What does yôm mean?
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Gen. 1.5)The word for day used in the Genesis creation account is the Hebrew word yôm.
Like our English word day, it can mean a literal twenty-four hour period, the daylight portion thereof, or an indeterminate extended period, i.e., an "age". In fact, like most biblical Hebrew words, it is overloaded more than an English counterpart, due to a vast difference in the sizes of the vocabularies. Modern English has more than a hundred times as many words as biblical Hebrew.
The word yôm is also used in Genesis 2:4:
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and heavens. (Gen 2:4)No matter how one views the "days" of creation—in this passage the sum-total of all God's creative efforts are summarized as "the day when the Lord God made earth and heaven " (the NIV simply translates "the day" as "when”.) This verse is important in the debate because of its proximity to the creation account of Genesis 1.
There can be no doubt whatsoever: The interpretation of the creative days as ordinary twenty-four hour days is not demanded by the use of the word yôm in Genesis 1. No, not even by a literal interpretation. This is an important point: One does not have to interpret "day" as twenty-four hours in the Genesis account to claim literality. Of course you may have a view of Genesis that doesn’t require a claim of literality, but the point stands that the “ordinary day” view is not the only literal exegesis. That would be the case if yôm exclusively meant a twenty-four hour period, but it is used frequently in the bible to refer to an unspecified duration. On this basis, purely discussing the issue of "days", the so-called day-age theory, in which the six days are considered six long periods (but with a definite beginning and ending) can also claim literality.1
Other places where we find yôm, is in references to the "day" of God’s wrath. For example:
In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity. (Lam. 2:21)The events described, the sacking of Jerusalem, destroying the walls, and taking the people captive occurred over a period longer than twenty-four hours. (Aside: any blog post that quotes Lamentations is automatically 20% cooler than the average blog post.)
The Westminster Confession is sometimes held up as an example that the Reformers held to a 24-hour view. The confession reads:
It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good. (WCF IV.1)But in fact all the WCF does is quote scripture, and so in effect they took no position at all. And at least two of the Westminster Divines who are known to support twenty-four hour days of creation at least acknowledge other legitimate translations of yôm. John White wrote in his commentaries about its use in Genesis 2:4: "That is, in that Time that it pleased God to take up in forming them, which we know was in Six days, and not in One. But we find the Word, day, in Scripture is used commonly to signify Time Indefinitely." 2 And John Ley in the Westminster Annotations, also on Gen. 2:4: "The day is not here taken (as in the first Chapter and in the beginning of this) for the seventh part of the week, but with more latitude for time in general wherein a thing is done, or to be done." 3
As mentioned, there is no question that the Hebrew word yôm, translated as day in the first chapter of Genesis and many other places in the Old Testament, can mean either a literal 24 hour day or an indeterminate period—such as an “age.”
Young Earth Creationists (YECs) do not dispute this—but they argue that every time yôm is used in an ordinal sense: first day, second day, etc., it refers to a literal day. There are, YECs claim, no exceptions.
For example, in an Answers In Genesis post,4 uber-YEC Ken Ham, president of the atrocious charlatan organization, Answers in Genesis, a competitor with Morris’s Institute for Creation Research, writes, "Yom + ordinal number (used 410 times) always indicates an ordinary day [i.e. a 24-hour period]."
This rule of Hebrew grammar appears to be a YEC invention of convenience. And is almost not surprising to note that Ken Ham is wrong. He so often is. In Hosea, we read:
1 “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us;In verse 2, the word yôm (day) is used with an ordinal number—the third day. Yet the common interpretation of this passage is both as a Messianic prophesy and the expectation of a long, indeterminate period of affliction and suffering for Israel. The Jews reading this, that is the actual speakers of biblical Hebrew, would have interpreted this use of yôm, complete with an ordinal destination, to specify an indeterminate period.
