Light on the first day of Creation

As I read the account of creation in Genesis, I find that on the first day of Creation God said, “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (1:3, NIV). A few verses later, however, I read that on the fourth day of Creation week God ordered into existence “‘lights in the expanse of the sky... to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness’” (1:14-18). As a Bible-believing Christian, I wonder what was the source of the light that illumined our planet before the fourth day, if it did not come from the Sun.

Havannah Beetson,
Boroko, Papua New Guinea

Several explanations have been given. One possibility is that God’s presence was the source of light on the first day of Creation. Psalm 104 is a stylized account of the creation story, and it mentions God covering Himself with “light as with a garment” in the section paralleling the first day of Creation (v. 2). During the first three days God could have separated the light from darkness (as He later separated light from darkness at the Red Sea, Exodus 14:19, 20). By God Himself being the light source for the first part of the week, He would be emphasizing the theocentric (God-centered), not the heliocentric (sun-centered) nature of Creation. This would forestall any temptation to worship the sun that might have been encouraged if the sun were the first object created.

A second option suggests that the sun was created before the fourth day, but became visible on that day as the cloud cover was removed. This would explain the evening/morning cycle before day 4. The Hebrew syntax of Genesis 1:14 is different than the pattern of the other days of Creation. Verse 14 literally reads, “Let lights in the firmament of the heavens divide the day from the night” (not “Let there be lights…to divide…” as in most translations), perhaps implying that the lights were already in existence before the fourth day. The “greater” and “lesser” lights as well the stars could have been created “in the beginning” (before Creation week, v. 1; cf. John 1:1-3) and not on the fourth day. On the fourth day they were given a purpose,“to separate the day from the night” and “to mark seasons and days and years.” A variant of this view is that the sun and moon were created before Creation week, but in their tohu-bohu (“unformed-unfilled”) state like the earth (see v. 2), and on the fourth day were further formed into their fully-functional state (v. 16).

A third suggestion is that God created the physical properties of visible light and the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum on the first day. This idea, however, is not satisfactory if the universe and light from other galaxies are older than life on earth. Several passages of Scripture suggest that celestial bodies and intelligent beings were created before life was brought into existence on this planet (Job 38:7; Eze. 28:15). In addition, the Hebrew syntax of Genesis 1:16 doesn’t require the creation of the stars on day 4, and in fact suggests that they were already in existence.

A fourth suggestion is that the literary structure of Genesis 1 dictated the order of the days of Creation: the sun on the fourth day to provide the light on the first; birds and fish on the fifth to inhabit the air dividing the water on the second; animals on the sixth to live on the dry land and eat of the vegetation of the third. However, the symmetry seems reverse on the first and fourth days, since the light appears before its physical source.

A fifth answer suggests that the Genesis 1 creation story is intended to undergird the monotheistic religion of Israel, in contrast to the polytheism of the surrounding nations. The story deliberately altered the relationship of the sun, light, and daily cycle to convey the power of the Creator God. For example, the term translated “greater light” was used rather than the Hebrew word for sun, to avoid any confusion with the pagan sun-god. However, both this and the previous answer rely on a figurative rather than on a literal understanding of the Creation narrative.

Of the above options, the first two seem to be most in harmony with the biblical data. Perhaps a combination of these two views is possible: the sun and the moon may have been created (at least in their “unformed-unfilled” state) before creation week, but God Himself was the light source until day four. Genesis 1 is clearly intended by the author to be a literal account of Creation. (Note that the heading “these are the generations/accounts/history” is used in Genesis 2:4, as well as with the nine other sections of Genesis, indicating that the author intended the Creation to be taken just as literally as the rest of Genesis.) Part of suggestion four may also be true in that God seems to have artistically created in such a way that the first three days formed the tohu (“unformed”) mentioned in verse 2, and the last three days filled the bohu (“unfilled”) of verse 2. Part of suggestion five is also true in that God created in such a way (and had Moses accurately report the creation account in appropriate terms) to serve as a polemic against the polytheism of the surrounding nations.

Regardless of the answer(s) preferred, the Genesis story refutes the worship of nature, including the popular sun-god. Light and the daily cycle were created by God and are dependent on Him. Later in the Creation week, God gave these responsibilities in the heavens to the sun and the moon, just as He passed on to human beings the responsibility for stewardship of the earth, its natural cover, and its creatures. Ultimately, the heavens, the natural world, and any human ability to control or thoroughly understand them are still totally dependent on God who alone deserves our worship.

Richard M. Davidson (Ph.D., Andrews University), the author of several articles and books, is chairman of the Old Testament Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. E-mail: