THE FIRST CHAPTER OF GENESIS has occasioned more debate, both among Christians and between Christians and atheists, than any other chapter of the Bible. Humanists argue that scientific discoveries have completely underm
ined its credibility as anything but, at best, an ancient attempt at providing an explanation of origins in an age totally ignorant of true origins. Most Bible believers, by contrast, accept Genesis One as a genuine explanation of how the universe, the earth and living things came to be. However, much disputation revolves around the degree of “genuineness” of the account. In particular, today Bible believers are divided into six main camps with varying degrees of support:
1. Those who believe Genesis One should be seen as poetry or as an extended metaphor that should not be read as giving any kind of actual explanation of what went on in bridging the gap between nothing and everything we see. Rather, it should be read as nothing more than a lofty way of saying “God did it”. (For example, see Todd Greene.)
2. Those who take the days of Genesis One as 24-hour days; this reading makes the universe and earth about six to ten thousand years old, the difference depending on one's approach to biblical chronology and genealogy. This view is known generally as young-earth creationism.
3. Those who take the days of Genesis One to represent long ages of time and believe that the six days of creation saw an unfolding of processes God created and set in motion at the very beginning of the first day. The creation account then amounts to a brief explanation of the unfolding of the creation bud. Living things, by this concept (commonly called theistic evolution ), evolved just as Darwinism teaches. The difference between this approach and atheistic evolutionary concepts lies merely in the belief of the believers that God created the evolutionary process. The interpretation that days in Genesis One represent long ages of time is known as the day-age theory.
4. Those who take the days of Genesis One to represent long ages of time but believe that, although God created many processes which can “take credit” for much we see today (such as beach sand that was “created” by erosion of rocks and dropped on the shore by mechanical processes where pounding by waves reduces the size of the particles even more), God continually and often intervened through the ages, constantly bringing into being new processes, new things and new life forms (as well as allowing other life forms to become extinct). In essence, the difference between this view and the previous one is this belief in continued divine creative activity. This view is generally known as progressive creationism.
5. Those who agree with young-earthers that the days of Genesis One are 24-hour days but that a “gap” of millions or billions of years can be detected between verses one and two. Verse one describes the original creation which went on happily for untold millions of years until a catastrophe occurred which ruined the planet and killed all life forms. The six days then describe a second creation that brought into existence all the living things we have today. This view is generally known as the gap theory , while its proponents are sometimes dubbed “gappers”. Many gappers believe that the catastrophe was brought about when Lucifer became Satan by rebelling against God; the ruin resulted from war between God and Lucifer.
6. Those who believe that the six days of Genesis One were not days of divine activity but of revealing of the account to Moses. Over six literal days, God revealed to him the general truth of divine creation. Known as the revelation-day theory, this view has few supporters today.
The last five views do not deny a possible poetic undercurrent or complex and rich literary structure to the text. Surely every believer would be gratified to know that the text not only tells an amazing story but does so in a beautiful way.
This author, once a gapper, now believes that, of all the current views of the matter, the progressive creation theory seems to best fit all the facts. Perhaps the real solution has not yet even been thought of; nevertheless, in spite of the main difficulty facing progressive creationism — that of conceptually distinguishing “creation by process” with preordained outcomes from “creation by evolution” with unforeseeable results — progressive creationism makes good sense and, most importantly, gives all the credit for the world as we know it to God. Everything that exists, right down to the lips of nematodes, was designed by God — intelligently designed, if you will. Though sand and mud are the byproduct of erosion, God created erosion processes; thus, God created sand and mud. (Or did He create sand and mud first and then turn them into rock through rock-making processes?!)
This article will be limited to the issue central to all of these views — what does Genesis One mean? Above all, how are we to understand what is meant by its six days of creation? Must they be seen as 24-hour days? Do they figuratively represent long ages, or what? We argue that the Hebrew of Genesis One is to be interpreted literally rather than figuratively. Young-earthers seem to be correct in rejecting the day-age concept on the grounds that figurative interpretations should not be considered until literal interpretations are shown to be deficient. We argue that “day” can be literally translated “age, era, stage” and so on. Doing this yields the same conclusion as day-agers, but without taking a cavalier approach to the “plain meaning”. In other words, we will get to the same end as day-agers, but by a different route.
Scripture and the age of the earth
Young-earthers stress that their position is based first and foremost on Scripture. Believers in the error-free status of Scripture, of both the young-earth and old-earth stripes, agree that scientific truth and Scripture will eventually be fully harmonized. Where a conflict appears to occur, young-earthers generally consider the conclusions of scientists to be in error rather than their interpretation of Scripture. They believe the earth is young because, they assert, the Bible says so. They argue that by any reading, Genesis One gives the distinct impression that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth literal day of a creative process that had begun with the initial creation of heaven and earth on the first 24-hour day. They point to Exodus 20:11 as further evidence of this teaching:
For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
This verse, they reason, renders any view of the days of Genesis One other than the 24-hour-day view as plainly unbiblical. This verse governs the interpretation of Genesis One days. The Sabbath lasts but one 24 hour period, and so the “original” Sabbath and the previous six days of creation must likewise have consisted of 24-hour days. They seem to have a powerful point.
O.K. Let's begin the discussion of what the Bible has to say about the age of the earth with a minor point of Scripture and work our way up from there. After showing that standard geological views would have man appear on the scene at the very end of earth history, young-earth scientist and author, Jonathan Sarfati, makes this comment:
The Bible states that man was made six days after creation, about 6,000 years ago. So a time-line of the world constructed on biblical data would have man almost at the beginning, not at the end… Christians… take the statements of Jesus Christ seriously. He said: “But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female” (Mark 10:6), which would make sense with the proposed biblical time-line, but is diametrically opposed to the [geologist's] time-line (1999).
If one reads Jesus' words carelessly, one could see, with the eye of faith, some connection between Adam and Eve and the timing of the beginning of the universe — maybe. Frankly, understanding exactly what Sarfati means here is hard to say. Is he suggesting that Jesus' use of “creation” is a reference to creation week? If that is what the author understood Jesus to mean, then it destroys his own argument, as Adam and Eve were created at the very end of creation week, not at its beginning. However, the context shows that Jesus' point about the sanctity of marriage would have gained no strength from some irrelevant aside about whether Adam and Eve were created at the “beginning” of creation week or towards its end.
More likely Sarfati is taking “the creation” in Jesus' words to have the common meaning of “the world as we know it” — the end result of divine acts of creation. Jesus is then taken to be saying that Adam and Eve's creation marks the beginning of the world — the creation — as it now stands, stable and man-supporting, the setting for “Project Salvation”. The act of their creation, heralding the end of creation week's material creative activity, initiates “the beginning” of “the creation”. However, if that is the way he interprets Jesus' words, yet again he has proven nothing, Jesus' words remaining “neutral” on the issue of the length of creation week. (Actually, Jesus was probably not talking about beginning in the sense of time but in the sense of causation — because Adam and Eve owed their origin [beginning] to a creative act of God, God alone has the final say about marriage's purpose and its sanctity. But hey, let's not get picky.)
