And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:14-15) [ESV]

The moon is not a star nor does it emit light; it only reflects the light of the sun (and a small amount of light from the earth, which also originated from the sun).

And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:16-18)

Physically, the sun does not change. The amount of light which reaches a specific location on the earth will vary because the earth rotates. A location will move away from direct light from the sun, but the light received (at night) is still from the sun. In other words, even when not directly visible, the sun is still the greater light (in the night sky).

The correct way to explain this system is to say there is one great light which becomes lesser by the combined factors of the earth's rotation and the presence of the moon. Or simply, God made the greater light lesser to rule at night.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת־שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים אֶת־הַמָּאֹור הַגָּדֹל לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיֹּום וְאֶת־הַמָּאֹור הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה וְאֵת הַכֹּוכָבִֽים׃

While "two lights great" is plural, "the light" הַמָּא֤וֹר which rules the day is the identical with "the light" הַמָּא֤וֹר which rules the night.

Can Genesis 1:16 be read to give a more physically correct description of the system God created?


4 Answers 4


The answer is simply "no", for at least two reasons.

The first reason is that there is no indication that any Biblical passage is intended to teach a technical, scientific or even historical truth. The majority of the Bible presents the religious and political viewpoints of its various authors and redactors relative to competing viewpoints at the time of their writing. These authors lived and wrote in a time before what we now call "science". Furthermore, science doesn't purport to be true or "the Truth", science only purports to providing the best current understanding of natural phenomena. Because of this mismatch in purposes it is an exercise in futility to try to back-read science into the ancient world and into the Bible in particular.

The second reason is that the grammar of the verse does not support such a reading. The main verse in question is Genesis 1:16, the MT of which is:

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־שְׁנֵ֥י הַמְּאֹרֹ֖ת הַגְּדֹלִ֑ים אֶת־הַמָּא֤וֹר הַגָּדֹל֙ לְמֶמְשֶׁ֣לֶת הַיּ֔וֹם וְאֶת־הַמָּא֤וֹר הַקָּטֹן֙ לְמֶמְשֶׁ֣לֶת הַלַּ֔יְלָה וְאֵ֖ת הַכּוֹכָבִֽים

The first grammatical problem is that the word מאור (ma'or) which appears three time in the verse is not the same as the word אור (or), meaning "light" as in Genesis 1:3. The word מאור in Genesis 1:16 has a mem (מ) prefix, meaning something that gives light, a source of illumination rather than light itself. This distinction is critical to correct understanding of the verse but is not apparent in any of the main English translations because in English there is no distinction between "light" meaning light itself and "a light" meaning a lamp or source of illumination. Only Young's Literal Translation comes close to providing this distinction:

And God maketh the two great luminaries, the great luminary for the rule of the day, and the small luminary -- and the stars -- for the rule of the night.

The second grammatical problem is the form of the verse, which is

God made two: this one and that one

This is a common form in the OT, for example, Exodus 29:38-39 (KJV):

Now this is that which thou shalt offer upon the altar; two lambs of the first year day by day continually. The one lamb thou shalt offer in the morning; and the other lamb thou shalt offer at even:

No one would suggest that this form indicates that the two lambs (or two sources of light) could be identical.

  • About your point about science and its 'claims' (where we to personify the endeavor as a whole): doesn't "best" imply an objective standard? Apr 13, 2019 at 21:47
  • "there is no indication that any Biblical passage is intended to teach a...historical truth..." What is your criteria for recognizing historical truth which is in the Bible? And if you accept there are some, how do you determine if the point of the passage is to record it or not? Apr 13, 2019 at 23:57
  • 1
    @SolaGratia The "objective" standard that science holds itself to is the ability for any observer to reproduce the results of a given experiment. The interpretation of those results however, is often open to debate until a consensus forms, which lasts until new results suggest a different explanation. There is certainly a consensus regarding the source of the moon's light that has not changed for a long time and doens't look likely to change. But that wasn't of interest to the ancient observer, who simply experienced two large sources of light in the sky, and many smaller ones.
    – user17080
    Apr 14, 2019 at 14:24
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim Consensus as the definition of 'best' is arbitrary. But I don't think this is the place for this tangent. Apr 14, 2019 at 14:30
  • @RevelationLad The notion of history that we have today is post Biblical. It is a development of centuries of Western culture and has changed markedly in the past century. The prophets and their redactors did not have these notions. They interpreted the events they saw relative to their religious viewpoint and the viewpoint of their audience. No passage of the Bible is devoid of some such viewpoint. For sure most of the events related in the Bible correspond to what we would consider historical events, but a modern observer who could go back in time would have a different take on these events.
    – user17080
    Apr 14, 2019 at 14:36

Quite clearly, the "lights" refer to light sources rather than more specifically light emitters (over and against reflectors—whereas both can be called emitters). The moon is a source of light for the earth, and thus a light source, even if a secondary one. It's also fitting that the maidservant of the sun should emit less light during "the darkness" which is separated from "the light."

