It’s finally time to turn to Scripture to see what Gen 1:1–2:3 teaches. At first glance the text seems to clearly teach that God created the world in six, twenty-four hour days. But if we look more closely we’ll see there is a very clear symmetry in the text that takes us in another direction. The primary teaching of this text has little to do with when God created and everything to do with why.
Focusing in on the Six Days of Creation in Gen 1:2–31
In order to make sure we get things right, we need to begin by properly dividing the text. The creation story begins at Gen 1:1 and goes all the way through the seventh day of creation, which ends at Gen 2:3. The seventh day of creation in Gen 2:1–3 not only describes the seventh day of rest but also summarizes the six days of creation. Similarly, Gen 1:1 is an introductory statement that summarizes what is about to happen. Since these two parts envelope the six days of creation and serve as a lens through which we are to read the text as a whole, we’ll need a second post to deal with them.
That leaves Gen 1:2-31, the six days of creation, for this post. Grammatically speaking, this text is typical Hebrew narrative. Starting in Gen 1:3 we have a string of Hebrew verbs that carry the main line of action in the story. Gen 1:2 has different grammar and sits outside the main line of action to give us background information that sets the story in motion.
The Beauty of Symmetry
There is an amazing beauty in the balance of symmetry. There’s the haunting beauty of an orchid flower, or the enchanting beauty in the patterns of a kaleidoscope, or the simple beauty of a bicycle wheel rotating on its axis, constantly moving but always keeping its circular shape—poetry in motion.
The ancients recognized the beauty and the power of symmetry and they used it to their advantage. As we look carefully at the six days of creation, we’ll find a beautiful symmetry in this text as well.
Structural Symmetry in the Six Days of Creation
As you’ve read the creation story before, I’m sure you’ve noticed that every one of the six days begins and ends the same way. Every day begins,
and every day ends,
When we see this kind of repetition in Hebrew it invites us to look for more of these verbal clauses that repeat themselves. We’ll want to explore the possibility that the clauses are arranged in a pattern, possibly creating a kind of symmetry. It turns out there are two more such clauses that are repeated just about every single day, giving us a total of four clauses.
There’s really nothing magical about these clauses, they just serve to give structure to each of the six days of creation. In order to better see what kind of structure they create, that is, in order to look for symmetry, it will help to assign each clause a letter (A, B, C, D) as I’ve done above. That way we can make a diagram that clearly shows the structure of each day. Here are the first three days of creation:
Day one of creation sets up the basic “A-B-C-D” pattern. Day two skips “and God saw,” which is the third, or “C” clause. That’s why I’ve put an “X” in the diagram in place of the “C.” Finally, day three starts out as expected following the “A-B-C” pattern, but it doesn’t end with the “D” element right away. Instead, it starts over again with “A” and goes through the cycle of creation a second time before finally ending with “D.”
Now look at the next three days of creation and compare them to the first three days.
Do you see that! Day one has the same structure as day four, day two has essentially the same structure as day five, and day three has the same structure as day six. Looking at days 1–3 as one group and days 4–6 as another group, you can see that you could swap them and the structure would be essentially the same. That is symmetry!
I think that’s cool. It’s definitely not there by accident, but is something the author has done on purpose. But is there a reason for it?
The Power of Symmetry in the Six Days of Creation
We see beauty at the surface of symmetry, but its beauty actually goes much deeper because symmetry has the power to conserve. It can conserve balance, energy or momentum—or even justice and meaning.
Consider the bicycle wheel. It’s because the bicycle wheel is symmetrical about its axis that we can stay balanced on our bicycles while in motion and the energy we put into peddling is transferred smoothly to the road. Similarly, when a crime is committed we can restore justice if the punishment meted out to the perpetrator fits (is symmetrical to) the crime.
The power of symmetry is that its beauty is often connected to something meaningful. It is beauty for a reason. A bicycle wheel is symmetrical so that its rider stays upright. The punishment fits the crime so that the balance of justice can be restored. The fact that symmetry is connected to an underlying reason is what makes symmetry surprising and increases wonder exponentially.
