The Meaning of "Day" in Genesis 1-2
by William Einwechter
Genesis 1:1-2:3 explicitly states the God created the world in six days. A straightforward reading of the Biblical text leads one to believe that the days of creation were six literal, twenty-four-hour days. Each day is numbered ("the first day," "the second day," etc.), each day is elucidated by the phrase, "And the evening and morning were the . . . day," and the creative activity of God on each day is described. In spite of this, the "days" of Genesis 1 and 2 have not always been understood in the church to refer to normal twenty-four hour days and the doctrine of six-day creation has subsequently been denied.
The Reformers' Understanding of "Day" in Genesis 1-2
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, believed that the world and all that is therein was created at once and not in the course of six days. He taught that God's work of creation took place in a single moment, and that the days of the creation were not literal days. Augustine understood these days as allegorical representations of angelic cognitions.(1) As Luther explains: "Augustine trifles with the six days in a strange way, making them days of hidden meaning, according to the knowledge of angels, and does not let them be six natural days."(2) Many in the church followed Augustine in assigning an allegorical meaning to the six days of creation, and it prevailed as a common interpretation of the creation account of Genesis. But with the Reformation and the doctrine of sola Scriptura came a return to the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Scriptures. The fanciful exegesis (i.e., eisegesis) of the allegorical method that was often used in the interpretation of the Bible was set aside for a faithful exegesis of the text that focused on the meaning of the words of Scripture according to their ordinary historical sense. This approach to interpretation caused the Reformers to reject the figurative meaning that Augustine and others had given to the days of creation, and to advocate instead a literal understanding of the six days of Genesis 1-2. Luther states:
But since we cannot understand the details of these days, especially why God wanted to have this time distinction, let us confess our ignorance and not needlessly regard and interpret these words in a figurative sense. So far as the opinion of St. Augustine is concerned, I hold that Moses spoke literally and not figuratively or allegorically, telling us that the world with all its creatures was made within six days, just as the words read.(3)
"Just as the words read," - this was the perspective of Luther and the other Reformers. Calvin, after asserting that violence is done to the text by the view that the world was made in a moment, and that Moses distributes the work of God over six days for the mere purpose of instruction, upholds the literal meaning of the Genesis account, saying, "Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men."(4) Turretin rejects the allegorical view of Augustine because, among other things, of "the simple and historical Mosaic narration, which mentions six days and ascribes a particular work to each . . . ."(5) The Westminster divines, who held that the true sense of Scripture "is not manifold, but one" (i.e., the one determined by the grammatical-historical interpretation of the text), make a literal six-day creation part of creedal orthodoxy by stating that God created "the world and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good."(6)
The Modern "Scientific" Understanding of "Day" in Genesis 1-2
Through the Reformers' insistence on the plain sense of Scripture the allegorical interpretation of the days of creation was overthrown and the Protestant church understood Genesis 1:1-2:3 to teach that God created all things in six normal days. The Bible said that creation took place over the space of six days, and there was no reason to understand the Hebrew word for "day" (yôm) in other way than its ordinary denotation of an actual day.
But all this changed with the coming of the Enlightenment, Newtonian science, and its stepchild, the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution was a purely naturalistic explanation of the origin of life and of the complex variety of species on earth. Instead of the supernatural work of God in the special creation of all things in six days, the theory of evolution said that all life evolved spontaneously through the processes of natural selection and the survival of the fittest over billions of years. Hence, the theory of evolution was a repudiation of the Biblical account of creation, and the early chapters of Genesis were labeled as "myth." In time, the primary support for the theory of evolution came from the geological record of fossil remains. From the fossil record geologists constructed a geological table, complete with dates and names for various ages, that traced the evolution of life from its lowest forms to man himself. Eventually, the theory of evolution and geological timetable became the unquestioned orthodoxy of science and the view of all "educated and reasonable men."
This created an apologetical problem for the church: How can the Biblical account of creation be reconciled with the "assured results of modern science"? It also produced a problem for evangelical Christians who were scientists and who desired acceptance in the scientific community, yet who also professed faith in the Bible as the word of God. The answer to this dilemma was the theory of theistic evolution. Theistic evolution is a compromise between evolutionary science and the Biblical text. It states that God is the creator of all things, as the Bible says, but that evolution is the means that God used to bring about the complexity of life and the variety of species. Theistic evolution maintains that both the Bible and modern science are correct; the Bible teaches us the fact of God's superintendence of creation, and the theory of evolution teaches us the mechanism of creation. The view of theistic evolution also seeks to reconcile the Genesis account of creation with the geological record by stating that the six "days" of creation were actually six "ages." Therefore, the days of creation are not to be understood as being literal days, but rather should be viewed as six periods of time (each stretching millions of years), and that the days of Genesis 1 correspond generally to the geological ages. Theistic evolution became very popular both within the Christian scientific community and within the church. It is still widely held today.
