For most of church history, Christians have generally considered the “days” of Genesis 1 to be normal, 24-hour periods. There was no serious challenge to this view until the age of modern science. But this does not mean that the “24-hour” view of the Genesis 1 “days” has always been held universally. There have been notable exceptions, namely from the 5th century Saint Augustine.
Nevertheless, there are some Christians today who make the argument that the six “days” of Genesis 1 must always mean “24-hours” each. Let me say up front that I stand with Saint Augustine on this one, that the exact meaning of the six “days” of Genesis is difficult to determine. Are they 24-hour periods or could they simply be long, indeterminate lengths of time? Saint Augustine did not know for sure, and neither do I. Saint Augustine was a lot smarter than I am, and he lived a long time before me, so I will put my lot in with him.
However, I do get greatly concerned when some insist that their view of a “24-hour” day is the only faithful way of reading the six “days” of Biblical Creation. This implies that the “24-hour” day view should be some test for Christian orthodoxy. Anything that wavers from this is a compromise of Biblical authority. Thankfully, not everyone in the “Young Earth Creationist” camp takes this kind of rigid approach. But for those who do, this way of thinking is very harmful to the unity and testimony of the Body of Christ. So I would like to tackle one of the primary arguments used to defend this position, acknowledging that not everyone goes to such extremes with it.
But before I launch into that, it might be helpful to view the latest “Table Talk” session I had with our lead pastor, Travis Simone, during our Summer Bible Study series on Genesis 1-11. Notice how Travis makes the point that getting caught up in the details of how God created the world takes our focus away from the more important details pertinent to the Gospel. It is so easy to stumble over things like the exact meaning of”days,” that miss the main point of Genesis 1, namely that the God of the Bible is the Creator and that we as humans are created in His image:
Is The “24-Hour” View of the “Days” in Genesis the Only Biblical View?
Some people have argued that the effort to move away from the “24-hour” view of each of the six days of Genesis 1 is simply motivated by an attempt to inject modern scientific theories into the Bible. However, this is simply not the case. There is evidence within the Bible itself that reveal some serious questions.
In Genesis 1, each reference to the days of Creation is in the form of a numerical adjective followed by the Hebrew word for day, transliterated into English typically as yom. For example, we have “first day,” “second day,” “third day,” and so on. As a young Christian, I was always told that in ancient Hebrew, whenever yom is preceded by a numerical adjective that it always means a literal 24-hour period, otherwise known as a solar day, defined by the relationship between the earth’s rotation and the position of the sun.
For example, one popular Bible teacher makes this conclusion in his study Bible. Southern California pastor, John MacArthur, states this in his notes on Genesis 1:5. I will quote him in full:
1:5 the first day. God established the pattern of creation in 7 days which constituted a complete week. “Day” can refer to: 1) the light portion of a 24 hour period (1:5, 14); 2) an extended period of time (2:4); or 3) the 24 hour period which basically refers to a full rotation of the earth on its axis, called evening and morning. This cannot mean an age, but only a day, reckoned by the Jews from sunset to sunset (vv. 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). “Day” with numerical adjectives in Hebrew always refers to a 24 hour period. Comparing the order of the week in Ex. 20:8-11 with the creation week confirms this understanding of the time element. Such a cycle of light and dark means that the earth was rotating on its axis, so that there was source of light on one side of the earth, though the sun was not yet created (v. 16).
Pay careful attention to the statement highlighted above that having a numerical adjective associated with “day” in Hebrew always means a 24-hour period. One of the most basic principles in interpreting the Bible is that we must compare Scripture with Scripture, particularly when trying to expound rather difficult passages that are not immediately clear to the reader. Given what pastor MacArthur has written here, it sounds very convincing, right? Case closed, right?
Well, unfortunately, it is important to take into account the whole counsel of God, not just select passages of the Bible that tend to support one’s argument.
Take for example, Hosea 6:1-2 (ESV), a prophecy given through the prophet Hosea:
Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Here we have an example of where a numerical adjective is applied to the use of “day.” Pastor MacArthur does not consider this verse in his exposition of Genesis. As Paul Harvey would tell us, MacArthur is not telling us the rest of the story. Is the “the third day” here a literal 24-hour period? Here is what evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler says about this in his Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (page 271, Zondervan 1999):
“Numbered days need not be solar. Neither is there a rule of Hebrew language demanding that all numbered days in a series refer to twenty-four-hour days. Even if there were no exceptions in the Old Testament, it would not mean that “day” in Genesis 1 could not refer to more than one twenty-four-hour period. But there is another example in the Old Testament. Hosea 6:1-2 . . . . . . Clearly the prophet is not speaking of solar “days” but of longer periods in the future. Yet he numbers the days in series.”
Norman Geisler has raised a serious challenge to pastor MacArthur’s view, that for some unknown reason, MacArthur fails to address. I would encourage the student of Holy Scripture who is curious about Hosea 6:1-2 to read the following article by Bible scholar Robert I. Bradshaw, which digs into the interpretation challenges regarding Hosea 6:1-2. What is Bradshaw’s conclusion? While Hosea 6:1-2 does not shatter the argument for the 24-hour view of the Genesis 1 “days,” it still raises some serious questions that should give us pause before coming to an absolute conclusion regarding the meaning of “days” in Genesis 1.
Physicist Rodney Whitefield has written an essay that explores some other difficulties with the claim that ‘“Day” with numerical adjectives in Hebrew always refers to a 24 hour period.‘ that I have drawn on for this blog post. For example, Whitefield provides an illuminating observation from Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer. When the numerical adjective is applied towards “day” in Genesis 1, it never includes the definite article “the,” with the only possible exception being “the sixth day” in verse 31. This formulation of “first day,” “second day,” etc., lacking the definite article, is unique to Genesis 1. Here is Gleason Archer from his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (pages 60-61, Baker 1982):
…the translations “the first day,” “ the second day,” etc., are in error…. In Hebrew prose of this genre, the definite article was generally used where the noun was intended to be definite; only in poetic style could it be omitted. … Thus [the “days” of Genesis 1] are well adapted to a sequential pattern, rather than to strictly delimited units of time.”
No Need to Be Dogmatic About Days!
In conclusion, it is fair to say that according to some of the best ancient Hebrew scholars out there that the exact meaning of “day” for the six days of Creation in Genesis 1 is still up for discussion. To make any hasty conclusion on this matter as some sort of test for “Christian orthodoxy” is completely without warrant or Biblical justification.
My purpose is not to pick on John MacArthur and his study Bible notes. Pastor MacArthur, as is any other pastor/scholar, is surely welcome to his opinion. He is a very gifted Bible teacher and I recommend that if you want to be exposed to very thorough, well-presented, verse-by-verse examination of the Bible, John MacArthur can be a very helpful and profitable teacher. However, even very good Bible teachers can be wrong at times. It would be helpful for students of the Bible to recognize that while the Bible is completely infallible, study Bible notes written by humans are not! No one single Bible teacher has “the” corner on God’s Truth.
So, what have we learned here? First, always remember to consult the whole counsel of God when trying to understand difficult passages of the Bible, following the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture. Secondly, acknowledge that God has given us multiple voices among God’s people where believers can learn to let “iron sharpen iron” as we grow deeper in our knowledge of Holy Scripture. We need to continue to learn and listen from one another as we study God’s Word together.