Q115 : How Long were the Days of Creation?

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Q115 : How Long were the Days of Creation?

At the end of each “day” of creation, it ends with, “and the evening and the morning were the first day.” By our standards, a day, and the sections such as evening and morning, are defined by the sun. However, the sun was not created until the fourth day. This has led many to believe that the Hebrew word used for day did not necessarily mean a 24-hour period as we know it to be. I have read some outside sources on this, and it appears that the word used (yom) does not necessarily have to mean a day as we know it, and has been used to describe a period as long as a week. What do you think of this?

A115 : by Tony Garland

The debate about how to understand the Hebrew word for "day" יוֹם [yôm] as used in Genesis will probably go one until Jesus returns. smile Yet most Hebrew scholars admit that if it were not for the belief in an age for the earth which is incompatible with a straightforward reading of Genesis, it is unlikely that this debate would have arisen because the historic understanding of the passages in question is overwhelmingly that of literal 24-hour days (Ex. 20:11; 31:17; 34:21; Lev. 23:3).

The debate centers around how יוֹם [yôm] is to be understood when combined with specific numbers as in the creation passages. This is a very big topic, but here's a sample of the sort of analysis involved:

The word "echad" is most probably to be read as a cardinal number ("one") as opposed to an ordinal ("first") in contrast to many translations. Thus it appears that the text is in fact defining what a "day" is in the rest of the creation Week. . . . Concerning the use of the cardinal as opposed to the ordinal in Genesis 1:5b, it will be helpful to examine this a little further. For a more detailed examination of echad in Genesis 1:5, the definitive study is that of Andrew Steinmann. After examining echad as an ordinal number in numbering units of time he concludes that it may be used in place of the ordinal r'ishon in only two idioms: namely to "designate the day of a month, the other the year of a reign of a king". . . . when echad is unaccompanied by the article and used adjectively it is reasonable that it be considered as a cardinal ("one"). Some may challenge this conclusion claiming that it may be an example of "denying the antecedent" but it does seem to have merit. . . . Given that Genesis 1 is describing a sequence of creative acts one would expect to find the first day designated by the ordinal r'ishon. Instead, we find the cardinal form echad. From the preceding overview of lists it would seem clear that this initial appearance of the cardinal form is in fact signifying a cardinal meaning. Furthermore, both echad and yom are without the article indicating that the expression denotes "one day". . . . In light of the preceding, it is clearly preferable to read Genesis 1:5b as defining a yom for the following sequence of ordinals-namely one cycle of evening and morning, signifying a complete 24-hour day embracing both the period of darkness and the period of light. Having used the cardinal echad to establish that definition of yom, the chapter then goes on in the expected ordinal sequence.
— Francis Humphrey, "The meaning of yom in Genesis_1:1-2:4", Journal of Creation, Creation Ministries International, 21(2) 2007, 52-55, pp. 52-54.

As Jonathan Sarfati shows in his recent book, Refuting Compromise: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of "Progressive Creationism"a, the idea that creation days were long ages is a recent innovation. Terry Mortenson also makes this case:

[T]he respected Anglican clergyman, George Stanley Faber (1773-1854), began advocating the day-age theory in 1823. This was not widely accepted by Christians, especially geologists, because of the obvious discord between the order of events in Genesis 1 and the order according to old age theory. The day-age view began to be more popular after Hugh Miller (1802-1856), the prominent Scottish geologist and evangelical friend of Chalmers, embraced and promoted it in the 1850s after abandoning the gap theory.
— Terry Mortenson, "Philosophical Naturalism and the Age of the Earth: Are they Related", Richard L. Mayhue, ed., The Master's Seminary Journal (Sun Valley, CA: Master's Seminary), 15/1 (Spring 2004) 71-92, p. 77.

It seems clear that the text, when allowed to speak for itself, intends each day to be understood in a straightforward manner, as the Jews have always represented them (evening, then morning—the day beginning at sundown). As for the initial source of the light, it seems evident we are to understand the light as emanating from God Himself—as the "other bookend" of the Bible, the book of Revelation, makes plain (Rev. 22:5). In fact, a careful study of the Genesis account will show significant, and I believe intentional, parallels with other passages of Scripture such as John 1 and 3 (e.g., Jesus as Creator, Jesus as the source of light, the light shines in a dark place, being born of water and the spirit) and Revelationb. It is also difficult to reconcile the repeated phrase, "so the evening and the morning were the Nth day," with the idea of each day as a long age. Would theistic evolutionists posit that during the millions of years they associate with each "day" that it never became dark? Clearly, the Scripture is associating each light/dark cycle with a single day. Moreover, once the sun is in place in day 4 (Gen. 1:14-19), the same cycle of light and dark continues for the remaining days. It would seem most natural to take each light/dark cycle as indicating a point source of light (God initially, thereafter the sun) which is shining upon a rotating earth spinning at about the same speed as today.

