How Long are the Days of Genesis 1?

Teton National Park

In an attempt to bring harmony between the Book of Nature and the Book of the Bible, some have proposed that the “days”, mentioned in Genesis 1, may not have been literal 24 hour days, but refer to much longer periods of time.  They have demonstrated that the Hebrew word yôm, translated in most English Bibles simply as “day”, in Genesis 1, may also be understood in the original Hebrew language as referring to the concepts of hours, the daylight portion of one day, or an era of any unspecified length. 1

That one word can have a variety of different meanings should not come as a big surprise.  Even in English, with the millions of words that we have at our disposal, I might make a reference about how things used to be, "back in my father’s day”.  Most people, whose first language is English, would know right away that I was not referring to a 24 hour day, but rather a long time-period in which my father lived.

In his excellent work, “A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy”, Hugh Ross offers compelling evidence for taking the days of Genesis 1 to be much longer than 24 hours.  He argues for example, that there is just too much going on in day six for it to have all happened in one 24 hour period.  All kinds of land animals are created, Adam is created, Adam tends the garden, and he names all of the animals! Then, as he looks around, he realizes that unlike all of the other animals, he does not have a mate.  God puts him to sleep, creates Eve, and as Adam comes to and sees the beautiful creation that God has made just for him, Adam exclaims, “now at last” he has a companion.

Dr. Ross also points out that the seventh “day” of creation has no “evening” or “morning” boundaries set, to mark it off as being a time period that is completed, and that this may indicate that we are currently living within the seventh era, a time when God rests from His work of Creation.  Since the crowning act of the creation of mankind, God rests.  The day will come, when He will create again, a new heaven and earth, but for now He rests.  This period from the formation of Eve, to the time of the renewal of all things, is clearly thousands of years.  If the seventh day can be understood as a long era, so also should it be possible to see the first six days as long time periods, extending even to millions of years!

NepalWhile this, and other proposals for making the days long, or for having gaps of millions of years, in-between the 24 hour days of Genesis 1, are fascinating to consider, in the end I do not believe that they are necessary or hermeneutically appropriate.  More importantly, I do not believe that this would have been the intent of the author of Genesis or what the original audience of Genesis would have understood when they heard the story repeated in their oral tradition.  While we might need (or at least like)  them to be long periods of time, to account for our understanding of the cosmos, they did not.  When our ancient Israelite herder friend, Joel, as we have called him elsewhere, learned these traditions at the feet of his father, I am quite certain that he probably understood the term “day” in the most simple terms, a real, literal day.  As much as we might like to help the author of Genesis along, to have the text also make sense for our cosmology, by suggesting a more complex understanding of “day”, I believe that the safest course is always to let the Bible simply say what it says.  Let the text speak for itself, and “let the chips fall where they may!”

Some might like to suggest that the words here, might have been inspired in such a way by God, that the original audience could understand this to be a literal day, and be fine with that for their worldview, but also be understood as long eras by a later generation, who might just happen to start accumulating compelling evidence for an old Earth.  Kind of like God saying one thing to the people of Moses' day, but with a "smile, wink and a nod" to our generation.  As interesting as this might be to ponder, I am uncomfortable about starting down a road that looks for hidden or coded meanings in the simple words of Scripture.  I have found that the best hermeneutical approach to Scripture, is to let the words speak in their most simple forms, endeavor to understand them first of all from the context of the original audience, and only then attempt to pull the big principles through the tough barriers of language translation, time and culture.  Should this approach cause conundrums, that is fine.  Often, just like in scientific endeavors, it is in contemplating the mysteries and conundrums that we may discover new vistas of understanding.  If we completely solve a problem through the process of simply changing the original meaning of the text to suit our needs, we may stop thinking about the problem and completely miss out on the delight of new discovery!  One can make a puzzle piece fit wherever we want, by changing the shape with scissors, but what might this do to the image we are attempting to reconstruct?

Sunset in CaliforniaI totally get why some Christians would like to see the days of Genesis be long eras of time.  Clearly, the discoveries of modern science, from many diverse disciplines, have accumulated a “flood of evidence” that our Earth is old; very old!  When I was a young man in an undergraduate course in theology, we used to try and account for the evidence of an old Earth by suggesting that there might have been a big gap between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2, and that this would account for how science could date some of the rocks of our Earth to be billions of years old, but still have a relatively recent Creation week.  Unfortunately, this idea fell short then and falls short even more so now.  This was back in the 70’s and the idea of plate tectonics and continental drift were only beginning to be whispered about in the hallways of our Bible College.  Since that time, much has changed!  When geological strata and the fossils of lifeforms, found in the ancient rocks of the west coast of Africa, match up like puzzle pieces to the same kinds of fossils and rock formations found on the east coast of South America, and we realize that the two land masses were at one time together, we can only conclude that the life represented by these fossils lived on this Earth a VERY long time ago.  Careful scientific analysis of the Atlantic Ocean seabed show, through multiple lines of evidence that sea-floor spreading has slowly pushed the two continents apart over the last 200 million years. This means that the fossils found in the geological strata, common to both continents, not only give evidence that they were once joined together, but that life was present on the planet when they separated about 200 million years ago!

