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Genesis 1:4 וירא אלהים את־האור כי־טוב ויבדל אלהים בין האור ובין החשך׃

(How KJV translates the verse) And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

(How I would translate the verse) And God saw the light, that it was good: and God caused there to be separation between the light and darkness.

The key difference is how ויבדל is translated. According to http://biblehub.com/hebrew/914.htm, the root verb is בדל, which I'm pretty sure would mean "he was separate" if it were to be used in the Qal 3MS. However, in Genesis 1:4, the verb is in the Hiphil stem, which is roughly related to causation. So, in theory, it seems that ויבדל should be translated as "and he caused to be separate."

Although "he caused to be seperate" and "he divided" mean pretty much the same thing, I would prefer the former if it is a more literal translation.

Also, to say that God "divided" the light from the darkness seems to suggest that light and darkness were once joined together until God divided them at some later time. But to say that God caused the light to be separate from the darkness avoids this presupposition, I think, and leaves open the possibility that light and darkness were separate from the very beginning.

So, a couple questions:

  1. How accurate is my translation?

  2. Does the Hebrew text allow for the possibility that the light and the darkness were always divided?

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    If they already were separate, why would God still need to cause them to be separate? – user2672 Jun 23 '18 at 6:52
  • Pascal, this is an interesting question. However, it seems it would be better posted as an answer to hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/680/… – Ruminator Jun 23 '18 at 9:52
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    Possible duplicate of What does it mean when God separated light from darkness? – Ruminator Jun 23 '18 at 9:54
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    If you read verse 3 - you will notice that God ask/create the light. On verse 4-5 God distinguished between light as day and darkness as night. – A. Meshu Jun 23 '18 at 11:05
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    @Ruminator The question you linked to seems to ask what actually happened or what probably happened regarding the separation of light and darkness. I am asking if Genesis 1:4 leaves open the possibility that light and darkness were never joined. The difference is subtle, but important. It is akin to the following: Even though God created the universe ex nihilo, the ברא in Genesis 1:1 doesn't give us enough information to deduce this. I hope this makes my question clearer. Thank you for your patience. – Pascal's Wager Jun 23 '18 at 17:53
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Regarding the English translations, I don't see a substantial difference. Either option can have either meaning — the ongoing state (keep apart) or the discrete action (set apart). If you don't think "divide" can denote a state, consider this sentence:

The seawall divided/separated the waterfront from the ocean.

So keeping ourselves to Hebrew, first we can ask whether בדל suggests the state or the discrete action. One thing to get out of the way is that this isn't a causative hiph'il. BDB only finds this verb in the hiph'il and niph'al. The verb has no "stative" sense like the NAS Concordance's misleading "to be divided" that the hiph'il would make causative. In such cases the hiph'il is usually just active.

But we could still ask: Is that activity maintaining or creating division? I think בדל is too polyvalent to definitely say it inherently means one or the other, so we have to look at this particular use.

Some thoughts on the passage:

  1. Technically speaking, the ancient Hebrews must have understood that the phenomena of light and darkness are naturally divided, darkness being the absence of light. As Keelan points out, Ancient Near East cosmologies sometimes construe these things as entities that interact.

  2. Even if the creation story does so, it still considers those entities distinct. Darkness hovered over the face of the deep, predating light (verse 2). Light was created separately (verse 3).

  3. Because of the natural tension between the two, the creation of light presumably threatened darkness or was intended to displace it.

  4. בדל can mean to make a division; it can also mean to make a distinction. Perhaps God, having created light, decided not to get rid of darkness altogether but to preserve the distinction (ongoing state) by making a division (discrete action).1 There is some precedent for בדל both instituting and maintaining a distinction (e.g. some animals are set apart as unclean, Leviticus 20:25; Israel was set apart as an inheritance, 1 Kings 8:53).

  5. But though we could add the maintaining sense to the instituting sense, to me it doesn't seem as though we can have the former without the latter. I'm inclined to read the wayyiqtol as primarily a discrete action if we're talking about division. Making a distinction is an ongoing action but making a division is not unless you're a seawall. To my instinct, if a Biblical Hebrew writer wanted to make that meaning ongoing he would sooner use a participle.

