Many Christians say that we must take the days of Genesis as ordinary days (literal 24-hour days as we know them) These interpreters usually add that it follows from the first chapters in Genesis (1-11), and the genealogies therein, that the Bible teaches that the earth is very young (from about 6,000 to 100,000 years). They think that failure to read the account this way – what they are sure is the “plain sense” of the passage – compromises the authority of Scripture and thus the very gospel itself. They believe that this view is a part of orthodoxy, the essential beliefs of the church, and that this interpretation must be held in order to have a credible biblical opposition to modern material, in particular atheistic science. (cf.Collins and Poythress)
There are other Christians who think that to use this passage for any “scientific” purpose is to misuse the passage altogether. They believe that those who think that this text is to be read literally (“plain sense”) not only abuse good modern science (where God’s truth is also revealed) but also twists the biblical text itself. (cf. Collins and Poythress)
There are still other Christians who don’t think the days are the ordinary kind, and who are willing to allow that the earth is old, as science seems to strongly affirm, but who reject some scientific theories on scientific grounds (things like Darwinian evolutionary biology). (cf.Collins and Poythress)
These differences among fellow Christian people who are seeking to be faithful to Scripture, regrettably, divides more than it unifies. (NB: it divides among Protestants in North America. This is not a debate among Catholics, and it does not seem to be one in Europe either.) I know solid Christians in each of the aforementioned camps and they are all men whom I would consider solid disciples of Christ. That being said, not all of these beliefs can be true. We cannot simply accept multiple views and shrug them all off as if it doesn’t matter that there are multiple views. God’s truth is singular, it is in the text and we must seek to get after it by engagement with the text and in discussions with those whom we agree and disagree. These multiple views should lead us to engage each other in an effort to correct error and be united in the truth. I believe that the PCA Creation Study Committee is right when they remind us,
The debate over the nature of the creation days is, theologically speaking, a humble one. It cannot rank with the significant theological debates of our time (within Protestant and evangelical circles). . . Nevertheless, behind this matter of the Genesis days, and connected with it, are issues of some significance to the Bible-believing Christian community. Most obviously, the discussion of the nature of the creation days is a part of what has been one of the most important sustained theological issues in the Western world over the last century or so: the resolution of the conflicting truth claims of historic Christianity and modern secularism which uses a naturalistic view of evolution as its prop.
I proceed with these wise words in mind. Let me begin this post by recommending a few sources on this issue. They have really helped to clarify my thinking and are used, among others, as sources for this blog.
Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? by John Collins
Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach by Vern Poythress
In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis by Henri Blocher
Genesis 1-15 by Gordon Wenham
Presbyterian Church in America, “Report of the Creation Study Committee”, 2000. Access it here.
Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “Report of the Committee to Study the Views of Creation” Access it here.
Now onto the topic at hand. What is the nature of the days of creation? I believe them to be analogical days. I believe that the days spoken of in Genesis 1-2 are analogical to God’s days and thus are a literary device for the presentation of the material though they refer, analogically, to 24-hour days as we know them. In sum, the days in Genesis 1-2 are God’s workdays of which ours are an analogy.
The following is an explanation of this view. [Please note, I am indebted to John Collins, Vern Poythress and Henri Blocher for what follows.]
The fact that 1:1-2 is not part of the first day, as we discussed in an earlier blog, tells us that we don’t have to take the creation week as the first “week” of the universe. This should not be surprising based on our earlier discussion of the purpose of the creation story . However we interpret the days, we have no obligation to read Moses as claiming that God began his creative work of the first day at the very beginning of the universe – or even at the very beginning of the earth. This seems to strongly suggest that some lengths of time don’t seem to matter to the story.
The refrain, “and there was evening, and there was morning, the __th day”, is a bit odd if you are wanting to refer to a day. We need to notice two key things:
- the order, evening followed by morning – What happens between these times is the nighttime, not the daytime. Obviously. What is the significance of this time? It’s when the worker takes his daily rest. As Psalm 104:23 puts it, at sunrise “man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening” (compare also Gen. 30:16; 18:13). This daily rest in Israel looks forward to the weekly Sabbath rest.
- the absence of the refrain on the seventh day 2:1-3 – Since 2:4 begins a new section of the narrative (the Toledot structure is our tip off), we would expect for Moses to end the first part of his narrative with the refrain he has used 6 times already to end each section of the story thus far; by declaring “and there was evening, and there was morning, the 7the day”. But he doesn’t do this. What he does do is leave this day open. According to the narrative, the 7th day does not end which implies very strongly that we are now living in it. This begs the question – if day 7 is not a ‘literal 24-hour day’ then why would be take the other days in the narrative as such? We shouldn’t. John Collins suggests that this interpretation of an unending 7th day sheds light on some passages from the New Testament, namely John 5:17 and Hebrews 4:3-11.
