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Genesis 1:3 (KJV)
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

What's the meaning of the word "let"?

Is the meaning closer to:

  1. cause/effect, i.e. physics-related; or

  2. allow/permit (cf), i.e. freewill-related; or

  3. something else?

  • Young's Literal has "Let light be" and light is." It can be translated as 'let light be [here]'. Let it be here [also]. In the Word from the beginning is Life. And the Life is the Light. – Nigel J Apr 5 '18 at 13:48
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We are lucky! Very often, the exact nuance of an imperfect form is uncertain. This is because the original Semitic short and long imperfect (two distinct forms) merged relatively early in Hebrew due to loss of unstressed word-final vowels. Hence, the semantic difference between these two forms is not indicated by morphology any more. However, in some cases, with geminate and III-ה roots, the distinction is retained. And here we have a III-ה root, היה "to be".

The form in Gen 1:3, יהי, is a short imperfect (the long form is יהיה). Short imperfects have the most specific semantics: deontic modality and the completed past (hence their use in the wayyiqtol narrative tense). (Long imperfects can be used for a variety of semantic fields: present-future, epistemic modality, imperfective aspect, ...). Since completed past does not make sense in context (*God said, "there was light", and there was light), the form must indicate deontic modality here: "there must/should be light".

It then aligns most with what you call will-related. It is also a kind of performative speech, where by uttering something it is achieved (e.g., "You are hereby dismissed"). Performative speech is of course frequent with powerful entities such as kings and God.

For more information on the short/long imperfect distinction, see Holger Gzella, 2013: 'Northwest Semitic Languages and Hebrew' in G. Khan (ed), Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics.

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    @Ruminator It's a third person form. – Susan Apr 6 '18 at 5:18
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    @susan. I'm hearing a "fiat" which though not in the imperative is nevertheless a command: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fiat. Think of "Let there be dancing". – Ruminator Apr 6 '18 at 5:50
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    @Ruminator you would expect that to be a hiphil imperative. The hiphil indicates causativity, the imperative command. Thus you get "cause light to be!". – user2672 Apr 6 '18 at 5:51
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    @Ruminator fiat is probably a better term in this context for where I used performative speech, thanks. – user2672 Apr 6 '18 at 5:52
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    @Ruminator yes, that is what I tried to say in the third paragraph. – user2672 Apr 6 '18 at 6:16
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Let there be Light” Note: God is speaking to the Destructive state of the Earth; yes, God is speaking to Destruction saying, “Allow Light to Come forth”.

Let - to allow or permit: to allow to pass, go, or come:

Allow - to permit something to happen or to exist;

Compare: Jonah 2:10 And THE LORD SPAKE UNTO THE FISH, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Note: The Fish was Jonah’s Destruction!

Jonah 2:2 And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and He heard me; OUT OF THE BELLY OF HELL cried I, and Thou heardest my voice.

Note: God spoke to the Belly of Hell, and it Vomited Jonah onto Dry land.

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Here is the interlinear Hebrew

The sentence says "Be light!" The verb "to be" is in command form (called jussive). A clearer translation might be "Light, Become!"

It is a calling into being using word. The light is not hidden somewhere and asked to "come forth." Compare this to the Hebrew verb "yatsa" which God uses to "call forth" the creatures from the earth on day six in Genesis 1:24.

I think it is really interesting to read Genesis 1 and see where there is something created into being from a command and where there is something called forth or separated.

For example, there seem to be waters, already, when Genesis 1 starts. God does not call into being the waters above (heavens) and the waters below, or the dry land. Instead, these all seem to already be there somehow and God calls them out or separates them out. There is much craftsmanship in the creation and less "become!" out of nothing by fiat.

It's interesting to see that mankind is created from earth and breath, not out of nothing. It's also fascinating to see that this "stuff's existence" seems to pre-date the narrative in Genesis 1.

Note the following as well:

Genesis 1:3, "Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light."

Here there is a command and it was so.

Genesis 1:6-7, "And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so."

Here, God makes a statement about being, but it doesn't just come into being as light did. Here, God has to do work to make it. The verse doesn't say "God said, 'let there be a dome separating the waters.' and there was a dome separating the waters."

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