Also, we don't expect people today to say, "I awoke at the time when the earth's rotation is such that it gives the impression that the sun is rising in the sky." We just say "sunrise." The Bible may use the same kind of language—and does.

  • I think that may be called "phenomenally" as in "as things appear". IE: while not scientifically accurate the words describe things "as they would have appeared to the ancients" or something to that effect. Or I may have dreamed that up, dunno!
    – Ruminator
    Apr 13, 2019 at 21:46
  • 1
    @SolaGratia That's not really the correct usage of the scientific word "relativity", as in Einstein's relativity. That's really just the English word. Einstein's relativity does not conclude that the sun revolves around the earth.
    – Nacht
    Apr 14, 2019 at 4:45
  • 1
    actually according to the torah the sun goes around the earth Apr 14, 2019 at 5:57
  • 1
    @Autodidact Look at Psalms (Tehillim), chapter 19, verses 5-7 (and that chapter in general): "5Their line goes forth throughout the earth, and their words are at the end of the world; for the sun He made a tent therein. הבְּכָל־הָאָ֨רֶץ | יָצָ֚א קַוָּ֗ם וּבִקְצֵ֣ה תֵ֖בֵל מִלֵּיהֶ֑ם לַ֜שֶּׁ֗מֶשׁ שָׂ֤ם | אֹ֥הֶל בָּהֶֽם: 6 And it is like a bridegroom emerging from his chamber; it rejoices like a mighty man running a course." look at Rashi there, also see chabad.org/therebbe/letters/default_cdo/aid/2046989/jewish/… Apr 14, 2019 at 6:49
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    @Autodidact Rashis "And it is like a bridegroom emerging from his chamber: every morning. This is what is meant by “The heavens recite the glory of God.”", "and its circuit is to their ends: The circuit of its orbit is from one end to the other." and to verse 3" Day to day utters speech: The Creation is renewed from day to day. In the evening, the sun sets, and in the morning it rises. Thereby, the people utter sayings of praise throughout these days and nights, for they teach the people to praise and to give thanks. (Menachem interprets [the word] יביע as an expression of a gushing fountain." Apr 14, 2019 at 6:52

From my own aspect on earth, I see two luminaries. I may, or may not, know the physics of the two objects, but what I can see is that one light is greater and one light is lesser. To me, from other places in scripture (such as, 'the sun of righteousness shall arise', Malachi 4:2) I understand that Jesus Christ is the greater light that shines upon the world of men.

In him was life and the life was the light of men, John 1 : 4.

The lesser light that ruled the night is the light of the law, the knowledge of good and evil, which law was a schoolmaster to bring me to Christ, the true light.

No, I do not think that Genesis 1:16 can be read to give a clearer understanding of the physics involved because that is not what the first chapter of Genesis is about - a technical explanation of heavenly bodies.

Genesis chapter one is a profoundly spiritual expression of what creation is, in and of itself. And a profound revelation of the new creation, for those who have eyes to see it.

  • I dont agree with the theory of Genesis chapter one being not a literal detailed account of the first 7 days of creation. Though I do believe God could have outlined ahead of time His overall plans for the world in the events that happened in the first 7 days (the 7 days 7000 years theory).
    – GFFG
    Apr 13, 2019 at 20:41
  • 1.) I see no reason to prioritize the spiritual over the physical. I'm sure the God who could create everything was capable of shaping the physical to reflect the other (Romans 1:20), but you do need the physical. 2.) Most of the time you see two but every month you see just one. And most of the time the one you see at night does not behave light any other light in the heavens Apr 14, 2019 at 0:13
  • @RevelationLad 1) The four gospels prioritize the spiritual aspect of Christ by juxtaposing events which did not occur sequentially 2) The description you give of the luminaries can be fully summed up as 'the greater' and 'the lesser'.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 14, 2019 at 0:15
  • But the events did happen and if they did not, the spiritual would be meaningless. Apr 14, 2019 at 2:22
  • @RevelationLad Are you in the northern Hemisphere? In the morning provided there are no clouds you will see the moon in the sky say around 6am. Look at it carefully then look at where the sun is rising from and tell me why the wrong side is illuminated. Hopefully there won’t be clouds in the next few days. The moon produces its own light. God bless Apr 14, 2019 at 6:37

Unfortunately I don't know enough Hebrew to settle your question linguistically.

