A study of the days and dating
of creation, noting the Biblical evidence
by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
In Genesis chapter one the creation narrative records the sequence of God's creating all things in six "days." Throughout the history of Biblical interpretation there has been diversity of understanding concerning whether these "days" refer to six twenty-four hour days, or whether they refer to six extended periods of time. This study will briefly consider the evidence for interpreting the "days" of creation, and the subsequent dating of the creation events.
The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament indicates that the Hebrew word yom used throughout Genesis 1 "can denote (1) the period of light (as contrasted with a period of darkness), (2) the period of 24 hours, (3) a general vague "time", (4) a point of time, (5) a year."1 Obviously the latter three usages are the more figurative usages of the word. Figurative does not necessarily imply allegorical or metaphorical. Nor does the figurative usage of a word imply that its usage is not literal. The literal usage of words has to do with the literary usage of a particular word as employed by the author in the literature he has written, and interpreted in accord with the author's intent. All five of the stated usages of the Hebrew word yom can be used and interpreted literally.
Throughout the Bible the word "day" is used in both the Hebrew and Greek languages in a figuratively literal sense. In Psalm 118:24 within a distinctively Messianic prophecy, the Psalmist writes, "This is the day which the Lord has made." The meaning is obviously not just that particular 24 hour period, but the "day of salvation" that is made available by the Messianic Savior. Christians seldom realize this when they sing the popular chorus based on these words.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul explains that "now is the day of salvation" (II Corinthians 6:2), quoting from Isaiah 49:8. The present period of time between the crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecostal outpouring and the second advent of Jesus is the "day of salvation" when the saving significance of Jesus' life is available to mankind. That "day of salvation" has extended far beyond 24 hours unto almost 2000 years.
On Pentecost Peter explains in his first sermon of the early church that the "day of the Lord" is inaugurated by the events of that day (Acts 2:16-21). He interprets the phenomena of Pentecost to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:31.
The "day of salvation" and the "day of the Lord" are equivalent phrases to explain the period of time when the salvation of the Lord Jesus is efficacious for mankind. Jesus seems to refer to this period of time as "My day" in John 8:36. The concept of "day" is understood to be a lengthy period of time with nearly 2000 years having now elapsed. Peter, in accord with Psalm 90:4, explains that "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day" (II Peter 3:8).
Approximately 25% of the usages of the word "day" throughout the Bible are employed in a figurative yet literal sense, wherein they do not refer to a 24 hour period of time. Honest exegetes of Scripture must consider this option of interpretation whenever they come to the word "day" in their Biblical studies.
The history of the interpretation of Genesis 1 records that Jewish and Christian commentators and theologians have long allowed for the interpretation of the creation "days" as indefinite periods of time. Josephus, the Jewish historian, in the first century, Irenaeus in the second century, Origen in the third century, Basil in the fourth century and Augustine in the fifth century, all allowed for the interpretation of the creation "days" as extended periods of time. They recognized that the Hebrew language allowed for such an interpretation.
Some of the biblical interpreters who have objected to allowing for longer periods of time have noted that since the Genesis account repetitively refers to the "morning" and "evening" of each creation "day" (Gen. 1:5,8,13,19,23,31), this evidences that a 24 hour day is the intended meaning. The Hebrew words for "morning" (boger) and "evening" (ereb) also allow for figurative meaning of "beginning" or "dawning" and "ending" or "twilight." Their usage in conjunction with "day" does not definitively demand a 24 hour interpretation; only that there is a commencement and conclusion to those periods of time.
It might also be noted that the explanation of the "beginning" and "ending" of each of the six time periods of creation is not repeated for the seventh "day." The seventh period of God's "rest" has no "closing." God's "rest" continues even unto the present and is therefore an indefinitely long period of time. The Psalmist refers to God's "rest" (Psalm 95:11). The writer of Hebrews explains that all Christians are to participate in God's "rest" (Heb. 4:1-11).
Some interpreters have noted the connection of the "days" of creation to the admonition within the ten commandments to work for six days and "remember the Sabbath," the seventh day, "to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8-11). The parallelism does not demand a direct parallel of six 24 hour days, but rather a proportional ratio of six to one. This is evidenced in Leviticus 25 when the same proportional ratio is applied to years (Lev. 25:21) and to blocks of seven years (Lev. 25:8). The "sabbath rest" of Hebrews 4:1-11 is obviously an indefinitely extended period of time when Christians are to "rest" in the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
When considering the interpretation of the Hebrew word yom in Genesis 1, the interpreter must allow for an interpretation that allows for the "days" to be indefinite periods of time. The sequential progression of the creation narrative in six "days" may not be a precise daily diary, but rather a chronologue of the sequential order within extended time. This would allow "day" to represent an epoch, an era or an aeon of time.
Genesis 2:4 seems to provide an overview of the creation account: "These (all the foregoing sequential explanations from Genesis 1:1 through 2:3) are the generations (always used for a lengthy period of time) of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven." The figurative usage of the word "day," the Hebrew yom, is employed to refer to the entirety of the creation time period.
The recap of the sixth "day" of creation in Genesis 2:5-25 includes such a comprehensive series of events that it is almost inconceivable that they could take place within one 24 hour day. Between the creating of the male and the female, God "planted a garden" (2:8), "caused it to grow" (2:9), and asked man to "cultivate and keep it" (2:15). Then man had to inspect and name all of the animals (2:19,20), naming them according to their observed characteristics. After the formation of the woman, Adam's response is "This is now (at long last) a being just like me" (2:23).
Francis Schaeffer concluded that the sixth "day" of creation was longer than a 24 hour period.
