The days of creation


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THE FIRST CHAPTER OF GENESIS has probably occasioned more debate among Christians and between Christians and unbelievers than any other chapter in the Bible. Today, the young-earth movement, which insists that Genesis One must be read as teaching creation in six twenty-four-hour days, seems to be gaining ground. Many old-earth creationists insist that the days of Genesis are to be read figuratively, and that they represent ages or eras. But Genesis One can be literally read as teaching creation in six eras or ages, without making any recourse to figurative hermeneutical methods.

Scriptural considerations

Young-earth creationists stress that their position is based first and foremost on Scripture. They believe the earth is young because, they assert, the Bible says so. They argue that even a superficial reading of 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 literal 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 other view of the days of Genesis One than the literal, 24-hour-day view as plainly unbiblical. 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.

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 (Hamm 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.)

The days of creation

Young-earth creationists insist that even a child reading Genesis One will have no problem recognizing the days spoken of as being ordinary 24-hour days. However, we need to recognize that Genesis One was written in a Semitic language while English is an Indo-European language. This fact should alert us to being cautious before we speak dogmatically about the "straightforward meaning" of the text. As serious students of foreign languages eventually realize, translating from one language into another is fraught with difficulty when your aim is to convey the sense of what is being translated rather than just translating word for word. This difficulty is compounded when you are translating from one language into a tongue from a different family of languages. (Linguists have classified languages into families, such as Indo-European, Slavic, Hamitic, Sino-Tibetan, and so on.) Modes of expression differ greatly between the different families. For some illustrations of what I mean, go through the book of Job in a modern translation such as the New King James. You will find many instances of sentences where you know every word, but you still haven't a clue what Job was talking about.

Further, few words in any one language have precise equivalents in any other language. This is particularly true of abstract nouns, but it also applies to all other types of words. For instance, the English adjective "crushing" has no direct equivalent in probably any other language. To my knowledge, we use it commonly to qualify only two nouns — defeat and bore. Its meaning in both cases is different. When translating "crushing" into any other language, then, the translator has to cast around for a word to give the sense. Different translators would choose different words!

Now, in English, we have numerous words to 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. A study of the Old Testament will show that biblical Hebrew only had two words to choose from (unless others existed that we know nothing about) to express the concept — yom (day) and 'eth (time). Both of these words could literally be also translated as "age, epoch", and so on. The context is the best guide to the actual sense of the word. So one could quite legitimately translate "and the evening and the morning were the second day" as "and the evening and the morning were the second age/stage/era".

Evening and morning

In addition, every language uses idioms constantly. An idiom is “forms of expression peculiar to a language, especially one having a significance other than its literal one” (Macquarie). Rendering their meaning in other languages can prove challenging. Take the English language idiom “raining cats and dogs”. Imagine a Chinese game show named “Explain that Idiom”. When the presenter says, “Right, our next idiom comes from English, and it goes like this, ‘It rained cats and dogs'”. After the guffaw has died down, the discussion would prove fascinating. And guess what; chances are reasonable that nobody would guess what it actually means! They might decide it means that it rained all day and all night. Who knows?

A case can be made that the clause "and the evening was and the morning was" may have been a Hebrew idiom, with some fascinating possibilities as to its meaning. However, even if it proves not to be an idiom, its "real meaning" or sense may not at all support the young-earth claim that the expression was used "to guard in every way possible against any of his readers deriving the notion of non-literal days from his record" (Henry Morris, The Genesis Record). Exactly how does it prove a 24-hour day? Analyzing the idea shows that it has at least two problems:

1. It makes the whole formula into a tautology, 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…”. 'Ereb 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.

Taking evening and morning in their regular sense of referring to the hours around sunset and sunrise, one wonders what the Genesis formula really is intended to convey! Remember, grasping the true sense or intent of passages from foreign languages is often very difficult. Many hundreds of years passed in which Hebrew was not spoken; we don't have anybody alive today who can pronounce authoritatively on what every last word, sentence or idiom may have meant back in Moses' time.

In sum, the uncertainty as to the definite meaning of yom in Genesis One and the true intent of the evening-morning formula give us good reason to look to the evidence from nature itself to help break the impasse.

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