Updated: Nov 8, 2021
In fact, God created the universe out of nothing.
Bible Study Ideas and Things to Think About for Genesis 1:1-2:3
People argue endlessly about exactly how to interpret Genesis. But let’s make sure we can agree on the main purpose of this passage and lesson:
God demonstrated His power by speaking everything into existence
God demonstrated His care by purposefully crafting creation to sustain life
We acknowledge God by caring for His creation (esp. other people)
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
You have a bunch of options. However, the lesson itself covers so much critical stuff that I encourage you to keep it short.
The start of your favorite movie/book/event. When I hear the first words from The Fellowship of the Ring, or the Monday Night Football theme, or the first notes of the Aggie fight song, or the first words of the Gospel of John, I get excited. What gives you great anticipation? The point: Genesis starts the greatest story ever told.
Family tree/Ancestry.com. Our pastor has gotten on a family tree kick. He has used ancestry.com to trace his family back to the 1700s, and he’s learned some really interesting things about his ancestors. Some of your classes might be into that and would like to share their own stories. The point: Genesis tells us where we came from and where we’re going.
Genetic traits/family resemblance. If you don’t use this here, use it during the lesson. In what ways are you like your parents? Appearance? Mannerisms? Voice? This can be funny, or touchy (so please use discretion), but it’s a powerful lesson in the effect of DNA. The point: God created us in His image.
Tie-in to Revelation. We just covered the end of the story; remind your class of the themes in Revelation. God will judge sin and reward faithfulness. God will keep His promises. God will restore the world. Now, we see the beginning of the story—how everything was great and how everything went wrong.
Let’s Get Familiar with Genesis
Author. Until 19th century critics decided they knew better, every Jew and Christian had taught that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. The word “wrote” might be misleading because the Bible itself says that Joshua served as a scribe, and the end of Deuteronomy covers Moses’ death. Here’s how I explain it: God gave Moses the content of Genesis during the many sessions of law-giving. Moses (and Joshua) wrote it in the style of the existing Jewish oral tradition. Yes, there are similarities with creation stories from surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures, but I easily explain that in terms of Moses wanting to make sure that those cultures understood Yahweh God’s superiority to their false gods. (See Judg 3:4, 1 Ki 2:3, 2 Chr 35:12, Ez 3:2, Neh 8:1, Ps 103:7, Dan 9:11).
Purpose and Themes. I’ve already hinted at an external purpose: to promote Yahweh above all other gods. Internally (for the Jews), the book of Genesis explains the world to them. If Moses did indeed compile Genesis, that means it likely came out during the wandering in the wilderness when the people desperately needed to understand their unique identity with Yahweh and how/why they could trust Him. Genesis told them who they were and where they came from. Not coincidentally, it is equally helpful to us today . . .
In Genesis, we see all of the main themes of Scripture introduced:
God and His provision. God created an entire universe for Adam out of love and with a desire to have a relationship with him. We meet the all-powerful and personal God who is totally unlike any other near eastern god.
Human Worth. Humans are unique in the universe, so we should take one another seriously, compassionately, and constructively.
Sin. Adam and Eve disobey God’s command by yielding to temptation, and their children continue that downward spiral. In this, we learn why God seems distant from us and why people don’t act very much like God.
God’s Holiness. God set the rules because He knows what is good and right; our disobedience demands judgments, yet even in Genesis we see God’s mercy.
Covenant. God has a personal relationship with humans, demonstrated in His covenants with us. God has also promised His faithfulness to these covenants.
Forgiveness in Christ. All of these themes point to Jesus, who sustains the universe, who becomes human, who pays for sin, who demonstrates God’s forgiveness, who keeps God’s covenant, and who teaches us truth and justice.
Here is an excellent introduction from The Bible Project:
This Week's Big Idea: The Days of Creation / Watch Out for Traps
Ever since Darwin and then the fundamentalist/modernist controversies, Genesis 1 has become a trap for talking about the Bible. I say “trap” because now, if someone does not agree with a person’s position 100%, they are labeled a heretic, a nincompoop, or a Bible-hater. That’s not helpful. Here are the major paradigms people use to interpret Genesis 1:
Young-Earth Creationism. This believes that God used 6 literal 24-hour days to create the universe. I have no problems with this; God is more than capable of creating the conditions in the universe that we interpret as “old”.
Old-Earth Creationism. This is still a literal approach to Genesis 1, but believes that “day” is a poetic term for any length of time. I have no problems with this either. Early Hebrews didn’t really have a concept for “eon”.
