If the Sun Is Created on Day 4, What Is the Light on Day 1?
The Double Creation of Light
The first act of creation, on the very first day, is God’s creation of light:
א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר. א:ד וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ. א:ה וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה...
1:3 God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 1:4 God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. 1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night…
The light that God creates at the very beginning divides the time in the world between day and night; this is used to define each of the following days of creation.
However, on day four, God seems to do the same thing again.
א:יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם לְהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים.
1:14 God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times -- the days and the years;
א:טו וְהָיוּ לִמְאוֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם לְהָאִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן.
1:15 and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth." And it was so.
א:טז וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים אֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם וְאֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים.
1:16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.
א:יז וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם לְהָאִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ.
1:17 And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth,
א:יח וְלִמְשֹׁל בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה וּלֲהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי טוֹב.
1:18 to dominate the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.
Here, God creates the sun and the moon to separate day from night and to shine upon the earth. But the distinction between day and night is already noted in day one! Moreover, if the sun was only created on day four, and the sun is what determines day and night, as we all know, then what is the light on day one?
This problem is often touted as proof that this text is meant as an allegory and not to be taken literally. In the modern day creationist lingo, this problem spawned what is called the “Day-Age Theory,” i.e., that “day 1, day 2,” etc. cannot refer to what we mean by a day but must refer to some unspecified long period of time.
Admittedly, the impossibility of the creation account, which bears virtually no resemblance in its understanding of the universe to modern notions, is only a problem for modern, scientifically minded people. Nevertheless, the contradiction between day one and day four was apparent to traditional commentators for millennia.
The Buried Light – The Midrashic-Kabbalistic Solution
The Babylonian Talmud suggests that God originally created a very special light on day one, but that He hid that light and replaced it with sunlight because he saw that people would be too sinful to deserve the original special light (b. Hagigah 12a, modified Soncino trans.):
ואור ביום ראשון איברי? והכתיב ויתן אתם אלהים ברקיע השמים וכתיב ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום רביעי!
But was the light created on the first day? For, behold, it is written: “And God set them in the firmament of the heaven,” and it is [further] written: “And there was evening and there was morning a fourth day”?!
כדרבי אלעזר. דאמר רבי אלעזר: אור שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא ביום ראשון - אדם צופה בו מסוף העולם ועד סופו, כיון שנסתכל הקדוש ברוך הוא בדור המבול ובדור הפלגה וראה שמעשיהם מקולקלים - עמד וגנזו מהן, שנאמר וימנע .מרשעים אורם
This is [to be explained] according to R. Eleazar. For R. Eleazar said: The light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, one could see thereby from one end of the world to the other; but as soon as the Holy One, blessed be He, beheld the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion, and saw that their actions were corrupt, He arose and hid it from them, for it is said (Job 38:15): “But from the wicked their light is withheld.”
ולמי גנזו - לצדיקים לעתיד לבא שנאמר וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב, ואין טוב אלא צדיק, שנאמר אמרו צדיק כי טוב.
And for whom did he reserve it? For the righteous in the time to come, for it is said (Gen 1:4): “And God saw the light, that it was good”; and ‘good’ means only the righteous, for it is said: “Say of the righteous that he is good.”
כיון שראה אור שגנזו לצדיקים שמח, שנאמר אור צדיקים ישמח.
As soon as He saw the light that He had reserved for the righteous, He rejoiced, for it is said (Isa 3:10): “He rejoices at the light of the righteous."
This midrashic solution to a textual problem eventually became an important concept in kabbalah; whole books have been written about “the buried light” (אור הגנוז).
Unfixed Lights: The Sages’ View in the Talmud
The same Talmudic passage records an alternative explanation, that the light created on day one and day four are identical:
וחכמים אומרים: הן הן מאורות שנבראו ביום ראשון ולא נתלו עד יום רביעי.
But the Sages say: It is identical with the luminaries; for they were created on the first day, but they were not hung up [in the firmament] till the fourth day.
According to this, the light of the first day is the same as the lights of the fourth day. All God does on the fourth day is fix the orbits of luminaries. Before this, apparently, the orbits were erratic.
This solution, however, does not account for how day and night would have been divided on days one through three—how did the luminaries divide between day and night before they took their proper places? More problematically, the story of day four never says or even implies that pre-existing luminaries are being moved. In fact, v. 14 says “let there be lights in the sky” (יהי מאורות ברקיע השמים), suggesting that “the lights” were only created then. Furthermore, v. 16 says that God made the lights and v. 18 that he placed them in the firmament, and both occur on day four.
