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God Called the Light Day

Genesis 1:5 (ESV) … “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

God called the light Day brings us to the naming step. Called means “gave it the name, named it, called it by the name of.” Some languages distinguish between day as referring to a twenty-four hour period, and “daytime” referring to the period of daylight. Here “daytime” is more appropriate. God now takes control of darkness by making it serve for the nighttime. In languages in which capital letters and quotation marks are not used to show that “day” and “night” are to be taken as names, it is sometimes possible to say, for example, “God gave the light the name day, and the darkness the name night.” If it is necessary to shift to a direct quotation, you may say, for example, “God said to the light, ‘Your name is day,’ and to the darkness, ‘Your name is night.’ ” In any case capitals and quotation marks do not convey anything to the many people who hear the text rather than reading it for themselves, and so the meaning should be expressed clearly without depending on those devices.

Some languages face a special problem at this point, because they use the same term for “light” and “day,” and the same term for “darkness” and “night.” So a literal rendering of what they would get here is “God gave the light the name light, and the darkness the name darkness.” For some people this is quite self-evident and natural; but for others it is senseless to talk like this, and restructuring will be required to make it acceptable. For example, it may be possible to say “When that light came then for the first time, God gave it its name” or “That light didn’t have any name then, so God called it ‘light.’ ”

And there was evening and there was morning, one day: this renders the Hebrew literally, but it is less than clear because it is a rhetorical refrain. It sounds in part like the Jewish twenty-four-hour day, which was from sunset to sunset (Lev 23:32). However, the Jewish day did not end in the morning. We may therefore understand morning to mean “the following period of daylight.” Light has just been created and separated from the darkness, and the order reflected in the refrain is darkness first and then the coming of the created light. The author’s purpose of praising God for his creative acts is thus expressed by means of this poetic device, not only here but at the end of verses 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31.

Translators have used various ways to render this rhetorical expression. Translations of the formal type, such as rsv, follow the Hebrew literally. tev, on the other hand, adjusts the expression by using two verbs: “Evening passed and morning came—that was the first day.” spcl translates the thought but does not retain in its text the succession of evening and morning: “In this way the first day was completed.” This version gives the literal form in a footnote and says “A Hebrew form expressing the idea of one complete day.”

If the translator wishes to retain the succession of evening followed by morning as marking a day, it may be possible to say, for example, “The first day was completed when the night passed and morning came” or “The night was followed by the daylight, and that was the first day.” On the other hand translators in some languages may prefer to adapt the model of spcl and, immediately after “and darkness he called Night,” say “That was the first day of creation” or “And so the first day ended.” One translation that follows this approach says “And that day finished. It was the first day of the world.” If a footnote is considered desirable, spcl gives a satisfactory model: “This is the Hebrew way of expressing the idea of a complete day.”

One day translates the Hebrew literally. Some interpret day to refer to an indefinite period of time, but there is nothing in the context that requires the Hebrew term for day to be taken as other than an ordinary day. All the other days of creation are described by numbers that indicate their place in order or sequence: second, third, fourth, and so on. The author’s purpose is clearly to explain that the seventh day Sabbath has its origin in creation.

In some languages “the first day” will be placed before “and there was evening.…” The first of a series of time periods is often expressed in the same way as the first of a series of objects; for example, “the day in front,” “the head day,” “the day that goes first.”[1]

[1] Reyburn, W. D., & Fry, E. M. (1998). A handbook on Genesis (pp. 34–36). New York: United Bible Societies.

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