Another perplexing question arises when we consider the way God created. We know that creation came about through God’s Word and Spirit, but in what way did that which was “formless and empty,” come into being?
There has always been divine mystery surrounding Genesis 1:2: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Here we read about the Spirit coming down upon creation, but we do not read about the Word of the Lord until Genesis 1:3.
The mystery surrounding Genesis 1:2 has caused the development of various theories. One of the foremost is the Gap Theory. This states that God created a perfect heaven and earth in Genesis 1:1, but a pre-adamic race corrupted his perfection and brought down his wrath upon it. Thus the image of Genesis 1:2 emerges: a creation that is “formless and empty” because of God’s judgment. Though this theory is highly imaginative, it is not supported by the grammatical structure of Genesis 1:1-2. Neither is it confirmed by the historical revelation of God throughout Scripture. So we should discard it as merely conjecture and speculation.
How can we better grasp what is happening in these first two verses? If we ponder the question of how creation could exist at all, we will begin to understand more fully the way God initially created in Genesis 1:1-2. If God is an all-consuming fire, if the mountains melt like wax at his presence, then how can there be a reality besides God? How can there be room for creation when God’s substance is so dense and intense?
We must realize that before all things came into existence there was only God. God was all and all, and there was nothing besides him. There was not even nothingness. Before creation there was no such thing as space, time or matter. God did not dwell in eternity (as the King James Version mistranslates) because God is eternity. God did not “dwell” in anything because he was everything. There was nothing but God and there was no room for anything else.
In order for God to create a reality beside himself he had to limit himself. God had to make a choice to humble and deny himself, otherwise the glory of his presence would destroy anything that was other than him. We see this theme of God’s immensity, intensity and density all throughout Scripture. The Hebrews understood that no one who saw God would live. During God’s divine manifestation on Mount Sinai, God himself taught them to make boundaries around the Mount because if they or even an animal came close, they would die. Similarly, in Revelation 20:11 we read, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.” How awesome is God’s presence!
The Jewish rabbis called the self-limitation of God the zimsum. Isaac Luria was the first to properly develop this doctrine that had its origins from the rabbinic understanding of the Shekinah (the manifested glory of God on earth). The Shekinah caused the rabbis to wonder how the infinite God could localise his presence on earth. This would only be possible if God contracted himself to dwell in the tabernacle/temple. Isaac Luria applied this doctrine to creation saying, “Where God withdraws himself from himself to himself, he can call something forth which is not divine essence or divine being.”
Jurgen Moltmann, a modern Christian theologian, builds on this doctrine saying: “In order to create a world ‘outside’ himself, the infinite God must have made room beforehand for a finitude in himself. It is only a withdrawal by God into himself that can free the space into which God can act creatively” Before Moltmann, Emil Brunner in the same vein wrote, “This…means that God does not wish to occupy the whole of Space Himself, but that He wills to make room for other forms of existence. In doing so He limits Himself.” In other words, it is God’s veiling of himself that allows creation to be a reality.
God has to hide his light in order for there to be something other than himself. It is God’s denial of himself that is the mystery behind the connection between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. As God veils himself he creates a reality beside himself. We may say that it is this restriction of himself which makes “nothingness”—it creates that which is without form and empty, that which is deep and dark. In hiding himself God creates a “womb” within himself, a womb he will then fill with his Spirit and Word.
The New Testament, as well as theology, calls God’s self-denial, the kenosis. Paul referred to it when he wrote:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself [kenosis], taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8, NASB95).
If God did not humble and empty himself through becoming flesh then whatever came in contact with Jesus would have perished. Thus God’s humility and love is the foundation of the incarnation (Jesus becoming flesh) and the grounds for him to show mercy to humankind. The paradox is that God cannot give himself unless he hides himself. This paradox finds its ultimate fulfilment in the cross. On the cross God revealed his greatest glory by hiding his glory. It was this glory of humility which was also the foundation of creation. The good news is God only withdraws his presence to create and interpenetrate his creation.
Prayer: I worship you, God, because you are a humble Lord. You could have been content with your eternal communion with yourself, but you denied yourself for us. You made room for us in your creation, you came down to us in your incarnation and you denied yourself in your crucifixion. How great are you Lord! May your Spirit of humility dwell in me today.