What is the meaning of Day in Genesis 1?

Question
What is the meaning of Day in Genesis 1?
Answer

I previously wrote that the Hebrew word yom in Genesis 1, literally means a 24-hour Day, as supported by:

(1) Yom's Sabbath Day usage in Exodus 20:9-11 (cf. Gen. 1:1-2:3).

(2) Yom's appearance with the defining phrase, "morning and evening" (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).

(3) Yom's appearance with the time-stamp numbers (the first Day, the second Day, etc. in Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).

(4) "It was so" indicates immediacy, not a delay of 1000s, millions, or billions of years (Gen. 1:6, 9, 11, 14, 24, 30).

(5) "And God saw" indicates immediacy (Gen. 1:4, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). God pronounced that each event in Creation was "good" (Hebrew, towb, meaning "excellent") "only after" he "saw" what was completed ("and it was so"). This speaks of not only his decree, but his finished work. It refers to not only the sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, sea and land life, and man himself but the finished complex systems working within other finished complex systems to support all life. He pronounced that all six Days of Creation were "very good," only after "he saw everything that he had made" worked fully together as he fully created it to exist (Gen. 1:31).

(6) The fact that Genesis 1 lacks a comparative particle - "like" or "as," (implied in Psa. 90:4 and literally stated by Peter - twice - in 2 Pet. 3:8). This infers that Day in Genesis 1 means a literal 24-hour Day.

(7) The first use of yom (Gen. 1:4-5) literally refers to the daily light/dark cycle of Day and Night.

With all these limiting words and phrases restricting the context of Genesis 1 ("day(s)," 11 times; "it was so," 6 times; "And God saw," 7 times; "good" 7 times; "very good," 1 time; and the time-stamp numbers used 6 times), the "preponderance of the evidence" (meaning that it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way), seems to limit the usage of yom to an ordinary 24-hour Day. I don't see how God could have been any clearer!

Now, though I don't think it is actually needed, I would like to expand upon these thoughts briefly. Though I will repeat some of the information expressed above, hopefully by expanding upon the facts a little, it will help the reader to understand the meaning and importance of the Hebrew word yom in Genesis 1.

The Hebrew word yom may mean many things depending upon the "context" of a given verse or pericope (set of verses). Indeed, Progressive Creationist, Gleason Archer's, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) correctly gives various definitions of yom. It can denote: (1) the period of light (as contrasted with the period of darkness); (2) the period of twenty-four hours; (3) a general vague "time;" (4) a point of time; (5) a year (in the plural; 1 Sam. 27:7; Exod. 13:10, etc.). [1]

However, according to Holladay's Hebrew-English Lexicon, yom in Genesis 1 refers to a literal 24-hour Day. [2] In addition, famed Brown-Driver-Brigg's Lexicon (BDB), also defines the creation "Day" of Genesis 1 as a regular "day as defined by evening and morning." [3] As the BDB indicates, mere TWOT meanings are not enough, "context" must dictate the meaning of words within Scripture. Without understanding the proper "context," definitions may become mere idols which distort the translation of Scripture. As R. L. Dabney points out:

The narrative seems historical, and not symbolical; and hence the strong initial presumption is, that all its parts are to be taken in their obvious sense.... It is freely admitted that the word day is often used in the Greek Scriptures as well as the Hebrew (as in our common speech) for an epoch, a season, a time. But yet, this use is confessedly derivative. The natural day is its literal and primary meaning. Now, it is apprehended that in construing any document, while we are ready to adopt, at the demand of the context, the derived or tropical meaning, we revert to the primary one, when no such demand exists in the context. [4]

The theory of evolution (rather, "evilution"), mixed with the misuse of the various definitions of yom in the TWOT above, and alleged scientific discoveries have caused great contention today regarding the meaning of the Hebrew word yom in Genesis 1. Atheism (see below) has flourished during this time. Does the Hebrew word yom mean a 24-hour Day, resulting in a 168-hour week (7x24), or a 1000s, millions, or billions of years?

Let's examine the Bible a little further. Does Day mean an actual Day, or a longer period of time in Genesis 1?

