The Hebrew creation narrative states that on the first day, God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light (Gen. 1:3). However, it is interesting to note that the sun, moon and stars (lights) were not created until the fourth day. In the Babylonian myth, the Enuma elish, from which this creation narrative receives much of its imagery, light is also present before Marduk creates the stars. These references would indicate that light is not to be understood literally, but through the language of symbolism.
In the Dictionary of All Scriptures & Myths, G. A. Gaskell explains how all sacred writings use an underlying universal metaphorical language to communicate an understanding of the inner nature of humans and their purpose on earth, in other words, to express the meaning of human life. He states:
On the question of symbolism, it is quite evident, from the structural resemblances we see in sacred Myths and Scriptures collected from all parts of the world, that the symbolism is one and universal, and therefore not of human origin. This unity, implying one Source for all sacred utterances, and the logical inference that the same symbols have the same meanings everywhere, has to be realised.1
Joseph Campbell concludes that there are universal mythological themes appearing indiverse environments of geography, history and belief.2 His four-volume work, The Masks of God, was for him a confirmation of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony … out of which the next great movement will emerge. 3
Therefore, to understand the symbolic significance of light in the Genesis creation narrative, I will compare the significance of light in Jewish religious writings and practices with that of other Middle Eastern religions, mainly Islam and Christianity, also including the influences of Greek, Babylonian and Persian religions.
Hebrew writings are filled with images of light. Light emerges as one of the Bible’s major and most complex symbols.4 The psalmist prays, the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? (Ps. 27:1)
In Genesis Rabbah, the source of light was described as follows: The Holy One … cloaked himself in it as in a cloak, and the splendor of his majesty shown forth from one end of the world to the other,5
This refers to Psalm 104:2: Wrapped in light as with a garment, You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
The Cabala, representing the esoteric tradition of Judaism, presents primeval light as representing the essence of divinity: As Primal Cause, He is the flame from whom all lesser lights and emanations catch fire.6
Light may have been used as a symbol for the deity because there can be no corporal form attached to it. However, in Judaism, it is clear that light was not to be deified as some religions deified the heavenly bodies (Shintoism of Japan and the Egyptian worship of the sun). Psalm 148 makes it clear that the sun, moon and stars are to praise the Lord because they were created by God. The mystery of God’s presence was symbolized by lamps (Ex.25) which were to be kept burning continually in the tabernacle (Lv.24:2), and worship at the temple also featured lighted lamps (l Kings 7:49; and 2 Chron. 4:20).
The original perpetual light was the seven-branched Menorah. In most cases, both the tabernacle and the temple faced eastward to allow the sunrise to filter into them.7 During the Feast of Lights, torches and candles were carried in procession for protection against disease, famine and earthquakes.8 The eternal light still shines in synagogues to symbolize God’s presence and constant care for his people. The Jerusalem Talmud mandates, a synagogue should have great light.
This recommendation stems from the verse: “ I have not spoken in secret, in a place of darkness” (Isa. 45:19), which has been interpreted in the Zohar to mean that the synagogue, being a replica of the order of Creation, should have a great light.9 It was also a Jewish custom to light candles as soon as a person dies and lamps have been found in excavated graves which may have been to relieve the gloomy darkness of the underworld.10
Above image: Reconstruction of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem created by the Temple Institute of Israel. photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Light is also the essence of all the gifts which God bestows on those who are righteous: When the Jews were rescued from Haman’s planned genocide, they “had light and gladness and joy and honor” (Ester 8:16 RSV) 11
Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart. (Ps.97:11)
The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. Pr. 4:18)
Light is also compared to wisdom and equated to the truth of God’s word. Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness (Ec. 2:13)
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me … (Ps. 43:3)
For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light. (Pr. 6:23)
God’s people are described as having light and Israel is to be a light for the Gentiles: I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Is, 49:6)
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn. and your healing shall spring up quickly; (Is. 58:8)
On the other hand, those who rebel against the light … and do not stay in its paths (Job 24:13) are those who are wicked (in darkness). In Hebrew scriptures there is a conflict of light versus darkness beginning with verse 4 of Genesis, “God separated the light from the darkness.” Deposed rulers grope in the dark without light (Job 12:25) and the absence of light is further described:
Surely the light of the wicked is put out, and the flame of their fire does not shine. The light is dark in their tent, and the lamp above them is put out (Job 18:5-6)
The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states, “Light is the great antithesis and conqueror of darkness”12 In Isaiah, the Lord says, I will turn the darkness before them into light (Isa. 42:16).
