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How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story?

August 11, 2014
Image: The Creation of Light, by Gustave DorΓ©

In my previous post, I mentioned that the creation of light in the first day of Genesis 1 is a strong hint that this passage should be interpreted metaphorically. Light is simply too powerful as a symbol to discount this interpretation. In order to back up my claim, I have examined every verse that mentions "light" in the Bible, and categorized them according to their usage of that word. It turns out that the Bible uses "light" figuratively far more often than it uses it literally. There are two main results: first, a literal reading is not to be given priority over a figurative one simply because it's literal. Second, while it is not strictly incorrect to interpret the light in Genesis 1 literally, the figurative interpretation is more compelling and more in line with the usage of "light" in the rest of the Scriptures.

This post is written to present these findings. It is fundamentally a post about how to interpret one word in the opening passage of the Bible. To tackle this question, I went back to our basic principles: the Bible should be interpreted as a whole, and difficult verses should be interpreted in terms of simple verses. So I examined every verse that mentions "light", taking particular care in any verses connected to Genesis 1. I then interpreted and categorized them, and drew what insight I could from this comprehensive catalog of every mention of "light" in the Bible.

This involved interpreting hundreds of verses. I could not look at each of them in full depth, so I categorized them along just two dimensions. First, I looked at the role that light has in each verse, and categorized it as "central" or "peripheral". Second, I interpreted the verse and categorized how "light" should be understood, labeling it as "literal", "figurative", "both", or "ambiguous".

"Central" means that the concept of light is one of the main topics of the verse in question. Light is a crucial element in interpreting the text. Obviously these verses should be given greater weight in evaluating how "light" should be understood in the Bible. 

"Peripheral" means that "light" is mentioned in the verse, but it's not the main topic. The text could easily be understood without the reference to light, or with a different appropriate word substituted instead. 

"Literal" means that "light" in this verse is a physical light that actually exists and actually shines. But, if the verse is in a fictional story such as a parable, I still categorized a physical light in the story as "literal" although it didn't exist in real life. 

"Figurative" means that "light" is used to represent something else in this verse, such as perception, truth, awareness, et cetera. 

"Both" means that there is a literal light in this verse, but that light also clearly symbolizes something else as well, so both methods of interpretation are applicable. 

"Ambiguous" means that I could not determine the sense in which "light" was used in this verse. 

This gives eight possible combinations of categories. The following is a list of these eight combinations, and an example of a verse that fits into that combination, provided to help you better understand how I classified the verses.

"Central" and "literal": Exodus 25:37. This is a passage about the construction of the lampstand for the Tabernacle. The function of the lampstand is to give light, and the specific verse is on setting up the lampstand to perform that function. So this is a literal light, and the verse cannot be interpreted apart from this light-providing function of the lamp. 

"Peripheral" and "literal": Genesis 44:3. This passage describes Joseph's brothers leaving Egypt "as soon as the morning was light". "Light" here is clearly talking about the literal light that makes the morning bright, but it's not crucial to the story. Even if the verse had simply read "as soon as it was morning", its meaning would hardly change.

"Central" and "figurative": Matthew 5:14. This is the 'salt and light' verse. We are not literally light, but the nature of light - its visibility and its power to illuminate - is the primary topic of discussion, so "light" plays a central role in this verse. 

"Peripheral" and "figurative": Psalms 56:13. In this verse David is giving thanks to God for saving his life. The phrase he uses - "light of life" - is clearly figurative, and he could have instead used "gift of life", "blessing of life", "breath of life" or any other metaphor without changing his meaning. He also could have simply said "life". 

"Central" and "both": Acts 22:6. This is Paul recounting his conversion story. The light that shone around him is real and it plays an important role in his story, and he mentions it multiple times. In general, if several references to "light" are clustered together, it's a major clue that it plays a central role in the story. Moreover, light also has clear symbolic meaning here, as the presence of Jesus, as Paul "seeing the light", et cetera. 

