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Genesis 2:4 and the Meaning of “Day” in Genesis 1

Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of March 2008

by Richard Peachey

In Genesis 1 the word "day" (Hebrew yôm) quite clearly refers to either a normal-length day (24 hours) or the light portion thereof. But in Genesis 2:4 the expression "in the day that" refers to the whole creation week. Accordingly, progressive creationist Hugh Ross, in his book A Matter of Days (NavPress, 2004), supposes that he can use Genesis 2:4 to cast doubt on the plain meaning of "day" in Genesis 1. Indeed, as noted in the second quotation below, this appears to be one of Ross's three main arguments regarding the meaning of yôm.

"The wording of Genesis 2:4 reads in the literal Hebrew, 'These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created in the day of their making.' Here, the word 'day' (yôm) refers to all six creation days, a period longer than 24 hours. . . . the wording of this verse challenges the assertion that the word 'day' (yôm) in the creation account can only refer to a period of 24 hours." (A Matter of Days, p. 76)

"In my first reading of Genesis 1, I saw indications that the Genesis creation days were long time periods. Simple textual observations—the timing of Eve's creation, the lack of an evening and morning for the seventh day, and the Genesis 2:4 usage of the word 'day' in reference to the entire creation week—convinced me. (p. 228, cf. pp. 227, 46f. Italics indicate emphasis added.)

Ross seems not to recognize that in Genesis 2:4 we have a specialized use of the word yôm. The actual construction is beyôm, meaning "in (the) day (of)," or simply "when" (as it is correctly translated in the New International Version). The word "day" does not have its normal referent here; rather, it is part of an idiomatic construction. Ross is therefore not correct to use Genesis 2:4 in his argument about the meaning of yôm in Genesis 1. I will establish this point by citing one comparable Bible passage, then quoting from several lexical entries and commentaries. (Ross should at very least have engaged this challenge to his argument. Since he did not do so, this leads me to suppose he may be unaware of this aspect of Hebrew scholarship.)

(a) Numbers 7:10 and 7:84 (both using beyôm) bookend the account of the offerings of the leaders of Israel, which undoubtedly took place during 12 "literal" (calendar) days (Numbers 7:12-83). This pattern is remarkably similar to Genesis 2:4 (which likewise uses beyôm) placed immediately after the seven days of the creation week in Genesis 1:1-2:3. From this we can conclude that the use of beyôm in a summarizing statement provides no evidence that the numbered days in the sequence being summarized are anything other than ordinary (normal-length) days.

(b) "In many cases yôm loses the specific meaning 'day' and becomes a rather general and somewhat vague word for 'time, moment'  . . . . The construction beyôm + inf. 'on the day when' = 'at the time when' = 'as/when' is relatively frequent . . . (e.g., Gen 2:4 'at the time when the Lord God made the earth and heaven' . . .)." (Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann. [trans. Mark E. Biddle]. 1997. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Vol. 2, p. 529)

(c) "The meaning 'day' is more or less weakened when a prepositional phrase with yôm (or occasionally yemê) is itself linked with a verb. The most important usage of this type is beyôm with an infinitive (almost 70 times) as a general indication of time or a temporal conjunction meaning 'when' . . . (cf. the important passage Gen. 2:4b following the seven-day schema of creation)." (G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren [editors]. [trans. David E. Green]. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Vol. VI, p.15)

(d) "Especially note the following special meanings: beyôm (frequently 'when' . . .) . . . . Akkadian ūmu 'day,' is often combined with ina 'in,' in the form inūma, enūma to mean 'when' (e.g. enūma elish), exactly as Hebrew beyôm." (Leonard J. Coppes. Article "yôm" In Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke [editors]. 1980. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Press. Vol. 1, p. 370) [Note that Gleason Archer is Hugh Ross's favourite Hebrew scholar!]

(e) "In the semantic range of yom we must include (1) the daylight hours, (2) a twenty-four-hour day, (3) special days (e.g., day of his death), and (4) a plural use that can refer to a few days or even a year. Furthermore, (5) the definite article can be added to yom to make it mean "today," or (6) a preposition can be tacked on the front and a demonstrative pronoun associated with it to say "in that day" or simply "when." The important point to be made here is that these categories cannot be merged carelessly. It is not unusual for an interpreter to claim something like, "The word day can mean an extended, indefinite period of time," and then follow up with a series of supporting references. The problem is that invariably most if not all of those references will be examples of category 6. Unfortunately, one cannot pull the word yom out of that setting and still retain the meaning it has in that setting." John H. Walton. 2001. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 81)

(f) "Whereas modern scholars would consider 'in the day' of Gen 2:4 as merely a Hebrew idiom for 'at the time when' (cf. Num 3:1; 8:87; 2 Sam 22:1; Ps 18:1), earlier writers understood it to affirm instantaneous creation of the whole." Augustine, "(b)y his understanding of Gen 2:4 . . . deduced a simultaneous creation of all things, which was confirmed to his mind by his understanding of Sir 18:1 (which he repeatedly cited)." (Jack P. Lewis. 1989 [Dec]. "The Days of Creation: An Historical Survey of Interpretation." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32[4]:434, 440) [Note: Augustine did not know the Hebrew language. Also, Sir 18:1 is part of what Protestants call the Apocrypha, i.e., books which were read by the Jews but not considered by them to be part of God's revelation ('Sir' = "The Wisdom of Joshua ben Sirach," also known as "Ecclesiasticus").]

(g) "[on Genesis 2:4] In the day: This phrase does not signify specifically a day of twelve or twenty-four hours, just as the idiom . . . [literally, 'in the hour that'] does not connote an hour of sixty minutes; the meaning, in each case, is — 'at the time when'. Compare, for instance, Num. iii 1: IN THE DAY that the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai (actually, Moses remained on Mount Sinai forty days and forty nights); ibid. vii 84: This was the dedication-offering of the altar, IN THE DAY when it was anointed, at the hands of the princes of Israel, etc. (the offering of the sacrifices of the princes lasted twelve days); ii Sam. xxii 1 = Psa. xviii 1: IN THE DAY that the Lord delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, etc. (obviously it was not in one day that the Lord delivered David from all his enemies); and so forth." (Umberto Cassuto. 1978 [original: 1944]. [trans. Israel Abrahams]. A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part 1. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University. pp. 99f.) [Note: Cassuto was a Jewish scholar.]

For further reading:

"Nine Reasons Why The 'Days' In Genesis 1 Must Be Understood As Normal (24-Hour) Days" <>

"Is a 'Day' Really a Day in Genesis 1? Here's What the Hebrew Scholars Say!" <>