Genesis 1 as Poetry. This steps away from the literal approach to appreciate Genesis 1 as beautiful, sweeping, and dramatic. God still created everything as described, but Genesis 1 is intended to be much more general than specific. I have no problems with this, as long as the “poem” means what it says.
The “Gap Theory”. There is a gap between verses 1 and 2 in which God tried out the things that make up the fossil record (and “Lillith”). There’s really nothing in the text to justify this, so I stay away from this idea.
Theistic Evolution. This says that God used evolutionary processes to create everything. It basically throws out any real meaning of Genesis 1, and it throws out any sense of God’s image, so I reject this interpretation. And I am extremely comfortable with the science against Darwinian evolution.
The Poetry and Power of Genesis 1
However we choose to interpret the days of creation, there can be no doubt as to the intricacy of it and the beauty of its language. I used to read the KJV version of Genesis 1 over and over again in awe of its beauty and God’s majesty.
Days of Forming
Days of Filling
4. Sun, moon, stars
2. Sea and sky
5. Fish and birds
3. Dry land and plants
6. Land animals and humans
Whether this is intended to be literal, poetic, overlapping, or whatnot, I don’t know. I believe you can read Genesis 1 literally while still appreciating that it is intended to be poetic and sweeping. But let’s not miss a greater point:
The Primary Gods of the Ancient Near East
Assyria’s ancestors: the sun and moon. Babylon’s ancestors: the stars and planets (they were the first astrologers). Egypt: the sun (Ra) and many different animals. Canaan and Akkadia: the storm/fertility (Adad and Ba’al). Sumeria: the sky (Anu). The important thing to note is that in Genesis 1 God declares absolute sovereignty over everything worshiped by Israel’s neighbors.
[Editor's Note: after this initial study, The Bible Project added an impressive "visual commentary" on Genesis 1:
Part 1: Out of Nothing (Genesis 1:1-2)
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
The focus is on God, not the mechanism of creation. God created the universe; He did so according to a careful, amazing plan, and He continues to preserve the universe. Importantly, He created out of nothing. This is what separates God from every other creation myth; God does not give order to preexisting chaos—God brings the universe into existence. (As a point of fact, the idea of an eternal universe is philosophical and logical nonsense. It had to start somewhere.)
When Micah and I talked about the “new heaven and new earth” after last week’s lesson, he was confused why God needed to create another heaven. I got to explain that the phrase there and here refers to what we now call the universe. The “heavens” can refer in Hebrew to the sky and to what we now call outer space. It is a plural noun in Hebrew, so don’t worry about the “-s”.
You’ll notice that the earth is the sole focus of creation. That should make sense: the Bible was written to people who live on the earth! To the ancient world, the earth is the most important thing in the universe. [Because we don’t know, speculate with me. What if there are no aliens? Would that not mean that God created the entire universe just for us? It’s possible. And if there are aliens, I would praise God for making the universe so interesting and diverse.] The activity of God focuses on the earth; God’s Spirit “hovers” (broods) over the earth, as a mother hen guarding an egg in a great storm. And I don’t get the sense that this happened quickly; we really have no idea what the time frame is. “Waters” and “depths” is likely just an attempt to describe the pre-formed, indescribable earth.
Aside: God Created [bara’]
The Hebrew word for “create” used in Genesis 1:1 [bara’] is a very emphatic word which can either mean “to CREATE”, “to form” or “to CUT DOWN”. There are other words for creating and making, but this one is always used for a first-time creation, and God is always the subject. It appears 3 times in this chapter: in the beginning (1:1), when God created the great sea creatures (1:21), and when God created humans (1:27). The middle usage is interesting because God has just called on the waters to teem with those creatures (just as He called for the earth to produce plants and animals), yet He injects Himself in the process. I am really not sure why. For 1:1 and 1:21, it is obvious: God is creating something special where nothing like it had existed before. Importantly, God continues to create in this special way. One day He will create [bara’] a new humanity (Psalm 102:8; we just read about that in Rev 21), and David asks God to create [bara’] a new heart in him (Psalm 51:10).
If you want to study creationism . . .
The Case for a Creator, Lee Strobel (easy-to-read overview)
Intelligent Design, William Demski (the book that added a Christian view)
Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe (the book that kicked off the current debate)
Darwin’s Doubt, Steven Meyer (a theistic approach to fossil record)
Science and Religion, Alvin Plantinga (an argument for Christian evolution)
Note that most of these arguments are “religious” rather than “Bible-based Christianity”. Be circumspect!