Therefore, the confessing church of today finds itself in a similar situation in respect to the Biblical doctrine of creation as did the Reformers: a literal understanding of the Genesis account of the days of creation has been set aside for a figurative interpretation. However, the modern evangelical "day-age" interpretation of Genesis 1-2 is far more serious, in that it gives validation to an alien world view and assumes that the Bible should be interpreted in the light of modern scientific views. How should we respond to this attack on the integrity of the word of God and the Faith of the church? The same way that the Reformers responded to the allegorical views on the meaning of the days of Genesis held by Augustine and others: an assertion of the authority of the Biblical text as understood in its grammatical and historical sense.
A Grammatical-Historical Interpretation of "Day" in Genesis 1-2
A grammatical-historical interpretation of the meaning of "day" in Genesis 1-2 is based on three primary considerations: the context, the meaning of the Hebrew word yôm, and the teaching of Exodus 20:9-11.
Context of Genesis 1-2
The purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 is to reveal God as the creator of all things, including man and man's home, the earth. The Biblical doctrine of creation is foundational to our understanding of God, of man, and of God's covenant with man. The eternal power, wisdom, and glory of God are manifest in the creation account. The absolute distinction between the creature and the Creator is established-God's transcendent holiness. We learn that man is made in the image of God, and that his purpose is to serve and glorify God by taking dominion in the earth. Genesis 3 reveals the fall, its consequences, and God's purpose to redeem man from sin by the seed of the woman. God's plan involves the choice of one man and his family to be the channel of redemption to all the world, and this plan finds expression in God's covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1ff). The book of Genesis was written by Moses for the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to explain to them the origin of all things and the basis for God's covenant with them at Sinai.
The context of Genesis 1-2 is the history of the creation of the universe and all things therein. The creation account was originally written by Moses to enable the people to understand the foundation of their faith and the purpose of God's covenant. As the rest of the book, it is presented as sober, historical narrative.(7) Therefore, since Genesis 1-2 is historical narrative, we should interpret the words of the creation account in that light, including the word "day." In historical narrative, we assume the literal, contextual meaning of words unless something in the text makes it clear that a figurative sense is intended. There are no indications in the text of Genesis 1-2 that "day" should be understood in the non-literal sense of "ages." Consequently, the context definitely favors a literal meaning. When Moses wrote "day" in the creation account there is no reason to believe that either he or the people he was writing to understood the word in any other way than its normal sense of a twenty-four hour day.
The Usage of "Day" in the Hebrew Bible and Genesis 1-2
The Hebrew word that is translated "day" in Genesis 1-2 is yôm. Yôm appears about two thousand times in the Hebrew Bible. It is used to denote: day, i.e., the period of light, as opposed to night; a twenty-four day as a standard division of time; or day, in the general sense of time. Sometimes yôm is used with prepositions and qualifying phrases for more specialized expressions of time (e.g., "the day of the Lord;" "in that day"). In the vast majority of instances when yôm and its plural form yamîm are used in the Old Testament they refer to literal days.(8) The contention that the word yôm can refer to a long period of time (such as a geological "age" of a million years or more) is unknown in actual Hebrew usage.
Significantly, the precise meaning of yôm in Genesis 1-2 is established for us by God through the use of the qualifying phrase of "evening and morning." Thus the boundaries of time indicated by yôm in Genesis 1-2 are fixed as the normal course of a twenty-four hour day marked by the rising and setting of the sun. Furthermore, the use of a numerical adjective ("first," "second," etc.) with yôm in Genesis 1-2 indicates a specific day. As Whitcomb notes, "In historical narratives the numerical adjective always limits the word to a twenty-four hour period (cf. Num. 7 for a remarkable parallel)."(9)
Thus, the context, the normal usage of yôm, the qualifying phrase "evening and morning," and the numerical adjectives all combine to make it certain that yôm refers to a literal day, and not an "age" or eon of time. But that is not all. Custance states:
Hebrew has a perfectly good word (ëolam), for what we mean by a geological age which would surely have been used if this were the intention [in Genesis 1-2]. ëolam would have been the logical choice, since it means a long period of time with very ill-defined boundaries. It is virtually impossible to think of any way in which God could have made it more obvious that He did not mean ages than by the deliberate avoidance of the word. The text could not have made it clearer than it is that ordinary days are intended.(10)
Custance also indicates that in regard to the meaning of yôm in Genesis 1-2:
The weight of authority is in favor of literal days. One can scarcely find a single reputable Hebrew scholar who supports the view that the word yom in Genesis can properly be understood to mean anything other than a literal day. Personal correspondence with the heads of the Semitic Departments of a number of universities including Columbia, Harvard, McGill, Yale, Toronto, and Manitoba and the head of Near and Middle East Department of the University of London (England) confirmed in writing that they all believe the word as employed in Genesis 1 can only be taken to mean a period of twenty-four hours. These authorities were asked to express an opinion on purely linguistic grounds without regard to problems this may create in reconciling Genesis with modern geological views.(11)
All told, the meaning of yôm in Genesis 1-2 is clear and unambiguous. It refers to a literal day, and on no account can it legitimately be made to mean an "age." If context, syntax, and lexicography mean anything in interpretation, then yôm means "day" in Genesis 1-2.
