Many readers of Genesis 1 have noted that day and night exist before the record of the creation of the sun in Gen 1:14. This has been met with numerous imaginative attempts to account for this apparent discrepancy between the Genesis account and a modern scientific understanding of the universe.
Such an imposition on the text, however, fails to do it justice. The text is not written to provide scientific information about the universe. It is written to communicate theological truth to an ancient audience and, subsequently, to us. It uses the language and ideas current in the ancient world in order to do this effectively. For us to understand it, we need to understand the way the world was conceived by the ancient audience, just as we need to understand their language when we translate it! It is no more legitimate to ignore the cosmological information than it is to ignore the linguistic information, and ignoring either will inevitably result in a gross misunderstanding of the message of the text.
A very useful source of information on cosmology in ancient Mesopotamia is Wayne Horowitz’s Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. It includes many translations of texts which give insight into the way people understood the universe in ancient Mesopotamia.
In light of this (pun intended), what can we say about the existence of day and night prior to the creation of the sun? There are good indications that the sky was thought to have its own source of illumination independent of the sun, and so days could pass and the land could be lit before a sun existed.
What evidence is there to support this claim? Perhaps the most important text is designated NBC 11108. It is badly damaged and so incomplete, but in its 13 lines it clearly offers some cosmological information. The latter portion is clearest. The relevant lines are translated by Horowitz thus:
1. When Anu(?), the lord, made heaven shine(?), made earth dark, [set the] eye toward the underworld
7. Day did not shine; in night, heaven stretched forth.
8. (Then), heaven, in its entirety, splendidly, shone forth.
9. (but) earth, bringing forth plant life did not glow on its own.
Horowitz writes, “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.” (p. 139)
In The Exaltation of Ištar, the following line is recorded:
27. for the Moon-god and Sun-god, night was created evenly with day,
While not as clear as NBC 11108, it doesn’t say the Sun creates day, but instead that day was created for the Sun. This suggests “day” was thought to have existed independently of the Sun. This parallels the Sun’s role in Genesis 1 to “rule” the day.
The testimony is not entirely uniform, however (which is not unusual). For example, The Shamash Hymn reads as follows:
(1) Illuminator of all, the whole of heaven,
Who makes light the d[arkness for mankind] above and below,
Shamash, illuminator of all, the whole of heaven,
Who makes light the dark[ness for mankind a]bove and below,
(5) Your radiance [spre]ads out like a net [over the world],
You brighten the g[loo]m of the distant mountains.
Gods and netherworld gods rejoiced when you appeared,
All the Igigi-gods rejoice in you.
Your beams are ever mastering secrets,
(10) At the brightness of your light, humankind’s
footprints become vis[ible].
This, being a hymn of exaltation to the sun-god, puts a “spin” on things. In Mesopotamia (as in many polytheistic societies) the status of various gods varied from place to place and time to time. Such texts, then, may only reflect beliefs current in a restricted context.
It is also worth referring to S. Aalen’s article on light (“ʾôr“) in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament vol. I, 147–167. Aalen argues strongly for the view that the sky’s light during day is distinct from the sun. He concludes that “[w]e must keep in mind that the light of day is considered to be separate from the light of the sun everywhere in OT thought” (p. 151–152).
Beyond this, it is possible to highlight physical factors which correlate with the idea that the sky was self-illuminating. First, the sun and moon share similar roles in Genesis 1, they also have approximately the same apparent size to the observer on the surface of the Earth. They also appear to be light sources. Yet the moon does not illuminate the sky at night, so why should one conclude that the sun does illuminate the sky in preference to a view which claims that the sky during the day has its own source of illumination?
Second, the sky lights before the rise of the sun and remains lit after sunset. Consequently it is not entirely clear (to the ancient observer) whether the sun lights the sky or the sky lights as a precursor to the return of the sun from its nightly journey.
If this understanding is valid, it is clear that the appearance of day and night before the creation of the sun in Genesis 1 is a reflection of beliefs contemporary with the composition of the text. It is employed by the author not specifically to endorse that understanding so much as a vehicle within which to communicate truth about God and his universe. It should not be read as scientifically binding since it is simply part of the array of tools (which also includes metaphor and other literary devices) employed to communicate the author’s true message. For the modern reader this idea needs to be translated just as much as the Hebrew of the text needs to be translated into modern English, and failure to do so results in a misunderstanding of the text.