Genesis 1: Days 1-3

November 3, 2009 — 2 Comments

[This post is part of the Genesis series]

It’s not often I write a post that is basically adapted from a powerpoint presentation, but since I’ve been teaching this in small group, I am basically just expanding on my own slides. Given that the slides themselves are derived from Dr. Johnston’s class notes and John Walton’s books, you might expect things to get a bit convoluted but don’t you worry. If you’ve followed this discussion so far, this post should make perfect sense, although I’ll be honest, it may be a bit hard to grasp at first since it varies from what people usually understand to be going on in Genesis 1.

We touched on the opening verses in the last post. I find it best to take v.1 as an overarching summary statement, and if you want to see a material creation, this is the verse to see it in since the immediate next verse has matter in it. One should note however that the watery deep is a motif from ANE creation accounts symbolizing either chaos, or here in Genesis, lack of order and differentiation.

Day One

So, the stage is set for God to start setting up and ordering the universe, making it a suitable place for humanity to dwell. Here’s Day 1 as it appears in the NET Bible:

God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light! God saw that the light was good, so God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” There was evening, and there was morning, making the first day.

Walton’s thinking on this passage got stimulated by considering the seeming anomaly of God renaming “light.” At first glance, we probably don’t actually think much about this, but just pause for a moment and consider why here in Genesis 1 God renames “light” (Hebrew “or”) to “day” (Hebrew “yom”) while in the rest of Genesis, “light” (“or”) is still called “light.”

Along those same lines, consider that “light” is never treated as a material object in the ANE. They didn’t have our physics yet, so for them, “light” wasn’t a thing, it was a condition. So in other words, “light,” in our understanding of modern physics, is not what is in view here. This should be obvious from the fact that in terms of physics, you cannot actually separate light from darkness. (Although I realize God can transcend his own natural laws, the point is that no one in the ANE could have possibly understood this concept).

However, you can separate periods of light from periods of darkness. “Light” in this sense is functioning as a metonymy (a part substituted for the whole) as is “darkness.” This would lead to a rendering of:

God said, “Let there be a period of light.” And there was light! God saw that the period of light was good, so God separated the period of light from the period of darkness. God named the period of light “day” and the period of darkness “night.” There was evening, and there was morning, making the first day.

In this sense then, what is God creating on Day 1?

He is establishing the function of time. Alternating periods of light and darkness is the basis of time, at least as it is primarily conceived from a human vantage point. There was no need for time prior to creation, but Moses’ description of God’s creative activity starts with Him establishing the function of time.

So on Day 1, God established Time.

But what of Day 2?

Day Two

For anyone seeking to lobby hardcore for a material creation in view, Day 2 presents some serious difficulties:

God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters and let it separate water from water. So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse “sky.” There was evening and there was morning, a second day.

I’m just going to cut to the chase here. The reason God called for an expanse in the midst of the water and then separated the waters (notice the waters were already there and they hadn’t been created on Day 1) is that in the ANE, the sky was conceived of as holding back a heavenly ocean. This is an obvious deduction from the experience of rain, and also the fact that the sky is the same color as bodies of water on the earth are (or at least were back then). Everyone conceived of the sky in this way.

So, here then you have God accommodating their cosmic geography and not only establishing a “heavenly ocean,” but also placing a hard vault-like translucent dome in the sky. The expanse (Hebrew, “raqia”) is always conceived of as a solid object and it was common even through the period of the apostolic fathers to view the sky as a dome like object holding back a heavenly ocean.

Some attempts, most notably the vapor canopy theory, have attempted to explain this object scientifically, but this simply ignores the face value reading of the text in light of the ANE background.

Think Truman Show. It’s not the best analogy, but the ancients viewed the sky as a more or less translucent dome that sometimes opened to allow parts of the ocean to fall down on them. In this sense then, the sky (as God then named the expanse) served as the basis of the second thing that is vital to human existence: weather.