A Simple Reading of the Text

A simple straightforward reading of the Biblical text will lead one to believe that the Days of Creation were six, literal, 24-hour Days. Repeated phrases like "evening and morning," give this definite impression. Genesis 1 is the "no-spin zone" of the Creation account. In reference to Creation, Luther stated, "I hold that Moses spoke literally and not figuratively or allegorically, telling us that the world with all its creatures was made within six days, just as the words read." [5] Calvin wrote that Genesis 1 means what it says:

For instance, a young earth view:

They will not refrain from guffaws when they are informed that but little more than five thousand years have passed since the creation of the universe. [6]

That God Created in six consecutive 24-hour Days:

Here the error of those is manifestly refuted, who maintain that the world was made in a moment. For it is too violent a cavil to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men. [7]

I have said above that six days were employed in the formation of the world; not that God, to whom one moment is as a thousand years, had need of this succession of time, but that he might engage us in the contemplation of his works. [7]

That the Day-Night cycle was instituted from Day 1:

Therefore the Lord, by the very order of the creation, bears witness that he holds in his hand the light, which he is able to impart to us without the sun and the moon. Further, it is certain, from the context, that the light was so created as to be interchanged with the darkness there is, however, no doubt that the order of their succession was alternate. [7]

And the Creation was "very good:"

On each of the days, simple approbation was given. But now, after the workmanship of the world was complete in all its parts, and had received, if I may so speak, the last finishing touch, he pronounces it perfectly good; that we may know that there is in the symmetry of God's works the highest perfection, to which nothing can be added. [7]

So, a simple reading of the text, indicates that yom refers to a literal 24-hour Day in Genesis 1.

A Slippery Slope

If one takes an allegorical or figurative approach to the meaning of Day in Genesis 1, then Arthur Custance makes a very important point when he says:

At what point in the narrative [of Genesis] did geological ages end and normal years replace them in the account of events which happened in the first five chapters of Genesis? By the time we reach the sixth chapter we know that the days are real days and real years. Where is the changeover point? It is impossible to find room for its insertion without making nonsense of a narrative which runs unbrokenly from Adam to Noah in a way that is clearly intended to be plain sober human history. [8]

His point is valid. If one accepts that the word yom means a long length of time, such as 1000s of years, where does the true history of the Bible begin? Once the word yom is removed from its natural meaning of a literal 24-hour Day, the reading Scripture becomes a slippery slope and all types of new questions appear: (1) Was Creation the result of evolution? (2) Was Adam a real person or did he evolve from an ape or other species? (cf. Gen. 2:7); (3) Is the Fall of man just allegory too? (cf. Gen. 3); (4) Since the first Adam is in Jesus' genealogy (Luke 3:38), did he descend form an ape too?; and (5) If the first Adam was not real, was the second and last man Adam - Jesus Christ - not real too? (cf. Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:45, 47). An allegorical reading of Day in Genesis 1 makes Swiss cheese of our understanding of the remainder of Genesis, if not the entire Bible! This type of non-historical, reading ultimately ends up denying the inspiration, inerrancy, clarity, and authority of Scripture!

The Ten Commandments

Are the Ten Commandments to be taken figuratively too? Of course not! The Fourth Commandment informs the reader that the Days of the Creation week were literal 24-hour Days. It reads:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exod. 20:8-11).

The Fourth Commandment clearly links the Sabbath Day with the weekly cycle established in Gen 1:1-2:3. In context, no other interpretation, but a literal 24-hour Day makes sense. Notice the use of the word, "Remember;" pointing us back to the very beginning (Gen.1:1-2:3). The same author who wrote Genesis also wrote Exodus, and the same Holy Spirit inspired both! (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). Moses leaves us no doubt how he intended the word yom to be interpreted in both there pericopes.

Day and Years, Units of Time

When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God supplied manna every morning. Exodus 16 begins with this description, "the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt" (Exod. 16:1). Is this to be taken literally? "Day," "Month," and "Year" are units of time. These were established by the natural movements of earth, moon, or sun which God himself established to determine the "Day," the "Month," and the "Year" pattern in history. As God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years" (Gen. 1:14). Other than the week of Creation as described in Genesis 1, there is no other compete basis for "Day," "Week," and "Year" as units of time. These are used throughout Scripture (cf. Gen. 8:22; Eccl. 3:1-2; Psa. 104:19, etc.). This, logically argues that the Creation week in Genesis had to be a 168-hour week.