Deep time in Scripture
Ken Hamm sums up the creationist stance on the age of the earth this way:
Let's be honest. Take out your Bible and look through it. You can't find any hint at all for millions or billions of years (1999, p. 1).
Au contraire to Hamm, considerable evidence from Scripture suggests an ancient planet. Judges 5:21, written about 3,000 years after Adam and Eve, refers to an “ancient river”, implying an understanding of the dynamic nature of earth's features and the long periods of time involved. Everyday rivers last indefinitely; as long as the rain keeps falling and the topography remains roughly the same, rivers keep flowing, changing course in response to their own powers of erosion. If ordinary rivers last for thousands of years, one that stands out for its antiquity must be much older still. (Of course, the author of Judges must have been given special knowledge to be aware of such antiquity.)
Job had remarkable insights into geological phenomena that require many thousands, if not millions, of years to play out:
But as a mountain falls and crumbles away, and as a rock is moved from its place; as water wears away stones, and as torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so You destroy the hope of man (14:18-19).
Young-earthers would suggest that the eroded appearance of mountains that Job was thinking of was created “as is”; that is, rather than occurring as a result of erosive forces over time, God made it look that way right from the first moment. As Frederic Howe puts it, “…if the world was created, we would expect it to display an appearance of age from the very beginning” (The Age of the Earth: An Appraisal of Some Current Evangelical Positions, Part II). Erickson (who does not believe in this theory himself) puts it this way:
If God created trees, rather than merely tree seeds, they presumably had rings indicating an ideal age rather than their real age. Thus, each element of creation must have begun somewhere in the life cycle (1985, p. 381).
Also known as the “ideal-time theory”, the “apparent age” proposition, first elaborated by Philip Gosse, a Christian geologist in the 1850s, seeks to neutralize a powerful old-universe argument — that our ability to see distant stars and galaxies proves that the universe is very old for the simple reason that it has taken millions of years for light from them to reach us. Young-earthers respond that God “created the light beams as well as the stars so that they could be — as indeed they were — seen on the fourth day of the creation week” (Schrader, ed. Youngblood 1990, p. 67, quoting Niessen). Schrader goes on to say,
Certainly the universe could have been created as a functioning entity, complete with an “appearance of age” at the moment of creation (p. 67).
Though this author agrees that the idea that the first-created trees had growth rings seems quite reasonable, extrapolating from there to every instance of creation amounts to fanciful speculation. Young-earthers argue that stars were created in various stages of what astronomers have determined to be the life cycle of typical stars — some stars contain large quantities of the byproducts of hydrogen fusion in their cores, suggesting they have been burning for a very long time. By young-earth theory, neutron stars, explained by astrophysical theory as the remnants of typical stars that have burned right out, were created that way rather than attaining their current condition by natural processes. You will have to decide for yourself which sounds most reasonable. Let me just say this with respect to Niessen's notion that God created the light beams so that the stars could be seen on the fourth 24-hour day: only about 3,000 stars are actually visible to the naked eye. Light beams from these stars alone “needed” to be created for this theory to hold true. Fact is, light beams from billions of other stars in our galaxy and from billions of distant galaxies invisible to the naked eye, and thus which would not need to have been created for this theory to hold, are visible with the aid of telescopes. Can you come at the idea that God created the light beams thousands of years ago to make objects that are millions of light years away visible?
Astronomers have catalogued many instances of galaxies colliding with other galaxies. Well-understood tidal gravitational forces have created some amazing galactic phenomena, such as rat-tailed galaxies. These are bizarre galaxies whose shape, well-described by the name, attests to a long-drawn-out period of collision. Can you come at the idea that God created them to look as if they had been in a process of collision for millions of years?
Astronomers have established beyond dispute that stars can burn for at least millions of years and, in many cases, billions of years. The sun, for instance, has enough fuel to last some billions more years. Many stars are in the process of running out of fuel, while many others did so long ago. Dramatic supernovas and staggering gamma ray bursts attest to these processes. Can you come at the idea that God created almost-spent stars six thousand years ago? He could have, of course. But it seems mighty unlikely to me.
Getting back to the significance of Job's passage to this issue of apparent age: in effect, it knocks the props out from under the appearance-of-age theory. His words plainly tell us that relics of mountains that looked as if they had been worn away by natural processes (in tandem with soil and rubble built up at their base and in surrounding flood plains) had indeed been planed down by exactly such processes. Nobody knows when the book of Job was written; nevertheless, all would agree that it takes many thousands of years for running water to seriously erode a mountain. Eroded mountains in the time of Job push back the age of the earth way past the six or so thousand years adopted by young-earthers. That the same principle can be extended to light travel and star life cycles seems most reasonable. If it has taken millions of years for light to travel from deep space, then the universe must be many millions of years old.
Genesis 1:1 says that in the beginning, God created (Heb., bara' ) the heavens and the earth. Yet, as the rest of the chapter reveals, more had to be done (Heb., ‘atsah). (We will not dwell on the grammatical technicalities surrounding the conjunction “and” in verse 2 involved in supporting this statement.) A vital truth is revealed in these two verses about creation — the world as we see it today results from a combination of creation ex nihilo (from nothing) and work, or “making”. During creation week God both created and He worked. Periodically, He spoke the word and [presumably] suddenly various elements and laws came into existence:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth… For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast (Ps. 33:6, 9).
Then He set to work on the created formless material (whatever that may mean precisely) as a sculptor works with clay, molding and fashioning it to bring it to the final state He wanted. (Other metaphors could be used in place of sculptor, such as engineer, or builder.) Even Adam and Eve were “crafted” from pre-existing created/made material. Yes, God could have spoken the word and instantly brought everything into existence as it now is. All believers who accept the concept of God's omnipotence acknowledge that He could have done it that way if He chose to. But He chose to create, then “make”. He chose to “take time” — six “yoms”, in fact — in the creation process to work by making things out of the raw materials and possibly even changing values of newly-minted laws. When it was all over, “He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Gen. 2:1), providing the context for the institution of the holy Sabbath.
On these points, young-earthers and old-earthers agree; the bone of contention revolves around the question of just how much time was taken to create and make. To this author, biblical metaphors, which take their strength from the idea of a drawn-out affair, suggest much longer than 144 hours.
Psalm 90:2 speaks of the mountains being “brought forth” and the earth being “formed”. The Hebrew for “brought forth” is “yalad”, meaning “to bear, give birth”. What was the reason for choosing birth as a metaphor for the creation of the mountains? Certainly it implies a lengthy period of gestation before birth is possible. Likewise, the word translated “formed” also has to do with laboring in the pain of childbirth. Similar metaphor, similar suggestion. Psalm 104:5 speaks of God “laying the foundation” of the earth. Most definitely a building metaphor. Buildings don't go up overnight. Young-earthers might retort that God's buildings can, but we repeat: the question is not what God could have done but what He did do. The use of metaphors implying long periods seems geared to revealing that long periods were involved. Now note Isaiah 42:5:
Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it.