- John 5:17 – Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, which gets him in trouble with the authorities. He responds to them this way, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” If we want Jesus’ saying to make sense, we should take it as “My Father is working on his Sabbath, just as I am working on my Sabbath”; and we can account for this statement most easily if we take Jesus to mean that the creation Sabbath still goes on.
- Hebrews 4:3-11 – In verse 3 the author quotes Psalm 95:11 to the effect that unbelievers in Israel will not enter God’s “rest”; then in verse 4 he notes that God “rested” on the seventh day (referring to Gen. 2:2). In verse 8 he denies that Joshua gave the Israelites the “rest” of which he speaks, in order to keep us from taking Psalm 95:11 literalistically – the psalm is based on a historical occasion when people who left Egypt were now forbidden to enter the promised land. Instead, there is a Sabbath rest for God’s people to enter: they enter God’s “rest” by “resting from their works” as God did from his (v. 10). This makes good sense if “God’s rest,” which he entered on the creation Sabbath, is the same “rest” that believers enter – and thus God’s rest is still available because it still continues.
There is also the problem of day 6 – how can all of this happen in one 24-hour period? A couple of things to note.
- There is A LOT of action happening here; to much, it seems, for a single 24-hour day. The establishment of the covenant, the formation and naming of the animals, the “deep sleep” of Adam, and the creation of the woman indicate a period of time longer than an ordinary day.
- John Collins notes specifically, that Genesis 2:5, 9 uses the language of “sprouting” or “springing up,” an activity that in its ordinary Hebrew context takes longer than 24 hours. The Hebrew word for “sprout” is used 33 times in the Old Testament to refer to the ordinary growth of plants, beards, and people. If the reader takes the sixth day to be a 24-hour period, then he cannot take the “sprouting” to be a literal, historical event, but must take it to be a figurative reference to a miraculous event. This seems to go against the stated desire to read the text in its “plain sense”. We must note that Genesis 1-2 does not present the sprouting of plants on day 6 as a special creative event. The formation of plants is one of God’s creative activities on day 3. If the sprouting is to be taken as a historical event, then the days of Genesis 1-2 cannot consist solely of one period of darkness and one period of light, since the historical activity of sprouting plants requires the regular alternation of darkness and light. It is impossible to take both the days of creation and the sprouting of plants on the sixth day as a straightforward, literal description of events. One (or both) must be taken figuratively.
There is also the issue of harmonizing the 6th day as presented in Genesis 2:4ff and the narrative of the 6th day in Genesis 1. Here are the issues in a nutshell as presented by Collins. These verses are the key to bringing the two stories, 1:1-2:3 and 2:5-25, together. This connection matters a great deal for without it the text is not read as the unit that it is. We can’t just read 1:1-2:3 on its own; it’s part of a greater context, chapters 1-3 (and then the larger context of chapters 1-11, the book of Genesis, and then the Bible as a whole), and it has to fit into its context. Thus, we are confronted with two problems as we seek to harmonizing 2:4ff with 1:1-2:3:
- The account of the 6th day in ch. 2 is out of step with the sequence of days in ch. 1. In the first chapter God made plants on the third day (1:11-12), but here we read that they don’t yet exist on day 6.
- 2:5-6 says that those plants are not around because it had not yet rained (which is the ‘ordinary providence’ reason for plants not being there), while Genesis 1 has them being created (which is a special situation).
Add all of this up and I think it is clear that the best way to understand the days of Genesis 1-2 are as analogical days and not literal, 24-hour days. But neither should we read them to be ages. The text won’t allow us to do that either. So what are we left with? Let me quote Collins to summarize:
If we put all of these things together, we see that the best explanation [of the days] is the one that takes these days as not the ordinary kind; they are instead “God’ workdays.” Our workdays are not identical to them, but analogous. The purpose of the analogy is to set a pattern for the human rhythm of work and rest. The length of these days is not relevant to this purpose, but we have to conclude from Genesis 2:5-7 that some of them (at least) were longer than our ordinary days. How much longer we can’t say…
So what does this understanding of the Genesis days mean for our interaction with science? The answer to this question awaits a later blog. Our next blog will explore how this interpretation is truer to the text than the young-earth creationist perspective, which is the default viewpoint of most North-American evangelical Christians.
Soli Deo Gloria