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Is a “Day” Really a Day in Genesis 1? Here’s What the Hebrew Scholars Say!

Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of September 2003

by Richard Peachey

For those who feel they must try to reconcile the Bible with evolutionary thinking, one great difficulty turns out to be the Bible's clear statement that creation was accomplished by God's powerful command "in six days" (Exodus 20:11; 31:17; cf. Genesis 1:1-2:3; Psalm 33:6,9). Theistic evolutionists, progressive creationists, and other "compromisers" are therefore compelled to find a way to defuse the clarity of this biblical teaching. Often the attempt is made to demonstrate that a "day" in Genesis 1 could mean something other than a normal 24-hour period (or the light portion thereof). But Hebrew scholarship does not support such a manipulation of the text. Here we quote two who are theologically liberal (Gunkel and von Rad) and two who are more conservative (Ross and Walton), all of whom agree that only a literal understanding is able to do justice to the use of the word "day" in the first chapter of the Bible! [Within each quotation, bold print indicates emphasis added.]

Naturally, the "days" are days and nothing else. The narrative intends to say that the regular alternation of night and day that we now see stems from the first day. Otherwise, the institution of the seventh day as the holy day would be entirely superfluous if one did not understand the "days" as days. The narrator will have regarded it as a particular glorification of God that he needed only a day each for such mighty works. God creates so effortlessly! The application of the days of creation to 1,000-year periods or the like is, thus, a very capricious corruption from entirely allogenous [alien, originating elsewhere] circles of thought.

— Hermann Gunkel. 1997. Genesis. (trans. Mark E. Biddle). Macon, Georgia: Mercer U. Press. p. 108.

The seven days are unquestionably to be understood as actual days and as a unique, unrepeatable lapse of time in this world.

— Gerhard von Rad. 1976. Genesis: A Commentary. (revised edition). Philadelphia: Westminster. p. 65.

The meaning of the term "day" (yôm) in this chapter [Genesis 1] has received varying interpretations. Although the word normally means a twenty-four-hour day, it can also mean a longer general period of time (Isa. 61:2) or an idiom "when" (as in Gen. 2:4). In this chapter, however, it must carry its normal meaning. Support for this view includes the following: (1) elsewhere, whenever yôm is used with a number, it means a twenty-four-hour period; (2) the Decalogue bases the teaching of the Sabbath day on the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest; (3) from the fourth day on, there are days, years, signs, and seasons, suggesting that the normal system is entirely operative; and (4) if yôm refers to an age, then the text would have to allow for a long period of "day" and then a long period of "night"—but few would argue for the night as an age. It seems inescapable that Genesis presents the creation in six days.

— Allen P. Ross. 1988. Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of the Book of Genesis. Grand Rapids: Baker. p. 109.

This at last brings us to the discussion of "day" (yom). It can be properly claimed that the seven-day structure and the meaning of the word yom serve as the nucleus around which the theories and problems of Genesis 1 revolve. The idea of creation in seven days serves as one of the main sticking points in the attempts to harmonize science and Scripture. As various harmonizing scenarios are constructed, the amount of flexibility (or lack of it) in the word yom gradually becomes the major issue. So we must begin with a common-sense lexical assessment of yom.

The meaning of a word must be established from its usage. But lexical methodology is more complex than that. When words have more than one meaning, the semantic range (the range of possible meanings) must be classified into logical categories. Some meanings will only occur under certain conditions (e.g., in an idiomatic expression or in a technical usage). Others may require settings with other words (known as collocations). All of this must be determined by observing usage.

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.

An illustration in English may help us to understand. If I were to call up the stairs to my wife that it was time to go, and she replied that she would be ready "in a minute," it would be futile for me to start the countdown from sixty and expect her to be there by the time I reached zero. Usage has confirmed that in the idiomatic expression she has used, "in a minute" refers to a short but indefinite period of time. I cannot remove the word "minute" from that expression and plug it into my faculty manual where it tells me that classes shall last for 50 minutes, thereby claiming that I now have fifty extended, indefinite periods of time in which to conduct my class. Consequently, though it is true that yom sometimes refers to an extended period of time, that usage is limited to certain expressions and collocations, and its meaning cannot be so glibly transferred to Genesis 1.

We cannot be content to ask, "Can the word bear the meaning I would like it to have?" We must instead try to determine what the author and audience would have understood from the usage in the context. With this latter issue before us, it is extremely difficult to conclude that anything other than a twenty-four-hour day was intended. It is not the text that causes people to think otherwise, only the demands of trying to harmonize with modern science.

— John H. Walton. 2001. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. pp. 80f.

For further reading:

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

"Genesis 2:4 and the Meaning of 'Day' in Genesis 1" <>