According to Christian scriptures, Paul was in that darkness when, as Saul of Tarsus, he was persecuting Christians. While journeying to Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him (Acts 9:3). Saul was struck blind. Like the first day of creation, the light from heaven resulted in a separation, and Saul is left in darkness until his conversion. The regaining of his sight coincides with his being filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17) and he receives a new spiritual consciousness, as reflected by his new name, Paul.
In Christian Scriptures, Jesus is referred to as the light; the disciples are called the light of the world (Mt.5:14-16); believers are described as enlightened (Heb. 6:4; 10:32) and told to walk as children of light (Eph. 5:8). Further examples of light imagery include the light surrounding the appearance of angels to the shepherds (Lk. 2:9); the Magi being led by the light of a star (Mt. 2:9-10); and a light shining in the cell when Paul is rescued by an angel (Acts 12:7).
Christian iconography uses stylised sunbeams to express the association between God and light.13 Christian cathedrals were designed with large stained glass windows to maximize and diffuse the light endowing them with a special quality. The whole structure was given a luminosity like the light Divine and represented the revelation of God within.14. Candles also symbolise God’s presence and it is believed that lighting a blessed candle in a Catholic church will bring protection and heavenly assistance.
Above image: Detail on stained glass depicting Jesus: I am the light of the world, Bantry, Ireland. photo courtesy of Wikipedia
While the symbolism of light in Christianity begins with creation as described in Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis), Christian Scriptures end with the prophecy of Revelations 22:5. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
Postbiblical Judaism (the Qumran Scrolls) was permeated by the dualism between light versus darkness, interpreted as good versus evil, as was John’s Gospel. The symbolic association of light marks the Manichaean and Gnostic traditions as well. In Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia, the struggle between light and darkness is very pronounced; light, having divine qualities, represents truth, while darkness, the Lord of Lies, has demonic qualities. 15
The Persian prophet, Mani or Manes (ca. A.D. 215-275), taught there were three ages in the history of the world: that of creation, that of the intermingling of light and darkness, and the present age, in which the particles of light are believed to be returning to their heavenly home.16
There is also a Greek influence to the religious interpretation of light. Plato repeatedly linked archetypal light with truth and goodness. For Plato, the great task facing the philosopher was to emerge from the cave of ephemeral shadows and bring his darkened mind back into the archetypal light, the true source of being.17
Virtue is attained by discovering luminous knowledge, and order should be governed and illuminated by the supreme Idea of the Good. Aquinas philosophy taught that “man must focus his active intellect, which contains within it the likeness of the divine light.”18
Islam, too, has symbolic references to light within their teaching. Their places of worship, like Judaism and Christianity, feature lamps and windows of stained glass emphasising light. In Islam, Light has a sacred name (Nur) because Allah is the Light of the Heavens and of the earth.19
Surah 24 of the Quran is entitled, “The Light.”
His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance …. Light upon light; Allah guides to His light whom He wills …. His light is found in temples which Allah has sanctioned to be built for the remembrance of His name …. The man from whom Allah withholds His light shall find no light at all.
According to the text, The Religious World, (Richard C. Bush, ed. 1993, New York: Macmillan Publishing), the niche is the symbol of orientation to Mecca and the lamp signifies illumination, the light of understanding and faith that comes through prayer.20
Above image: The light of understanding as expressed in Islam. photo by Colyn Boyce
Karen Armstrong states that one of the divine names of the Qur’an is an-Nur, the Light. She interprets Surah 24 as follows: An-Nur refers to the enlightenment which God bestows on a particular revelation (the lamp) which shines in the heart of an individual (the niche).21
Muslim commentators have pointed out that light is a particularly good symbol for the divine Reality, which transcends time and space.22
Iranian philosopher and founder of the Ishraqi school of philosophy and spirituality, Yahya Suhrawardi, is often called the Master of Illumination because, like the Greeks, he experienced God in terms of light. God, like light, was immaterial and indefinable, yet was also the most obvious fact of life in the world. It required no definition being understood by everyone as the element that made life possible. 23 Suhrawardi, during a mystical vision, experienced illumination similar to the Buddha which showed him that illumination would come from within. It was through the creative imagery of hidden archetypes and symbolic interpretation of the Qur’an which would reveal its true spiritual meaning.
