God names Day & Night (Gen 1:5)
Reading through the story of creation
We’ve now worked carefully through Gen 1:1-4. Light has been created, and light and darkness have been carefully pulled apart. (It’s not clear how.) The next thing that happens is that names are given to them.
5 God named the light Day and the darkness Night.
וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה
Note: I’ve been adding only partial audio, for the parts of the verse that we’re discussing; you can always find the audio for all of Day One at the introductory post for that day.
וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם God named the light Day I might have translated this more literally as “God called the light day,” as most translations seem to do. The verb used here is קרא qara which means “to call out.” As in English, “call” in Hebrew can indicate the giving of a name: “and he named him [literally, וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ va-yiqra et sh’mo ‘called his name’] Noah” (Gen 5:29). Here the or, the light created in v. 3, is being given a name: yōm ‘day’. This is still the ordinary word for “day” in Modern Hebrew. As in English, yom can refer both to a calendar day and to the daylight hours of such a day.
וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה and the darkness Night The Hebrew text includes a verb that I have left untranslated here: ve-la-hoshekh qara lailah ‘and the darkness he called Night’. That is because the verse begins with a consecutive verb — וַיִּקְרָ֨א va-yiqra ‘and then he called’ — but in this second phrase a simple past tense verb, qara, is used. As we saw in the post for Gen 1:3 Part 1, consecutive verbs are used to describe a sequence of events. That sequence is interrupted here by the simple past, indicating that God did not name Day and Night in that order.
In what order did he name them? A simple past form rather than an imperfect consecutive form is basically used to indicate one of three things:
• (1) A new sequence is starting. That is obviously not the case here.
• (2) Something already had happened in the past that we must know about as part of the current situation. We saw this in v. 2 with והארץ היתה ve-ha-aretz haytah ‘now, the world was …’. The darkness certainly already did exist in v. 2, but it seems unlikely that God would have named it earlier without our being told about it.
• (3) Two events are occurring simultaneously. The balance between the two naming phrases here, along with the switch to a simple verb instead of a consecutive form, is a typical way for Biblical Hebrew to describe events that are happening at the same time. (See Gen. 45:14 for a similar example.) As in English, the two can only be described in sequence, but the grammar shows that this is a single event of naming and not two separate namings. I have used the English verb name just once to show this.
I have capitalized Day and Night here to indicate that they are, in fact, names — nouns, if you like — that identify a phenomenon in the world with a particular sound to make that phenomenon easier to talk about. We use language so easily and unthinkingly throughout the day that I must emphasize: Naming Day and Night is also an aspect of creation, the creation of language. In the more down-to-earth version of the creation story that begins in Genesis 2, the first human will be asked to name the various animals, adding the creation of language to that story as well.
It’s true, of course, that the word “darkness” was used, and darkness itself already existed, in v. 2 — just as the world, הארץ ha-aretz, is introduced and described in that verse. After all, the entire story is not being told until afterward, when language and everything else already exists. But here we see the first two words being created. So it’s worth taking a moment or two to discuss the beginnings of language.
The story is being told in Hebrew, and it is easy to think that God named the light and the darkness with the exact Hebrew words that we read here. Precisely because the creation story is told in Hebrew, it used to be assumed that Hebrew was indeed the first human language. But there is nothing in this version of the story itself that requires us to assume God used the Hebrew words. By contrast, in the second version of the creation story, there is wordplay that does depend on the likeness of various Hebrew words. It is this second version that implicitly understands the actual dialogue recorded in the story to have actually been spoken in Biblical Hebrew.
The heavy lifting of Day 1 of creation is now finished — but two more things must happen before the Bible can call it a day. We’ll discuss those in the next post.
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