Reflection on light and dark in the Gen.1 for Mixing Bowl.
Genesis 1:3-5 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In preparing this I wondered about images of these verses (see the end of the post). And there didn’t seem to be many (or maybe I’m just showing my ignorance) of standing. On reflection, perhaps that’s not surprising: when you think about it, it’s hard to come up with a way of portraying it that doesn’t rely on light to portray it! I’ve tried to think about how to represent it myself and it’s hard to come up with a ‘before’ element to the portrayal so that the development from before light to there being light is shown in some way. How do you show darkness (or whatever) without light? Indeed does ‘darkness’ even mean anything without light? Most attempts to portray the verses seem to want to pre-empt the storyline by showing light-emitting bodies -but those don’t appear til day 4 in this narrative. It seems to me that in creating light, darkness is also created, by implication. What was before is perhaps neither.
For the first hearers of Genesis 1, it wasn’t obvious that the sun is what makes day light. Sure, the sun is luminous, but you can have light without the sun -a cloudy day for example, and the moon is luminous but night is still dark… So for ancient hearers of this text, the later appearance of the sun (and stars) in the drama of creation would probably not have seemed as odd as it does to us. It’s a reminder that we really don’t live in the same thought-world as people in ancient cultures. For the first hearers of this text, our sort of scientific understanding of light and heavenly bodies was not part of their mental furniture and the contrast with our assumptions helps us to realise that there are things that we just take for granted and don’t even think about.
What the first hearers would more likely have heard would be that, in contrast to the stories told by their gentile neighbours, this story does not portray a violent battle as the way things came to be as they are. Rather it portrays a gentle (‘let there be’ not ‘Be!’) coming into existence. It also, by contrast, shows things coming to be without an enemy (an opponent deity to the one served by the empire) being defeated. Doing that, this story begins to dissolve the common ancient legitimations for kings’ use of coercive and violent means to ‘keep order’ and begins to hint at an order more fundamentally built on co-operation and harmony with a high King of creation who revels in the goodness and joyfulness of what is made.
The first hearers would also have processed the order of evening-night followed by morning-day as quite unremarkable (where we tend to find it odd not to start with morning). This reminds us that this poem of creation is using the ways of thinking and picturing things that were ordinary for its first audiences. So the structure of days begins that holds the poem together -and indeed, we discover, the week. God’s ordering of things -separating different things out (and by implication putting similar things together) is what we live by and makes good life possible.
How can you show darkness without light? -Indeed does darkness even mean anything without light?
How might you try to portray this episode in the creating narrative of Genesis 1?
What assumptions do we have that are thrown into relief by biblical texts as we read them?
What difference does it make that these texts were written to be heard rather than read silently and privately by a reader?
What are our culture’s commonest storylines? And what kind of life-practices do those storylines legitimate or encourage?
God’s way is overwhelmingly said in scripture to be “just and gentle” our culture’s most predominant messaging is about competition and rivalry, what art do we know that tells, perhaps deliberately, a different story?
What different story might we tell to undermine our culture’s misleading and unhelpful narratives?
If you have an art practice, what is there in it of separating things out or bringing things together? -that is of ordering? What place does ‘chaos’/formlessness have?
What do they tell you, what issues do you find with them, what is helpful? What takes you to a different track of thought entirely?