"Peripheral" and "both": Acts 9:3. This is the same story of Paul's conversion. But the way that Luke tells the story here, the light simply marks the beginning of the story and he doesn't mention it afterwards. He could have simply began with "suddenly Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him", and it would not significantly change our interpretation of the story. This demonstrates that the same event could fall under different categories in different verses, depending on how a particular verse tells the story. 

"Central" and "ambiguous": Revelation 8:12. I'm not going to pretend to understand Revelation. But the idea that the light-giving celestial bodies are "struck" involves light in a central role, as this event comprises the entirety of the consequence of the fourth trumpet, which seems important.

"Peripheral" and "ambiguous": Isaiah 13:10. This is about the "day of the Lord", in an "oracle concerning Babylon". I do not know how to interpret it. I have labeled it "peripheral", because although the language is nearly identical to the one used in Revelation 8:12, the wider context around the verse makes it clear that the main point of the passage is that it will be a bad day, so the exact meaning of "light" is not as important.

As you can see, there is some room for subjectivity in some of my interpretations. It is, after all, just my interpretation. There is also room for improvement in the categorization. I do not actually believe that Bible verses, or any expression of language, can be neatly categorized as being "literal" or "figurative". There can be lots of splitting of hairs in the detailed depths of interpretation. However, I do believe that my interpretations are generally correct, and as we'll see my conclusions are sufficiently robust that even if a few verses were misinterpreted it doesn't affect the conclusion.

In order to categorize all these verses, I had to select a particular translation of the Bible. I chose the ESV, as it's a popular translation that's held in high regard by the people I trust, yet I am not personally all that familiar with it. This reduces the possibility of me choosing a translation to affect the outcome of this study, or of my familiarity influencing the interpretation of particular verses.

According to BibleGateway, there are 219 verses in the ESV that contains the word "light". Of these, 11 verses do not apply to our interests. I have labeled these as "n/a". Some of these verses only have "light" appearing in the section headings but not in the actual text of the verse itself. Others use a homonym of "light", used in the sense of weight, or to come upon something - example of texts like this are "this is a light thing in the sight of the Lord", or "we shall light upon him as the dew falls on the ground". The remaining 208 verses can then be categorized into the eight combinations listed above.

All above-mentioned procedures were decided before I started interpreting any verses, to prevent the possibility of me changing the rules in the middle to suit my own conclusions.

The detailed results, including the individual categorization of all 219 verses, can be found in the spreadsheet linked below:

Spreadsheet: How "light" is used in the Bible

This is the number of verses that fell under each of the eight category combinations:

central + literal: 5
central + figurative: 49
central + both: 10
central + ambiguous: 12
peripheral + literal: 21
peripheral + figurative: 98
peripheral + both: 4
peripheral + ambiguous: 9

In total, "light" is used purely figuratively in 147 out of 208 verses (70.7%), whereas it's used literally ("literal" and "both" categories summed up) in 40 out of 208 verses (19.2%). Even if we count all the ambiguous cases outside Genesis 1 as being literal, that only bring it up to 54 out of 208 verses (26.0%). The Bible, as a whole, uses "light" in a purely figurative sense a large majority of the time.

If we only consider the "central" category, where "light" is a main topic of the verse, "light" is used purely figuratively in 49 out of 76 verses (64.5%), whereas it's used literally ("literal" and "both" categories summed up) in 15 out of 76 verses (19.7%). Even if we count all ambiguous cases outside Genesis 1 as being literal, that only brings it up to 20 out of 76 verses (26.3%). The Bible, as a whole, uses "light" in a purely figurative sense a large majority of the time when it's a main topic in a passage.

So, depending on exactly which numbers you look at, the Bible uses "light" purely figuratively about three times more often than it uses it literally. This difference is so great that a few misinterpretations on my part would not have significantly altered the result. This leads directly to my first conclusion: a literal reading of the Bible is absolutely not to be given priority over a figurative reading by default. This would actually lead to the wrong interpretation in a large majority of these verses mentioning "light", as we have just seen. The Bible clearly uses "light" figuratively much more often, so if anything we should default to the figurative meaning when we're attempting to interpret an ambiguous verse.

