Are the Days of Genesis One 24 Hour Days of One Earth Week?

A lot can happen in a day. My alarm buzzed at the break of day and I rolled out of bed. After some coffee and a devotional, I double checked the calendar to make certain that I had the date correct. Yep, the day of the meeting was September 19th. We gathered in a church near downtown Louisville and spent most of the day in prayer and fellowship. All of us communicated with emails and texting, but back in my day it would have been organized by written invitations and phone calls.

See what I did there? In the span of one paragraph, I used the word day in at least three different ways:

  • Day was used a block of time (day in contrast to night).
  • Day was used to convey a 24 hour span of time.
  • Day was used to cover a block of time in the 70’s and 80’s (i.e. “back in my day”).

Genesis one presents us with the same kind of interpretive challenge as my opening paragraph. One word can carry different meanings, depending on the immediate context. Like our English word day, the Hebrew word yom is multivalent:

The very first time yom is used, it carries two meanings in one verse:

“God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (Gen. 1:5).

Here the word yom is used to name the light in contrast to night time, followed by the phrase “evening and morning”, which I take to mean a 24 hour day of one earth week. Even if you’re a Christian that reads “one day” as an epoch or age, you still have two very different meanings in one verse.

Yom is also used to cover a block of time:

“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven” (Gen. 2:4).

Here I am using the NASB because it preserves the English word day, but uses it to convey a block of time (i.e. the six days of creation). The NIV does some of the work for us by dropping the word day and simply using the English word “when.”

Lastly, many have noted the mysterious absence of the definite article on days 1-5:

Even though our English Bibles will use the word “the” when talking about days 1-5 (i.e. “the first day…” “…the second day”, etc.), the word “the” doesn’t appear in the Hebrew until the 6th and 7th day. What does the absense of the definite article mean? I don’t know. A clue might be found in that which makes the 6th and 7th days different from the 1st-5th days of creation. I’m open to your ideas.

What does all of us this mean? For me, it means that I’m going to hit the brakes and slow down. There’s a lot going on in Genesis chapter one. If you’re in a hurry to prove that yom means a 24 hour day of one earth week, then you’re likely to miss the variety of ways that God has inspired its use. As an Evangelical Christian, I hold to the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture. This means that I believe that God has inspired the very words of the Bible, not just the ideas. As such I want to treat every word as precious and meaningfully placed. This is why I pay attention to things like definite articles.

If you’re following this series and you’re a skeptic or a seeker, I want to encourage you to check out Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith or Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. These publications will help you see that Christians have reasons to believe. More than that, I want you to know that putting your trust in Christ does not lock you into a straightjacket approach to Genesis one. You can be a Christian and believe that the earth is billions of years old and that the days are used in a non-literal way. Christians are all over the place on this passage, yet we are united in our conviction that the God of the Bible made everything and should be praised. I interpret the six days of creation as literal 24 hour days of one earth week, but other Christians see it differently. That’s okay. Before I tell you why I read the six days the way I do, let’s look at the challenges inherent to each of the main views.

The Six Days as a 24 Hour Day of One Earth Week:
If you believe the six uses of yom in Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31 all refer to a 24 hour day of one earth week, you have to explain how you can have light (Gen. 1:3) before the appearance of the sun in 1:14. Many will argue that the light here is non-solar, but the same word is used elsewhere for a sunrise (Gen. 44:3; Exod. 10:23; Neh. 8:3). So, how can you have solar light in vs. 5 before the appearance of the sun in vs. 14?

The Six Days as a Day-age or Epoch:
If you think that the six uses of yom are referring to an age or epoch in creation, you have to explain how the fruits trees in verse 11 get pollenated and bear fruit an epoch before bees and insects are created (v. 24). Beyond this, the face value refrain of “there was evening and there was morning” (vv. 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31) strongly argues for the 24 hour view.

The Six Days as Literary Framework & Temple Cosmology:
Careful readers of Genesis chapter one have identified a literary structure built around three days of forming and three days of filling. Most interpreters agree with this structure, but the framework view goes further by reading the days as non-literal and non-sequential. In this view, Moses is inspired to present God as a worker who goes about His activity for six days and rests on the seventh. The days are topical. Frameworker’s believe that God is using anthropomorphic language to accommodate Himself to people. Anthropomorphic is a ten dollar word for ascribing human characteristics to God so that can know Him better. Many Frameworker’s also see temple and priestly parallels to strengthen their view. Genesis 1:1-2:3 pick up temple language (i.e. the “lights” in Genesis 1 parallel the lights used in the temple: Exod. 25:6; 27:20, 35:8, 14, 28; 39:37) and the Garden in Eden parallels the holy of holies.

I see a two-fold challenge with this view. First, Moses uses the toledot formula in a consistent way. When he tells us about the toledot of Jacob, “These are the generations of Jacob” and then proceeds to tell us the story of Joseph, he expects us to read it as real people and real events from a God-centered point of view (Gen. 37:2 ff.). I see no compelling reason to read the toledot formula of Gen. 2:4 any different than its use elsewhere in Genesis. Secondly, while the writers of Sacred Scripture often ascribe human characteristics to God (i.e. “the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His”), I do not think that He employs falsehoods in His effort to be understood.

Next Week: What on earth did God do in the six, 24 hour days of creation?