Barry Newman's Blog

October 25, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part VI)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 10:57 pm

Genesis 1: 3-5 – Day 1

“Then God said, ‘Let light be’ and light was. And God saw the light that (it was) good and God made a separation between the light and the darkness and God called the light, “Day”; and he called the darkness, “Night”; and there was evening and there was morning the first day.”

With a majestic command, God brings light into existence where to begin with there was only darkness.  With a modern understanding of things in mind we might be tempted to think that the text refers to God bringing into existence photons having frequencies in the region of visible light or even electromagnetic radiation of all frequencies.  But this would be a misunderstanding of the text. God is certainly portrayed as bringing “light” into existence but it is light which is marked off from darkness and called “Day”.  Darkness, having a contrast with this light that God created is now called “Night”.   Whereas, before the act of creating “light”, there was only darkness, now with the light existing and light being separated from the darkness, there is now “Day” and “Night”.  One might also be tempted to say that in Day 1, God has created “time”.  From our point of view that would seem to be correct.  Day progresses to night and so on, indicating that there has been a passage of time.  But again, “time” is what we might like to focus on when handling this passage but that does not appear to be the concern of the writer when referring to Day 1.  We will deal with something like our notion of  time when we get to Day 4.

At this point, the modern reader is tempted to believe that there is, at least on the surface, a problem.  It is not until Day 4 that God says, “Let light bearers be … to make a separation between the day and the night.” To deal with this problem some have suggested that in Day 1 the sun and the moon etc. were created but the earth was enshrouded in a vapour which prevented a theoretical observer from observing them.  (That is, the description is in terms of what would appear to be the situation if there had have been an observer.) Then, on Day 4, the vapour was dissipated.  However, the Hebrew text of 1: 14 that speaks of the separation between the day and the night is very similar to the Hebrew text of 1: 4 that refers to the separation between the light called “Day” and the darkness called “Night”.  I think the best approach is to leave the text to say what it seems to say without producing a “scientific” explanation and without appealing to an observer’s point of view in order to solve a perceived problem.

Prior to Day 1, the reader has been informed that the earth (referring to something more comprehensive than our geographical earth) was “without form and void”.  This formlessness and void are regarded as fundamental characteristics of the “earth”. The terms describe what is not there.  The “darkness” and the “watery deep” are in a different category being descriptors of what is there. In Days 1 to 6 that formlessness and void on the one hand and darkness and watery mass on the other hand are confronted.  The “earth” changes dramatically.  In Day 1, a certain aspect of form comes into existence – light is created and separated from the darkness and darkness is now confined.  Differentiation has occurred, where there was only formlessness before.  In Day 4, with respect to light, the void is partly dealt with.  Light bearers come into existence.  This idea that formlessness and void are dealt with throughout Days 1 to 6 will be appealed to from time to time, when Days 2 to 6 are discussed later.

That is, in Day 1, light is introduced to bring about some “form” – differentiation between day and night.  In Day 4, light bearers are introduced to bring about some “non-void”.  We might like some neat description of creation that satisfies our interest in cause and effect (e.g. that the sun produces light) but the writer of Genesis has a different interest.  He wants to tell us how God dealt with “formlessness” and “void”.  Others of surrounding cultures had a similar type of problem to address – how “function” and “role” came into existence where they had had no previous existence.  However, the way that Genesis deals with this type of issue has no parallel in the ancient world.

It can be argued that the light that God brought into existence on Day 1 is not only that light that is associated with the sun, moon and “stars” but is a reference to “light” whatever its source.  This argument could be based on the belief that surely the Hebrew would know that light also came from flames and that he might also be aware of the existence of luminescent objects.  However we need to remember that there does appear to be a close connection between Day 4 and Day 1 and that in Day 1 the light is named, “Day”.  Perhaps the reference to “light” in Day 1 is simply a reference to “daylight”.

Of course there are questions, other than what is meant by “light” that suggest themselves, when considering Day 1. What does God actually do when he says, “Let light be”? What does it mean that God saw that it was good? What is implied in his naming the light and the darkness? What does the word “day” in the phrase, “the first day” mean? What does “the phrase “the evening and the morning” mean?  These questions or similar could be asked again when dealing with subsequent days.  With perhaps few exceptions such questions will be considered only here.

How did God create the light?  The writer simply says that God said, “Let light be.”  We must not look for any scientific reference.  The impression that is being conveyed however is that God is extraordinarily powerful.  He orders and it is done. No great ruler no matter with what backing he could issue any command, could ever do what God does. No workman no matter how great his skill no matter how powerful his arm could ever create what God creates. We are being introduced to raw untrammelled power and authority. However there is probably more to what is recorded than this perspective.  In the ancient world (and indeed today) some people and certain gods are sometimes portrayed as changing and controlling situations by artful cunning, words of magic and the like whereby they are able to manipulate their world (see Walton, ANETOT, pp. 264-266, 336, 340).  God uses no such means.  He does not have to revert to special words of power.  His words, simply given are powerful because he is powerful.  If additionally we ask what language God spoke, we will have missed the point.  Language does not really come into it.  It is not that the notion of God and his word is not an important notion taken up from time to time in the rest of Scripture, it is simply that we are asking a question that is misguided in its interest.  The words of God express his intention.   We are told of his intention by the phrase, “And God said …”

