How long were the seven days of Genesis 1-2?

Author: Philip Robinson

For some this is a genuine question, and unfortunately for others, they have already come to the Genesis text with their minds made up and are looking for a way to fit in vast periods of geological and cosmological time. But does the Genesis text allow this?

The word day in English can convey more than 14 different meanings (1) , and yet people have no problem understanding any of these different meanings when used in a sentence in the English language, except apparently in Genesis 1-2. For example, if on a wedding anniversary a husband said to his wife “do you remember the day that we met?”, we would all recognise that the word day in that sentence refers to a 24 hour day sometime in the past, and when used in that context denotes that a special event happened on that day, namely, that that was the day that their relationship started.

Accurate communication is part and parcel of our everyday existence, and the writer of Genesis 1-2 is no different, who wished to accurately convey to the reader God’s creative process.

Those who claim that the days of Genesis 1-2 are anything other than 24 hour days find themselves in the rather ironic position of wanting to accurately communicate their position whilst saying that Genesis does not. As the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew the question then is: What does the Hebrew indicate as to the length of the days?

The Hebrew word used for day in Genesis 1-2 is yom, which has three meanings (2) (3):
1)      One period of the earth’s revolution or twenty four hours
2)      The daylight period of a day (in contrast to night)
3)      Any period of action or state of being, without definite reference to time

It is by looking at what context that the word yom is placed that we can then decide which meaning is appropriate. In the first six days of creation in Genesis 1, a number, as in day one, and the phrase ‘evening and morning’ are used in conjunction with the Hebrew word yom. It is these three words, number, evening and morning which provide the context, and tell us that the days in Genesis 1 are ordinary days.

Don Batten in The Answers Book (4) provides us with the following figures:

Outside Genesis 1, yom is used with a number 410 times, and each time it means an ordinary day.
Outside Genesis 1, yom is used with the word ‘evening’ or ‘morning’ 23 times. ‘Evening’ and ‘morning’ appear in association, but with out yom, 38 times. All 61 times the text means an ordinary day.

We can clearly see from the above figures, that even when yom is used with a number on its own, evening on its own, or morning on its own it always refers to a 24 hour day. With this being the case, and all three being used to provide the context for yom, it is impossible for the days of Genesis 1 to be anything other that 24 hour days. Martin Luther (5) commenting on the days of Genesis said, “therefore, as the proverb has it, he calls “a spade a spade,” i.e., he employs the terms “day” and “evening” without allegory, just as we customarily do…. we assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of the teacher to the Holy Spirit”.

What about the seventh day?

Progressive Creationist Hugh Ross (6) claims that the seventh day, which does not have a recorded ‘evening and morning’, continues throughout the Old Testament, New Testament and on into the future. However it is clear from Batten’s first point above that the seventh day in Genesis 2:2, which is qualified by a number, also refers to an ordinary day. Van Bebber and Taylor (7) also point out that:

1) The word ‘rested’ (sabat) in Genesis 2:3 (Qal perfect 3rd person masculine singular) indicates a completed action, God rested (past tense).

2) That God blessed the seventh day, and it would be hard to understand how God’s curse could occur during a time that was specially blessed by God.

Why 7 days?

The creation week set a pattern in God’s created order for mankind to follow; that we are to work six days and rest on the seventh. We can see this pattern is also clearly stated in Exodus 20:8-11, (part of the Ten Commandments, given by God himself), which reads:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 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.” (KJV)

Exodus 20:11 clearly states that the days of Genesis 1 were six literal ordinary consecutive days, in which God created, and then ceased his work on the seventh day, making it a day of rest. This is why we have our seven day week and not six long periods of work (although it may feel like it sometimes!) and one day of rest (which sometimes never feels long enough!).

Other objections answered

Hugh Ross also argues that when a number is associated with yom it does not have to be literal day. In defence of his position he cites Alan Hayward, (8) who claims that Hosea 6:2, “is at least one exception which shatters the so-called rule”. Hosea 6:2 reads, “after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us”. However Sarfati (9) says that “Here the use of ‘two days’ and ‘three days’ are not intended to give literal numbers, but instead communicate that the restoration of Israel mentioned in the previous chapter will happen quickly”. Van Bebber and Taylor (10) say that Hosea here is using a Hebrew idiom. In this idiom, the ‘two days’ and ‘three days’ are used to conjure in the mind normal days, as opposed to long periods of time, otherwise they would loose their meaning, and the restoration of Israel would not be quick.

