The gap theory is the erroneous belief that there is an unmentioned gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. We have already seen that Hebrew grammar disallows any gap of time of between verse 1 and verse 2 because verse 2 is a waw-disjunctive – providing background information necessary to properly understand verse 1. Verse 2 does not follow in time.
However, gap theorists ignore this fact and often believe that all sorts of events happened before verse 2, including a judgment in which the earth became formless and void. In fact, they would like to translate verse 2 “And the earth became without form and void…” instead of “And the earth was without form and void.” Can the word really be interpreted this way? Our critic this week is James who claims the following:
James: The Hebrew word “hayah,” which is translated as the English word “was” in Genesis 1:2, is translated as “Let there be” in Genesis 1:3, 6 and 14, as “became” in Genesis 2:7 and 10 and as “become” in Genesis 3:22.
Dr. Lisle: Although the verb conjugation for these passages differs, the root word is indeed hayah (הָיָה – “he was”) which has the infinitive form “to be.” But the issue really is not how the word is most often translated into English, but rather what the word means in a given context. And this is where James’ reasoning goes off track.
James: This indeed is the normal usage of this word.
Dr. Lisle: Which usage? There are several slightly different usages of the word in the verses James quoted. The first indicates the way the earth was. In the next few passages it indicates God commanding something to exist: to be. In Genesis 2:7 it indicates what Adam had become. In Genesis 2:10 it indicates that a river split into four. What do all these usages have in common? All of these indicate something that is. But the nuances differ. To which nuance does James refer as the “normal” usage?
James: It indicates a state which either has changed, is changing, or is going to change, FAR more othen [sic] than it indicates a fixed and unchanging state.
Dr. Lisle: Here is where James makes two very bad mistakes. First, he assumes (without providing any supporting evidence) that the word hayah usually indicates a change in state. That is wrong. Second, his response implies that James believes that frequency determines meaning, rather than context. In other words, James seems to want to argue that since hayah is more often translated “became” than “was” (which is not the case), then in Genesis 1:2 it should be translated “became” rather than “was.” That is also wrong. Let’s look at each error in turn.
First, the meaning of hayah is “he was” from the infinitive form “to be.” In any Hebrew grammar, the verb “to be” and its perfect conjugations in the qal stem will be the various forms of hayah as follows: hayah ( הָיָה “he was”), haytah ( הׇיְתָה “she was”), hayiti ( הָיִיתִי “I was”), hayitah ( הָיִיתָ “you (ms) were”), hayinu ( הָיִינוּ “we were”), hayu ( הׇיוּ “they were”), and so on.
Clearly, the word hayah ( הָיָה ) is literally the English equivalent of our word “was” from the infinitive “to be” and that is how it is literally translated. It does not by itself ever imply a changed, or changing state as James mistakenly claimed. Rather, it implies a state of existence. Hence, God uses a form of hayah when He commands light to exist or “to be.” In Genesis 1:3 God says, “Let there be light” ( יְהִי אוֺר ) where the first word yəhi ( יְהִי ) is the jussive form of hayah (note that Hebrew reads from right to left). Clearly, God is not commanding light to change or to become something else (since no light yet existed)! Rather, God is commanding light “to be” – to exist.
Indeed, the same root word (hayah) is used many times in Genesis 1, and always indicates simply that something “was” or God is commanding something to “be.” This is seen in Genesis 1:3 “and it was so,” 1:5 – “and there was evening and there was morning,” 1:6 “Let there be,” 1:7 “and it was so,” 1:8 “and there was evening and there was morning,” 1:9 “and it was so,” 1:11 “and it was so,” 1:13 and there was evening and there was morning,” 1:14 “Let there be… let them be for,” 1:15 “let them be for… and it was so,” 1:19 “there was evening and there was morning,” 1:23, “there was evening and there was morning,” 1:24 “and it was so,” 1:29 “it shall be food,” 1:30 “and it was so,” 1:31 “there was evening and there was morning…” So, in Genesis chapter 1, the various forms of hayah always have the basic meaning of a state of existence – either “was” or “be” and are never translated “become” or “became” anywhere in that chapter. By the way, this includes verse 2.
Can hayah ever legitimately be translated “became?” Yes, but only in the same contexts in which our English word “was” can be translated “became.” Namely, the English word “was” can be translated “became” if and only if the context makes clear that conditions have changed. For example:
“This morning it was sunny. But by the afternoon, it was cloudy.” We could translate this as follows: “This morning it was sunny. But by the afternoon, it became cloudy.” That is a legitimate translation because it does not change the meaning. Since context indicates that the conditions changed between morning and afternoon, the word “was” in the second sentence could be rendered “became” and this would communicate the same idea. But notice that the word “was” in the first sentence cannot be rendered “became” without changing the meaning. This is because if I said, “This morning it became sunny,” this would imply that it was not sunny previously, which is not implied by the context of the original statement. Translation is all about faithfully conveying the meaning of a passage.
Conversely, consider the sentence, “my childhood dog was a golden retriever.” This sentence cannot legitimately be rendered “my childhood dog became a golden retriever.” When no evidence of change is provided by context, the verb “to be” cannot correctly be translated “to become.”