Part 2: By His Word (Genesis 1:3-5)
Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and He called the darkness “night.” Evening came and then morning: the first day.
The days of creation follow this basic pattern: God speaks, creation happens, then God approves. For time’s sake, we just cover parts of day 1 and day 6. In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus is the Word of God, and we learn that creation happened through the agency of Jesus. All of that lines up quite well with these verses. In the beginning, God created the universe, His Spirit closely oversaw the formation of the earth, and God (who is Light) brought light into the universe.
Throughout these verses are a lot of “then”s and “and”s. Hebrew uses one basic conjunction: the vav (waw); it can be a simple conjunction (and) or a consecutive (then). In other words, we could say that God created light at the same time as the earth and still be reading the Bible very literally. Poetry gives us some flexibility.
While darkness will come to be associated with evil, here it is simply the absence of light. By naming both (“day” and “night”) God gave them both purpose. Night is a time to rest; night is a time to cool off; night is a time for a new set of creatures to perform their roles on the earth. Then we have the formula: evening, morning, a day. [Hebrews still measure a day as that from evening to evening, unlike our midnight to midnight, or morning to morning.] Old-Earth Creationists eagerly point out that there is no sun or moon yet by which to measure a day, so this cannot be a literal 24-hour day. I think that’s a good point in favor of reading these words poetically, but let me digress for a moment: that’s not the point of the passage. Old-Earth Creationists accuse Young-Earth Creationists of sounding like nincompoops; Young-Earth Creationists accuse Old-Earth Creationists of compromising biblical anthropology. None of that is good! We’re on the same team! The point of Genesis is that God created, God sustains, and God wants to have a relationship with us. I seriously doubt we will be able to answer questions about creation to everyone’s satisfaction until we talk to God in heaven. In fact, if someone tries to start an argument about creation in class, please say this: “Matt asked me to stay on the main purpose of this chapter and lesson: in love, God created the universe and has authority over it; in love, God created humanity to bear His image on the earth. We don’t have time to chase that rabbit down its trail, but Matt loves to talk about that stuff. Catch him after the service, and he’ll set up a time you can discuss all the different questions and theories!”
Part 3: In His Image (Genesis 1:26-31)
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” God also said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the surface of the entire earth and every tree whose fruit contains seed. This food will be for you, for all the wildlife of the earth, for every bird of the sky, and for every creature that crawls on the earth—everything having the breath of life in it. I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that He had made, and it was very good. Evening came and then morning: the sixth day.”
If you have been in David’s studies so far this fall, you know that this is a paramount verse for the value and sanctity of human life. All human life. We are stewards of God’s creation (see sidebar), uniquely made in His image (see below). The world was made for us, for our enjoyment, and for our satisfaction.
God refers to Himself in the plural 4 times (Gen 1:26, Gen 3:22, Gen 11:7, Isa 6:8); each time is associated with something momentous. There is a common ancient construct called the “plural of majesty” which could be this, but more likely God is offering another subtle clue to His nature.
The fact that we are all made in the image of God is why Christians must always be pro-life. We understand that the government has the power of the sword (and that those who draw the sword will die by the sword) which means war and capital punishment. But we also believe those should only be a last resort unto safety. Pro-life means all ages. It also means pro-forgiveness, pro-grace, pro-society, pro-family, and pro-order. According to my sidebar, God’s image means dominion, relationship, and creation. All of those things can and should be found in the human order of things under God’s sovereign will and design. The last statement gives us a critical principle. What makes the world good? That God created it. It is not good in itself, it is good because God declared it so. Likewise, just because something is or because a person came up with it does not make it necessarily good. God tells us what is good and right, not we ourselves. (By the way, Micah 6:8 tells us what is good.)
Aside: What Is “Dominion”?
This is a very important question because it defines our relationship with the world around us and with each other. When people think about the relationship between humanity and the earth, we often go to the extreme examples of tree-haters vs. tree-huggers (what is Avatar but a giant allegory about this?). I hope you can reject the “tree-hater” option on your own. The problem with dominion/”dominate” is our sinful nature. If we try to “dominate” the world around us, we end up destroying it, and that’s not what God had in mind. But there is an equal danger with the dominion/“live in harmony” idea: making more of the world than it is. The created order is our home; it is not our equal.