The word, “good” (Hebrew tov) is somewhat like our English word “good” in that it has a wide range of meanings.  In Days 1 to 6, tov probably conveys the idea that God is very pleased with his work – it is an extraordinary work – it does whatever he intends, exactly what he intends – it is admirably suited for his purposes.  When God, as it were, stands back from the light that he has brought into being and says, “This is good!”  He is also saying there is nothing bad, evil or frustrating in any sense in what He has made.  He says this where peoples in cultures outside of Israel, seeing the work of their gods and the gods themselves could not possibly say that.

It might be significant that in all of Days 1 to 6 where the expression, “And God saw that (it was) good” occurs, it is only in Day 1, where the entity that has been created is explicitly mentioned after the reference to God.  The text reads, “And God saw the light that (it was) good”.  Perhaps being the first thing that God created and being of the great significance that it was leads to the emphasis that seems to be given to “light”.

That God names the light and the darkness could be an indication that he has authority over them dictating for what they in fact have been made.  They can function only in accordance with his will.  He is in charge of them. They have no authority over him.  He has not come from them.  He deals with them for his own purposes.  Walton has a slightly different perspective (ANETOT, p. 188).  He refers to Egyptian and Babylonian literature in which creator gods pronounce the names of entities (even other gods) so bringing them into existence by the actual naming of them.

Having called the light “Day” and the darkness “Night” the reference to the first day that almost immediately follows could simply be a reference to what we might describe as the daylight hours.  In the ancient world, when people worked they generally worked during daylight.  That God brought light into existence on the first day probably carries with it the imagery of God working “during” a day as mankind worked during a day.  Referring to daylight lasting for something like a 12 hour period is a modern way of describing the period of daylight.  The text could be referring to God as though he did what he did within such a time period, without of course making any reference to “hours”.  Walton (Genesis, p. 81) having a different point of view, argues that “day” in the phrase, “there was evening and there was morning, the first day” is probably a reference to what we would consider to be a 24 hour period. Certainly, understanding “day” to refer to a very long period of time is difficult to justify, by referring to the text alone.

But what of the meaning of that part of the phrase, “there was evening and there was morning”?  This matter has generated much debate.  And perhaps few of us are much the wiser! The phrase is not consonant with the later Jewish way of reckoning a day which is understood as commencing with the beginning of an evening and ending with the ending of the daylight that comes after that evening.  Perhaps the writer by first referring to “evening” is trying to convey the idea that God finished his work before the evening, the working day having come to an end.  That he refers to “morning” secondly, however, is a puzzle.  Is he saying something like, “the evening came, (the day having begun with the morning), the end of the first working day”?  At least this seems to fit in with the notion that the “Day” is the name given to the light in opposition to the “Night”, the name given to the darkness in its new confined state.   And of course in order for the writer to refer to the first Day etc. it would be necessary to have some understanding of “day” in the first place.   Walton, (Genesis, p. 80) however, argues that on day 1, God sets up alternating periods of day and light with the first “transition” occurring at evening, daylight having just been created, and so evening has to be mentioned first.   The next morning marks the next transition.  Days 2 to 6 then use the same terminology.

But whatever our explanation, the first day comes and goes yet with lasting effects.



  1. Hello Barry,

    A great series in which I find much to agree. I wanted to highlight something often overlooked regarding the whole question of how there could have been days before the creation of the sun and moon. There are good indications from the aNE that the sky (the רקיע, rāqîʿ in Hebrew) was thought itself to be illuminated so that day could exist apart from the presence of the sun. This makes some sense because the sky’s illumination begins prior to sunrise and continues after sunset. The sun is said to “rule” over the day, but rule does not imply that it is the source of the day. In short, day exists before the sun in Gen 1 because the sun was not thought to be the source of day. For more information pertaining to this, see the chapter on Sumerian accounts of creation in Wayne Horowitz’s very useful Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (particularly NBC 11108 in that chapter).

    Also of interest may be my “foreignising translation” of Gen 1 which can be found in a series of blog posts: part I, II, III, and IV.

    Comment by Martin Shields — December 28, 2010 @ 6:54 am | Reply

  2. Hi Martin,

    Many thanks for the comment. It makes sense. I wasn’t aware of this idea.


    Comment by barrynewman — December 28, 2010 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  3. As a student of Theology,I want to thank you for
    What you have put across,the is a lot to agree with keep on doing the good,

    I have learned a lot from what you spoke about.

    I thank you
    D.S Moseki

    Comment by Dinkane Moseki — August 29, 2012 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

    • Hi Dinkane,

      I am glad you found some of the material helpful. May God bless you in your theological studies

      Best wishes

      Barry Newman

      Comment by LHI — August 30, 2012 @ 7:02 am | Reply

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