Sunday, November 27, 2016

The lesser light to rule the night

14 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, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 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. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day (Gen 1:14-19). 
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Ps 8:3-4).

i) Before I get to my main point, I'd like to make a preliminary observation. Although Genesis is technically anonymous, that doesn't create any presumption against Mosaic authorship. The reason the name of Moses crops up so often in Exodus–Deuteronomy is because he's a contemporary, and, indeed, major participant, in the recorded events. So there's a natural reason for him to be named. But by the same token, it would be anachronistic to mention him in relation to Genesis, since that narrates events long before he was born. There's no occasion to name him within the narrative. Within the text. Genesis tells the backstory. And he's not a part of that story. 

In principle, he could be the named author in the title, but ironically, if he composed Genesis, I think it would be anachronistic to suppose the text originally contained a named author. It wasn't originally a book for publication. If he wrote it, it was composed in the Sinai desert, like a chronicle written by a traveler during his trek. It's not a book in the formal sense of a publication. It is, of course, written for posterity, but it's written on the run. It will only be published at a later date when the Israelites settle down.  

ii) As I've often said, when we interpret Genesis, I think we should initially bracket the relationship between Genesis and science. That often interferes with the interpretation. When we interpret Genesis, we should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience. 

iii) Likewise, as I've often said, one thing I find striking about Gen 1 is the motif of light and dark, day and night, dawn and dusk. 

iv) Which brings us to the creation of the moon and stars. As commentators note, the narrator avoids naming the sun and moon. Presumably because the designations were names for pagan gods. The sun god and moon god. So the narrator uses circumlocutions to avoid their heathen associations.

v) Assuming that Genesis was composed in the Sinai desert in the 2nd millennium BC, imagine how impressive the night sky would be at that time and place. There was no light pollution from city lights to compete with the moonlight and starlight. Desert skies are typically crisp and clear. Likewise, the generally flat, treeless landscape makes it big sky country. That combined with the relative silence would make it an overwhelming experience to sit under the night sky in the Sinai desert, under that shimmering canopy. 

vi) In general, the starry heavens are impressive in different ways to ancient stargazers and modern urbanites or suburbanites. On the one hand, many people in modern cities and suburbs never see the night sky in its full splendor. Trees and buildings obstruct the view. There's light pollution from ubiquitous electrical lighting–as well as ubiquitous noise from cars, TVs, and so forth. So we don't see nature in the raw. There are so many distractions.

On the other hand, because we benefit from modern astronomy, observatories, and space telescopes, we can see vastly deeper into outer space, so we have a much better sense, not merely of the breadth, but the depth of outer space. The unimaginable scale of the cosmos, as well as the variety of formations that escape the naked eye. 


  1. Paul H. Seely "The Firmament and the Water Above," (Westminster Theological Journal 53 [1991]: 227-40)

    1. I've critiqued Seely-style arguments on dozens of occasions.

  2. Regarding Mosaic authorship, I think he probably got it from a few different sources available in the libraries of Egypt and redacted them under inspiration of the Holy Spirit and superintended by God through their one-on-one conversations together during the Exodus. There's evidence that it was appended with Moses' eulogy and redacted further after the conquest of Canaan, probably by Joshua, to do such things as give updated location names. Assuming that these kinds of redactions were made, expressions like this one would have had to have made sense to the people at the time of Moses and Joshua.