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9-7: John Sailhamer Weighs In, Part 4

Biblical Chronology, Vol. 9, No. 7
Copyright James B. Jordan 1997
July, 1997

We conclude our analysis of John Sailhamer’s book *Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account* (Multnomah Books, 1996), which argues that Genesis 1:2ff. is not about the creation of the whole world, but about the preparation of the Land of Eden, which is also the Promised Land.

The Third Day

In chapter 12, Sailhamer discusses the third day. He states that "In Hebrew, any `pool’ of water — regardless of size — is called a `sea’" (p. 126). I don’t know where he gets this. It is not evidently true. A sea in the Bible is a large body of water.

In a note he refers to the Bronze Sea in the Temple of Solomon. The Bronze Ocean, mounted on a pedestal, represents the waters above the firmament, the heavenly ocean. It is not a pool.

Sailhamer goes on to say that the gathering of the waters "into one place" clearly does not refer to the oceans, but to the various seas and lakes of Palestine, which are gathered into that one place. But it is a fact that there is only one world ocean. The continents are but large islands in this one world sea. Sailhamer has several seas in one place, but the text indicates one large sea. Rather clearly, a world-wide order rather than a localized one is in view.

In a bizarre mistake, Sailhamer goes on to say that only fruit trees were made on the third day. For him, this means God specially planted these trees in the land of Eden. But the text clearly says that grain plants as well as trees were made on the third day. Sailhamer then goes on to ask what the animals and birds and fishes were supposed to eat if the only vegetation in the world was fruit trees. The answer is: grains. (Aquatic vegetation does not come into view in Genesis 1-2.)

Then Sailhamer says that since God planted fruit trees in the garden in Genesis 2, that planting is to be identified with the planting on the third day. But Sailhamer can only make this association because he has completely ignored the grains. It seems to me that Sailhamer is so enthralled by his thesis that he is simply blind to certain matters in the text.

The Fourth Day

Chapter 13 deals with the 4th day. Sailhamer generates some non-existent problems that supposedly show that God did not make the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. He writes: "But does the text actually say that the sun, moon, and stars were created on the fourth day? I don’t believe it does. Yet if the text *did* say those heavenly bodies were created on the fourth day, a major problem would confront us. How could the universe — which includes the sun, moon, and stars — have been created `in the beginning’ (1:1) and also on the fourth day? And how could the author speak of a `day and night’ during the first three days of creation if the sun had not yet been created? Furthermore, are we to understand that plants and vegetation were created on the third day, before the creation of the sun?" (p. 129).

Gentle reader, do these strike you as real problems? Of course not. Nothing hints that all the contents of the heaven and earth were created "in the beginning." Sailhamer has asserted that they were, but has provided no evidence to support that assertion. The alternation of day and night was provided by the waxing and waning of the light source established on the first day. No problem here. Trees and grains existed for a mere 24 hours before the sun was made, and in the meantime the light set up on of day one sustained them. So where is the problem?

Sailhamer informs the unwary reader that many exegetes have wrestled with these problems over the centuries. They have? No one did before the rise of evolutionary science. He cites the work of only two men, C. F. Keil and John Calvin, both of whom appear not to have had any problem with the text at all. They said God made the sun on the fourth day.

Now Sailhamer turns to his own position. He starts by telling us that it is clear that the sun was made "in the beginning." At the risk of boring you, courteous reader, let me state again that Sailhamer has provided no evidence for this assertion.

Retranslating Verse 14

Then he tells us that the proper translation of 1:14 is not "Let there be lights in the firmament to separate the day and night," but "Let the lights in the firmament be for separating the day and night." Now, if this be correct, then Sailhamer does have a case for arguing that the sun already existed. But is it correct?

First, if Sailhamer is right, then every expositor for the past several thousand years has been wrong. I find nobody who takes 1:14 the way Sailhamer does. Hirsch and Cassuto, Calvin and Keil, Wenham and Hamilton, etc. — nobody agrees with Sailhamer or even raises the issue.

