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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Let There Be Light

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October 12, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Let There Be Light

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Genesis 1:3 raised some questions among ancient interpreters. What does it mean for God to say, “Let there be light” on the first day of creation? There was no light from the heavenly bodies until day four, so: What was its source? Why is it the first thing God did? Why was it needed at all?

These interrelated questions are the kinds of questions that occupied ancient interpreters—and modern readers of Genesis continue to ponder these questions, too.

Shedding some Light on the Situation

A number of interpreters seem to suggest that this light allowed God’s creative work to be seen. Of course, the question we might ask is “seen by whom?” since God is the only one at the dawn of time who is there to see anything and he could do perfectly well without needing any light. Apparently, that issue didn’t seem to interest these early interpreters; they focused instead on the function of the light in Genesis 1:3. It is a light created by God to illuminate his creative work.

So, for example, Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (1:27) writes, “God commanded that there be light. And when this had come about, he considered all of the matter.” Similarly in 4 Ezra 6:40 we read that God “commanded that a ray of light be brought forth from your treasuries, so that your works might appear.”

Although not a Second Temple text, the Babylonian Talmud (Hagigah 12a) says, “With the light that God created on the first day one could see from one end of the world to the other.” The “one” seeing is certainly God, and this text implies that the light “allowed” God to see what he was creating. Likewise, in 2 Enoch 25:3 God says that the light “revealed all the creation which I had thought up to create. And I saw that it was good.” Along with the others, this writer also seems to be saying that it was the light of day one that enabled God to see that “it was good.”

Sun and Moon Light before there was a Sun or Moon

Other interpreters took Genesis 1:3 in another direction. They made the understandable connection between the light in day one and the heavenly bodies that produced light in day four. Even though the heavenly bodies were not yet formed, their light already existed. (Incidentally, the moon was considered a source of light in Genesis 1:16, since the ancient Israelites did not know that it reflected the sun’s light. Hence, Genesis 1:16 refers to the moon as a “lesser light.”)

Even though there is nothing explicit in Genesis 1 to connect the light of day one and the heavenly bodies of day four, it was inviting nevertheless—in part because it helps address a problem many Bible readers even today ask themselves: how can there be evening and morning before there was a sun? The answer given is that the light that would come from the heavenly bodies was already in existence. In fact, the light of day one was for some interpreters the very source of the light later given off by the heavenly bodies.

So, for example, Jubilees 2:2 says that on day one “both evening and night” were “prepared in the knowledge of his [God’s] heart.” Ephraem, on his commentary on Genesis (at 9:2), says that the sun, moon, and stars, were fashioned from the light of day one. Philo (On the Creation 31 and 55) says that the light of day one was of a higher order than the stars and therefore the source of the starlight to come.

These interpretations of Genesis 1:3 do not sit well with modern sensibilities—especially the first example, which implies that God turned a light on to see what he was doing. Modern biblical commentators tend to look at the light of Genesis 1:3 as God’s initial act of bringing order to chaos. Darkness is part of the pre-existing chaotic condition of the cosmos (along with water in v. 2). God’s first move is to subdue it by introducing light.

There may also be an anti-Mesopotamian polemic at work here. The sun, moon, and stars tended to be deified in the ancient Near East. The light of day one, however, is not dependent on these divine heavenly bodies. Israel’s God simply pushes aside the darkness without any help, thus demonstrating his complete control over the cosmos.

I think this modern explanation is much better than what the ancients proposed. But we should resist the temptation to look down on these ancient interpreters and simply point out flaws. These ancient interpreters remind us today that Genesis 1:3 requires some explanation. Even if our answers are different from ancient ones, we are all agreed that the text deserves our careful attention.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Chris Massey - #34569

October 14th 2010


None of those things you just described were predicted by Bible-believing folks based on what they read in the Bible BEFORE they were discovered by science. That’s what I asked for. Does the Bible have proven predictive power or is it just read to fit after-the-fact? “Let there be light” does not permit one to predict cosmic background microwave radiation.

conrad - #34570

October 14th 2010

The cosmic microwave background radiation WAS LIGHT when it started out..