God spoke, and the heavens came into being. He continued to speak, and the heavens were “stretched out”. The Hebrew for “spread forth” (natah) has a broad range of meaning, but the translation used here seems perfectly adequate. God could have made the universe as is, but it seems that “in the beginning” it was much more concentrated, and that part of the creative act involved teasing it apart and expanding it. (Who knows whether or not this verse should be used as biblical confirmation of the expanding universe?!)
In the beginning God created the earth, then He “spread it forth”. By contrast with the stretching out of the heavens, the Hebrew for “spreading forth” of the earth has a very specific meaning (the verb appears only 11 times in the Old Testament), referring to the beating out of metal by a metal smith. Once earth was created, God took time to “beat it out”, whatever that may mean. Exactly where the sinking of earth's foundations fits in relative to earth's beating out is moot. More metaphors like these are discussed in the section below on Proverbs 8. In short, biblical creation language combines “magician” concepts with building concepts (adding materials, laboring, rendering and polishing, and so forth).
In sum, it seems to this author that to speak of “building the universe in 24 hours” is a nonsense, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Besides, Genesis 1:1 says that the universe and earth were created before the six day egg-timer was set running. (Young-earthers may appeal to Exodus 20:11 as support for the concept that the ex nihilo creation of the universe and the earth were included in the six day creation week. However, that verse speaks of the “making” of the heavens rather than the “creating” — the creating had occurred before the “making” began. This is not to say that only “making” took place during creation week — quite the contrary; creation week involved both creating and making.)
Once this distinction is understood, it helps solve the old conundrum of the apparent creation of the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day, but that's a matter to be dealt with elsewhere.
Young-earth theorists fail to take the most natural reading of Proverbs 8:22-30 seriously:
The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, I was brought forth; while as yet He had not made the earth or the fields, or the primeval dust of the world. When He prepared the heavens, I was there, when He drew a circle on the face of the deep, when He established the clouds above, when He strengthened the fountains of the deep, when He assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters would not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside Him as a master craftsman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him.
The extended engineering-building metaphor used here supports the idea of a protracted creation week. Doesn't this passage strike you by its most natural reading as speaking of divine activity over a considerably longer period of time than 144 hours? The action verbs — the preparation of the heavens, the settling (lit. sinking) of mountains, drawing a compass on the oceans, strengthening the fountains of the deep, assigning limits to the sea — all smack of prolonged divine activity, don't you think?
Some may reason that suggesting God took a long time to accomplish His creative work plays into the hands of those who may seek to represent God as rather weak — He took a long time because He couldn't move faster. That reasoning has no basis at all. Frankly, exactly the same reasoning could be applied to the 24-hour day view. Young-earther, Frederic Howe, falls into this trap when he says that 2 Peter 3:8, which speaks of a thousand years being like a day to God, “…reveals how much God can actually accomplish in a literal day of twenty-four hours”. Oh, so what might take us a thousand years takes only a day to God!? No, no, no. God is infinitely powerful — He could have created heaven and earth and everything in them in a flash. He didn't “need” 144 hours. Shortly we will explore the revealed reason as to why God may have chosen to stretch out the marvels of creation over a very long time.
Though I don't want to follow the precedent set by young-earth preachers and dally with the perils of building a big case on a small word, one should note the Hebrew translated “always” in verse 30. It is bekol-‘eth, translating word for word as “for all the time”. We might translate it, “the whole time”. One cannot insist that it must indicate more than 144 hours, but it sure reads that way to me.
Another word in this passage — “daily” — reads to me as if talking about a fairly lengthy time period. Wisdom was with God “daily” as He created. Young-earthers naturally will see this term as referring to six literal days. That seems a most unnatural reading. The Hebrew expression is “yom yom”, literally, “day day”. A study of the seven occurrences of this expression outside Proverbs 8 yields fruitful insights. (See Gen. 39:10, Ex. 16:5, Num. 14:34, Ps. 61:8, Ps. 68:19, Is. 58:2, Ezek. 4:6.) Please look at all these verses and see if you draw the same conclusion as myself. This expression conveys to me the feel of actions or events drawn out over a period of time. The best English translation, based on a study of the expression in all its contexts, would be something like “day after day”, which strongly suggests more than 6 days. Two other Hebrew terms — yom beyom and layom — are used when the intent is to suggest an act repeated on a daily basis. Other expressions are used, such as kol ha-yamim (“all the days”) in Judges 16:16 where Delilah pressed Samson day after day until he revealed the secret of his strength. Words are symbols, and as such we would be erring to make too much of any given word or expression. They all have a spectrum of meaning. Even “dog” means different things to different people! To insist that yom in Genesis One can only mean a 24-hour day amounts to imposing on language a precision that simply is not there.
That “daily” in this passage refers to a lengthy period of time is confirmed by the simplest interpretation of the use of the same word in verse 34:
Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily [yom yom] at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
This blessing does not seem to be extended to the person who merely repeats the action of watching on a daily basis for a short period but to the one who perseveres over a long period of time, never giving up — the stress is on “watching and waiting” which requires patience and perseverance. So too, wisdom accompanied God yom yom during the creation period, remaining faithfully by His side throughout the entire time. Frankly, this passage in Proverbs, stressing the Creator's permanent possession of wisdom from “before His works of old” and continuing throughout the creation event, would lose all its force if the two had worked together for a mere 144 creation hours.
Once you recognize that Scripture suggests a much older earth than the new-born babe young-earth interpretation of Genesis One envisages, no scriptural reason whatsoever can be found for arguing against scientific findings suggesting a very ancient earth — millions or even billions of years old.
One New Testament passage hints at very deep time in the created order:
… in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began (Titus 1:2).
The phrase “before time began” — literally, “before eternal times” — deserves careful thought. God promised eternal life before eternal times — same Greek word used in both instances. Now this verse says nothing specific about the age of the earth; rather, it says that eternal life was promised an eternity ago, “before world history began” (ed. Guthrie and Motyer, 1970, p. 1183). The point cannot be proven, but the view that this promise was made to angels at the origin of the universe, at which time they sang for joy (Job 38:7), makes sense. A divine speech announcing the imminent first moment of creation leading ultimately to the arrival of the heirs of eternal life, and in which the angels were instructed on their role as “ministers” to human beings in this plan (Heb. 1:14), makes sense as the logical time to make such a proclamation. In this case, the “eternal times”, plural, occurring after the promise had been made at the very outset of creation events shows that succeeding creation events took a very long time indeed.
Colossians 1:25-26 deserves a closer look, too:
… I became a minister [of the church] according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints.
One would be foolish to build a dogmatic old-earth case on this passage; nevertheless it powerfully hints at deep time overlapping the era of the physical creation.
Romans 1:20, the favorite Scripture of many who believe in the divine origin of all things, makes the strongest case for the thesis that Scripture indeed recognizes the antiquity of the planet we call home:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
The glory, the greatness, the wisdom and power of God are all stated in propositional form in the Old Testament. Over and over we are told that God is all-wise, all powerful, and so forth. Yet Scripture doesn't appeal to mere self-proclaimed authority to convince us of these vital truths. It rests its case in the hard evidence shining forth from the purported works of His hands. The material realm, from neutrinos to quasars, from viruses to dinosaurs, has the power to convict the human mind about the infinite power of God far more effectively than any brilliant treatise or clever array of arguments. As William Barclay puts it, “Paul believed that God put so much of Himself into the world that by studying the world men ought to be able to arrive at God” (1958, p. 36) — a God of infinite power and glory.