Second, Sailhamer asserts that there is a clear difference in the Hebrew phrasing of verses 6 and 14. Verse 6 says, "Let there be a firmament between the waters, AND LET IT BE for separating," while verse 14 says, "Let there be lights in the firmament-heavens TO SEPARATE between the day and between the night." Sailhamer’s own discussion is not very clear, but he is arguing that if the traditional view is correct, verse 14 should read, "Let there be lights … AND LET THEM BE for separating…."

Let me try and make this clearer. Verse 6 says God made the firmament, and then it says He gave it the purpose of separating the waters. Verse 14 "ought to say" that God made the lights, and then add that He gave them the purpose of separating day and night. This would make it clear that God made the lights as He made the firmament, and then assigned them their purpose. Because the verb is not repeated, Sailhamer argues, verse 14 should be read that on the fourth day God made (appointed) the lights to separate day and night. This implies that they already existed.

Now, as I mentioned above, no other exegetical expositor seems to think that this distinction in phrasing amounts to anything other than a simple variation in the way the text is expressing matters. I am not sufficiently skilled in advanced Hebrew syntax to express more than a very meagre opinion (see below). But I can point out that if Sailhamer’s reading were correct, it would create a significant problem, to wit: The light set up on the first day ALREADY separated day and night. If that light is the same as the sun, then what is God doing on the fourth day? What does it mean for God to appoint the sun to this task on the fourth day, if the sun already had this task from the first day?

Now, it is to Sailhamer’s credit that he recognizes this problem and attempts to deal with it on pages 134-35. He affirms that the sun (on his view) was already marking day and night. What is new on the fourth day, he states, is that God announced the purpose of the lights. That works as far as the lights being for signs and festivals, etc., is concerned, but it does not work so clearly as far as the lights being to separate day and night. On Sailhamer’s view, the text has already told us this in verse 4. Why repeat it here?

I submit that for Sailhamer’s view to be tenable, verse 14 should simply read, "Let the lights in the firmament-heaven be for signs and for festivals and for days and for years," without repeating the business of separating day and night, since it is clear that they already had that purpose.

Now, Sailhamer asks, "Why did God wait until the fourth day to announce the purpose of the sun, moon, and stars?" (p. 135). His answer is that days 4-6 parallel days 1-3. "On the fourth day, God commanded the sun, moon, and stars to distinguish day and night and all the signs and seasons (1:14-15). On the fifth day, God commanded the seas to swarm with fish and sea creatures, and on the sixth day, He commanded the land to bring forth animal life" (p. 135). This parallelism looks good until we notice that on the fifth day God also made birds to dwell upon the land (v. 22) — and the land was made on the third day, not the second. Moreover, the second day is not focally concerned with the seas, which are not named until the third day, but with the firmament. It is the firmament that is in focus on the second day, not the seas.

Additionally, Sailhamer says that the first three days are days of preparation, while the next three announce the purposes of the things made on the first three. But that’s not true either. The firmament made on the second day is given a purpose immediately (v. 6). If Sailhamer’s parallelism were correct, the fifth day should announce the purpose of the firmament, something it does not do.

My conclusion is that Sailhamer has not at all solved the problems his translation of verse 14 creates. On his reading, verse 14a is simply a redundant repetition of what has already been said in verses 3-4.

A Correct Understanding

The traditional understanding is that on the fourth day the sun, moon, and stars simply replaced the primordial light of day one, which was the light of the Spirit and glory of God. Eventually, the sun, moon, and stars will be gone, because the firmament-boundary between heaven and earth will be gone, and the light of the Spirit of Christ will return as the light of the cosmos (Revelation 21:23). In the meantime, the firmament stands between us and God, while we live out the course of history by faith and not by sight, "under the sun" (as the book of Ecclesiastes tells us).

With the traditional understanding in view, we may be able to account for the slight difference in grammar between verses 6 and 14.

Verse 6: "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water, and let it separate the waters from the waters." Were the waters already separated? No.

Verse 14: "Let there be lights in the firmament-heavens to separate the day and the night, and let them be for signs and for festival assemblies and for days and for years." Were day and night already separated? Yes, by the light of the first day.

