From the Primordial Light to Shabbat: How Creation Became Seven Days
The creation of the luminaries on day four follows the structural pattern of much of the (Priestly) creation account (Gen 1:1–2:4a), reflecting the combination of two types of creation:
Wortbericht—literally “word creation,” i.e., God creates through speech.
Tatbericht—literally “deed creation,” i.e., God creates through action.
Thus, the luminaries first come into existence in response to the creator’s word (vv. 14–15), the Wortbericht, then, the story begins anew, describing how God makes (ע.ש.ה/י) the two great luminaries (vv. 16–18), the Tatbericht.
The fourth day begins with the Wortbericht according to which God commands the appearance of luminaries—plural—and this takes effect:
בראשית א:יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם לְהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים. א:טו וְהָיוּ לִמְאוֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם לְהָאִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן.
Gen 1:14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 1:15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
These luminaries have three functions:
- Dividing between day and night;
- Marking calendrical time (signs indicating seasons, days, and years);
- Shining upon the earth.
This theologically developed conception of creation by word, however, is dependent on the following passage about God actively making the luminaries (vv. 16–18), which we can see from how the Wortbericht makes reference to general “lights in the dome of the sky” but only the Tatbericht specifies that the reference is to the greater lights (sun and moon) and the stars.
Following the Wortbericht, God actively creates the luminaries, placing them in the heavens. These verses repeat two of the reasons for the lights mentioned in the previous verse, and add a new reason, to rule over the day and night:
בראשית א:טז וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים אֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם וְאֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים. א:יז וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם לְהָאִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ. א:יח וְלִמְשֹׁל בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה וּלֲהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ...
Gen 1:16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 1:17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 1:18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness…
We can see, therefore, that two independent conceptions of divine creation have been combined in the verses that describe the creation of the luminaries. Nevertheless, these were not originally independent literary units. While, as noted, the Wortbericht is dependent upon the Tatbericht, the Tatbericht is comprehensible on its own, and may once have existed independently.
The Sun and Moon in the Tatbericht
The Tatbericht itself has not been preserved in pristine form but has undergone several editorial expansions. The first is the long apposition to the statement about two great lights (bolded):
בראשית א:טז וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים אֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם וְאֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים.
Gen 1:16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.
The clarifying clause about a great light and a lesser light is discordant with the opening phrase about two great lights. This apposition is likely an editorial correction seeking to revoke the equality of sun and moon in favor of a hierarchical subordination of the moon. Indeed, rabbinic midrash, which refers to the moon once having been big and being shrunk as a punishment for hubris, builds on this very tension. Thus, Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, ca. 1040–ca. 1105) writes (ad loc.):
המאורות הגדולים – שוים נבראו, ונתמעטה הלבנה על ידי שקיטרגה ואמרה: אי איפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד.
“The great luminaries”—they were created equal, but the moon was shrunk since it challenged [the situation] saying: “It is impossible for two kings to make use of the same crown.”
Another effect of this supplement is to sideline the mention of the stars, which is oddly trailing in its present place. The original text read smoothly:
וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים // וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים.
And God created the two great lights // and the stars.
Again, Rashi, following, the rabbis explains this awkwardness with narrative backstory:
ואת הכוכבים – על ידי שמיעט את הלבנה, הרבה את צבאה להפיס את דעתה.
“And the stars”—since [God] shrunk the moon, he increased its hosts to grant it some peace of mind.
The secondary apposition in Genesis 1:16 defines the roles of the sun and the moon through the motif of their dominion (ממשלה) over day and night. The repetition of the same motif in a verse that offers three back-to-back reasons for why God places the luminaries in the sky is probably from the same editorial hand:
בראשית א:יז וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם לְהָאִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ. א:יח וְלִמְשֹׁל בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה וּלֲהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ...
Gen 1:17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 1:18 and to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.
It is evident that the primary purpose for the luminaries was to give light. Yet, the analysis of the text suggests that, originally, this was their only purpose. As suggested above, the bolded phrase likely derives from the same redactor who added the subordination of the moon. The last explanation, however, separating light from darkness, seems to come from an even later editorial hand, as becomes clear from an analysis of the Wortbericht.
