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: