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Genesis 1:16 and the Age of the Universe


In memory of Cecil William Richard Ball, RN, 1902-1985, a man of integrity, who accepted the biblical creation record and acknowledged the vastness and complexity of the universe, not thinking this to be in any way incongruous.

Genesis 1:16 has been described as a “pivotal” text in the Genesis creation account. Yet it raises questions of profound significance. The NIV translation of this text is representative of most modern English versions: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.” The questions arise from the final sentence, “He also made the stars.” When were the stars created, and why was the record of their creation included at this point in the creation account? Were they created at the same time as the sun and the moon, as one interpretation of the text might suggest? Were they created for a similar purpose, as adjunct luminaries to the moon to lighten the night sky? And of crucial significance, what are the “stars”? Does the word mean what it still means today? Or might it also imply what it means from the perspective of a more recent cosmology? Can it legitimately be understood to include planets, galaxies and other objects in the night skies from which light can be seen on earth?

It might be thought that the meaning of this brief sentence at the end of v. 16 is clear enough, but of little consequence to the rest of the Genesis creation account, which deals principally with the creation of the earth as a home for living creatures and humankind. Was it perhaps an afterthought, as suggested in the note on v. 16 in the NIV, unrelated to the main thrust of Genesis 1 or included perhaps as a warning against seeing the stars in a similar way as the sun and moon were widely seen in the ancient world, deities to be worshipped? Such conclusions would be seriously flawed.

There are four principal factors which must be considered in any attempt to provide satisfactory answers to these questions: context, the original text, translation, and the meaning of the word “stars,” all of which are critical to the correct interpretation and understanding of this apparently uncomplicated assertion that God created the stars.

Context. The necessity of reading a text in context is one of the fundamental principles of biblical interpretation. Gerald Klingbeil emphasizes that “Context is key when we read scripture.”[1] Ekkehardt Mueller likewise says that “Being able to discern how a text is embedded in its context helps… avoid false or biased interpretations.”[2] In the case of Genesis 1:16 the immediate context is of crucial significance. Verse 16 must be read in the light of the surrounding text, vss. 14-15 and 17-18, which contain the account of the creation of “two great lights” and their relationship to the earth as a suitable habitat for life.

In these verses the functions of the sun and moon are clearly stated. The “two great lights,” sun and moon, were created to:

i) “give light on the earth” (vss. 15, 17)

ii) “separate the day from the night” (v. 14) or “separate light from darkness” (v.18)

iii) “govern the day and the night” (v. 18)

iv) “mark seasons and days and years” (v.14)

The question must therefore be asked, “Were the stars also created for these reasons?” “Are their functions the same as those of the sun and moon?” It goes without saying that to reply “No” to these questions is not to say that God did not create the stars. Verse 16 clearly asserts that He did. What it does not say is that He created them to assist either sun or moon in their designated roles “to govern the day,” “to govern the night,” or “mark seasons days and years.” Verse 16 does not say when or why God made the stars. In context, however, the unqualified assertion that He did make them may be a simple statement of fact, or possibly an indication that they may have been created for a different, undisclosed purpose and that the fact of their creation was included in the overall creation account because it was important for those reading it, then and in the future, to understand and remember their origin.

The Hebrew Text. Hebrew is not an easy language to read, let alone to interpret or translate. It has an unfamiliar alphabet of only 22 letters, some of which are very similar, and in the original has no vowels, punctuation, or uppercase letters, and reads from right to left in unbroken text working “backwards” until the end of the document is reached.[3] While scholars have generally come to grips with these anomalies many difficulties remain, and it is not an overstatement to say that the untrained reader would find many challenging problems, some of which are still encountered in the translated text today.

A cursory reading of Genesis 1:16 in most English translations conveys the idea that the sentence, “He also made the stars,” is directly translated from the original Hebrew, because that is how the Hebrew has been understood in context by many translation committees as well as countless individual Old Testament scholars. The original Hebrew, however, is not so straightforward. It does not have a separate sentence stating, “God also made the stars,” but merely a phrase without a subject or a verb, “and the stars,” which runs on from the preceding text without break or punctuation. The literal translation of Genesis 1:16 in The Interlinear Bible reads as follows: “And made God two luminaries the great luminary for the rule of the day and the luminary small for the rule of the night and the stars.”[4] How do “the stars” relate to the “two great luminaries”? The time or purpose of their creation is not clear and cannot be deduced from the original Hebrew text. Furthermore, there is in the Hebrew no mention of a creator or any creative activity regarding the stars, a fact that cannot simply be overlooked since it allows for an alternative translation and interpretation.

