How are we to understand Genesis 1:2?

And the earth was a formless and desolate emptiness, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.(Genesis 1:2, NASB)
How are we to understand this verse? Many commentators note that it has much in common with the creation epics (myths) of the Ancient Near East (ANE). However, Torrance scholar Dr. John McKenna, in his essay "Reading Genesis 1:2," argues that this interpretive approach is inadequate. What follows is quoted from his essay (with minor edits) with permission from John's heirs.

Chaos by Aivazovsky (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The willingness to divorce our understanding of chaos, emptiness, darkness, and the deep of the faces of the waters, with which the Spirit of God is said to ' be brooding' in [Gen. 1:2], belongs to a pre-suppositional framework of thought developed in an epistemological split between Dogmatic and Biblical Theologians in our times, when modern exegesis became able to show little regard for the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo implicated with [Gen. 1:2] and as laid down by Israel and the early fathers of the Church.  I will argue that the preference for reading the concept of ‘creation out of something' ('chaos' and so forth) without understanding its real resonance with the 'creation out of  nothing' of the Beginning of God's Creation has resulted in much of the modern reductionism perpetuated by Biblical commentary today. I will argue that the formation of 'Day One' from the Beginning of the Creation Week, inherent in the confession of Moses as the Prophet of Israel among the nations in God's Creation, is bound up with both creatio ex nihilo and creation out of chaos, etc. as witnessed by the Servant of God he was called to be. I believe that we need to recover in our time the interpretive insights of the early fathers of the Church to obtain a fresh grasp for the theological wholeness that is implicated with the confession of the Prophet with the Pentateuch. We need to seek again for a fresh understanding of the very real relationship that exists between the theology of the Revelation of God with the People of God and the development of our scientific culture's framework of understanding the Universe that is truly God's Creation.  

The confession of the Creation Week must possess in this way, from beginning to end, a wholeness whose polemical power is purposed in the Call of Israel among the nations in God's Creation away from her idols and her myth-making among the gods to a world that is the world of the Great I-AM the Lord God is with Moses, with His Revelation in the history of His Creation. The Week is intended to posit the background whereby the other notions of times and space found among the many creation epics, prevalent in the Ancient Near East, are denied any claim to the real world the Creation is, to what mankind truly is in this world, or to any true and real knowledge of the Creator of the world. It would transform human use of language into the service of this Self-Revealing, Self-Naming, Voice of the Lord God who spoke with Moses at Horeb from the Burning Bush, who delivered Israel from Egypt, and who gave His People His Torah and Tabernacle and Worship in the events of Sinai, and so forth.  

The  Beginning, according to Moses' confession, belongs to no other Voice than this Voice. This One Voice is to be heard as the Lord and God of Israel's history among the nations and with the history of the Creation as that world where God would make a home for His Mankind. Against all the idols and idol-making and myth-making to be found surrounding Israel in the ANE, the 'People of God' are called to bear witness to the Redeemer-Creator this One is, this Holy One, this Great I-AM determined to free the human race from its aberrations and illusions about the true reality of the nature of the world. Thus, the Lord of the world's redemption is to be known as the world's Creator. 

As the Prophet who is the Servant of God in the Ancient World, Moses' witness to this One is charged with a freedom to free mankind from its trysts with the myths and idols about the many gods in the world and the tyranny of the Satan who is the Enemy of this One. Thus, the doctrines of creatio ex nihilo and creation of out chaos, etc., form a background the framework of which belongs to the Voice that enlightens the world and its mankind with the orders of the Creation that is a home for Man in God's Creation. I do not think I need to labor the point that the prophetic thrust of Moses' confession is understood by faith, the faith that is inherent in the relationship established between His Voice, the People of God and the Creation of God. Great I-AM with Moses' prophecy. 

Genesis 1:2 may not be construed, then, as possessing in common with the creation epics found among the idols of the nations in the ANE language shaped by their myths and idols. The terms of the verse are meant to signify that which stands polemically in relationship with the polytheisms and rituals and superstitions of the ancient peoples. It is language intended to transform the prevailing beliefs in the gods of this world into a real grasp of the world as God's Creation in the service of the Voice of His Revelation. This is the Voice that drove Moses and his confession into existence. This is the Voice that drives the history of the world to its Rest with God. 

