Nine Things You Might Not Know about Genesis 1-2: Part 1

Part 1: It is not necessary to interpret “days” as literal, 24-hour days.

As I said in the introduction, I don’t have all the answers to questions about Genesis 1-2. I have much to learn, for sure. And so, I have decided to take a journey of sorts through these opening chapters of the Bible. And I want to invite you to come along with me to explore these fascinating passages. As we do, let’s ask ourselves, “What does the Bible actually say about the origins of ‘the heavens and the earth’”?

Let’s begin by addressing a very common interpretation of Gen 1. A lot of people (e.g. young earth creationists) interpret “days” in Gen 1 as literal, 24-hour days. They argue that this is the natural, plain reading of the creation story. This idea is foundational to their belief that the earth is 6,000 years old. But it is important to ask: Is such a literalistic reading necessary? I don’t think so for the following reasons.

When we look at the scriptural texts, we find there is a range of meanings for the word “day” (Hebrew: yom). For example, the word yom is used for the first time in Genesis to refer to “daylight,” not to a 24-hour period.[1] Gen 1:5 says:

“God called the light Day [yom], and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

Here, the text is clear: yom refers not to a full, 24-hour day, but rather to short period of hours that we call the “daylight hours.” Thus, yom can refer to a period of time that is less than a 24-hour day.

Moreover, Gen 2:4 uses the word yom to summarize the entire creation account:

“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day [yom] that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.”

This verse is important for us to consider because, unlike the creation account in Gen 1 where the heavens and earth are said to have been made over a period of six days, Gen 2:4 says they were created over the span of just one “day.” Thus, the creation event is described in two very different ways – all with the same word, yom.[2] This is a strong hint that, unless we want to admit a contradiction between Gen 1 and Gen 2, yom in at least one of these chapters should not be taken literally as a 24-hour day. (We will talk more about the relationship between Gen 1 and 2 in the next post.)

Young earth creationists are quick to admit that, yes, yom can mean different things depending on the context. However, they add that whenever yom is used alongside a number (such as 1st day, 2nd day, 3rd day, etc), it always refers to a 24-hour period. (I recall hearing Ken Ham make this argument at an event he spoke at recently.) The problem with this line of thinking is that it simply runs counter to what other biblical texts tell us.

For example, Hosea 6:2 says,

“In two days [yom] he will revive us; on the third day [yom] he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”

Here, yom is numbered.[3] And yet, the phrases “in two days” and “on the third day” should not be understood as literal “days.”[4] These phrases should be seen, rather, as a stylistic way to make the point that God will deliver his people. One commentator argues, for example, that these phrases evoke “the image of the cure of sickness” and are therefore used “metaphorically” to say simply that God will deliver his people soon.[5] The phrases must be seen as having “a rhetorical and proverbial character.”[6] While there is much to be said, one might simply think of these phrases as literary devices that “flower up” Hosea’s prose. Amos, another prophet, does something similar (see e.g. Am 1:3, 6, 9).

It seems very likely that this is indeed what Hosea is doing when we read all of Hos 6. In that chapter, there is a plethora of literary creativity going on. Hosea, after all, is well-known for using wordplays, similes, and metaphors to make theological points. All that to say, I don’t think it would be wise to press the phrases “in two days” and “on the third day” to mean anything literal. These are not literal days as much as they are literary days. This is an important distinction.

These observations lead us to conclude that the young earth creationist is not correct to say that every time yom (“day”) is used with a number it always means a literal, 24-hour day. This simply isn’t the case.

But here’s the deal. Even if all other instances of yom paired with a number in the Bible did mean “literal, 24-hour days,” it does not follow that yom in Gen 1 must also necessarily mean that. Why? Because words derive their meaning based on their own particular context. We all know that words are very fluid in meaning. For example, the phrase, “That’s wicked,” could refer to something morally bad or, as is typical in a pop-culture context, something awesome. Meaning, then, depends on the context. So, in order to find out what “day” means in Gen 1, we will need to pay close attention to the context and genre of that chapter.

