A Very Good Place to Start
The beginning of an ancient covenant, before the dos and don’ts, was a historical recap of the relations of the parties to that point–highlighting, perhaps, the reason for establising the present covenant. The beginning of this beginning was a brief presentation of the superior party who is granting the covenant. This self-introduction was formulated to inspire awe and gratitude and allegiance.
As it happens, the Penteteuch, the Torah, the Law, the coventant document of the nation of Israel, newly constituted at Sinai, contains chapter after chapter of stipulations, regulations, obligations. But before any of these comes an extended narrative section, characterized by progressive narrowing of focus from humanity as a whole, to the Israelites, to Moses.
The nation, we should understand, will be a chosen instrument. It plays a role on the earth, among the peoples of the earth. It’s ultimate purpose, and the main way it will fulfill its role on the earth is to bring the incarnate Son of God into it. But this is not yet clearly known, as we read this chapter. Well, you and I know it.
Prior to this is a single chapter that stands out, a chapter that paints a picture of the sovereign who is granting the covenant. The way to see this chapter then, I submit, is as a divine self-portrait, one designed specifically to lay the foundation for the narrative that follows, the Law that He gives, and the whole larger story of His plan of redemption which we know from the Bible.
We ought then to receive this chapter as a sort of press conference given by the most important Being in existence, and be prepared to respond in awe, gratitude, and allegiance. As an avid member of the press, you have lots of questions, but this isn’t the day for questions. It’s the day for listening. Listen to every word. Ponder over what He has decided to tell you, and how He has decided to tell you. For now, at least, take it for granted that what He appears to be saying, He is saying.
If the function of the chapter is to present the supreme sovereign, the form of the chapter displays Him in the primary role in which we have any relation to Him: Creator to creature. This relation we share with all other humans, and also with subatomic particles and the most distant galaxies. Naturally enough, He presents a sketch of His creating all that is, and the genre of the chapter is a construction narrative. The chapter has a particular look, stylized one might say, structured, even repetitive in a way. All these features it shares with other examples of this genre, such as the tabernacle construction passages in Exodus 25-31 with its echo in Exodus 35-40.
It isn’t an allusion, as if Genesis 1 were God’s building a heavenly temple, or the other direction, Moses constructing a microcosm of the universe in the tabernacle. Those might be interesting directions to meditate, but the structures are not similar enough to hearken back to one another. Yet the structure of the passage follows much the same form as other construction narratives, and I think this would be obvious to the first readers.
Construction narrative, about as far as you can get from poetry, by the way, tends toward basic and concrete forms of expression. So the chapter presents an account of the Maker making. Understand that He is telling you what He wishes to tell you about it. Don’t expect the account to satisfy you in terms of your own understanding and your curiosity about what is or even that you should be able sucessfully to fit all the pieces together. If I say He doesn’t tell you 99.9999999999999999 percent of what’s what, it would be an almost infinite understatement. So what He does tell you, He tells for a reason. May I suggest listening.
If something seems odd, strange, puzzling, then by all means puzzle over it. You are very welcome to ponder the words of the great King. What you are not invited to do is to play the “has God really said” game (see chapter 3). For today at least, consider that He has a message in how He did what He did, or at least how He tells you He did what He did. If later you want to imagine that He’s fudged with reality, given you a baby-talk version of His doings, well, be my guest. But if you get to this too soon, I’m afraid you’ll miss the point of what He’s saying, and you won’t properly understand anything that follows. Do you get it yet? Listen to the words He has to say.
The basic structure of the chapter is hard to miss. It is laid out in a series of sections, each tagged with a numbered day. Days are time units, in case you didn’t know. One might suggest that the chapter is organized topically rather than chronologically (a la Frameworkers), but why would one suggest this, really? There are the sequential time references marking the divisions in the text. Ladies and gentlemen, we do theology with the texts we have, not the texts we wish we had.
More about the days in a moment.
The first bit of information we are told is that He created all that is (I’m not going to append verse references, since the chapter is quite familiar). The most important point of this is: we belong to Him. Even before the covenant is inaugurated, making Israel His special possession, He already owns them. Owns you and me too. Owns everything. He made them and they are His. He made us and we are His, by right. He has right to do with us as He will. Get this truth straight right from the beginning.
