Crowdsouring request: Let there be light!

Dearest readers, I need to compile a list of notable passages from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that use imagery involving light for a project I’m working on. It would also be helpful if you knew of exemplary commentary on said passages from the rabbinic or patristic literature.

I’ll start the list: John 1.

15 thoughts on “Crowdsouring request: Let there be light!

  1. For Jewish sources, I’d send in a query to H-NET Jewish Studies List [H-JUDAIC@H-NET.MSU.EDU]

    Also, are you stopping with rabbinic or patristic, or do you plan to go into the medieval sources (Islamic, Jewish, Christian)? Just wondering.

  2. My initial thought was to limit it to rabbinic and patristic to keep everything vaguely within the “late classical” world — but I could consider later sources as well, including Islamic ones.

  3. I’m guessing St. John of the Cross would be in there depending on how late you are going. Are you also exploring this in relation to the ‘thick darkness’ of chaos that is often the residence of God’s presence?

  4. I have a section on Gregory of Nyssa’s treatment of light, particularly in the progression of theophanies in his Life of Moses, in my contribution the edited volume Cosmology, Ecology and the Energy of God. You can find it on pages 52-58.

  5. Good call on the Life of Moses.

    Going through the concordance, it strikes me that light isn’t a really big theme in the Hebrew Bible — proportionately a much bigger deal in the NT. But why?!

  6. Islamic sources: The obvious Qur’anic reference is 24:35 (the so-called “light verse”) and all the many commentaries on it (Ghazali, Ibn Sina, Razi, Ibn ‘Arabi, etc). Bowering surveys some of these and has references to Hebrew Bible and New Testament passages as well. Lots of things are referred to as “light”: God, guidance, the Qur’an, the Torah, existence itself (as opposed to the darkness of non-being), etc. Not sure how neoplatonic you want to go, but the Ishraqi school is all about light. Sticking to primary sources, though, there’s also a famous hadith about God being veiled by seventy thousand veils of light and darkness, removing which would burn up everything reached by his gaze. The Bowering article might be the best initial reference – it’s a good survey of sufi commentary, though not other genres (the Christian context he provides is interesting but not entirely compelling).

  7. Partly because ancient Israelite religion didn’t embrace the idea of a cosmic dualism until well into the Persian period, so the metaphor of a cosmic struggle between light (good) and darkness (evil) wasn’t in wide use. By the time of Qumran this had changed- in the non-biblical dead sea scrolls you get things like the “War Rule,” which shows how pervasive the cosmic imagery of light vs. dark had become. And a few centuries later, light/dark imagery becomes the fundamental metaphor for how the world works, especially in the apocalyptic sect that developed in the wake of Jesus. They borrowed heavily from the apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Bible, which developed in the Persian period, when light/dark imagery began to develop (see Daniel 12:2-3 and Zech 14:7 for examples of this). For an example of this discourse at Qumran, see: (

    So in ancient Israelite religion, radiance often signified God’s presence (as in the famous priestly prayer in Numbers 6:25), and darkness God’s absence — but not necessarily the presence of radical evil. You can see this at work in a very interesting text: in Job 3, Job says about the day of his birth, “that day — let there be darkness!” Which is of course an inversion of God’s “let there be light!” in Genesis 1. But it isn’t a call for satan to take over, or something — it’s just a call for the world to devolve into the chaotic void from which it emerged. The rest of Job’s poem in chapter 3 is obsessed with the imagery of light and darkness (and it recurs throughout the book- note the interesting dialectical imagery in Job 10:22 and 17:12). But the question is really about God’s presence or absence (see Isaiah 60:19-20 for an interesting example of this). The article I posted earlier makes the connection between the light of God’s presence and the Mesopotamian idea that divine faces emitted light. Incidentally, this is where the image of the halo comes from. See an ancient Mesopotamian image of a “melammu” here:

    Perhaps that’s a start.

  8. Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus is also helpful here. He points out that the Priestly (and Deuteronomic) schools of thought were trying hard to convince Israelites that the world wasn’t a struggle between God and demonic forces, or really even other gods. God did everything, the good and the bad alike (as Job notes in 1:21). This does marginalize local folk rituals, but it introduces a complicated problem for any theodicy (um, so why does God do evil?), and this is the tension that ultimately leads to the adoption of Persian cosmic dualism and the evolution of satan from a divine servant of God into an independent evil being.

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