What on “Earth” did God do in Six, 24 Hour Days?

One of my favorite tunes from the 70’s is a Springsteen song called “Blinded by the Light.” I know, you’re thinking it was Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, but the song originally appeared on Springsteen’s ’73 album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Manfred’s ’77 version made a slight change to the original lyrics. Springsteen sang, “…cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night”, but Manfred changed it to, “…revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.” Not that it mattered, “Blinded by the Light” is famous as a commonly misheard song—right melody, wrong lyrics! Even after getting the lyrics correct, it’s hard to “un-hear” the wrong lyrics you’ve been singing for years.

In many ways, the first chapter of Genesis is like a misheard song lyric. It might not be saying what we think it says. The most obvious way that we mishear Genesis one is when we rush past the concerns of the original audience. This is why I spent three posts talking about how to read Genesis 1-3.  As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart remind us, “The text can’t mean what it never meant.” The better we are at reading Genesis within the theological burdens of the Pentateuch, the more likely we are to grasp the author’s intent.

In my last blog, I surveyed three positions on the days of Genesis and mentioned a few of the challenges inherent to each view. In this case, I think the “lyrics” are pretty straight forward: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” are about a roughly 24 hour period of time. The “evening/morning” refrain is a powerful indicator that Moses wants us to interpret the days of creation in an analogous way with how we measure a day. But, as George Harrison reminds us on Abbey Road, “Here Comes the Sun…” How can you have light before the appearance of the sun?

“The God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).

Some readers attempt to slip the Gordian knot by pointing out that “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness” (1 Jn. 1:5). It’s true, God is light, but the apostle John often uses “light” as a metaphor for hope filled truth. I don’t think that John is talking about literal solar light when he says, “God is light.” What about Moses? Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the Hebrew word Moses uses in Gen. 1:3 refers to solar light or a sunrise (Gen. 44:3; Exod. 10:23). I see no compelling reason to take him to mean anything but solar light here. If you gloss the word light as sunlight, you could translate Genesis 1:3 this way:

“Then God said, ‘Let the sun rise.”

So, how should we read 1:14? How can you have solar light in 1:3 before the appearance of the sun in vs. 14?

Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens and to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so”? (1:14).

One approach is to note that verse 14 is more focused on the function of the sun than the manufacture of the sun. Ancient Near East expert John Walton takes this approach, arguing that the ancient Hebrews were more interested in a thing’s function and purpose than how it was made. To his credit, note the emphasis Moses places on the sun’s purpose. It separated the daytime from the night time and marked seasons, especially seasons in Israel’s worship calendar. If this is accurate, then in the ancient Hebrew way of thinking, the sun’s existence was not “complete” until God assigned it a function. This is what God does on the fourth day.

Another approach that I have found helpful is from John Sailhamer. Dr. Sailhamer reads the creation of the sun and everything else into Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” At God’s word, the universe springs into existence, but the land is uninhabitable and unfit for man to live in. It may have sat in that condition for millions and billions of years, but in God’s own time, He begins His work of forming and filling the land so that man could flourish in it. The sun is created in 1:1, but doesn’t make its “appearance” until day four.

This reading’s explanatory power increases with Sailhamer’s translation of 1:14. According to Dr. Sailhamer, the syntax of the Hebrew is better rendered, “And God said, ‘Let the lights in the expanse of the sky separate…” This reading assumes that the lights are already there, they just need to have their purpose assigned. From the standpoint of the passage, the creation of the sun and the appearance of the sun with the naming of its functions are two separate events.

This is how I can lean toward a planet that is 4.5 billion years old and still hold to a 24 hour view of the six days of creation. I read Genesis 1:1 as the creation of nearly everything: the sun, moon and stars, weather, dinosaurs, rainforests, etc. The first verse is not merely a title to the book, but instead a statement of what God did in the beginning. How long did it take Him to create all this? We don’t know, because the word beginning (reshit) refers to a period of time and not a point in time.

So, here’s the million dollar question: If God created nearly everything out of nothing back in 1:1, then what on earth was He doing on days 1-6?

