The Agon of Genesis One


(system) #1

The first hint that the creation of our world takes place within a dangerous universe comes in Chapter One, verses 3-5. On the first day, God creates ‘light’ and calls it ‘good’; God then ‘separates’ the ‘light from the darkness’ and names the light ‘day’ and the ‘darkness he calls ‘night’.[1] Curiously, God offers a positive evaluation of ‘light’ without providing any parallel evaluation of the quality of ‘darkness’. Simply put, although the narrative, at this stage, resists adopting the normative binary opposition of light/dark as ‘good versus evil’; we are presented with a created order in which the light (which God judges as unambiguously ‘good’) stands in relation to a mysterious and morally ambivalent element called ‘darkness’. The fact God names both light and darkness (“Day” and “Night”) exhibits God’s sovereignty over both the light and the darkness; yet the narrative still allows for a sense of irresolution to the extent that darkness or ‘Night’ remains a qualitative unknown.

The reason for this omission may be tied to the fact that the full consolidation of the power of light over darkness does not reach completion until day four. Furthermore, this delay may also suggest an agon or struggle within the Creation process between light and dark that culminates with light ruling darkness. On day four, the seminal act of separating light from darkness achieves a more concrete expression in the creation of the various ‘lights’ which have the dual function of dividing the day from the night (v. 14) as well as serving as ‘signs’ of the passage of time (seasons, days, years). Given the dividing of light from darkness in day one, the creation in day four of luminaries which participate in the division of light from darkness might seem redundant; however, in verse 15 we find that the ‘lights’ not only participate in the division of light from darkness, they also consolidate it through the imposition of a delegated power. In verses 16, 18 we learn that the ‘lights’ (sun and moon) also ‘rule’ their respective domains. Thus, at the conclusion of day four, darkness or night exists only in subordination to light, since ‘darkness’ does not exist during the day, and the night is now dominated or ‘ruled’ by the ‘lesser’ light of the moon. At this stage, with the luminaries exercising sovereignty over both the day and the night, God evaluates day four as ‘good’.

This pattern of creation, division, duration and then consolidation gains further emphasis via the reverse symmetry or chiastic structure of day four in which we find a summary of the changing relationship of light to dark. The chiasm begins with the light dividing the day from the night, and ends with the same:

“To divide the day from the night...” (Verse 14)

“For seasons, days, years...” (Verse 14)

“To give light upon the earth.” (verse15)

“And God made two great lights; the greater to rule the day and the lesser to rule the night...” (Verse 16)

“To give light upon the earth...” (Verse 17)

“To rule over the day and over the night...” (Verse 18)

“To divide the light from the darkness...” (Verse 18)

This chiastic structure with its implied values of orderly progression, resonance, and symmetry marks day four as critical to an understanding of the interplay between creation and chaos in the Creation account: in day one God creates light and then divides it from darkness; and in day four, God creates the luminaries to mark time and through them establishes sovereignty over the darkness, yet the darkness remains—an ominous, if now fully subordinate, other.

Laurence Turner notes that in delegating the authority of day and night to the heavenly luminaries, God ‘surrenders power’ by choosing to operate through ‘intermediaries’ (in Hebrew the root word is ‘lamps’) rather than directly.[2] This intermediary function may alert the reader to a specific Divine strategy: the moon, as an intermediary, does not eliminate darkness—it rules it. The agon between light and dark requires duration, and it implies a strategy of containment rather than annihilation. In this respect, it may be significant that the chiasm does not observe a perfect symmetry: verse 14 describes the sun and moon as time-keepers while verse 18 (verse 14’s counterpart) describes their roles in terms of governance. This wrinkle within the chiastic symmetry offers a conceptual link between time and power in the sense that through the physical mechanism of marking the passing of days, months and seasons, the sun and moon appear to establish sovereignty over darkness by virtue of their ability to set durational limits upon darkness. God contains the darkness via the ‘lamps’ which innocently mark the passing of regular time intervals and give ‘light unto the earth’. Thus, Light and Time emerge as God’s means for keeping darkness in check. Of course, the Divine imposition of Time over Darkness implies not only containment via duration but also the eventual termination of Darkness (see Revelation 21), since the concept of Time, by definition, assumes both a beginning and an end.

The fact that the agon of days 1-4 ends with a chiasm which contains, in miniature, the same agon, emphasizes the centrality of the light/dark relationship to the Creation narrative as a whole. At the same time, the continued existence of a subordinate darkness within the creative realm does not appear to endanger the God-ordained light in spite of the fact that a usurpation of light by darkness would imply a complete reversal of the created order. Instead, the dark (now named and ruled) can, as of yet, only express itself by virtue of what it is not—namely, it is not ‘light’ and it is not sovereign. What the darkness signifies within the Created order at this stage in the narrative or what it might yet become remains an unknown. Furthermore, in Chapter 1 of the Genesis narrative, darkness and evil cannot yet be formally linked except through the retrospective consciousness of the post-lapsarian reader. But the potential for enmity between light and dark exists in the narrative to the extent that darkness remains morally ambiguous and must be ‘ruled’ by light. Thus, we can see that Genesis 1 not only narrates the physical emergence of the Creation, it also represents a sophisticated account of the conflict within the Universe at large; a conflict which necessarily impinges upon our birth as a species.

[1] Laurence Turner regards the separation of light from darkness and the naming of both as the ‘domestication’ of a ‘previously existing chaos’. Laurence A. Turner, Genesis (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 22.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5010