an ancient perspective on day and night in genesis 1 before the creation of the sun

daylight

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.

5 thoughts on “an ancient perspective on day and night in genesis 1 before the creation of the sun

  1. This is very fascinating. An interesting attempt to take the cosmological structure reflected in Genesis 1 seriously (read: without imposing our own contemporary scientific view of the cosmos upon the text), as well as providing potential support from ANE literature/iconography that reflects ancient conceptions of cosmic geography. Are you aware of anyone else who has published on this idea that the light in Genesis 1 before the creation of the sun reflects the ancient pre-scientific conception of a self illuminating sky, as independent of the sun and moon? Or is this unique to you, as far as you know? Of course, I understand that Hurowitz has published on this concept in ANE (primarily Mesopotamian) literature/iconography. But I mean in biblical circles? Thanks again for a stimulating post.

  2. The only discussion of the matters that I’ve seen is found in the references cited in the post above: Horowitz and Aalen in TDOT (who has quite a lengthy discussion, IIRC).

    I know that some are uncomfortable with the idea that the Bible reflects aspects of ancient cosmology which are clearly incorrect, but I think a distinction between what is reflected and what is affirmed needs to be maintained, hence the mustard seed reflects common information shared with the audience and used to communicate a message, just as the various aspects of ancient cosmology do in Gen 1, just as shared knowledge of Hebrew forms part of the communicative process, not part of the affirmed message itself.

  3. “Genesis 1 is a reflection of beliefs contemporary with the composition of the text. It is employed by the author”

    It is actually just like most mythologies in an attempt to explain what people cannot back then. This is a very interesting article.

  4. I am so gratified to read this! I actually did my own private study on this concept (light independent of sun in OT) in the last few months. How cool to find others with more credentials have suggested the same thing.

    What about this: the way ancient man could be sure there was water above the sky (the waters above the firmament) was that the sky is blue…. any chance that holds water? Pun intended?

  5. Hi Isaac. While that’s an interesting idea I’m not aware of any direct support in ancient texts for it. In Mesopotamian thought the heavens (and there were usually multiple levels) were made from various types of stone, and the stone itself seems to have been coloured.

    In the OT there aren’t too many indications, but perhaps one is found in Exod 24:9–10 (cf. Ezek 1:26–28; 10:1) which could be understood as equating the heavens with a stone pavement. In these cases, too, the colour of the stone itself is blue (like sapphire).

    I suspect one confirmation of the idea that there were waters above the firmament lay in the fact that they kept falling down!

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