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At the outset of the Book of Genesis, we read:

Genesis 1:3-4: "Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness."

We know that God is light from 1 John 1:5. However, this does not appear to be the source of light mentioned on the first day of Creation. Soon thereafter we read:

Genesis 1:14-19: "Then 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; 15and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth'; and it was so. 16God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. 17God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. 19There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day."

All of the sources of natural light appear to have been created on the fourth day. (Note that I am not asking whether this "light" was literal or figurative since I take it literally.) How might we interpret this "light" and what would be its source?

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  • 1
    Consider this possibility. God created natural light on the first day and divided it from the darkness. Then, on the fourth day, God took this same light, which is nothing but matter, and coalessed it into the stars and other heavenly bodies and stretched them across the heavens.
    – oldhermit
    Sep 21, 2021 at 0:30
  • There is no answer to this question because we are not told. I agree that 1 John 1:5 is likely (at least partially) spiritual application; however, on the basis of Eze 1 and other theophanies, God certainly appears surrounded by dazzling light. Therefore, my standard answer to this question is, when God showed up (whatever that means), there was light.
    – Dottard
    Sep 21, 2021 at 0:34
  • 1
    It matters if you buy into modern cosmology as to how you make sense of this light. And modern cosmology is INCOMPATIBLE with the Bible. Sep 21, 2021 at 0:37

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First, orthodox (small "o") Christianity presupposes classical theism, according to which the divine nature is spiritual, absolutely simple, and immutable. Therefore, "God is light" from 1 John 1:5 must be understood as a metaphor for God's character, and definitely not in the sense that physical light is or is part of God’s essence.

Thus, the question is about the physical source of the physical light in Gen 1:3-4. It is assumed that said light, as well as everything which is not the divine nature, has been created by God and therefore has God as its metaphysical origin or source. (I prefer "origin" since "source" may be equivocally understood in the sense of emanation as opposed to creation.)

Having said that, the answer to the question is in a 2016 article by Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber, "If the Sun Is Created on Day 4, What Is the Light on Day 1?" [1]. The sections of interest to us are the first, "The Double Creation of Light" and the third "Historical-Critical Approach" to the end. The rest of this answer is just an extensive quote from the article.

From the section "Historical-Critical Approach: Separating between Daylight and Sunlight"

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 daytime sky is blue, his answer was that 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. [9]

Moshe Weinfeld (1925-2009), in his commentary on Genesis (1:3), offers the same overall reading:

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). [10]

The text to which Weinfeld calls the readers’ attention is God’s speech to Job:

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.

From the section "Separating between Ancient and Modern Cosmologies"

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)[14] 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.

Footnotes (within Dr. Farber's article)

[9] See Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 10-11.

[10] Weinfeld’s commentary is part of the revised version of Samuel Gordon’s commentary, reprinted by Galil B.D. Nagar ltd. in 1992.

[14] I [i.e. Zev Farber] assume he means “the first three days,” i.e. before the sun was created.

Reference (at the answer level)

[1] Farber, Zev (2016). If the Sun Is Created on Day 4, What Is the Light on Day 1?. TheTorah.com.

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You asked …. “How might we interpret this "light" and what would be its source?” - we interpret via John (below), and the ‘source’ of the ‘light’ is the ‘word’

JOHN 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

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  • Your response makes sense, but why would God say, "Let there be light" when He Himself is light? This could be the answer, but I'm not sure. Thanks! +1.
    – Xeno
    Sep 21, 2021 at 1:03
  • @Xeno (My view) - The source of light is the Word. It’s all about the Word. And … the Word has to be spoken - else nothing happens.
    – Dave
    Sep 21, 2021 at 1:33
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What was the source of the light in Genesis 1:3-4 (cf. Gen. 1:14-19)?

The source of the light was GOD.

