What was the "light" of Genesis 1:3?
One troublesome thought I have had down through the years is that the "light" in Genesis 1:3 was not generated by the Sun alone, since the Sun was not brought into the picture until the fourth day (vv. 14-19). Since the Sun then determined "day" and "night", what determined the "evening and the morning" of days 1, 2, and 3?
This is a great question and you are not alone in finding this matter "troublesome." It is beyond our comprehension to understand how light could exist without the sun. So the answer to your question of what determined day and night before the sun is simple--we don't know. The only thing that we can know for sure is what God reveals to us in His word. The Bible only tells us that light was created on day one and that "God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night." (Genesis 1:2-5a) On day four He tells us, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens…" and He tells us why, "…to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years;" (verse 14)
It is important to understand exactly what God said He did on these first four days, to let the text speak for itself and not to add or subtract from what is said. God created light without the sun on the first day. We know that somehow the earth was rotating in space relative to this created light establishing a daytime and nighttime. We are not given the slightest suggestion of where this light came from so it seems best to admit our ignorance and remember that explanations of this light are just speculation. Many have said that this light simply radiated from God, who is referred to as light in 1 John 1:5 for example: "…God is light, and in Him there is no darkness." This may be the best explanation as long as we keep in mind the "otherness" of the created and the creator. Light is created by God and thus the created cannot be the same as the creator. But again, it is impossible to envision the incomplete nature of the universe during those first three days.
So, why did God wait until day four to create the sun? The best reason for this may be that God knew what history had in store. Throughout history man has had the propensity to worship the sun. This is even seen in Judah in 2 Kings 23:11 and Ezekiel 8:16-17. How much more would this have been done if the sun were always the primary source of light?
We must remember that the sun is not the cause of light God is the cause. Light was created first and was attached to the sun and luminaries on day four. Thus, the sun is merely an obedient light-bearer and its magnificence is only understood in relation to its Creator. The Psalmist cried out, "When I consider thy heaven, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man that thou visitest him?" (Psalm 8:3-4)
We must also remember that the luminaries were established to provide the order needed to make the earth suitable for the pinnacle of God's creation--His image bearers, Adam and Eve. We should look at them in awe not because they are objects of worship but they are an incredibly complex adornment in the universe created for us with a specific purpose.
Some may be inclined to abandon the idea that the days were 24 hours long because the sun was not there to dictate the 24 hours of a day. This is unnecessary because, as we have already seen, a day and night cycle were already established. Also, making the days some indeterminate time span creates more problems than it solves. Those who have attempted to do so inevitably change other Scripture in order to make the millions of years fit.
The straightforward chronology of the six days in the text of Genesis shows clearly that the earth was created before the sun and stars. Any view that says that some type of big bang started things simply denies the text means what it says.
A supernatural, divine origin of the universe is the most rational way to understand the order and complexity that we find. Even though there is no way for us to understand how God created light without the sun we know He did and He must have had a very good reason for it too.
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Originally published in the Rockdale/Newton Citizen