The Hebrew word for dominion [radah] is regularly used with respect to kings coercing their neighbors. But the one king who had the most “dominion” was Solomon, and he is praised for living at peace with his neighbors. Solomon understood godly dominion: God has given us stewardship over the world around us. Yes, we do rule the world (God commanded Adam to fill the earth and subdue it; form and fashion it into a suitable home). We can’t make a home by letting everything grow wild. We till, sow, and reap. We clear fields for homes, crops, and herds. We build walls and mark boundaries. We hunt for food. These are very strong tasks, but they do not have to be “domination”. As Solomon did over the nearby kings, we rule with respect and care, remembering that our authority is from God over God’s creation. The world is not ours, it is God’s. He wants us to turn the earth into our home, and then He wants us to treat it like a home.
Bonus Aside: The Trinity in Genesis / God’s Spirit [ruach]
When I read, Genesis, I find an extremely clear setup for the Trinity. Jews, however, cling very tightly to the idea that “God is One” (Deut 6:4). What do they do with “the Spirit of God” here? The word ruach is connected with the verb “to blow” and can mean “breath (of life)”, “wind”, “direction” (the four winds), “disposition” (a ruach of bitterness), “will” and “spirit” (the heart and mind of a person). So—a Jewish Testament would translate this “a wind from God hovered . . .” or “a mighty wind hovered . . .” The problem with that translation is it makes no sense of “hover”. Wind blows, it doesn’t hover. The word for “hover” is elsewhere used of a brooding hen; the Spirit broods over the unformed world, preparing it for life. The Spirit was God’s Agent in creation.
Bonus Bonus Aside: God’s Image and Likeness
How are we created in God’s “image”? We find this idea in 3 places: Gen 1:26-27, Gen 5:1, and Gen 9:6. The words “image” [tselem] and “likeness” [demut] are similar yet different. “Image” usually is used for an idol or carving representation. “Likeness” really does mean “to be like” and is like English simile. I think we can safely say that the author used both of those words together to emphasize the relationship between God and humanity. (There are some who say that our “likeness” was lost in the Fall but our “image” remained; that might be true, but I think that’s more than the text allows.) But what is God’s image that humans have? (1) The immediate context is dominion which God grants to us (which is in verse 1:27, but more on this below). (2) The next context is that of relationship. God puts Adam in a garden with the created order, gives him Eve, and becomes his Friend. Nothing else has that kind of relationship with God. (3) The larger context is that of creation. Perhaps our ability to create, innovate, solve, imagine (in a way no animal can do) is also part of this “image”. In all of us, this dominion is marred, but every human being still bears the image of God: the ability to have dominion (which I say means “stewardship” here), the ability to have relationships, and the ability to create.
Part 4: For His Glory (Genesis 2:1-3)
So the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed. By the seventh day God completed His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from His work of creation.
And here’s the application for us. The Hebrew word isn’t “rest”, it’s “sabat”. God sabbathed, which means He ceased. God did not cease because He was tired, He ceased because He was done. He finished His work. And that would be a defining work for His people, that they would rest one day out of 7 (which no other culture did at that time) Ex 20 and Ex 16. We do what we’re supposed to do for 6 days, then we take one day to focus on God, connect with our family, be with God’s people, and trust God’s provision.
Here are the main points I see in this lesson:
God created the universe carefully and purposefully to be our home. We should be amazed and grateful.
God created human beings uniquely in His image. Every human life, including our own, is priceless and should be treated as such.
God gave us all a command: fill the earth and subdue it. We should be good stewards of this place, our home.
God created the Sabbath for our benefit, a day set apart for our relationship with Him.
Bring in pictures of the Grand Canyon. Bring in a sonogram. Bring anything to remind people that the world we live in and the life we have is amazing. And it’s all a gift from God. So here are some simple applications I can think of:
What’s a project you can do at your home to care for your flora and fauna? What’s something you can do for natural McDuffie County?
Are you treating everyone worthy of their infinite worth? Who is a person you need to remember is created in the image of God and what can you do to help change your attitude and action toward that person?
Do you Sabbath as commanded in the Bible? Take your own schedule; when do you “rest”? For how long? What do you do during that time? If it doesn’t line up with God’s command, do something about that this afternoon.
You could get so caught up in the nitty gritty of these verses that you miss the main points and applications. Please don’t! Give your group something they can change in their lives because of Genesis 1, not just something to argue about. All the glory to God!