The first step He tells us about is creation of time and space. “In the beginning” tells us about time. “Heaven and earth” tells us about space. I don’t specifically mean “outer space” here, but the extension of here-ness that I suppose wasn’t there before God created it. What is present in “heaven and earth” at this point? We’re not told yet. We’ll be told a number of things as the chapter progresses. So try not to get ahead of it. Also try not to imagine your own mental picture. It’s going to be wrong. You aren’t told enough to form even a cursory image, and you won’t be able to fill in the gaps from your pea-brain. Sorry. Just receive the statements. Listen.
Whatever was there apparently was dark. At the very least, this earth, in some rudimentary form, is unlit. This is important to understand. Also it is yet to be organized. But the God shows up. His Spirit is locally present somewhere over the surface (a watery surface) and is about to act.
The next thing we learn is that He acts by issuing commands. He doesn’t have to do this. I mean, just who is He talking to? But He does it. And He tells us that He does it. Why? Here is the voice of authority? I say to this one go and he goes; to another do this and he does it. God speaks and all that is obeys. (All that is except His people. But that comes later.) He is, in short the great King.
His first order is that light exist. Not a light, as in a lamp, but light itself. He didn’t have to do this either. But He did. And He told us He did. Why? It is self-expression. Self-revelation. This is the message that we have heard from Him: God is light, and in Him is no darkness.
With light we have also a new thing come into existence: a day. Day as opposed to night. God is light and in Him is no darkness. The text describes this as separating. It’s going to use the language of separating a lot. He separated this. He separated that. Why did He separate things. He surely didn’t have to. But He did. And He told us that He did. Why? Because separation is basic to His strategy. That’s just what He is doing with the nation of Israel. All these laws that make them distinct from other nations. It separates them. It makes them His particular possession.
So what is this day to which the text refers? No need to ponder too much, as the text essentially tells us. But a perusal of the Hebrew corpus does clue us in. At least this is what I reconstruct. One of the most salient (noticeable, prominent, remarkable) features of human existence is that our environment is alternately illuminated and dark. The world around us is lit, and we can get things done. The world then becomes dark, and we close ourselves in our shelter and sleep. Then the cycle repeats.
The lighted part is a day.
Forget for a moment our use of day as a 24-hour unit. I don’t think you need it. A day is the illuminated phase of the recurring cycle. A few things about the day: first, it’s the most significant part, because you can work during it. Second, you can count them. So it becomes by far the most basic unit of time measurement, at least to the Hebrews. As I said, it is the most salient. Years we can identify by changes in temperature and foliage and such. Months we can follow by observing phases of the moon. But day and night? Hard to miss. Note that the week is arbitrary. The only way to note them is to count days. Have you noticed that the text is counting days. Have I mentioned this point?
An excursus is perhaps necessary at this point. No reader in his right mind could miss the day counting aspect I just mentioned. He or she would think of the lighted phase in the light-dark cycle. Without question. No over-thinking of “day” here. Incidentally, you may hear someone tell you that Hebrew sometimes uses “day” for an indefinite period of time, as in “back in my day.” If it does, I haven’t found it. It simply doesn’t occur. It definitely doesn’t occur in the Mosaic corpus. This thing is a myth.
Extended periods of time are very frequently called “days” plural. As in “after days,” meaning some time later. And the word for day is a compontent of some idiomatic phrases. The most important is structred like IN+DAY+OF which functions a relation marker we could gloss as “when.” The semantic value of an idiom belongs to the whole phrase. The word for “day” in this phrase has no particular meaning, even though it does contribute the time idea. What you cannot do is extract it back out of the idiom and suppose it has the sense of “an indefinite period of time.” You may wish to do this, but the Hebrews never do. The word does not function that way. To expect the word for “day” to be anything other than what I mention above, the light phase of the cycle is improbable in the extreme. If it is non-impossible, theoretically, it certainly would be a very, very odd thing to find in this text. Unique in the Mosaic corpus, and in the OT in general.
