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.