The Resumptive Repetition (Wiederaufnahme) in the Wortbericht
The Wortbericht, itself probably a later addition, has a clear resumptive repetition or Wiederaufnahme, a technique in which a phrase is repeated later in the text, bracketing an addition. Interpolators regularly used such repetitions to incorporate additions into an existing syntactic structure. In this case (v. 14), the repeated line (italics) was added to resume the narration after the addition of the extra reasons for the creation of the lights (underlined):
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky
לְהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים. א:טו וְהָיוּ לִמְאוֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם
to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 1:15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky
לְהָאִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן.
to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
The original text makes intuitive sense:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם // לְהָאִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky // to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
The purpose of the luminaries is to shine upon the earth—the sun during the day, the moon and stars at night, just as we saw in the earliest layer of the Tatbericht. The idea that they were designed to separate between day and night is late and artificial; what separates day from night is light; the moon does not contribute to this distinction. To this addition was added by extension that the luminaries also serve as a basis for calendrical divisions.
Post-MT Editorial Additions
Further additions appear in various recensions of the Pentateuch trying to harmonize the verses by regularizing the list of reasons found in vv. 14–15. For instance, the Samaritan Pentateuch includes the need for the luminaries to shine upon the earth as the first purpose of the heavenly lights already in God’s command in the Wortbericht (bold):
בראשית א:יד [נה"ש] ויאמר אלהים יהי מאורות ברקיע השמים להאיר על הארץ ולהבדיל בין היום ובין הלילה... א:טו והיו למאורות ברקיע השמים להאיר על הארץ ויהי כן׃
Gen 1:14 [SP] And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth and to separate the day from the night…. 1:15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
This addition has God declaring this as a key function, bringing the command in line with the result in verse 15, and with the mention of this trait in the Tatbericht (v. 17).
This same addition is reflected in the Old Greek (OG) translation of Genesis, which is part of the Septuagint, as well as the Vetus Latina (VL), itself a translation of the Old Greek. In some manuscripts of VL, this process of harmonization is driven one step further, with the motif of the luminaries’ dominion over day and night also included in the Wortbericht (underlined) for the first time:
בראשית א:יד [נה"ש] ויאמר אלהים יהי מאורות ברקיע השמים להאיר על הארץ ולמשל ביום ובלילה ולהבדיל בין היום ובין הלילה...
And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth and to rule over day and night and to separate the day from the night….
Through this expansion, Genesis 1:14 refers already to all three purposes of the luminaries in the same order found in the later verses. The harmonizing expansions documented in the different textual traditions of the passage show that the early tradents perceived the inconsistencies of the text—inconsistencies caused by its uneven growth over time. The text-critical evidence is thus an indirect confirmation of the redaction-historical development of the biblical text reconstructed above.
The Light and Darkness Divide on Day One
Before the luminaries are created on day four, God calls light itself into existence on day one:
בראשית א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר.
Gen 1:3 God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Appreciating the goodness of the light, God then separates it from darkness:
א:ד וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ.
1:4 God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.
God then identifies light with day and darkness with night:
א:ה וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד.
1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.
This same division between light/day and darkness/night appears in the supplements to both the Wortbericht (v. 14)— לְהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה “to separate between day and night”—and the Tatbericht (v. 18)— וּלֲהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ “and to separate the light from the darkness.” These glosses establish a frame around the description of the luminaries that brings it in line with the creation of light in Gen 1:3–5. Only the creation of the luminaries on day four transfers the initial separation between light and darkness, or day and night, into an astronomically-grounded state.
The unit of day established on day one—daytime plus nighttime—serves as the basis for assigning the subsequent acts to the individual days of the creation week, part of the seven-day Shabbat structure of the first creation account, which implies that it is integral to the story. And yet, several details indicate that the creation of light on day one in its entirety reflects an editorial expansion as well.
The Addition of the Light on Day One
The formulaic language used in the account of the creation of light differs from the rest of the creation story:
וַיְהִי אוֹר “and it became light”—This formula stands contrasts with the typical manner in which the divine command is fullfilled elsewhere in the chapter, as וַיְהִי כֵן “and it was so.
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב “And God saw the light that it was good”—The divine approval expressed here with this formula, again including a specific object, stands in contrast to how this is expressed more generally in the rest of the creation story, without reference to the specific item created: וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי טוֹב “And God saw it was good.”
It is likely that a later editor was at work here following his own stylistic considerations. In sum, the verses describing the creation of light (3-5) are secondary to the story. After all, does it really make sense for light to exist before the luminaries? Furthermore, note how smoothly verse 6 connects to verse 2:
א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. // א:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם וִיהִי מַבְדִּיל בֵּין מַיִם לָמָיִם.