Some Young Earth creationists attempt to account for all of this fossil and tectonic activity as part of the flood event, however this idea simply does not stand up against the observations and measurements that have been made of the Atlantic Ocean floor.  Such a rapid release of energy would have likely reduced the Earth to a molten mass. The gradual, systematic buildup of sedimentation in the Atlantic clearly demonstrates that this has been a long slow, gradual process not something that happened in a few short months, 3500 years ago!  In the center of the Atlantic, where new spreading is still going on today, no sedimentation is found.  The sediments grow in depth the further you go in either direction to the continents where the silt can become as much as 1000 meters!  This clearly demonstrates that these two continents moving to their present position, has been a long slow, gradual process not something that happened in a few short months, 3500 years ago!.)

The BIG problem, pointed out by many scientists, who are also Christian, is that if we hold to a belief in a literal creation week, with literal 24 hour days, but still see life on this planet back when Africa and South America were one connected land-mass, this would by common logic put the creation week back to over 200 million years ago! If Adam and Eve were created in the same, literal week, this puts their creation to be over 200 million years ago as well! For many obvious reasons this is not a viable viewpoint.

Nevertheless, I still lean toward the days of Genesis 1 to be real, 24 hour time periods, for the following reasons:

1. It is the most simple, most rational, functional understanding of the text, especially when understood from the point of view of the original audience, which should always be our first rule of appropriate Biblical interpretation and understanding.

2. The “Evening” and the “Morning” for each day make the most sense when these are thought of as regular, normal, literal, days.

3. After God separates the light from the darkness on the first day, he calls the light-portion of the separation, “day”, the same original Hebrew word used for the six time periods of the Creation event.  When God creates the sun, it is placed in the heaven to govern the “day”.  These two other references to “day”, or yôm, seems to establish what the author truly intended by “day”.  It was the "light portion" of a regular, literal day.  If the author would have wanted his listener to think of long eras, it would seem necessary to make some qualifications or clarifications here.  The simplest understanding is to see the use of “day” here, to mean the length of time that it takes for the sun to make one pass through the heavens.

4. One of the reasons for People Groups to have these foundational origin statements is to give a standardized answer for questions that children and students often ask.  Genesis 1 does just that for many of the questions that may be asked about how stuff got to be the way that it is. Questions like, "Where did the week come from, daddy?" In fact, the Creation account of Genesis is the best answer that we have to the question, where did the week come from?  The moon gives us our monthly cycle, the sun gives us an annual cycle but there is no logical, rational for the week, except that it was one of the cycles that God set in motion with a literal creation week. The Creation account also answers the question, how do we get our day, where did the day dome from.  The answer that Genesis 1 offers to answer this question is lost if we attempt to change the days to long eras.

5.  Exodus 20:8-11 reads the easiest when the days of the creation week are seen as real literal days as opposed to long eras.  The open-ended Seventh “day-era” idea, with no morning or evening to mark it off, suggested by Dr. Ross, seems very closed, even-past tense here in Exodus:

“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

6.  The proposal of long eras for the Creation "days", seems to be an argument born out of a sense of rational necessity, in order to account for the findings of modern science for an old Earth.  If there was another way to accommodate this evidence, it is doubtful that the idea of long eras may have ever been conceived or proposed.  That being the case, the proposal of long eras appears to be forcing a meaning on the text that was never intended to be there, just to make it more palatable to the modern reader.  I believe that these kinds of attempts to “help God out”, should be avoided.  I would propose that it is always better to let the text simply say what it says, and find another way to solve our cognitive dissonance, then try and make the text say what it does not! Moses would not have understood the need for long eras for the creation event. Joel, our shepherd friend, would not understand the need for long eras. Why should we try and force the text to say something that was not originally needed, just to make it easier for us in the 21’st century to accept?

Dr. Ross and others tell us that when they first read the book of Genesis, even before becoming Christians, it never even occurred to them that the "day" here could be meant to be taken literally, that it must have been referring to long periods of time.  That is probably providential!  Given the scientific background of some seekers, if they read Genesis 1 for the first time and did not make this assumption, or allowance, they would probably not get past the first chapter!  We can thank God that the Holy Spirit helps people see things in a certain way while they may be first reading the Bible, to help them get past some of these initial hurdles, that might otherwise hinder their search for God.   

However, to continue to view things this way, after one has become solidified in the faith, developed a personal relationship with the Creator, and learned some basic hermeneutical principles, may not be showing the most responsible approach to scripture, especially when you are in the position of teaching others...  It is great to have models and make proposals that offer possible solutions to problems, but I believe that we need to be careful that our model does not become so absolute in our thinking that we stop looking for other viable solutions.  

In the case of Dr. Ross, and others at Reasons To Believe, there may also be a potential danger of losing people's attention to the many other wonderful things that are being presented by their organization, because they can't make it past the RTB position on the “days of Genesis”.  That is unfortunate!  RTB is such a wonderful resource for Christians!  I hate to see it under-appreciated over "a matter of days"!

So how can we possibly account for a literal creation week that happened not that long ago and still be comfortable with the testimony of the “Book of Nature” that shows that life on this Earth has been around for a very long time?

We will discuss this, and more, in articles to come!
Suggested Reading
For an excellent survey and discussion of this question I recommend a paper by one of my favorite professors from the seminary that I attended.  You can find the paper here:
1.  A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy – Hugh Ross, Page 73
In addition to A Matter of Days, I would recommend the proposals of John Walton in His book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate