Literal days before the sun
(Adapted from the author’s The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1–11, ch. 8, 2015.)
Critics of biblical creation often use ‘days before the sun’ to try to prove that the days were not ~24 hours. This old canard is usually raised as if creationists have never thought of it.
In fact, this ‘problem’ was answered centuries ago. Christians have long realized that God can create light without a secondary source, and the Bible tells us clearly that God created light, as well as the earth, on the first day.
We are told that in the new heavens and earth there will be no need for sun or moon, because God’s glory will illuminate it, and the Lamb will be the lamp (Revelation 21:23). In Genesis, God even defines a day and a night in terms of light or its absence.
For example, the leading French Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) had no problem, for he taught:
The day-night cycle was instituted from Day 1—before the sun was created [commenting on ‘let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3)]:
Therefore the Lord, by the very order of the creation, bears witness that he holds in his hand the light, which he is able to impart to us without the sun and the moon. Further, it is certain, from the context, that the light was so created as to be interchanged with the darkness … there is, however, no doubt that the order of their succession was alternate … .1
The sun, moon and stars were created on Day 4—after the earth—and took over the role as light dispensers to the earth [commenting on ‘let there be lights …’ (Genesis 1:14)]:
God had before created the light, but he now institutes a new order in nature, that the sun should be the dispenser of diurnal light, and the moon and the stars should shine by night. And he assigns them to this office, to teach us that all creatures are subject to his will, and execute what he enjoins upon them. For Moses relates nothing else than that God ordained certain instruments to diffuse through the earth, by reciprocal changes, that light which had been previously created. The only difference is this, that the light was before dispersed, but now proceeds from lucid bodies; which, in serving this purpose, obey the commands of God.2
The Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther (1483–1546), was similarly clear and emphatic about the sun,3 moon and stars being created on Day 4. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1701–1791), agreed.4
Ancient and medieval rabbis
Earlier still, many ancient Rabbinic interpreters taught that God created a primordial light not dependent on the sun, which came into existence at God’s command but was later withdrawn and stored up for the righteous in the messianic future.5 This is feasible, and in line with John’s teaching in Revelation. Also, the Jewish commentator from medieval Spain, Abraham Ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1164), wrote:
One day refers to the movement of the celestial sphere. …
The heavenly sphere made one revolution. The sun was not yet seen in the firmament; neither was there a firmament.6
These great exegetes were right not to see this as a problem for the God of the Bible. But modern geokinetic astronomy (i.e. earth moving) makes the solution even easier. All it takes to have a day-night cycle is a rotating earth and light coming from one direction. Thus, we can deduce that the earth was already rotating in space relative to the light created on Day 1.
This unusual, counter-intuitive order of creation (light before sun) actually adds a hallmark of authenticity. If the Bible had been the product of later ‘editors’, as alleged by the Documentary Hypothesis,7 they would surely have modified this to fit with their own understanding. Absent divine revelation to the contrary, having ‘day’ without the sun would have been generally inconceivable in ancient times. Similarly, Hamilton points out the unusual nature of the story, whereby:
The creation of light anticipates the creation of sunlight. Eventually the task of separating the light from the darkness will be assigned to the heavenly luminaries (v. 18). It is unnecessary to explain such a claim as reflecting scientific ignorance. What the author states is that God caused the light to shine from a source other than the sun for the first three “days”.8
Having the sun appear after the light would likely have been very significant to pagan worldviews which tended to worship the sun as the source of all life. God seems to be making it pointedly clear that the sun is secondary to Himself as the source of everything. He doesn’t ‘need’ the sun in order to create life, in contrast to old-earth beliefs.
[Church] fathers knew best
In fact early church writers used the historical fourth-day creation of the sun as a polemic, i.e. aggressive refutation, against paganism. For example, in the second century, Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, wrote in an apologetic work to the learned pagan magistrate Autolycus:
On the fourth day the luminaries came into existence. Since God has foreknowledge, he understood the nonsense of the foolish philosophers who were going to say that the things produced on earth come from the stars, so that they might set God aside. In order therefore that the truth might be demonstrated, plants and seeds came into existence before the stars. For what comes into existence later cannot cause what is prior to it.9
In the 4th century, Basil the Great commented on the same passage:
Heaven and earth were the first; after them was created light; the day had been distinguished from the night, then had appeared the firmament and the dry element. The water had been gathered into the reservoir assigned to it, the earth displayed its productions, it had caused many kinds of herbs to germinate and it was adorned with all kinds of plants. However, the sun and the moon did not yet exist, in order that those who live in ignorance of God may not consider the sun as the origin and the father of light, or as the maker of all that grows out of the earth. That is why there was a fourth day, and then God said: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven.”10
Note that this is different from a common argument against Genesis as history, that it is just a polemic against paganism. In reality, Genesis itself is historical narrative, and these church fathers depended on this true history as the basis for their polemic against the false myths of paganism.
So not only does ‘days before the sun’ not present any scientific problem to the days being real days, it seems the order of these creation events was uniquely important in other ways also.
References and notes
- Calvin, J., Genesis, pp. 76–77, 1554/1984. Return to text
- Calvin, Ref. 1, p. 83. Return to text
- Luther, M., Luther’s Works, Vol. I: Commentary on Genesis 1–5, Pelikan, J., (Ed.) Concordia, St Louis; see his comments on verses 1:5–6 and 1:14ff, 1958. Return to text
- Wesley, J., Sermon 56: God’s Approbation of His Work, 1872; wesley.nnu.edu. Return to text
- Lewis, J.P., The Days of Creation: An Historical Survey, JETS 32: 449, 1989. Return to text
- Ibn Ezra, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Genesis (Bereshit), translated and edited by Strickman, H.N. and Silver, A.M., Menorah Publishing Co., p. 33 and footnote, 1999; cf. Creation days and Orthodox Jewish tradition. Return to text
- See Grigg, R., Did Moses really write Genesis? Creation 20(4):43–46, 1998;, also Holding, J.P., Debunking the documentary hypothesis, J. Creation 19(3):37-40, 2005;. Return to text
- Hamilton, V.P., The Book of Genesis, chapters 1–17, p. 121, 1990. Return to text
- Theophilus, To Autolycus 2:15, AD 181, Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:100. Return to text
- Basil, Hexaëmeron 6:2. Return to text