Normally, Muslims interpret their scriptures and practice their religion very literally (as do many within Judaism and Christianity). However the mystical Sufis, like Suhrawardi, are in search of teaching which pertains to the inner life and they use vivid imagery when developing religious meaning. It is within the mystical traditions of Christianity, Judaism (Kabbalists) and Islam (Sufism) where an emphasis upon the symbolic and spiritual meanings of their scriptures is more apt to be found. Illumination for the mystic comes from within. 24
All cultures of the Middle East seem to have used the symbolism of light to express the essence of divinity, whatever that essence is (e.g. Truth, Wisdom, Goodness, Consciousness). The ancient Semites looked upon light and darkness as two great powerful forces which were beyond the powers of mankind, but were controlled by the great gods of the universe 25
It would appear that light is also a universal symbol for divinity. In Buddhism, light symbolises the recognition of truth and the transcendence of the material world on the way toward absolute reality; and in Hinduism, light is a metaphor for wisdom, for grasping spiritually the divine part of the personality … and is the manifestation of Krishna, the lord of light. 26 Because light was of value and of great importance, it was only natural that goodness, joy and pleasure came to be symbolized by light; and darkness, being a hindrance, was associated with trouble, misfortune and wickedness.
Also light is often accompanied by heat and acts indirectly as a purifying force, therefore, its symbolic use may have been connected with the human soul and true religion, while darkness is associated with cold, and therefore death and decay.27
Returning to the symbolic significance of light in the Hebrew creation narrative of Genesis (vs.3), it would appear that the light brought forth on the first day represents God’s own divine essence which is incorporated within the existing chaos, poetically described in verse two as “the void,” “the deep,” and “the waters.” This divine essence (light) is incorporated within physical existence and provides the spiritual consciousness (e.g. Goodness, Wisdom, Knowledge) necessary to ultimately bring order out of chaos. Teilhard calls this the spiritualisation of matter and relates it to evolution 28 In The Divine Milieu, he prays, … You immersed Yourself in matter in order to redeem it.29 He was referring to the Incarnation, but if we interpret light as the symbolic representation of God’s own divine essence, these words can also be said of Creation.
1 G. A. Gaskell, Dictionary of All Scriptures & Myths (New York: Gramercy Books, 1960), xx.
2 Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York; Penguin Books, 1968), 673
3 Campbell, 1. Written on completion of The Masks of God.
4 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, Illinlois; Inter Varsity Press, 1998), 509.
5 Genesis Rabbah, The Judaic Commentary To The Book of Genesis, vol. 1, trans. Jacob Neuser (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985), 29.
6 Freema Gottlieb, The Lamp of God (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1989), xiii.
7 Ryken, 510.
8 J.C.Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978),96
9 Gottleb, 226.
10 Maurice H. Farbridge, Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1970), 245
11 Ryken, 511.
12 Ryken, 509.
13 Biedermann, 205.
14 Robert C. Monk, et al., Exploring Religious Meaning (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Printice-Hall, Inc., 1980), 97.
15 Cooper, 97.
16 Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism, Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (New York: Facts On File, 1992)204.
17 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991),42.
18 Tarnas, 186
19 Biedermann, 205.
20 Richard C. Bush, ed., The Religious World, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmilllan Publishing, 1993), 374.
21 Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 151.
23 Armstrong, 231.
24 Armstrong, 232.
25 Farbridge, 245.
26 Biedermann, 206.
27 Farbridge, 246.
28 Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, The Heart of Matter, trans. Rene Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 27.
29 Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 82,
Peggy Daentl was born and raised in rural Wisconsin, where she and her husband farmed, until his retirement. She led Bible studies for adults within the Catholic Church and at the age of 42 enrolled in college part-time, graduating eight years later with a Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies. She later enrolled in a graduate programme and studied all the scripture and spirituality courses available. It was during these days that she was introduced to the teachings of Joseph Campbell (“The Power of Myth”– WHA television) and Carl Jung, regarding the influence of the collective unconscious. This knowledge was included within her interpretation of scriptures and within the papers she wrote for her graduate studies. The above paper, “The Symbolism of Light …’ was written in 1999 as an assignment for her graduate course of major religious traditions.