Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Let there be light! (Gen. 1:1-5)

Now it's time to dive in with some specifics, right? I'm tiring myself, and I don't know if anyone's bothering to read this anymore, if indeed anyone ever was. Well, one last semi-generalized note, actually.

Not everyone agrees on this, but it's my own personal opinion that chapter one is intended to be poetic. In many ways it's very poetic in form and feeling, and as such, I don't think it's necessarily intended to be taken as literal. The real point behind this chapter is the creative power of God, not the specific fine detail regarding what He does with it. That said, I do think one can take this chapter in a fairly straightforward way nonetheless, and a rule of thumb for Bible understanding is that if you can find a way to interpret it non-symbolically that makes sense, you should probably go with that.

The main thing that is taken as poetic by many is the concept of seven "days". Is a day 24 literal hours? Well, who knows? In a sense, a "day" is the period of time it takes for the earth to rotate 360 degrees relative to the sun's position, but of course the sun wasn't created until day four, so what does "day" mean in a more practical sense for those first three "days"? Who knows, indeed. I reiterate that the Bible is not a science textbook, and the technical specifics of the creation are not the real point of the story anyway.

On day one, God creates light. The skeptic says, "But if there's no sun, how can there be light? This doesn't follow our scientific understanding of the order things were created!" Point one: the sun is hardly the only possible light source in the universe. Point two: I'm not a physicist, but I believe that in fact this does follow the current scientific understanding.

What does science say presently about how the universe began? In the beginning, there was nothing; and by "nothing" we mean that not even time or space existed. You could say that it was "without form, and void". Then, all at once, there was something! What was that something? Essentially, it was a tiny little ball of energy, which exploded and made everything in the universe over the course of an extended period of time, supposedly over 10 billion years. At first, this ball of energy was so hot and charged up with power that it was unable to condense into matter of any recognizable form, but it surely radiated off one thing: light, and plenty of it. To say that light was the first thing created in the universe is, I would say, the one thing in this chapter that precisely matches up with modern scientific understanding. But I don't want to lose sight of my repeated warning that we're not really talking science here. The Bible doesn't say where this light is coming from, so we either speculate, or we let scientists figure it out.

On the poetic side again, the "light" may be a very symbolic thing. While I could speculate on how "God divided the light from the darkness" is flowery talk about how eventually that proto-plasma (Is that a word? I don't know what to call it.) at the beginning of the universe eventually cooled enough to settle into clumps of gas separated by empty space, I think it's much more worthwhile to talk about the imagery of light vs. darkness that pervades the Bible from beginning to end.

There's a fairly common belief known as "gap theory" that speculates on why God would create the heavens and the earth "without form, and void". (Once again, I think this shows a misunderstanding of the sequence of events; verse one is not an event so much as a "thesis statement," if you will, of the story that follows.) That theory is concerned with a pre-history that supposedly occurs in a gap between verses one and two. I don't know it well, but I believe the idea is that God made the universe in verse one, something went wrong that was somehow related to an angelic rebellion led by Satan, and the upshot is that God had to wipe everything out and start over: verse two.

Whether you choose to interpret things that way (and it's quite a bit of a stretch, clearly) or not, it's compelling to think of God creating a world which he infuses with "light" (goodness) so that he can separate and drive away "darkness" (evil). Really, that's what the Bible as a whole is about, so putting it right there at the beginning is interesting. As I have heard many a pastor say, while we tend to see the "day" starting with light and ending in darkness, the Jewish reckoning is that the "day" begins at sundown, thus starting with darkness and leading to light.


Anonymous said...

Excerpted form one of the articles at http://www.geraldschroeder.com/

The Talmud (Chagiga, ch. 2), in trying to understand the subtleties of Torah, analyzes the word "choshech." When the word "choshech" appears in Genesis 1:2, the Talmud explains that it means black fire, black energy, a kind of energy that is so powerful you can't even see it. Two verses later, in Genesis 1:4, the Talmud explains that the same word - "choshech" - means darkness, i.e. the absence of light.

Other words as well are not to be understood by their common definitions. For example, "mayim" typically means water. But Maimonides says that in the original statements of creation, the word "mayim" may also mean the building blocks of the universe. Another example is Genesis 1:5, which says, "There is evening and morning, Day One." That is the first time that a day is quantified: evening and morning. Nachmanides discusses the meaning of evening and morning. Does it mean sunset and sunrise? It would certainly seem to.

Nachmanides says the text uses the words "Vayehi Erev" - but it doesn't mean "there was evening." He explains that the Hebrew letters Ayin, Resh, Bet - the root of "erev" - is chaos. Mixture, disorder. That's why evening is called "erev", because when the sun goes down, vision becomes blurry. The literal meaning is "there was disorder." The Torah's word for "morning" - "boker" - is the absolute opposite. When the sun rises, the world becomes "bikoret", orderly, able to be discerned. That's why the sun needn't be mentioned until Day Four. Because from erev to boker is a flow from disorder to order, from chaos to cosmos.

Anonymous said...

nice blog -- random comment: You should check out one of the many available exegeses on Genesis. Genesis 2 was actually written before Genesis 1, and by different authors (one by priests, the other by what historians call "Yahwists")... reading exegeses of these things kinda puts everything into context. They are very poetic, and can be interpretted a number of different ways (almost every way except literal actually). The interpretation I heard that made the most sense to me is that Gen 1 puts man at the near-apex of creation, with the Sabbath (God) being the apex, in sort of a building-up fashion. The 2nd creation myth can be interpreted to answer the obvious question of "If we are the apex, why are we so flawed and sinful"... which is why I think whatever Council decided to put the chapters in that order did that.

Unfortunately, if you follow this path pretty rigorously it leads to agnosticism or atheism (I am the latter)... because everything REALLY makes a lot of sense when taken in the various non-God-related contexts. Some of these writers were actually fairly novel philosophers for their time and for their understanding of the world.

Nevertheless, my girlfriend is a devout Catholic (and a genius at this stuff) and I rarely do more than stalemate with her when we debate these things. She has this very hard-to-describe idea of God (almost more along the lines of a spiritual guide) that she can defend fairly well rationally, because she doesn't make any absurd claims.

Good luck with your quest for truth.

Brucker said...

I believe I covered my views on the Yahwist/Elohist/etc. view of the Torah elsewhere in my blog. I simply don't see why having various parts of the Bible coming from different oral traditions neccessitates it therefore being false. As many Christians have observed, if the Bible comes from so many disparate sources (and indeed, there are about 40 different authors that contributed to the whole) and yet still agrees with itself on the whole, all the more reason to suspect something supernatural behind it.

In any case, thanks for your feedback.

Anonymous said...

Various comments on your Genesis 1 observations:

You say "I don't think it's necessarily intended to be taken as literal." From BC Judaism through the Middle Ages, Biblical scholars proposed that every text could be interpreted both literally and spiritually. The spiritual meaning relies on direct revelation from God to the reader, making it hard to verify. You end up having to rely on the authority of the interpreter rather than his line of reasoning from the text -- that's how the traditions of the Talmudists and the Church Fathers became authoritative. Even those interpreters who offered non-literal interpretations also believed that the literal meaning was true as well.

"Is a day 24 literal hours?" This is a very old question. There are those like who have argued for a longer time frame. The Epistle of Barnabas, a noncanonical text most likely written in the early second century, says this:
"And God made the works of His hands in six days, and He ended on the seventh day, and rested on it, and He hallowed it. Give heed, children, what this meaneth; He ended in six days. He meaneth this, that in six thousand years the Lord shall bring all things to an end; for the day with Him signifyeth a thousand years."

Augustine and Aquinas, on the other hand, thought the creation should have been instantaneous. It's a Greek thing: God is perfect and eternal; linear time isn't; therefore, God doesn't act in linear time.

I think the Genesis 1 text itself sounds like regular days and nights.
"God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day" (Gen. 1:5). Light/dark, day/night, evening/morning, one day -- the narrator seems to emphasize the temporal aspect of the creation.

