The Days of Genesis 1
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 4 November 2008; Revised 6 September 2015
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Updated Edition 1995). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish character of the entire Bible I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament).
There was a day when a day in Genesis meant a day. People were taught as children the distinction between hours, days, weeks, months and years. It was pretty clear. A day was 24 hours, or less. We also knew when to distinguish the specific time 24-hour day from a metaphorical day, such as having one's day in court.
But, now in this modern day, we are told that Moses, or his antediluvian and patriarchal forefathers who actually passed on the family records to him, wrote in such ambiguous language that no one can be sure whether the Genesis description should be taken literally. Let us carefully review the evidence to determine the length of a day.
The Meaning of Yom
The Hebrew word yom, translated "day" in Genesis 1, is generally used as a specific division of time denoting the daytime portion of a 24-hour day (Gen 1:5) or a complete solar/lunar cycle of 24 hours (Ex 2:13). The Hebrews did not conceive of time in the abstract, but used yom overwhelmingly in the sense of ordinary measurable time. Yom occurs 2,245 times in the Tanakh. The NASB translates yom with over 60 different renderings, with "day" and its forms accounting for 1,782 instances. Out of the 2,245 occurrences about 90% refer to a calendar event or some portion of a 24-hour day. Other renderings still rely on the basic concept of the 24 hour period.
Bible scholars who oppose taking yom literally in Genesis 1 will say that elsewhere in the Tanakh yom is used as a vague or indefinite measure of time, such as Isaiah 43:13, “Even from eternity I am He, And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?" “From eternity” makes the singular miyom (lit. “from day”) mean eternal time before creation. A few versions treat miyom as meaning the indefinite time of eternal past to eternal future (MSG, NCV, NLT). However, all other Bible versions treat miyom in this verse as a definite reference point, either before creation (KJV, NKJV), since creation (LXX, Vulgate, ASV, CJB, DRA, JPS, NIV) or from the time Isaiah was given the message (CEV, ESV, HCSB, NRSV, RSV, TEV).
“God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day." (Gen 1:5)
Almost 90 important words in Scripture, such as "atonement," "command," "covenant," "holy" and "worship" first occur in Genesis. All the first mentions have substantive meaning. Indeed, it would be contrary to sound communication principles for a word to have an indefinite meaning the first time it is used in the Bible. The first use of yom in the Bible is described as a period of time consisting of an evening and morning. What would God have to say to make it clear that He means a 24-hour day? If yom means a long age of a thousand, million or billion years, then how long was the evening portion? How long was the morning portion?
If "evening" and "morning" are meaningless words, then the word "years" in Genesis 1:14 would likewise be meaningless. When Genesis 18:11 says that Abraham and Sarah were "advanced in age” or lit. “days” [Heb. yamim]," the phrase would be meaningless if you didn't already know that yom was a 24-hour period of time. To treat plain language in this cavalier manner leaves the reader uncertain of the meaning of every word in the Genesis account.
If yom can't be taken literally in Genesis, then it’s impossible to determine its meaning. If the straightforward meaning of the Hebrew word isn’t accepted now, then the meaning of every other word in Genesis 1, indeed the whole Bible, is uncertain. The person who does not know what yom means or believes that the true meaning cannot be known cannot accuse anyone who believes he knows of being wrong. Uncertainty is not a trump card against certainty.
Genesis 1:26-28 says that the first man (Adam) was created on the sixth day. Adam lived through the rest of the sixth day and through the seventh day. Genesis 5:5 says that Adam was 930 years old when he died. If the days of Genesis 1 are not literal, then the age of Adam at his death is meaningless.
Day With a Number
Counting or numbering days (cf. Ps 90:12) was an integral part of Hebrew culture as indicated in the calendar that regulated agricultural and religious life and the many genealogical lists in Scripture enumerating the lifespans of important people. Thus, every time yom occurs with a number (e.g., "third day"), it always has a literal meaning. Such a designation occurs over 100 times in the Torah alone. If "third day" in Genesis 1 is meaningless, then what does the assertion of Abraham circumcising Isaac on the eighth day (Gen 21:4) mean?
A Thousand Years?
"But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day." (2Pet 3:8)
Some people attempt to use Peter’s contrast of a thousand years to a day to rebut the straightforward meaning of yom in Genesis 1 by treating Peter’s saying as simply a restatement of Psalm 90:4, "For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by." Moses stressed that God is not bound by time as people are (Psalm 90:2). Thus, when God exercises His patience to allow people to be saved, a thousand earth years may go by. As appealing as this interpretation might be, it ignores the fact that Moses and Peter were discussing two entirely different subjects.
The fact is, Peter’s contrast doesn’t work unless we know how long a thousand years last. If yom is indefinite and meaningless, then so is the expression “a thousand years.” Maybe Peter meant a million years or a billion years. Interestingly, the early church fathers took Peter’s words literally and interpreted the passage as meaning that just as there were six days of creation so there would be a thousand years of history for each creation day, and then the Day of the Lord would usher in the seventh or Sabbath millennium, just as God rested on the seventh day after creation.
The fact that Peter stated his proposition forwards and backwards is significant. The context shows that Peter is answering mockers who dispute the reality of the Second Coming by giving them an overview of history beginning with creation (verse 5) and concluding with the day of judgment (verse 7). These two events are the bookends of earth history. Therefore, it makes sense that Peter’s cryptic comment has something to do with earth history.
God Says It and I Believe it
As a final consideration Exodus 20:1 states unequivocally that God declared the ten words of instruction, also known as the Ten Commandments. Hear what the Lord God of Israel told his people in the context of the fifth word or commandment.
"For in six days, ADONAI made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. This is why ADONAI blessed the day, Shabbat, and separated it for himself." (Ex 20:11 CJB)
This verse offers a history lesson to explain the existence of the Sabbath, which had been observed long before it became a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. For those willing to accept the plain meaning of words the six-day record of creation in Genesis 1 is treated as a straightforward narrative meant to be taken literally. Exodus 20:11 does not say six weeks (Heb. shabuot), six months (Heb. chodashim), six years (Heb. shanim), six thousands (Heb. alapim), or six indefinite ages (Heb. olamim), but six days (Heb. yamim). Treating yom as millions or billions of years turns God’s simple declaration into an absurdity and impugns the very basis for keeping the Sabbath.
Just in case you missed it the first time this summary is repeated:
"It [the Sabbath] is a sign between me and the people of Isra'el forever; for in six days ADONAI made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and rested." (Ex 31:17 CJB)
I am inevitably led to the question - Why don't people want yom to mean a 24-hour period in Genesis 1, when everywhere else in the Bible, they will accept such a meaning? Why don't people who say they believe the Bible want to believe in a six-day creation, which means the earth is quite young and not very old? In reality, the only reason for not believing the plain truth about creation as presented in the Bible is to accommodate humanistic theories, fantasies and mythologies of origins. In practice too many believers want to pick and choose what they believe about the Bible and what instructions of the Bible they want to obey. Accepting any accommodation with evolution, the lie of Satan, and compromising with atheists can only lead to minimizing the authority of Scripture. Here is where I stand. The Bible, consisting of the Tanakh and Besekh, is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, totally truthful and accurate in all its historical narratives, including Genesis, and is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct (Isa 40:8; Luke 24:2-7,44; 1Th 2:13; 2Tim 3:16; 2Pet 1:21).
Copyright © 2008-2015 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.