Interpreting the days as long ages does not solve the problems people generally want it to—to try and make Genesis support the notion of an old earth and allow for evolution. For one thing, the Creation sequence is incompatible with the accepted evolutionary sequence. Genesis has plants (day 3) before aquatic species (day 5) as well as birds (day 5) before land animals (day 6). The evolutionary sequence has aquatic species, then land animals, then birds. Moreover, evolution requires death and natural selection to ascend from supposedly "simple" one-celled organisms to man. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that death—and the degeneration of the entire cosmos—did not occur until the Fall and was not part of the original Creation (Gen. 1:31; Rom 8:22; Rev. 21:4). Trying to shoe-horn the fossil record into the days of Genesis faces significant obstacles.

Another practical problem with taking the creation days as long ages is found in the age of Adam. If Adam is created on the sixth day and the day is taken to be an interval of thousands or even millions of years (typically to fit the supposed hominid evolutionary sequence into the sixth day), then his subsequent age, given in simple years, would be completely misleading (e.g., Gen. 5:3-4).

Also against an evolutionary interpretation of Genesis is Jesus' statement upholding the original creation of man and woman, "at/from the beginning" (Mat. 19:4; Mark 10:6). Jesus, as Creator, gives no hint of the modern supposition that sex is an evolutionary development. smile

I take the passage at face value: day was intended to mean something very close to our 24-hour day. Of course two apparently significant difficulties remain: 1) the apparent age of the earth from radiometric dating, and 2) the belief that distance starlight must have taken millions of years to reach us.

As creationists have shown, radiometric dating has significant variability and is based on a host of assumptions which are not necessarily reliable over long periods (see for instance, http://creation.com/a-christian-response-to-radiometric-dating and other articles on their site).

The issue of how long it takes for distant starlight to reach the earth is of course dependent on how one understands time itself. Among the most startling scientific discoveries of all time is the by now well-accepted and verified discovery that time is relative—not absolute as we are so prone to think based on our own limited experience. Based on the work of Einstein, creationist cosmologist have proposed solutions to the distant starlight problem which allow for large periods of time transpiring in parts of the expanding universe while a dramatically shorter period of time transpires from the frame of reference of the earth. This is essentially an application of time dilation—as when highly accurate clocks are placed on the earth and on high-speed jets with the result that time runs at different rates in each frame of referencec.

Theories and papers on this subject are extremely technical and far beyond the mathematical prowess of most—including this writer. However, a good introduction to some of the topics can be found in astrophysicist John Hartnett's recent book, Starlight, Time and the New Physicsd, which I've reviewede.

On the other hand, we readily admit the Biblical truth that Adam, Eve, the trees, and the animals at the point of creation all had an apparent age. Did Adam and Eve have a navel? Did the trees have growth rings? We simply do not know - but we do know that God put in place at least some of the created order with an apparent age which differs from actual age. Now when we attempt to apply this same line of reasoning to distant starlight (complete with light in-transit and representing events which did not actually occur) we are immediately met with the charge that such would be misleading of God. But this charge only holds if God had not revealed otherwise — and He has by the record given us in Genesis. So this is another possibility and it hardly seems fair to accuse God of misleading if such were the case when He has made plain how He did otherwise and we can't get around the fact that at least some aspects of creation are unavoidably not what they appeared to be (e.g., the apparent age of Adam on day 6).

Not that all the difficulties have been tidily resolved at this point. However, the Bible believer who trusts in Jesus is already committed to key truths taught by God's Word alone which completely defy scientific limits of explanation (e.g., the virgin birth, the resurrection). This is not to say that Christianity is irrational, but that Christians recognize that God's revelation trumps what we are able to deduce from our limited powers of observation and even more limited ability to correctly interpret what we have observed given our sinful and fallen condition.

My faith is in the straightforward reading of Genesis because of what I've come to see about the Bible after years of careful study. The fact is that modern science knows relatively little about the big picture of where we came from (cosmology, history) and where we are going (prophecy). There are numerous complex unknowns (e.g, time travel, quantized red shifts, dark matter, DNA) all of which makes it easier to believe that what God said will continue to stand as the ultimate truth even as science continues its limited exploration of His glorious work!

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