The Days of Genesis
Hill Roberts, © August 2003 (revised 04/04)
Often I am asked, “As a Christian apologist 1 open to an old earth view of creation, how do you understand the days of Genesis 1?” Usually this flows from a discussion of the age of earth: is it young or old? 2 Inquirers often note that the evening-morning language of Genesis 1 is the same concept of a day as we commonly understand when marking off days on our calendars. This calendar day feature of Genesis 1 is usually associated with a young earth view of creation (six ordinary, consecutive, twenty-four hour periods, or 144 hours total).
I fully agree that the usage of the word “day” (Hebrew: yom) in the repetitive Genesis 1 formula most probably means a calendar day. 3 The “day” formula is, “And there was evening, and there was morning, day one”, “ ... a second day”, “... a third day”, “ … the sixth day.” While yom can literally mean a time longer than a calendar day 4, as it does in Genesis 2:4, that does not seem to me to be the usage in Genesis 1. Furthermore, Genesis 1 serves as a prologue for the historical narratives of the Torah explaining to the fledgling Israelites how it was that they were standing at Mount Sinai making a covenant with this Jehovah God who was speaking from the mountain before them. Thus, Genesis 1 is presented as the beginning of an actual history, not as theological mythology. However, it is also readily apparent from the natural revelation contained in creation that the events described in Genesis 1 unfolded over many millennia. 5 Therefore, I ask myself how can I be true to the theological and historical genre of the text, true to the “day-ness” of the text, and true to God's natural revelation which stands witness of His divine nature? (Romans 1:19-20) Some recent-creation proponents contend such a harmony is not only not possible, but actually a compromise with the false doctrine of evolution. In such minds, long ages and evolution are one and the same. They suggest the only way to resolve the matter is to discount the natural revelation’s indications of antiquity. 6 I believe there must be a better way than to discount something God seems to have put so much effort into making apparent to us through His creation. On the other hand, the skeptic prefers to discount the Bible in favor of naturalistic philosophies. I can’t accept that either. The Bible has too much evidence in favor of its divine authorship to dismiss it without seeking a better solution than either of these extremes.
A very plausible solution to the dilemma is an interpretive view sometimes known as the Fiat Days interpretation. In this view, the days of Genesis are the divine “calendar” days during which God made the creative pronouncements of His will, not how long it takes for those pronouncements to be finalized. (This Fiat Days view should not be confused with Bernard Ramm’s revelatory days interpretation, in which Ramm took the days to be six days over which God revealed Genesis 1 to Moses on Mount Sinai. 7 )
I currently find the Fiat Days idea to be the best interpretive approach I know to integrate special and general revelation regarding creation. By experience I know that it has strong apologetic potential for addressing skeptics’ questions about the Biblical creation account. Another strong commendation for the approach is that it places primary emphasis on creation by God’s word, just as we find in Hebrews 11:3. “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which were visible.” The psalmist expresses this fiat emphasis in the 33rd Psalm. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and by the breath of His mouth all their hosts.” (33:6) “For He spoke and it was done, He commanded, and it stood fast.” (33:9) Such emphasis on divine fiat stands in stark contrast to modern doctrines and creeds focusing primary significance on how quickly God created; 8 which is a temporal argument never made in scripture regarding the veracity of creation. I’ve recommended the fiat days view for several years as an approach at least worth one’s further study, even if not the ultimate solution. For additional discussions see Allan Hayward's “Creation and Evolution” (Bethany, 1985) and Robert Newman in “Three Views of Creation” (Zondervan,1999, J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds editors).
This is not a “new” view or an interpretive innovation of post-modernists. Indeed, it has scholarly roots that extend to before the nineteenth century era of modernism and twentieth century naturalism. One of the notable nineteenth proponents is Hugh Capron 9 who details and defends all the essential aspects of the Fiat Days view in his 1902 book, The Conflict of Truth. For an excellent current review of Capron’s book regarding his Fiat Days thesis see the 1985 Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute research report #27, by Dallas Cain. 10 Cain also provides a historical review of the early proponents of the Fiat Days view showing that it is an approach resting on sound principles of Biblical interpretation and Hebrew scholarship.