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. (Hosea 6:1-2)
But even if Ham and other YECs are correct (which they are not), that all instances of yôm with an ordinal number outside of Genesis 1 refer to 24-hour days, it does not prove that the use of yôm with ordinal numbers in Genesis 1 must refer to 24-hour days. (Really, to have to point this out is in its own way distressing.) A moment’s consideration should convince anyone that it is far more likely to have occasion to use first day, second day, etc. than first age, second age. The possible use in Genesis is then a rarely needed construction rather than a violation of ancient Hebrew grammar. It is simply more likely that we should discuss a sequence of days rather than ages—indeed Genesis 1 may be the only place where, even potentially, an ordinal sequence of ages appears. I can’t think of another in the Old Testament.
In places where it is conceded that yôm is indeterminate—such as in the "day of the Lord"—the passages are speaking only of one yôm of the Lord. We wouldn’t expect them to read “The first day of the Lord” or “The first and only day of the Lord.”
On another front., Young Earth Creationists (YECs) face an unsavory decision: either God continued supernatural creation of new species after He rested on the seventh day (which scripture does not close as it does the first six) or an accelerated evolution occurred following the flood.
The problem is that there are about 100 times more land dwelling species in existence than could have possibly fit on the ark (even by YEC estimates.)
Furthermore, the fossil record, despite its apparent age, is said to reflect animals that died as result of the flood (but representatives of which were preserved on the ark). Thus many species (such as dinosaurs) existed at the time of the flood, were presumably preserved on the ark, but have become totally extinct since the flood, requiring even more species to appear since the flood in order to explain today’s vast biodiversity.
Either God continued to create species at a impressive rate after the flood (with no mention in scripture) or evolution works much better that Stephen Gould's wildest fantasy—with new species evolving faster than one per day—even faster considering that it had to cease with widespread human migration, since there are no reports of new (to be contrasted with undiscovered—which itself is rare) species popping up on a daily basis.
On the other hand, some Old Earth Creationists (OECs) have a view that takes scripture literally without imposing a form of super-evolution.
As mentioned, some OECs (The Day-Age view--of which, although old-earth, I am not a proponent.) take scripture literally by reading the Hebrew word yôm as age. So the OECs can take Genesis literally and put it to the scientific test. At the highest level, the day-age scientific prediction based on the bible is that:
- Life should appear in the order that the Genesis account gives (it more-or-less does—vegetation and then in the oceans, birds, and finally mammals--although in details are arguable.)
- New speciation should cease after God's final creation: man. Then God rested, ending the supernatural creation of species. This is what the fossil record indicates: no new species have appeared since man. On the contrary the only change in the number of species is a reduction due to those that are becoming extinct.
The problem of weak metaphorsIn Matthew 16 we read:
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. 28 Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (Matt. 16:27-28)For many, this verse presents a bit of a problem for their eschatology. That’s not our interest in this study. However I want to make a point about one common way “out of this problem.” Some argue that the “Son of Man coming in His Kingdom” refers to the Transfiguration. (My bible injects between verses 16:27 and 16:28 a heading: The Transfiguration.) The problem with that is that Transfiguration occurs (coincidentally) six days after Jesus makes this statement. But this interpretation implies that verse 16:28 can be paraphrased: "Some of you will still be alive six days from now" which hardly seems worthy of divine mentioning.
We have a similar situation with a young earth view given some metaphors used to describe the eternality of God. For example:
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Ps. 90:2)The metaphors used here all are weakened if the time periods are not of considerable length. Each one (and there are others) use metaphors such as mountains to signify great age.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25Before the mountain had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, 26before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. (Proverbs 8:24-26)
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has been already in the ages before us. (Ecc. 1:4,7,10);
1 Although in general chronology is respected, the day-age theory requires overlap of the days if the life created was sustained by secondary (i.e., "natural") means from the time it was created by Divine fiat. For example, the vegetation (day three), if sustained by secondary means, required sunlight (day four) and insects and birds (day five). This is a violation of literality, while viewing "days" as "ages" is not. Some day-agers argue that during the period of creation, God sustained His creation actively (supernaturally) and so do not demand that the ages overlap.
2 John White, Commentary upon the Three First Chapters in Genesis (1656).
3 John Ley, Annotations upon All the Books of the Old and New Testaments (1645).
4 See http://www.answersingenesis.org/cec/study_guides/answersSG2.pdf.