Modern readers often express their perplexity at the fact that Genesis 1:3 presents the creation of light before the creation of the luminary that produces light, the sun, whose creation does not happen until day 4 (1:16). How can light be created or exist, it is often asked, before the sun was created?
The problem with this and similar questions is that they impose our knowledge about the cosmos, indeed an objective knowledge about the workings of our solar system, onto this ancient text whose culture did not possess this type of knowledge. We know that the sun is the source of light for our solar system. But the ancient cultures and peoples that produced this creation account did not possess this knowledge and apparently held different ideas about the nature of their world. This fact the text itself bears witness to.
In other words, Genesis’ portrait of the creation of the world was not shaped by objective, scientific, or divinely-inspired knowledge about the world; rather, it was shaped by the perspectives, beliefs, and limited empirical understanding—or misunderstanding as the case may be—of the nature of the world and its workings as ancient man perceived it. Our goal should not be to impose modern truths onto this ancient document, nor attempt to harmonize the text with our modern scientific knowledge about the world. Rather, our task is to understand the text on its terms, as a product of its own unique cultural perspectives, and to be able to reproduce this understanding as faithfully and honestly as possible. We should allow the text to invite us into its own worldview and belief system, not try to impose ours onto the text.
Having said that, it would initially appear that the Israelite scribe who penned Genesis 1, and the larger cultural perspective from which he drew, did not see or understand the sun as the source of light, that is the source of day or daylight. Indeed, as expressed in Genesis 1:15, the sun was understood as a light emitting source, as was mistakenly the moon. But it appears that it was not seen as the source of daylight. The sun and the moon were created “to distinguish between the day and the night” not as the sources for day and night. This is a radically different idea from what we in fact know to be true. What was this author attempting to convey then?
There are basically three things that happen in Genesis 1:3-5. Following what our biblical author has presented so far in his composition of the creation of the world, which was shaped and influenced by ancient Near Eastern cultural perspectives and beliefs about the nature of the world and its origins, we see that to this primeval state of darkness that spread out over an untamed watery abyss which covered a formless, vacuous piece of earth (1:2), light was added. “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’” Darkness need not have been created since it already existed. Second, the text informs us that God separates this newly created light from the primeval darkness, and lastly calls or identifies this light as “day,” and conversely darkness as “night.” “And there was evening, and there was morning—one day.”
So over this watery untamed abyss of formless earth, alternating sequences of day and night now exist. This is significant because what the text presents the deity creating first is the day or daylight! In other words, the light that comes into existence is not called “the sun” but rather “day.” Day was essentially conceived of as light, as being composed of light. Or, according to our ancient scribe, day by its very nature is light! The very essence of day is light. Ancient peoples might have deduced this from the observation that even when the sun doesn’t appear or is hidden behind clouds, it is still daylight out. Thus, the separation and alternation between day and night, light and darkness, is set by an initial action of the creator deity and not by the sun! This is our author’s argument.
This idea is reenforced elsewhere in the text. There are only three places in Genesis 1 where God is presented creating something and then immediately naming it. It’s instructive to look at these three occurrences together: 1) light is created and called “day”; 2) the firmament or barrier is created and called “the skies”; and 3) dry land is created or simply commanded to appear and is called “earth.” We notice that the name given to each of these elements expresses what it inherently or essentially is. What is earth? It is dry land. What is the sky? It is the firmament (raqî‘a) which God created to separate the waters below from those above. And finally, what is day? It is light. In other words our ancient author perceived day as essentially equivalent to light. So the source of day’s light, or daylight, was not seen as the sun, but rather was seen as the very essence of day itself, as God created it to be! This is very instructive for a proper understanding of how ancient Israelites viewed their world. Light, or more appropriately day, exists because God created it. The two are one and the same: as dry land is earth, and the firmament above is the sky, so too light is day.
The fact that this author presents the creation of day and night as the deity’s first creative act is not a coincidence. Certainly it immediately lends itself to the thematic and structural framework of what follows—five more days of creation and a 7th day of rest—where each day is a successive pattern of evening and morning. It must additionally be borne in mind that, contrary to our modern knowledge of the workings of the cosmos, the successive coming and going of evening and morning, night and day, were not defined by the appearance and disappearance of the sun; rather, as has already been demonstrated, and according to our author’s limited knowledge and culturally shaped beliefs, night and day, darkness and light, were separated and distinguished “elements” created by God himself. Thus as we previously saw in the case of Genesis 1:1-2, the author’s subjective and culturally defined perspectives and beliefs about the nature of his world are transferred to the god of his text, and this god is then presented creating the subject world that our author perceived and believed in!
Second, the creation of day as God’s first act serves a larger purpose, one that has an immediate significance for this particular author and the priestly guild he represented. The fact that this author composed a creation account that revolved around days, that is a creation account that embeds a calendar system directly into the creation of the world, is extremely significant. In essence, this priestly author has just presented us with an argument that declares that the calendar system, Sabbath, and Yahweh’s sacred festivals (= “the fixed times” of 1:14) were all built into the very fabric of the cosmos by God at creation! The non-observance of any of these god-created holy days, therefore, is inexcusable as we shall see.