The Original Light Was Placed in the Sun on Day Four: Malbim
The 19th century Ukrainian commentator known as Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879) offers a complicated two-step process in which the light is created on day one but is only gathered up and stored in the sun on day four (Gen 1:14).
ויאמר אלהים יהי מארת. כבר בארנו שכדורי השמש והירח והכוכבים נבראו יש מאין במאמר הראשון ומאז סבבו על מעגליהם כדרכם. רק שהשמש שהוא המפלש אורו על הארץ ועל כל כוכבי אור לא ניתן בו אור עדיין והיה כדור חשוך, וע"כ לא נמצא אור גם ביתר הכוכבים שכולם מקבלים אורם ממנו, רק שהאור התפשט אז בכל רחבי הבריאה בזהר עצום בלא נרתק, ושמש בג' ימים הראשונים, אבל אחרי שרצה לברוא בע"ח והאדם שהם לא יוכלו לסבול האור ההוא, כי עיניהם לא יוכלו לסבול רק אור השמש, לא אור ה' הגדול שהופיע בג' ימים הראשונים שהיה מכהה עיניהם, וכן החום הבוער אז היה ממית אותם לפי טבעם (ולא ישתמשו בו רק לעת"ל בדרך נסיי), לכן הוכרח לאסוף את האור הזה ולשומו בכדור השמש שיהיה נרתק לו ומצמצם אורו וחומו באופן שיוכלו הברואים להשתמש בו, וע"כ אמר יהי מארת היינו שהאור שהתפזרו ניצוציו בכל מקום יאסף עתה וינתן בכדור השמש ומעתה לא יהיה אור רק מאור, ששם מאור מציין מקום ששם נתון האור.
And God said let the be lights – We already explained that balls of the sun, moon, and stars were created out of nothing on day one, and from that point on they were travelling in their orbits as they always do. Only the sun, which spreads its light upon the world and all the stars, did not yet have any light in it and it was a dark ball. Thus by necessity, the other stars did not have light either since they all receive their light from it. The light during the first three days spread throughout the world with powerful, unmitigated brightness. [This needed to change] once God wished to create living creatures and humanity, which cannot stand such a light, for their eyes cannot stand anything more than the sun’s light, not the great light of God that appeared during the first three days which would blind their eyes. So too the burning heat would have killed them according to their constitutions (it will be used only in the future miraculously). For this reason, [God] gathered all this light and placed it inside the ball of the sun, which functions as a [partial] cover and limits the output of the light and the heat in such a way that living creatures can make use of it. Therefore, he said “let there be lights” meaning that the light whose sparks had been spread to every place should now be gathered up and placed in the ball of the sun, and from that point on there should be no more “light” only one “source of light,” for the word “maor” implies the place in which the light is placed.
Malbim’s interpretation is an unusual mix of 19th century notions of science and traditional biblical interpretation. Malbim “knows” that only the sun gives off light, and that the moon and stars receive their light from it. He is also familiar with the medieval rabbinic notion that all creatio ex nihilo occurred on day one, for which the text uses the term ב.ר.א, “to create,” and thus the sun itself must have been created on the first day. He combines these two notions into his idea that day four is when the already created sun receives its light
Malbim’s interpretation is not a peshat reading of the text. The text offers not a hint to his notion of the sun and stars travelling around the sky with no light in them. Malbim’s interpretation of the text is also based on outdated scientific notions. The sun is not a ball into which one can put light or anything else. The light of the sun, made up of colliding hydrogen atoms, is the substance of the sun. If anything, Malbim’s mistaken description of the sun should caution a reader from trying to read his or her own contemporary notions of science into the biblical text.
Signs for Humans: Rashbam
The eleventh century peshat commentator Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) offers a reading much closer to the spirit of the biblical text, emphasizing v. 14’s notion that these lights are meant to function as timekeepers for humans.
להבדיל בין היום ובין הלילה – כבר אמרנו למעלה ויבדל אלהים בין האור ובין החשך, אבל עדיין נגמר הלילה ותחלת היום ממש אין ידוע כי אם בהנץ החמה, וגם גמר היום ותחלת היום ממש אין ידוע כי אם לא נודע כי אם בשקיעת החמה וצאת הכוכבים.
To separate between the day and the night – [The Torah] already said above (v. 4) “and God separated between the light and the darkness.” Nevertheless, the exact end of the night and the beginning the day is only known by sunrise, and the exact ending of the day and beginning of the night is only known through sunset and the coming out of stars.
