How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

I have a question about the creation account in Genesis:  How could there have been light on the first day when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

SAMSUNGThis is an excellent question that has long puzzled readers of the book of Genesis.  In response to it, some have asserted that the “light” created on the first day was not the light we now see from the sun, but rather something like newly-created matter, or electromagnetic radiation, static electricity, or even a divine light that no longer exists.

But in my view, the simplest explanation is that the light of the first day is the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which remains in the sky after the sun sets, finally fading away until it can be seen no more.  We now know that this light comes from our sun, but the Genesis author apparently believed, writing from an observational perspective, that it was an independent entity that was present before the sun existed, and which appears even on those days when the sun is absent.  This light defined the realm of “day,” just as the dome above the earth defined the realm of “sky” and the gathering together of the waters below constituted the realm of “sea.”  As the Genesis study guide points out, this creation account is about realms and their rulers, and light is introduced as the essential defining characteristic of the first realm to be set off from the primordial darkness and chaos.

When I was in grade school we used to tell this joke:
Q. “Which is brighter, the sun or the moon?”
A.  “The moon, because it shines at night when it’s dark.  The sun only shines during the day, when it’s light anyway!”
In a simple but profound way, this joke captures the naïve observational cosmology of the Genesis account (although it admittedly does not also capture its reverential spirit).

It actually makes good sense, from the perspective of ancient readers, that the “days” of Genesis should be defined on the basis of this light, rather than on the appearance or non-appearance of the sun.  After all, this first light is more reliable than the sun; it always appears in the sky even when the sun does not (due to complete cloud cover, or to dust storms, sand storms, volcanic ash, or something similar).  This obscuring of the sun may, in fact, be what Job was referring to when he said of God, “He commands the sun, and it does not rise” (Job 9:7).  When we don’t understand that the light in the sky comes from the sun, we can picture God having the sun take a “day off” like this from time to time, because even when it’s not visible in the sky, there is always light.

For some readers of the Bible, however, this explanation may solve one problem only to create another.  Light before there was a sun makes sense from an observational perspective, but were the inspired Scriptural writers really writing from such a perspective?  Wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything they wrote was fully accurate scientifically and historically?  I’ll address this concern in my next post.

See here for a detailed comment on this post and a reply.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

10 thoughts on “How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?”

  1. The light on the first day is the understanding in one’s mind. A light went on, i.e. they understood. Not a physical light. The beginning is the beginning of Christianity and not the beginning of the earth. See it from this perspective and re-read the whole of Genesis 1.

    1. This is an interesting idea but I’m not sure it can be sustained by a reading of the passage. God names this light “day” and it becomes one of the basic realms of creation, along with sky, sea, and land. On Day 4 God populates this realm with the sun, moon, and stars. I don’t think we can take the reference to these celestial bodies figuratively because they’re said specifically to “mark . . . days and years” and “give light on the earth.” So I think we are talking about physical light here.

  2. How could the days of Genesis 1 be literal if the Sun wasn’t created until the fourth day? = like any creating, the device is not switched on, putting it in motion till all its objectives have been completed!

    1. David,
      Thanks very much for your comment. The only problem I see is that in this case, it appears to be a matter of somehow switching on the device first (getting light on the first day), and only making it later (creating the sun on the fourth day). So it’s still a puzzle unless you see the light as something other than the light of the sun.

  3. Figuratively speaking “Let there be light” could mean God proclaiming out loud his Word (Christ). I think this passage is heavily connected with John 1:1 where it is said that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. This perspective does make further sense because in Genesis 1:4 it goes on to say that God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.This again has connections with John 1:4-5 where it says that in him was life, and that life was the light of men.The light shines in darkness but the darkness has not understood it. As far as the day and night bit is concerned maybe Jesus is in some sense day because he helps us see. Still at the end of the day it’s only a perspective an old gentleman shared with me. It could be wrong

    1. I agree with you that the opening of Genesis and the opening of John are closely connected, but that’s because John is intentionally alluding to Genesis (“in the beginning,” “light,” etc.), not because Genesis is alluding to the later story of Jesus. The opening creation account in Genesis is concerned with the physical world and how it is divided into realms: day and night, sky and sea, land. So the “light” in question is the light of day, not a spiritual light like that of Christ which is the “light of men.” I still think that recognizing how Genesis speaks from an observational perspective, from which it appears that there is light independently of the sun, is the best way to make sense of this passage.

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