And if Gen 1’s context is such that it allows for yom to be interpreted non-literally, then it simply doesn’t matter what other instances of yom in the Bible mean. To disagree would be like saying, “Since there are no black swans living in 95% of the world, then there can’t be black swans living in the other 5%.” Such arguments don’t work. All the same, my argument that yom paired with a number can mean something other than a literal, 24-hour day is all the more well-grounded because that’s exactly what we see in Hos 6:2.

Moving on, another example comes from Heb 4:1-11. Here the author of Hebrews interprets the “day” of rest in the creation account as a non-literal, non-24-hour concept by suggesting that this “day” is still going on for believers in Christ.[7] The author of Hebrews thus interprets the seventh day of Genesis theologically, not literally as a 24-hour day. (It is important, I think, to pay close attention to how the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament. We could learn a lot if we did so. On that note, don’t forget to let St. John help you interpret the creation story. His interpretation is far from literal. It is christological! See John 1:1-5.)

Another fun example comes from the book of Jubilees, which was an old Jewish retelling of the Genesis story (for this reason it is sometimes called “Little Genesis”). I first read Jubilees when I began immersing myself in Jewish interpretive practices a while back. As I did, I recall laughing when I came across how the author of this book interpreted yom (“day”) in Gen 2:17. In this verse, God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, saying, “for in the day [yom] that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Of course, we all know that Adam did not physically die on the same day he sinned. According to Scripture, Adam died at the ripe old age of 930. So how does the author of Jubilees make sense of this?

In Jubilees 4:30, we read the following:

“And he [Adam] lacked seventy years from one thousand years [930 years], for a thousand years are like one day in the testimony of heaven and therefore it was written concerning the tree of knowledge, ‘In the day you eat from it you will die.’ Therefore, [Adam] did not complete the years of this day because he died in it.”

Did you catch that? The author of Jubilees interprets “day” (yom) in Gen 2:17 as a very long period of time (namely, as 1,000 years). This interpretation helped the author make sense of Gen 2:17 which said Adam would die on the “day” he sinned. The logic of Jubilees is this: Since one day is like 1,000 years in heaven, and since Adam died at the age of 930, he died on the same “day” as he sinned, having died 70 years before his 1,000th birthday.

The point here is not that I think Jubilees is correct. All I wish to show is that there is precedent for yom to be understood non-literally (i.e., not as a 24-hour period). Along with the author of Hebrews, we see that here, too, there is some flexibility in how one can interpret yom.

All of these examples show that, contrary to what some young earth creationists might say, it is not necessary to take “day” to mean a 24-hour period. As we have seen, there are other possibilities since the range of meanings of the Hebrew word yom is vast (like all words). Of course, this does not prove that the six days of Genesis cannot be 24-hour days. My argument thus far does not exclude that interpretation. I have merely tried to show that it is not necessary to take yom literally. It is possible, in other words, for yom to mean something other than “24-hour day.” In fact, it can mean quite a range of things!

Since I’ve opened up the possibility that yom (day) can be interpreted non-literally in Gen 1-2, the next two posts will give reasons why I think they must be taken non-literally. As we will see, there is something very curious and fascinating going on in the opening chapters of Genesis.

For the next post in this series, click here.

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[1] Specifically, it refers to a “period of light,” as has been argued in Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 54. We will talk more about Walton’s observation on this in the next few posts.

[2] See Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III, Science, Creation, and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), 118-119.

[3] In the first phrase, yom is rendered in its dual form.

[4] In his article, “Biblical Reasons to Doubt the Creation Days Were 24-Hour Periods,” Justin Taylor understands “third day” in Hos 6:2 to be functioning in an “analogical” way.

[5] A.A. Macintosh, Hosea, eds. J.A. Emerton, C.E.B. Cranfield, and G.N. Stanton (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 220-222.

[6] Macintosh, Hosea, 224.

[7] Cf. the Taylor article above on this issue, specifically the Miles Van Pelt quote under his section 3.

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