In the Fiat Days view of Genesis 1, the days refer to when God made the particular pronouncements of His will: they are the “And God said’s,” they are the Fiats. For example, Day One is the day wherein God said, “Let there be light.” The rest of the verse is essentially inspired commentary by Moses as he parenthetically 11 notes that what God said indeed happened just as God had said it. Then the next day of God’s pronouncements is introduced by ending that section with the “evening, morning, day” formula. (See the Appendix to this article for the Genesis 1 text presented word-for-word from this view.) The next “day” is the next day of God's pronouncements, but not necessarily the next “24 hour period” immediately following said pronouncements. 12 In between the pronouncement days, the creation responds to God’s decree, as God’s will is implemented. From his hindsight perspective in time, Moses notes the fait accompli with the expression “it was so” and notes God’s approval of the progress by “it was good.” Thus the pace of creation’s response proceeds in accord with the physical processes created solely by God’s word: processes that as He designed them in general take a longer time than a few hours.
Almost no process for implementing God’s will is revealed in Genesis 1. In Genesis 2 we do get some insight into a few process details used by God to form Adam and Eve’s bodies, but even that level of detail is missing in Genesis 1. Furthermore, as chapter two introduces some of the details, it also introduces a sense of a long time passing. Consider for example:
No shrub or plant had yet sprouted because of no rain yet and no man yet to cultivate. (2:5)
Adam’s mission to cultivate and keep the garden (2:15), including …
Adam names all the animals (The world’s greatest safari – millions of species!) (2:19)
Adam is deeply lonely to the point of despair (2:20)
Adam’s exclamation “This is now (or, “At last!”) bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” (2:23)
All this in just a few hours?!?! Sorry ladies, but we men just don’t get that lonely in a few hours, especially not while on the hunting trip of a lifetime! As recent creation advocates are fond of saying, “It’s just not the plain, simple, sense of the text.” The more insight the inspired text gives of the events on day six, the more sense we have of much larger amounts of time than a few hours passing in association with those events. It reads like a long-term situation. This is the primary evidence that all is not as it seems from the initial “simple” reading of chapter one.
Notice that chapter one gives no such insights into any process for creation other than, “God said.” If chapter one provided the only information we had about the creation of man and woman, we might naively assume that they instantaneously appeared as soon as God issued His creative fiat, just as some assume for all the other divine fiats in Genesis 1. But we would be in serious error about an instantaneous, no process, creation of Adam and Eve. (Chapter two reveals that God shaped Adam from dust and formed Eve from a rib taken from Adam while asleep.) Similarly, we are very likely to be in error if we assume an instantaneous popping into existence concerning the rest of the pronouncements of Genesis 1. That process details are missing from Genesis 1 does not mean no process applies. The example of Adam and Eve proves that. Genesis 1 simply doesn’t tell us anything about such processes. Apparently, that was not the purpose of Genesis 1. It only tells us primary cause and ultimate effect. The primary cause is “God said.” The certain effect is that creation happened – solely because God said so.
If God speaks, it happens. That is the overarching faith-building message of the entire Old Testament history. And that message begins with Genesis 1. It would be the message of all the prophets: if God pronounces a king or nation’s ruin, it happens. Whatever God says, one must obey – just as creation did. The Bible presents God as the God of history pronouncing and executing His will upon all of His creation. The creation is a direct result of God’s word. That is the essential message of Genesis 1. That message directly related to the escaping Hebrews. They needed to understand who the real God was. They needed a basis for faith in God. They had been living in pagan Egypt for many generations. They brought out Egypt’s idols in their satchels and Egypt’s culture in their hearts. When life became hard in the dessert, they longed for their Egyptian culture. When they were afraid, they made an idol calf to worship the missing Jehovah. These were a people who had been led out of Egypt, but Egypt was still firmly in these people. Moses’ God was an “unknown god” to them. Genesis 1 explains in no uncertain terms that it was this GOD, not their Egyptian gods, who is Creator. Note that everything named in Genesis 1 was something that Egyptians, and most probably the Hebrews, worshipped as gods: heavens and earth, waters, light, day, night, plants, sky, sun, moon, stars, fish, birds, beasts, and even man as Pharaoh. But Genesis 1 explains that all of those things were themselves nothing but the creation of THE GOD. He who merely speaks and it happens. Cause-Effect. He was the same God who had chosen the Hebrews in keeping with His promises made to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.
