Bereishis bara elokim eis hashamayim ve-eis ha-aretz.
What does bereishis mean?
In the beginning. The verse says that in the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.
What does this mean?
It means that heaven and earth were the first things G-d created.
Does Rashi interpret the verse this way?
No. Rashi offers two possible (alternative) interpretations.
What are they?
The first is homiletic. The verse is understood to mean that because of the Torah and because of the Israelites, both of which are called reishis, G-d created heaven and earth.
The second transforms the verb bara into a noun and reads the verse as saying that in the beginning of G-d’s creation of heaven and earth. Accordingly, the verse is not saying that heaven and earth were, sequentially, the first things to have been created. Instead, the verse is detailing what heaven and earth were like when they were initially created. It is saying, in particular, that veha-aretz hayesa sohu vavohu.
Does the Ramban agree?
No, he vehemently objects.
What does he say?
He says that bereishis is to be understood as meaning the first. The first things that G-d created, the verse tells us, were heaven and earth.
How does the Ramban get around Rashi’s objection that the creation of water preceded the creation of heaven?
The Ramban offers an original way of understanding the thrust of the verse and of the verses that follow.
What would that be?
He distinguishes between matter and form.
Isn’t that an Aristotelian distinction?
I suppose it is.
According to the Ramban, the first things to have been created were two types of formless matter: heavenly and earthly. For reasons of manageability, we’ll confine our attention to the earthly type.
Did Aristotle posit a primordial formless matter?
This is a good question: but our subject is not Aristotelian philosophy.
The verse of bereishis is understood to mean that the first thing that G-d created was formless matter (called in Greek yehuli). Its creation constituted creation ex nehilo, something out of nothing. The remainder of the story of creation, on the other hand, is a story of the forms that G-d went on to impose on this original matter (formless). It is, in other words, not a story of creation ex nehilo.
How does the Ramban interpret the second verse: veha-aretz...?
He understands the words veha-aretz hayesa sohu vavohu as an allusion to the transition from formless matter to formed matter that G-d’s initial creation had undergone. The words veru-ach elokim merachefes al penei hamohyim, in turn, give a description of the initial form that matter took. In particular, it ascribes to it the form of the four elements: water, earth, air, fire. (The Greeks knew of this too.) (Here the Ramban seems to offer a Ptolemaic view of the cosmos.) With this initial arrangement in place, G-d went on to fashion the earthly world. On the first day He created light, and so on. In so doing, He was working with materials that had already been created.