Note also that the Greek word apo , translated here as “since”, makes more sense in this context if it is rendered “as a result of”, in accordance with one definition of the term — “To indicate cause, means, or outcome” (Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich 1957, p. 87). In other words, because of the created order, we have an insight into the power of God.
Now, did you catch the point pertinent to the age of the universe? Let's set the scene. Believers in divine creation, no matter which version they adhere to, understand the simple truth that we learn about God's power and intellect from the staggering immensity of the universe's dimensions and its budget of energy, as well as from the profound genius of its design. The heavens truly declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1).
Have you caught it yet? Note that Paul also says here that we can learn not just about the dimensions of God's power from creation but also about its eternal nature. Tell me, if we learn about the dimensions of God's power from the glory of the creation, how are we to learn about its everlasting nature if not from creation's immense antiquity? What God created billions of years ago is still at His beck and call, still falls under His control. Not a single mote of this universe has run amuck. Life on earth is not under threat from some runaway asteroid. Everything is going just fine, thank you. And as Jesus' miracles show, God still has power over the natural order, billions of years after creating it all. Belief in a 6,000 year old earth yanks one of faith's vital planks out from underneath us. We must know, and have evidence for, not just the infinite nature of God's power but also for its everlasting nature. The antiquity of heaven and earth, combined with its perfect functioning after billions of years, provides that evidence.
This absolutely critical truth — that God always has been, is and always will be — is, like the other great truths about His very being, expressed in words in the Old Testament:
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God (Ps. 90:2).
As with the other great truths, our faith in this proposition can be solidly founded on the evidence of creation, which not only exceeds our capacity to grasp for its sheer size and wisdom of design but also for its seeming agelessness. Belief in a young universe cuts one off from this vital evidence. (See Missing from young-earthism: the superwow factor.)
Many of the most staggering phenomena of creation — cyclical earth processes — play out over immense lengths of time. For instance, earth scientists believe the evidence shows that the continents of the earth are engaged in a 440 million year supercontinent cycle of breaking up, drifting apart as smaller continents and then reforming into one supercontinent again. And think about this. Atoms and ions weathered from rock faces eventually flow into the sea, enter sea-bottom sediment, are subducted into the earth's mantle and are turned back into rock. Long ages are involved. To illustrate, the average phosphate ion weathered from rock spends fifty years on land before entering the sea. For about three years it cycles around as a nutrient for living things in the sunlit zone of the sea. Then it sinks down, usually in a fecal pellet ("droppings"), into the deep “lower reservoir” where it moves around for about 1400 years before upwelling into the surface layer again. This cycle repeats between fifty and one hundred times on average — taking 70,000 to 140,000 years — before the ion finally sinks into bottom sediments from where it gradually is carried by the conveyor belt of tectonic movements to a "subduction zone" where it is “sucked back” into earth's mantle and reincorporated into rock, a process taking even longer than the ocean-cycling phase. Such majestic, mind-blowing earth processes sing God's praises. Young-earthism robs its supporters of these brilliant windows into the eternal nature of God's power. (For much more awe-inspiring information about earth processes, get the Dawn to Dusk book How Great Thou Art.)
Further, how else could God have demonstrated to us insignificant motes of protoplasm just how meaningless time is to Him? How else could we learn just how "unnecessary" we are to God, how much our existence as humans and our potential as glorified sons of God stems from the love and grace of God rather than from any intrinsic value on our part? Even after He had promised eternal salvation, had worked out all the details of His plan to achieve that salvation, He was in no hurry to get it done. He doesn't need our fellowship, thank you very much. Belief in a six-thousand-year-old universe, with its implied sense of urgency on God's part to bring His Great Idea to fruition, could give us human beings a skewed perception of our own importance.
Such thoughts should send believers into spasms of excitement contemplating a future eternity of creation when God creates new heavens and a new earth, getting better and better forever and ever. I for one thrill at the thought of witnessing the building of a new universe. I'm jealous of the angels who got to see the construction of the current one.
One final important point on this passage: it tells us that the Creation can be analyzed and understood by rational means, by what we would call the scientific method. Young-earthism's insistence that the appearance of great age revealed by many lines of evidence is actually an illusion undermines the truthfulness of this passage. Or, putting it the other way around, this passage disproves the ideal time theory. The universe bears all the hallmarks of antiquity because it is ancient. How can a world that's actually an illusion reveal God?
Many books have been written about the days of Genesis One, whether they were literal 24-hour days or whether they represented long ages. Those familiar with the question of the days of Genesis One recognize the seriousness of the issue and the weighty responsibility upon those who speak on the matter to exercise great self control in the interpretation of the chapter. We all find it difficult to acknowledge our own capacity for tweaking the data to fit our preconceived ideas. As a general rule, old-earthers such as myself approach Genesis One “looking for” a way of seeing it to fit in with our already-held belief based on our understanding of geology and paleontology. Equally, young-earthers tend to read geological texts “looking for” evidence that will topple the standard geological framework because of their conviction that anybody with an open mind will see 24-hour days in Genesis One.
Old-earthers have to acknowledge a basic truth: Genesis One most definitely can be read as teaching that creation was crammed into six 24-hour days. Support seems to come from Genesis 2:2-3 and Exodus 20:11. Nothing in the account insists that one must read it differently. (Though what is said below at “Young-earthism's biggest headache” comes close.) Distinguished commentator, Gordon Wenham, says,
There can be little doubt that here “day” has its basic sense of a 24-hour period. The mention of morning and evening, the enumeration of the days, and the divine rest on the seventh show that a week of divine activity is being described here (1987, p. 19).
Young-earth creationists would wholeheartedly agree. But is Wenham correct? One of the most powerful tactics used by young-earth evangelists is to harp on the theme that their reading of Genesis One is the only legitimate one, and that any other reading betrays either a dishonest streak in its supporters, or a surrender to pressure from evolutionists. They claim that if children are assigned the task of reading Genesis One they would unanimously read it the same way they do and so… out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. But what does that prove? They point to the history of interpretation of Genesis One — for hundreds of years every believer and every scientist was convinced that the days of Genesis One must be 24-hour days. Why read it any other way? As Ken Ham puts it, “Those who have heard our lectures or read our articles in Creation magazine will have heard or read quotes from many well-known and respected Christian leaders, admitting that, if you take Genesis in a straight-forward way, it clearly teaches six ordinary days of Creation” (Answers in Genesis Prayer News, May 1999).
But does unanimity of opinion of speakers of an Indo-European language (see below) about ancient Semitic texts translated into their language prove anything? Not really. Only three factors contained in the Genesis One account suggest a young-earth and universe:
But all of these factors can be understood in a different sense from that which is insisted on by young-earthers.
Days and ages
This article is designed to highlight the evidence rather than to cross every t and dot every i. We suggest that the days of Genesis One do not represent long periods of time but actually are long periods of time. (The article "Biblical language" thoroughly explains concepts and terms about human language that are used in the explanation of Genesis One that follows.)
