Explaining Away the Genesis "Days" — Two Favourite Techniques (an email exchange)

by Richard Peachey

Recently I had the privilege of teaching an eight-week evening course on the first eleven chapters of Genesis at Willingdon School of the Bible in Burnaby, B.C.

On the evening I planned to address the topic of the Genesis 1 "days," one student had to leave the class early. Before making her exit, she raised the question of whether a Genesis "day" might fairly be understood as "a thousand years." Later in the week I sent her the following email:

Hi, ——. . . .

I thought I would send you a quick note about the verses we were discussing just before you left. . . .

Here are the texts, with their contexts (ESV):

Psalm 90:3-6 — "You return man to dust and say, 'Return, O children of man!' For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers."

2 Peter 3:8f. —  "But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."

The following items should be noted:

(1) The word "as" is used in both texts. (Some translations use the word "like".) These are comparison words, not equal signs!

(2) Each text indicates that the relationship of time to God is under consideration. The phrases "in your sight" and "with the Lord" show this.

(3) Psalm 90 is comparing God's everlasting nature (his eternity) to the transience and mortality of human beings. 2 Peter 3 is emphasizing that while God may take longer than we think he should for some things, his patience has reasons. (He can also act much more quickly than we might suppose, creating the whole universe and all its contents in only six days!)

(4) Neither text gives any hint that a hermeneutical (interpretive) tool is being presented. That is, the texts are not instructing readers as to how they should understand the word "day" elsewhere in Scripture, such as in Genesis 1.

(5) In Psalm 90, "a thousand years" is compared to "yesterday . . . or . . . a watch in the night". These are both short periods of time, but they are not equal to each other! So they cannot both be interpreted as "a thousand years." (A "watch" was either four hours, as in Judges 7:19, or three hours, as in Matthew 14:25; Mark 13:35.) Also, note that "yesterday" is not just simply "a day," but it is the day that is past and gone, which adds to the sense of transience noted in point #3 above. The psalm is not aiming to equate two quantities of time, but to compare, with much feeling, God's transcendent eternity with our fleeting lives.

(6) Suppose, for argument's sake, that a day in Genesis 1 is actually a long period of time, and 2 Peter 3 is aiming to teach this. Then in 2 Peter 3 the meaning would be, "with the Lord one long period of time is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one long period of time." This interpretation makes the comparison lose all its effect! For the comparison to make an effective point, a "day" has to be a normal day.

(7) If 2 Peter 3:8 were telling us that a "day" is mathematically equal to (or to be interpreted as) "a thousand years," then we would have to change each "day" in Genesis 1 to "a thousand years." But the second part of 2 Peter 3:8 says "a thousand years" is mathematically equal to (or to be interpreted as) one "day." So then we would have to change each "thousand years" in Genesis 1 back to being a "day"! Has this gotten us anywhere?

(8) In any case, stretching the creation week out to a mere 6,000 years (as the "Jehovah's Witnesses" actually do) does not provide nearly enough time for Darwinian evolution or the millions/billions of years demanded by geologists. . . .

My student's response to the above included the following idea:

. . . Genesis talks about a week in the life of God but to say we know exactly what that entails and how precisely God’s days correspond to our own seems, well, a bit presumptuous. . . .

In a followup email to her, I suggested:

. . . Regarding your thought about "God's days," I suspect some people want to apply that label simply to avoid the reality that the Genesis 1 days were regular, normal-length days. They were not "God's days" except only in the sense that everything belongs to God. When "day" is first defined, it is the light portion of the light/darkness cycle experienced by the earth. The second use of the word "day" (in the same verse, Genesis 1:5) associates it with "evening" and "morning." A little later God uses the word "days" in association with "years" as two time periods associated with the sun and moon; he then sets sun and moon in place to rule over the "day" and night (Genesis 1:14-19; that paragraph uses the word "day" a total of five times). All of this indicates that ordinary days are involved, not some esoteric, unfathomable "God's days." . . .