The Genesis Creation Accounts
... extract from the middle of this chapter:
What Does "Day" Mean?
The first verse of the second chapter of Genesis reads:
You will notice how this statement echoes Genesis 1:1 quoted previously. These verses serve as "bookends" to bracket the account of creation, which is arranged into days.
I believe the concept of a "day" is used as a literary device to give structure to what is arguably the greatest poem ever written. Each stanza of the poem begins with the phrase "And God said ...". It involves some act of creation by God, which he almost always then declares "good". Each stanza finishes with the phrase "There was evening and there was morning ...".
I suggest that the key to a deeper understanding of this structure is in Chapter 1 Verse 2. It describes the Earth in its primal state on the "evening" of Day 1. This state is described as being "formless and empty", which lays the pattern for what follows. If I may borrow the Biblical image of the creator as a potter, the Earth is like a lump of fresh clay, waiting to be shaped into a pot and be filled with useful objects.
Weaknesses of the Day-Age Theory
You may be aware of the "day-age" theory in which interpreters argue that each "day" is a period of undefined length. They then attempt to show that the events described in this sequence of periods are consistent with the scientific evidence.
It is true that the Hebrew word for day is occasionally used with this meaning. It is also true that in scientific terms, the events of Genesis 1 are, to a certain extent, chronological. However there is a huge problem with this theory. The sun, along with the moon a stars, is made on Day 4, yet it is the sun which gives the Earth light on Day 1, producing evening and morning. This problem is so obvious that I doubt even the author of Genesis 1 considered the work a chronological account. However there is an elegant alternative to the chronological reading that makes much more sense.
A Parallel Structure
Starting with the "formless and empty" Earth of Chapter 1 Verse 2, this solution employs a parallel structure in which Days 1 to 3 explain how the heavens (sky) and Earth are given form, while Days 4 to 6 explain how the heavens and Earth are filled.
On each of Days 1 to 3, there is an act of separation that gives shape to a particular domain. On Day 1, the domain of the heavens is prepared as light is separated from dark. On Day 2, the fluid surface of the Earth, or biosphere, is given form by separating the sky, with its clouds, from the ocean. (Scientifically, this domain is given form as the Earth cools, with the oceans condensing, or separating, from the primal atmosphere). Then the domain of the land is given form as tectonic forces lift up the continents, separating them from the oceans. The land produces vegetation in preparation for animate life.
On each of Days 4 to 6, one of the domains formed above is filled with "inhabitants". On Day 4, the domain of the heavens is filled, in a formal and literary sense, with the sun, moon and stars. On Day 5, the domain of the biosphere is filled as birds inhabit the sky and fish inhabit the oceans. On Day 6, the domain of the land is filled with all manner of animal life, and finally, with man.
Once this parallel structure is understood, all questions of chronology evaporate. Because Day 4 is parallel with Day 1, the forming and the filling of the heavens are contemporaneous events. The sun is created at the same time as light, and the cycle of evening and morning, which it produces.
I recommend reading this chapter in the New International Version of the Bible. Its structure, summarized above, can be represented in the table below. While this table doesn't capture every subtlety of this wonderful poetic account of creation, it should help make the literary style clearer. Though the account is not a scientific text, it is surprising how well it fits with what we know of the Earth's history.
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