So in Genesis 1:5 we have evening and morning, the first day. Well ... no, not quite! Yes, that was the first day, but that is not what the text says. Despite the way most translations render the last part of verse 5, the Hebrew says, “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.” Although the rest of the days are described by ordinal numbers (“second,” “third,” “fourth” ...) this first day is described with a cardinal (“one”).
One of the basic tools for reading the Old Testament is recognising that a difference in a pattern signals something of significance. Not only does “one” not fit the pattern of the rest of chapter 1, but it uses a highly unusual Hebrew idiom, drawing attention to something special here. “The text is very carefully crafted so that an alert reader cannot read it as ‘the first day.’ Instead ... it must be read as ‘one day,’ thereby defining a day.”
God’s intention when he created and separated day and night was not that they be static entities between which people could move, but a cycle within which people lived. So on the first day he begins the cycle with which we are now so familiar, causing day to pass to night and back to day again. “Thus the great cycle of time was put in place by the Creator.” That could have been reported as, “there was day, and there was night, one day” but that would have completely failed to describe the movement from one to the other. So the writer highlights the transition from day to night (“there was evening”), and from night to day (“there was morning”), as a way of describing the passing of a complete day, one day, the first day. “Having an evening and a morning amounts to having one full day.”
In this way, at the very beginning of the six-day narrative, God makes clear what he means by the word “day”: a period of time in which day transitions through evening to night, and back again through morning to day. Here is a clear, straight-forward identification of the period intended by the word “day”: what we refer to as a 24-hour day. Given that at the time Genesis was written the Egyptians were among those using precisely this terminology (what they called the two “twilight hours” of “evening” and “morning”) to describe a day, what may seem to us to be an unusual way of describing a day, would have been perfectly understood by the original readers.
It is possible that the distinctive order – evening then morning – may be drawing attention to the celebration of God’s goodness inherent in the creation days. Cassuto points out that in describing the ordinary passage of time, the Bible usually locates the beginning of a day at sunrise, but that festivals are described as beginning with the evening of the day before the anniversary. Thus while the expression in Genesis 1 clearly marks the passage of one day, it does so in a way that conventionally points to God-centred festivals. The days of creation are not merely days marking a passage of time, but days identified as festive celebrations of the glory of God. Truly they were “good.”
[This is an extract from Michael's Book The Misted World of Genesis one]