What’s in a day? That’s the big question when it comes to any interpretation of Genesis 1 that is not a literal, plain reading of the text.
Taken at plainest reading, there is little getting around the fact that the author of Genesis recounts the timeframe in which God created the entire universe. Turns out, that’s a week – six days, with a seventh day of rest.
Then, when we add up the genealogies (assuming they don’t skip generations at any point) we are given about 5,700 – 10,000 years of history from Adam to us. This six-day creation with a young earth are central to the idea of Young Earth Creationism (YEC).
Yet, there are many who argue that a plain reading of Genesis 1 actually does the text a disservice. They say that the earth is much older than 10,000 years because of scientific evidence. These folks typically subscribe to Old Earth Creationism (OEC), along with Intelligent Design (ID) and Theistic Evolution (TE).
So, how do these last three groups marry an old earth and universe with Genesis 1? Furthermore, how do YEC maintain their belief in a young earth despite scientific evidence?
Simply put, it all comes down to the meaning of day.
WHAT’S IN A DAY
Both YEC and OEC agrees that when we read Genesis 1, we read a consistent pattern and rhythmic flow in the chronology of God’s creative work.
There was evening and morning, the first day, and it was good, and there was evening and morning, the second day, and it was good, and there was evening and morning… Well, you get the picture.
At the outset, it is important to remember that Hebrew uses the word day (יום) much in the same manner that English does. In English we have three specific ways we use the word day.
- To distinguish between daytime and nighttime
- To identify a 24-hour period of time
- To point back to an unspecific amount of time int he past
So, for example, we can see each of these three in everyday speech…
- “We should only travel by day since it will be dark at night.”
- “One day this week, we should get together.”
- “Back in my day, we didn’t have the internet.”
Hebrew does the same thing:
- “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” – Gn 1:5
- “In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out.” – Gn 8:14
- “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them.” – Gn 6:4
|12-hour daytime (Gn 1:5)||יום (yowm)||“We should travel by day”|
|24-hour day (Gn 8:14)||יום (yowm)||“One day this week…”|
|Unspecific amount of time in past (Gn 6:14)||יום (yowm)||“Back in my day…”|
Even the story of creation in Genesis itself gives us a hint that a day may not mean a literal 24-hour period of time. Gn 2:4 poetically transitions the creation story by recollecting the “day that the Lord God made the earth and heavens.”
This is similar to our modern English usage of the word day when we say that something occurred “back in the day.” Of course, we do not mean back in the literal 24-hour period of time, on a Wednesday, but rather we are referring back to a period of time when something occurred.
So, the OEC argument goes, simply because Genesis says day does not necessarily lock us into a literal 24-hour period of time. Obviously, we need context to help us know what the author means by day. Does he mean daytime, a 24-hour day, or an unspecific amount of time in the past?
This is where the conflict between Young and Old Earth Creationists comes to a head. YEC adamantly contends that the plainest reading of Genesis should lead us to a literal, 24-hour period of time, whereas OEC disagrees by pointing out that the third type of day lines up better with the rest of the creation story as well as scientific evidence.
Let’s look at two strong arguments on both side of the aisle in relation to the meaning of a day in Genesis.
OLD EARTH CREATIONISM – A FULL DAY’S SCHEDULE
First, scientific evidence has demonstrated that the earth is older than 10,000 years. Way older. In fact, it’s so old that it’s kind of hard to even fathom. By modern estimates, the earth is roughly 4.45 billion years old. Scientists have concluded this based on research from radiometric age dating of the oldest rocks and minerals that we can find on the planet.
If the earth is 4.45 billion years old, then is stands to reason that it, along with all its inhabitants and ecosystems, could not have been created in 144 hours just 10,000 years ago. Typically, this conclusion leads OEC to interpret the traditional reading of days in Genesis 1 as epochs or stages of earth’s development over unknown periods of time rather than literal 24-hour periods.