I think the Bible said THERE WAS LIGHT.
NOW it is true that Christian did NOT predict that TODAY the black box radiation would be at 3’ Kelvin in the microwave part of the spectrum


But Alpha, Beta, Gamma said that light would have been produced in the Big Bang.

At the time of creation it WAS LIGHT not microwave radiation.

It is NOW microwave radiation.
It is true that Bible-believing folks would have had to know quantum mechanics to predict that the “light” of “let there be light” would now be found in the microwave band of the spectrum.
In fact most people would not believe that the light photons would still be bouncing around at the edge of space after 13 billion years.

Similarly most people did not know about dark matter but the
Bible has always said God separated light [matter] from dark [matter].

Vera Rubin proved that to be true BUT THE BIBLE SAID IT FIRST.

The Bible said the universe would end. [Heaven and earth shall pass away.]

Now the distant supernova project proved it will.
The Bible said these things first.

Jon Garvey - #34575

October 14th 2010

Chris Massey - #34569

Chris. Leaving the crypto-cosmology aside for a moment, arguably much of the scientific project was based on the model of the Universe predicted by the general outline of the creation accounts in the Bible.

Because it’s a view of the Universe still largely shared by most of Western society (though its theological base has been jettisoned)  it’s not obvious to us unless contrasted with different ways of thinking. But, seeking to “think God’s thoughts after him” people like Copernicus, Newton and a host of others expected the Universe to be rational (because a wise God made it), comprehensible (because a wise God made us), consistent (because it had one mind behind it) , finite (because less than its Creator), and non-cyclical (because of God’s purpose). All of those were absent from other world-views.

I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek piece on Genesis’ predictive value as a hypothesis in comparison to other creation myths, if you’re interested, here: http://www.jongarvey.co.uk/download/pdf/threemyths.pdf

mike - #34618

October 14th 2010


Interesting stuff.  I was hoping you would perhaps expand on the interesting point regarding Genesis as being a conscious counterpoint to that of the typical ANE cosmogonies?

Is the animate nature of humankind made in the image and likeness of God the most pointed dynamic countering the Mesopotamian gods being deified in the aloof inanimate objects of the sun, moon and stars?  If so, then why is the imago Dei referenced so little in the entire sweep of Scripture; you’d think it’d be a major theme?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34628

October 14th 2010


If I may try to answer your question. 

The Bible is not a book of ideas, it is a book of history and events. 

That God created humans in God’s image is an event.  That event has important philosophical and theological consequences, but the Bible does not move in that theoretical direction.  That is why you have to go beyond the words written on the page to discover the deeper meaning of the text.

The Greeks thought in terms of ideas and that is more the way we think today.  However there are limits to the effectiveness of thinking this way and it seems that today we are at the edge of the effectiveness of this type of thinking. 

Generally the Bible tells us what happened, not how to understand what happened.  That is its power and beauty, but it also presents problems when people come into conflict over their understandings what it means.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34629

October 14th 2010


You are correct in indicating that it is basic Christian theology or world view that is the basis of modern science, rather than the Bible itself.

There are some very interesting aspects of this.  It is thought that Michael Faraday, who discovered electro-magnetic fields, one of the most mysterious aspects of science, was influenced in this discovery by the understanding of the Holy Spirit espoused by the strict Christian sect of which he was a member.

conrad - #34798

October 15th 2010


Unless 4 Nobel prizes are also “crypto”.

Doug Duffee - #35433

October 20th 2010

If anyone is interested in an attempt to answer the Genesis 1:3 “let there be light” from an exegetical perpective, please check out my blog.  If any exegetes find this argument compelling I would appreciate input on the question posed at the end of the response as well as to the question previously raised above on the distinction between the use of barah (Genesis 1) and asah (Genesis 2:2) in supporting a revelatory day hypothesis for understanding the creation narrative.    http://dduffee.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/genesis-13-and-the-biologos-challenge/

L H - #35961

October 23rd 2010

The explanation seems unconvincing to me.  Leon Kass describes the order of creation in descending (ascending ?) order of having location and a path.  Light has no place (always movng) then the plants which cannot move, then heavenly bodies that move in fixed ways, then animals that move around and then man, who can move away from the right path.  This is a very satisfactory description.  Kass’ book, “Genesis, the beginning of wisdom” describes his thinking in detail.

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