When one picks up a Bible, reads Genesis chapter 1, and takes it at face value, it seems to say that God created the world, the universe, and everything in them in six ordinary (approximately 24 hour) days. However, there is a view in our churches which has become prevalent over the years that these “days” could have been thousands, millions, or even billions of years in duration. Does it really matter what length these days were? Is it possible to determine whether or not they were ordinary days, or long periods of time?
What is a “day?”
The word for “day” in Genesis 1 is the Hebrew word yom. It can mean either a day (in the ordinary 24-hour day), the daylight portion of an ordinary 24-hour day (i.e., day as distinct from the night), or occasionally it is used in the sense of an indefinite period of time (e.g., “in the time of the Judges” or “In the day of the Lord”). Without exception, in the Hebrew Old Testament the word yom never means “period” (i.e., it is never used to refer to a definite long period of time with specific beginning and end points). The word which means a long period of time in Hebrew is olam. Furthermore, it is important to note that even when the word yom is used in the indefinite sense, it is clearly indicated by the context that the literal meaning of the word “day” is not intended.
Some people say the word “day” in Genesis may have been used symbolically and is thus not meant to be taken literally. However, an important point that many fail to consider is that a word can never be symbolic the first time it is used! In fact, a word can only be used symbolically when it has first had a literal meaning. In the New Testament we are told that Jesus is the “door.” We know what this means because we know the word “door” means an entrance. Because we understand its literal meaning, it is able to be applied in a symbolic sense to Jesus Christ, so we understand that “He” is not literally a door. The word “door” could not be used in this manner unless it first had the literal meaning we understand it to have. Thus, the word “day” cannot be used symbolically the first time it is used in the Book of Genesis, as this is where God not only introduced the word “day” into the narrative, but also defined it as He invented it. Indeed, this is why the author of Genesis has gone to great lengths to carefully define the word “day” the first time it appears. In Genesis 1:4 we read, “
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness” called “night.” Genesis 1:5 then finishes with: “
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” This is the same phrase used for each of the other five days and shows there was a clearly established cycle of days and nights (i.e., periods of light and periods of darkness).
A day and the sun
Light was in existence, coming from one direction upon a rotating earth, resulting in the day and night cycle.
But how could there be day and night if the sun wasn’t in existence? After all, it is clear from Genesis 1 that the sun was not created until day four. Genesis 1:3 tells us that God created light on the first day, and the phrase “
evening and morning” shows there were alternating periods of light and darkness. Therefore, light was in existence, coming from one direction upon a rotating earth, resulting in the day and night cycle. However, we are told exactly where this light came from. The word for “light” in Genesis 1:3 means the substance of light that was created. Then, on day four in Genesis 1:14–19 we are told of the creation of the sun which was to be the source of light from that time onward. The sun was created to rule the day that already existed. The day stayed the same. It merely had a new light source. The first three days of creation (before the sun) were the same type of days as the three days with the sun. Perhaps God deliberately left the creation of the sun until the fourth day because He knew that down through the ages cultures would try to worship the sun as the source of life. Not only this, modern theories tell us the sun came before the earth. God is showing us that He made the earth and light to start with, that He can sustain it with its day and night cycle and that the sun was created on day four as a tool of His to be the bearer of light from that time.
Probably one of the major reasons people tend not to take the days of Genesis as ordinary days is because they believe that scientists have proved the earth to be billions of years old. But this is not true. There is no absolute age-dating method to determine how old the earth is. Besides this, there is much evidence consistent with a belief in a young age for the earth, perhaps only thousands of years.
Incidentally, those who say that a day could be millions of years must answer the question, “What is a night?”
Why six days?
God is an infinite being. He has infinite power, infinite knowledge, infinite wisdom. Obviously, God could then make anything He desired. He could have created the whole universe, the earth and all it contains in no time at all. Perhaps the question we should be asking is why did God take as long as six days? After all, six days is a peculiar period for an infinite being to make anything. The answer can be found in Exodus 20:11. Exodus 20 contains the Ten Commandments, and it should be remembered that these commandments were written on stone by the very “finger of God.” In Exodus we read: “
And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exod. 31:18). The fourth commandment, in verse 9 of chapter 20, tells us that we are to work for six days and rest for one. The justification for this is given in verse 11: “
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” This is a direct reference to God’s creation week in Genesis 1. To be consistent (and we must be), whatever is used as the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1 must also be used here. If you are going to say the word “day” means a long period of time in Genesis, then it has been already shown that the only way this can be is in the sense of the “day” being an indefinite or indeterminate period of time, not a definite period of time. Thus, the sense of Exodus 20:9–11 would have to be “six indefinite periods shalt thou labor and rest a seventh indefinite period.” This, however, makes no sense at all. By accepting the days as ordinary days, we understand that God is telling us He worked for six ordinary days and rested one ordinary day to set a pattern for man—the pattern of our seven-day week which we still have today.
