In the beginning God created the heavens and the underworld?

This is the claim of a paper by Scott B. Noegel published in 2017. He argues that the Hebrew term for earth, erets, is also sometimes used as a term for Sheol, the underworld. When erets is paired with the heavens, it’s a figure of speech called a merism where two extremes are used to refer to everything between as well. So searching high and low means searching everywhere, including at eye level. But the extremes of the Hebrew worldview aren’t heaven and earth – they’re heaven and Sheol. So that’s what verse 1 is about.

He goes on to show how this changes how we view the later days in ways that expose a different kind of symmetry (I’ve removed or transliterated the Hebrew terms):

Thus, after creating light to distinguish day from night (Gen 1:4–5), God creates a firmament to divide the watery deep that roils above the underworld (Gen 1:6–7). He then calls the water above the firmament ‘sky’. Afterwards, he gathers dry land from the waters below the firmament and calls it ‘land’ and the remaining water ‘seas’ (Gen 1:9–10). Though the use of the identical terms shamayim for “sky” and “heavens,” and erets for “land” and “underworld,” naturally contributes confusion, it also provides a meaningful aetiology for the sky and land. In the same way that the name for adam ‘humankind’ reflects its creation from the adamah ‘soil’, (Gen 2:7), so also do land and sky bear the names of the realms from which they derive. Insofar as “sky” and “land” are identical to the names of those regions that betoken their origins, we may see them as sharing their essences. Thus, things of the sky, such as the clouds, stars, and planets, share a numinous essence with the higher heavens, and those things on land, like the soil, and all things that have mortality, share an essence with the underworld. (pp. 128–29)

He also makes what I think is a misstep in suggesting this reading implies that the heavens and underworld are made first in Genesis 1:1, rather than seeing that verse as a summary. Since his whole case rests on heavens-and-underworld being a merism that means everything, it can’t mean that God just created the heavens and the underworld at this time. So I do think his reading works well with a summary interpretation of Genesis 1:1 (and 2:1), although he argues otherwise.

Any thoughts on this shift to the Bible’s very first verse? I think a PDF of the paper can be freely downloaded here:

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I guess in general I disagree.

I think the opposite of heaven is earth. I think the opposite of eternal life is death and the land of the dead, Sheol, just means death. The difference between that death snd the second death ( hell ) is that one is a eternal death snd one is a temporary death.

But besides that I will have to read it this weekend to really see his angle but I feel like we automatically are starting from two separate positions.

The question will be in what does this actually mean. What are the consequences of such a interpretation.

I’d find it hard to believe that under world would describe hell as what follows definitely seems to describe the earth.

Would it be a technically correct where we sometime talk about the earth as the world below to contrast it with heaven but in practice has no difference from the traditional understanding.

Is it maybe to contrast the earth with the garden of Eden. I have heard some people talk about the garden of Eden being a special place for humans between heaven and earth.

Without an explanation on the consequence of such an argument it would be hard to debate it.

I have a similar view on hell, but for me that doesn’t rule out this reading. Partly that’s because I take this a bit differently than the article writer: I don’t think Genesis 1:1 is saying heaven and Sheol were the first things created, but rather it may use a common Hebrew idiom, heavens-and-underworld, to refer to everything. God made everything, top to bottom (in the sense of completeness, not order).

There are many other cases where Scripture uses language that, if analyzed on its own, embeds an inaccurate view of the world. The language of male seed and female fertility points to an agrarian conception of conception that misses important things (females also contribute “seed”; males also may be “infertile”). The language of thoughts, motivations and emotions coming from our heart and kidneys doesn’t hold up well literally. But we can still understand what those expressions mean without charging them with error for using an ancient way of looking at things. Similarly, if a biblical writer wants to say “everything” by using the common expression in their culture, heavens-and-underworld, that’s fine by me.

So, I don’t rule it out just because I view the afterlife differently. Otherwise, it isn’t just this merism that would be trouble – I’d need to find a way to erase all the undisputed references to Sheol from the Bible as well. I don’t think there’s any need to do that. That said, this reading isn’t a given. Like you, I still think it’s biblically common to see the earth as the natural pair to the heavens. If both heavens-and-earth and heavens-and-underworld were common ways to refer to the totality of creation, and if erets could mean both earth and underworld, I don’t know that we could tease apart these expressions with any confidence.

Good question! As I mentioned above, for me the consequences are less than for the article author. I don’t think it means the underworld was made first or that Genesis 1:1 has to be read as an initial event rather than a summary. Perhaps the biggest thing is seeing how embedded a tiered worldview was: they thought there was an inhabited place above us (the heavens, populated with celestial beings) and below us (the underworld, populated with the dead).

