This is a rough paraphrase of the explanation from Dr. John Walton on Genesis 1:3-5. Dr. John Walton is a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Studies at Wheaton College. If you would like to read more about Dr. Walton's interpretation, I would strongly urge you to buy The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis.
Ask Questions When We Read the Text
If you opened up your Bible to Gen 1 and started to look at the account of the first day - let's go all the way to the back of that account of the first day, verse 5- we read there that, “God called the light day, and the darkness He called night.” Now you may have read that verse dozens of times, maybe hundreds of times, but probably you’ve never asked yourself a particular question. Why didn’t God call the light “light”? Why would He call the light “day”? Day is not the same as light; light is not the same as day. What’s going on here?
Now let's observe closely, deeply, about what the text says, and ask all the questions that we can ask without assuming that we already know the answer, then that will lead us to new questions, and that will lead us to new research, and that will lead us to new understanding. So we made an observation: God calls the light "day." We asked the question: Why would He do that? And now we can try to analyze to figure out what's going on.
Well, if we start with “day” instead of starting with “light,” we find that it gives us a possibility; that is, how does day relate to light? Or we would say day is a period of light, and indeed that works very well. This is the rhetorical device called metonymy, and the idea that day is equivalent to a period of light, darkness is represented in night, night is a period of darkness, that makes perfect sense of verse 5; God called the period of light “day,” and the period of darkness He called “night.” That works well; that was easy.
Separating Light and Darkness
Let’s move back up to verse 4: God separated the light and the darkness. How can you separate light and darkness? If you’re thinking like a physicist, that doesn’t work very well, because in physics they can’t be together, and therefore they can’t be separated, and that doesn’t seem to make sense. But when we look at the solution we used in verse 5, we find that it works in verse 4 as well. God separated a period of light from a period of darkness, and the period of light He called “day,” and the period of darkness He called “night.” By the way, then it goes through the transitions and so there was evening—that’s the transition between the period of light and the period of darkness. And there was morning—that’s the transition between the period of darkness and the period of light. So that’s working just fine. God separated a period of light from a period of darkness. That also makes sense because we remember in verse 2 that it was all darkness, but now God has separated out a period of light.
Let There Be Light
But now go back to verse 3. God said, “Let there be …”—wait, wait for it—God said, “Let there be …” What was it in verse 5? What was it in verse 4? God said, “Let there be a period of light.” There was darkness in verse 2. God said, “Let there be a period of light” and He separated this period of light from the period of darkness, and the period of light, he named day; and the period of darkness, he named night.”
So what did God create on day one? The first day ends with day and night, and it’s a period of light. On day one, then, God created the basis for time: alternating periods of light and darkness, giving us day and night. God created the day and night.
Now, if God created the basis for time, we’re not talking about an object. In the ancient world they certainly would not have thought of light as an object. We even have trouble thinking about light as an object even when we talk about particle theory and wave theory. But certainly, if we’re reading it as an ancient text, we understand that they are not thinking of this as an object. And when you move to the idea of day and night, and periods of light and time, we know that it’s not dealing with an object.
Origin of Order
Now, that in itself might not be too stunning, but then we have to ask the question, “What kind of origins account is this?” We tend to think that if it’s an origins account, it’s going to be talking about material objects coming into existence. And so we’re going to think that it’s all about material, all about objects. But yet here in day one, we find it does not have to do with objects; it has to do with order, because time describes how God has ordered this world for our habitation.
And so we then have to start to say, “What kind origins account have we got here?” See, that comes out of an observation. And now we ask the question, “What kind of origins account is it?” We might have thought before that we knew what kind of origins account it was, not because we had sorted between several different possibilities, but because we thought we knew what an origins account had to be. But when we start looking carefully at the text and start thinking about the ancient world, we might find that it takes us [in] a different direction.
If you looked carefully throughout the ancient world—the Babylonian creation account Enuma Elish, the Memphite theology in Egypt, many of the cosmology accounts in the ancient world—you’d find that they regularly deal with order and organization rather than objects. So we find that that’s very fitting for the ancient world. In fact, they thought order was a lot more important than objects. And so we’ll have to talk about that more as we go through the material that we find in the Bible.
We’re not just importing things from the ancient world into the biblical text. We’re seeing what the biblical text itself does, and then we’re seeing if that is compatible with the ancient world or maybe if it’s doing something different. After all, there are plenty of things in the Bible that are different from the rest of the ancient world, but there are also plenty of things that are the same. So we have to look carefully at what’s going on. If this helps us to set aside a way that we most naturally think [of] material objects, in order to pay more attention to biblical text, then that’s something that we should bring into our interpretation.