As we explore the content of the six days of creation then we discover its symmetry is more than skin deep. So let’s do that. Let’s look closely at what God creates on each day and follow the author’s clues by looking at the content of day one in relation to day four, then day two in relation to day five, and so on. As we do that, we’ll discover there is a reason for the symmetry.
On day one we see that God creates light (1:3) and on day four God creates the sun, moon and stars (1:16). Isn’t that interesting? The similarity in structure between days one and four is matched by a similarity in content. We definitely want to keep exploring the text to see just what the author intends to reveal to us.
Taking the next pair of days we see that on day two God creates the expanse that separates the waters above from the waters below. Essentially, on day two God creates sky (the waters above) and oceans, rivers, etc. (the waters below). On day five God creates the birds and the fish. The symmetrical structure says we should look at these days in relationship to each other. Isn’t it interesting that birds live in the sky and fish live in the bodies of water on the earth? So on day two God created an environment for the creatures he made on day five.
That brings us to days three and six. These days are special because we have two acts of creation on each day. On day three God first creates dry land and then plants. On day six God creates the animals first and then he creates people in his image as his final act of creation. This looks like a similar relationship to that of days two and five because on day three he creates an environment for the creatures of day six. In fact, if we go back to look at days one and four it would be possible to see a similar pattern. Light is now to be understood as the environment for the sun, moon, and stars.
God’s Perfect Provision and Protection
As we pay attention to the symmetry of this text and allow it to guide our reading, we discover there is a meaning embedded in the pattern created by the author. Days one through three, it seems, are an environment for the creatures God makes during days four through six. Not only that, but there is a kind of overall movement in this passage so that everything that is created is a good environment for people—the pinnacle of creation. All of creation is meant to be a good environment where people experience the blessing of God’s perfect provision and protection.
I’ve written another series of blog posts on this passage where I go into more detail explaining the Hebrew grammar and the nuances of the structure, but this should do for our purposes here. Also, in later posts (see The Temple as a Meme and then Moses’ Brilliant Literary Move) we will look at a metaphor the author uses to make this text even more amazing. For now, there are two very important points I want to make.
First, the primary reason the author wrote this text is to communicate this one amazing idea—creation was meant to be a place where people experience God’s provision and protection. If we read this text and don’t come away with this idea, or if we put this message on the back burner because something else is on our agenda, then we are downplaying what the author wanted to tell us. I believe strongly in the authority of Scripture so I want to make sure we all see that this text was carefully crafted to get across this one big idea.
Second, the symmetrical pattern serves the author’s purpose in communicating this big idea. This is important. The primary organizing principle of this text is the 1=4, 2=5, 3=6 symmetry. The author arranged the events of this text so that day one would be parallel to day four, so that day two would be parallel to day five and so that day three would be parallel to day six. That means he very well might have taken the events of creation out of chronological order so that he could create the desired pattern. In fact, it could very well be the case that the author didn’t know anything about how the world was created and had no intention of saying anything about it. In any case it is definitely true that chronology is not the main organizing principle of this text.
Light might not have been created before the sun, and the plants might not have been created before the sun. In fact, when we pay attention to the symmetrical order and realize that chronology is not the author’s main concern and that chronology (or the lack thereof) neither supports nor undermines his argument, then a reasonable person would conclude, simply based on the strange textual order of light before sun, plants before sun, and various other oddities, that it is beside the point of what the author is trying to do to seek concordance between the text and the actual events of the origins of the universe. The author is clearly talking about the order of the cosmos, not the method of creation.
Except for One Thing
Chronology is not the primary ordering principle of this text. That is true. But the argument for its absence still faces one obstacle. Each day does, after all, end with the clause, “And there was evening, and there was morning, day one,” “…the second day,” etc. The symmetry of the six days of creation suggests that chronology may not have been a concern of the author but it does not eliminate the possibility of chronology. In fact the use of “days” and the ordering of the days still suggests, at first glance, that the author did perhaps assume a certain order to creation. Once again, we’ll need to take a closer look at just what the author is trying to do with the seven day structure. But we’ll save that for a later post as well (When A Day Might Not be a Day).
