collins] But is verse one part of day one or some event prior to the first day? By asserting that in “six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them”, Exodus 20:11 unequivocally includes Genesis 1:1 (“God created the heavens and the earth”) in the six days of creation. “The beginning of the first day is not indicated, although, from Exodus 20:11, we may warrantably assume that it began at the absolute beginning, Genesis 1:1.” [E J Young] Verse one is part of day one.
But since “the beginning” is used without telling us which beginning, could it not refer to some event – called “the beginning” – before (or long before) day 1? “The term ‘beginning’ in biblical Hebrew marks a starting point of a specific duration, … In opening the account of Creation with the phrase ‘in the beginning’ the author has marked Creation as the starting point of a period of time.”[J Sailhamer] Here is “the beginning of the history that follows.”[F Delitzsch] The “beginning” of verse 1 is the beginning of the creation account that is unfolded in the rest of the chapter.
Does God create “from nothing” or is there something in the beginning from which he creates? The grammatical construction of Genesis 1:1 affirms “unequivocally the truth laid down elsewhere (eg Hebrews 11:3) that until God spoke, nothing existed.”[D Kidner] This is creation ex nihilo.
So the first day of creation begins with God making the universe. Except, he doesn’t call it “the universe,” but “the heavens and the earth.” Why? We regard the whole creation as a universe integrated and united in some way. Not so the ancient Hebrews. For the writer and his readers, there could be no universe, for only God has complete unity:
The concept of the unity of the world was unknown among the Israelites till a late period … the ancient Hebrew conceived God alone as a unity; what we designate the ‘universe’ they regarded as two separate entities: the heavens are the Lord’s but the earth he has given to the sons of men. (Psalm 115:16)[Cassuto ]
So the first day of creation begins with God making the heavens and the earth out of nothing, then creating light. Over five more days God will refine the earth part of that creation – moving and transforming water and land, and creating lights and life – until it is perfectly suited to his plans. At the beginning the Cosmic Sculptor has formed his base material, an earth layered in darkness and deep, and now he watches over it, pondering, then taking, the next step with deliberation. He creates light.
(Adapted from Michael's Book The Misted World of Genesis One)