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I'm often accused of not paying attention to what the text of Genesis 1 says and, instead, basing my beliefs on other things. Nothing could be further from the truth. So I thought I'd walk through the first day and explain what I see it saying when I read it.
The ESV says this about the first day:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
This day, like the others, starts with a proclamation. And when I read it, I think of the guy that cries out "The President of the United States" before he walks into the State of the Union speech. It is not to bring him into being for the first time, but to proclaim him and make something (his presence) official. There is a lot of ceremony and significance in the OT with naming things. Its like they become official once they are named. I could get into this more, but I think that is what is going on here. Things are being proclaimed more than "created". The "let there be" can be understood as "be for", and in the full context of this passage, we get the understanding that daylight is to be for a measurement of functional time in which, pre-electricity, activity occurs.
To skip ahead for a second, our translations generally refer to this as the "first day". And I even use that vernacular on occasion. But the text doesn't say "first" day as if there were no days prior to this. It actually says "day one" or "one day". It's a cardinal number, not an ordinal. To me, this is just another indication that time and even day and night existed prior to this day. But on "one day", God defined and established these functional periods of time in which physical actions then started taking place.
If you ask most kids in Sunday School what was "created" on the first day, they would say light. But that is not what the text says. It doesn't say that He *created* light. It says there WAS light. We can assume that there was no light prior to the statement "let there be", but that is an assumption - just like assuming that there was no sun before this. And these kinds of assumptions are very easy to make when we (1) are influenced by what we are told the text says and (2) have this idea, particularly in the creation accounts, that nothing existed before it was mentioned, and (3) think very consecutively about the text.
The next thing that I see in this passage is that not only does it not say that God "created" light (or even "made" light) on this day, but we also are dealing with something else - darkness. And just as with the water on day two, we are not told where darkness comes from. And darkness, as an absence of light, can't really be created at all. It's the lack of something, not something in itself. And that indicates to me that we are not talking about material things here, but something else.
The next thing I notice in this passage is that God separated light from darkness. If there is an action verb here of God *doing* something, this is it. And it correlates with the separation of pre-existing things in the next two days as well.
The key to understanding this "day" is the next sentence in the account. God called the light "day" and the darkness "night". Now we already have "light" and "darkness", but instead of calling it light and darkness, something that is more material in nature, He calls is "day" and "night". So "light" is not an electromagnetic radiation that travels at a particular speed. It isn't seen as a physical thing. It's a period of time. It's a definition and division of a period of time - something that existed prior to the "let there be" statement.
We've already seen in the text that there is a Hebrew word for "light". But light is a material thing. The text wants us to focus on how light is *used*. It's almost like a pun. "Day" is, from here on in this account, going to be synonymous with "light". The material noun, light, is being removed from focus and its functional equivalent is being defined. So, just as the context shifts from the universe of "heavens and earth" to a more local context of the earth/land in the first verses, this passage tells us that the focus is shifting from what things are to how they are used.
On the topic of definition, I have to scratch my head when I hear folks claiming that the days in Genesis had to be 24 hours in length. I think that this sentence that God called the light "day" TELLS us what the author is intending us to see "day" as. It is different from night. So these references to "evening and morning" after the description of a day's events are not part of that day. They END that day.
So, because of this definition given in the text, I don't see any reason to debate the length of "day". It's the period of daylight hours. All these references to use with ordinals and such are needless. The text tells us what "day" is and how it is being used. Trying to use the Scripture to calculate the length of day is akin to trying to use it to measure the speed of light because, according to the text, day=light.
But this is more than just a definition and division. It shows a functional context for the rest of the account. If you read it looking for the prepositional phrases, God doesn't just make things. He makes FOR and makes TO. Those phrases are the object. We don't have the same kind of "make" verb here, but we do have the text addressing "light" as something functional - day. Just as the movement of the sun, moon, and stars are given for the function of determining seasons and festival times on day four, day and night is ordained in this first day.
Even as a kid, I was a wise ass wise beyond my years. In elementary school, my mom overheard my twin ask "what is time". I responded that "time is a measurement of when". And, in the context of the creation account, those measurements of when are measured by a unit of time called "day". And this was established and defined for us starting with the very first reference to it. In an overall framework of function, God is establishing time and space and assigning purposes for everything in it. These purposed are for man, not material objects to be worshiped or served by man. In this first day, it isn't about "creating" light before the sun, but establishing the basic element of morning, day, evening, and night before, on day four, He establishes the functions of years and seasons and signs.
Now I know some are going to challenge me about comments about the length of the creation week and other comments I've made about this not being about a calendar that can be used to calculate the date of creation. And the reason I say that is that when we think "creation" we think material things. This isn't about when light first came to be. This is about when "day" and "night" was established for functional reasons. The light, just like the water and dirt, existed prior to this passage. So these days in which functions were officially established do nothing at all to give us a date in which those things came to be, materially, for the first time.
After we get days and nights established as the functional description of light and dark, we get two other things mentioned that will become more familiar with coming verses - evening and morning. These too are functional in nature. Evening is the start of "night" and morning is the start of "day". In the context of the Torah, something that Genesis is an introduction to and this chapter is an introduction of that introduction, we have a lot of ceremonies, temple services, festivals, feasts, and other things that take place at specific times. And this passage is to tell us that time itself, as well as the measurements of it are things put into place by God. Future "days" establish the heavens, the earth, and the seas that are inhabited by the "functionaries" of the heavenly bodies, the marine life, and the land animals. And this functional nature of the entire account, as pointed out with all the vague verbs and specific prepositional phrases, is something that John Walton points out in his books as the way the ancient Hebrews though. Things without any purpose or function didn't matter to them. Something existed for its use. The ground isn't important as a material, but for what it can produce. God then is not only responsible for the crops and animals and other things that the material world produces, but the times in which they are planted, harvested, slaughtered, eaten, and so forth.
Finally, I'd like to mention something about context. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, the Torah is about the God of Israel and the land promised to them. In verse 2, we have focus shifting to the earth/land. I'm not convinced that Genesis 1 is about the creation/population of the entire earth/planet, but of the earth/land. As we see when Cain is banished, he is sent from the "face of the earth/land" and goes to a *different* land. And the context of the Torah is about this promised people going to a promised land. To many, John Sailhamer being a prime example, this indicates that the garden references in chapter two do not describe day six, but that this passage and following in chapter one are ALL about this garden area. There are a lot of reasons to believe this, and he lays out a very convincing case for it in Genesis Unbound (originally published in 1996, but now available on the Kindle for about $10). I'd highly encourage you reading it. If you don't have the $10, I can even loan it to you. But the point is that a local focus on the land of Israel and children of Israel may very well mean that the functions established in this account are for them specifically. In other words, it may be a lot more specific and targeted than we often think. The text is *for* us in that we can learn universal truths about it, but it just isn't to us or about us and our questions. That is not the context. It was to the ancient Hebrews and about them and where they came from and where they were headed and the God that provided all that to them. It is very Hebrew-centric. And the sooner we see it in that context and realize that there are/were material and events and history outside of THEIR history and THEIR land and THE garden, the closer we get to understanding this the way they did.
Ultimately, this passage isn't about creation of light and dark out of nothing, or anything material for that matter, but about establishing functional periods of time that would be used for the rest of the account and the rest of the Torah. It's about time. It's as clear as day.