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Genesis 1:5 uses a cardinal number "one" to describe the first day - יֹ֥ום אֶחָֽד - whereas all of the following days are modified by ordinals (WLC):

1:8 - יֹ֥ום שֵׁנִֽי

1:13 - יֹ֥ום שְׁלִישִֽׁי

1:19 - יֹ֥ום רְבִיעִֽי

1:23 - יֹ֥ום חֲמִישִֽׁי

1:311 - יֹ֥ום הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי

2:2 - בַּיֹּ֣ום הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔

The LXX follows suit (ἡμέρα μία...ἡμέρα δευτέρα...).

I would expect to see רִאשֹׁ֔ון instead of אֶחָֽד in v. 5.

HALOT does mention "first" as a possible meaning of אֶחָֽד2 but only for dates3 plus Gen 1:5 and 1 Sam 1:2.4 The latter is translated "one" in many (most) translations. Most translate אֶחָֽד in Genesis 1:5 as "first" (ESV, NIV, NET, KJV...), but a few do say "one" (NASB, RSV). The latter reads in English to me as if the previous phrase:

וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר

...and there was evening, and there was morning...

is defining "one day." On the other hand, the translation "the first day" seems to name the contents of the past "few"5 verses.6 Maybe that isn't so much different, but the contrast with the rest of the days numbered ordinally seems odd. Is there any significance to this?


1. Why on day 6 it's suddenly time for the article, and then on day 7 time for two of them (reverting to one when restated in the following verse), remains a mystery to me. Perhaps a topic for another question.

2. BDAG includes a similar usage of εἷς, "perhaps Hebraistic".

3. This has also been addressed in brief on BH.SE here where one answer indicates that it's always cardinal but the accepted answer refers to the ordinal usage with dates as in HALOT.

4. This paper also points out another use of אחד as an ordinal with "countables" (probably also in HALOT but I'm not too good with it), but, in distinction to Gen 1:5, every time with the article. (This paper also provides a partial answer to my question, but I'm not sure it's the whole story since he ends up disagreeing with most modern translations.)

5. I'm not committing, but this is addressed here.

6. In English we also have the option "day one," which strikes this native speaker as weirdly closer to "first day" than it is to "one day". Apparently we also don't have strict differentiation between cardinals and ordinals. Perhaps similar to the countables noted in #4 above.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

There is no significance from the grammar with the change. According to Bruce Waltke1, though the noun yom in Genesis 1:5 lacks a definite article it should be treated as a definite noun. Following that statement, he says that the cardinal number echad ("one") should be treated as an ordinal wherever it modifies a definite noun (which in Hebrew would typically mean the numeric follows the noun as opposed to English where it precedes the noun). An example of this phenomenon in modern English would be "1 Kings," where readers perform a mental shift to read "First Kings" instead of "One Kings."

Likewise, Wilhelm Gesenius addresses the cardinal/ordinal issue in a couple of sections of his grammar. In section 98a2, he shows how the ordinals from two to ten are formed by taking the cardinal form and adding a hirek yod to the end and generally adding another hirek yod between the second and third consonants. That results in שְנִי (sheni) for "second" and שְלִישִי (shlishi) for "third". Note that sheni has one hirek yod but shlishi has two. Regarding "first," he states:

...The ordinal first is expressed by ri'shon (cf. sec 27w), from rosh [meaning] head, beginning, with the termination on (sec 86f). On the use of echad as an ordinal in numbering the days of the month, cf sec 134p; in such cases as Genesis 1:5, 2:11, the meaning of first is derived solely from the context.3 However, that is consistent with how time references are made in Hebrew.

When defining how the ordinals are formed, he notes that above ten, they have no special form but instead use the corresponding cardinals4. For example, Genesis 7:11 uses the cardinal form of seventeen in the statement "on the seventeenth day" (בשבעה עשׁר יום).

