Then God said, “Let there be lights [mâ’ôr] in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and they shall serve as signs and for seasons, and for days and years; and they shall serve as lights [mâ’ôr] in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater [gâdôl] light [mâ’ôr] to govern the day, and the lesser [qâṭân] light [mâ’ôr] to govern the night; He made the stars [kôkâb] also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day. (Genesis 1:14–19 NASB).
Were the Sun and Moon created after Earth? Many Christians believe Earth was created “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), while the Sun and Moon were not created until the fourth “day.” But does the biblical text suggest a different interpretation?
The answer might be found in the Hebrew words used in Genesis to describe the Sun and Moon. Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “Sun” is shemesh1 and the word for “Moon” is yârêach.2 In Genesis 1, however, the Sun is mâ’ôr gâdôl (literally “light big”) and the Moon is mâ’ôr qâṭân (literally “light little”). Nowhere else in the Bible do these phrases refer to the Sun and Moon.
Since unique constructions in the Bible are usually meaningful, we researched the usage of mâ’ôr elsewhere. It is a functional word. It does not describe a light-producing object such as a lamp; rather, it refers to the illumination the lamp provides. In fact, mâ’ôr normally refers to the illumination provided by a lamp in the tabernacle.
Describing the Sun and Moon as illumination carries several subtle implications. For example, the Sun and Moon could have been created “in the beginning,” but their light did not appear to the surface of Earth until the fourth day. In one of his early publications, Hugh Ross suggested early Earth was opaque to the heavenly lights because of extensive cloud cover, which broke just before the fourth day so the lights in the sky could appear.3 The biblical text seems to confirm Ross’s analysis.
Another possible reason Moses used mâ’ôr to describe the Sun and Moon in Genesis 1 might be that it frames a polemic to debunk pagan worship of the Sun and Moon. Worship of celestial bodies was a central tenet of many ancient Near Eastern religions. Shemesh is the Hebrew form of the Mesopotamian deity Shamash, a pagan name found in the Gilgamesh Epic. In Baalism, the Moon was worshiped as Yarih, a child of El and Asherah; it has the same root word as the Hebrew word Yârêach. The Hebrew words shemesh and yârêach—which were in Semitic languages long before Moses penned Genesis 1—were an outgrowth of pagan religion.
By describing the Sun and Moon in Genesis 1 with the functional word mâ’ôr and by emphasizing only their function—to “serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years” and as illumination—Moses accentuates the fact that Sun and Moon are merely inanimate objects created by God to serve a particular function in God’s universe. They are not deities themselves. This was important even for the Hebrews, who worshiped God but referred to the Sun and Moon with words based on pagan myths.
In pagan mythology, the Sun and Moon are preeminent. They are mentioned early on in creation myths and are ascribed specific roles as gods. In Genesis, however, the Sun and Moon are not preeminent gods; and they are not even lesser gods serving the God of the Hebrews. Therefore, Moses deemphasizes the importance of the Sun and Moon in two other ways. First, he delays mentioning them until the fourth day—relatively late in the creation epic. Second, he minimizes their roles to the strictly functional and obvious: to provide light for the world and to serve as timekeepers for day and night and for seasons to benefit the animals and humans God created.
As a final point, since mâ’ôr is most frequently used in the Bible as light from the oil of the lamp in the tabernacle,4 one is tempted to suggest that God—through Moses—is introducing the idea that the heavens are God’s holy tabernacle.
Genesis 1 may seem a simple text, but delving deeper often reveals multiple additional meanings, as we’ve seen with the unique use of the word mâ’ôr to describe the Sun and Moon on the fourth day. This one vocabulary choice suggests something about how the conditions of early Earth serve as a polemic against worship of creation, and potentially reveal that the heavens are God’s holy tabernacle.
With such deep complexity and richness, truly the Bible is the word of God!
1. Genesis 15:12, 17; 19:23; 28:11; 32:31; 37:9; Exodus 16:21; 17:12; 22:3, 26; Leviticus 22:7; Deuteronomy 4:19; 17:3; 24:13, 15; 33:14; Joshua 1:4; 10:12–13; 23:4; Judges 5:31; 9:33; 14:18; 19:14; 1 Samuel 11:9; 2 Samuel 2:24; 3:35; 12:12; 23:4; 2 Kings 3:22; 23:5, 11; Nehemiah 7:3; Job 8:16; Psalm 19:4; 50:1; 58:8; 72:5, 17; 74:16; 84:11; 89:36; 104:19, 22; 113:3; 121:6; 136:8; 148:3; Ecclesiastes 1:3, 5, 9, 14; 2:11, 17–20, 22; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 5, 12; 7:11; 8:9, 15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5; 11:7; 12:2; Song of Solomon 1:6; Isaiah 30:26; 38:8; 41:25; 45:6; 49:10; 59:19; 60:19–20; Jeremiah 8:2; 15:9; 31:35; Ezekiel 8:16; 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Jonah 4:8; Micah 3:6; Nahum 3:17; Habakkuk 3:11; Malachi 1:11; 4:2.
2. Genesis 37:9; Numbers 29:6; Deuteronomy 4:19; 17:3; Joshua 10:12–13; 2 Kings 23:5; Job 25:5; 31:26; Psalm 8:3; 72:5, 7; 89:37; 104:19; 121:6; 136:9; 148:3; Ecclesiastes 12:2; Isaiah 13:10; 60:19–20; 66:23; Jeremiah 8:2; 31:35; Ezekiel 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Habakkuk 3:11.
3. Hugh Ross, Genesis One: A Scientific Perspective (Pasadena: Reasons to Believe, 1979), 10.
4. Genesis 1:14–16; Exodus 25:6; 27:20; 35:8, 14, 28; 39:7; Leviticus 24:2; Numbers 4:9, 16; Psalm 74:16; 90:8; Proverbs 15:30; Ezekiel 32:8.