Light and Darkness

Here is a paper I wrote for my World Literature course on Genesis. I did a close reading of the first 5 verses. A close reading is when you look at the words used, how they are used, what the text is saying versus how it is said. It was a really fun close reading. I’ve just copy-pasted it here for you to read.

Many children are afraid of the dark, and a nightlight is a regular comfort to many children. In the dark there are secrets, there are monsters, and there are surprises. One never knows what the darkness contains. But light helps us to see and guides the way. Light tells us when a new day has begun. Where do light and darkness come from? The Hebrew creation story presupposes the existence of darkness, and the famous first words are “Let there be light.” In this creation story of Genesis, the all-powerful God, Yahweh, creates light to establish order in a place of chaos and emptiness, specially selecting light for a purpose that darkness cannot fulfill, setting light apart from all that came before, thus paving the way for the rest of creation.

The first verse of Genesis chapter one sets the stage for the rest of the action presenting the main actor, the setting, and the needs of the setting. God, Yahweh, is the agent of creation, and the heavens and the earth are the objects of creation.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”(New English Translation, Gen. 1:1). The word heavens is probably more appropriately rendered “skies.” The traditional Christian translation heavens includes an implication of a place where God dwells, but the Hebrew word for sky, sha-mah, means “place of winds”, it is not necessarily where Yahweh dwells. (Mechanical-Translation). The word skies simply refers to an object of creation. How does Yahweh create the skies and the earth? The Hebrew word for create literally means “to fatten” in the sense of being “filled up,” or “to make more substantial”(Ibid). This could mean that the earth was already there, because how can you fatten nothing? It could possibly mean that He created the earth from nothing, but it is unclear.

The second verse gives more detail about the setting, which it is a place of confusion that is ready to be filled. It says “Now the earth was without shape and empty”(NET Gen. 1:2). There must have been something of the worlth, although it was formless and empty. Yet how can the earth not have a form, and not have anything in it? An object without a form cannot be filled. A better translation of the Hebrew word for formless would be “indistinct” or “barren” (M-T). The root of the word empty in the Hebrew is literally “an empty space needing to be filled”(ibid). So rather than there being nothing, there is something that needs to be filled. The next line says there was “darkness…over the surface of the watery deep” (NET Gen. 1:2). So the earth is not completely empty because there is darkness and water. The root of the word for darkness means “A pit dug into the ground for the purpose of trapping someone or something”(ibid). So darkness indeed is not nothing, but a lack of something. And the waters, or deep sea, is “deep and tumultuous waters”(ibid). The something that is there is a formless and barren chaos without organization. The earth was indistinct, and although there was water and darkness, it was barren with a need to be filled, given shape and organized.

So Yahweh “fattening” the earth is to fill it, make it more substantial, and give it form. How does Yahweh fatten the earth? It says that His spirit is there, hovering over the waters (NET Gen. 1:2). God is not just outside of creation, like a potter with clay. He is within His own creation, as an active participant. In fact, the Hebrew word for spirit, or wind, comes from the pictograph for a “prescribed path”(M-T). Thus, the Spirit nature of God is directly related to order. The Spirit of God over the surface of the waters will be a vehicle for creating organization in the world. And because it is Yahweh’s Spirit, it is His idea of order and organization.

The first installation of order spoken into creation is light. Yahweh speaks, and light comes into being. “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” (NET Gen. 1:3) It could also be said that by calling out the name of light, it came into being. In Hebrew, names or words for an object also denote its purpose and function. By naming light, God gives it the power of its name. The word for light is “owr”, comes from the root word “box”, as in something for collecting and organizing (M-T). The very nature of light is organization. This directly contrasts darkness which is a pit, thus a place of lacking. When Yahweh called light into being, He gave light power to establish order over a place of chaos and emptiness. Because light is functioning as a tool for organization, it is functioning in the nature of the Spirit of God, the prescribed path.

