Does “Day” Mean “Day” in Genesis 1?

Dear Reader,

In my continuing series on Christian views of creation, I am finally up to that post. The one I have been promising and yet delaying. You can see the earlier posts here, here, here and here. As I hope I have shown in those posts, the two big questions Christians have to grapple with are how and when. There is a whole spectrum of belief among sincere believers about the answers to these questions, but the biggest divide seems to be between Young Earth Creationists (YEC) who belive the earth and creation are no more than 10,000 years old and everyone else.

In my most recent post, I looked at some biblical and theological arguments made by  YEC. While some of these are compelling, none of them are rock-solid in my opinion. And many of them are really about the how and not the when and therefore could be easily accepted by Old Earth Creationists as well.  That is, they are anti-evolution arguments, but they say nothing about the age of the earth.

Arguments of YEC on “Day” in Genesis 1

But we still have one more argument to evaluate and it is the biggie. YEC says that when Genesis 1 uses the word day (Hebrew yom) that it means a literal 24-hour day as we know it. The basic argument here is pretty simple: this is the basic meaning of yom, it is the plain sense of the text, and anyone who does not take it this way is not really taking Genesis 1 literally. Answers in Genesis (AIG), which seems to be one of the biggest proponents of YEC, puts forth specific evidence why we should understand yom to mean a 24-hour day here. In an article called “The Days of Creation: A Semantic Approach“, James Stambaugh presents the following arguments:

  1. When yom is used with a specific number, it always refers to a normal day.
  2. When the words “morning” and “evening” are used with yom, a 24-hour day is meant.
  3. Yom in the plural can refer to long periods of time, but even these are only thousands, not billions of years. Yom in the singular as in Genesis 1 denotes a short period of time.
  4. The use of the words “morning” and “evening” suggests as day as we know it,
  5. Hebrew has other words it could have used to refer to another span of time or an event long past. Similarly, it could have some else besides “it was morning and it was evening.”

Some Questions

My approach here is just going to be to talk about what questions these YEC arguments raise for me and what some of the possible answers might be. I have been writing and rewriting this post, and I think in the end it will, as so many have before, become a series of posts. In this first one, I hope to define what some of the issues are. Answers, or at least attempts at them, may have to wait till future posts.

Starting with the first argument I cited above, I have not (yet) taken the time to look up all the times yom occurs in the Hebrew Bible to see if the YECs are right about how and when it occurs with numbers. I do trust them enough to say the numbers they cite are probably accurate. And I will even take their word for it that yom with a number is usually referring to a literal day. But just as statistics can be used to mask truth, so I wonder here if we have all the relevant information.  The two questions I have here are:

  1. Are there any other passages in the OT which use numbered days as Genesis 1 does? Off the top of my head I can’t think of any, So this makes me wonder if we can really say how the day designations are being used in Genesis 1. [As a side note, the Hebrew does not say “the first day, the second day” etc. What it says is: “There was evening. There was morning. Day One (or two, three, and so on).”]
  2. What type of literature is Genesis 1? When I ask this, I enter the realm of what is called form criticism. It means that we must understand what kind of writing we are dealing with in order to understand its meaning and how it uses words. For example, in reading an English letter I do not think that because the sendee is called “dear” that they really have any sort of close relationship to the sender. I know that the use of “dear so-and-so” is just convention and does not convey meaning. So when I compare the use of yom in Genesis 1 to its use elsewhere in the Bible, I want to know if I am really looking at similar passages or not. This is a topic I will definitely have to return to.

Turning to point number two above, my question is: does yom occur elsewhere with both “morning” and evening” as it does here or with only one at a time? Because if it is not a fairly similar construction, I am not sure what the relevance would be.

The third argument doesn’t make  a lot of sense to me. When else would the Old Testament be talking about billions of years?  I just don’t think this one is a very strong argument.

I agree with number four. The use of the words “morning”and “evening” do make us think of our days (though in the text they are “evening” and then “morning”). I think we are meant to think of our days, but this does not mean that what the text is saying is that God did it all in six 24-hour days. He could have other reasons for using such language. So another big question I have is what is the purpose of Genesis 1? In other words, what is God trying to tell us through it? One may also ask what the human author way trying to convey. I don’t believe God used people as mere conduits without engaging their intellect so while I believe that these words are all God’s words, I also think they must have had meaning to their human author and their orignal audience.

Lastly, I just don’t buy the fifth argument, that Hebrew had other words it could have used. The words Stambaugh cites are certainly Hebrew words that have something to do with time. But you will just have to take my opinion as a former Hebrew scholar that none of them would quite do in this context. They are vague words and I just cannot see them being used in this context with numbers, counting out some sort of progression. One would not, for instance, count out “one eon, two eons,  . . .” It is just not how we speak. The second half of this argument is that if God had meant to say that these were long ages, He could have said so. But I think there is an assumption here that I don’t agree with. The assumption is that the only reason God would put the creation account in this language, with the numbered days and with morning and evening repeated each time, is that He meant literal 24-hour days. But again what if He were trying to convey something else?

Summing Up Thus Far

I realize I haven’t presented a lot of answers yet. But I hope I have begun to ask the right questions. The biggest ones that niggle at me and which I hope to have time to return to are:

  1. What is the genre of Genesis 1?
  2. What is the purpose of Genesis 1? What is it meant to convey?
  3. Based in the answers to numbers one and two, are the other uses of yom which AIG refers to really comparable to what we have here?



2 responses to this post.

  1. […] not. I have discussed creation and evolution in a number of previous posts (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; I told you there were a lot, and technically that series of […]


  2. […] Does “Day” Mean “Day” in Genesis 1? […]


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