Nor do I have any confidence that I understand Genesis 1 enough to provide a complete, coherent explanation for why this portrait of the origin of the sky-land system was the ideal setup for all that follows. It mostly seems to involve the order in which things were made which, from a scientific perspective is patently wrong.

"Rule the day?" "Rule the night?" I don't have that figured out. I do know that we are told that in the night, working is completely impractical:

[Jhn 9:4 KJV] (4) I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

Which reminds us that this passage is much more about spiritual truths.

The separation of the light into light and dark seems to precede the making of the sun and moon by three days so it could be argued that neither "light" was the generator of the light!

I also don't think that referring to the moon as a second "light" is necessarily incompatible with the moon being a reflector of the sun's light. I mean, we modern people have no trouble talking about "Clair de lune" (French for "light of the moon", "moonlight").

There is strong evidence that the ancients, from earliest times knew that the moon reflected the sun and a great deal of other astronomical matters.

Many translators into English render Hebrews 1:3a as "He is the radiance of the glory of God", such as:

[Heb 1:3a ESV] He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power...

While others translate it as "the reflection of":

[Heb 1:3a ISV] He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact likeness of his being, and he holds everything together by his powerful word. After he had provided a cleansing from sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Highest Majesty

The word in question is this:

ἀπαύγασμα, ατος, τό (s. αὐγάζω; Heliod. 5, 27, 4 φωτὸς ἀ.; TestAbr A 16 p. 97, 17 [Stone p. 42]; Philo; Wsd 7:26; Tat. 15, 3 τῆς … ὕλης καὶ πονηρίας [of hostile spirits]; Plut. has ἀπαυγασμός Mor. 83d and 934d; PGM 4, 1130 καταύγασμα) act. radiance, effulgence, in the sense of brightness from a source; pass., reflection, i.e. brightness shining back. The mng. cannot always be determined w. certainty. The pass. is prob. to be preferred in Plut. The act. seems preferable for Wsd and Philo (Op. Mundi 146, Spec. Leg. 4, 123, Plant. 50), corresp. to Hesychius: ἀ.=ἡλίου φέγγος. Philo uses the word of the relation of the Logos to God. Christ is described as ἀ. τῆς δόξης radiance of his glory Hb 1:3 (the act. mng. in the Gk. fathers Orig.; Gregory of Nyssa; Theodoret; Chrysostom: φῶς ἐκ φωτός. Likew. Theodore of Mopsu.; Severian of Gabala; Gennadius of Constantinople: KStaab, Pauluskommentare ’33, 201; 346; 421). For this ἀ. τῆς μεγαλωσύνης 1 Cl 36:2.—FDölger, Ac I 1929, 269ff. DELG s.v. αὐγή.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Exported from Logos Bible Software, 9:26 PM April 13, 2019.

Etymologically the word has the sense of "light from/off something else" leading scholars looking to context and trying to determine if a given usage is intended to mean "the radiance of God's glory" (where Christ radiates from God or perhaps radiates for God) and "the reflection of God's glory" (where Christ has no light of his own and is ever reflecting God's glory).

The word is only used the one time in the NT but it is used in the Apocrypha one time:

Wisdom 7: 22 for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent, 23 humane, steady, secure, free from care, all powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, gentle. 24 For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; and she pervades and penetrates everything because of her purity. 25 For she is the breath of the power of God and the emanation of the pure glory of the Almighty; because of this nothing defiled creeps into her. 26 For she is the brightness of the eternal light, and the spotless mirror of the activity of God, and the image of his goodness. 27 But although she is one, she is able to do all things; and although she remains in herself, she renews all things; and although she enters into holy souls ⌊in all generations⌋, she makes them to be friends of God and to be prophets. 28 For God loves no one except the one who lives with wisdom. 29 For she is more beautiful than the sun and above every constellation of the stars; compared with the light, she is found to be foremost, 30 for night succeeds this, but evil does not overcome wisdom. 8 But she reaches strongly from ⌊one side of creation to the other⌋, and she manages all things well.

