[This post is an alternative reading of Genesis 1:3; it combines the slightly edited version of the LET THERE BE page and a portion of the AND THERE WAS page, both clickable on the right side of this blog. We’re jumping into the middle of the exegesis here; if you want the context you might want to read the Genesis 1 pages from the beginning.]
Let There Be
“Let there be light” – what does this phrase mean? In Hebrew the verb conjugation expresses the “precative mood,” by which the speaker expresses the intent to influence the listener’s behavior in some way. The precative falls somewhere between a direct command (“Light, come forth!”) and a simple indicative (“There is light.”). For most Hebrew verbs the precative and the indicative are conjugated identically; mood has to be inferred from context.
A speaker uses the precative to express an indirect command or request or intent: “Please let there be light” or “Would that there was light” exemplify the use of the precative in English. God could have been issuing a polite command, either to a demiurge or to the animistic spirit of the light itself. Maybe God was thinking out loud, tentatively putting forward his preference about what to create before taking definitive action. Maybe the angels had been discussing various ideas about what to create, and God was offering a gentle suggestion. Maybe “Let there be light” was a diplomatic announcement, the politely-expressed resolution of a debate among the members of a collective. It seems odd that the almighty God would have expressed his creative intentions in this roundabout way.
A speaker also uses the precative to elicit agreement from the listener. For instance, a mathematician or a scientist might invoke a phrase like “Let there be X” when stating an abstract proposition: a formula, say, or a proof. There is a property in the universe, shared by things like the sun and the stars, fires and lightning and volcanoes, to which I’d like to call your attention: let it be called “light.”
At first blush this abstract, hypothetical way of using language seems anachronistic in the context of Genesis 1. But consider verse 14, which documents day four of the creation:
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament to separate day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.
In the first part of this Let there be… pronouncement, God is creating lights in the heavens, just as he created light more generally on day one. But when he says to let them be for signs and seasons, he’s no longer just creating the lights; he’s assigning a function to them: the lights can be “read” as a source of meaning and as a metric for keeping track of the passage of time. When God says to let be this second time, he might be making a more elaborate prescription about the kind of lights he intends to create; or proposing the link between lights and signs, between lights and seasons; or making an observation about ways in which someone – the witness, perhaps – might be able to make use of the lights. Each of these interpretations is valid grammatically and syntactically; each demands a more abstract, conceptual reading of the let be phrase than calling something into physical existence.
Professor Elohim steps to the podium. He shows a series of slides: sunrise, burning branches, lightning strike, volcanic eruption. “Let the word ‘light’ stand for this particular physical property,” the Professor begins. It’s possible. Still, this grammatically legitimate alternative interpretation doesn’t solve the larger contextual puzzle; namely, to whom was God directing his remark? Perhaps he was speaking to the witness. God thought about something, and he spoke the word that conveyed his idea to the witness.
How could a bit of scientific categorization possibly be regarded as an act of creation? Light is so commonplace a property we detect it instinctively, beneath the level of conscious awareness. But that might be just the point. What if being consciously aware of the light wasn’t commonplace at all; what if, in fact, no one had ever actually thought about light, or given it a name, in the history of the universe? The sun, a forest fire, a bolt of lightning, an active volcano: diverse phenomena share a certain property that links them together and distinguishes them from other kinds of phenomena like the sea, the trees, men. To grasp mentally the shared element is part of what it means to create an abstract thought. To assign a word to the abstract property is to create language. Suppose elohim was the first intelligent being ever to create the cognitive-linguistic abstraction called light: would we regard that as an act of creation? What about the first time someone proposed the idea that light is made up of waveicles: was that a creative act?
We’re trying to understand Genesis 1 from a vantage point located inside the text. Maybe up until day one there were no light-emitting objects to be found anywhere in the universe. If so, then certainly no one present in that eternal darkness, no witness to the creation, would ever have thought the idea or said the word light. Suppose instead the universe was already full of light-emitting objects, but there were no sentient beings around who can understand the idea of “light-emitting object.” One day someone with advanced cognitive-linguistic capabilities arrives in this light-infused universe. He looks around, thinks for a minute, and speaks: light. Either interpretation of God’s proclamation in Genesis 1:3 can be supported by the text.