The Exodus of Israel is, in this way, to be understood as something utterly new in the history of the world. Moses' confession of the Creator, based upon His Revelation at the Burning Bush, posits a new determination of the Lord to be with His Creation and its Mankind known as the One He is in the world's times and space and events. This is the Holy One that is to be known as the True Creator of this world, a world that is no other than His Creation. Mankind is not meant to belong to the gods, but belongs indeed to this One. All the cosmogonies that came before this Holy One are to be cast aside, thrown away. Rather, this Only One is to be known as the One who would free from magic ritual and superstition the worship of the nations in the history of the ANE. This is the Israel's Lord and God. This is Israel's Redeemer. This is the One Creator of the only world that has been formed as a home for mankind. 

With His acts of deliverance for Israel from her bondage to the gods of Egypt, of Mesopotamia, of Canaan, and so forth, Israel is to understand her relationship with the Great I-AM who is her Redeemer-Creator and the Creator-Redeemer of the world, and so forth. When Moses employs the terms of his confession found commonly in the ANE, it is with this intention and purpose. The Prophet of Israel among the nations would transform their meaning and significance of human language to serve the Voice of this One with His People and His Creation. I would argue that this is a point often missed by our modern critical analytical methods of interpreting the Five Books of Moses today.

The language of Moses' confession is meant, then, to transforms the words of the texts in order to articulate something utterly new in the history of the world---God the Lord with Israel among the nations as the Great I-AM He is for His Creation. It is this Voice that is in the Beginning of the heavens and the earth, and so forth. It is this Voice, who spoke with him from the flames of the Burning Bush at Horeb, that Moses hears for the formation of the Creation Week. It is this Time that Moses understands is served by all times, and so forth. The events of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt belong to this Voice. The event of the Beginning belongs to this Voice, and so forth.  The events of the history of Israel among the nations belongs to this Voice. 

The knowledge of the Lord God of this Voice is the gift given His People in His Creation. Moses' confession is purposed, from beginning to ending, to serve this Voice. This is the Holy One who as the Lord God of Israel as the People of God that Israel must hear and follow. This is the Voice of the Great I-AM the One Lord God is. This is the Creator, the Enemy of all the idols of the gods and all the myth-making in the world. This is the Lord God of space and time and events that are the world of His Creation. The power of Moses' polemic ought never be allowed to escape our attention. It is the power that is the Universal. It is the power that is at once the particular, the actual among all possibilities. It is the power of the Great I-AM rooted in the actual ground of the Lord God with Moses, His Servant, for the formation of His People among the nations. The confession of the formation of  'Day One' of His Creation Week belongs in this power to His Revelation. It is from this beginning of the  Beginning that Moses knows the 'Very Good' orders of His Creation Week and the blessing of this God upon this Week and its Mankind. It is this power that belongs to the Voice of this Great I-AM the Lord God is that informs Moses' confession as the prophecy it is among the nations. 

Israel in this way is made to bear witness to her Redeemer, Her Deliverer, as the Creator, who is none other than the Great I-AM of Israel's creation and redemption. This One and no other 'one' is the Voice of her deliverance from her bondage to her idols among the nations. No other One than this One informs her Torah with His Being. No other One than this One is present in her Tabernacle. No other One than this One is to be worshiped among the nations. To this One Israel is shaped and substantiated as His Witness among the nations. The whole history of the Creation, the history of Moses affirmations, belongs to the priesthood and prophecy and wisdom of this power of God's Being and Word and Acts for and with Israel as His Witness in the Creation. 

Thus, the significance of the use of the Name of this One, this Lord and God, this Great I-AM becomes in the history of a reflection of this Voice. He is the One in His covenanted relationship with her that is the One who is for her in the world, the One who gives meaning and significance to her language, to her history, to her time and times among the nations. We need as steadily as we can to hear the polemical nature of this argument of Moses' confession of the power of this Voice. Moses' confession of the Beginning is to be read, against all the idols and idol-making and mythologizing belonging to the cosmogonies of the ancient peoples throughout the ANE, is made with Israel's wise and priestly and prophetic service in His Creation. The Name of the names is rooted in the Self-Revealing and Self-Naming and Self-Defining power of the Great I-AM this Lord God is with Israel as His Witness. 

It is the power of this redeeming One who is the world's Judge. It is the power of this creating One who is the world's Savior. When we will not understand His 'Beginning' as created 'out of nothing' as this Creator-Redeemer, against all others, we will not to understand the Divine Freedom and Sovereign Authority that has commanded Moses as the Servant of God and the People of God, the Prophet of the Revelation the Bible is as His Witness in the world. But when we will to understand Moses' Confession in the service of this Revelation, we come to understand the heavens and the earth as home for mankind, created in the Image of God, as the space and time and events of this Voice for us.


Note: to read Dr. McKenna's full (unpublished, unedited) essay, click here.