This is not to say the whole chapter could not be some kind of fresh metaphor. You’d have to find evidence for such an assertion. And as far as I can tell, the evidence runs the other way. Certainly, Exodus 20:11 seems to take it as non-metaphorical. But you are free to keep looking. Why would you though? Seriously? For now pay attention, please, to the day motif. And the numbers. It will prove significant, I think.
So the days progress one after another. And the sections they signal one after another. One more thing about the day. Every day has a night. Days are work periods and nights are rest periods. You count the days, but there is always a night that comes along with it. Pardon the image, which you may object to but I hope you recognize a cultural pattern that can help us understand how days work. The day is something like the man and the night something like his wife. Sorry for the patriarchal reference, but bear with me. A man may know another man in terms of what his does, his job, his function. In another way he knows the man comes as a couple. The lady is the butcher’s wife, but she is not also a butcher. Same with the cobbler’s wife, and so on. So the night is attached to the day, is part of the day, in a way, such as the fifth of the month is still the fifth at night. But the day proper still ends at sundown.
So one counts days, to mark time. It is similar to speaking about “winters,” as we used to do, to reference years. “Winter” does not mean year. But we understand that every winter is followed by spring, summer, and fall. So when we say so many winters we indicate so many years. Likewise when we say so many days, we indicate so many 24-hour-periods even though as far as I can tell “day” (yom) does not actually mean the 24-hour unit. I may be wrong about this, but if it does, this is a decidedly secondary sense. Day means the lighted phase.
So as I say each day comes with a night, before the following day. The day to night transition is evening, i.e. sunset. The night to day transition is morning, i.e. sunrise. I think, therefore, that the phrase “There was evening, there was morning” is a transition phrase indicating the end of the current day, more or less indirectly referring to the night, and the start of the next day. Each is followed by the beginning of the next day cycle. So evening-morning is not a way of saying night-day. Nor does it mean “days” are day-night units. Nor is it saying the “Hebrew day” begins with the evening. Recall that the first day began with the creation of light. That’s what made it a day.
Do the days progress. The first day features light and its consequence day and night. The second day features a gaseous bubble that is the atmosphere, or as we perceive it, the sky, with the resultant hydrosphere. The third day features some reconformity of solid and liquid matter, dry land, places people can stand, walk, and live as opposed to the sea. It actually has two features, the second being the first reference to living things, vegetation.
The fourth day follows, featuring the luminous objects in the sky. This is a tad surprising, given the three light phases that have already occurred. We’d have thought perhaps, that the light referenced earlier and the days associated with them sort of implied the sun. I suggest the text corrects our assumptions at this point. It is, I admit, a strinking aspect. Not a problem though, such that we’d constuct an elaborate work around (as Frameworkers do) to imagine that the fourth day is some kind of recapitulation of the first day. This would be pointless. It is unlikely that this oddity is unintentional or that somehow the author is unaware of it. God definitely didn’t have to do it this way. But He does it. And He tells us that He does it. Why?
Consider for a moment that this is just what the text says and that it means something. The sun and the moon are more or less said to be lamps and clocks (or calendars, perhaps). A lamp has no purpose unless light first exists. A clock has no purpose unless time first exists. So the order is not illogical. More to the point both time and light are God’s, not merely phenomena of the sun and the progress of days. It’s the other way around. God is light and God is Lord of time. These objects serve His purposes for continually making one and marking the other.
So where does the light come from during the first three days? I told you, He’s not taking questions today. Just listen for now. You can try to figure it out later. (But okay, here’s a hint from later reflections on the matter. Psalm 104 follows this sequence–in a way that is poetry, by the way. And it has sun and moon coming in somewhere in the middle, like Genesis 1 does, verse 19, to be exact. But right at the beginning, like in Genesis 1 we have the presence of light–non-solar light: “covering yourself with light as with a garment” (v. 2). Frankly, I think this provides the Scriptural commentary on the question. Remember the localized presence of God, His Spirit in place over the surface of the waters? He robes Himself in light. Works for me.
The days continue to progress. Animal life is the feature of day five, and yes, this mirrors day two, just as day four (sun) mirrored day one (light). The end of day two left us with sea and sky. Day five fills these with sea creatures and sky creatures. There’s a lot, lot more we could say, but this is just a broad overview.
