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Genesis 1:3: Did God Create Light on the First Day?

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So there’s a lot of hoopla about Genesis 1 and what “day” means. Did God create all things within a literal seven-day span of time? Is “day” meant figuratively? Young earth? Old earth? (Then there’s the discussion on what literal means anyway). In his book Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, John Walton looks at the “light” God created on the first half of the first week. 

In our day, because of culture, science, and theological battles, people think about the world around us in what it’s made of. The sun is a ball of hot gas. The earth’s atmosphere is made up of different layers. We ask, “What is this made of?” and “How was this made?” But the ancient Israelite asked a different set of questions. They looked at light and asked, “What is its function?” and “What does it do?”

They didn’t know all that we now with modern physics. Rather than how God created something, they wanted to know how he ordered the world. What do things do? What is their purpose? In the IVP Bible Background OT Commentary, Walton writes, “The functioning of the cosmos was much more important to the people of the ancient world than was its physical makeup or chemical composition. They described what they saw and, more important, what they experienced of the world as having been created by God. That it was all “good” reflects God’s wisdom and justice.” In Genesis 1:5:

God called the light “day” and the darkness he called “night.”

God called the light “day,” but throughout the rest of the Bible the word “light” is still used. Walton says, “It is not the element of light itself… that God called yom [“day”], but the period of light” (148).

For example, when the news reporter says, “Today the White House said yadda yadda,” we know the reporter means the President spoke and said “yadda yadda.” Here, it’s not so much “light” that is given the name “day;” God is called the period of light “day.” So there is day and night. A time of light and a time of no light. That is obvious since it is how “day” is usually used in Scripture, and it is how we use it today too.

Moving backwards, Walton looks at verse 4. If verse 5 referred to a period of time, does “light” in verse 4 also refer to a period of time?

And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 

So God separated the light from the darkness, and here the period of time makes sense again. God separated day from night. Both have specific functions (working and eating during the day, sleeping at night).

What about verse 3?

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 

Walton says, “Hermeneutical consistency… would lead us to believe that when God said ‘Let there be ‘or [אוֹר, light],’ we must then understand it as ‘Let there be a period of light’” (148). So, as Walton argues*, the first day isn’t so concerned with the creation of light ex nihilo (from nothing), but that God is ordering creation which gives us time.

Remember, in verse 2 the earth was “without form and void.” It’s kind of like your kid’s bedroom—a chaotic mess. God is then bringing order to chaos. This is an important fact because once sin comes and disrupts the world (Gen 3–11), God is going to bring order out of chaos again through the line of Abraham. Through him the Seed-Messiah would come and bring about a new creation.

*Walton doesn’t disagree that God created all things from nothing, just just doesn’t think that is Moses’ concern in Genesis 1. Rather, Moses wants to make the point that God is, again, bring order out of chaos. He is the Creater; he is the world’s designer. The good order we see is because of his goodness and righteousness.

What do you think? 

Could not God create light on the first day and then create periods of light afterwards? Just because verses 4-5 (may) refer to periods of light, does that mean v. 3 must too? 


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Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament John Walton

6 comments

  1. I really like Dr. Walton’s approach to the Old Testament. Reading his and Dr. Heiser’s approach have provided me with a more comprehensive view of the Bible.

    1. Amen and amen. Yeah, I definitely agree with you. Even when I don’t always agree with Walton, I agree with a lot of what he says. They both help us get into the OT Israelite head.

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