Young-earth creationists often argue that nobody will read the seven days of Israel's siege of Jericho as representing long periods of time, so why would anybody think of reading Genesis One any differently? Well, for one thing, the subject itself has to be seen as unique — sui generis, as they say. The Jericho episode was an event that occurred within human history. Genesis One talks about the very events that bridged the chasm between non-history and history, between nothingness, on the one hand, and law, order, and history, on the other. We have every reason to expect something different here.
A study of the Hebrew language of Moses' time shows that it lacks the enormous basketful of words that we have in English to cover the simple concept of an unspecified, extended period of time, such as: period, epoch, era, stage, episode, age, term, span. Ask a Hebrew scholar for a precise Mosaic equivalent to the word “epoch” and watch him hesitate. (For a discussion on the marvels and mysteries of words, see "The wonder of words".)
A study of the Old Testament shows it has two words for an extended period of time — day (yom) and time (‘eth). Hundreds of years after Moses, the word “zaman” entered as a term that appears to have the special connotation of a fixed period of time, and is often used to qualify ‘eth. The word “mo'ed” was used to designate a “set time”, as in the holy day cycle. Then you have 'olam , a word that appears 414 times in the Old Testament and is defined as "long duration, antiquity, futurity" by Brown, Driver and Briggs (1972). Some might argue that if God wished to remove all ambiguity in Genesis One He could have employed this word. However, a study of its usage shows that it is never used as a noun describing a long period of time. It is almost invariably used in an adjectival or adverbial sense with the meaning of "everlasting", such as Genesis 21:33, where God is described as "'olam". Ross notes also that, “Hebrew lexicons show that only in post-biblical writings did ‘olam … refer to a long age or epoch” (1994, p. 47).
The interchangeability of yom and ‘eth to denote an extended period of time is seen in Ezekiel 30:3:
For the day [yom] is near, even the day [yom] of the Lord is near; it will be a day [yom] of clouds, the time ['eth] of the Gentiles.
Thus, as is well-known, yom is used when the concept of an extended period of time is in view, such as in Proverbs 16:4:
The Lord has made all for Himself, yes, even the wicked for the day of doom.
The “day of doom” could be literally translated “time of doom” or “age of doom”. Though Hebrew language did not contain the numerous words English does for expressing the concept of an extended period of time, Israelites certainly understood the concept; the word yom appears to be the main word they would have used when expressing the concept. It's just that simple. Yom can mean anything from a 24-hour day to a protracted period of time. The simplest proof that “day” doesn't always mean a 24-hour period is found immediately after the creation account:
This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens (2:4).
Did God make heaven and earth in one “day”? That's what it says here. The word “yom”, or “day”, here obviously refers to a period of time longer than a 24-hour “day”, and the phrase “in the day that” could simply be idiomatic for “when” (see "Idioms and metaphors"). Let's repeat, the “days” of Genesis One could literally be translated “ages, epochs, eras, stages”, or whichever of the other English synonyms you choose, perfectly fitted to describing seven eras of time. To insist that “yom” in Genesis One must refer to a 24-hour day cannot be justified. Thus, Genesis 1:2 could literally be translated, “So the evening and the morning were the first age”. And that may well have been exactly how ancient readers understood the text! Bible translators evidently decided to take a conservative approach to translating Scripture, often translating word for word rather than rendering the sense. (Remember forty days and forty nights.)
Consider, briefly, another biblical example in which an everyday word had connotations that we, today, use separate words to express. Take the term “situation” as used in reference to the state of affairs or the status quo; we use the word frequently in everyday language. Now search on “situation” in the Old Testament using a computer search program and you will not find it used a single time in NKJV, RSV or NIV in the sense we are talking about. Why not? Didn't folks back then ever talk about the state of affairs? Of course they did. The question is, what words did they use? Consider Daniel 2. There we read of a dream that Nebuchadnezzar had that so disturbed him he could not rest until he had it interpreted. He demanded that his religious counsellors tell him both what he dreamt and what it meant (vss. 2-3). When they pleaded with the king to at least tell them the content of the dream and they would then interpret it, he snapped back angrily,
I know for certain that you would gain time, because you see that my decision is firm: if you do not make known the dream to me, there is only one decree for you! For you have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the time has changed. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can give me its interpretation (vss. 8-9).
Here the NKJV translators have followed the safe approach, rendering each word by its core meaning. Thus, the strange phrase “till the time has changed”; that's what the Aramaic says! The marginal textual notes in the “New Geneva Study Bible” offer “situation” as an alternative to “time”. Substitute “situation” for “time” in that phrase and Nebuchadnezzar's words make sense. Why didn't the translators simply render it that way and save us some angst? Probably because no Aramaic lexicon offers “situation, state of affairs” as fully acceptable connotations of the simple Aramaic word whose denotation is that of time. This slavish devotion to "safe" translation can be blamed — at least in part — for the problems associated with Genesis One.
Getting back, now, to the word of interest to us here (day), if we take 2 Peter 3:10's “day of the Lord” as synonymous with the Old Testament prophetic day of the Lord — and we have no reason to see it any other way — then we are being told that the day of the Lord, which ushers in the last gasp of our current evil age, continues all the way to the time when “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat…”. Thus, the day of the Lord could literally be translated as “the age of the Lord”, the time when God takes control over human affairs; the day of the Lord may even continue into eternity. Translators maybe even discussed whether they should translate “day of the Lord” as “era/age of the Lord”. If they had done that in 1611, then the phrase “era of the Lord” would trip off our tongues just as easily as “day of the Lord” does.
So “yom” works hard; it conveys much more than our word “day” does. Remember, few words have an exact equivalent in another language. Even “dog” and “cat” present translators with problems sometimes. We may wish that God had made the language He chose to use as the vehicle of His revelation richer in vocabulary and more precise, but language is language. Experts in semantics are coming to see more clearly just how perilous it is to make mountains out of individual words.
Some young-earthers will assert that, even though yom can mean an indefinite period of time when it appears on its own or in adverbial phrases of time, the numbering of the days in Genesis One requires, grammatically, that “day” refer to a 24-hour day. Nowhere in the Old Testament, they say, will you find longer periods of time being numbered. Old-earthers counter that this assertion cannot be sustained by any known rules of Hebrew grammar. Quoting Newman, Howe says, “In any case, it is not clear why an adjective such as an ordinal number should change the range of meaning of the noun yom”.
Young-earthers often contend that, since nothing in the text of Genesis One insists on seeing the days as anything but 24-hour periods then 24-hour periods they must be. They say that without contextual evidence to suggest that yom means something different from its “normal” meaning of a 24-hour day, then we have no interpretive options but their one. True, nothing in Genesis One forces us to translate yom as age, or era. Nevertheless, certain interesting features suggest that just maybe we have something here that, though a literal description of the historical event of creation, is to be read with “magic spectacles”. That is, certain features hint that this account yields a richer harvest than a shallow reading will provide.