From being created, to naming all animal life, to getting married, Adam had a long day!
As we saw last week, such a reading lines up well with what science tells us occurred. Both Genesis and science claim that the first creative act was light, followed by the formation of land and sea, followed by the development of an atmosphere, then plants, then animals, and finally humans. The question isn’t over the creative order, it’s over the creative time.
Second, we tend to think about the sixth day as the day when God created Adam, then called it quits to rest on the seventh day. However, a closer look at Gn 1:24 – 2:22 reveals that much more happened on the sixth day than we typically think about. In fact, it was quite a full day’s schedule as Dr. Travis Campbell points out.
On the sixth day, God…
- Created a host of creatures to live and flourish on the land (Gn 1:24–25)
- Created human beings (Gn 1:26–29) with the first man (Adam) out of the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7)
- Planted the Garden of Eden (Gn 2:8)
- Caused trees and plants to grow in the Garden of Eden (Gn 2:9; Gn 1:11–12, 2:5)
- Placed Adam in the Garden to steward and keep it (Gn 2:15)
- Made a covenant with Adam (Gn 2:16–17; Hs 6:7)
- Recognized that Adam was alone (Gn 2:18)
- Introduced Adam to the animals, instructed him to name them all (Gn 2:19–20)
- Created Eve as Adam’s helper and wife (Gn 2:21–22)
From being created, to naming all animal life, to getting married, Adam had a long day! This is not to say that God couldn’t have done all these things in twenty-four hours, but it seems quite unlikely (especially if Adam needed to name all the animals and still receive Eve as his wife).
So, how does YEC contend that the plainest reading of Genesis should lead us to a literal, 24-hour period of time?
YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISM – A DAY IS A DAY
First, YEC argues that every time the word יום (yowm) is used with a number, or with the phrase “evening and morning,” anywhere in the Old Testament, it always means an ordinary day. This happens to be the case throughout Genesis 1.
Each of the creative acts that God performs is associated with a day that has an evening and a morning. This phrase, then, acts as a timestamp to draw our attention to the fact that the author did indeed mean to teach that God used all 24-hours per day.
Second, despite what OEC says about a reinterpretation of days in Genesis, many reputable Hebrew scholars point out that such a revision of the text is grammatically untenable with the original intent of the author.
He could have [created the universe] in six seconds. He is God, after all.
James Barr (Oxford University) summarized it like this – “So far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story.”
Therefore, not only is a literal 24-hour day the plainest reading of the text, it is the plainest reading for a reason – the author meant it to be. Any scientific evidence that contradicts YEC, then, must either be incorrect or misinterpreted. After all, God could have created the earth in six days to appear as if it were 4.45 billion years old. He could have done it in six seconds. (He is God, after all.)
However, as Exodus 20:11 indicates, God specifically chose to use a six-day creation with a seventh day of rest to set an important rhythm for his creation.
So, what should we believe about the days in Genesis? I think that’s a very important question to answer for yourself through your personal investigation and research.
The most important thing to walk away from Genesis 1–3, though, is not how long it took God to create the universe but why God created the universe.
He didn’t do so because he was lonely or bored. Remember, he has perfect, eternal community within himself as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, he created us out of love. And when we rebelled against him, he displayed that love by promising to reconcile us back to him.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Gn 3:15).”
Who is God talking about when he says he shall bruise your (the enemy’s) head?
Right there immediately after the why of creation is the how of redemption. This is the most important part of why Genesis 1–3 was written. Not primarily to give us scientific insight into creation (although it does), but to answer the question of how things should be, why they are not, and how God is going to rescue us.
So long as both YEC and OEC keeps focus on the redemption of Genesis 3:15, the days of Genesis 1 can be discussed and debated with brotherly love.
 Letter from Professor James Barr to David C.C. Watson of the UK, dated April 23, 1984. (http://members.iinet.net.au/~sejones/barrlett.html)