In fact, in the course of interpreting these hundreds of verses, I noticed that this was happening to me automatically. My mind defaulted to the figurative meaning as I read through passage after passage where this was the correct interpretation, whereas the rarer verse where the literal interpretation is correct would give me pause due to its rarity. Furthermore, insofar as one can notice these things, I did not notice that my mind first attempting a literal interpretation, then trying the figurative interpretation only after the literal interpretation failed. Instead my mind grasped the correct interpretation from the surrounding context, without trying the two types of interpretation sequentially. This makes sense: as C.S. Lewis said, the limits of human language means that any abstract concept can only be discussed metaphorically. Therefore the correct interpretation of any work of language is not determined by trying for a literal interpretation first, then a figurative interpretation only as a backup. Instead it is determined simply by the topic and the context. This also agrees with the consensus of linguists today, who reject the idea of a sequential approach to language interpretation.

So, literal readings are not intrinsically better than figurative readings. They are not intrinsically more clear or more respectful to the Bible. On the flip side, figurative readings are not intrinsically inferior, nor are they only a fallback position after the literal interpretation has failed, nor should you feel as if you're eroding the authority of the Scriptures in any way if you employ them. Instead, the proper interpretation should be determined by applying the established principles of interpretation, such as context and consistency, without regard to whether the interpretation is literal or figurative. And when these principles are applied to a word of overwhelming metaphorical power like "light", it is more natural and intuitive to try a figurative interpretation first. This point of view is verified by how the Bible itself actually uses "light".

All that is not a conclusion, of course. It is only a starting point. It shows that you should give a significant amount of due consideration to interpreting "light" in Genesis 1 figuratively, but you do not necessarily have to conclude that this interpretation is correct. The correct interpretation will be determined by the topic and the context of Genesis 1. However, before we go on to consider the specific context of Genesis 1, I want to point out that virtually no amount of restricting the general context of the Bible could possibly reverse the result that the Bible uses "light" figuratively much more often than it uses it literally. In fact, even if you were to throw out all the data from Psalms on the grounds that Genesis 1 is not poetry (which is debatable), and also throw out all the data from the Gospel of John on the grounds that John clearly had a thing for using "light" figuratively (which is absurd), the above result would still hold. The remaining part of the Bible uses "light" figuratively in 109 out of 168 verses (64.9%). If we further only consider the verses where "light" is a central topic, then it's 33 out of 60 verses (55.0%) . In contrast, even by the most generous count ("literal" + "both" +"ambiguous" outside of Genesis), the Bible uses "light" literally in only 52 out of 168 verses (31.0%) in the remaining part, and in 20 out of 60 verses (33.3%) in the remaining "central" verses. The Bible still uses "light" figuratively much more often than it uses it literally.

The only way to resist this result is to decide beforehand that Genesis 1 is written as a history, and to restrict ourselves to only those verses in the Bible that are part of the historical books. Then the majority of the few remaining verses will refer to "light" literally. But this seems to me to be a clear violation of the sound principles of Bible interpretation.

But apart from looking at the entire Bible for a general context, what is the specific context for the first chapter of Genesis? How can we interpret the "light" in Genesis 1 in that specific context? My answer is my previous post: The seven days of creation in Genesis are a prologue, which is poetic and highly abstract in nature. Its closest parallel is John 1, which also starts off with a poetic and highly abstract prologue. And this parallel between Genesis 1 and John 1 is reinforced even more by our study of "light" in the Bible: In addition to John 1 containing one of the most extensive discussions on creation outside of Genesis 1, it also references "light" the most often outside of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 and John 1 respectively contain 7 and 5 "central" references to "light" - more than any of the other chapters in the Bible. This is, of course, only expected, as they are meant to be parallel passages, so that the interpretation of John 1 can serve as the key to Genesis 1. If you want to understand "light" in Genesis 1, consider its meaning in John 1: they are likely to have similar interpretations.

