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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Day" as used in the Bible

A recent post had a comment, which, in part, said this: ". . . why does the Bible say a day and science say millions of years for creation?"

I responded, but perhaps a longer response is in order. One part of the response is to agree wholeheartedly that it is dangerous to ignore the literal text of the Bible. If, for example, the Bible says that Jesus rose from the dead, we need a very good reason to say that this wasn't meant as literal, and that He, in fact, did not so rise. There is no such reason, as far as I am concerned -- Jesus did rise from the dead.

Are there reasons to believe that the six days of creation, in Genesis 1, may not have been meant to be taken literally? I think there are. Am I sure that they were meant to be taken as something other than a literal day? No, I'm not sure.

To quote the King James Version of Genesis 1: "And the evening and the morning were the first day." This language is repeated, being found in verses 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31. Why "evening and morning"? I'm not sure, but would guess that the ancient Hebrews had a different view of when days started and ended than we do. Now, already there is a problem with taking these days as literal days, namely that the sun is said to have been made on the fourth day. How could there have been evening and morning on days one, two and three without the sun? I understand that God could have made evening and morning when there was no sun, but at the least, the listing of days before the sun requires something more than a literal interpretation of the word "day" in the first three instances where it occurs, in Genesis 1.

Then there's Genesis 2:4: ". . . in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens . . ." Here is a case, right after Genesis 1, where "day" doesn't seem to mean a literal 24-hour day, but rather a period of time, of at least a few 24-hour days in length. The phrase seems to be referring to the entire period of creation, based on the context. I'm not a Hebrew scholar, by any means, but if I go to the web page called up by the link for "Genesis 2" at the beginning of this paragraph, then click on the small "c" in the box to the left of verse 4, I get a display of the Hebrew words that the English translations are based on. The word used for "day" is rendered "yowm." Beside that word, there is a number, H3117, from Strong's Concordance of the original language. If I click on that number, I get an entry for that word. The first thing I note is that that same word, "yowm," was used for a number of things, including 24-hour days, years, and periods of time, just as day may be used in English. If I scroll down a bit, I see that the same word was used for each of  the six days, as listed above.

As an aside, Genesis doesn't tell us when the earth was created, nor the heavens, other than that they were "In the beginning." Were these created on the first day, or before the six days of Genesis 1?

Then, of course, there's 2 Peter 3:8, which says that a day is as a thousand years. Some people have taken that to mean that the six days of Genesis 1 were each exactly a thousand years in length, but I don't think that that is warranted.

My point is that it may be true that Genesis 1 is speaking of 24-hour days, but for it to be doing so, some assumptions must be made, or some other Biblical facts ignored. In other words, I believe that it is legitimate to believe that the days of Genesis 1 were not meant to be taken as literal days, and I am by no means alone in this.

I have posted on this question before. See here (which post considers the association of the days of Genesis with the fourth Commandment) and here (which post considers problems in interpretation of Genesis 2:5-7 literally) for more.

I thank the commenter for raising the question. I have by no means answered it fully. Thanks for reading.


Noahs Ark said...

This can be a stumbling block for believers and non-believers. I think we will know when we get to Heaven. But we should have some basis of faith and understanding of it. Also, the whole bible was written after word of mouth passing it on to people after many years so I'm not going to doubt whether the whole book is true, I am a believer, but one has to wonder how and what is really true and what has been changed through oral storytelling. This is why we call it "an act of faith"! :)

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, Noah's Ark. Possibly there were some changes in storytelling. I don't know. Another filter between what happened and what we have in the Bible is that God used human instruments to write the Bible, and they were constrained to use the language and concepts of their time. However, I believe that God is powerful enough to have gotten across what we need to know, about origins and other things, in the Bible. The main thing about Genesis 1 is that there was a Who involved in the way things began.

superrustyfly said...

One thing we can consider is that the creation stories might not be primarily literal or metaphorical, but liturgical. It brings many questions, not about how the earth began, or even who was involved, but how we serve the one who began it all and live a life of worship, which would include environmental concerns, controlled consumerism (Vegans are actually closer to the creation model), making male and female egalitarian, etc. Just a thought.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, superrustyfly. I hadn't really thought of that.

Certainly there is an order and pattern to Genesis 1. Likely that is at least part of what God wanted to get across to us in that part of the Bible.