As you point out, the sun doesn't show up until later in the week. Perhaps even more problematic is that plants and fruit trees are also created before the sun. This has led many interpreters to regard the Genesis time sequence as referring to something other than the creation of the material universe. Still, there's that pesky literal interpretation to deal with.

I think you're right about gap theory. Gen 1:1 introduces the creation project; Gen 2:1-2 says "Thus the heavens and the earth were completed... and by the seventh day God completed His work..." Doesn't that imply that the creation took all week?

You speculate about the symbolic meaning of light: "it's compelling to think of God creating a world which he infuses with 'light' (goodness) so that he can separate and drive away 'darkness' (evil)." God does separate the light from the darkness, but he never banishes the darkness. Instead, he sets up light and darkness in cyclical oscillation: light/dark, day/night. I suppose an Eastern god might retain evil in perpetual balance with good, but that doesn't seem to be the Judeo-Christian God's style. I think it's light as a physical property of the material universe he's talking about.

Now, where does that lead us? If you'll indulge me, I point you to my website --(http://ktismatics.wordpress.com/about/ -- where I offer up an alternative literal interpretation of the text. Briefly, the idea is this: God didn't create the physical universe; he created a rational understanding of the universe. "Light" is an abstract idea that manifests itself in physical stuff like a campfire, a volcano, the sun. God was creating a way of making sense of the raw physicality that surrounds us -- the very first natural science.

I acknowledge it's unorthodox, and fairly ironic, but I hope you'll go check out the website and see for yourself.

Anonymous said...

to mazinkaiser_z:
The Bible is not a coded book. It does not require great degrees, nor great levels of insight to understand it. It is God's direct revelation to us, and can be read in a straightforward manner.
Now, to my comment about the blog itself.
Why must we as Christians struggle to find a way to reconcile the Bible with science? Why must we compromise our faith so that we may not have conflict with the world? The Bible says we are to be salt, and salt irritates.
Personally, I have seen time and again, that rather than having secular science be right and the Bible wrong, the Bible proves to be right and secular science wrong.
Take abiogenesis, the philosophy that things such as flies grew on rotten meat, however, the Bible teaches that every creature will bear young after its kind. As flies are not in the rotten meat kind, they must have come from other flies.
Even in areas such as carbon dating, a straightforward reading of the Bible is proving true. A little background. The Institute for Creation Research(ICR,icr.org) recently finished its RATE(Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth) project. ICR had several different projects going on, one mazinkaiser_z, should study a little. It looked at Carbon-14 levels in diamonds, which had not previously been studied because they were "known" to be billions of years old. Carbon-14 is the radioactive form of carbon, and comprises about 1% of all carbon. Carbon-14 has a halflife of about 5000 years. This means that in 5000 years, about half of the original amount of Carbon-14 will be left. This gives a maximum effective timeframe of Carbon-dating to about 100,000 years, not millions like most people believe it to be. Carbon dating is based on comparing the modern amount of Carbon-14 to the amount present in the subject material, generally organic matter. Anyways, when looking at diamonds, which were supposed to be created many billions of years ago, ICR found that all of the diamonds that they tested came back with young carbon-14 dates.
This again shows me that the Bible can be trusted and eventually, secular science will catch up with the accurate information presented in the Bible. I am sure that one day, science will agree with the Bible, and say that the earth could have been created in 6 days, and was created about 6,000 years ago.
If we give the secularists the chance to say that some part of the Bible needs reinterpretation, then they will create a Skeptics Annotated Bible. If they do not want to believe, then they will not believe. We must stand firm upon the foundation of God's Word, and, though we will be ridiculed, one day we will be shown right.

Brucker said...

The hard part about dealing with Biblical skeptics is that there are two types: those who are just making up excuses, and those who have legitimate issues with the Bible as they see it. For those in the first group, there's not much you can do but wait for the movement of the Holy Spirit. For those in the second group, there is an opportunity to meet them intellectually with the hope that it will make them more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. At least that's my take on it.

