Genesis chapter one presents the reader with a noticeably big question: Why is the term “heavens” written in the plural form? At first glance, it is easy to skip over this, however, as with all of Scripture, there is great depth which is worth our study. The addition of this plural suffix is an incredibly significant matter.
Some argue that the writer is simply trying to encapsulate the awe he has for the vastness of the universe and how gloriously wonderful God has made it to be. This belief is defended very well within the overall chapter and is more than likely the way the Old Testament readers would have interpreted this passage.
- The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (vs. 2). We normally refer to water as water no matter how vast it is as we also do with popcorn and fish. Obviously, this does not prove much since we are English speakers and the writer of Genesis recorded this book in Hebrew, but this point is just to get you to start thinking about what is really going on here. See also 1:6-7, 9-10, 20, 22.
- Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens (vs. 14). Note that lights are referring to more than one because they represent all of the stars in the sky. However, the term “heavens” is referring to the vastness of space. Ultimately, there is only one (singular) space. See also 1:15, 17.
- Let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens (vs. 20). Note, just like lights, birds are obviously referring to more than one. In addition, verse twenty informs us of another area of heavens. This is where the birds fly. Whereas before we were referring to outer space, now we are referring to the area in between the ground and Earth’s exosphere—the outermost region of our atmosphere. See also 1:26, 28, 30
Now again, in English we do not speak this way. Even when we are referencing the vastness of something specific, we do not pluralize the word. We just say, “Wow! Look how vast _______ is!” No one stands on an eastern beach of the United States looking out over the vastness of the sea saying, “Wow! Look at the oceans!” There may be a rare exception to this if they are referring to more than one but, in almost every case, the thing they marvel at is the ocean (singular).
Magnitude & Multiplicity
Hebrew, unlike English, does pluralize certain terms to express a level of depth and awesomeness. In the latter half of the chapter, Moses quoted God using a plural pronoun for Himself (i.e. “Let Us…” in vs. 26). This is one of the ways the Eternal Creator God chose to proclaim His majesty and wonder in this passage. As you have seen, Genesis chapter one has several examples of various terms written in the plural form to better emphasize the incredible size and magnitude of the said object or person.
However, the examples are not all referring to size; some are in fact referring to number. Yes, Genesis 1:2 is an example pointing back to the ocean’s size or magnitude (i.e. “waters”), but Genesis 1:20 is an example of number when referring to “birds.” The context makes clear the fact that both lights and birds are numerically plural—more than one. Is this the same with heavens? Yes! This is seen in the fact that Moses identified two different domains in which he referred to as the “heavens” (outer space and the atmosphere). Thus, the plural emphasis addresses both quality and quantity.
None of us would say that any bird is flying around in the heavens (outer space) where the stars are. When was the last time NASA’s space station orbited past a flock of seagulls? They have been designed and intended to fly only within the atmospheric heavens which exist just above the earth.
To many of the original readers, the plural form heavens would simply be encapsulating its magnitude. This is exactly what many of the Jews would have emphasized on within this passage if they were to dissect every word. However, especially with progressive revelation, I believe that we would fall short in our exegesis if we remained content with the understanding that the Jews were operating under.
As is evidenced, this section of Scripture reveals both magnitude and multiplicity. Genesis 1:20 helps us to see its magnitude while its multiplicity is seen upon comparing days four and five which reveal the term’s usage of two distinct places. The reason this is so crucial is because the plural form heavens is a direct parallel to the nature of the Triune Godhead.
While Genesis 1:1 used heavens as an overview for both magnitude and multiplicity, so also do we see this same concept with God later in 1:26 when He says, “Let US make…” God used a plural pronoun. Not only this, but the name “God” all throughout Genesis chapter one is the plural name, Elohim.
It not only reveals God’s majesty and overemphasizes His greatness, but it also shows the Triune nature of the Godhead. The term, heavens, is one word indicating, as we will see, three distinct locations. The word for God, as Scripture reveals throughout progressive revelation, shows three distinct Persons—Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the same way that only two of the three heavenly locations are mentioned within this chapter (earth’s atmosphere and outer space), so also are only two Persons of the Godhead directly stated—the Father and the Spirit. For many of us, when we think of Heaven, God’s presence comes to mind. Thus, both His name and the term heavens parallel each other within this chapter.
Earth is written in the singular form because there is only one. Heavens is made plural because it is describing these three distinct locations:
- The Sky or the Atmosphere.
- The Universe or Outer Space.
- Heaven or God’s Dwelling Place.
In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, the apostle Paul informs us that at some point in the past he was “…caught up to the third heaven….” He was brought into the presence of God. This statement implies there to be a second and a first as well. Thus, the third Heaven is what we would call “Paradise.”
Again, we do not find direct mention of this heaven within the specific passage, but we do find reference to the first and the second:
- The Sky or the Atmosphere (1st Heaven): Genesis 1:8-9, 20, 26, 28, 30; 2:1, 4; (cf. 1 Kings 14:11)
- The Universe or Outer Space (2nd Heaven): Genesis 1:14-15, 17; 2:1, 4; (cf. Deuteronomy 4:19)
- Heaven or God’s Dwelling Place (3rd Heaven): Genesis 2:1 (cf. Luke 2:13); 2 Corinthians 12:2-4
Within the parallel between the plural God and the plural heavens, it is interesting to note that two heavens are spoken of but the third heaven, Paradise, is not explicitly stated. It is equally intriguing that two Persons of the Godhead are mentioned, but not the One who has been exalted to the highest heavens—Jesus Christ our Lord (Phil. 2:9-11)! Thus, neither the highest of heavens nor the One exalted to them are directly referenced in this chapter. However, as we know from the rest of the revelation, the presence of both are very much implied and even given center stage in this account.