But how about an interpretation of Genesis 1 within the context of the book of Genesis? Well, "light" is hardly mentioned in Genesis outside its first chapter. This makes perfect sense if the creation week is a prologue. A prologue would have its own symbols and word choices which would set it apart from the rest of the text, as I mentioned in my previous post.

Alright, how about in the context of the Pentateuch? Here the case for a literal interpretation of "light" in Genesis 1 becomes stronger. In the first five books of the Bible, outside Genesis 1, there is no reference to "light" in a purely figurative sense. Furthermore, there are several references to a literal light serving as a spiritually significant symbol, such as the light from the pillar of flame that lead the Israelites out of Egypt, or the light from the golden lampstand in the tabernacle. Something like this, I believe, is our best bet for interpreting "light" in Genesis 1 if we must remain literal: a physical light which has a great deal of spiritual significance. There must at least be some symbolic meaning, as the Bible never spends so much time on literal lights with no figurative meaning.

This "literal light symbolizing something spiritual" would be a decent interpretation, if we were to look only to the Pentateuch for our context. It is for this reason that I don't say that it would be strictly wrong to interpret "light" in Genesis 1 literally - as I previously said, it's a position that I disagree with but still respect. However, on the whole, I don't think that this explanation holds up against the overall frequency with which the Bible uses "light" in a purely figurative sense, or the unbreakable link between Genesis 1 and John 1 and the figurative interpretation that suggests.

So, upon examining every Bible verse which contains the word "light", we see that the Bible uses the word figuratively most of the time, demonstrating that the figurative use is in fact the norm and that it is not automatically better to interpret a word literally rather than figuratively. Furthermore, the references to "light" ties together Genesis 1 and John 1 even more strongly than before, and hints that the seven days of creation are in fact an abstract prologue, like the first 18 verses in John 1. While there is some precedence that the creation of light in the first day could refer to a literal, physical light which also has spiritual, symbolic significance, this requires a very specific context for interpreting "light": looking at only the Pentateuch, instead of the Bible as a whole or Genesis in particular. Overall, there is simply more evidence for interpreting "light" figuratively rather than literally when we look at all the verses in the Bible that mention "light".


You may next want to read:
The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story (Next post of this series)
Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1 (Previous post of this series)
Key principles in interpreting the Bible
Another post, from the table of contents

Show/hide comments(3 Comments)

3 comments on “How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story?”

  1. I haven't gone through your collection of verses in great detail, but just picked up a few of the Centrals here and there. While most of your categorizations of literal/figurative are probably right, I think your definitions at the top would say that verses like Luke 8:16 and 11:33 should be called literal, as there's an analogy being drawn with an actual lamp that gives off actual light. (In contrast, Luke 11:34 is quite definitely figurative, but it's drawing clear analogy from the literal light that was just described.) Similarly, John 11:9 is drawing an analogy with literal daylight - Jesus is making a point about how easy it is to walk around during the day, and how it's comparably easier to follow spiritual light than to stumble around in darkness. So one of them ought to be tagged Literal and the other Figurative.

    But ultimately, what you're looking at is numbers, and I'm not convinced that pure usage counts prove much, beyond that the poetry (mainly Job and the Psalms) love using the evocative terms available. I would say that there is no doubt whatsoever that the Light in John 1 and Genesis 1 has metaphorical meaning; the question is whether or not this is in addition to a literal meaning. And for that, I think the best comparison verses will be the last parts of Revelation, where there are repeated references to God's glory being a functional replacement for lamps and the sun. Yes, it's a hard passage to deal with... is it all allegorical, or are parts of it literal? Is it talking about concepts that we can't even comprehend? (Probably.) But definitely there's a parallel between the sourceless light described in Genesis 1 (light sources appear on Day 4) and the way we'll no longer need classic light sources in the city of Rev 21.

