In Genesis 1:5, part of the creation narrative in 7 days, God calls the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night.’ Why wouldn’t God just call them ‘light’ and ‘dark?’ This signals to us that something strange (to us) is going on in the text, and it turns out that it has to do with how we understand existence in the modern world. That might seem like a huge leap, but allow me to explain.
We in the modern world posses a material ontology, meaning that we tend to think about something’s existence based on its material properties. Salt exists because Sodium and Chlorine bonded ionically, and thus it possesses the material properties required to give salt its existence. The chair I am currently using is made from the finest cheap plastic goop you usually find in only the lowest grade outdoor patio furniture. It possesses legs, a back, armrests, a seat, and it starts to bend in funny ways during the winter when I let the space-heater get too close. All material properties, giving rise to what I call ‘chair.’
It’s completely natural that we would take this same material-oriented ontology to the text of Genesis 1, because when we talk about the origins of the universe, we do so in a materially oriented fashion. We want to know about the age of the Earth/universe, the composition of planets and stars, distances, etc. These are all material concerns.
Material ontology is part of our worldview, and worldviews always insert themselves into interpretations. So, we have to ask ourselves: Did the Israelites (and the rest of the Ancient Near East) view the world in a materially oriented way? In other words, when they wrote about origins and creation, were they referring to the materials of the universe, or did they have something else in mind?
Obviously, I wouldn’t have bothered asking the question if I didn’t think there was something else going on. We can see a different understanding of the world in verse 5, where God calls light and dark by different names. ‘Day’ is a period of light, and ‘night’ is a period of dark, and when that section concludes with “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” we see exactly what God just created: Time.
A period of light followed by a period of darkness gives us the basis for time, unless you live in Scandinavia during either the winter or summer. It’s important to note that for us materialists, God hasn’t created anything material on this day. The sun, moon, and stars don’t come until day 4, and no one in the ancient world had any concept of the particle-wave theory of light. Rather than creating materials, God is establishing functions.
That word, functions, is enormously important because while we often judge the existence of something on its material properties, the people of the Ancient Near East had a functional ontology. For them, something existed if it had a function in an ordered system. My cheap, plastic chair, in this sense, isn’t a chair until someone actually uses it, giving it a function. The ancient Israelites didn’t understand how the earth revolved around the sun, or that the moon reflected the sun’s light, but the interchange between night and day created the function of time.
Before we jump into the rest of the days in Genesis, we ourselves, in our materially-ontological glory, use functional thinking as well. If I told you that I got a new computer, you probably aren’t going to be interested in when and where it was manufactured, the chemical composition of the components, etc. You’d be asking me about its speed, storage capacity, features, battery life, etc. In other words, you’d ask me about its functions, not its material composition. The Ancient Near East, and Genesis 1 in particular, is quite like that.
See how this plays out over the next few days in the creation narrative:
And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
During day 2, God separates out “waters from the waters” (whatever that means) and eventually ends up with “waters above” and “waters below.” According to ancient reasoning (see the image), water fell from the sky so there must already be water up there (they didn’t know about the water-cycle), hence the “waters above.” The important word here usually gets translated “expanse” or “firmament”, and it is what’s formed after God does all this separating. This firmament was like a giant dome, and God calls it “heaven,” though in Hebrew the word is “sky.”
So… the big question here is: What did God actually do? He didn’t create anything material, but what function do we see? Go back to what I said about waters being “above.” The heavens/firmament hold back those waters and control their flow – meaning they allow for the function of precipitation and weather.
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
A lot happens on day 3. Dry land appears, the seas are gathered together, and then the Earth does something amazing: it sprouts vegetation. It never says anything about the material composition of seeds and plants, and we are only told that the Earth itself sprouts. If we hold to a materialistic view of this creation account, then it would seem as though plants are just appearing like mold on a piece of bread. This won’t make much sense, and we would have to contort the text in order to make it fit into our worldview. However, from an ancient, functional perspective, here emerges the function of vegetation.
We now have 3 functions: time, weather, and vegetation. In my next post, we will look at the functionaries.
If you would like a more in-depth look, I highly recommend the book by John Walton:
In this astute mix of cultural critique and biblical studies, John H. Walton presents and defends twenty propositions supporting a literary and theological understanding of Genesis 1 within the context of the ancient Near Eastern world and unpacks its implications for our modern scientific understanding of origins. Ideal for students, professors, pastors and lay readers with an interest in the intelligent design controversy and creation-evolution debates, Walton's thoughtful analysis unpacks seldom appreciated aspects of the biblical text and sets Bible-believing scientists free to investigate the question of origins.