The King James or Authorised Version reads, “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.” The KJV supplies the words “he made” in italics, thus remaining true to the original Hebrew but giving room in translation for a separate phrase or sentence and the widely-held understanding that the creation of the stars need not be related in time to the creation and function of the “the two great lights.” As noted, many modern English translations give a separate sentence at the end of v. 16: “God also made the stars,” or “God made the stars also,” in either instance without showing any supplied text, although the verb “made” is not present in the original text. Several more recent translations, particularly those from Jewish sources, reflect the absence of the Hebrew verb at the end of v. 16, and conclude the verse with the phrase, “and the stars.”[5] The Hebrew allows either translation, both of which are in harmony with the whole context of Genesis 1:14-18 where, as already noted, the function of the “two great lights” is chiefly “to mark seasons and days and years” (v. 14), and to “separate light from darkness” (v.18), neither of which functions the stars perform.

It is necessary at this point to comment briefly on the Masoretic Hebrew text which, after many centuries, is still the standard text for translation of the Old Testament. The Masoretes were a succession of Hebrew scholars between the 10th and 7th centuries BC, whose primary task was to make the Hebrew text more intelligible by adding vowel markings to the traditional text. Continuing study of this text and other versions of the original Hebrew has shown that the Masoretic text itself is not without problems, and has led to the claim that earlier versions of the Hebrew are more reliable than the annotated version produced by the Masoretes. One source summarizes the issue as follows:

“The Masoretic text was an answer to a problem that had been building in the Jewish community for centuries: biblical Hebrew was ambiguous, and most Jews did not know how to read it anymore. With no vowels, punctuation, or stress marks, the original Hebrew left a lot of room for interpretative errors.”[6]

The Masoretic text does not really solve either the basic problem of ambiguity or the specific problem arising from the unqualified statement, “He also made the stars.”

Translations. All credible versions of the Bible are direct translations from the Hebrew and Greek texts, and are the careful work of duly appointed committees. The procedure established for the translation of the King James Bible of 1611 is a fine example of the care taken to ensure that the translation was as accurate as possible. More than fifty of the best Hebrew and Greek scholars of the day, drawn mainly from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, were divided into six groups, each group given the task of translating a section of the text. They were required to translate the original text as accurately as possible and to present it in the clearest possible English of the day. Each group’s work was then scrutinized by other scholars to ensure accuracy and to eliminate as far as possible any errors or bias before the entire translation was submitted for publication. The whole process was begun in 1604 and completed in 1611.[7] It is worth noting Alister McGrath’s conclusion to his account of the KJV and its translation. “Our culture has been enriched” by the King James Bible, he maintains. “We shall never see its equal — or even its like — again.”[8]

Since then many new translations have appeared, most of them the work of committees made up of individuals from different backgrounds, with different viewpoints and theological persuasions. The aim is still to be as accurate, readable, and bias-free as possible. This is as true of the Genesis text as it is of all books of the Bible. Regarding Genesis 1:16 and the Hebrew phrase “and the stars” which immediately follows the creation account of the sun and moon, the following translations illustrate the consensus among contemporary scholars of Hebrew about the meaning of the original text:

“He made the stars also” NKJV

“He also made the stars” NIV

“He also made the stars” NLT

he made the stars also” KJV

“he also made the stars” GNT

“he made the stars also” RSV

“He made the stars also” NASB

“He made the stars also” NET

“He made the stars also” ASV

Even acknowledging the absence of a Hebrew verb at the end of v. 16, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the original text is best translated in the light of its context, as it is in all the above translations, as a stand-alone statement of reality, “He also made the stars,” without any textual or theological link to the creation of the sun and moon.

The Stars. The Hebrew word for “star” is kokab. It is used 36 times in eighteen books of the Old Testament and always means what it says as understood in English today. It is the word used in Genesis 1:16 and, for example, in Genesis 22:17 and Exodus 32:13 where God’s promise to Abraham is recorded, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky” (NIV). There is no distinction in these texts or any others where kokab is used between suns and planets and galaxies and other heavenly bodies which can be seen by the naked eye in the night sky. The same expression is still used today when we look up on a clear night and see “the stars.” In Genesis 1:16 therefore it refers to everything that can be seen in the Milky Way and beyond, planets and galaxies included. It is worth noting that the context in which the sun and moon perform their allotted functions as described in Genesis 1:14-18 implies the existence of what is now known as the Solar System, even though the author of Genesis was probably unaware of it.