The Meaning of "Day" in Exodus 20:9-11
The Fourth Commandment provides important confirmation that the days of the creation week were literal days. This commandment reads:
Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it (Ex. 20:9-11).
The Fourth Commandment is based on a literal understanding of the seven "days" of the creation week; otherwise, it makes no sense at all. Would anyone actually advocate that Moses uses "days" in two different senses here, and is saying, "Six days shalt thou labor . . . for in six ages (of varying and undefined length) the Lord made heaven and earth . . . ."? If the command to man to labor six days and rest one refers to literal days, and no one disputes that it does, then it follows that the days of the creation week, which are set forth as the basis for man's week, are also literal days. The Fourth commandment establishes the doctrine that creation took place "in the space of six days," and thus confirms that the days of Genesis 1-2 were normal twenty-four hour days.
The teaching of Genesis 1-2 is that creation took place in six literal days. This doctrine was challenged by Augustine and others who held to an instantaneous creation of all things. The Reformers met this aberration by an appeal to the authority of Scripture and a grammatical-historical interpretation of the text of Genesis 1-2. By so doing they restored to the church the true doctrine of six-day creation.
In our day, the doctrine of six-day creation has been denied by Christians who hold to theistic evolution. Their denial is based not on exegetical considerations, but upon a desire to reconcile Scripture with the theory of evolution.(12) To accomplish their compromise between the Bible and modern science and its reading of the geological record, they claim that the "days" of Genesis 1-2 are not literal days but really are "geological ages." But their attempt to reconcile Scripture with the theory of evolution is a dangerous attack on the Faith and the integrity of Scripture.
How should we meet this attack? In the same way that the Reformers met the false teaching of an instantaneous creation-by an assertion of the absolute authority of Scripture in all spheres of life and knowledge, and by an appeal to the grammatical-historical meaning of the text of Genesis 1-2. The context of Genesis 1-2, the meaning of "day" (yôm), and the teaching of Exodus 20:9-11 all point to the fact that the word "day" in Genesis 1-2 refers to a literal twenty-four hour day. Hence, the church must confidently assert that God created all things "in the space of six days;" "just as the words read," and in spite of the claim of modern evolutionary science of those in the church who have been seduced by it.
1. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., trans. George M. Giger, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg, NJ , 1992, 1:444.
2. Martin Luther,Commentary on Genesis, 2 vols., trans. J.Theodore Muller (Grand Rapids, 1958), 4.
3. ibid., 5.
4. John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 2 vols., trans. John King (Grand Rapids , 1989), 1:78.
5. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:444
6. The Westminister Confession of Faith, Chap. IV., Art. I. This creedal statement on the six-day creation was adopted verbatim by the English and American Calvinistic Baptist in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, and the English and American Congregationalists in the Savoy Declaration.
7. Auther Custance asks: "At what point in the narrative [of Genesis] did geological ages end and normal years replace them in the account of the events which happened in the first five chapters of Genesis? By the time we reach the sixth chapter we know that the days are real days and real years. Where is the changeover point? It is impossible to find room for its insertion without making nonsense of a narrative which runs unbrokenly from Adam to Noah in a way that is clearly intended to be plain sober human history" ("A translation of Genesis 1:1-2:4 with Notes," in Hidden Things of God's Revelation, vol. vii., The Doorway Papers).
8. "...the normal meaning of yom and yamim are 'day' and 'days' respectively. If a parabolic or metaphorical meaning is intended, it is made obvious in the context. In approximately 95% of its occurences, the literal meaning is intended," Henry M. Morris, ed., Scientific Creationism, General Edition (San Diego, 1974), 223.
9. John C. Whitcomb, Jr., The Early Earth (Winona Lake, IN, 1972), 27.
10. Constance, "A Translation of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4," 294.
11. ibid., 296.
12. Gary North states that theistic evolution is "a sell-out of Christianity to the humanist who run the academic world. The irony is that the humanist regard the whole charade of theistic evolution as either a crude joke or else a self-serving fraud deserving of contempt" (Political Polytheism [Tyler, TX, 1989], 15).
This article was originally printed September, 1998 in the Chalcedon Report.