The first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1, has attracted many commentators over the centuries. Recent scholarly work attempts to place it in the context of ancient Near East writings. (Near East is the European moniker for what Americans call the Middle East.) That however undervalues the unique, nuanced text of Genesis.
Creation ex nihilo is analogous in some ways to the creation of an axiomatic system such as Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Before the first postulate (“A straight line segment can be drawn joining any two points.”) one should not assume that any such straight lines exist. “Let there be a line such that …” is the act of creating a line.
Similarly, in reading Genesis 1 we should not assume that before something was created, it existed or it existed in the way that we know it. Things we take for granted today, such as light, had to be created. This requires a close reading of Genesis 1 as a step by step process in which as little as possible is assumed to exist before there is some indication that it does exist.
Genesis 1 begins with some of the most famous words ever written:
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In regards to light, the second verse says there was darkness but no light, at least in the earthly world (we’re not told about the heavens of verse 1). Light is created in verse 3: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
Where was the light shining from that was created in verse 3? And what time was the light shining? The text answers the second question first, in verses 4 and 5: “And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
The light of verse 3 was separated from darkness to produce daylight, that is, a time of light. Before that separation, light and darkness were commingled in time. That is, at first light was ubiquitous in time. After the separation, light was concentrated in time, which is what constituted Day, that is, daylight.
Where was the light? The light was not tied to a source but spread all around, so that wherever darkenss was, there was now some light.
Several verses later the text reads about the fourth day (Gen. 1:14-18):
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
For centuries people have found this passage perplexing. How could there be light on earth without the sun? Why was the sun needed if there was already light on earth? To start with, there was light on earth before the sun; that’s what the text says about day one. There was also evening and morning, nighttime and daytime without the sun.
Again, where was the light shining from that was created in verse 3? The answer is given in verse 18, which says why the sun, moon, and stars were created: to separate the light from the darkness. Prior to this light and darkness were commingled in space.
The image is that of the creation of light everywhere, which is then separated from darkness in time, and later separated from darkness in space. The separation of light and darkness on the fourth day produced stars, including the sun. The stars were not created from nothing at that time but were made by concentrating the light that already existed.
This answers another perplexing question, which is asked since the speed of light is known to be finite, and some stars are many light-years away: How did the light get from the stars to the earth so quickly? The answer is that the light was already on the earth because light was everywhere in space before the stars were made.
There are those who say Genesis 1 is just poetry and so can be interpreted any way you want. There is no justification for such a low view of scripture or poetry. The straightforward reading above shows that the text of Genesis 1 makes sense on its own terms.