Genesis 1:3-5 — Day is Light


Modern readers often express their perplexity at the fact that Genesis 1:3 presents the creation of light before the creation of the luminary that produces light, the sun, whose creation does not happen until day 4 (1:16). How can light be created or exist, it is often asked, before the sun was created? The problem with this and similar questions is that they impose our knowledge about the cosmos, indeed an objective knowledge about the workings of our solar system, onto these ancient texts whose cultures, and god(s)!, did not possess this type of knowledge. We know that the sun is the source of light for our solar system. But the ancient cultures and peoples that produced this creation account, and others of like nature, did not possess this knowledge and apparently held different ideas about the nature of their world.

Genesis’ unique portrait of the creation of the world, in other words, was not shaped by objective or divinely-inspired knowledge; rather it was shaped by the perspectives, beliefs, and limited empirical understanding—or misunderstanding as the case may be—about the nature of the cosmos and its elements. Our goal should not be to impose modern truths onto this ancient document, nor attempt to harmonize the text with our modern scientific knowledge about the world by imposing elaborate theological constructs onto the text. Rather, our task is to understand the text on its own terms, as a product of its own unique cultural perspectives, and to be able to reproduce this understanding as faithfully and honestly as possible. We should allow the text to invite us into its own worldview and belief system, not try to impose ours onto the text.

Having said that, it would initially appear that the Israelite scribe who penned Genesis 1, or the larger cultural perspective from which he drew, did not see or understand the sun as the source of light, that is the source of day or daylight. Indeed, as expressed in Genesis 1:15, the sun was understood as a light emitting source, as was, erroneously, the moon. But it appears that it was not seen as the source of day or daylight. The sun and the moon were created “to distinguish between the day and the night” not as the sources for day and night. This is a radical departure from modern scientific truth and what we know today.

There are basically three things that happen in Genesis 1:3-5. Following what our biblical author has presented so far in his composition of the creation of the world, which was shaped and influenced by cultural perspectives and beliefs about the nature of the world and its origins, we see that to this primeval state of darkness that spread out over an untamed watery abyss which covered a formless, vacuous piece of earth (Genesis 1:1-2), light was added:

And God said, “Let there be light!”

Darkness need not have been created since it already existed. Second, the text informs us that God separates this newly created light from the primeval darkness, and lastly calls or identifies this light as “day,” and conversely darkness as “night.” “And there was evening, and there was morning—one day.”

So over this watery untamed abyss of formless earth, alternating sequences of day and night now exist. This is significant because what the text presents the deity creating first is the day or daylight! In other words, the light that comes into existence is not called “the sun” but rather “day.” Day was essentially conceived of as light, as being composed of light. Or, according to our ancient scribe, day by its very nature is light! The very essence of day is light. Ancient peoples might have deduced this “truth” from the observation that even when the sun doesn’t appear, it is still daylight out. Thus, the separation and alternation between day and night, light and darkness, is set by an initial action of the creator deity and not by the sun!

This idea is reenforced elsewhere in the text. There are only 3 places in Genesis 1 where God is presented creating something and then immediately naming it. It’s instructive to look at these three occurrences together:

  1. light is created and called “day”
  2. the firmament or expanse is created and called “the sky”
  3. dry land is created or simply commanded to appear and is called “earth”

We notice that the name given to each of these elements expresses what it inherently or essentially is. What is earth? It is dry land (“earth” is never used to refer to the planet; no such idea existed). What is the sky? It is the firmament which God created to separate the waters below from those above. And finally, what is day? It is light. In other words our ancient author perceived day as quintessentially equivalent to light. So the source of day’s light, or daylight, was not seen as the sun, but rather was seen as the very essence of day itself.

This is very instructive for a proper understanding of how the ancient Israelites viewed their world. Light, or more appropriately day, exists because God created it. The two are one and the same, as dry land is earth, and the firmament above is the sky, so too light is day. Thus we can alternatively say that this creation narrative presents day as the first thing that is created.

The fact that this author presents the creation of day and night as the deity’s first creative act is not a coincidence. Certainly it immediately lends itself to the thematic and structural framework of what follows—5 more days of creation where each day is a successive pattern of evening and morning, and lastly a 7th day of rest.

Again, it must be borne in mind that, contrary to our modern knowledge of the workings of the cosmos, the successive coming and going of evening and morning, night and day, were not defined by the appearance and disappearance of the sun; rather, as has already been demonstrated, and according to our author’s limited knowledge and culturally shaped beliefs, night and day, darkness and light, were separated and distinguished “elements” created by God himself. Thus as we previously saw in the case of Genesis 1:1-2, the author’s subjective and culturally defined perspectives and beliefs about the nature of his world are transferred to the God of his text!