The Israelites were to gather only enough manna for one Day's use (Exod. 16:4). However, on Friday, they were to gather twice the normal amount of manna; as they were commanded not to work on the Sabbath - Saturday - (Exod. 16:5; Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:8-11). So, even before the Ten Commandments were given, this illustrates obedience to God's Creation command, as it refers to a real 24-hour Day (Gen. 2:1-3; cf. Exod. 20:11-14). In the Hebrew mindset, a Day, was a Day, was a Day!

Cleary, over and over again, the Scripture teaches that the Hebrew word yom in Genesis 1 means a literal 24-hour Day.

With these preliminary insights, let's get back to Genesis 1 and take a closer look at the language:

Yom is Used in the Singular

Yom is used in the singular. The Hebrew word yom appears in the Old Testament 2,303 times; 1,452 usages are in the singular. In Genesis 1, the predominate use of yom is in the singular referring to a literal 24-hour Day. There are some exceptions to this:

(1) Genesis 1:5, uses the Hebrew word yom to refer to the daylight period of a full 24-hour Day, as contrasted to the period of Night. However, both Day and Night make a literal 24-hour Day (Gen. 1:4-5).

(2) Genesis 1:14, which is not referring to a creation Day, speaks of "signs and for seasons, and for days and years." This is the plural usage. As previously discussed above, in context, "Day" must refer to a literal "Day," as much as "Year" refers to literal a "Year."

(3) Genesis 1:16 refers to the sun, the greater light to rule by Day, again contrasting it to the Night (moon and stars). Both Day and Night make a literal 24-hour Day (Gen. 1:16-18).

The predominate singular usage of yom speaks of a literal 24-hour Day. This is attested to by the fact that in Genesis 1, yom also has a connecting numeral and is preceded by the phrase, "there was evening and there was morning." This formula, reveals the uniformity of the Creation yom throughout the six-Days. The time is linear and events occur within it successively. As shown elsewhere, even the Hebrew confirms this:

Waw Conjunctions: The Hebrew word waw may mean numerous things depending upon context ("and," "but," "now," "then," etc.). What is called the "waw consecutive" is used throughout Genesis 1. This means that there is sequence of events. Beginning in Genesis 1:3 we observe waw connected to an imperfect verb and observe the same phase, "And God said" over and over again (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24). So, these events were genuine, occurring one right after the other - literal history!

Yom Joined to a Numeral

Yom is used in with a numeral in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Each of the seven (7) Days of Creation are joined with a numeral in the sequence of one through seven (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:1-3). Note, there is a sequence of numbers - no skipping around. There are no temporal interruptions. This is consistent with six (6) Days of work and one (1) Day of rest pattern that God lays out (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:8-11).

Normally, when the Holy Spirit uses the word yom coupled with a numeral, it refers to a literal 24-hour Day. However, there are exceptions to this:

(1) Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:4-6, where God compares a Day to a Year, but even if we grant this as an interpretative tool for Genesis 1 (which we shouldn't), then we are only speaking of six (6) years, not of millions of years.

(2) Zechariah 14:7-9 which is an eschatological text, which plainly Genesis 1 isn't.

To use either of the examples above as tools of interpreting Genesis 1 would be error; eisegesis, not exegesis. With the exceptions then accounted for, yom with a numeral in Genesis 1 refers to a 24-hour Day.

Yom and the Limited Use of an Article

The Days of Genesis 1 have an interesting pattern. The first Day has a cardinal number (i.e. one, two, three, four, five, six, seven), so yom echad would normally be read as "Day One." However, according the imminent Hebrew scholar, Bruce Waltke, here the cardinal number is serving as an ordinal (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh). [9] The other Days have ordinal numbers too. In addition, Days 2-5 lack a definite article while Days 6-7 have the definite article (Hebrew, ha, meaning, "the"). So, the Creation Week reads:

the first Day, a second Day, a third Day, a fourth Day, a fifth Day, the sixth Day, the seventh Day

This divine rhythm speaks of consecutive literal 24-hours periods of time, especially seeing that the first use of yom (Gen. 1:4-5) literally refers to the daily light/dark cycle of Day and Night and each Day, but the sixth, is joined by the clause "evening and morning."

