“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

In this verse, “heavens” is the translation from the Hebrew shamayim. Judging from what we see in both religious and skeptic sources, it would seem shamayim means the following:

  • Skeptic’s Annotated Bible: “the earth and “heaven” are created together “in the beginning,” whereas according to current estimates, the earth and universe are about 4.6 and 13.7 billion years old, respectively.”
  • The Good Atheist: “Even at the very beginning, it doesn’t sound like anything a scientist would say when describing the birth of the universe.”
  • Apologetics Press: “The most fundamental question that a person can (and should) ask is: “Where did the Universe and everything in it (including myself) come from?” … It is fitting that the only God-inspired book in the world—the Bible—answers this very question in its opening statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.””
  • Institute for Creation Research: “the absolute origin of the universe.”
  • Answers in Genesis: “God created the space-mass-time universe
  • The International Standard Version: Translates Genesis 1:1 as “In the beginning God created the Universe.”

These definitions attempt to extrapolate shamayim (as recorded in Genesis 1:1) to represent the entire Universe, with its 170 billion+ galaxies, septillion stars, and countless more planets, asteroids, and other phenomena. That seems like a pretty big place, but is this what the Scriptures describe? What if we read the Bible without any outside noise to see how the Bible alone defines “shamayim”?

First of all, shamayim does appear in its plural form [the –im suffix denotes plurality of Hebrew nouns] hence shamayim is correctly translated as ‘heavens’ in half of English bibles translations (NIV, ESV, NASB et al). However, like some other Hebrew words, shamayim does not appear in the singular, thus it also can be correctly rendered ‘heaven’, which is the preference in the other half of English translations (KJV, ERV, WBT, JPS et al). Ambiguous translations like these arise; when they do we should rely on context for  proper interpretation. Fortunately for some words like shamayim, they reappear multiple times throughout a particular context- in this case, throughout the Creation week.

In terms of composition, Genesis 1:1 is a topic sentence, establishing the main point (“God created the heavens and the earth”) before the following material elaborates (how it was created). It is also an introductory sentence and has a conclusion statement counterpart in Genesis 2:1- “The heavens, the earth, and all their vast array were finished.” These two sentences act as ‘bookends’ for the creation week; they describe the events written following and preceding Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:1, respectively. Therefore, the shamayim in Genesis 1:1 is the same shamayim in Genesis 2:1, as is every shamayim in between. Therefore, I suggest translations of shamayim should be consistent to avoid confusion. They are the same after all. For example, this is how the NIV translates Genesis 1:1 and 1:7-8:

“1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

“7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.””

Both of the bolded words above are shamayim. However, the NIV translates it into two separate words, and the first is plural and the second is singular! However, they both describe the same event! This allows too much flexibility, which leads to applying Genesis 1:1 to the Universe (as exemplified above), and then extrapolating the same shamayim in Genesis 1:8 to just the Earth’s sky and/or atmosphere.  For the average reader, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain truth with multiple translations for the same word within a passage designed to be one complete thought.

Now here are some places shamayim is used from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:1:

In the beginning, God created the shamayim and the earth. (1:1)

God said, “Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” 7 God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. 8 God called the expanse “shamayim”. (1:6-8)

God said, “Let the waters under the shamayim be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear” (1:9)

4 God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the shamayim to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs to mark seasons, days, and years; 15 and let them be for lights in the expanse of the shamayim to give light on the earth”; and it was so. 16 God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the shamayim to give light to the earth. (1:14-17)

God said, “Let the waters abound with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the shamayim.” (1:20)

The shamayim, the earth, and all their vast array were finished. (2:1)

From these occurrences, this is what we do know about shamayim:
1. shamayim divides the surface of the earth from everything above.
2. Bodies of water (clouds perhaps) different from bodies of water on the earth were originally in the shamayim.
3. The sun, the moon, and the stars- two great luminaries with their vast array give light on the earth and are for signs and seasons-were placed in the shamayim.
4. Birds can also fly in the shamayim.

So this is what we know about shamayim: it hosts the sun, moon, stars and… birds? So we see, shamayim does not match what we currently know about atmospheres, the solar system, light years, etc. In fact, it seems that Genesis 1 only records things which we can see… from the perspective of the earth!

Is there further evidence of this? Yes, of course! First of all, we must see where God was when “He created the shamayim and the earth.” Genesis 1:2 says this:

“The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep and God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.”

So, we see God came down in the beginning, and created the shamayim while hovering above the surface of earth. Secondly, we have already seen how God hung the sun, moon, and stars “to give light on the earth”; they were also “for signs and seasons”. This is to say, unless we can see its light from the earth, it does not apply to Genesis 1. This is further evidenced by the decree for them “to be signs and for seasons”. It is self-evident, that if these created lights cannot be seen from the earth, they are not a sign, and likewise do not apply to the Genesis account. However, God’s design of the constellations, the cycles of the moon, eclipses, and the planets- indeed, we see their beauty as gifts.

Many skeptics, apologists, and translators alike want the shamayim of Genesis 1 to represent the entire Universe, as noted above. While doing so fits their purposes, I suggest that it is a mistake and adds to the Bible as its written. The heaven above us- shamayim– is like a living painting which constantly changes. It glimmers like diamonds, it weeps with rain, it winks at us like a crescent of the moon. God has brought it a long way from the darkness that encompassed this small corner of space like in the beginning; it is now teeming with light and wonders. However, shamayim is only what we can see with our collective naked eye- nothing more, and nothing less. It does not apply to the rest of the Universe.

Now, should we be ignorant of the greater Universe beyond our beautifully designed shamayim? Of course not! The Bible gives us a glimpse of that beauty beyond as well:

“But will God in very deed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens [shamayim v’shamye hashamayim] can’t contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

We have always known of a vast Universe of possibility beyond that which we can see with our eyes (and also what we can conceive by our puny minds). Whatever the Universe is, it’s not big enough to limit our God. However, He does want us to know the beauty of our own shamayim, which is why we must stop extrapolating Genesis to represent beyond what we can see. For example, Genesis 2:1 says “the shamayim, and the earth, and all their vast array were finished”. If we assume here that shamayim means “the Universe”, we limit God from further creating anything else throughout time and space. But if we limit ourselves to read what’s simply written in Genesis, ascribing to it only what we can see, then God’s creative power remains limitless.

I’m not suggesting that arguments for the “Age of the Universe” or scientific observations are false; I’m just saying that Genesis 1 should not be evidence for such arguments. It might be true for our own galaxy, but even that is pushing the limitations of Genesis. Genesis 1 simply does not discuss the creation of time, matter, or even other galaxies besides the Milky Way. That information- at least from a biblical perspective- is pure conjecture. Information about “the heaven of heavens” may be hidden from us, but in the end, does it really matter?

What is obvious is that God chose this corner of space for us, as the Scriptures point to one certain truth: God created a shamayim for us somewhere, and that place is wonderfully here. Since the beginning of our time until now, we live under these “shamayim” discovering the One who made them- with us on His mind.♦

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