On Day 2 then, we have God establishing the function of weather, as mediated through the expanse, which God named sky.

Day Three

In order to finish up, we’ll have to power through Day 3. At this point, if you have started thinking in terms of functions it might be a bit easier, but let’s look at it quickly:

God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” God saw that it was good. God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: plants yielding seeds according to their kinds, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And it was so. The land produced vegetation – plants yielding seeds according to their kinds, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. God saw that it was good. There was evening, and there was morning, a third day

There’s a lot to digest here (which is a pun you’ll see in a minute), so I’ll try to be pointed in my observations. In Days 1 and 2, God is differentiating cosmic space (the heavens) while now in Day 3, His attention is turned to terrestrial space. Notice again, nothing is really materially made (at least in an “ex nihilo” out of nothing fashion as normally construed).

God establishes though water sources, soil, and the seed cycle. All of these underlie the basis of food. You should see a noticeable progression here. God is establishing the foundations of life, starting with time, which underlies weather, which then further underlies the possibility of planting and harvesting food to nourish life.

Notice that this is what God re-affirms to Noah after the flood, which itself was a return to the watery disorder of Genesis 1:2. Consider Genesis 8:22:

While the earth continues to exist, planting time and harvest [food], cold and heat and summer and winter [seasons, i.e. weather], and day and night [time] will not cease.

So in the “recreation” of the world after the flood, God promises Noah that the foundations of life will never be annulled (they hadn’t really completed ceased) and in a sense, Noah exiting the ark is picking up at day four all over again. Which is where we’ll be looking in the post.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to Genesis 1: Days 1-3

  1. Here’s an example of reading science into the bible, a nice summary of which I found, ironically, from Answers in Genesis.

    The long and the short of it is that Matthew Maury was a navyman who set out to find and chart the “paths of the seas” alluded to in Psalm 8. He took it rather literally, and published probably the first conclusively scientific work on ocean currents. Now obviously man has known and used ocean currents for all of history, but what about the Hebrews of David’s time?
    My point is that if one can find this sort of science in a text whose audience had little knowledge of the reference, then that opens up all of the bible for that sort of de-contextualized (historically speaking) reading. Wouldn’t that open up the OT for a scientific reading, even if that’s not the main thrust of the narrative?
    And finally, does this reading of Psalm 8 even hold up? Because if it doesn’t, I have no point.

    • William, I like that this piques your interest, but I think this may be an example of comparing apples and oranges. I say I think because I’d like to offer you the opportunity to think through this further.

      Especially in the Psalms, it is hard to substantiate a “scientific” reading, but this is not to say the text will not say things that line up with modern science. Even with this Psalm, the heavens are described as being made by the fingers of God. Is that actually true in any kind of scientific way? What Maury has hit on and advanced was not something unknown to the ancient world. He published the first scientific work on ocean currents, but as a phenomena, it was already very well known or it wouldn’t be alluded to in this Psalm.

      It’s not so much I am saying that you won’t find credible science in the Bible, just that you won’t find the Bible making scientific claims like we sometimes think it does. This Psalm and the “paths of the sea” is a good example (my translation for instance just comes right out and says currents). To what extent the ancients understood oceanography is not entirely certain, but they did realize that there were paths in the sea, but that’s not quite a scientific statement. The issue is more related whether or not you should rely on the overall cosmic geography of the Bible to establish scientific claims for how the earth was created.

      So now think back to your passage, and see if you can figure out Maury’s work based on Psalm 8 is a bit different than creation scientists work in Genesis 1-2.

      Also, just as an aside, one exception to the rule doesn’t necessarily prove the opposing rule. In other words, one exception to negating a scientific reading of the OT doesn’t open up the possibility of finding scientific claims in the text that the original audience would not have understood at all. They are certainly implications of the text that were beyond the original audience, but that is different than saying the meaning of the text itself was beyond what the original audience would have grasped.

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