With the Hebrews quaking at the foot of smoking Mount Sinai, God commences to give them the law they would live by in covenant with Him. As Creator of everything, as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all their forebears, 13 as the God who freed them from Egyptian bondage, as the God who fought and won their battles, He had proven He had all authority to establish His covenant with them. The same history proved His love as a God of compassion for the faithful who trusted in Him. He chastened them as their Father. He had rescued them from their burdens; He gave them manna from heaven, water from the dessert, protected them from their enemies, guided them day and night, made them a nation, and gave them a new land with blessings running over. He was a faithful and compassionate God, slow to anger, executing His holy wrath only in His longsuffering.
The law He gives them at Mount Sinai is directly connected with the history lesson that began in Genesis 1. In Deuteronomy 4:15-19 Moses explicitly makes this connection between the law, against idolatry, and the elements of creation in Genesis 1. The Deuteronomy passage essential lists the created elements of Genesis 1 in reverse order, including images of men, animals, birds, creeping things, fish, and the heavenly bodies. What was the first commandment given to the Hebrews? “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Not all your Egyptian gods or the gods of the Canaanites. I am the creator of all. And the second commandment? “You shall make no idols.” Not like all the images you worshipped in Egypt or will admire in Canaan. Indeed look at yourselves. You are made in God’s image, so make no idols. And the third? “You shall respect my name.” Not the Pharaoh of Egypt or the Baals of Canaan. I brought you, Pharaoh, and all creation into being, and I will take you out if needed. All of the history lesson beginning with creation in Genesis 1 is leading up to this covenant God makes with these people at Mount Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 19-20 and extending through Deuteronomy. Genesis 1 is the beginning of the revelation of that covenant. Hence, it is no mystery that to ensure the Israelites remembered who God is, He commands them in the fourth commandment to remember the lesson of creation by observing the Sabbath as a holy day of rest, just as Holy God rested from His work as Creator on the seventh day. 14 He was not one of the gods they had known as slaves in Egypt. He was a God who offered them rest from their labors in a promised land. He is One God. He is Holy God, The Creator. As He explained to Moses before going to confront Pharaoh, He is the ^ .
Genesis 1:1 introduces God as Elohim. In the second chapter, which deals with God’s relationship with Adam and Eve, he is YAHWEH (Jehovah). So in the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2 we have God creator of heavens and earth, and creator of Man and Woman in eternal God’s own immortal image. To derail the force of this message by focusing our arguments over how long, by our standards, God took to create by His inscrutable methods does a gross disservice to the depth of foundational meaning engraved in these two chapters. God said it, it happened. If God had not so spoken, it could not have happened by “natural” means because there was no “nature” outside of God’s will. And once God has spoken His will, it is not by “natural” means either. Nature is simply God’s will for the physical. “Nature” is nothing more than God’s will being followed by the physical realm He created. We would all do well to learn to follow God’s laws for mankind as faithfully as the physical realm follows God’s laws for rocks. And since rock is a faithful follower of God’s law – you can bank on that – rock’s testimony of creation should not be denigrated as inferior in any respect in comparison to our fallible human interpretations of the infallible scriptures. The rocks and the Book are both infallible. Unfortunately, our human interpretations of either are not.
The Fiat Days approach raises several legitimate challenges. I would not dare suggest Fiat Days is necessarily the foremost or most obvious meaning of the text, nor without any problems. But then all approaches face legitimate challenges which are not necessarily immediately obvious to readers. What follows are ten of the more common challenges to the Fiat Days view, and a response.