The word “star” is still defined today as “a celestial body appearing as a luminous point in the night sky,” seen on earth from a flat, one dimensional perspective, although in reality most of these points of light are huge suns or massive galaxies speeding through space and millions of miles apart in a three-dimensional plane. The “stars” in Genesis 1:16 were just that, no more, no less. Their number is incalculable, which is what Abraham meant when he spoke of his descendants in these terms. The implications of all this are almost beyond comprehension.

We can now return to the questions raised earlier by the reference to “stars” in Genesis 1:16. What are they? What is their function? And why is there reference to them in a passage which is concerned primarily with the functions of the sun and moon in relation to life on earth, functions which the stars do not have?

Perhaps the best way to understand the meaning of the sentence “God made the stars also” is to see it as a parenthetical statement of fact, included in the record of creation at an appropriate point, unrelated to the immediate context, but nevertheless important enough to be part of the creation account itself. God created the stars as He created everything else recorded in Genesis 1, but not necessarily at the same time, and clearly not after the appearance of the sun and moon. This would be in harmony with the statement in Genesis 1:2, where the earth is said to have been “without form and void” with “darkness” covering “the deep” (NKJV) before the work of the six-day creation began with the introduction of light. The note on this text in the NIV Study Bible says that creation as recorded in Genesis 1 “Completes the picture of a world awaiting God’s light-giving, order-making, and life-giving word.”[9] It is not stated how long the earth existed in this chaotic condition before it was given its final form, but however long it was the “stars” were already in existence.

Cosmological Confirmation. Two significant facts emerge from the foregoing: that Genesis 1 is primarily the account of the creation of the earth as a suitable habitat for human existence, and that the earth is part of what we now know as the Solar System, which itself is part of a much larger and older cosmos. Other passages of the Bible reveal that the earth as it is now is not as it was when originally created. There has been a cosmic rebellion, now centered on earth, which is still in the process of being resolved. They also reveal that it is the Creator’s intention to create “new heavens and a new earth” when the cosmic rebellion now working itself out on earth is finally dealt with.

Be that as it may, it is indisputable that there is today abundant cosmological confirmation that the universe is older than the earth in the form in which it now exists, older even perhaps than the dark, uninhabited mass from which the earth was created and which became the battle-ground of the cosmic conflict. Cosmology and the findings of astronomy have revealed more knowledge of the universe than could ever have been imagined when Genesis was written. When cosmologists and astronomers speak today about the starry heavens as they have been revealed by the most powerful and accurate telescopes yet invented, they still speak of “stars,” in much the same way as did the author of Genesis — distant pinpoints of light in the night skies. But they also speak of planets, constellations, galaxies, star-fields like the Milky Way, comets, globular clusters, nebulae and deep space, of light-years and an expanding universe, of suns so large that they make our sun seem insignificant and our own planet infinitesimal, of untold millions of other galaxies many of which make our home galaxy, the Milky Way, very ordinary by comparison. Jo Dunkley, Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University and one of today’s most accomplished and respected astronomers, writing in 2019, states that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each galaxy made up of around 100 billion “stars,” many of which “will have their own systems of planets orbiting around them.”[10]

One of the best-known star-groupings in the night sky is the constellation Orion, visible in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres at the right time of year. It appears like a flat one-dimensional star formation when viewed from earth with the naked eye. But if we could view it side-on, it would be seen as it really is, in three dimensions, each “star “of the constellation separated from the others by huge distances. Orion contains two of the brightest stars in the sky and, in addition, countless others of varying size and at various distances. Somewhere near the middle of the constellation we would be able to see the Great Nebula in Orion, perhaps the best-known feature of this majestic constellation and one of the most beautiful and breath-taking of all celestial sights.[11] And we would be able to see it, through a telescope or even through a pair of good binoculars. It is a mere 1,350 light years from earth. Dunkley reminds us, “Light travels extraordinarily fast, 10 million times faster than a car on a motorway… at the incredible speed of 700 million miles an hour,”[12] or about 300,000 kms per second. The light from Orion’s Great Nebula has taken 1,350 years to reach us. It is approximately 7.9 trillion miles away. Whatever the precise figures might be, that is a very long time and a very long way. Orion and its famous nebula are a useful yardstick for trying to grasp the immense distances from earth of other stellar wonders in the universe.