And There Was
“Let there be light;” and there was light: only the single word and intervenes between precative and declarative, between intent and fulfillment. The writer might be emphasizing God’s physical power, such that his will is accomplished instantaneously. Or the writer might be emphasizing God’s cognitive and linguistic power, by expressing immediate agreement with God’s proposition to recognize this abstract property and to give it the name “light.” Elohim speaks using the precative mood: he is trying to get his listener to do something. In addressing his remark to the witness, elohim is trying to get the witness not to create the light, but to understand the light.
“Look,” says God, pointing first to the still-smoldering campfire, then to the eastern sky at the beginning of what would be the first day of creation: “there is light.” Someone else is there, a witness, listening to what God says, looking, understanding. “Yes,” confirms the witness; “there is light.” Who is it that sees, that hears, that understands, that speaks the echoed words of the Creator? It can’t be man, because man isn’t created until day six. But it might be proto-man.
With the dawning of day one, God sees light-emitting objects shining in the universe and he also thinks the light as an abstract idea. It’s the idea that gives the substance meaning, transforming proto-light into real light. When God says light, he speaks the word that means the idea. It’s the word that lets the meaning be understood by the witness. As the witness simultaneously hears the word and sees the specific stuff to which the word refers, the light becomes real to the witness. It’s the reality that God has created, but now the witness begins to participate in the same system of meanings. Reality, created when God matched idea to substance, begins to extend itself to other minds.
Let’s say it’s forty thousand years ago, and you are the witness. Language for your tribe is a tool but, like your stone axe and your fire sticks, it’s a relatively primitive tool, concrete and pragmatic. In your tribe you can tell someone to run, or you can offer a gesture of friendship, and you will be understood. One day there arrives in your territory a band of migrants, perhaps a scouting party dispatched by a distant civilization, possessed of a language you cannot understand. They are a peace-loving people, in no great hurry to move on, and they seem unperturbed by your inability to understand what they have to say. At first, as they set about the task of learning your language, you think they must be a backward lot, not knowing the true names of things. Then, as they develop competence in communicating with your people, they begin to ask the names of things for which there are no names. Grain, onion, meat: what do you call all these things together? They are nothing together, you say; they are grain, onion, meat. Then they give you a word: food. Now you have learned two things from them: the name for all edible things, and the idea that so many different kinds of things can be the same in some important way. What, they ask, are the names for this kind of grain and that kind of grain? There is only one name, you reply, though less confidently this time: grain. It turns out the strangers have two names: this grain is wheat, that one is oat – and so you learn that the same things can also be different.
There is light, one of the visitors says. No, you say, that is the moon. Then the visitor points to the campfire: there is light, he says again. Is he confused? He points to the eastern sky, just before dawn: there too is light. You’ve never really had reason to consider what these very different things have in common, but now it dawns on you. You have the innate cognitive capacity to understand, to see what the other sees, to say what the other says. There is light, you reply at last. In hearing the word you’ve learned the word; in considering the abstract idea you’ve learned the idea; in saying the word you’ve entered a larger world. You are at the beginning.
Elohim saw, then inferred an abstract idea from what he saw, then assigned a word for what he saw, and you were there to witness it. When elohim pointed and spoke the word, you looked around and behold: there was light! Until elohim spoke the word, you had never before understood. Now, for the first time, you do. Genesis 1 is a written record of the witness’ own astonishment – a record of God’s creation, in humans, of a consciousness of things.
Is it fair to call this hypothetical linguistic exchange a creation? Bear in mind that we’re not just talking about teaching a new language to people who already speak a language of comparable complexity, like when you or I learn (or try to learn) French. Elohim would have used a more sophisticated language, carrying within itself a more advanced level of thinking, than that of their prehistoric students. The words and ideas of elohim carried systematic hierarchical abstraction to levels never before imagined by the witness and his people, encompassing the very heavens and earth. Still, the linguistic and conceptual gap wasn’t so vast that the witness couldn’t understand what elohim meant. The raw light-emitting things were already there – maybe they evolved from more primitive things, or maybe they had been fabricated long ago by this same roving band of Namers. What’s important here and now, in this hypothetical meeting between elohim and the primitive tribe, is the context in which the raw things are embedded, their structure, their meaning – in short, their reality. To create a system of meaning that embraces everything is to create a reality.
TOMORROW: Why this story of the creation of science is doomed to oblivion.