Yahweh does not arbitrarily create light, He creates it for a purpose. “God saw that the light was good. ” (NET Gen. 1:4) In common use of the word good, its meaning is subjective. An individual or society decides the scale of what is good and what is bad. If the good here is subjective good, it means that God created light fit to His own standards of good and bad. Further, the word in Hebrew for good is tov, which means “functional” (M-T). So more than simply a subjective judgment of good, the word refers to something being fit for a specific need. And, if light is seen as good and therefore functional, it means that Yahweh created it with a function in mind. The function of light is to organize, to bring order. Because God sees that it is good, it means that light fulfilled the specific purpose that He created it for.  So in a few words, God established organization and order through His presence in a place of chaos and emptiness.

Seeing that light satisfies the role He created it for, Yahweh divides it from darkness. “So God separated the light from the darkness”(NET Gen. 1:4).What does it mean that God separates light and darkness? The Hebrew word for separation, baw-dal, can be translated many ways, including “to divide”, “to distinguish”, “to differ”, “to select”, or “to set or keep apart” (Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, M-T). Light and darkness are already different, and in fact opposite, as I have already established. And although they are probably being divided here, God actually divides them on day four with the creation of luminaries for that purpose (NET Gen 1:14). Therefore, the action of separation here is specifically selecting light, distinguishing light from the darkness. Darkness had already existed on the earth, and yet God specially created light to bring organization and order. God also declares the light as functional, but not the darkness. Further, God separates the light from the darkness, not darkness from the light. God is setting light apart from darkness. This brings up an interesting point that the word in Hebrew for set-apart is commonly translated as holy, a word attributed to God. Does this mean that light holy? If light is holy, is it of God?

The names that Yahweh gives to light and darkness reveal deeper details of their roles. “God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’” (NET Gen. 1:5). The basic meaning of the Hebrew word for day, yom, is the time from dawn to dusk. It can also be used to refer to a longer period of time or the passage of time(M-T). Light was already an object of organization, and now it is given the function of regulating time. The word for night, however, is “layil”, which although it does refer to the time from dusk to dawn, it literally means “a twist away from light” (Strong’s). In other words, night is defined by its relationship to light, something I will return to in a moment. The word night only refers to a length of time, not the passage of time. Further, when there was only darkness, time did not move: “There was evening, and there was morning, marking the first day” (NET Gen. 1:5). Appropriately, the word for dawn is related to the word for darkness, because light emerges from the dark (M-T). So now that God has created light, there can be time. Light provides a way to organize time, to put it into units of days. Light’s authority over time is confirmed on day four, when Yahweh creates objects of light, the sun and moon, to regulate the passage of months and years as well. Because God has created time, He can create objects that function under time, like plants, animals, and humans.

Although darkness existed first, Got sets it aside and chooses light as the vehicle for organization and thus creation. The earth was chaotic with a need to be filled, and the darkness that existed there was actually a lack of something, it was deceitful. But the Spirit of Yahweh comes into the world, and He specially invokes His own nature of order in the form of light to establish organization in the world. Night, the name given to darkness, is literally a “twist away from light.” What was of the world was opposite to God, but a few words is all He needs to bring it under His power and order. Thus in one day, Yahweh establishes His presence in the world, preparing the world so He can fill it with creation.

Sources:

Strong, James, S.T.D., LL.D., Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, e-Sword, Ver. 9, Dictionary.

mechanical-translation.org

New English Translation. Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C., 2006. BibleGateway.com.

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4 thoughts on “Light and Darkness

  1. I would like to suggest for your reading pleasure that you look up John H. Walton – like everything else he is easily found on Amazon. In particular you might be interested in “The Lost world of Genesis One, Ancient Cosmology and the origins debate. Also of interest (and benefit) is his book “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible.” His positions might surprise you. The man is a Hebrew scholar and a PHD and reaches his conclusions re the text of Genesis based upon the fact that Genesis is an ancient document and should be understood and interpreted as such. What we do with the understanding that comes out of that interpretation is then up to us, but first you must understated how the intended audience would have heard the message.

  2. Pingback: Hebrew Word Studies: To Fatten | Called to Wander

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