The sixth day follows, and mirrors day three, both in centering on the land, and in providing a double feature. The first feature is the land animals. The second, and most prominent feature is the creation of man. One ought to say a great deal about this event, but we’ll try to remain brief. This is unquestionably the climax of the account. It is marked with special attention to language.
If anything is poetry in this chapter, it would be v. 27. It is commonly cited as a poem, and printed texts do set it out in that form. I don’t think even this is poetry. It doesn’t really fit the pattern. Roughly speaking, parallelism, a major aspect of Hebrew poetry, has different words in corresponding places. This verse has the same words in different places. It’s rhythmic, marked as special, but not generally what we find with poetry. It is similar, I think, to climax moments in construction narrative, which is what I told you before that this genre is.
Anyway, just a few more comments. One important theme in the chapter is food, which I must say warms my little heart. The text tells us God not only made his living creatures but provided for them to eat. For that matter, the whole narrative is essentially God’s provision of the environment in which His creature, man, call live–a habitat for humanity. Not only live, but thrive. Recall the part about gratitude. Mankind is supposed to be grateful for the food. Will he be? Will food become an issue? Will gratitude and ingratitude become an issue? Stay tuned for chapter 3. And following chapter three stay tuned for the rest of the Bible. There you’ll see Jesus Christ going to the cross, basically because mom and dad had issues with the menu. Stupid. But I can tell you about stupid from personal experience. So who am I to point fingers?
Also there’s this image reference; mankind is said to be created in God’s image. Lots to say about that to be sure, but I suggest it points to relationship as the purpose of mankind’s creation. We’re supposed to be His offspring, God’s children. There’s the whole seed thing here too, which is in the offspring theme and will be very important as Christ is the seed of the woman and the seed of Abraham. Altogether I tend to lump Provider and Procreator together and see the text revealing God as Father. You might recall this is not an insignificant aspect of later Bible teaching.
Another detail we should mention is God seeing and judging His creation good. This is a feature that comes out of construction narrative, but I think it plays a larger role here. God is not just Creator, Father, and King, but He is also Judge. If it is good, it is because it reflects His being. If it is good, it is because God recognized His own goodness in what He has made. If it is good, it is because He sees and says it is good. He doesn’t have to do this, but He does it. And He tells us He does it. Why? Because no one is good but God alone. Because seeing good, that is judgement, is God’s role. Will it become an issue, people wanting to see and say something is good, people seeing and saying something is good? See chapter 3.
Finally, we have finished the sequence, all six days. And there is a seventh day, which is technically part of chapter two as they have come to be numbered. Six days, and then the seventh day. Okay, anything about this surprise you? Anything stand out?
I’ll tell you what isn’t a big deal here. Age of the universe questions. Or why didn’t this process take eons, since Dr. Proctor in eighth grade earth science said it took eons. Just forget about this. At least for today. Today He’s not answering questions. More to the point, that’s a dumb question. The only dumb question is an unasked question? That’s dumb too. If you’ve been paying attention the whole time, that’s not the question that comes to mind. That’s not what’s odd about it.
What’s odd is that God stretched the whole thing out at all, that He didn’t just make it all in the twinkling of an eye, in less than an instant. He spread it out over a work week. Or what would become a work week. What am I about to say?
He didn’t have to do this, but He did. And He told us that He did. Why? What does it mean?
Well, first of all, recall, He is Lord of time. And He is Lord of life, our lives. As His Spirit was locally present in space to do the creating, He set the rhythm of life in terms of time. Recall that a week only exists by counting days. Seven days recur,and God ordains this cycle for His special nation. It is so important to His plan that He makes it one of ten commandments, to follow the cycle of seven and set apart one day in seven as holy to Him.
And sevens keep coming up over and over. It is like a signature. Seven days in a week. Seven years. Seven of these seven-year periods. Then seventy years due to ignoring these. Then seventy seven-year periods again. And that bring us to Jesus Christ. Seven, I’d say is a very important number, an important marker. He knew what He was doing, I’d say. And He meant to do what He did. (Just tell Dr. Proctor to take a flying leap.) Not to mention (in my opinion) there’s a seven left. I think you’ll find it in the last book of the Bible, which might just mention seven now and again. Take a look and see.