Now, if the text read, "Let there be lights in the firmament-heavens, and let them separate the day and the night," someone would say, "Aha! This contradicts verse 4, which says there was already a light separating day and night." But no one can make this mistake because of the way the grammar stands. Originally there was (Divine) light above the earth separating day and night. Now God makes lights in the firmament for that purpose.

Notice how verse 14 continues, "and let them be for signs and for assembles and for days and for years." Did the light of the first day do these things? No. They are added here, and so a finite verb rather than an infinitive is used to introduce them.

In short:

"Let there be a firmament, and let it divide the waters," because dividing the waters is new.

"Let there be lights, and let them be for signs, etc.," because these functions of light are new.

"Let there be lights to separate day and night," because this function is not new, but is now taken over by the newly-created lights.

This distinction fully accounts for the grammatical difference, and it does so simply and in line with the flow of the passage.

One other matter may be addressed here. I have asserted that the light that shone on the first day is the light of the glory-Spirit of God. This may stand to reason without a prooftext, but is there anything in Genesis 1 that points to this? Yes, there is.

Notice verses 6-7 again: "Let there be a firmament … And God made the firmament."

Verses 14-16: "Let there be lights … And God made the lights."

Now verses 3-4: "Let there be light. And there was light." We don’t read that God made the light. The contrast indicates that God Himself was the source of the light. To be sure, there are creational aspects of God’s light when it shines into the creation: photons carry the packets of light (to use one way of speaking about it), and such photons are creatures. But the Source of the light in verses 3-4 is, by implication, God Himself.

The Fifth Day

Another large problem awaits Dr. Sailhamer on the fifth day. Up to now, he has been able to argue that when God is said to "make" things in Genesis 1, this really means that He "appoints them" or "sets them up" (pp. 106-08). He has been able to assert that these things already existed, but were appointed to their various purposes during the creation week. The verb translated "make" can indeed have this meaning, though Sailhamer has not convinced us that it has that meaning in Genesis 1.

On the fifth day, however, God did not "make" the great sea monsters; He "created" them (v. 21). On the face of it, this is something brand new. In chapter 14 of his book, Sailhamer wrestles with the sea monsters.

He points out the traditional understanding, which is that there are three acts of creation in Genesis 1: the heavens and earth, the living creatures, and humanity. Each is a radically new "wondrous work" of God, indicating a beginning of something radically new. But for Sailhamer, this is not acceptable, because he maintains that the animals had been created during the "beginning period." Because he is absolutely certain of this, he argues that "Genesis 1:21 is best explained as a comment on verse 20. It is a comment to remind the reader that God `created’ all kinds of animals `in the beginning’ (1:1)" (p. 138).

He states, "The author does not say God created all the animals on the fifth day; he merely says it was God who created all the animals and that now He commands some to fill the waters and the skies over the promised land" (p. 139). But that is NOT what the text says. It does not read: "And it was God who had created the great sea monsters, etc." If that had been the writer’s intention, the word order in Hebrew would be different. As it stands, the Hebrew reads, "And (He) created, God, the great sea monsters, etc." The verb comes first, stressing the action, as it does routinely in Genesis 1. For Sailhamer to be correct, the Hebrew should put the noun "God" first: "And God, (He) created the great sea monsters, etc." In fact, if the stress is on the fact that it was God who created, the Hebrew would likely include the pronoun explicitly: "And God, He Himself created the great sea monsters." But that is not how the text reads.


It is not necessary to survey the remainder of Dr. Sailhamer’s book, some of which we have dealt with already. Nothing he writes after his discussion of the fifth day adds any new arguments for his thesis. His discussion of the sixth and seventh days is, in the main, unproblematic. The last section of his book is a return to general principles, and those parts that are relevant have already been discussed.

Our conclusion is that while Dr. Sailhamer’s thesis is interesting, it is not correct. The author’s arguments, such as they are, consist mainly of statements of his thesis over and over, and an attempt to interpret Genesis 1 in the light of them. We have found his thesis to be unsupported by any credible argument, and his interpretation of Genesis 1 to be replete with errors.