In any case, I would not say "caused there to be a separation" is a word for word translation. There's a verb for to be and a noun for separation and neither appears in the verse.


1 We learn in the next verse that this is a particular light and darkness, namely the light of day and the darkness of night. The distinction God introduced and/or maintained was temporal, not spatial. Even more importantly, it was of course spiritual or elemental on a symbolic level, as John construes it in his retelling of the creation story (John 1:5).

  • The ideas here are good, but there are some issues. (a) In linguistics you can distinguish stative and dynamic verbs, but a root does not have the basic meaning of a past participle, which is a particular form. (b) There are intransitive and pseudo-hiphils (Joüon-Muraoka §54ef) which have hiphil morphology but qal-like semantics. This is the result of lexicalization. (c) Light and darkness are not necessarily divided. For instance, in ANE cosmologies, parts of the universe are sometimes created from the bodies of gods - why could light and darkness not both be formed from one body? – user2672 Jun 24 '18 at 7:04
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    @Keelan Good points. I'm not sure this edit fully addresses them but I tried to incorporate them. – Luke Sawczak Jun 24 '18 at 18:53
  • @LukeSawczak I think you are saying, we conjugate בדל as a Hiphil verb but it has a Qal meaning. Right? Kind of like how deponent verbs in Latin are conjugated as if they were passive but have an active meaning. – Pascal's Wager Jun 25 '18 at 0:15
  • @Pascal'sWager Yup, often what seems to happen when there is no qal. – Luke Sawczak Jun 25 '18 at 4:32
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    @Pascal'sWager Theoretically it could; it's not a word we have a ton of OT data on. But it seems less likely if (a) dictionaries, which do compare other texts and languages, don't list it in the qal, and (b) other verbs with no qal and a seemingly non-causative hiph'il for their main binyan are attested, e.g. ידה "praise", נבט "look at", נגד "tell", שׁלך "overthrow" — all appearing in my shorter glossary (> 70 uses), so we probably have a good picture of them. Not the most common scenario, but known to exist. – Luke Sawczak Jul 1 '18 at 3:56
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The problem about BNINIM, or 'conjugations' - here the Masoretic-system sustainers have to set their mind at rest - is that nobody can explain in what manner work these conjugations, supposing that they existed...

First point. If the basic meaning of the Hiphil was a causative sense, why the overwhelming majority of the Bible translations (in this passage) do not insert a scrap of causative factor in it?

Second point. According the official paradigm the Hiphil stem may have more meanings, above that of 'causative'. The 'grammars' of Gesenius-Kautzsch, Danilo Valla, Moses Stuart, Hans-Peter Staeli, Samuel Sharpe, and Jouon-Muraoka - only to mention some scholars - list a number of meanings of the Hiphil conjugation different from the supposed 'causative' factor, or, paradoxically, equivalent to others BNINIM (like Pi'el and Qal).

Personally, I think the 'causative' factor was really present in the more ancient Hebrew form, but it wasn't part of a 'conjugation'. It was a part of a consistent diathesis structure, along with Reflexive and Reciprocal factors.

To return on Pascal's Wager question #1, the passage doesn't trigger any 'causative' factor in it.

As regards the question #2 we have to remind that the Genesis 'creation account' implies an hypothetical human observer, standing on the earth surface. So, starting from a situation where light and darkness were mingled in a (apparently) chaotic state, the God-performed 'division' (from BDL root) separated between them in a permanent way, from the viewpoint of that 'observer'.

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    Your problems with the system of binyanim (which are well-established for all Semitic languages and can be traced through time in the genealogy) are just the result of Hebrew being a natural, spoken language. There always are ambiguities. They are specifically addressed by Jenni in his works on the stem formations (binyanim are not the conjugations, which are (im)perfect, imperative, etc.), who also notes that when no qal exists, another stem may have lexicalized. This seems to be the case for this particular root. All in all, this answer is plain nonsense. – user2672 Jun 24 '18 at 6:59

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