Yom is used without an article, except in Genesis 1:31 (the sixth Day) and Genesis 2:2 (the seventh Day). Bruce Waltke states that on the first Day the sense is definite. [9] The same is true for the sixth and seventh Days. So, this makes an inclusio (a bracketing or an enveloping structure). Baldwin writes:

"The seventh day" is also written with the Hebrew article. Since "the first day" (Gen. 1:5) is definite as well as "the sixth day" (Gen. 1:31), a larger unit is formed. It is the unit of six workdays followed by "the seventh day" (Genesis 2:2, 3), the day of rest. In this way, the sequence of six workdays find their goal and climax chronologically and sequentially in "the seventh day," making together the weekly cycle with the day of rest being the "seventh day" of the week.

The larger unit of literal time accordingly consists of the divinely planned unit of the "six-plus-one schema" which consists of the "six" workdays followed in an uninterrupted manner and in sequence by "the seventh day" of rest. This uninterrupted sequence is divinely planned and ordained as the rhythm of the time for each successive week. [10]

While the explanation can be difficult to follow, we can simply observe this in the chiasm that Genesis 1:1-2:4 actually forms:

  • A. God created (Gen. 1:1a)
    • B. God (Gen. 1:1b)
      • C. heavens and earth (Gen. 1:1b)
        • D. Forming and Filling the Earth (Gen. 1:2-31)
      • C.' heavens and earth (Gen.2:1)
    • B.' God (Gen. 2:2-3)
  • A.' God created (Gen. 2:4)

As one may plainly see, the Creation pattern speaks of a single unit. The single unit, with all the other restricting words in Genesis 1:1-2:3 refers to the Creation week. Longer periods of time just don't fit the context.

Yom Used with Boundary-Setting Phrases

Genesis 1 has many boundary-setting phrases:

(1) Yom's appearance with the defining phrase, "morning and evening" (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).

(2) "It was so" indicates immediacy, not a delay of 1000s, millions, or billions of years (Gen. 1:6, 9, 11, 14, 24, 30).

(3) "And God saw" indicates immediacy (Gen. 1:4, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). God pronounced that each event in Creation was "good" (Hebrew, towb, meaning "excellent") "only after" he "saw" what was completed ("and it was so"). This speaks of not only his decree, but his finished work. It refers to not only the sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, sea and land life, and man himself but the finished complex systems working within other finished complex systems to support all life. He pronounced that all six Days of Creation were "very good," only after "he saw everything that he had made" worked fully together as he fully created it to exist (Gen. 1:31).

All these phrases are rhythmic time setting boundaries indicating that Moses is speaking of a literal 24-hour Day. If the Hebrew language has any meaning at all, these phrases cannot be made to mean anything else.

Yom, Its Use in Genesis 2:4

Genesis 2:4 uses the word yom to mean more than a 24-hour Day. Since it refers to the entire first six Days of Creation, some state that all six Days should be interpreted the same way. While this is indeed true that "Day" in Genesis 2:4 refers to all six Days of Creation, there are numerous problems with stating it means the same as Day in Genesis 1:1-2:3:

(1) Genesis 2:4 doesn't include the definite phrase, "evening and morning" (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). Therefore, this is not an apple to apple comparison.

(2) Genesis 2:4 uses the Hebrew be-yo-wm, not the Hebrew yo-wm (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:3). Genesis 2:4 uses be-yo-wm, as it is an idiomatic phrase (a summarizing statement, as in Num. 7:10 and Num. 7:84) and not identical to the use of yo-wm in Genesis 1.

(3) In addition, Genesis 2:2-3 (Hebrew, yo-wm) refers to resting on the Sabbath Day (Exod. 20:11 - Hebrew, yo-wm). But if one applies the usage of be-yo-wm in Genesis 2:4 to Genesis 1:1-2:3, then it must also applied to the Sabbath Day. But be-yo-wm (Gen.2:4) does not equal yo-wm (Exod. 20:8-11).