Finally, the creation of day as God’s first act serves a larger purpose, one that has an immediate significance for this particular author and the priestly guild he represented. The fact that this author composes a creation account that revolved around days, that embeds a calendar system directly into the creation of the cosmos itself, is extremely significant. In essence, this priestly author has just presented us with an argument that declares that the calendar system, Sabbath, and Yahweh’s sacred festivals (= “the appointed times” of 1:14; see Lev 23, the Festival Calendars) were all built into the very fabric of the cosmos by God at creation! The non-observance of any of these holy days, therefore, is inexcusable, and as we shall see were punishable by an immediate and swift death (e.g., #245). For you cannot disregard the essential laws that govern the world and which, according to this author and his god, were built right into the creation of the cosmos!

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12 thoughts on “Genesis 1:3-5 — Day is Light

  1. ex 14:20 And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.
    job 36:30 Behold, he spreadeth his light upon it, and covereth the bottom of the sea.
    ps 74:16 The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun.
    acts 26:13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.
    rev 21:23 and the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of god has illumined it and its lamp is the lamb.

  2. Light is bundled up in photons, which are particles without a rest mass but with energy. Photons with a particular range of energies, which correspond to frequencies in the wave model, account for visible light. Photons with higher energies account for ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma radiation. Photons with lower energies account for infrared and microwave radiation. Photons are produced in stars as a result of nuclear fusion reactions. They were also produced in the Big Bang, and those photons can still be detected. It’s called the Cosmic Microwave Background.

    I’m not arguing for a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. I’m not an expert, but it seems most plausible to me that Genesis 1 was written as a theological response to the Enuma Elish or something similar. But in this case and for whatever reason the author is correct. There was light on the first day. Lots and lots of light.

  3. I have heard that, according to quantum physics, everything is in a sense made of light. So perhaps that’s why light is first?

  4. Because the word of God is inspired, wouldn’t Moses have written Gods words, or thoughts as he wanted them? God does not contradict himself, so I still have questions about the creation of light day/night as stated on the first and fourth days.

  5. Hi KW

    I also appreciate the cute little diagram provided, and the idea that the text is not about God creating ex nihilo, but making from already extant matter, and causing the dry land to appear not because he was creating dry land, but he was just commanding the water to separate and reveal the earth that was already there.

    Keeping in mind what the writer(s) had in mind when writing is a good exercise.

  6. Hi HeidiSue. It’s true that scientists are still struggling to fully understand the nature of light, but as far as we know, it always requires a source of energy, whether it’s a star, a nebula, lightning, magma, etc. I think the issue that Genesis 1:3-5 creates for itself is not that it has light being created in vs. 3 before the sun (light did exist before our sun, after all), but that it says in vss. 4, 5 that God specifically created a day/night cycle for Earth before creating the sun!

    Which is what leads to Dr. DiMattei’s statement that the ancients thought that daylight did not come from the sun, and I elaborated on that in my May 7th comment above. Then again, maybe some did link the daylight to the sun, as I mentioned above in the May 14th comment. But in the first creation story, it seems to have been thought that something was lighting and shadowing the Earth before the sun. Maybe there could have been some other source of light at the time which the Earth rotated relative to, but we know now that the sun existed before the gasses around it cooled down enough to coalesce into planets. It was not made (“asah“) after the Earth at the same time as the moon.

    As with the other contradictions, it comes down to whether the modern reader chooses to assume that there is more to the story that God left unsaid, in order to make it work from a modern perspective. What’s continuing to amaze me, having believed for years that the account was describing the creation of the universe we know today, is realizing that you can sum up the Bible’s description of the earth and sky with a quaint diagram like the ones Dr. DiMattei has posted on these recent articles.

    The model depicted in those diagrams is a reasonable conclusion from simply observing the natural world, which makes it more plausible that the Bible wasn’t just being poetic when it describes the sky as a vault or tapestry. And the Bible’s descriptions of the Earth correspond to what we read in, well, “pagan” works of the same time period (see Wikipedia’s Flat Earth article).

    So, as far as I can tell, either God:
    1. Gave no special knowledge to the writers of the Bible and allowed them to believe in the creation of a disk-shaped Earth.
    2. Had them write in a way that hid the true nature of the solar system from ancient man, so as not to confuse him, but in a way that also holds up for a modern reader (but only if he chooses to read it poetically, rather than point out that it sounds a lot like other ancient “uninspired” texts).
    3. Allowed his people, the Jews, to describe the true formation of the cosmos, including a light that existed independent of the sun, in a way that coincidentally reads exactly like ancient guesses at the formation of the cosmos that were common at the time ;-)

  7. KW, taking up the creationist /literalist mantel for a moment, isn’t it possible that light exists apart from the sun? So it isn’t a matter of when the sky cleared up and they could then see the sun, it is a matter of light existing, previous to the luminaries.

