Published: 28 December 2020

Why Didn’t God Call Light “Light”?

How could there be light on day one before the sun was created on day four? Were the days of Genesis 1 ordinary twenty-four hour days, or was each day an eon of time? Was there a gap of possibly millions of years between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2? Was each plant and animal a special act of creation, or did God use evolution to populate the world?

All of these controversies (and others) based on the questions above are a result of attempting to understand Genesis outside of its original context. When we fail to honor the historical and cultural framework within which Moses wrote, we end up with all sorts of irreconcilable theories which twist and distort the message of the creation account. As I noted in previous articles (here and here) Genesis describes the functional origins of the Universe, not necessarily the material origins.

In the first article in this series I linked to a video where John H. Walton gave a high level overview of the worldview of the ancient Israelites. I highly recommend that you watch the video to help orient you to the concepts in this series of articles.

What functions does Genesis 1 reveal?

Being modern Westerners, we exclusively see a material creation in Genesis 1. However, an ancient Israelite’s default perspective wouldn’t have seen Moses’s description of creation in physical terms, but in functional terms. For us, it is difficult, at first, to see the function in Genesis 1 even when it’s pointed out to us. It takes time for such a paradigm shift to occur. Let’s look at Genesis 1 as the ancient Israelites did.

Genesis 1:1

Some people assume that Gen 1:1 is recording an act of creation, but this is probably not the case. “In the beginning” is not necessarily the beginning of time or the beginning of the material world. Rather, it implies the beginning of the seven day narrative which describes how God brought order out of chaos. In other words, “In the beginning, God created”… and the story that follows tells how He did it.

“[T]he “beginning” is a way of talking about the seven-day period rather than a point in time prior to the seven days.

If the “beginning” refers to the seven-day period rather than to a point in time before the seven-day period, then we would conclude that the first verse does not record a separate act of creation that occurred prior to the seven days— but that in fact the creation that it refers to is recounted in the seven days. This suggests that verse 1 serves as a literary introduction to the rest of the chapter. This suggestion is confirmed by the fact that Genesis 2:1 concludes the seven-day report with the statement that the “heavens and earth were completed,” indicating that the creation of the heavens and earth was the work of the seven days, not something that preceded them.”1

The ancient Israelites had much more in common with their pagan neighbors than they do with us.

Genesis 1:2

The Earth was formless and void. Notice that the Earth was already in existence. Verse one is an introductory remark and isn’t communicating any creative acts, therefore, the existence of the Earth is the result of an act of earlier creation which is not recorded here. The world was already present before the first recorded creative act! This reinforces the idea that the creation which follows is functional, not material. The phrase formless and void expresses the idea of an empty wasteland. In other words, it was a place lacking order and function, unfit for habitation.

Genesis 1:3-5: Day One

This is where things start to get interesting. Walton shares in “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” a flash of insight he had, “Why didn’t God simply call light “light”?”2 Walton has made a career of studying ancient Near Eastern texts. In them he had observed that the peoples of the ANE had a functional (as opposed to a material) perspective. It was the phrase “God called the light Day” which helped Walton to realize that Israel shared this perspective. You see, the ancient Israelites had much more in common with their pagan neighbors than they do with us. They all shared the same function oriented thoughts and paradigms.

“3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen. 1:3–5 ESV)

It is not difficult to see that verse 5 is describing a period of time called “Day” which is characterized by light. Likewise, there was a secondary period of time called “Night”. Together, these two periods of time made up the first twenty-four hour day. The reason this is noteworthy is because God equated light with a period of time which He named “Day.” Verse 5 clues us in that “light” is not speaking about small photons of energy which our retinas perceive as illumination. According to verse 5, light is a period of time.

If light is a period of time in verse 5, then consistency demands it is also a period of time in verses 4 and 3. Verse 5 helps us to understand exactly what God did in verse 3 and what verse 3 is really communicating is, “God said, ‘Let there be a period of light.’”3 [emphasis added] Therefore, on day one, God created the function of time! This is profound because it is our first clue in Genesis that functions are being created.

Genesis 1:6-8: Day Two

On day two, God created what our modern translations call the sky, expanse or firmament. The Hebrew word is raqia (רָקִ֖יעַ) and is defined as a solid dome:

“the vault of heaven, or ‘firmament,’ regarded by Hebrews as solid, and supporting ‘waters’ above it”4

The ancient Israelites, and their neighbors, envisioned the world as the image below depicts.

Nearly all Bibles translate raqia as “expanse” or “firmament”. In trying to produce an English text that makes sense to modern readers, they shield us from the ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Of the Bibles I have consulted, only the Bible In Basic English (BBE) gives us a true translation of raqia:

“And God said, Let there be a solid arch stretching over the waters, parting the waters from the waters.” (Gen. 1:6 BBE)

Truly, the Genesis creation account accommodated ancient cosmology. Moses’s original readers believed this dome did two things. (1) It created a space where people could live. (2) It held back water above the surface of the dome. It was within the space under this dome where all the functions necessary for human habitation would thrive.

“The material terms used in day two reflect accommodation to the way the ancient audience thought about the world. But it doesn’t matter what one’s material cosmic geography might look like— primitive or sophisticated— the point remains that on the second day, God established the functions that serve as the basis for weather.”5 [emphasis added]

The raqia served as a “spigot” to allow for precipitation. Thus, on day two, God established a means of watering the Earth. The space under the dome is where life sustaining weather occurs. God has added another function on day two as He continues to introduce order to the world.

Genesis 1:9-13: Day Three

Just as God separated the waters above from the waters below on day two, he now separates the water from the land on the surface of the Earth. Dry land is necessary for growing food.

At this point we are surely tempted to say God’s creation of plant life in verse 11 constitutes an act of material creation. There is no disputing that all matter was created by God, but the focus of Genesis 1 is on functions. Genesis 1 never talks about the material used to create the various stuff, it emphasizes the functions that all of these things perform. On day three, God created the basis for food, the function of which is nourishment.

The big picture so far

Walton summarizes:

“So on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather; and day three the basis for food. These three great functions—time, weather and food—are the foundation of life.”6

These functions are vital, not only to the ancients, but to us as well. Life is sustained by time, weather, and food and even in modern societies, these are still topics of daily conversation.

There is a shift in the narrative after day three. In the next article, we’ll talk about the functionaries God installed in each of the three realms He created on days one through three.


  1. Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 45). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid., 54
  3. Ibid., 55
  4. Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Accordance electronic ed., version 4.5. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.
  5. Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 58). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. Ibid., 59