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:
- light is created and called “day”
- the firmament or expanse is created and called “the sky”
- 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!