    Mind you, I know that the ancients wouldn’t have known this, but in the creationist/literalist world, God did so it comes to us from Moses’ pen whole: Light was created before the sun, moon, and stars, because it exists independent of them or any other heavenly bodies, and it is only a matter of time before science reveals it to be so.

    which then makes me ask: Is light something that can exist without the sun? Is science discovering that light is its own entity, independent of a source? is there another source of light, besides stars? I mean, they’re exploring whether it is a wave or particles, or combination. Is it energy or matter? etc. So maybe science will find out some day that light exists independent of the stars/suns. Therefore validating the creationist model that light was created on day one, and the luminaries on day four.

    just some thoughts. Very interesting articles coming out right now!

  8. It occurred to me that there is a scripture that indicates an understanding that the sun is responsible for the light of day. Joshua 10:12-14 is where Joshua asks for the sun and moon to remain in the sky. This apparently was supposed to give them the extra daylight they needed to continue defeating the enemy. But rather than saying that Joshua asked God to extend daylight for the Israelites, he asked God to stop the sun in its place (as well as the moon, which was apparently up), and this in turn extended the daylight.

    It’s clear that the perception was still that the sun and moon were simply lights that rotated around the earth, and not astronomical entities, but the writer of this account seems to have had a clearer idea of the importance of the sun to the presence of daylight.

  9. Ah, here we go, this is what I was wondering about in my comment the other day. “How could the ancients not understand that the sun was the source of the light?” It’s hard to unlearn our basic understanding of the cosmos, as you pointed out. Your explanation helped, pointing out that even when it’s so cloudy that the sun is not visible at all, the world around us is still considerably brighter than at night.

    Thinking about this further, I realized that neither the sun or the moon appears to cast much light directly. If a cloud passes over the sun on a bright day, one can see a shadow passing along the ground, but the ground under the shadow is still pretty well-lit (due to the diffusion of light in our atmosphere). Likewise, the moon appears in a dark sky, and even when full, does not cast very much light on the earth. So the ancients might have reasoned that the luminaries were not much more than bright lights like torches, and, as you said, daytime was simply light and nighttime was simply dark and that was how the cosmos worked.

    In case you haven’t heard this particular apologetic before, the reason I was taught for the light and dark seemingly being made before the sun was that the sun *was* actually created in verses 3 and 4, and only became *visible* from the earth when the sky cleared up in verse 16 to let light shine on the plants created on the previous “day”. Of course, the account says that God “made” (asah) the sun and moon in verse 16, so… yeah…. We didn’t dwell on these details very much.

  10. I copied directly from Professor Smith’s notes from the Villanova lecture. The reference to Genesis 1:2 is his, not mine. If you (or anyone else) would like these notes, just let me know.

  11. The following notes from Mark S. Smith’s lecture at Villanova University in 2010 are instructive:

    Creation Story from Babylon (Enuma Elish)
    Light prior to creation is the god’s own light. It appears in Enuma Elish’s presentation of the god Marduk in tablet I, lines 101-104:

    101 The son UTU (the Sun), the son UTU (the Sun),
    102 The son, the sun, the sunlight of the gods!
    103 He wore (on his body) (lbs£) the auras of ten gods,
    had (them) around his head too,
    104 Fifty fears are heaped upon him.

    In these lines, Marduk appears in theophanic light and is called “the sun” and “sunlight” as well as “aura.”

    Psalm 104
    1 Bless the Lord, O my soul!
    O Lord, my God, You are so great!
    In splendor and majesty You are clothed, Light on Day One (Gen 1:2)
    2 Wrapped in light like a robe.

    The lecture can be viewed here:

    1. This is still very different from what the author of Genesis 1 presents, and specifically Psalm 104 looks to be a later theological reflection on Genesis 1 with a noticeable influence from the Egyptian Hymn to Aten, as Smith and others have noted. Your citation is a bit misleading; it looks like the psalmist is making a direct quote, when the text actually reads: “Yahweh… you are clothed in glory and majesty, wrapped in a robe of light.”

      Again, this might be a later theological musing over Gen 1:3, but the text of Gen 1:3 itself makes it clear that the light that God creates is day, is daylight! As I wrote above, ancient peoples, the Priestly writer included, could have easily drawn such a conclusion—that although the sun does provide light (1:15), day by its very nature is light—from the observation that even when the sun doesn’t appear, when it’s overcast, etc., it is still daylight out.

      If you’re interested in Smith’s work, which is top-notch, take a look at his, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 — another excellent scholarly work aimed at demonstrating to the general public that the texts of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 clearly reveal that they were penned by two different authors.

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