Saturday, April 27, 2013

Genesis 1:1-2:3... Seeing the light of day*

I was reflecting on Genesis 1:1-2:3 again today (and surprisingly found that I preferred the RSV translation in this case). Particularly my thoughts were around the meaning of the repeated refrain "And there was evening, and there was morning, [xxx] day". It is often telling to compare different translations, and verse 1:5 is a case in point, eg:

"God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day." [RSV]

"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day." [KJV]

"God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’. And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day." [NIV]

"God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day." [ESV]

"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day." [ASV]

"God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” There was evening, and there was morning, marking the first day." [NET]

Of course, there are all sorts of discussions about the meaning of "day" in Genesis 1. There are at least two distinct and clear meanings in Genesis 1 & 2 (and neither of which equals exact 24-hour period):

  • "God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’" (Genesis 1:5; NIV) = the light period during a 24-hour period, as opposed to the dark period
  • "In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens" (Genesis 2:4; RSV) = indistinct period or point in time, not one 24-hour period
So what does God intend to convey to us when he says that "there was evening, and there was morning, one day" etc?

First, a few grammatical, structural and translation points to highlight:
  • The repetition in 1:5, 1:8, 1:13, 1:19, 1:23, 1:31 (and lack of use in 2:1-3) is surely significant.
  • In the Hebrew, the verb "to be" (eg "there was") is repeated twice, so literally RSV translation seems more literal than say the KJV.
  • Also notable in the Hebrew is the use of a cardinal number for the first day, but ordinals for the other days (which the RSV conveys; admittedly this is not straight forward and there is dispute here about how much to make of it).
  • Something which the RSV doesn't fully convey is the use of the Hebrew article only for the sixth and seventh days (cf ASV). This also is likely significant, pointing to climax.
  • "Evening" is mentioned before "morning" (often misquoted by people who say "morning and evening" instead).
  • "Evening" and "morning" may refer to points in time (ie nightfall/sunset and daybreak/dawn) rather than periods or durations of time.
Previously I had thought the meaning was about a "work-day", and God spoke here in a pattern and structure that people would readily recognise, working during the day and not at night (cf John 9:4). So God did his day's work, then night falls, and morning comes, ready for the next day's work. In this view the evening and morning do not refer to the time of the day of work that was just done, but rather to the sequence of events that follow that day's work. But there are some problems with this, and I am re-thinking. For one, it seems to be a common Jewish understanding (although I still need to research the Biblical perspective) that a 24-hour day starts at sunset and ends at the following sunset. This might give a sense that when evening came, the next day had begun, and so if that were intended, it would have been better sequence to say something like "The Nth day, then evening came and then morning came", but that's not how the text puts it.

So now I'm thinking that a better understanding may be to take the whole sentence "there was evening and there was morning, one day" to refer as a kind of summary statement of what just happened. Certainly the reference to "one day" or the "nth day" indicates what had just happened and not what follows (clear because in 2:1-3 the seventh day follows the six days, otherwise it would be the sixth day not the seventh). In  this case the coming of evening and morning also refer to what had happened rather than what followed. This seems consistent with the use of the cardinal in 1:5 as well as the definition of "day" at the beginning of the verse, and also the whole situation conveyed in 1:2-4. In 1:2 there was darkness which is followed by the coming of light, the same sequence of evening followed by morning (or daybreak).

This fresh (at least for me) understanding has a lot of potential richness associated with it. There is a theme of progression from darkness/night to light/day, with light and day being by far the better of the two. And with the seventh day of rest, there is no repeated refrain, and the implication of continuing day of rest, with no nightfall ever coming to that day. And so throughout the whole creation account, from the first declaration of a day, there is progression of improvement until reaching endless perfection (what was formless and empty becomes formed and filled, day after day, being good, then very good, then holy and finished). And this has wonderful resonance with the trajectories in Scripture of the day of rest (cf treatment in Hebrews 3:7-4:11),  of everlasting light/day in the new Jerusalem (cf Isaiah 60 especially eg 60:1-3, 60:11, 60:19-20, and where it is picked up again in Revelation 21:23-25 and 22:5), as well as other pictures in Scripture of day vs night (eg John 1:4-9, John 3:19-21, John 9:4, Romans 13:11-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, 1 Thessalonians 5:4-7, 1 Peter 2:9 etc).

Well, maybe more on this another day...!

* Had fun thinking about a post title, but hard to decide :) Some other contenders that may also see the light of day... "Plain as day", "Will you give me the time of day?", "As different as night and day", "From day one", "All in a days work", "Let's call it a day", "The good old days", "As honest as the day is long", "One day at a time", "Not enough hours in the day". Actually, even thinking about all these common English phrases sparks all kinds of thoughts about Genesis 1:1-2:4..!

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