Some have speculated that God compressed time during the "days" of creation and supernaturally caused man to operate with superhuman speed during the sixth "day" of creation. Such speculations have no place in legitimate biblical interpretation. The "apparent age" hypothesis which attempts to explain the geological evidence of rock strata, continental drift and the fossil record by asserting that "God created the world in six 24 hour days and made it appear to look older" is such an invalid speculation.
God reveals Himself and His works in the natural created order (Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:19,20). He reveals Himself truthfully and accurately. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Even Einstein admitted that "God is deep, but not devious," deceitful or deceptive. If God created the natural order to appear older than it is, then He was deceptive and misleading and contrary to His character May it never be! The order and design of the created world point to the invariant orderliness of the Divine Designer. There could be no scientific study of the universe if God were a deceiver! Those who insist on an interpretation of a 24 hour "day" in the creation account must not revert to such illogical explanations which impinge upon the character of God.
Believing the creation "days" to be 24 hour days Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656) attempted to calculate the dating of the creation of the universe by genealogical calculations of the ages of biblical personages back to Adam. In 1642 John Lightfoot calculated that Genesis 1:1 had occurred in 3928 B.C., but Bishop Ussher adjusted his calculations to 4004 B.C., the date that is still printed in some Bibles to this present day. The fallacy of such calculations becomes apparent when one realizes that the Hebrew words for "father" and "son" can be understood figuratively referring to grandfather, great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather as well as grandson, great-grandson, or great-great-grandson. Such reasoning also assumes that every generation is mentioned in the Biblical record. The precision of genealogical detail that we would employ today was not practiced by the Hebrews.
If the "days" of creation are understood to be longer periods of time, then the dating of the commencement of the universe might be in accord with the abundance of scientific measurements which date the beginning of the universe at approximately 20 billion years ago and the beginning of our planet earth at approximately 4.6 billion years. Some Christians are so "conditioned" against scientific explanations that they are reticent to accept such calculations because they have adopted a "warfare mentality" between science and Christianity. Such need not be the case. God reveals Himself both through His natural creation and in written revelation.
A brief history of prior occasions when Christian religion has been suspicious of scientific discoveries will be instructive.
Prior to the 15th century A.D., the prevailing cosmological understanding was that the earth was the center of the universe; it was stable and permanent and did not move; everything else in the universe revolved around the earth. Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642) demonstrated scientifically and mathematically that the earth was part of the solar system and the earth moved around the sun while at the same time rotating on an axis. The church responded with adamant opposition, banning the writings of Copernicus and Galileo as modernistic science. The position of the church was that "The Scriptures cannot be wrong. They are absolute and inviolable. Christians must accept the literal significance of the words of the Bible." Some of the particular interpretations on which the church took its stand were from Psalm 93:1 - "the world is firmly established, it will not be moved;" Psalm 104:5 - "He established the earth upon its foundations, so that it will not totter forever and ever;" Ecclesiastes 1:4,5 - "the earth stands forever...the sun rises and the sun sets..." Needless to say, the naturalistic observations of science were finally conceded by the church to be accurate, and the Roman Catholic Church finally forgave Galileo in 1981.
Also prior to the 15th century the earth was regarded to be flat and square with four corners. The observations of Copernicus and Galileo convinced Columbus of the feasibility of sailing around the world. But the church reacted with the same absolutizing of their interpretations of the Bible. They argued that Isaiah could not have been wrong when he wrote of "the four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12), nor was John when he wrote of the "angels standing at the four corners of the earth" (Rev. 7:1). The church also argued that the earth was flat based on Psalm 104:2 and Isaiah 40:22 where the Bible reads that God "stretched out heaven like a curtain." The church could only conceive of a flat "curtain," failing to recognize that the Hebrew word had reference to a "tent," and they certainly had no concept of the "dome tents" that are available today. The church has likewise had to concede that the natural observations of science were accurate and the earth is not flat.
Would you believe that there are still people today that believe that the earth is flat? Yes, there is an organization called The Flat-Earth Society. The members of this association still argue that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe. Some people are not easily convinced; they hold on to their epistemological belief-system at all cost! Despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, they "grab at every straw" to support their increasingly absurd assertions.
As the scientific evidence becomes increasingly conclusive concerning the dating of the universe and of our solar system, will the religious institutions rigidly adhere to their absolutized interpretations of Genesis 1 as the church of the 15th and 16th centuries did to their absolutized interpretations? Will we see an organization called The Young-Earth Society which will likewise "grab at every straw" to support their pre-conceived ideas? Will the arguments of the "young-earth" supporters become increasingly absurd? Some are arguing today that if a Christian does not believe that the earth was created in six 24 hour days and is approximately 6000 years old, then such a person does not believe in the literal absolutes of Scripture, does not believe in the moral absolutes of Scripture, and is therefore identified with those who are morally degenerate, with homosexuals, murderers and abortionists.3
Surely intelligent and spiritual Christians can rise above such narrow rigidity and recognize that God reveals Himself both supernaturally and naturally. Science is not the natural enemy to Christianity, but can serve as an ally in our cosmological considerations of God's creation. Christians today must exercise an openness toward the evidence for the length of the "days" of creation and the dating of the commencement of creation. Such openness does not impinge upon the accuracy of any Biblical statement, and in no way denies the supernatural acts of God in creation.
1 Harris, R.
Laird (ed.) and Archer, Gleason L. and Waltke, Bruce K., Theological
Wordbook of the Old Testament.
Ross, Hugh, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God. Colorado Springs: Nav Press. 1993.
Ross, Hugh, The Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries
Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator. Orange,
CA: Promise Publishing Co. 1989.