While the lyrics of the days are relatively straight forward, I believe the most commonly misheard word of Genesis chapter one is the Hebrew eretz: “And the earth (eretz) was uninhabitable waste, and darkness was over the surface of the deep…” (1:2). Most of us read the word “earth” in a planetary sense. We imagine the deep blue of the ocean covering the globe—Waterworld before Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic film. This image is easy for us to conjure, because we have mental pictures of our planet floating in space, but the ancient Hebrews had no such stock photos.

Instead of reading eretz as “planet earth”, try re-reading the passage with the English word land:

And the land was uninhabitable waste, and darkness was over the surface of the deep…” (1:2).

Zoom in! Don’t think globe, think dirt or dry ground. This is how the word is used in the immediate context of chapter one. In addition to thinking of dry ground, think about a specific piece of property that God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

  • In chapter one, eretz is used as habitable space (i.e. dry ground) and is contrasted with water and sky/expanse (1:9-10)—this is not planetary;
  • In the Pentateuch, eretz normally refers to the Promised Land (Gen. 15:18; Deut. 1:8)—again, not planetary.

All the cosmogony (i.e. how the universe came into existence) is crammed into verse one. After 1:1, the passage zooms into six days of God preparing a specific land for His imagers to flourish in. The six days of creation are more local than global. So, back to the question, what on earth was God doing on the six days of creation? Answer: He was preparing a place for Adam and Eve to worship and experience the blessing. Once you pass the turnstyle of 1:1, the text is absorbed with God’s work in a specific land, not the whole planet.

Let me add another line of evidence for this more localized reading of the six days of creation. On day three God separated the waters from the dry land and named the waters “seas.” I know what you’re thinking! You’re imagining a satellite image of continents, oceans, seas and rivers, but this is probably not how the original audience would have read the passage. The ancient Hebrews considered any large body of water a “sea” (Ex: the Sea of Galilee). Don’t zoom out—zoom in! This is more local than global (the global work happened back in 1:1).

Back to day three. After God separated the dry land from the seas/lakes, He commanded that the dry land sprout fruit trees (1:9-13). Don’t think of vast planetary canopies of forests with vegetation. Again, that’s verse one. Zoom in!

Then God said, ‘Let the land (eretz) sprout [edible] vegetation: plants yielding seed, fruit trees on the land bearing fruit after their own kind with seed in them…” (1:11).

The text is not talking about all plant life here, this is very specific plant life: seed-bearing plants and fruit trees. As Dr. Sailhamer reminds us in his commentary on Genesis, “No other forms of vegetation are mentioned.” The focus of the story is on God creating a place where man could thrive and the vegetation mentioned here is edible. Zoom in! The overlap between chapter one and two is intentional. Moses wants us focused on a Garden that God planted toward the East in a land called Eden. Chapter one is preparing us for chapter two. The scope of the six days of creation have geographical boundaries and carry us into the complementary creation account in chapter two.

One Last Objection Answered: How many animals could be counted in a single day?
As I mentioned in the last post, every view has its challenges. So, I wanted to address one last difficulty that is common to the 24 hour view. Here’s a reprint of a challenge lobbed out to me by a dear friend and Christian brother (posted with his permission):

The number of species that Adam named eclipses 100,000. Adam observed their behavior and named them accordingly to their kind. It is simply not possible for Adam to do this in the +/- 12 daylight hours he had.

The naming event that my friend referred to is found in Genesis 2:18-20. The very first thing to say is that text is not very interested in a detailed taxonomy. Instead, God is using it as an object lesson to show Adam that he is incomplete and needs a helper that corresponds to him. A second motif found in this passage is that Adam, as an imager of God, is doing what God does. He is speaking and exercising sovereignty over the creatures God created. There is nothing in the text that suggests his scope of rule is limited only to those creatures that he could name.

Speaking of scope, we have no idea how many creatures the LORD paraded in front of Adam for naming. The text is very clear that the LORD brought them to the man (2:19). More than that, the text does not demand the accounting of 100,000 species. In fact, the evidence shows that the scope of Adam’s naming work is limited to the Garden (which is not the whole of Eden or even the planet, but a plot of land in it). The scope is also limited to three kinds of animals: the livestock, the birds of the air and the beasts of the field (v. 20). These animals and their numbers could have been manageable in a day. As I have stated throughout this post, zoom in!

Next Week: Where did we come from? Did we evolve from preexisting hominids or were we made by an immediate act of God?