Does Genesis Contradict Itself?

Does Genesis Contradict Itself?

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on August 18, 2023, which can be found here.

Q. Some of my co-workers say they can’t accept the Bible because there are contradictions in it. One of the examples they give is from the first chapter of Genesis, where it looks like light is created twice. They say the Bible “doesn’t agree with itself,” and that science shows that it’s false. I don’t know what to do with that.

A. I suspect quite a number of us have had this sort of experience. (And the rest of us worry we might, if we ever risked it to share our faith with our co-workers!) As it often happens, what looks like a contradiction is in fact a misunderstanding that we can clear up by looking at the details more closely.

The two “contradictory” verses you mention are found in Genesis 1:3, and then just a few paragraphs later in verse 14. Since the details make all the difference, it will help to have a fuller version of each one in front of us. Here’s the first:

Genesis 1:3-5 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Then a few paragraphs later, in verse 14, we read about the fourth day of creation:

Genesis 1:14-19 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.

It’s clear enough, as your co-workers will have noticed, that by the time we get to the creation of the lights on day four, there has already been both darkness and light for three days. Hence the refrain of ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ at the end of verses 5 and 8, and in verse 13.

But notice that while the phrasing in verse 14 is almost identical to the phrasing in verse 3 (“And God said, ‘Let there be . . .’”), the actual act of God makingthe lights on day four (verse 16) does not correspond to any creative act in verses 3-5. Nowhere are we told that God made the first light in verse 3. He instead invites it to come forth, distinguishes it from something else, and then addresses them each. What exactly are we beholding in this moment?

Let me suggest that what we are beholding is in fact an “exchange” that takes place before the creation of the cosmos begins in verse 6: namely, the first person of the Trinity addressing the second person of the Trinity, whom the apostle John would later call “[t]he true light, which gives light to everyone” who comes “into the world” (John 1:9). In that New Testament text, the apostle had just explained that this light is himself the very Word of God through whom “all things were made” (1:1-3), and that this light “shines in the darkness” which “has not overcome it” (1:5).

If we think through Genesis 1:3-5 in accordance with St. John’s train of thought, we realize that we’re being introduced—in the very first verses of the whole Bible—to the uncreated light of the world, who is fundamentally different both from the darkness and from the created lights in Genesis 1:14-19. Instead of a contradiction, we’re beholding a distinction which holds forth a revelation of the divine. We’re being shown, for the first time, the One we will later come to know as Jesus of Nazareth.