Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2).
Since Genesis 1:1 is a “headline,” Genesis 1:2 is where the story actually begins. The author is taking the reader back to a time when neither the land nor the sky existed. Saying that the land had no shape or contents is equivalent to saying that it had not yet been differentiated from the waters. It’s a kind of verbal shorthand, in which something the listener already knows to exist is described before it existed. It’s like saying, “The New York Yankees were called the Highlanders for the first few years of their franchise.” The “Yankees” were not really called the “Highlanders” then, because there were no “Yankees,” and never had been. What is intended is this: “The team that eventually became known as the Yankees was at first called the Highlanders.” In the same way, the Genesis account begins by explaining that what would eventually become the land had not yet been differentiated or populated. The case is the same with the sky, which will eventually separate the “waters above” from the “waters below.” Right now it’s just “waters” – “the deep,” covered in darkness But the Spirit of God is hovering over it all, sizing up the possibilities and making a plan . . .
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3).
During the time he was re-reading the Genesis account and reflecting on its intended meaning, Dr. Godfrey spent one early morning on a beach on the Chesapeake Bay, watching and photographing the sky before and during sunrise. Standing there with what he describes as child-like excitement, he was impressed at how much “light” filled the sky and how well he could see everything around him before the sun rose. When the sun did appear, it was a bright but tiny circle in the sky. It brightened everything up considerably, but he realized that if he had not known that this diffuse dawn and dusk light came from the sun, there would have been no reason for him to believe that it did. After all, the sun was a very bright spot, whereas the dawn and dusk light were soft and diffuse and lit up the whole sky even when the sun was not visible. Each of us can similarly witness the dawn and so experience this light that Genesis is referring to as the light God created on the first day.
It actually makes good sense, from the perspective of ancient readers, that the “days” of Genesis should be defined on the basis of this light, rather than on the appearance or non-appearance of the Sun. After all, this first light is more reliable than the sun; it always appears in the sky even when the sun does not (due to complete cloud cover, or to dust storms, sand storms, volcanic ash and the like). This may, in fact, be what Job was referring to when he said of God, “He commands the sun, and it does not rise” (Job 9:7). When we do not imagine that the light in the sky comes from the sun, we can picture God having the sun take a “day off” from time to time. But there is always light.
As we have noted earlier in this book, the fact that Genesis describes light on Day 1, but the creation of the sun only on Day 4, has long puzzled readers who are expecting an account of origins that can be verified scientifically. Some have asserted that “light” in Genesis 1:3 means matter, or electromagnetic radiation, or static electricity, or a divine light that no longer exists. But the simplest explanation is that it means the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and remains in the sky after the sun sets, fading away until it can be seen no more. We now know that this light comes from our sun, but the Genesis author clearly believed that it was an independent entity that was present before the sun existed, and which appears even on those days when the sun is absent. Dr. Smith remembers a joke from grade school:
– Which is brighter, the sun or the moon?
– The moon, because it shines at night when it’s dark. The sun only shines in the day, when it’s light anyway!
In a simple but profound way, this joke captures the naïve cosmology of the Genesis account, although it admittedly does not also capture its reverential spirit.