Although Rashbam does not mention mitzvoth (commandments), this is clearly what stands in the background of his comment. In order to know exactly when night or day begins, we need to see the sunrise or set (or the first stars coming out). How else can a Jew know when Shabbat starts or ends? How else can one know when exactly is the time for the morning and evening recitation of the Shema? When to put on and take of one’s tefillin?
Rashbam’s interpretation falls short, however, since the ability to tell the beginning and ending of a day down to the second is a rabbinic/halachic concern, not a biblical one. Moreover, we are still left in the dark about the exact relationship between sunlight of day four and daylight of day one.
The Firmament Blocks the Light: R. Joseph Kara
The interpretation that seems to come the closest to understanding the “science” behind the Torah’s description here is that of the peshat commentator (ca. 1065-1135), R. Joseph Kara (vv. 14-15).
יהי מאורות ברקיע השמים להאיר על הארץ – והלא כבר נברא האור מיום ראשון... אלא ביום השני נאמר ויהי רקיע משמע שהיה הרקיע תחת השמים המאירים והמעיט את האורה. והיינו דכתו' עוטה אור כשלמה נוטה שמים כיריעה כלומר [נטה] לרקיע תחתיו, עטה האור ולא היה נראית ולכך כתב יהי מארות להאיר על הארץ...
Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens… to cast light on the earth – but wasn’t light already created on day one? …But on day two it says, “let there be a firmament” which implies that the firmament was under the heavens, which contains the light, diminishing the effect of its light. This is the intent of the verse (Ps 104:2) “wrapped the light in a robe; You spread the heavens like a tent cloth.” Meaning, he spread the firmament underneath it and wrapped the light so that it was not seen. Therefore, the Torah writes [that God said]: “Let there be lights that shine on the earth.”…
R. Kara sees the light of day one as entirely unrelated to the lights on day four; this is likely correct. Yet, he struggles to explain why the sun was created if day light already existed, and suggests that it is because the firmanent blocks the light of the first day, something that the biblical text never suggests.
Historical-Critical Approach: Separating between Daylight and Sunlight
The key to any critical explanation of the text is that the author of Gen 1 is trying to explain the world as he sees it. It is often difficult for modern readers, familiar with contemporary scientific notions, to put these aside and enter the mind of an ancient cosmologist, but once we do the answer is, quite literally, as clear as the blue sky.
The Bright Blue Sky: The Tyndall effect
Why is the sky blue during the daytime? The scientific answer is that molecules of air in the atmosphere scatter blue light from the sun. At night, when the earth is facing away from the sun, there is no light to scatter and the sky is black. The scattering of light by the atmosphere is called the Tyndall effect, named after the scientist John Tyndall who first suggested this mechanism in 1859.
But the ancient cosmologist was living in a different world than Tyndall. In his conception, the earth is the center of the universe, and the sun, moon and stars travel above it, in the firmament. When this ancient cosmologist asked himself why the day-time sky is blue, his answer was because there is light in the heavenly water above the firmament. As he would have seen from earth, water is blue and thus when the light enters the water, the sky looks blue. When the light leaves the water and darkness creeps in, it is black.
The light and darkness in this conception should be pictured as diffuse physical substances that permeate the waters of the heavens. The sun, in this conception, is a totally separate light. Richard Elliott Friedman, in his gloss on v. 15, describes this view in the following manner:
Note that daylight is not understood here to derive from the sun. The text understands the light that surrounds us in the daytime to be an independent creation of God, which has already taken place on the first day. The sun, moon, and stars are understood here to be light sources—like a lamp or torch, only stronger. Their purpose is also to be markers of time: days, years, appointed occasions.
Moshe Weinfeld (1925-2009), in his commentary on Genesis (1:3), offers the same overall reading:
האור בלתי תלוי במאורות שנבראו ביום רביעי, בהתאם להשקפה הרווחת בימים ההם, כי האור כחשך יש להם קיום עצמאי במקומות נסתרים המקצים להם (איוב לח, יט-כ).
The light is not dependent on the lights created on the fourth day, in accordance with the viewpoint popular during that period that light and darkness are independent entities that exist in hidden places [of the heavens] dedicated to them (Job 39:19-20).
The text to which Weinfeld calls the readers’ attention is The text to which Weinfeld calls the readers’ attention is God’s speech to Job: speech to Job:
איוב לח:יב הְמִיָּמֶיךָ צִוִּיתָ בֹּקֶר (ידעתה שחר) [יִדַּעְתָּ הַשַּׁחַר] מְקֹמוֹ... לח:יח הִתְבֹּנַנְתָּ עַד רַחֲבֵי אָרֶץ הַגֵּד אִם יָדַעְתָּ כֻלָּהּ. לח:יט אֵי זֶה הַדֶּרֶךְ יִשְׁכָּן אוֹר וְחֹשֶׁךְ אֵי זֶה מְקֹמוֹ. לח:כ כִּי תִקָּחֶנּוּ אֶל גְּבוּלוֹ וְכִי תָבִין נְתִיבוֹת בֵּיתוֹ.