A textual hint of hidden dimensions may be found in the lack of the definite article attached to “day” in the repeated sentence, “And the evening and the morning were the nth day”. This sentence should be rendered, “And evening and morning were an nth day”. A computer string search on, say, the anarthrous (lacking the definite article) Hebrew term translated “the second day” (Gen. 1:8) will yield not a single other instance in the Old Testament where this anarthrous construction appears. In every other instance of the fifteen times where “the second day” is used in English translations, such as when the Israelites marched around the city of Jericho (Josh. 6:14), yom appears with the definite article. Now exactly what this implies I cannot say, nor have I found any scholarly explanations of this curious construction. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the grammar perhaps hints at specialness of meaning.
The puzzle is compounded by the particularly unusual construction relating to the first day. Whereas the numbers pertaining to the last six days are ordinals (second, third, etc, as distinct from two, three, etc), in day one the “one” is just that — the cardinal “one” (echad), not the ordinal “first” (rashon). Morris translates this verse, “And there was evening, then morning — day one.” However, a study of every other instance where this construction appears (Gen. 27:45, Gen. 33:13, Num. 11:19, 1 Sam. 9:15, 1 Sam. 27:1, Ezra 10:17, Is. 9:13, Jon. 3:4, Zech. 14:7), with one possible exception, the translation is “one day” rather than “day one”. The exception is Ezra 10:17, where a different connotation may be imparted by the preposition “'ad ” being used.
When these unusual constructions are put together you start to get an entirely different feel from the young-earth scenario. Abbreviating, the account reads, literally, something like this:
God made day and night; and evening and morning were one day [of creation]. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters from the waters. And evening and morning were a second day…
Now remember, one could perfectly appropriately substitute “age” for “day” here; or, since the ages are sequential, one could also legitimately use “stage” for “day”. (You won't find the English word “stage” in any standard translation of any Old Testament passage, but does that mean Israelites of old had no way of expressing the concept of sequential periods of time? Of course not. Genesis One provides possibly the most likely place where the concept appears. Probably where extended periods of time are not involved, some other Hebrew word would have been used to convey the concept of “stage” — “step”, maybe. If anyone says that one has no right to suggest that yom was the word Israelites used to convey the concepts that we would express by “age” or “stage”, then please find the Hebrew words that were used.) So try it out:
God made day and night; and evening and morning were one age/stage [of creation]. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters from the waters. And evening and morning were a second age/stage…
This translation is legitimate, literal and accurate. The only question is, which better gives the sense Moses had in mind: the translation given here; Morris's “day one”; or the standard “the first day”? Might we have to look at the evidence found in earth science, geology and paleontology to settle the issue?
But there is more.
Evening and morning
Young-earth popularizers often say something like, “Look, it's straightforward; the holy Scripture says that the evening and the morning were the second day, and so on. That proves Moses was talking about a 24-hour day”. Many people wilt under this barrage, and feel they would be questioning their own conversion if deep down they harbored some heretical stirring to the effect that “evening and morning were…” might not prove Moses had a 24-hour day in mind. Henry Morris asserts that by using this formula, “The writer of Genesis was trying to guard in every way possible against any of his readers deriving the notion of non-literal days from his record” (1976, p. 56).
Beg to differ.
For anybody who is not thoroughly familiar with the feel of Hebrew and who does not know for absolute certainty what may or may not have been idiomatic to say that they can be absolutely confident that the Hebrew sentence, translating word for word, “And [an] evening was and [a] morning was a second day” actually means a 24-hour day is dancing with danger. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. Not even Hebrew scholars can be absolutely certain that this sentence contains no idioms long since lost to us. We don't have enough Hebrew texts from the time of Moses to enable anybody to pontificate with utter authority. For this reason, you have to take with a large grain of salt young-earth writings that claim “even Hebrew scholars won't read millions of years into Genesis One”.
The phrase “and the evening and the morning were…” is a rather curious construction in Hebrew. Translating the words directly, it reads “and evening was and morning was…”. I have sought in vain for anywhere else in the Old Testament where the verb is repeated when two subjects perform the same action (in this case, the action of “being”). In every case examined, the two subjects invariably share the one verb. Exodus 4:29 says “Moses and Aaron went…” rather than “Moses went and Aaron went…”. Not one instance can be found where the verb is repeated when Moses and Aaron did something in unison; the verb is always shared. Genesis One may well be the only instance of such a peculiar construction where the verb is repeated.
Second, as with yom , the definite article is missing from evening and morning. Does this lack suggest that these evenings and mornings are not ordinary evenings and mornings? So the whole sentence can be translated word for word , “And [an] evening was and [a] morning was a second/third day…”. Brown, Driver and Briggs translate the evening-morning part differently as “and evening came and then morning” (p. 134a.), then add the comment, “i.e. the day ended with evening and then came morning”. The question is, what does it all mean?
Young-earth writers assert that the evening-morning formula “clearly” identifies the days as “normal”, but I have not seen a real explanation of just how it shows that. (By the way, whenever you see the word “clearly” or the statement “It is clear that…”, may I suggest you strike it from the record. “It”, whatever it may be, often is not at all clear.)
It seems that young-earth writers take the evening and the morning to be one and the same thing as nighttime and daytime, though I don't remember seeing them explicitly say so. So the formula then means that putting the two together — day and night — gives a complete 24-hour day. But this implied argument has at least two fatal weaknesses:
1. It turns the whole formula into a needless repetition, saying, in essence, that, “And the whole 24 hours was the second/third, etc. 24 hours”. Bearing in mind that this account exists to reveal the grandness of divine creation, the whole idea that God would state such self-evident truth becomes untenable.
2. Little justification can be found for equating evening (boqer) and morning (‘ereb) with nighttime (laylah) and daytime (yom). If the formula really intended to say that night and day combined made up the whole of the second/third day, that could have been expressed unambiguously by saying, “And the day (yom) and the night (laylah) were…”. True, one passage (Job 7:4), appears to use ‘ereb poetically to refer to nighttime (Brown, Driver and Briggs 1972, p. 788); everywhere else it refers to the time around sunset and shortly thereafter. Boqer never seems to be used as a synonym for daytime; its centre of gravity has to do with the time around sunrise. Likewise, 'ereb can be translated "sunset".
Taking evening and morning in their regular sense of referring to the hours around sunset and sunrise, one wonders what the Genesis formula is intended to convey! One could literally translate the passage as, “And sunset was and sunrise was…”, or even, "And dusk was and dawn was…". What did that convey to Moses' contemporaries? The Brown, Driver and Briggs translation and comment (see above) about the evening ending with morning, and vice versa, does not of itself help us understand what Moses and his readers would have taken the repeated formula to actually mean. Young-earth creationists turn the uncertainty of its sense into a “proof” of young-earthism, taking the formula to reveal "normal" days. Old-earth creationists take the formula to be suggesting, instead, some kind of repeated pattern of creative activity (see below).
Ross takes evening and morning as metaphors for “old age” and “youth” (p. 46), but doesn't explain how this might help figure out what the phrase is meant to reveal.