Genesis 1:1 isn’t the only place this occurs. Heavens-to-Sheol functions as a way of saying “everywhere” in Psalm 139:8, and here the standard word for Sheol is used: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” This psalm goes on to place human creation in Sheol, the underworld: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” That last phrase, “depths of the earth,” is a common way of referring to Sheol.

The author also sees this meaning present in other passages where it’s normally read as heavens-and-earth. In Haggai 2:6–7, God may be shaking the heavens and the underworld, the sea and the dry land (covering the entirety of the vertical axis, then the horizontal axis). In Deuteronomy 30:19, Yahweh may be calling the heavens and the underworld as witnesses to the covenant, setting before them life and death. Isaiah 66:1 may declare that the heavens are God’s throne and the underworld is God’s footstool.

While each of these may seem odd on its own, when you compare them to the other recognized language about Sheol in the Bible, they aren’t out of place. They fit the same worldview. I think it’s quite possible to accept their basic meaning even if we don’t share all of that worldview.

I can’t comment on the specific translation of “earth” as “underworld”, but certainly Genesis 1 seems to have quite extensive merism - God made the heavens and earth; God made the heavens, sea and sky, and land; God made the stuff in the heavens, sea and sky, and land. In short, God made everything.

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After mulling over the paper, I’m more doubtful this is a better way to read Genesis 1:1. Here are a few thoughts, and I apologize for how this is kind of dense.

  • The paper claims erets usually means earth or land but sometimes means Sheol/underworld. But the support for this comes mainly from texts that describe going into erets or rising from erets or the erets of gloom and darkness. Yes, surrounding words can show that the erets in view is the underworld, but this doesn’t mean erets can signify the underworld on its own. Similarly, we can find texts about the erets of Egypt, or a story set in Egypt can speak of that region as the erets, but neither of these show that erets itself can mean Egypt.

  • Instead of claiming erets can signify Sheol, I think it is fair to say that erets in its widest sense included both the earth and the land under the earth – Sheol. Similarly, shamayim (heavens) included both the divine/celestial abode and the sky under it where birds fly. So, pairing shamayim and erets refers to the entire created realm. (Through merism, this phrase would seem to include the seas as well.)

  • On merisms, I’d distinguish a stock phrase that carries a special meaning (such as searching “high and low”) and the itemization of extremes to portray what’s between them as well (such as searching “the top shelf and under the rug”). Both can be merisms where the conveyed meaning is “a thorough search,” but they get there differently. I’ll call them stock merisms and implied merisms.

  • In the Bible, I think the case for seeing the underworld in erets is unlikely in the stock merism “the shamayim and the erets.” This phrase just means everywhere/everything, so we shouldn’t break it apart to see a focus on earth/underworld or heaven/skies. That also means that when Genesis 1:2 says “now the erets was without form,” this erets should be understood normally, not shifted based on the stock phrase in the previous verse. It probably means “now the earth/land was without form,” as it is commonly translated.

  • When erets is used in an implied merism as one of the extremes, I’m more open to seeing a reference to Sheol. Psalm 139:8, which talks of not escaping God even in heaven or Sheol, shows that this sort of implied merism was used. In other cases where erets is paired with the heavens rather than Sheol, perhaps it still carries the same meaning. Haggai 2:6–7 and Deuteronomy 30:19 would be two examples. In these cases, it is fair to say that both the heavens and the earth/underworld are mentioned. They aren’t just using a stock phrase that means everywhere/everything, even though by implication of stating the extremes they may be including the middle as well.

  • When Isaiah 66:1 states that God uses the heavens as throne and erets as footstool, I think erets either means earth or earth/underworld as a combined entity. It doesn’t make much sense to just have the underworld as a footstool – you’d have to kick the earth off it before you could put your feet up!

  • Even though Sheol can be described as a physical place that you get to by entering the earth, in some places it’s watery and in some places it’s womb-like. Both Psalm 139:13–15 and Jonah 2:2–3 connect Sheol with a belly/womb. So perhaps that should guard us against thinking the ancients took their model of the universe as written in pen or meant as physically accurate. Perhaps that’s the same mistake as thinking chemists really believe molecules are little coloured balls connected by thin bars. Models help us process reality, and they remain useful even when we recognize they aren’t equal to reality.

One premise of this I don’t agree with is that Jewish culture or Jewish theological speculations like the midrash elucidates the intention of the authors of scripture. This is made absurd by the shear diversity of such speculations. At most it can be said to reveal some of thinking of the Jewish culture at the time the midrash was written which can easily be greatly different from the time when Genesis was written due to the influence of surrounding cultures. We have the testimony of scripture itself that the Israelites were greatly influence by surrounding cultures.

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