(4) If we interpret the first six (6) Days of Creation, with the same number of Days that Genesis 2:4 is equal to, we are speaking of only 36 Days (6 x 6 = 36), not millions of years.

So, this does not change the meaning of the 24-hour Day in Genesis 1:1-2:3, if anything it strengthens the case for it.

Conclusion

Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21), Moses wrote using a restrictive rhythmic time setting boundary with which the Christian is to interpret God's divine text. The original audience wouldn't have had a clue regarding the Big Bang Theory, Day Age Theory, Gap Theory, Framework Hypothesis, Progressive Creationism, or Theistic Evolution. Moses, the first scientist, ('I must turn aside, and investigate this wondrous phenomenon, why the bush is not burnt' [Exod. 3:3; paraphrased]), would have anathematized the whole lot. The original audience wasn't concerned about the advancements of science's view of Creation, they had all they needed in God's Word alone.

Christians today need to stand in the shoes of the original audience and look at the book of Genesis (Hebrew, bereshith, meaning, "in the beginning," and in Greek, geneseos meaning, "genesis"). God's Word shares an ever so simple truth in Genesis 1:1-2:3; God created in six literal Days and rested on the seventh Day.

We, as was the case of the original audience that Genesis was written too, need to accept God's Word by faith (Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11). But unfortunately, Genesis has become as parable for many; 'hearing they don't understand, seeing they don't perceive.' The hearts of many have grown dull in the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3), and have closed their ears and eyes to Scripture alone, but opened them to ever-changing field of creative science which has darkened their hearts (Matt. 13:15). Blessed are the eyes and ears of those that have been enabled to understand and perceive (Matt. 13:16) that God created in literal 24-hour Days (Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11).

The evidence for Old Age Creationism below has been weighed and found wanting. It is time for Christians to stand up and curse the fig-tree of Old Earth Creation (cf. Mark 11:12-25).

Footnotes

[1] R. Laird Harris (Author),‎ Gleason L Archer Jr., yom, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (Moody, 2003).

[2] William H. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 130.

[3] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 398.

[4] R.L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1878, rep. 1972), pp. 254-255.

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Genesis, 2 vols., trans. J. Theodore Muller (Grand Rapids, 1958), p. 4.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2:925, ed. John T. McNeill, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA, USA, 1960 [7] John Calvin, Genesis, (Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, UK, 1984), p.p. 78, 105, 76-77, 100, respectively.

[8] A translation of Genesis 1:1-2:4 with Notes, "in Hidden Things of God's Revelation," vol. vii., The Doorway Papers (Zondervan, 1977).

[9] The translation "day one" is syntactically not correct, even though the cardinal is used here. In clauses of the type of Genesis 1:5 the cardinal serves effectively as an ordinal number that the indefinite noun yom with the indefinite cardinal numeral for "one" (Hebrew, echad) in Genesis 1:5 has "an emphatic, counting force" and a "definite sense" in addition to having the force of an ordinal number which is to be rendered as "the first day." Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 274. Quoting Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], pp. 8, 353. Note that Waltke affirms Framework Hypothesis.

[10] John Templeton Baldwin, ed., Creation, Catastrophe & Calvary, (Review & Herald Pub Assn., 2000). pp. 56-59.

Various Creation Positions

What is the Big Bang Theory?
What is the Day Age Theory?
What is Ex-Nihilo?
What is the Framework Hypothesis?
What is the Gap Theory?
What About Hebrews 11:3?
What is the Intelligent Design Theory?
What is the Mature Universe Theory?
What is Old Earth Creationism (OEC)?
What is Progressive Creationism?
What is Theistic Evolution?
What is Young Earth Creationism (YEC)?

Related Topics

Are there two different accounts of Creation?
What is BioLogos?
Did man eat meat before the Fall and the Flood?
A Universal or Regional Flood?
What about the evidence of Carbon-14 dating?
What About Dinosaurs?
Scientific Evidence for YEC?
How could there be evening and morning the first three days of Creation?
Extraterrestrials and the Bible?
Can a person be born an atheist?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).