Todd and Craig had been exploring and mapping the wilderness for some time when they decided to split up to cover more ground. “You head to the north, and I will explore the south,” said Todd. “We’ll meet back at the campsite in two days.” Craig gave an affirmative nod and headed north. After two days of successful exploration, Todd returned to the campsite on schedule. But Craig was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he had been delayed.
Early on the third day, Todd tried radioing his friend, but to no avail. Craig was clearly out of range, and Todd was becoming concerned. Was Craig lost? Had he been injured? A fourth and fifth day passed and Todd’s radio calls went unanswered. Finally, on the sixth day, Craig’s voice was heard on the radio. Todd responded, “What happened? Are you okay?”
“Of course,” said Craig. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Todd said, “We were supposed to meet back at the camp in two days. It’s been six!”
“Ah, I think I see the problem,” said Craig. “You should have said ‘two literal twenty-four hour days.’ You just said, ‘two days’ so I naturally thought you meant that we were to meet back at camp in two long periods of time, perhaps hundreds of millions of years each.”
Craig’s error is so ridiculous, it seems pretty unlikely that such a story could ever really happen. And yet, many Christians have made this same mistake when it comes to the creation account in Genesis. In Genesis chapter 1, God reports that He created the heavens and the Earth in a period of six days. Human beings were made on the sixth day, and given the number of generations between Adam and Christ, this must have happened a few thousand years ago. A straightforward reading of Scripture therefore indicates that God created the universe approximately 6000 years ago. But not everyone wants to accept that.
Since our youth, most of us have been utterly brainwashed with the idea that the Earth is billions of years old. We are told that science has demonstrated this, particularly by the method of radiometric dating of rocks. Of course, the scientific method by its very nature could never establish such a thing, and is in fact predicated upon biblical creation. But not many people realize this. Hence, even many Christians have fallen into the trap of “deep time.” For this reason, many Christians are strongly motivated to read the Bible in such a way as to accommodate the hypothetical vast ages proposed by the secularists. And one of the most common proposed mechanisms is to assume that the days of Genesis chapter 1 are not really days at all, but vast ages millions of years long. The idea is often called the “day-age theory.” Like Craig, many professing Christians think that when God said He created in six days, He really meant “six long periods of time, perhaps hundreds of millions of years each.”
Did God get confused? Did He really mean to say “six long ages” but then had a “senior moment” and accidentally said “six days” instead? I trust that no Christian would take such a heretical hypothetical seriously. But then some people would say, “Ah, but the Hebrew word translated ‘day’ need not always mean an ordinary day.” Of course, even our English word ‘day’ need not always mean an ordinary day – but more on that later. The point is that the creation account in Genesis was not written in English but in Hebrew. What we normally read is not the original text of Scripture, but a translation of it. And we can (and should) ask if the text has been translated correctly. Is it possible that the Hebrew word translated ‘day’ in passages like Genesis 1:5 has been mistranslated? Could it really mean “age?” Are all the major English translations in error?
The Hebrew word translated “day” in passages like Genesis 1:5 is יוׄם (“yom”). The plural form of this word is יָמׅים (“yamim”) which is the word used in Exodus 20:11 where we read that God created the heavens and Earth in six days (yamim). So what does “yom” mean? The main meaning of “yom” is “day” – as in the 24-hour synodic rotation of the Earth. It can also refer to just the light portion of the that rotation – daylight. These are of course the two primary meanings of our English word “day” – either a 24-hour period or the daylight portion thereof. And there is no other Hebrew word that is normally used to convey such a thing. A “yom” is a day. Let’s look at a few examples:
In Genesis 7:4 God says, “For after seven more days, I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights; and I will blot out from the face of the land every living thing that I have made.” And the word used for “days” is “yom.” It is used in the plural form “yamim” in the first part of the verse (“seven more days”) and in the singular form in the second part. Clearly in both instances, we are dealing with “days” in the sense of a rotation of the Earth. “After seven days” means after seven Earth rotations – one week. And “forty days and forty nights” means that the rain would continue for 40 Earth rotations. The addition of the term “forty nights” makes it particularly clear that the rain was not merely during the daylight portion.
Likewise, “yom” (either in singular or plural form) is used in Genesis 7:10 “after seven days,” 7:11, “on the seventeenth day… on the same day,” 7:12 “forty days,” 7:13 “same day,” 7:17 “forty days,” 7:24 “one hundred and fifty days,” 8:3 “one hundred and fifty days,” 8:4 “seventeenth day,” 8:6 “forty days,” 8:10 “seven days,” 8:12 “seven days,” 8:14 “twenty-seventh day,” 8:22, “day and night.” Fourteen instances of “yom” (or the plural form “yamim”) in all in just these two chapters, and all of them clearly refer to ordinary Earth-rotation days. This is indeed the meaning of the word.
Perhaps more relevant to our modern life is the use of the word as it occurs in the Ten Commandments. In particular, God’s instructions regarding the Sabbath day use the word “yom” either in singular or plural form. These are found in Exodus 20:8-11. Verse eight states, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Then in verse nine we read, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work…” According to verse 10, this work is to then cease for a day, “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.” The word translated “day/days” in these passages is always “yom/yamim”.
In verse 11 we read the explanation of why we are to work six days and then rest one: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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.” And the word translated as “day/days” in this passage? It is “yom/yamim.” This text therefore makes clear that the days of the creation week are the same things as the days of our work week. We have a seven-day week because God created in six days and rested for one as a pattern for us to follow.
Throughout Old Testament, you will find that “yom” is the word used when the Hebrews wanted to indicate a day – a rotation of Earth or the daylight portion thereof. This all seems perfectly natural and is clearly the main meaning of the word. But are there any exceptions? Can the word ever mean anything besides an ordinary day? Is the word ever used in a non-literal sense? The answer to all these questions is: yes. In fact, just about any word you can think of can be used in a non-literal sense, particularly in poetry or when used in a figure of speech.
This is not surprising considering that even in English we can used the word “day” in a figurative sense. We might say, “back in my father’s day it was much harder to get from place to place.” Here we are using “day” to mean a generic period of time and not necessarily a literal day. Likewise, we might speak of “the day of the Lord” by which we refer to the time of God’s judgment, and not necessarily one Earth rotation. Interestingly, the Hebrew text also uses this same expression. That is, the Hebrew word for “day” (“yom”) is used in a non-literal sense to refer to the “day of the Lord” in prophetic passages like Isaiah 13:6,9; Ezekiel 13:5; Joel 1:15; Amos 5:18.
How can we recognize non-literal usage of a word? There are three ways: context, context, and context. That is, there are three different types of context that help us understand whether a word is to be taken literally or figuratively. The first is the context of the genre of literature. If we are reading a poem, we expect far more non-literal use of words than if we were reading a history book. The Bible has sections that record literal history, and other sections that record poetry. Prophetic books of the Bible are also written in poetic form. We expect more non-literal usage of words in the prophetic and poetic books than in the historical ones. Notice, for example, that all the usages of “day of the Lord” in the Old Testament where it is used figuratively to mean “the time of God’s judgment/action” are in prophetic books.
The second type of context is when a word is used as part of a figure of speech. A weather reporter might say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” This is a common non-literal expression and is thus used even outside poetic contexts. We look for a word that is part of a common phrase. Our previous example also works to illustrate this: “day of the Lord.” Here, the word day is part of a prepositional phrase, a phrase that is used commonly in the Old Testament.
Finally, the immediate context might specify that a word is being used in a non-literal sense by directly saying so. Such is the case in John 2:19-21 when Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Here, we know the word “temple” is being used somewhat figuratively to refer to Christ’s body. And we know this because the text directly says so in verse 21, “But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”
So these are the three contextual indications that a word is being used non-literally; poetic genre, part of a prepositional phrase, or specified by context. When all three of these are lacking, the author intends the text to be taken literally. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to read the text literally unless one or more of these three indicators is present. What then are we to make of the days of the creation week?
Genesis 1 in Context
What is the genre of Genesis 1? Is it poetic or prophetic? Poetry is easy to recognize in Hebrew because unlike English poetry which often relies upon rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism: either synonymous or antithetical parallelism. Synonymous parallelism occurs when an idea is repeated using different words, often synonyms of the original. Consider Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” The ‘heavens’ and ‘sky’ basically mean the same thing, just as ‘declare’ and ‘proclaim’ basically mean the same thing. Both the first and second phrase have basically the same meaning: that the universe tells us something about God’s creative glory. Since this passage is poetic, the author did not intend to convey the idea that the sky literally talks. But nonetheless, we can learn something about God by observing the heavens as if they were speaking to us. We understand the meaning.
Antithetical parallelism occurs when the second phrase is the alternative to the first – like two sides of the same coin. An example is seen in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The first part proclaims the positive aspect of reverential submission to the Lord: knowledge. The second part problems the negative consequences of a refusal to submit to the Lord – a lack of wisdom.
So, do we see synonymous or antithetical parallelism in Genesis 1? You can search all you like, but it simply is not present. There is no hint of poetic usage in the creation account. On the contrary, Genesis 1 is a series of statements of what happened. Most of the sentences of Genesis chapter one begin with a Hebrew grammatical construction called a waw-consecutive. In many English translations, this is a series of sentences starting with the word ‘and.’ Whenever you see a long sequence of waw-consecutives, this is an indication that the author intended the section to be taken as literal history. Indeed, Hebrew scholar Steven Boyd did an extensive research project, demonstrating beyond any doubt that the author of Genesis intended the book to be taken as literal history on the basis of the waw-consecutives.
