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Five first instances of biblical words

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The meaning of a text depends on the combination of the words in it, but the meaning of an individual word may itself differ, depending on the surrounding context. Quibbles over semantics can be irritating, but knowing the true meaning of the words of Scripture is enlightening.

Dr Jonathan Sarfati writes, “What defines the meaning of a word is not its first or main meaning, but its meaning in its specific context.”1 This is true. Nonetheless, ‘first mentions’ are still worth studying, and can sometimes provide Christians with important information. In what follows, we will include examples that are also pertinent for the biblical creationist. Note that something can only have a metaphoric/abstract meaning if the word already means something concrete to begin with. For instance, when people first used the word ‘heart’ in a metaphorical sense (see item 2 below), they were already familiar with many physical aspects of the actual organ.

Because Genesis is the book of beginnings, what follows are five so-called ‘first appearances’ in the opening chapters of the Bible.

1. Day (yôm, Genesis 1:5)

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The CMI logo represents the light and darkness portions of the rotating globe.

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

With this, the first of our ‘firsts’, we immediately run into a snag. The word in question appears twice in this verse, and the meaning of each is somewhat different, as determined by the immediate context. Of course, a word having more than one meaning is common to all languages.

The first appearance of ‘day’ refers to the (day-)light portion of the second appearance of ‘day’, and is contrasted with its opposite, the darkness portion. Light gives way to darkness in the evening, and then comes back again in the morning. These two portions together make one full day, which thus defines the meaning of the second appearance of ‘day’ here (Earth’s rotation through 360° in relation to a unidirectional light source).

Many Bible versions translate Genesis 1:5 as ‘the first day’. However, the Hebrew text uses the cardinal number ‘eḥāḏ (literally ‘one’; i.e. one, two, three, etc.), and not an ordinal number (i.e. first, second, third).2 Arguably, therefore, a better translation would be ‘one day’, or ‘day one’. The remaining six days of Creation Week use ordinal numbers (second, third, etc.).3

Creation Ministries International has written extensively about the meaning of the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1. As biblical creationists, we firmly believe that Scripture interprets Scripture, and so one very strong corroboration we can give is from Exodus 31, where God underlines the Sabbath commandment:

… for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations … Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest … It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed (verses 13, 15, and 17).

This text uses the same Hebrew word (yôm) for day as used in the creation account in Genesis 1, prescribing the workweek of the Israelites, consisting of six days of work with one day of rest. People the world over still operate according to a seven-day week.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments is not only inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), but—like the other nine—it was also inscribed in stone, by God, with His own finger (Exodus 31:18)!

2. Heart (lēḇ, Genesis 6:5–6)

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

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When sad, in English, people may refer to ‘a broken heart’.

Two different meanings for heart arise in as many verses of Genesis 6. Heart often implies the mind, as is the case in verse 5. So why use the word heart for processes that really happen in the brain? This is not unusual in the English language either. Didn’t we all have to learn the multiplication tables ‘off by heart’? To know something ‘off by heart’ is a metaphor for remembering something—even by rote learning. Memorisation and thought happens in the brain, whether that is remembering your multiplication tables, or anything else.

A reason for using the heart as a metaphor for mind is its close connection to emotion. Being in love or getting a fright can make the heart pulse faster, even though in English we may say, ‘my heart skipped a beat’. Some people, when anxious, feel a tightening in the chest. Broken-hearted people may pinpoint the chest as the location of their intense sadness. Of course, their heart is not really broken, but stress and sadness are among factors that can increase the risk of a heart attack.4

The Hebrew word for heart (lēḇ) can have many different meanings, and the word heart in verse 6 is referring to the emotions and passions—in this case, grief. However, in human beings, such feelings are also modulated by the brain.

Some say the distance from the mind (reading and understanding the Bible) to the heart (believing and applying its teaching) can be the longest distance possible—people can be stubborn at heart. In physical terms, in adults it is roughly 35 cm (14 inches) between the brain and the heart, but because heart is used metaphorically for what really goes on in the brain, it is really no distance at all!

Did not God write His laws on our hearts (e.g., Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15, Hebrews 8;10; 10:16)?

3. Favour/Grace (ḥēn, Genesis 6:8)

Our next word comes in the context of the judgment of the Genesis Flood. Not long after God says He will blot out man from the face of the land (Genesis 6:7) due to His grief over human wickedness, we read that Noah found favour (grace, KJV) in the eyes of the Lord (verse 8). The word here means ‘acceptance’, signifying that God would not blot out Noah. Yet, Noah was a sinner, being a descendent of Adam as well as by his own shortcomings and failings.