There are other nebulae in the heavens around us, innumerable, distant, and beautiful. A nebula is a large cloud of distant stars or a glowing cloud of inter-stellar gas or dust and very, very large. The Gum Nebula is a case in point, only discovered in 1951, 1,600 light years away from earth. Photographs which may take over an hour to develop have revealed that it glows crimson with bright blue streaks and patches and has three attached nebulae strung out along the edge of the Milky Way.[13] Further telescopic study of this small area of the universe by the astronomer Colin Gum, after whom the Nebula was named, revealed 85 more nebulae in the same region. How many more Gum might have discovered is unknown, since he died in a skiing accident in 1960.[14] Bright and beautiful as it appears through a telescope, the Gum Nebula is nothing in comparison to the Tarantula Nebula. One description says the Tarantula is “possibly the most splendid of all nebulae in the night sky, displaying convoluted, textured loops of nebulous light set against a star-rich background…, the densest regions on the surface of this convoluted cloud glow brightly, forming an interwoven pattern of bright arcs that gave the Tarantula its form and name.”[15] It is approximately 158,000 light-years away.

In addition to nebulae there are galaxies, in huge numbers, which are also of great interest to astronomers and cosmologists. A galaxy is a star system of millions or billions of stars, of which our Milky Way is one of four types, a spiral galaxy. The Hubble telescope has confirmed an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe. To be more specific, there are two large areas of galactic activity only seen in Southern Hemisphere skies which have been of interest to astronomers for many centuries — the Clouds of Magellan. I know they exist for I have seen them myself, distant patches of light to the naked eye, but when seen through the eye of even a modest telescope, much clearer and more well-defined, complex and breathtaking.

The Small Magellanic Cloud contains ten or so “bright deep-sky objects and many more fainter ones, including nearly 2,000 star clusters and 2 billion stars.”[16] Many of the latter are so far away that while appearing as single stars, they are in fact entire galaxies, making the number of celestial objects in the Small Magellanic Cloud innumerable. The Clouds of Magellan appear to the naked eye like separated pieces of the Milky Way, but in fact are themselves huge galaxies, now known to orbit the Milky Way. The Large Magellanic Cloud is at least 160,000 light-years from earth,[17] and it has been calculated that the Small Magellanic Cloud is over 190,000 light-years distant.[18] In comparison to either, the more familiar Great Nebula in Orion is “just up the road.” Some of this can still be seen in the night sky, looking the same as it did when Genesis was written. “He also made the stars” is just as true today as when it was written, and just as relevant and just as necessary to remember as it was then. If we are to grasp the full significance of Genesis 1:16 it must be read in the original Hebrew, in context, and in the light of all that is now known about the vast universe to which our small earth belongs.

In Conclusion. We have spoken of galaxies and nebulae visible in just two or three very small areas of the sky. What lies beyond can only be imagined, even by astronomers sitting at powerful telescopes which continue to probe the night skies from all parts of the world, making discoveries about the surrounding universe of which our planet is just one tiny part. Yet enough has been said in the previous paragraphs to confirm that the universe is vast beyond conception, mysterious and wonderful, and indisputably old. It brings to mind statements which appear frequently in the Bible: “The Lord God has made you as the stars of heaven in multitude” (Deuteronomy 10:22, NKJV) and “He who sits above the circle of the earth… stretches out the heavens like a curtain” (Isaiah 40: 22, NKJV) and notably Psalm 19:1-4 (NIV):

“The heavens declare the Glory of God;

The skies proclaim the work of His hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

Night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language

where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,

Their words to the ends of the world.”

This remarkable poem, written some three thousand years ago (c. 1000 B.C.) seems almost prophetic in some of the concepts it enunciates and the language it uses of a cosmology that would not be known for over two and a half millennia in the future.[19] And it confirms the essential truth of Genesis 1:16, “He also made the stars” yet not, as the text itself in context indicates, at the same time He brought into being the earth as we now know it, making two great lights to rule day and night on the earth as it speeds around the sun in a solar system, itself a tiny speck in a vast and complex universe.

Furthermore He made the earth, locating it in just the right place between the arms of a spiral galaxy, from which earth’s inhabitants could see and study the universe beyond, a position known as the Goldilocks zone — “just right,” not too far from the sun so that it would freeze, not too near so that it would burn, and with clear vision of the surrounding universe.[20] It is easy to understand why earth has been called the “privileged planet,”[21] and why it is incumbent on earth’s inhabitants to understand their own planet, its history, and its place in the vast cosmos to which it belongs.