Challenge 1: The description for each day indicates that everything God said happened instantaneously and immediately in the day He said it.
Answer: Not so. On day three God told the earth to produce the plants. That sounds more like a natural process that occurs over its natural cycle, rather than an instantaneous popping into existence out of the ground. Likewise, God told the earth to produce the beasts on day six, but I don't know of anyone who takes that to mean animals literally popped out of the ground instantaneously (or at all). While it is often insisted that Genesis 1 must be understood literally in the most direct fashion possible when it comes to how long a creation day was, such insistence on literality flies out the door when it concerns statements about the earth producing animals. (This symbolic language may be similar to chapter two’s description of God forming Adam from dust. I would be hesitant to say exactly what such a descriptive image means in any literal sense other than it was done in a very special manner by God, as a potter forms the pot by the shaping of his hands on the clay. It indicates an intensely personal involvement of God with man.)
On days five and six God said for the fish, birds, beasts and man to multiply and fill the earth. Both those days end with the same “evening, morning, day” formula used for all the other days. But I've never known anyone to claim the animals or mankind literally filled the earth by sunset of those days. The language and command format is exactly the same for these commands as for all the commands on the other days, yet no-one even remotely thinks this command happened instantaneously on a single day. Why no-one ever thinks of it happening quickly has nothing to do with the text, but rather what we know from nature. We know how animals multiply. Since we know that doesn't happen in a single day, it never crosses our minds to consider that this command was fulfilled in the day on which God commanded it. Instead, we have always understood that God pronounced His Will for reproduction, thereby establishing a reproductive design in animals and man for such multiplying to happen according to the natural pace established by the laws of His Will.
That same understanding could easily be applied to all the other commands issued by God during the six days. For example, once we understand that light travels at a finite speed, it never crosses our mind to think that light instantaneously fills the universe when God says, “Let there be light.” It is not a question of denigrating God’s power. I suppose He could have made light to work that way strictly from a power viewpoint, but that is just not the way light is. In His wisdom that’s not how God made it to work. Light travels at a finite speed -- that is how God made it to work. Traveling at a finite speed, it takes a while for light to get places. It is not instantaneously in place between star and human eye. That’s a testament to God’s wisdom and power, not an argument against Him. If light traveled instantaneously, it seems likely there could be no physical universe at all, but that’s a topic for another essay. 15 There is a natural process we now call quantum-chromo-electro-dynamics, created by God, which light obeys. Such process is simply another way of saying time is involved. God created time. For God to use time to His purposes in no way minimizes the fact of God being in control every moment of the way.
Challenge 2: The text indicates the days were consecutive by the expression, “Then God said …” Also, if the days are not back-to-back consecutive days, that contradicts Exodus 20:11.