Hugh Ross does however give an example of where yom doesn’t mean an ordinary day. In Genesis 2:4 it reads “In the day (beyom) that the Lord made the earth and the heavens.” (KJV) which he says refers back to the whole creation period and therefore, yom does not have to mean a 24 hour period. Though Ross is correct here, that yom does not refer to a twenty four hour day, we can see that it is  in a completely different grammatical context, as it is not numbered or associated with ‘evening’ or ‘morning’. Rather the yom in Genesis 2:4 is prefixed by the Hebrew be, which then transforms the Hebrew yom into an idiom for ‘when’ (11) (12). For example the NIV Bible translates it idiomatically giving the reading – “When the Lord God hade made the earth and the heavens”

Adding more weight in favour of literal days

It is clear to see from the above that the days of Genesis 1-2 are clearly meant to be taken as literal ordinary days. However, as if that were not enough, adding even more weight  Sarfati (13) and Grigg (14) also point out that if the writer of Genesis 1-2 had wanted to convey long periods of time there are Hebrew words such as: olam, qedem, dor, tamid, ad or yamin (the plural of yom), which would have been ideal to use.

More problems and implications

While the Hebrew words alone confirm the length of the days, it has also long been pointed out that the order in which the evolutionary origins account takes place is out of sync with the Bible’s. For example, the Bible clearly says that the earth was created before the stars, but the Big Bang theory has the formation of the stars (including our own sun) before the formation of the earth. The Bible also clearly teaches that plants were made on day three and fish on day five, but the evolution hypothesis has fish formed before the plants. There are many other examples which could be added to this brief list.

The most serious problem with the stretching out the days is that it places death, suffering and disease before the fall of Adam. This first undermines the goodness of God and would give a real cause for people to ask about why a God of love would allow suffering in this world, but as we read in Genesis, God created this world without death, suffering and disease and pronounced it ‘very good’, there were no carnivores, nature back then was not ‘red in tooth and claw’, but both man and the animals were vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30). It was Adam’s sin that brought death, disease and suffering in to God’s ‘very good’ creation. We read in Romans 8:22, ‘the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now’ because of it.

Secondly, by removing Adam’s sin as the cause of death in the world and allowing it to be present from the beginning of time, they also undermine the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Romans 5:12 we read, ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin’. The Bible is clear that there was no death before sin, and that death is the punishment for sin. By attempting to stretch out the days of Genesis 1 and putting millions of years of death in there, such people are actually removing death as the punishment for sin. In other words then, there was no fall and entry into sin, if death has always been present. It’s sad that some Atheists like Richard Bozarth understand this better than some Christians, as seen in the quotation by him below:

Christianity has fought, still fights, and will continue to fight science to the desperate end over evolution, because evolution destroys utterly and finally the very reason Jesus’ earthly life was supposedly made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin (which brought death into the world), and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the Son of God. If Jesus was not the redeemer who died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing.(15) (Italics mine)

If you have ever thought that the length of a day in Genesis 1-2 was a side issue you might want to read the above quotation again. Genesis is the foundation upon which the rest of the Bible sits. Removing it or re-interpreting Genesis 1-2 (which basically amounts to the same thing), has vast and far reaching consequences for how you treat the rest of scripture.

2) Cruden, A. (1995) Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, Hendrickson Publishers
3) Strong, J. (2001) The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
4) Batten, D. (Ed) (2003, 5th printing) The Answers Book: The 20 most asked questions about creation, evolution and the book of Genesis answered, Brisbane, Australia: Triune Press
5) Luther’s Works, Volume 1, Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1-5, 1985, Concordia Publishing House, Saint Louis, Missouri. Translated by George V. Schick and edited by Jaroslav Pelikan
6) Ross, H. (1994) Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy, Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress
7) Van Bebber, M. and Taylor, P.S. (1996, 2nd edition), Creation and Time: A report on the Progressive Creationist book by Hugh Ross, Eden Communications
8) Hayward, A. (1985) Creation and Evolution, The Facts and Fallacies, London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
9) Sarfati, J. (2004) Refuting Compromise, Master Books
10)  Ref 6
11)  Brown, F. Robinson, E. Driver, S.R. and Briggs, C.A. (1979) The new Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew and English lexicon : with an appendix containing the biblical Aramaic, Hendrickson
12)  Wenham, G.J. (1987) Word Biblical Commentary Genesis 1-15, Thomas Nelson Publishers (page 19)
13)  Ref 8
14)  Grigg, R. (1996) How long were the days of Genesis 1? Creation, 19 (1): 23-25
15)  G. Richard Bozarth, ‘The Meaning of Evolution’, American Atheist, p. 30. 20 September 1979