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The Days of Genesis 1, part 1

One of the biggest disputes between young-earth creationists (YEC) and old-earth creationists (OEC) is the meaning of the word "day" in the first chapter of Genesis.

They were six literal days, says Terry Mortenson of YEC Answers in Genesis. They clearly were not, says Rich Deem of OEC Evidence for God from Science. Jesus believed in a young earth, says Carl Weiland of Creation Ministries International. No he didn't, says Greg Neyman of Old Earth Ministries. And on and on.

At issue is the meaning of the Hebrew word yom, which corresponds to "day" in English. The Hebrew term has many of the same denotations as the English word. For example, if we read, "In the day of King David," we know it refers to a time span much longer than 24 hours. It may refer to his years as king or to his entire life. On the other hand, if we see, "On the thirteenth day of the seventh month," we can tell it is referring to a very specific length of time. Yet again, "Joshua and his troops marched all day," also refers to a specific time span, but a shorter one than the previous example.

In summary, yom can refer to an indeterminate span of time, a span of 24 hours, or just the daylight hours. There are other subtle variations, but these cover the basic meanings.

So what is the meaning of yom in Genesis 1? The YECs are confident that it refers to a 24-hour span, and the OECs are equally confident that it refers to an indeterminate length of time. How do we determine who is right?

Before we go any further, we must note that there are really two parts to a correct interpretation. First, what does "day" mean within the context of the narrative? And second, what does the narrative itself mean?

To see the difference, let's consider a different story. In Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare, was it literally a tortoise, or could it have been any member of the order Testudines? Or if you'd prefer a biblical example: In Jesus' story of the prodigal son, was it literally a calf that the father slaughtered when the son came home, or could it be understood as any livestock, like maybe a sheep?

In both cases, the literal meaning of the word indicates one specific thing. However, that thing is irrelevant to the point of the story. Focusing on the literal meaning of tortoise or calf distracts us from the intended lesson. These stories were never meant to convey history. They were meant to teach us something about human nature.

So too with Genesis 1; although OECs can find Bible passages that might be interpreted to support longer days and an older earth, the immediate context—with each day demarcated by evening and morning—argues against interpreting the creation days as long unspecified periods of time. Within the context of the story, these days are intended to be literal days.

But that only gets us halfway to an understanding of this story. Genesis 1 is also part of a larger story, in which creation does not take place in six days.

We'll look at that context in the next post.

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