Another possibility deserves consideration — that the structure is an idiom with metaphorical overtones. (See Psalm 46:6 for a biblical use of “morning” in a metaphorical sense.) The rather unusual grammar of the formula, together with the fact that it is extremely difficult to explain what it might mean if taken in a wooden sense leads to the distinct possibility, if not likelihood, that it was some kind of idiom. Idioms often have a strong metaphorical component (“losing one's marbles”, for example, where marbles stand for sanity). Could it have been an idiom that was used to convey the idea of a pattern or cycle of “making and breaking” or “falling and rising”. In that case, Israelites may have spoken metaphorically of the evening and morning of historical events, with kingdoms rising then falling again (or vice versa). Alternatively, it referred not to deterioration and revival, but to a cyclical pattern of frenetic activity interspersed with with long periods of little change.
Applied to creation, perhaps the sense conveyed by the first possibility is that each stage of creation week was marked by evenings of “dismantling” (breaking) while mornings were characterized by bursts of creative activity (making). The fossil record reveals five or six extinction events and a number of periods of rapid creative activity. The “dismantling” that occurred at extinction events could be likened to the removal of scaffolding used by a builder to provide a temporary support structure when that phase of the project was completed. Many species that have long since gone extinct could have served as a kind of ecological scaffolding for species that have survived right through until today during times when environmental conditions were different from today's conditions.
The sense of the second possibility is that creation swung, on an age by age basis, between concentrations or peaks of intervention punctuated by long periods of stability. Certainly the fossil record strongly suggests “whammo” events interspersed with long "evenings" of “stagnation” (stasis), relatively speaking. Fossil experts acknowledge such peaks of activity in the fossil record, sometimes referring to them as "explosions", such as the famous “Cambrian explosion”.
Let it be said again: words are tools for conveying ideas. What counts is not the precise words but the ideas they convey to the people who use them. (Remember the four legs on insects.) Think about this. If you wrote a book entitled, “The Cyclical Pattern of History”, what words would the ancients have used to convey the concept carried by “cyclical pattern”? Are we to say that the ancients were too stupid to understand such a concept? Of course not. But what words would they have used to express the idea? Perhaps we cannot know. But would you be surprised if the Egyptians would have rendered it into Egyptian, word for word, something like, “The Annual Flood of History”, guessing at the possibility that the phrase “annual flood” was their idiom for conveying the idea of repeated cycles? And just maybe the word for word rendering into Hebrew would have been, “The Evening and Morning of History”.
With such a possibility in mind, one could even translate, “And evening and morning were the second age” as, “And the cyclical pattern [of creative activity] continued through the second age”. Can we free ourselves from the imprisoning hoops imposed on our thinking by the assertions — as well-meaning as they may be — of those who speak of the “straightforward meaning” of Genesis One and ponder the possibilities as to what, “And dusk (evening) and dawn (morning) were…” might have actually meant to Moses? Remember the translation of Brown, Driver and Briggs: “and evening came and then morning”. To me, this very translation carries the feel of a cyclical event, rather than the feel of a block of time.
This approach to the interpretation of Genesis One can be appropriately dubbed “literal”. When someone talks about the autumn of life, they may be using a metaphor, but it's a literal metaphor! To be “truthful”, language doesn't have to follow any set of rules. Arguments as to the truth or otherwise of any text based on preconceived ideas of the truthfulness of literal expressions versus the falsity of metaphorical or idiomatic expressions only confuse the issue. What counts is the meaning — the meaning of God's word is always literally true.
To insist that “evening and morning” are mentioned to rein in the fertile imaginations of any future potential old-earthers strikes this author as trivializing an expression that hints at a much richer meaning yielding a much larger harvest of inspiring concepts about the divine method of creation and the everlasting genius and power of God.
Let it be repeated: the uncertainty as to the true intent of the evening-morning formula gives us good reason to look to the evidence from nature itself to help break the impasse. Genesis One is talking about long ages; this I know for the fossil record tells me so.
Let us conclude this section by giving a new legitimate translation of days one and two. One further principle of translation needs mentioning, and that is the option of inserting words that are not stated but are understood as if they were there. The sentence, “Everybody else thinks you are a cad, but I don't” doesn't require the words “… think you are a cad” at the end, but it would not be wrong to insert them if it might prove helpful in order to make the sense plain in some other language. (And no, doing this does not transgress the command against “adding to” the Word of God [Deut. 4:2]. We are merely applying a principle of translation.) Similarly, consider a verse like Psalm 6:3:
My soul also is greatly troubled; but You, O Lord — how long?
How long until…? Until what? The reader is expected to add the appropriate words himself. Thus, in the translation that follows, we have added the words “of creative activity” in the appropriate position in the hope that they might help convey the sense a little better:
Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So dusk came and then dawn — one age/stage of creative activity. Then God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So dusk came and then dawn — a second age/stage of creative activity. (1:3-8).
Young-earth evangelists' assertions that their interpretation is the only legitimate interpretation begin to crumble when you translate this way. The only part that remains somewhat ambiguous is the precise sense of “dusk came and then dawn”, but it certainly does not have to be read as proving 24-hour days. Indeed, as the section, “Young-earthism's biggest headache” below shows, the reference to dusk and dawn in the three days before the sun existed (according to young-earth interpretations) proves that the two words cannot have their normal connotation of referring to the time around sunset and sunrise. This fact increases one's confidence that the words are used idiomatically or metaphorically.
With all these thoughts fresh in our thinking, let's return to a fundamental plank of young-earthism mentioned earlier — Exodus 20:11, which says that God rested for one day after working for six, and that therefore we should rest on the seventh day of the week. (As does Genesis 2:2-3, of course.) As already noted, young-earthers call upon this verse to prove their point as to the meaning of “yom”, inasmuch as the seventh day of rest, the Sabbath, lasts only 24 hours. However, does it not seem perfectly reasonable that this verse is telling us that the Sabbath day of rest in a literal week of 24-hour days is based upon the pattern of the seven protracted days of creation week? Reading it that way is a perfectly legitimate “literal” reading. (For all we know, the seventh day on which God rested may well have consisted of a 24-hour day. Nothing makes the idea that the first six days lasted for many years while the seventh lasted only 24 hours absurd other than personal opinion. To some that idea may seem preposterous; to this author it seems perfectly acceptable. Logic cannot be called upon to settle the question.)
Young-earthism's biggest headache
Those who seek to interpret Genesis One as teaching that God created the universe, the earth, and everything in them in six 24-hour days gloss over internal evidence from that chapter that, frankly, proves almost fatal to their cause. In insisting that Genesis One days are 24-hour days with a daylight portion and a nighttime portion (“morning and evening”) exactly as we know them today, they set their cause up for a fall. The bright light of day comes from the sun, yet their interpretation of verse 17 tells us that the sun did not even exist until the fourth day. Their interpretation must be wrong; if the sun did not exist until day four, days one, two and three could not possibly have been days in exactly the same way as we know them. Dusk and dawn (evening and morning) simply would not have been. This simple truth presses home the realization that the days spoken of are not “normal” days. Young-earthism is forced to take flights of fancy in trying to explain how light and normal days could have been created on day one (vs. 3) while the sun was not created ex nihilo (in their view) until day four (vs. 17). I mean, what possible reason could account for creating a miraculous light to perform the same function as the sun for 72 hours? It just doesn't make a lick of sense.