There are many inconsistencies in accepting the days in Genesis as long periods of time. For instance, we are told in Genesis 1:26–28 that God made the first man (Adam) on the sixth day. Adam lived through the rest of the sixth day and through the seventh day. We are told in Genesis 5:5 that he died when he was 930 years old. (We are not still in the seventh day as some people misconstrue, for Genesis 2:2 tells us God “rested” from His work of creation, not that He is resting from His work of creation.) If each day was, for example, a million years, then there are real problems. In fact, if each day were only a thousand years long, this still makes no sense of Adam’s age at death either.
A day is as a thousand years
Neither verse refers to the days of creation in Genesis, for they are dealing with God not being bound by time.
But some then refer to 2 Peter 3:8 which tells us: “
But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” This verse is used by many who teach, by inference at least, that the days in Genesis must each be a thousand years long. This reasoning, however, is quite wrong. Turning to Psalm 90:4 we read a similar verse: “
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” In both 2 Peter 3 and Psalm 90 the whole context is that God is neither limited by natural processes nor by time. To the contrary, God is “outside” time, for He also “created” time. Neither verse refers to the days of creation in Genesis, for they are dealing with God not being bound by time. In 2 Peter 3, the context is in relation to Christ’s second coming, pointing out the fact that with God a day is just like a thousand years or a thousand years is just like one day. He is outside of time. This has nothing to do with the days of creation in Genesis.
Further, in 2 Peter 3:8 the word “day” is contrasted with “a thousand years.” The word “day” thus has a literal meaning which enables it to be contrasted with “a thousand years.” It could not be contrasted with “a thousand years” if it didn’t have a literal meaning. Thus, the thrust of the Apostle’s message is that God can do in a very short time what men or “nature” would require a very long time to accomplish, if they could accomplish it at all. It is interesting to note that evolutionists try to make out that the chance, random processes of “nature” required millions of years to produce man. Many Christians have accepted these millions of years, added them to the Bible and then said that God took millions of years to make everything. However, the point of 2 Peter 3:8 is that God is not limited by time, whereas evolution requires time (a very great deal of it!).
Days and years
In Genesis 1:14 we read that God said, “
Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” If the word “day” here is not a literal day, then the word “years” being used in the same verse would be meaningless.
Day and covenant
Turning to Jeremiah 33:25–26 we read: “
Thus saith the Lord; If my covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth; then will I cast away the seed of Jacob, and David my servant so that I will not take any of his seed to be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for I will cause their captivity to return, and have mercy on them.” The Lord is telling Jeremiah that He has a covenant with the day and the night which cannot be broken, and it is related to the promise to the descendants of David, including the One who was promised to take the throne (Christ). This covenant between God and the day and night began in Genesis 1, for God first defined and invented day and night when He spoke them into existence.
There is no clear origin for day and night in the Scripture other than Genesis 1. Therefore, this must be the beginning of this covenant. So if this covenant between the day and the night does not exist when God clearly says it does (i.e., if you do not take Genesis 1 to literally mean six ordinary days), then this promise given here through Jeremiah is on shaky ground.
Does the length of the day matter?
Finally, does it really matter whether we accept them as ordinary days or not? The answer is a most definite “Yes!” It is really a principle of how one approaches the Bible. For instance, if we don’t accept them as ordinary days then we have to ask the question, “What are they?” The answer is “We don’t know.” If we approach the days in this manner, then to be consistent we should approach other passages of Genesis in the same way. For instance, when it says God took dust and made Adam—what does this mean? If it does not mean what is says, then we don’t know what it means! We should take Genesis literally. Furthermore, it should be noted that you cannot “interpret literally,” for a “literal interpretation” is a contradiction in terms. You either take it literally or you interpret it! It is important to realize we should take it literally unless it is obviously symbolic, and when it is symbolic either the context will make it quite clear or we will be told in the text.
If a person says that we do not know what the word “day” means in Genesis, can another person who says they are literal days be accused of being wrong? The answer is “No,” because the person who accepts them as ordinary days does know what they mean. It is the person who does not know what the days mean who cannot accuse anyone of being wrong.
People try to make the word “day” say something else be cause they are trying to make room for the long ages of evolutionary geology. This doesn’t work because these supposed ages are represented by fossils showing death and struggle, and thus you are left with the same old problem of death and struggle before Adam. The Bible clearly indicates that there was no death and suffering before Adam’s sin.
When people accept at face value what Genesis is teaching and accept the days as ordinary days, they will have no problem understanding what the rest of Genesis is all about.
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exod. 20:11).