Thanks for Reading!
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The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis of Science and Scripture
- The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- Designed for Order: The ANE Wisdom Worldview
- The Fear of Yahweh is the Beginning of Wisdom: The Israelite Wisdom Worldview
- Consilience: The Unity of Science and Scripture in the Matrix of Wisdom
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, How I Wonder When You Are
- The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation
- Creation is a Temple: Reading Creation through the Proper Interpretive Lens
- Creation is a Temple: The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1
- Creation is a Temple: Moses’ Brilliant Literary and Theological Move in Genesis 1
- When a Day Might not be a Day
- Reading Genesis 1 as Literature and the Three Problems it Creates for Evangelicals
- How Can the Creation Account in Genesis 1 be Both History and Literature?
- Has Anyone Ever Read Genesis 1 Like this Before?
- The Paradox of Perspicuity: How Would a Regular Person Ever Understand Genesis 1 This Way?
Todd, I just finished watching your sermon on Genesis and wanted to let you know that I was really blessed. I haven’t thought of Genesis in that way before. I also constantly need the encouragement and reminder to live life as a sojourner since the world is constantly screaming for me to put down roots. Thank you!
Todd Patterson says
Thanks for the encouragement, Tina. It’s nice to know that it was useful. Blessings on your family in 2017!
Gabriel Heter says
I don’t see, “and it was so” in day one. Am I missing it?
Todd Patterson says
Thanks for the comment! No, you’re not missing anything and it is a very good question.
The simple answer is that in this case it’s not the whole clause that repeats, just the verb. So instead of “and it was so” we have “and it was light.” In Hebrew the two sentences go like this:
וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר (and it was)-(light)
וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן (and it was)-(so)
where there are just two Hebrew words in each clause. If you can’t read Hebrew you can probably still see the (superficial) similarity. Though this similarity is somewhat superficial, there is actually an important similarity at the level of Hebrew grammar and discourse.
I didn’t discus this more in the article above because I don’t think it’s a problem at all and it would have taken a bit more discussion to explain why. I have my full explanation in my book The Plot-structure of Genesis.
Essentially the fuller argument comes down to this.
1) the Hebrew verb (specifically the wayyiqtol conjugation) dominates not only the clause (because it comes first and must come first) but also the whole narrative sequence (in all Hebrew narrative not just here). In other words, the Hebrew verb itself is what is essential and because it gets repeated faithfully the parallel is maintained
2) both clauses, “and it was so” and “and it was light” function in exactly the same way in the discourse,
and 3) it’s possible that Hebrew grammar would not allow for “and it was so” in this first case in Gen 1:3. For this last point you can refer to an article by Achim Müller, “Zu Kēn in Genesis 1,” ZAW 129.2 (2017): 258–260 (in German, unfortunately). His argument comes down to the fact that “so” is an adverb of manner which means it must modify not just the existence of something but it’s function or doing (for example). This is the case for day 2 (Gen 1:6) when God says, “let there be an expanse and let it separate…” In other words, “it was so” indicates not simply that there was an expanse, but that there was an expanse that separated. To be more clear, the Hebrew word ken “so” might better be translated as “and it did thus.” When we translate Gen 1:3 with that gloss then we can clearly see that “And God said let there be light and it did thus” doesn’t make sense. If Müller is right, then it seems as though it strengthens the parallel even more because Moses used a phrase in Gen 1:3 that conformed as much as possible to the other instances even though grammatically speaking it could not be exactly the same.
Thanks again for the comment.
Gabriel Heter says
Thanks so much for the detailed reply. I’ve been interested in the literary structure of gen 1 lately and I ran across your diagram in a google image search. Really interesting. How heavy is your book for a non Hebrew language person?
Todd Patterson says
It’s pretty academic and there is quite a bit of Hebrew but if you can get a copy through a library it might be worth a try.