    I have to say that I disagree with your sub-conclusion that, since there are so many figurative references to light, "a literal reading is not to be given priority over a figurative one simply because it's literal". Whether one reading is given priority over another should be based on weight of evidence, not on mere numbers. There are clearly a large number of literal references to light, and that means God does definitely talk to us about the real stuff of photons and illumination. The frequent poetic references to light are because it's so visible; I'm sure you'll find many other references to "house", because it's a clear term that can be used to mean variously lineage, structures, wealth, and so on - but that doesn't mean that the word as used in Gen 19 shouldn't be first interpreted literally. And I'm sure you could do equivalent analysis on any of several "poets' favourites" ('path' comes to mind) and find that they, too, have a higher metaphor count than literal usage count. You may well be correct, but the numbers alone don't prove that.

  2. Hey there! Good to see a new comment from you!

    The verses you mention like Luke 8:16 and John:11:9 illustrate some of the problems with simply categorizing verses (or any other element of language) as simply "literal" or "figurative". As I hinted at in the post, this is a suboptimal way of interpretation, and I was forced into it simply by the necessity of characterizing 200+ verses in a short amount of time. I still stand by my labels for these verses. All figurative language, and all analogies, must eventually reference a literal thing somewhere down the line; that doesn't mean that all analogies must be considered "literal". But when I stand by these labels, I do so with a huge caveat that that the literal/metaphorical distinction is not always clear cut, nor is it the most useful way of looking at certain verses.

    I agree that if we are going to interpret the Genesis 1 light literally, there must also be a metaphorical component to it. The other parts of the Pentateuch provide some good examples of things like this. While I definitely like the point you make about the connection between light in Genesis and Revelation (something that I hadn't thought about before!), I don't know how much this helps us in searching for a literal interpretation (although the metaphorical meaning is more clear in this parallel).

    While I'm agreed that the numbers in the usage count doesn't DETERMINE the meaning, I think it does influence our starting point, and we can't just ignore it. They are in fact an important piece of evidence that must be weighed, although they're not so hefty that they alone can determine the meaning. Similarly, in your examples of words like "house" or "path", I do think that if I were to read those words in a verse, I would definitely NOT try the literal reading first by default. That doesn't mean I'll necessarily conclude that they're figurative, only that the figurative reading should be given due consideration.

    You're right that my post here is not definitive proof that Genesis 1 should be interpreted figuratively. In general, I don't think I can make a single post that will definitively prove things one way or another. There has been so much written on this topic already, and the things I say here can only affect the discussion as a whole to some limited amount. This is one of the reasons that I actually respect my opposite position.

    I only hope that I can contribute some new ways of thinking to the overall discussion, and I do believe that while my arguments here are not conclusive, they are definitely firm evidence for my position.

    So, I think we're actually much agreed on those points, actually. Thanks again for your comment, and bringing up some new things I hadn't thought of before!

  3. Oh, there'll definitely be comments from me on these posts πŸ™‚ And in some cases, responses on my own blog (your previous post on John 1 inspired some of that). Which means the world's being made a better place... or at least a place with more words in it, which I think is an improvement πŸ™‚

    What I'm looking at is this among your definitions:
    """
    "Literal" means that "light" in this verse is a physical light that actually exists and actually shines. But, if the verse is in a fictional story such as a parable, I still categorized a physical light in the story as "literal" although it didn't exist in real life.
    """

    Which is why, based on those definitions, I would say the three I cited are literal, rather than figurative; they're the literal thing that an analogy's being drawn from.

    But really, that's just playing with numbers a bit. The numbers you give have plenty of room for a bit of tweaking without losing your main point. I'm not sure that the main point is supported all that strongly by the numbers, but certainly the numbers aren't materially impacted by a few defections to the "Literal" side πŸ™‚

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