The Days of Genesis One (1)

By Daniel H. King Sr.

The doctrine of creation is not an obscure doctrine in Scripture. Although there are many biblical doctrines that are based upon just a few scriptural references, there are at least 75 references to creation in the Old and New Testaments. The first two chapters of Genesis contain the primary biblical information on creation, so they provide the basis of the biblical doctrine. The meaning of this simple narrative is truly straightforward. This portion of the Bible, however, has been the object of considerable speculation by various writers who have placed interpretations upon the text that have little to do with what the writer originally was trying to convey to his audience. Clearly, the meaning of Scripture as with any writing, has to do with how it would have been perceived and understood by its original audience. What any subsequent generation might force upon it, based upon its unique presuppositions and world-views, is a different matter altogether. Such things will change with the passing of the generations. But the author’s original intent ought to determine the meaning.

The Genesis account of creation, and with it the biblical doctrine of creation, has been the subject of such “rethinking” and “reinterpreting” over the years. This has elicited quite a number of approaches to the narration proffered by the author of the document. Consequently, there is much controversy on the interpretation of certain features of the chapters.  Still, certain basic truths stand out in such a way as to lie beyond legitimate controversy or quibble, or so it would seem. Let us begin by stating in uncomplicated language one of these points of a general interest, and then address those aspects of the chapters which require further scrutiny.

According to the first two chapters of Genesis, the entire process of biological creation appears to have been completed in a very short process of time. There is nothing in these chapters about eons or ages. Not one thing. There is no mention of protracted periods of time. Our author only speaks of evenings and mornings, and of the passage of a few short days which comprise a single creative week. It ends with a single Sabbath, not hundreds or thousands of them. In the present historic moment this may be the most controversial aspect of the chapter, even among professed creationists, for it flies in the face of so much of modern scientific theorizing about the origin of the universe. But the question whether the penman of Genesis wished his readers to believe this, based simply upon what he says about the matter, lies safely beyond dispute. According to this writer, the creation took only six days. When the seventh day came, creation was over.

This point appears to stand on its own merits. The text is so plain that little may be said to object to the conclusion that the writer of Genesis wanted his first readers to believe this basic fact. One may argue either that he does not believe it or that he cannot accept this to be accurate, based upon issues or information extraneous to Genesis, but he may not fairly claim that the early readers would have gotten any impression different from the one stated above in this little synopsis. As a liberal theologian, Dr. Gerhard von Rad, observed in his commentary on Genesis, “What is said here is intended to hold true entirely and exactly as it stands. There is no trace of the hymnic element in the language, nor is anything said that needs to be understood symbolically or whose deeper meaning has to be deciphered” (47, 48). According to Aila Annala, “Anyone who reads the Genesis story in Hebrew will find out quite soon that it is prose — a historical description of the beginnings. Something very typical for Hebrew prose are the many waw-consecutive forms in the beginning of the sentences (the repeated “ands” in the beginning of the sentences in many English translations). To make the creation story into a hymn is as difficult as trying to sing a couple of pages from a modern history book” (Creation Story: History, Myth, Hymn or Saga?). The writer has written what he has written; one ought to accept it or reject it. But one must not do it the injustice of attempting to bring those words into line with what one would have liked for him to have said based upon a modernistic interpretation of the events which he chronicles. 

The Spirit of Compromise

With the rise of modern scientific opinion, there has been considerable debate among Bible-believing conservatives regarding the length of the days referred to in the creation account. The debate, though, is only among religious conservatives, because modernist biblical scholars tend to take the “days” of Genesis at face value. As the quotation from von Rad shows, they believe that it means precisely what it says, namely, that the world was created in six literal twenty-four-hour days. They simply do not believe it. They believe the writer was wrong. Liberal scholars read the account in Genesis 1-2 as outdated cosmology dreamed up by an ancient Hebrew bard who was attempting to answer the question, “Where did the world and all that it contains come from?”

Some evangelical scholars on the other hand, have interpreted the days of creation in such a way as to bring them into some semblance of accord with current concepts of geology. The temptation to do so is understandable (and thus to avoid a few of the major conflicts and more onerous contradictions between modern scientific theory and the Bible), but such attempts usually involve the imposition of a presupposed structure upon the interpretation of Scripture which the normal rules of biblical interpretation simply will not permit. 

Such “interpretation” is not only strained to the breaking point, but also presents itself as rather foolish to the scientific community. They view it as the struggle of religious zealots to retain some meager vestige of what they consider to be their “precious religious mythology.” They are not at all impressed with the effort. Those of us who take seriously the words of Genesis are not impressed either, for we view their attempt at striking a bargain with the Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times” as a traitorous sellout to contemporary culture. 

Their efforts are neither serious Bible study nor serious science. In the end, they make of themselves “men without a country,” so to speak. Evolutionists do not want them. Bible-believing Christians do not want them. But that is the way of the compromiser in every age. History provides us with many examples of this same mentality. The Judaizing teachers of Paul’s time were rejected by churches which stood steadfast in the faith, while also being rejected by orthodox Jews who could not accept the notion that Jesus was their Christ. This was the result, in spite of their attempted compromise: “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12). Faithful saints rejected them because of their compromise, as we must today    reject those who invent compromises with the present culture. Likewise, the “Christian” gnostics attempted a compromise between the Christian system and the multifaceted Gnosticism, which itself was a commingling of Greek and Oriental mysticism, religion and philosophy. In the end, they too, found themselves unable to please either group. Ultimately, they became what Francis Legge has called one of the “rivals of Christianity” (Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity From 330 BC to 330 AD). The Apostle Paul considered their efforts at defining true wisdom as pure folly: “. . . avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge — by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith” (1 Tim. 5:20, 21).

 How Long Were the Days of Genesis One?    

Our examination of this issue must necessarily begin with a study of the words chosen by the writer of Genesis to describe the temporal aspects of his narrative. Before we take a look at the words involved, though, a simple generalization is necessary. Most words in any language have a somewhat flexible range of meanings, and their meaning is not determined by a lexicon so much as by the context. In Genesis chapters one and two the word “day” (yom), which has the simple lexical meaning of “‘day’ as division  of time” (Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the O.T. 398) has a similar range of meaning as does our English word. It would be easiest to illustrate this point in the English usage. 

One may, for example, speak of “George Washington’s day” as an indefinite period of time (the context makes this clear), and this is how the word “day” is used in Genesis 2:4 “in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” Here the author simply refers to the time when God made the earth and heavens, not a particular day. Many interpreters wish to understand “day” in all its usages in Genesis 1 in this way. There are immense problems with this approach, however, as we will demonstrate below. 

If a physician, on the other hand, prescribes medicine that is to be taken at one dosage the first day, at a reduced dosage the second day, and so on, he means something quite different when he uses the word “day.” Moreover, it might prove to be a huge mistake to understand his words other than the way they were intended. But the context of the term leaves nothing to the imagination and little room for interpretation. “Day” is clearly used in this latter way in Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31. All the usages in this chapter being of the same type and utilizing the identical descriptive, “there was evening and morning, a first day,” and so on, it is natural for the reader to imply that the same thing is meant in each and every instance. And it is very unnatural, if not ridiculous, to infer the existence of millions or billions of years either during the days or between the days of Genesis 1. In Genesis 1-2 we have to understand yom as literal, 24-hour days, for the following reasons: 

  1. The creation days are delimited by the evening and morning, both of which in the Bible always mean literal evening and morning. Are we to believe that for half the period represented, say on the fourth day, the sun did not shine and that for half the period it did? By saying “evening and morning” the text implies a period of darkness and a period of light. Could plants have survived over such an extensive period of darkness?
  2.  The first day, yom ehad, is, in fact, not called the first day in the Hebrew text, but “day one” or “one day.” In this particular instance we could speak of a “proto-day,” a day that was to be the measure of all coming days. It was not possible to use the order “first” yet, since there had not been any day before. It was not until after this “proto-day” that one could start talking about the second day, third day, and so on. 
  3. Together with an attribute expressing order (e.g., the second, the third, etc.), yom is only used literally in the Old Testament. 
  4. If the days were intended to represent longer periods of time, then why did the writer not use the word dor, which means a period of time and can be used in different contexts, instead of yom? Why did he not choose to employ ‘olam which means “a time hidden, indefinite, or unlimited” (B. Davidson, Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon 601).
  5.  The word yom in the Bible, and its plural form yamim, in approximately 95% of its occurrences has the ordinary literal meaning. Passages such as Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 are not meant to interpret the events of Genesis chapters one and two. Their purpose and the occasion of their usage are to show God’s eternity, that one day is comparable to a thousand years and a thousand years like one day to one who dwells beyond the realm of time. They do not propose to offer a new way of viewing the creation week. In fact, they have no connection at all with the creation story. 
  6. With the word yom, always it is the context and the clues provided in the context that determines its meaning. And if the contextual evidence in Genesis 1 and 2 is not sufficient to convince the skeptical, Moses proceeded to tell us what he meant in other places in the Pentateuch. In his discussion of the Sabbath command he said, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them . . . ” (Exod. 20:11). He also wrote, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed” (31:17). These supplementary statements from the hand of the prophet clearly imply that the days of creation were ordinary days and that God rested on the seventh day rather than on the seventh era, for the Jews were required to rest for a day and not for an era. This is an excellent example of Scripture interpreting Scripture, which is Bible interpretation at its best.  
  7. Psalm 33:6-9 says, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth . . . For He spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” According to the inspired writer of this psalm, when God spoke, the work of creating was done, and after that it merely stood fast. How is it possible to harmonize this bold declarative statement with an interpretation of the creation account which holds that God spoke merely to begin a process that took millions or billions of years to assume the form which it ultimately attained? 
  8. Jesus declared the creation of man and woman to have been at the beginning of the creation, not toward the end. The Lord said, “He which made them at the beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4). The parallel account in Mark 10:6 further clarifies: “But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” If the progressive creationists are correct, man and woman were brought on the scene much closer to the end of earth history than the beginning. But Jesus said,      “ . . . from the beginning of the creation God made them      . . . ” It was not at the end, it was at the beginning. It is easy to understand how the events of the sixth day of a 144-hour week might be viewed as “the beginning”; but it is difficult indeed to see how man’s creation 15-20 billion years after the “big bang” or original creation, and roughly 4.5 billion years after the creation of the earth, might in any sense be called “the beginning.” 

All these points taken together powerfully define the creative days as relatively short, not long periods of time. So we are left with no doubt whatever as to the signification of the word for “day” as used in Genesis 1. It means exactly what it says! It represents a normal, average, ordinary, twenty-four hour day — except that some very extraordinary things happened on those particular days!

In summary, it is plain from a simple reading of the chapter that these long periods of time are being read into the text and not out of it! One could never find these extensive periods in Genesis the first chapter without first believing this notion that the universe is billions of years old and then inserting them between the verses — not because they may be found in the word yom or somewhere else, but because they must be placed there in order to fit one’s preconceptions. 

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 10 p6  May 18, 2000