Brannan, R., Penner, K. M., Loken, I., Aubrey, M., & Hoogendyk, I. (Eds.). (2012). The Lexham English Septuagint (Wis 7:22–8:1). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

It is also used by Clement:

1 Clement 36: 2 Through him we fix our gaze on the heights of heaven, through him we see the reflection of his faultless and lofty countenance, through him the eyes of our hearts were opened, through him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms towards the light, through him the Master willed that we should taste the immortal knowledge; “who, being the brightness of his majesty is by so much greater than angels as he hath inherited a more excellent name.”

Clement I, P., Ignatius, S., Bishop of Antioch, Polycarp, S., Bishop of Smyrna, & Lake, K. (1912–1913). The Apostolic fathers. (K. Lake, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 71). Cambridge MA; London: Harvard University Press.

It is also used three times by Philo of Alexandria. I would argue that the rendering "ray" is unwarranted and should read "reflection":

Philo "On the Creation":

[146] Every man, in respect of his mind, is allied to the divine Reason, having come into being as a copy or fragment or ray of that blessed nature, but in the structure of his body he is allied to all the world, for he is compounded of the same things, earth, water, air, and fire, each of the elements having contributed the share that falls to each, to complete a material absolutely sufficient in itself for the Creator to take in order to fashion this visible image.

Philo. (1929–1962). Philo. (F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, & J. W. Earp, Trans.) (Vol. 1, pp. 115–117). London; England; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press.

Philo "Planting": [50] And mark how well the epithets that follow harmonize with that which was put first. The world, we read, is God’s house in the realm of sense-perception, prepared and ready for Him. It is a thing wrought, not, as some have fancied, uncreate. It is a “sanctuary,” an outshining of sanctity, so to speak, a copy of the original; since the objects that are beautiful to the eye of sense are images of those in which the understanding recognizes beauty. Lastly, it has been prepared by the “hands” of God, his world-creating powers

Philo. (1929–1962). Philo. (F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, & J. W. Earp, Trans.) (Vol. 3, p. 239). London; England; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press.

Here "in common" should read "by reflection":

Philo "The Special Laws": [123] and therefore elsewhere he legislates on the subject of blood that no one should put either it or the fat to his mouth. Blood is prohibited for the reason which I have mentioned that it is the essence of the soul, not of the intelligent and reasonable soul, but of that which operates through the senses, the soul that gives the life which we and the irrational animals possess in common.

Philo. (1929–1962). Philo. (F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, & J. W. Earp, Trans.) (Vol. 8, p. 85). London; England; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press.

(123) ὅθεν ἐν ἑτέροις τίθησι νόμον περὶ αἵματος, μήθʼ αἷμα μήτε στέαρ προσφέρεσθαι· τὸ μὲν αἷμα διʼ ἣν εἶπον αἰτίαν ὅτι οὐσία ψυχῆς ἐστίν — οὐχὶ τῆς νοερᾶς καὶ λογικῆς ἀλλὰ τῆς αἰσθητικῆς, καθʼ ἣν ἡμῖν τε καὶ τοῖς ἀλόγοις κοινὸν τὸ ζῆν συμβέβηκεν. XXIV. ἐκείνης γὰρ οὐσία πνεῦμα θεῖον καὶ μάλιστα κατὰ Μωυσῆν, ὃς ἐν τῇ κοσμοποιίᾳ φησὶν ἀνθρώπῳ τῷ πρώτῳ καὶ ἀρχηγέτῃ τοῦ γένους ἡμῶν ἐμφυσῆσαι πνοὴν ζωῆς τὸν θεὸν εἰς τὸ τοῦ σώματος ἡγεμονικώτατον, τὸ πρόσωπον, ἔνθα αἱ δορυφόροι τοῦ νοῦ καθάπερ μεγάλου βασιλέως αἰσθήσεις παρίδρυνται· τὸ δʼ ἐμφυσώμενον δῆλον ὡς αἰθέριον ἦν πνεῦμα καὶ εἰ δή τι αἰθερίου πνεύματος κρεῖσσον, ἅτε τῆς μακαρίας καὶ τρισμακαρίας φύσεως ἀπαύγασμα — ,

Philo. (1929–1962). Philo: Greek Text. London; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press.

