Unbelievers regard Gen 1 as scientifically hopeless. But bracketing the limitations of science for now, another problem with this objection is how a scientific approach to Gen 1 is apt to misinterpret Gen 1. A scientific reading of Gen 1 imposes on Gen 1 the scientific significance of certain key concepts. However, those concepts don’t necessary possess the same connotations in Gen 1.
I grew up on a large, heavily-wooded, waterfront property. The entire neighborhood was well-wooded, with waterfront properties lining the shore of the lake.
Being a night owl, I’d go outside at night at various times after dark. I was familiar with the phases of the moon and the phases of Venus. The occasional lunar halo or lunar eclipse. I noticed that the position of sunrise and sunset varied over the course of a year. Going outside at different times, I’d notice the “moving” stars shift position from hour to hour.
Of course, my own life was still regulated by the clock and artificial lighting. And just across the lake were the city lights of Seattle. So I didn’t witness the night sky with the undiminished magnitude of the Psalmist (Ps 19).
Nevertheless, my experience does cause me to ask if readers whose lives are regulated by clocks and light bulbs aren’t missing a key connotation in Gen 1. Electric lighting has erased the natural contrast between light and dark. Take the city slicker in a town like Manhattan or Vegas that “never sleeps.”
II. Units of Light
When a modern urbanite comes to Gen 1, he tends to focus on the days as units of time. And, indeed, that’s one function of the diurnal cycle.
But we need to remember that Gen 1 was written to an audience that lived by sunlight, starlight, moonlight, and firelight. The days of Gen 1 aren’t merely or primarily units of time, but units of light. They differentiate light from darkness. "Day" connotes daylight.
There is also a narrative motion from the general to the specific:
Let’s go through Gen 1, bolding the elements of light and shade:
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 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.
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
III. Pentateuchal Light
Let’s now compare the luminal motif in Gen 1 with some other Pentateuchal texts:
You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it.
And he made its seven lamps and its tongs and its trays of pure gold.
"Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand."
It’s safe to say the seven tabernacular lamps correspond to the seven inaugural days. Both the seven days and the seven lamps are units of light. The days of Gen 1 portend the lamps of the tabernacle. They have both a luminous and numerological correlation.
2. Theophanic light
This also draws attention to the religious significance of light in the Pentateuch, where light is often associated with manifestations of God:
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.
And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.
The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic,
and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O LORD, are in the midst of this people. For you, O LORD, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.
IV. Pentateuchal Darkness
The connotations of Pentateuchal light are mutually defined by the connotations of Pentateuchal darkness.
1. The terror of the night
Although this is not explicit in Pentateuchal usage, I assume references to night would evoke fearful connotations for the target audience. Nocturnal predators came out at night. Some venomous snakes and scorpions were more active at night. And what made the night so fearful was the invisibility of natural hazards lurking under cover of darkness. They could see you, but you couldn’t see them.
So to some extent I assume the contrast between day and night would trigger uneasy feelings about the absence of light.
2. Dreams and apparitions
However, Pentateuchal darkness also had religious associations. Angelic apparitions. Oneiromancy.
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, "Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife."
Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.
And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!
In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled.
Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob,' and I said, 'Here I am!'
But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, "Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad."
Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more.
Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me."
And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation.
After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile,
And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk.
And he said, "Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.
Since the Pentateuch is a literary unit in which Gen 1 foreshadows certain recurring themes in the remainder of a continuous storyline, we need to keep this context in mind as we approach the text of Gen 1.