Genesis One - Its Days and Its Meaning
D.W. Legg 2006
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On the Genevanet Internet discussion group, I was threatened with no replies from some unless I "engaged with the text". I had avoided doing this because a) people can get upset about the 'days' in Genesis 1, and b) it takes longer to explain what is going on in the chapter than is appropriate to post on a discussion group. What follows is an an honest attempt to understand Gen 1 based mainly on its own features, i.e. not based on preconceived ideas that have been read into the text. There is a profound difference between reading something into a text and reading something out of it. The text is not listening to us, so let us take care to listen to what it has to say to us, not the other way round!
My main point is *not* that God did not create the World in 6x24 hours. My main point is that Genesis 1 does not *teach* 6x24 hour creation, or multi-million-year creation, for that matter.
2. The Genre, Approach and Respect
How to understand what is meant by day, night, light and darkness is explained for us by Moses in verses 2 to 5. This is the closest possible context and is therefore the most relevant information for how to understand what follows in Genesis 1.
Recourse to 'science' is not required in order to understand Genesis 1. The original readers had sufficient information to make a correct interpretation.
Genesis 1 is not simply prose, so we cannot simply read it like a newspaper account. It is true history, but it is not allegory or poetry either, so we must be careful to read it literally to the extent intended by the author.
So what genre is Genesis 1, if it is neither prose nor allegory? Well, it seems to be literal descriptive text within a metaphorical framework. The metaphorical framework is provided by the division of the text into days. Anything less than showing the utmost respect for the sacred text will not do. It is beautifully crafted. In the original language it even sounds beautiful, having a profound musical quality.
The chapter uses terms very carefully, and defines them before use so that we can be sure that we have the correct meaning. It is therefore vital that we read Moses carefully, and do not read into the text ideas which are not present.
3. The Non-contrived Meanings of Day, Night, Light and Darkness
in Genesis 1
1:2 'Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning-the first day.' (NIV)
These verses describe how God initially created something that was less than good: It was formless and empty. He did this so as to be able to separate it from a new thing called 'light', which is then described as being 'good'. God equates the light with 'day', and the darkness with 'night'. Then, Moses gives us the key to understanding the pattern of the narrative (and this is the really important bit): He summarises the creation of light out of darkness by describing it as the transition from night to day: 'And there was evening, and there was morning'.
In other words, the transition from evening to morning, from less than good to good, from darkness to light is being described as a 'day'. This is why the night comes first. A normal description of a day would be just 'day', or 'days and nights', but this rather odd way of putting it, evening then morning, reinforces the idea of the transition from less than good to good, dark to light and, during the subsequent 'days', from formless to formed and from empty to full.
So God's removal of the empty darkness is likened to the transition from night to day. Moses then asserts that this was the first 'day'. This is now a different meaning1 that Moses has attached to the word 'day' and shows us how he intends to use it throughout much of the rest of the creation narrative. A day in this newer sense is when God creates something good out of something less than good. As the remaining five days unfold, we see him doing one of two things as each day is opened to us:
a) God gives form to something formless (often by separating), or b) God fills something empty.
Thus each creative act is described as forming or filling, an exact reversal of the situation in verse 2 where the Earth was 'formless and empty'. So, the word 'day' is used to describe a creative act, a transition from darkness to light, the making of good out of less than good.
To confirm that this is correct exegesis, we can simply review the remaining 5 'days' and see that it is indeed borne out by the rest of the chapter:
Day 2 is the forming of sky
Day 3 is the forming of dry ground and then the filling of it with vegetation.
Day 4 is the forming of 'lights' that then fill the sky that was formed in Day 2.
Day 5 is the filling of the water that was separated off in Day 2 with creatures.
Day 6 is the filling of the dry ground by the forming of creatures, including the forming of man.
In summary, verse 5 unlocks our understanding of the chapter by giving us the key to meaning of the word 'day'. This is the meaning given by the author himself. This is to read the meaning out of from the text.
4. Missing the Point
The thing that Moses was definitely not trying to say was that each creative act took 24 hours. That would be entirely to miss the point of his structure, and his previously advertised meaning that is deliberately attached to the word 'day' in verse 5. Moses' use of 'day' does not represent a period of time at all, it represents each of six great creative acts (plus a seventh which is the creation of rest.) Attempts to make the word 'day' mean a period of time are examples of reading meaning into the text from elsewhere.
The important points that drop out of the passage, are:
1. God made everything. 'Ex nihilo' (out of nothing) is implied by
the phrase 'In the beginning'.
2. God was involved and in control of every creative act so that what was produced was 'good, very good'.
3. God made man in order for him to rule over Creation and image himself (God).
4. God rested on the seventh day, therefore it is holy.
3+4. As God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, because we are called to image him, we too should keep the Sabbath holy by resting.