Answer: As to the introductory expression “Then God said …” it is supposed that this connecting phrase (the vaw consecutive) ties the new day directly to the close of the prior day thus forcing the conclusion that these are consecutive days. However, this is not necessarily so in Hebrew narrative. Hebrew sequencing was more topical than chronological. Hebrew narratives typically finish one topic before moving to the next, even if the topics overlap or are separated in time. A set, sequence, or list of such conjoined narratives is typically joined by the word “and” or “then” much as is found in the Gospel of Mark. Essentially, this is the Hebrew equivalent to our bulleted list, and does not in general indicate temporal sequence, but rather, topical sequence. This format is called parataxis. This narrative form is well illustrated by the genealogies in Genesis 5 in which each genealogical section is ended before the next begins, even though the actual life spans overlapped in time. Hear Dr. James G. Murphy, professor of Hebrew at Presbyterian College, Belfast, and Genesis commentator, as he spoke to this point concerning the parataxis of Genesis 1:
“There is therefore a sequence in the order of time. In a chain of events, the narrative follows the order of occurrence. Collateral chains of events must of necessity be recorded in successive paragraphs. The first paragraph carries on one line of incidents to a fit resting place. The next may go back to take up the record of another line. Hence a new paragraph beginning with a conjoined verb is to be connected in time, not with the last sentence in the preceding one, but with some sentence in the preceding narrative more or less distant from its terminating point. Even a single verse may be a paragraph in itself referring to a point of time antecedent to the preceding sentence.” 16 (emphasis added, HR)
As to the supposed contradiction with Exodus 20:11 -- not so. Exodus 20:11 is making an analogy between the 6+1 form of God's work-rest cycle as a pattern for the Israelites' 6+1 work-rest cycle. The fourth law does not depend on the days of creation spanning only 144 hours, but rather it uses the “the work six, rest on the seventh” format. For example, just for the sake of illustration, let’s assume that each creation pronouncement actually took only one minute of the day. Genesis 1:5 still reads “was evening, was morning, one day.” Then Exodus 20:11 would still make just as much sense as is. God worked for six of His days and rested on the seventh, so Israel you shall work for six of your days and rest on the seventh. Similarly, according to the Day-Age view, each day of creation could have been several millennia, but Genesis 1 could still easily call it a day within accepted literal meanings of the word yom. Exodus 20:11 would still make just as much sense: “Since God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, so shall you work for six days and rest on the seventh.” Exodus 20:11 is an analogy based on the 6+1 formula, not a definition of the hourly duration of the days of creation. The conservative Old Testament and Hebrew language scholar Gleason Archer makes this same point in his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties concerning Exodus 20:11.
Sidebar: Consider this exchange between Joe and Bill one Sunday morning after church.
“Hey Joe, I see you’ve got that Mustang out in the yard with a For Sale sign on it. Did you have to work on it all day Saturday?”
“Oh no, yesterday I was finally able to take a day off. I was finished and put it out front with the sign on it, but I spent six busy days getting it back into that mint condition.”
“Really! I had no idea. What all did you have to do to it?”
“Well, the first day I took out the engine and transmission, since it needed a new camshaft; and the torque converter and front pump had to be replaced.”
“Then the next day I put all that together and back in.”
“Then I decided to sand off all the old paint from the hood and trunk and patched a few of the door dings and dents. Let’s see, that made a third day.”
“Painting it took a fourth day.”
“Then it needed new tires, balancing, an alignment, brakes, oh, and the alternator went bad. That made a fifth day.”
“Then, finally I decided to replace all the upholstery and have the flip top reconditioned. You know how it goes -- one thing leads to another and so when it was finally all done Friday I was really glad to see that beauty ready to go. I hope I can get my money back out of it. So anyway, I finally got to take it easy and enjoy my Saturday yesterday.”
Later at lunch, Joe said to his wife, “Honey, I’m really glad to get our Saturdays back. I’m sorry it took so long. Giving every Saturday these past six weeks to that car really consumed me. And of course, practically every day at work I was thinking and planning and getting parts at lunch. I got home so late from work I couldn’t really do much in the evenings, so it was really nice of the boys to help out with some of their free time in the afternoons. Now I’m not all that sure I really want to sell it. It turned out exactly like I planned. I’m really pleased with it. … You know, Bill seemed really interested in it this morning. I’m wondering if he wants to buy it. He’ll never appreciate what all went into it, but I tried to explain it so that he could at least get the gist of it. You know Bill’s such a klutz when it comes to mechanical stuff. It takes him a week to change a light bulb, but He’s a nice neighbor and a really good Sunday School teacher. If he wants it, I love for him to have it.”
Meanwhile Bill was saying to his wife during Sunday dinner, “That Joe must be beat. He took the whole week off and worked like a dog to get that Mustang ready for sale. Did you see it in his front yard? He could pass it off for a brand new ‘66 Mustang right out of the showroom. If I could just get a week off, I’d like to try that sometime.” To which his wife said, “Right – like you’d know which end of a wrench is which. There might have been a little more to it than you got from Joe’s six minute rundown.”
See any parallels?