Some have considered grace as an acronym for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. It means getting what we do not deserve, which is not the same as mercy—to not get (be spared from) what we do deserve. Why should Noah, or anyone else, receive (eternal) life, when really we all deserve death (Romans 6:23)? It is because the God of the Bible is unfailingly a good God. Humans are God’s image-bearers, so people can also be gracious. Grace is something that sets Christianity apart from false religion, cults, or ideology. All other faiths are in some way or another dependent on the good works of the believer to ‘score brownie points’ with their god.

However, to be shown favour by the Creator, there is not a list of ‘do these things’ and ‘don’t do those things’. In Christianity, God has done it all, and praise God, we need bring nothing to the table. In fact, we cannot bring anything to the table; self-righteous attempts to appease God by good works are an offense to Him—instead, the good that believers do is motivated by love (Ephesians 2:8–10).

4. Flood (mabûl, Genesis 6:17)

There are 13 appearances of the word mabûl in the Bible and it is always translated ‘flood’. Twelve instances are in the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

Mabûl is paired four times with mayim (waters, which debuts in Genesis 1:2) during the rainy first 40 days of the Deluge, but then in Genesis 7:17 the two words are separated. From Genesis 7:18 onwards, mayim appears on its own. These ‘waters’ reach their zenith at 150 days, and it is these waters that afterwards subsided/receded/abated/dried up (Genesis 8).

Therefore, it seems that mabûl is strongly connected with the initial (introductory) bursting forth of the flood. The Greek Septuagint translates it kataklysmos (also used in the New Testament, Matthew 24:38, Luke 17:27, 2 Peter 2:5), from which we get ‘cataclysm’.

The remaining appearance of mabûl in Scripture refers back to the Flood of Noah, as if it were its proper name—or label. It is likely, therefore, when David speaks about God’s great power and glory in Psalm 29:10, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever”, it is talking about Noah’s global Flood and God’s sovereignty over it.

There are other Hebrew words translated ‘flood’ in the Old Testament. For example, when sheteph is used (e.g., Nahum 1:8, a flood making an end to enemies) it refers to a local flood. The proponents of the idea of a local flood in Noah’s time could be questioned why God did not use sheteph, instead of the cataclysmic mabûl.

5. Knowledge (daʿaṯ, Genesis 2:9)

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Knowledge is stored in the brain, but it is much more than merely a databank.

Christians sometimes claim that evolution is not real science, just ‘science falsely so-called’, by pointing to 1 Timothy 6:20 in the KJV. The premise (evolution ≠ real science) is true, provided that we define our terms as follows:

However, is that what 1 Timothy 6:20 refers to?

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge” (ESV; emphasis added).

Virtually all other Bible versions are very similar. Looking at the wider context, it is poor hermeneutics to read evolution into the text. The word for ‘knowledge’ is gnosis in Greek (meaning elite, esoteric ‘knowledge’; see Arguments we think creationists should NOT use), and features in Genesis 2:9, where it introduces the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Hebrew (daʿaṯ) is usually translated as ‘knowledge’ or ‘know’, and when combined with a negation it is rendered the opposite—ignorance.

Adam and Eve were originally innocent. They were part of the very good creation (Genesis 1:31) and were not ashamedly aware that they were naked (Genesis 2:25). It was when Adam sinned that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). They did not walk around with their eyes closed prior to this, but their innocence was, as it were, stripped away. Their self-made fig-leaf coverings were replaced by garments of skin provided by the Lord, involving the death of at least one animal (Genesis 3:21). This first sacrifice5 properly covered their sin and nakedness, of which they were thereafter painfully aware for the rest of their lives (e.g., Genesis 4:4).

In closing

The Bible is God’s revelation to mankind. Therefore, applying yourself to studying it is a most important thing to do, including some word studies. This can help us avoid applying the wrong meaning to a word, like Humpty Dumpty did in Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass:

‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”’6

Surely, that would not happen nowadays, would it? Well, we live in a time when some people seemingly cannot define the word ‘woman’ (see link below). It is important that biblically minded people are not led astray by the ‘wisdom of the world’, but instead are firmly rooted in God’s Word.

Here are some related articles for further study of other interesting ‘firsts’ mentioned in the opening chapters of Genesis

Published: 3 October 2023

References and notes

  1. Sarfati, J., ‘In Peleg’s days, the earth was divided’: What does this mean? creation.com, 3 Nov 2007. Return to text.
  2. Famously, this same Hebrew word appears in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (one = ‘eḥāḏ) Return to text.
  3. Sarfati, J., The Genesis account, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, Georgia, USA, pp. 121–124, 2015. Return to text.
  4. Mental Help, Where do you carry your emotions? mentalhelp.net, accessed 8 Aug 2023. Return to text.
  5. Not to be confused with ceremonial sacrifices described later in the Old Testament. Return to text.
  6. Carroll, L., Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there, Puffin edition, Penguin Books, London, p. 87, 2003. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

As It Is Written
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The Genesis Account
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Can We Trust the Gospels?
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