For centuries, the stars have attracted the attention of poets, philosophers, prophets, and people from all walks of life and every continent on earth. One of them was the renowned French statesman and military genius Napoleon Bonaparte who, contrary to popular belief, was not an atheist, but professed belief in God, and who in the later years of his life frequently read the Bible and held an exalted view of Christ.[22] It is said that at the height of the French Revolution, Napoleon was sailing in the Mediterranean with a group of his officers one starlit night, listening as they discussed the objectives of the revolutionaries in Paris, noting their determination to rid France once and for all from the shackles of religion and all vestiges of belief in God. He heard them discussing the reasons why God did not exist, and how it was necessary to remove the very concept of God from the minds of the populace. While Napoleon sympathized with many of the aims of the Revolution, he did not agree with its disbelief in God or the reasons for it. As the discussion drew to a close Napoleon is reputed to have said, pointing upwards, “But gentlemen, they will leave us the stars.” Apocryphal or not, this statement reflects the thinking of many who through the ages have come to the same conclusion by gazing in wonder at the night sky. It also reflects the unqualified assertion of Genesis 1:16, “He also made the stars.” Tennyson wrote, “I found Him in the shining of the stars.”[23] Untold millions would testify to a similar experience.

When considered in the light of all the available evidence, textual, contextual and cosmic, the declaration at the end of Genesis 1:16 that “God made the stars also” no longer appears as an anomaly, a problem text, but a parenthetical statement of fact, crucially important in its own right for all who would read Genesis 1 in the attempt to grasp the content and intent of the creation record. The Genesis scholar Victor Hamilton, writing in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, came to a similar conclusion. Commenting on the order of the words in the original Hebrew text of Genesis 1:16, he wrote “One may safely describe the creation of the stars as almost an afterthought or a parenthetical addition.”[24] This brief but all-important parenthetical addition to the text of Genesis 1:16 also reminds us that earth’s existence and checkered history can only be fully and accurately understood in relation to the solar system as we know it and to the rest of the vast universe, with all the inescapable implications this entails. Perhaps this was why it was written and included in Genesis 1:16 at a pivotal point in the creation account. It would be a serious error of judgment to ignore the accumulated evidence without careful and objective consideration.


Notes and References:

[1] Gerald Klingbeil, “Making Sense of the Holy,” in Bill Knott, ed., Adventist World, Silver Spring, MD, January, 2020, 11.

[2] Ekkehardt Mueller, “Guidelines for the Interpretation of Scripture,” in George W. Reid, ed., Understanding Scripture, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, MD, 2005, 118.

[3] e g., A.B. Davidson, An Introductory Hebrew Grammar, Edinburgh, T & T. Clarke, 24th edn. 1943, 4-5.

[4] J. P. Green, Sen., ed. and trans., The Interlinear Bible, n. p., Hendrickson Publishers, 2nd edn., 1986, 1.

[5] I am grateful to Dr. Steven Thompson for drawing my attention to recent Jewish translations.

[7] Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible, London, Sydney, Auckland, Hodder & Stoughton, 2001, 172 ff.

[8] Ibid., 310.

[9] On Gen. 1:2, The NIV Study Bible, Grand Rapids, MI., Zondervan, 1985, 6.

[10] Jo Dunkley, Our Universe, An Astronomers Guide, Pelican/Penguin, Random House, UK, 2019, 72.

[12] Dunkley, op.cit., 13, 79.

[13] Dieter Willasch & Auke Slotegraaf, Pearls of the Southern Skies: A Journey to Exotic Star Clusters, Nebulae and Galaxies, Buffalo, New York, Firefly Books, 2014, 44-45.

[14] Ibid., 45.

[15] Ibid., 34-35.

[16] Ibid., 21.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] For an analysis of Psalm 19 as a whole, see Grenville Kent, “The Heavens are Telling: A Biblically Informed Cosmology,” in Bryan W Ball, ed., In The Beginning: Science and Scripture Confirm Creation, Nampa, ID., Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2012, 176-183.

[20] See, for example, s.v. Milky Way, and Kent, “The Heavens are Telling” in Ball, op.cit., 171-175.

[21] Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet, Washington D. C., Regnery Publishing, 2004 and, citing “Contrary to all expectations, the laws of physics seem ‘fine-tuned’ for the existence of complex life” on earth. The DVD of this publication with the same title is well worth seeing.

[23] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur, 1869.

[24] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1990, 128.


Bryan Ball received his tertiary education at Andrew University and the University of London. Formerly President of Avondale College and then President of the South Pacific Division, he is the author of several books and articles, described in Wikipedia as a "widely-cited scholar who has written extensively on current and historical theological issues." His books have been published by denominational publishers in several countries and by secular publishers including Oxford University Press, E.J. Brill of Leiden and James Clarke, academic publishers, Cambridge, UK.

Photo by Manouchehr Hejazi on Unsplash


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