Honestly, while I do appreciate the good intentions in which ICR operates, I also take info from them with a grain of salt. Science will catch up with God's Word, and I see no need to push it there.

Na said...

I thought evening and morning was best handled by Carol (bookdragon). However, still don't understand why god would have called the darkness Night and the light Day, unless it's referring to day and night. Maybe there is another mistaken translation from Hebrew, or maybe like most religions before it light was considered of prime importance because of what it on a very basic level provides. I wonder if when people are trying to make the Bible work they say to themselves "well I think I've got something that might fit, but my god has it got convoluted".
And the anonymous poster is quite clearly talking BS, I can't see any other way someone can make the statement "Take abiogenesis, the philosophy that things such as flies grew on rotten meat" than by having complete disregard from the truth. I'm mean seriously, watch this interview from 2007 with a guy who studies abiogenesis explaining it, and ask how someone with the slightest interest in the truth could make the statement made by the anonymous poster.
Also isn't it fairly well known that there are different methods of dating? Wouldn't you take a second to google whether carbon 14 dating was the appropriate one? This was the 2nd one I looked at on the matter when I googled it. I put this on up as opposed to the other, because the other was far too indepth, this one is short and easy. http://www.ridgenet.net/~do_while/sage/v15i8e.htm

Brucker said...

Wow, that was a real "duh" moment for me. I don't recall what I thought of anonymous' comment back when it was first posted (other than, as noted in as polite a fashion as I could manage, ICR may mean well, but their methods usually poor), but re-reading it this time, I kept thinking that there was something odd about the idea of carbon-dating diamonds, but I couldn't out my finger on it. Of course, the problem is that carbon-dating is a method that is only effective for finding the age of the remains of dead things. I *knew* that, darnit! So of course that method of dating is meaningless for diamonds. Of course the thing that sprang to mind was whether anyone had tried similar experiments with amber, which is formed from tree sap, right? Not that it matters really, as most people with an opinion on evolution vs. creation aren't likely to change their minds no matter what one says.

As for your first statement, I really don't understand what you're asking. Sure, if God calls it day and night, then that's what it is; the only distinction I put in there was that it's rather nebulous what day and night mean when the sun hasn't been created, and while there are ways to take the story literally, I think there are some great aspects of the symbolism here that are more significant.

Na said...

All dating methods have upper limits, carbon dating stops being reliable sometime after 40,000 years. As long as the amber is younger than that it would be possible.

Can't you see the conversation between god and the person writing that bit of the Bible.

God: And then I called the light day and the darkness night.
Holy Ghostwriter: Why didn't you just call the light light and the darkness darkness?
God: Because I called it day and night.
Holy Ghostwriter: So before the words for day and night referred to day and night as we know them, they referred only to light and darkness.
God: Yep
Holy Ghostwriter: Did you seriously use though words?
God: Yep
Holy Ghostwriter: When talking to yourself?
God: Yep
Holy Ghostwriter: That's a hell of a coincidence!
God: Not really, I knew what night and day would eventually become. Just thought it was kind of funny to call the light day and darkness night before sticking in the sun. Call it artistic flare!
Holy Ghostwriter: Maybe I should be really clear about how I phrase this or people might think I wrote this myself and just didn't realise about how the day and night work.
God: And spoil my joke! Don't you dare! I'll bloody kill you and curse all you descendants!
Holy Ghostwriter: Alright, alright, light is day, darkness is night. Sheesh, for God's sake, I mean really!

Brucker said...

Cute dialogue; I like it. One of the things I like about it tangentially that you probably didn't intend is that it talks about God making jokes. In the original Hebrew (as hinted at by bookdragon) the text is loaded with little puns and bits of wordplay. I wish my Hebrew were better so I could just read it without some sort of translation help, but even skimming the text with a limited vocabulary, sometimes the puns still stand out.

Na said...

Yes, I remember some pointed out in Crumbs Genesis, like Jacob name meaning Heel Grabber and being named as such because he came out grabbing Esau's heel. Still, seems a bit of a shitty thing to name your son, but simpler times I guess ;)