Furthermore, Genesis itself states what kind of literature it is. It claims to be a history book. This is stated in Genesis 2:4, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created,…” [underline added]. The Hebrew word translated “account” (or “generations” in some versions) is ‘toledoth’ which has the basic meaning of ‘origins,’ ‘history,’ or ‘birthing.’ Genesis claims that it is recording the historical ‘birth’ of the universe. It claims to be a history book, just as the Psalms claim to be songs of praise (e.g. Psalm 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, 12:1, 13:1, 14:1). So we cannot take the word ‘day’ in Genesis non-literally on the basis of poetry; Genesis is not poetic.
What about figures of speech? Do we see any evidence of ‘day’ being used as part of a prepositional phrase like “day of the Lord” in Genesis 1? Clearly not. On the contrary, the text tells us what God did on each day without any prepositional phrase at all. The days are simply ‘days’ as in a fifth day, the sixth day, the seventh day. We cannot take the days of Genesis 1 non-literally on the basis of a figure of speech because they are not used as part of a figure of speech.
And what of the immediate context? Does the text itself indicate non-literal usage of day by stating such? Clearly not. On the contrary, the context here demands that a day is a literal Earth rotation because that is how God defines a day in Genesis 1:5, “And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” Notice that both literal uses of ‘day’ are clearly specified in this passage: an Earth rotation and the light portion thereof. That is, God names the light portion of Earth’s rotation ‘day’ – He is defining day as the daylight portion of Earth’s rotation. And then He describes the total day as an Earth rotation consisting of an evening and a morning. God defines the Hebrew word for day in terms of daylight / nighttime just as we do in English.
So there can be no doubt that the first day is an ordinary day because God has clearly defined it as an Earth-rotation light/dark cycle in Genesis 1:5. But what about the other days of creation? God knew that people would want to distort those into vast ages. So, he specified that each of the six creation days was comprised of one evening and one morning, thereby disallowing any non-literal usage of day (Genesis 1:8, 13, 19, 23, 31). Nor can we insert millions of years between the days of creation, because God specified the sixth day using the definite article; it is the sixth day, not simply “a sixth day” meaning it is the sixth day since God created the heaven and Earth.
So, the context of Genesis 1 disallows any non-literal usage of the word ‘day.’ There can be no doubt that God created in six days, each defined in terms of the light/dark cycle of Earth’s rotation, because that is what the text explicitly says. Some people have erroneously suggested that the seventh day might be non-literal because the phrase ‘evening and morning’ is not used in connection with the seventh day. (Such an error is the fallacy of denying the antecedent). But since Genesis is history, since the seventh day is not part of a prepositional phrase, and since there is no contextual evidence to the contrary, the seventh day must also be read as literal. (Of course, even if it were not literal, it would have no effect on the age of the Earth since Adam was made on day 6).
Another important consideration, often overlooked, is the fact that the plural form of the word day (‘yamim’) is never used anywhere in Scripture non-literally. “Days” (plural) always means “days.” And yet it is the plural form of the word that is used in Exodus 20:11 which states, “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them…” Since the plural form of days is used here, there can be no doubt that the author intended the indicate that God created literally in the span of six days.
One of the most important principles of language is that words are to be taken literally unless the context specifies otherwise. Without this principle, successful communication would be impossible. And yet there is no contextual hint that the days of Genesis are to be taken non-literally. This stands in contrast to poetic passage of Scripture, such as in the Psalms, where context does indicate non-literal usage of some words and phrases. If we are to understand the meaning of the text, the intention of the author, and not impose our own wishes, then we must accept the text according to the type of literature. We should read the Bible “literarily” which implies literally for historical accounts and poetically for poetic writings.
We must admit that the desire to stretch the creation week into millions of years does not come from the text of Scripture, but from secular thinking. It is always a great temptation to modify our understanding of the text to fit what we think we know. But this is a very slippery slope. After all, we “know” that people do not rise from the dead. Just visit any cemetery. Should we therefore interpret the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection as non-literal? That would be heresy. We would do well to remember the admonition given in Romans 3:4, “Let God be true but every man a liar.”
 So the “forty days and forty nights” would literally read “forty day and forty night” which sounds weird in English, but is correct in Hebrew.
 Recall that the 6000 years estimate is derived from noting the Scripturally-indicated time between Adam and Christ’s incarnation (about 4000 years), noting that the latter took place about 2000 years ago. Hence, only stretching the days before Adam’s creation could conceivably affect such an age estimate.