This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5, KJV)

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  • Yeah, John had a ‘view’ (revelation) of God that we really don’t see ‘reflected’ (excuse the pun) via the other disciples/gospels.
    – Dave
    Sep 21, 2021 at 1:36
  • It is clear that Gen 1:3-4 refers to physical light. Stating that the source of that physical light was God in conjunction with quoting 1 John 1:5 implies that that physical light was emanated, not created, by God. This is flatly incompatible with classical theism.
    – Johannes
    Jan 26, 2023 at 3:22
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    @Johannes, if the Bible's own teachings seem incompatible with "classical theism," I will not be among the first to question the Bible. But who said God is not physically light? What did Saul see on the road to Damascus--which was described as brighter than the noonday sun? Why was Moses still glowing with radiance so bright the Israelites could not look at him upon his return from the mountain with God? That kind of light is more than mere metaphor.
    – Biblasia
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:54
  • All of the physical light that the Apostles saw at Jesus' Transfiguration, the physical light that Saul saw on the road to Damascus, and the physical light that glowed from Moses' face, consisted of photons, i.e. quanta of electromagnetic radiation, that had been CREATED by God. The divine nature is purely spiritual, absolutely simple, and immutable. All biblical passages that at face value seem to contradict the basic tenets of classical theism must be interpreted alegorically. This has always been the position of the Roman Catholic Church (but not only of her, e.g. Maimonides held the same).
    – Johannes
    Jan 26, 2023 at 15:08
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There are two approaches to Genesis. First as a spiritual prophecy and then as literal history.

When viewing it as a literal history, trying to parse these cryptic passages is a difficult exercise, and you will get many different types of answers, all more or less speculating as they try to re-interpret genesis in the language of what is currently known about natural sciences.

One such possibility is that the first creation of "light", 'Or, refers to the separation of photons from the plasma of the early universe. Then, the sun and moon, which are referred to as me'orot, or light sources (e.g. like lamps) could refer to the sun and moon becoming visible from earth, thus they could begin to be suitable as signs for times and seasons. This could then be interpreted as the earth obtaining a sufficiently transluscent atmosphere to clearly make out the sun, moon, and stars with sufficient clarity to allow determination of times and seasons from astronomical observations and the various motions of the sun throughout the year as well as the phases of the moon. That would be our current atmosphere with lots of free oxygen, which necessarily required green plant life as a pre-requisite. E.g. prior to the earth's current tertiary atmosphere was a primary (result of volcanic activity) and then secondary (mostly methane gases) atmosphere. It is hypothesized that the primary atmosphere was blown away by solar winds, leaving the secondary, and in order to go from the secondary to the tertiary requires green algae and other bacteria to convert the atmosphere. Thus in Genesis the green plants were created before the light sources were given to us as signs and seasons. It was the green algae that allowed us to see the stars clearly and make out the path of sun through the heavens.

But all of the above is speculation, and tomorrow some new scientific discovery could disprove this speculation. That's the trouble with trying to harmonize science and scripture, especially when the latter is written in such an extremely terse style.

Alternately, one can interpret Genesis as a spiritual prophecy. In this case, light would be the divine light of revelation, which God created ex-nihilo, and then he created specific light sources, or sources of revelation for created life on earth to benefit from, by learning signs and seasons from these specific sources.

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Taking the word "light" literally, as the Scripture was written to human, "light" means visible light, a small section in the electro-magnetic wave spectrum.

The visible light that meant for human, is not the same as to other creatures, such as spiders and many insects can see ultraviolet, snakes are able to see infrared, it all depends on God's creation.

The creation of electro-magnetic waves is fundamental to the creation of visible light. It was the electro-magnetic waves created on the first day, described in Gen 1:3-4, then the sun and the moon provide the visible light, created on the fourth day described in Gen 1:14-19.

So "How might we interpret this "light" and what would be its source?"

  1. "Light" in Gen 1:3-4 is the electro-magnetic waves
  2. "Light" in Gen 1:14-19 is the visible light
  3. Its source is God
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The source of the light in Genesis 1:3-4 is its Creator, Jehovah himself (Isaiah 45:7, Psalm 136:7).

Isaiah 45:7 (ASV)

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.

Psalm 136:7 (WEB)

to him who made the great lights, for his loving kindness endures forever;

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