So given the overwhelming evidence from our knowledge of the actual relationship that exists between the sun and the moon is that the moon reflects the sun (about 20% of the light) we should understand the new Jerusalem (the bride of Christ) to be lit by Christ's light, which reflects the light of the glory of God:

[Rev 21:23 KJV] (23) And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.

[Rev 22:5 KJV] (5) And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.

[2Co 4:6 KJV] (6) For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

This is the entry in the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament:

ἀπαύγασμα, ατος, τό apaugasma reflection 1. Ἀπαύγασμα occurs in the NT only in Heb 1:3. Verses 1:3f. are based upon a Christ-hymn that came into being in the Hellenistic Jewish Church and describes the way of Christ on the basis of the scheme: preexistence–death–exaltation (cf. Phil 2:6–11). The first line of the hymn (Heb 1:3a) describes the relationship of the eternal Son of God to God: ὅς ›ν ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ. In agreement with Heb 1:3 Christ is called the ἀπαύγασμα τῆς μεγαλωσύνης (τοῦ θεοῦ) in 1 Clem. 36:2.

  1. The meaning of ἀπαύγασμα in Heb 1:3 is disputed. Actively, the word can denote radiance or effulgence (Philo Spec. Leg.. iv.123) or, passively, reflection or the light that is reflected (Wis 7:26; Philo Op. 146; Philo Plant. 50). The sentence structure in Heb 1:3 favors understanding ἀπαύγασμα and → χαρακτήρ as synonyms and, therefore, interpreting ἀπαύγασμα as pass.: Christ “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature.” Both predicates characterize the Son as the perfect image of God and thus correspond to the expression → εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4).

In the background of the statement is the Hellenistic Jewish concept of the εἰκών. According to Wis 7:26 preexistent Wisdom is “the reflection (ἀπαύγασμα) of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image (εἰκών) of his goodness.” In Philo the Logos appears as the “image” and “reflection” of God (Philo Op. 25; Philo Plant. 18; Philo Conf. 146f.; Philo Som. i.239 and frequently elsewhere). The εἰκών represents and reveals the invisible God and thus mediates the saving knowledge of God.

In Heb 1:3a—unlike 1 Clem 36:2—the accent is not on the idea of the mediation of revelation, but rather on the mystery of the person of the revealer himself. Both christological predicates underscore the divine origin, divine nature, and divine omnipotence of the preexistent One and in this they agree with the confession of Phil 2:6. The emphasis on Christ’s equality with God, further underscored by Heb 1:3b, has as its point of reference the statement in v. 3c regarding the atoning death: only the Son in the unity of his being and acting with God could bring about purification from sins through his death. Thus the work of redemption is inseparable from the person of the redeemer. O. Hofius

  • 1
    An interesting analysis which has no textual support. ἀπαύγασμα is not used in the LXX. This means the writer of Hebrews purposely selected a word which was unique to both New and Old Testament, in order to ensure there was no Scripture to support the argument you make. Apr 14, 2019 at 5:35
  • What about the quote from Wisdom ben Sirach from the 2nd Century BC? This video by Dr. Heiser is very helpful in understanding what he and others refer to as "Jewish Binitarianism" or "the Two Powers in heaven": youtube.com/watch?v=pl3AMS6-BfQ IE: the sun and the moon.
    – Ruminator
    Apr 14, 2019 at 10:34
  • "In Egypt, it was translated into Greek by the author's unnamed grandson, who added a prologue. This prologue is generally considered the earliest witness to a canon of the books of the prophets, and thus the date of the text is the subject of intense scrutiny. The book itself is the largest wisdom book from antiquity to have survived.[4]" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirach
    – Ruminator
    Apr 14, 2019 at 10:45
  • Re: Philo: "...Some scholars hold that his concept of the Logos as God's creative principle influenced early Christology. Other scholars deny direct influence but say that Philo and Early Christianity borrow from a common source.[2].." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo#cite_ref-2
    – Ruminator
    Apr 14, 2019 at 11:01
  • Rather than look to Philo or be Sirach, why not look to the Bible? John 8:12 - I am the light of the world." IOW Jesus is comparing Himself to the sun. He is the Greater Light Apr 14, 2019 at 14:01

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