Creation (2): The Word "Day"

Genesis 1-2 describes God creating the heavens and the earth in six days. But what does day mean? You’ve probably heard that just as in English, the Hebrew word for day can mean a 24-hour day, or it can refer to an indeterminate length of time. So Gen 2:4 speaks of the heavens and the earth “in the day they were created,” even though 1:1-2:3 has already talked about six days. There’s also the familiar comment in 2 Peter 3:8 (echoing Psalm 90:4) that with God, a thousand years are like a day, and a day is like a thousand years.

So day can mean something other than 24 hours, and God’s experience of time is different than ours. That means that when we see the word day, as we do several times in Gen 1-2, it does not guarantee we’re talking about 24 hours. But there are several reasons I believe that the days in Gen 1-2 are normal, human, 24-hour days, and I want to mention a few here.

  • Although the creation account is beautifully structured and artistically narrated, it is fundamentally historical narrative. There is no indication that the writer is speaking poetically or metaphorically, which would make us slower to take him literally. There are a number of grammatical features that distinguish narrative in Hebrew, and this passage bears all of them. It also lacks some of the distinctive features of Hebrew poetry, like figures of speech and parallelism. Reading the passage as historical narrative means we’re more inclined to take its words at face value.
  • The repetition of “and there was evening, and there was morning” to mark the division between the days seems to indicate that these are normal days: they are separated by nights, and new days begin when the sun rises. (Actually, there is light on the first day, but no sun until the fourth day. More on this later.)
  • In Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 Moses tells Israel, “In six days the LORD made heaven and earth.” This is to explain the basis for Israel’s pattern of six days of work followed by a day of rest. That basis falls apart if an intelligent Israelite could have said, “Well, Moses, actually God created the world gradually in six sequential periods of time that probably covered millions of years,” or something to that effect. I’m aware, as I said earlier, that God experiences time in a different way than we do, and certainly God’s working and resting are not exactly like ours. But here the very point of the comparison is the length of the time. Moses can’t be in error when he tells Israel this, and if we take his words as meaning something other than the obvious, the explanation of the commandment doesn’t make sense.

Next we’ll look at the immediacy of God’s creation and what it tells us about the nature and person of God.

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