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?
This 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.
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