5. The Sabbath and the Image of God
The key to discerning the main point of Genesis 1 is being careful not to stop reading at chapter 1 verse 31, but to continue reading on into chapter 2 as far as verse 3. This is where Moses is really heading. To get the main point of having the seven day structure, we need to focus on the vital doctrine of man imaging God (note: imaging as a verb). It is important to have functional view of man in the image of God. The idea that man is like God and therefore different from the animals is important, but only part of the story. We were created in order to declare the glory of God by imaging him. We do this in our relationships, e.g. fatherhood, in our creativity, in our working, in our ruling over Creation and in myriad other ways. What God does, just once, in a big way, we do in lots of small, repetitive ways. For example, he creates a big universe once, we create lots of little things repetitively such as cakes, cars and children. And in the same way that God rested permanently after he had finished all his work of creating (2:2a), so we are commanded to rest in our small way repetitively, once a week from our work. This brings glory to God by pointing to his great creative work, by pointing forward to his final rest that he will share with us, and by showing that we are not atheists, but we believe in the God who created everything. The sabbath rest is even described as a covenant (sign) in one place. The sabbath marks us out as God's People.
That is why Moses chooses to structure his creation narrative around the shape of the working and resting week. God performed six great creative acts and then rested. We must image him by working for six days and then resting on a seventh. He did it once; we do it often. He did it big; we do it in smaller ways.
Notice that when we image God in numerous ways, what we do is merely an image of what he does; it is not identical. In the same way that a picture of a thing is not the real thing, so when we image God, we only provide a picture, not the real thing. So when we are good fathers, we image God's ultimate fatherhood. We provide a picture of God's fatherhood, not the real thing. In the same way, when we work and rest each week in order to fulfil our roles as imagers of God, what we do is not identical to what God did. Our work and rest is small and limited; God's work is vast and his rest is unlimited. Ours is repetitive, his is once for all time. So, when we work or rest for 8 or 16 hours, we cannot infer that God's work and rest took 8 or 16 hours.
6. Other Thoughts on Why Creation Was Not Necessarily 6x24
Furthermore, and this is now a slightly different subject, arguments for creation days being 24 hours are incredibly weak.
1. The idea that 'day' in the OT or Pentateuch usually means 24 hours is incorrect. It often means an event, sometimes means the daylight hours, and sometimes means what might be a 24 hour day, plus a variety of others.
2. The idea that 'day' preceded by an ordinal numeral (e.g.1, 2, 1st or 2nd) always means a 24 hour day is contrived, and quite artificial. It is akin to saying (when a lost coin is found) “Oh, if it has the queen's head on, it must be mine!” This is fallacious because it is simply working backwards from the desired result to an artificial criterion that allows some-one to claim something that may actually be false. And in any case, the Creation 'week' is quite without precedent.
3. Some-one has pointed out that the word 'day' in Genesis 1 has at least 3 different meanings, therefore trying to reason from outside the chapter in favour of only one of those meanings is rather suspicious; it suggests that a preconceived idea is being brought along to be fitted onto a potentially unwilling chapter!
4. The creation of the universe is a completely unprecedented series of events, therefore bringing external arguments to bear that are based on generalisations about later events and later texts is dangerous. I suppose it is the theological equivalent of applying uniformitarian principles to biology.
5. The idea that Exodus 20 implies 24 hour days is not without merit, but is only useful as a back-up argument: 2011 “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth”. But, in Exodus 20, God is explaining how we should image him, not how long he took to create everything. He is arguing from the greater to the lesser. in other words, how we understand the exact reasoning in Exodus 20 depends on how we (have already) understood Genesis 1. So trying to reason about Genesis 1 from Exodus 20 is back to front (but at least it is an attempt to reason in a biblical way.)
6. Analysis of all the events that belong logically with Day 6 seems to suggest quite overwhelmingly that they must have spanned more than a single 24 hour period. This would include material from Genesis 2, including the naming of all the animals, the growing of trees, Adam's exclamation “At last” etc. Analysis of Hebrew words is involved, but interested readers can find a quick summary in Appendix 3 (by John Snow) to Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth by Newman and Eckelmann (IBRI). See also Meredith Kline
7. The problem of the age of starlight from distant stars and galaxies has not been satisfactorily answered yet by young cosmos believers. There are ideas but no widely accepted arguments or theories.
8. In the mean-time, God is still resting from his creative work long after his 24 hours are up.
But #6, #7 and #8 do not imply that 'day' in Genesis 1 is a time period. It is not; it is a creative act, a powerful and glorious moulding of chaos into order, darkness into light, emptiness into fulness, less than good into good – very good.
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1A careful comparison of the use of the word 'day' in verse 5a with how it is used in 5b will reveal how the word is used with at least two distinct meanings in the chapter.