This problem evaporates away if one realizes that “yom” in Genesis One could literally be translated as “age, era”, or something like that, and that the reference to “making” the sun and the moon in verse 17 speaks not of their creation ex nihilo — which had occurred who knows how many millions of years earlier — but of their becoming plainly visible to a spectator standing on terra firma. For the first three eras, the sun and moon were “out there” providing light and enabling life-giving photosynthesis to occur (in the case of the sun), but the thicker atmosphere scattered the sun's light as it coursed towards the earth's surface, making the sun, as an object, invisible to any earth-bound observer. By the fourth age, the murky atmosphere had become perfectly transparent, enabling an earth-bound observer to clearly view sun, moon and stars.
Some may say that photosynthesis requires a crystal-clear atmosphere, and that therefore plants could not have survived for millions of years under conditions of weaker light levels. That may be true for most of today's plants, but the whole point of old-earthism is that God created different plants and animals throughout the eras to match prevailing physical conditions of light concentration, temperature, and so forth. Who will be so bold as to assert that extinct horsetails and clubmosses needed full sun to photosynthesize?
Considerations such as these lead one to wonder if just perhaps the Genesis One account of divine creative activity — just like the biblical accounts of the plagues on Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, but to a much greater degree — can be likened to viewing the universe through a keyhole.
A keyhole view
For the sake of the argument, let's assume that for reasons best known to Himself, God “built” the universe (metaphorically speaking) and earth over an extended period, as old-earthers contend, in a sequence of logical cumulative stages in which materials were created, some were left to mature, scaffolds were erected then removed, workers came and went. That instead of creating the earth's current atmosphere in a flash, for instance, He created worker blue-green algae to slowly build up its oxygen supply. No biblical insight refutes such a possibility. Indeed, the ever-present biblical themes of the glory of God and the transparency of time to One who has lived for all eternity should make such a concept most palatable to Bible believers. Such an idea should make us quiver with excitement much more than the “magician model”, which supposes 144 hours of wand waving (it's only a metaphor!), does.
Now, if you decide you are going to describe all of this in a few hundred words, how oh how are you going to do it with perfect accuracy? Genesis One is how you would do it! By its very nature, a précis of billions of years of events into a few hundred words will lack staggering amounts of data. Yet such a précis can still be called “true, accurate”. Perfectly accurate, literally true, but far from the complete picture, like looking out into space through a keyhole, or like a low-resolution, one-bit scan of a millions-of-colors picture. The creation account says nothing, for instance, about the untold thousands of species of plants and animals that God created during creation week then either allowed or caused to go extinct. The statement, "After World War I came World War II, during which many people died on both sides" is perfectly accurate and truthful in spite of its paucity of details. Future generations who want more details will have to read what historians have to say. Those who desire to know more than what is hinted at in Genesis One can read what paleontologists and historical geologists have learned about the story of life, remembering, of course, to replace the word "evolution" with the word "creation".
Genesis One, then, is truth, nothing but the truth, but certainly not the whole truth.
The symphony of creation
Those steeped in atheistic ideas look at the changes that have marked the history of the universe and earth as evidence of no God, as supposedly giving unequivocal support for the gradual evolution of all things by totally natural causes from a fireball offshoot of the sun to the world we live on today. They presume that if a powerful being had created the world, He would have merely waved His magic creation wand and… poof… there it was with its beaches, mountains, rivers, animals and plants as we see it today, without any kind of lead up. Since the evidence proves otherwise, they insist God had nothing to do with it.
Young-earth creationists, based on their interpretation of Genesis One, likewise see creation, metaphorically speaking, as the ultimate “magic trick” — God waved His wand and scattered galaxies and stars across the universe, waved it again and created a formless earth, waved it yet again… and so on.
But who says God must create like a magician? Why not seek for the method of creation in the metaphor of building? Just as timber is left to cure for long periods, so too the atmosphere steeped for millions of years before being ready for the next phase of construction, and so on. Or one could liken the Creator to a master chef who prepares certain ingredients then sets them aside for a time while He works on other aspects of his culinary project.
The creation can be likened to the ultimate, ages-spanning symphony in seven movements together with an overture (the initial creation of matter and energy) and climactic finale (man and woman), with God playing the role of composer and conductor. Each movement revolves around its own major theme, yet other familiar themes repeat through all the movements. Can you hear the magnificent, ages-spanning creation symphony? Just as every symphony is more likely to have been composed by a clever man than by a monkey banging on a piano, so too our unfolding universe and dynamic earth can much more intelligently be attributed to a brilliant creative mind than they can to a super lucky hyper-bang.
A difficult question to answer is why God did it this way. Since I haven't been able to arrange an interview with God, I can't tell exactly what He had in mind. Nevertheless, since Scripture reveals that man's salvation rests to a large degree on his recognition of and understanding of the glory of God (Is. 40:5, for example), we can fairly safely guess that He did it this way to demonstrate His eternal power and glory (Rom. 1:20 ). Of course, one cannot discount the pleasure factor as well; Mozart composed because he loved doing it.
Young-earth creationists are adamant that Genesis One speaks of seven days in order to impress upon us the speed of creation and thus the power of God. Old-earthers see the days of Genesis One as glorifying God by suggesting wisdom, brilliant strategic planning, methodical execution of the plan, infinite attention to detail, the meaninglessness of time to God, and power and intelligence that never fade. Though divided over the method of creation, both old-earthers and young-earthers agree that all the credit and praise must go to the Supreme Creator, blessed be He.
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Last Updated: 29th January, 2012
Barclay, William 1958, The Mind of St Paul, Harper & Row, New York
Bauer, W., Arndt, W. F., and Gingrich, F. W., (trans.) 1957, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University of Chicago Press
Brown, F., Driver, S. R. and Briggs, C. A. 1972, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, London
Erickson, M. J. 1985, Christian Theology, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids
Guthrie, D. and Motyer, J. A. (eds) 1970, The New Bible Commentary Revised, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester
Hamm, Ken 1999, A Young Earth — it's not the issue, Answers in Genesis: Prayer News, May
Morris, H. M. 1976, The Genesis Record, Baker Book House, Grand
Ross, H. 1994, Creation and Time, Navpress, Colorado Springs
Sarfati, Jonathan 1999, Refuting Evolution, Answers in Genesis, Acacia Ridge
Wenham, G. J. 1987, Word Biblical Commentary—Genesis 1-15, Word Publishing, Milton Keynes
R. F. Youngblood (ed.) 1990, The Genesis Debate, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids
Dawn to Dusk publications
Other printed material
On the Web
Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation
R. F. Youngblood, The Genesis Debate — has chapters on the length of days of Genesis and on the age of the earth
Books supporting an old-earth model:
Hugh Ross: Creation and Time
Hugh Ross: A Matter of Days
Fred Heeren: Show Me God
Robert C. Newman and Herman J. Eckelmann, Jr. in their book Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth
A capsule treatment of the days of Genesis One that treats them as 24-hour days can be found at "A Declaration on Creation"
For a good example of taking Genesis One metaphorically, see, "The Metaphorical Language of Creation" by Todd Greene