Gen 1:2 the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. // 1:6 and God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
The הַמָּיִם of v. 6 then refers back immediately to the הַמָּיִם of v. 2, which originally immediately preceded it. In the midst of the primordial chaos, God establishes the fundamental condition for all further works of creation by forming a habitable sphere under the firmament, thus pushing away the surrounding chaos waters; the existence of light is not needed for this.
Indeed, light plays no explicit role in the whole of the creation story leading up to the creation of the luminaries. While the works of creation from Gen 1:6 onwards logically evolve one from to the other and are also terminologically linked, the creation of light described on day one lacks a comparably organic integration into the sequence of the creation account. So why was it added?
By having God separate light from darkness at the very beginning, and identify both with day and night, the text aims at introducing the system of full days, marked by the change from day to night. This change is relevant not for the creation process itself, but to establish a temporal structure for it, namely, to introduce the counting of days and the seven-day structure.
Werner Carl Ludwig Ziegler (1763–1809), a German Protestant theologian, already noted in 1794 that the seven-day-pattern does not belong to the earliest version of the text but was added to it only by the hand of a later editor. One obvious piece of evidence for this is that the acts of creation marked by “and God saw that it was good” awkwardly outnumber the days of creation—thus the third day is described in Jewish tradition as פעמיים כי טוב a “double-good” day, because it contains this remark twice, once for the dry land (vv. 9–10) and once for the plants (vv. 11–12).
Adding the Shabbat Passage
An even more decisive argument for the lateness of the seven day/Shabbat motif in this account is the literary doublet in the Shabbat passage, which begins with what seems like a concluding note, announcing in general terms the completion of creation:
בראשית ב:א וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכָל צְבָאָם.
Gen 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished and all their multitude.
The passage establishes a frame with the heading (Gen 1:1) of the creation account, concluding the story, and even uses almost the same collocation:
בראשית א:א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 1:1 When God began to create heaven and earth.
The account thus opened with God beginning to create heaven and earth and ended with God completing heaven and earth. The passage then continues awkwardly, stressing that God completed his work on the seventh day, and again making use of the root כ.ל.ה/י “to complete.”
בראשית ב:ב וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי [תה"ש, נה"ש, פ': הששי] מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. ב:ג וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת.
Gen 2:2 On the seventh [LXX, SP, Pesh: “sixth”] day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 2:3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
The literary sequence here is not original. Rather, verses 2–3 are a clarifying postscript that marks God's rest on the seventh day as the goal and climax of the entire creation process.
The editorial reorganization of the first creation account into an etiology of the Sabbath occurred only at an advanced stage in the post-exilic period and seeks to do justice to the ever-growing importance attached to the Sabbath as an identity marker in early Judaism. What we are facing here are the early stages of a conceptual shift in which ritual practices become grounded in pre-Sinaitic narrative accounts.
Once we see that the passage introducing the Shabbat owes itself to a late editorial expansion, it necessarily follows that all further references to the days of creation must also be secondary. The sole purpose of the day count is to prepare for Genesis 2:2–3, and the centrality of the Shabbat.
The Editorial Stages of the Creation Story
In its earliest literary form, the first creation account mentioned neither the seven-day pattern nor the creation of light described in Genesis 1:3–5. The addition of the creation of light never served any purpose other than to establish this temporal pattern culminating in the Shabbat. The primordial creation of light, its separation from darkness, and the identification of both quantities with day and night were a necessary prerequisite to ensure that the entire work of creation could be structured as a sequence of days. When the original author of Genesis 1 completed his work, however, the creation was not neatly divided through the light into six distinct days, culminating in the Shabbat, nor was there any primordial light, only the luminaries.
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Prof. Christoph Berner is Professor for Old Testament Studies/Hebrew Bible at the University of Kiel. He holds a Th.D. in Jewish Studies/New Testament and a Priv-Doz in Old Testament Studies/Hebrew Bible, both from the University of Göttingen. He is the author of Jahre, Jahrwochen und Jubiläen: Heptadische Geschichtskonzeptionen im Antiken Judentum, (de Gruyter, 2006); Die Exoduserzählung: Das literarische Werden einer Ursprungslegende Israels, (Mohr Siebeck, 2010); and the editor of The Reception of Biblical War Legislation in Narrative Contexts, (2015) and Book-Seams in the Hexateuch I: The Literary Transitions between the Books of Genesis/ Exodus and Joshua/Judges (2018) [both with Harald Samuel]; Clothing and Nudity in the Hebrew Bible (2019) [with Manuel Schäfer / Martin Schott / Sarah Schulz / Martina Weingärtner].
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