Likewise, in Hebrew, as in English, we can only take hayah (“was”) to mean “became” if context clearly demonstrates a change in conditions. Many English translations of Genesis 19:26 make use of this principle. In this passage Lot’s wife looked back to Sodom and became a pillar of salt. However, the text literally translated from Hebrew would be, “and she was a pillar of salt.” But since this state indicates a change (and a rather drastic one!) from her previous state in which she was not a pillar of salt, it is okay to render it in English as “became.” This is appropriate because it does not affect the meaning and it sounds more natural in English.
Likewise, in Genesis 3:22 the literal translation from Hebrew is simply “the man was as one of us” and indeed the Young’s literal translation renders the passage this way. But since context indicates a change of state (man going from innocent ignorance to experiential knowledge of good and evil), it is acceptable to translate this as “has become” since it does not change the meaning and sounds more natural in English.
But the word hayah – by itself – just means “(he) was.” So what Hebrew phrase would we use if we wanted to say that something changed – that something became something else? The most common way to indicate “became” is to use “hayah lə-.” That is, the Hebrew letter lamed ( ל ) would be prefixed to the object that the subject became.[i]
We see an example of this in Genesis 2:7. In this text God breathed into Adam and the man became a living being. Here the lamed is attached to the phrase “living being” indicating that we are to understand that the man became a living being, and not that he simply was a living being. So the text literally reads, “and became the man a [ל] living being” ( וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה ). Likewise, in Genesis 2:10 the river divided and became [ל] four rivers. Again the lamed indicates that the verb should be “became” rather than merely was, in contrast to all the occurrences of hayah in Genesis 1 which lack the lamed.
So then, what is the meaning of the verb hayah in Genesis 1:2? Does context demand a change in conditions? Clearly not because verse 1 does not state anything about the conditions of heaven and earth when they were first creation. (In fact, that is the purpose of verse 2). Are the Hebrew words “without form” and “void” prefixed with a lamed to indicate that the earth became that way? No. Therefore, it would be an exegetical fallacy to change “was” into “became” when context does not suggest this. Also, the waw-disjunctive disallows such a translation as we will see below.
And this brings us to the second error that James made. Frequency of usage does not determine meaning – rather context does. (By the way, even if frequency of usage did determine meaning, we have already seen that the main meaning of hayah – without the lamed – is simply “was” or “to be.” The word is never translated “became” in Genesis 1 but is usually translated “was” or “be.”) We have seen that it is only legitimate to translate “was” as “became” if context indicates an obvious change or when the object is prefixed with a lamed. Otherwise it is not acceptable, and would in fact lead to heresy. Consider the following example:
In Exodus 3:14 God says to Moses “I am that I am.” What Hebrew verb do you suppose God used there? That’s right; both instances of “I am” are from the Hebrew word hayah.[ii] Now, if we were to follow James’ argument, then God is really saying, “I am becoming what I am becoming.” That of course would be heretical because God does not change (Malachi 3:6).
I have a Hebrew translation of the New Testament in which the first verse of the Gospel of John is written as follows: בְּרֵאשִׁית הָיָה הַדָּבָר וְהַדָּבָר הָיָה אֵת הָאֱלֹהִים וְהַדָּבָר הָיָה הָאֱלֹהִים (“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”) Note the three uses of hayah (highlighted) and that they are all correctly translated “was.” Of course, if we followed James’ reasoning, then the verse would be translated “In the beginning became the Word and the Word became with God and the Word became God.” The notion that Jesus became God, suggesting that He previously was not God, would be heretical. Likewise, Genesis 1:2 is correctly translated “And the earth was without form and void…”
If Moses had wanted to indicate that verse 2 is part of the narrative sequence and followed in time after verse one, then verse 2 would be a waw-consecutive, rather than a waw-disjunctive, as are all the following verses in Genesis 1. That is, the word “and” would prefixed to the verb (using the waw-consecutive conjugation וַתְּהִי “vat-hi”) followed by the noun, which is the standard Hebrew word order. And if Moses wanted to indicate that the earth’s state had changed to become without form and void, then they would be prefixed by a lamed. But this isn’t what he wrote because it isn’t what he intended to convey.
The waw-disjunctive used in verse two (this is when the word “and” is followed by a non-verb in the original Hebrew word-order) indicates that it is providing background information for verse 1 and is not part of the narrative sequence. Namely, verse 2 is describing the conditions of heaven and earth when God first created them. There is a good reason why the Lord inspired Moses to include Genesis 1:2. Without verse 2, a person might erroneously assume from Genesis 1:1 that God created the heavens and the earth as they are today – a universe full of stars, an earth with continents separated by oceans and full of life. But this is wrong. God took six days to shape and fill the heavens and the earth, and He did this as a pattern for us (Exodus 20:8-11). Genesis 1:2 explains that the earth was originally unformed, unfilled, and dark because God had not yet created light or formed or filled the Earth. Genesis 1:3 and the following verses describe the systematic way that God formed and filled what He created on day 1.
We should also note that Exodus 20:11 eliminates all versions of the gap theory. This passage teaches that God made the heaven, the earth, the sea and all that is in them in six days. The universe, the planet earth, and all the life forms on the land or in the sea were all made by God within those six days. This would not be true if there were any gaps in Genesis. God really does know how to communicate! But people just don’t want to accept what He has communicated.
[i] The lamed prefix can also be used to indicate “to” for “for” the word to which it is attached. So it makes sense that it prefixes what the subject becomes.
[ii] In this passage, the verb is in the first-person imperfect form which is best translated into English in the present tense in this context.