The Grammarphobia Blog

Let there be light

Q: After reading your post about the imperative use of “let,” I have a question. What is the function of “let” in the biblical command “Let there be light”? God can’t be addressing the light, since it doesn’t exist yet. So who or what is being addressed? And what purpose does “let” serve here?

A: The English expression “Let there be light” isn’t a literal translation of the Hebrew wording in Genesis: יהי אור. A word for word translation would be “exist light” or “light will be” or some variation.

So a literal translation of the full Hebrew text of Genesis 1:3, ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי־אור, could be “And God said, ‘Light will be,’ and light was.” (We’ve added capitalization and punctuation.)

However, let’s not get too literal. The usual English translation (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”) accurately and elegantly reflects the sense of the Hebrew.

Although the Hebrew phrase יהי אור may literally mean “light will be,” it’s in the jussive mood, which in Semitic languages expresses a weak or an indirect command.

Biblical translators have generally felt that “Let there be light” is the best wording to represent the jussive mood of יהי אור in Genesis 1:3. And we can’t think of a better one.

The biblical scholar Nahum M. Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, discusses the use of יהי (“be” or “exist”) in Verse 3: “The directive yehi, found again in Verses 6 and 14, is reserved for the creation of celestial phenomena.”

In our opinion, you’re right that God isn’t addressing the light. He’s not addressing anyone or anything here. He’s simply creating light—that is, ordering that light exist.

In fact, it’s not clear that God is even speaking. The Hebrew verb אמר may mean “intend” as well as “say.” In this case, it may simply be a way to express divine will in human language.

(We won’t get into the old question of where the light came from, since the sun hadn’t been created yet. Biblical scholars have spent a lot of time on this already.)

What purpose, you ask, does “let” serve in the expression “Let there be light”?

When the imperative “let” is used in the sense of “allow” or “permit” or “cause,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can function as an auxiliary to the infinitive that follows—“be,” “bring forth,” and so on.

The OED gives several examples of the usage, including this one from The Mariner’s Magazine, a 1669 book by Samuel Sturmy about nautical navigation: “Let there be an hole about an Inch deep, which shall serve to Prime it with Powder-dust.”

The English scholar and clergyman William Tyndale is credited with introducing the expression “Let there be light” in his 1525 translation of the Bible.

His Bible was the first to appear in print in English, though John Wycliffe and others translated full or partial versions in English before the advent of printing.

Tyndale’s poetic biblical writing has given us such familiar phrases as “flowing with milk and honey,” “the apple of his eye,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” “the salt of the earth,” “the powers that be,” and “my brother’s keeper.”

And his translation heavily influenced the King James Version. In The Social Universe of the English Bible (2010), Naomi Tadmor writes that “about 83 per cent of the New Testament is deemed to be based on Tyndale and 76 per cent of the Old.”

But Tyndale ran afoul of Henry VIII by opposing the king’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. As a result, Tyndale met a grisly end.

On Oct. 6, 1536, he was convicted of heresy and put to death at Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels by being strangled and burned at the stake.

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