Job 38:12 Have you ever commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place…38:18 Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth? If you know of these -- tell Me. 38:19 Which path leads to where light dwells, and where is the place of darkness, 38:20 That you may take it to its domain and know the way to its home?
God here asks Job whether he knows where light and darkness are stored, implying that these two substances are discrete entities in and of themselves. When one is spread out in the heavens, the other is sitting in its appointed spot awaiting its turn.
A Sumerian Creation Story with Glowing Heavens
The view of light and darkness as physical entities that cause day and night can be found in at least one ANE text as well. In a fragmentary Sumerian tablet (NBC 11108) from Nippur during the Ur III period (21st cent. BCE), we find the following:
When Anu, the lord, made heaven shine, made earth dark… Heaven and earth he held together as one… Day did not shine; in night, heaven stretched forth. Earth, bringing forth plant life did not glow on its own…
The text describes the Sumerian high god Anu’s creation of the world. When Anu separates heaven and earth, the heavens shine but the earth does not. In other words, when the heavens and earth were combined in the primordial mush, there was perpetual night. By separating the heavens from the earth, Anu also separates light from darkness.Wayne Horowitz notes the parallel with Genesis:
In NBC 11108:8, as in Genesis, where day exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, the heavens are conceived to have had their own glow, irrespective of the presence of luminaries. 
The Function of the Sun, Moon, and Stars According to Genesis 1
If day and night are controlled by the entry and exit of the primordial light and darkness into the watery heavens, what is the sun for? The Torah lists three functions.
The text equates the function of the sun with that of the moon and stars. These latter do provide some light during the night but they certainly do not light up the sky. The same is true of the sun, in the Torah’s conception. The sun adds light (and warmth) to the already independently existing daylight, but even without the sun, the sky would be blue and the daytime light.
2. Ruling the Day and Night
We think of stars and planets as inanimate objects, but the ancients thought of them as sentient beings—they move in consistent patterns so how could they not be?—and generally worshiped them as gods. By describing the sun, moon, and stars as created objects, the Torah denies their divinity, but this does not mean that the author of Genesis one did not share the idea that they were alive and powerful beings, perhaps part of God's heavenly court. Thus, the Torah seems to mean what it says when it writes that the sun and moon were created to dominate or rule (מ.ש.ל) the day and the night.
3. Divide between Light and Darkness
Finally, the celestial lights divide between day and night in a symbolic way. Their existence does not help divide between light and dark in a physical way; both are lights. Rather, the Torah intends to say that the bigger luminary, the sun, symbolizes the daytime, over which it rules, and the moon symbolizes the night, over which it rules.
Separating between Ancient and Modern Cosmologies
The viewpoint expressed in Genesis 1 and the Nippur fragment do not represent the only view of the world in ancient times. Long before Tyndall, before the discovery of light waves or atomic particles, the Roman naturalist Lucretius (99-55 BCE) already noted that sunlight must be the cause of daylight. He was probably not the first to think this way and one can imagine that in a geocentric world, in which the heavens and all that are in them surround the earth and circle it, the debate about what causes daylight could have been lively.
Nowadays, however, a conception of daylight removed from the sun is virtually impossible to even picture, since in our view of the universe, the earth is sitting in the middle of the dark vastness of space and the only nearby light source is the sun. Interpreting the Genesis creation story against the backdrop of modern notions of the universe can yield readings that are fatuous and/or apologetic.
Friedman makes the point well at the end of his above referenced gloss:
People have questioned whether the first three days are twenty-four hour days since the sun is not created until the fourth day. But light, day, and night are not understood here to depend on the existence of the sun, so there is no reason to think that the word “day” means anything different on the first two days (sic) than what it means everywhere else in the Torah. People’s reason for raising this is often to reconcile the biblical creation story with current evidence of the earth’s age. But it is better to recognize that the biblical story does not match the evidence than to stretch the story’s plain meaning in order to make it fit better with our current state of knowledge.
In short, reading the biblical text as an allegory or a mystery is merely an attempt to foist modern notions of the heavens upon an ancient text working with an entirely different worldview, and doing so obscures the creativity and message of the biblical author.
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October 28, 2016
January 19, 2021
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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