Moreover, the cardinals are often used for numbering the days of the month and year, even for days one through ten where explicit ordinal forms exist5. 1 Kings 15:25, בשנת שתים has the cardinal for two shnoth (the -oth makes it the feminine plural of shnayim6) instead of the ordinal sheni. Likewise, 2 Kings 18:1 has בשנת שלש. "in the third year" using the cardinal shalosh "three" which is understood to function as an ordinal. The months are always numbered with ordinals ("in the first month," "in the second month", etc.) but the days of the month may use either cardinal or ordinal forms (where such ordinal forms exist).7

Another thing to note is that in the examples he gives (copied from the Masoretic text), the article has frequently been omitted from both month and year. However, proper translation puts it there because English requires it. In many examples of yom (day), the entire word "day" is dropped and added by translators for clarity.8

1Waltke, Bruce K., O’Connor M. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1990, pg. 274.

2Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’s Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch, trans. A. E. Cowley, Oxford, England: Claredon Press, 1910. For all Gesenius quotes, Hebrew words transliterated, section symbol replaced by "sec," and books of the Bible linked and spelled out.

3Ibid., sec 98a.

4Ibid., sec 134o.

5Ibid., sec 134p.

6Ibid., sec 97b.

7Ibid., sec 134p.

8Ibid. See also sec 134n for more details of units of measure, weight, and time being omitted from such verses as Genesis 20:16 "a thousand [shekels] of silver," Ruth 3:15 "six [ephahs] of barley," and many others.

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But Waltke does acknowledge that this is the only example of this pattern in the Hebrew Scriptures. Every other use of אחד as ordinal includes the definite article, at least on the noun. Here יומ is missing the article not only on the first day (which I'd easily concedes still would be definite), but on the first five. Given the uniqueness of it, I see why people have tried to draw something out of it (e.g. the paper referenced in #4 footnote, above), but deep down I think you're probably right. +1, and thanks for your time. –  Susan Jul 10 at 22:15
It is hard to believe that Waltke would make this statement in light of numerous rabbinic commentaries about the issue. –  Bruce James Jul 16 at 20:21
@Bruce James - do you know of a grammar that handles it differently? –  Susan Jul 16 at 20:26
@Susan In contemporary Hebrew we commonly say "yom rishon" to refer to Sunday. If you look at the other verses in Tanakh that use the word "yom harishon" it is almost always instructional: as in "on the first day you shall do" such and such. That would not have been the case with the first day of Creation where a name could be assigned. Off hand, I can't think of a verse that is specifically referring to Sunday rather than the first day of a sequence of events, such as a holiday. I know of one in the Talmud but its not a great example because its Aramaic. My volume is at home anyway. –  Bruce James Jul 16 at 20:54
@Susan, I've added a section on how Gesenius explained the formation of cardinals and ordinals in his grammar. –  Frank Luke Jul 17 at 14:47

The famous Jewish biblical commentator Rashi finds the choice of words very significant. He writes:

According to the sequence of the language of the chapter, it should have been written, “the first day,” as it is written regarding the other days, “second, third, fourth.” Why did Scripture write “one”? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, was the only one in His world, for the angels were not created until the second day. [i.e., יוֹם אֶחָד is understood as ‘the day of the only One’] So is it explained in [the Midrash] Genesis Rabbah (3:8).

Nachmanides observed, also, that the word רישון (first) implies an existing series, but at the time of Creation there was not yet a second day or a third.

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Some Young Earth Creationists have argued that Genesis 1:5 uses a cardinal number 'one' to in effect define a 'one day', while verses 8 and 13 etc then use that definition with ordinals.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Right. I also ran across the counter-argument from the same data point - something like, "it's really strange grammar, so probably it means something other than a regular solar day." Neither argument seemed very convincing to me... –  Susan Jul 10 at 23:23
By the way, for the purposes of this site...if you're willing to expand this to tie the argument directly to the grammar +/- presenting your critique of this view, that would be much appreciated. –  Susan Jul 10 at 23:36
Who says this, please cite examples. As it currently stands, this is a comment, not an answer. –  Daи Jul 16 at 21:17

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