How long are the days in Genesis 1? Some of my friends insist they can only be regular 24-hour days. Others think they may be long periods of time. I'm confused.
There are five major approaches to interpreting the "days" of Genesis 1. Each view is held to by a number of persons who believe in the Bible and hold the Genesis account to be true, so even though I think four of the views are held in error, this is not to say that their proponents are false Christians or have wrong motives.
(1) The Literal Theory
God created everything in six literal twenty-four-hour days (144 hours). The Literal Theory may be the "simplest" interpretation of the passage, and the view is often taught to our children in Sunday School. Yet there are several reasons against this interpretation. Interestingly, the early "church fathers" (96-325 AD) did not subscribe to literal twenty-four-hour days. In roughly two thousand pages of commentary on the six creation days, the favored view was that each day represented a longer period of time, such as a thousand years.
(2) The Gap Theory
In the "gap" between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 a universal cataclysm took place. In this ingenious hypothesis, the original creation was destroyed and God started over. For example, the dinosaurs were exterminated, their fossils left in the ground. Isaiah 45:18 is construed to support this theory: "[The Lord] did not create [the earth] to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited...." If the earth was not originally empty, in this view, then it must have become empty, through some global cataclysm.
This view posits that the six days are the time of God's re-creation of the earth. The theory is based on a possible but unusual translation of the Hebrew verb hayetah ("was") in 1:2. In some passages hayetah is rendered "became," which is the justification for the Gap Theory. In this case, Genesis 1:1-2a would be translated: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth became formless and empty...." The translation required by the Gap Theory is possible, but hard to justify. Furthermore, there is no biblical verse stating that the fall of Satan ruined the original cosmos, as adherents of this view believe. The physical decay of the cosmos is never linked with Satan and his demons.
The Gap Theory, suggested by some patristic and medieval writers, would probably never have become popular—especially in the nineteenth century—were it not for the tension churchmen felt between Genesis 1 (taken literally) and scientific discoveries, especially in the fossil record. Bernard Ramm discusses the considerable weaknesses of this theory in The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955, pp. 195-210).
(3) Revelatory Day Theory
How did the Genesis writer know what happened at Creation? The Revelatory Day Theory suggests God revealed what happened in stages. On seven successive days Moses received revelation, each day "seeing" God's work in different aspects of his creation. The seven "days," then, refer to the literal time in which the account of creation was revealed to Moses, not to the length of time taken by God to bring about the creation itself. This theory allows for the passage of time between the events seen on each of the revelatory days, thereby overcoming the uncomfortable nature (for some) of the "creation week." This is another nineteenth century stab at reconciling Genesis with the antiquity of the earth, and has few adherents today.
(4) Day-Age Theory
This is a very popular view among Bible believers, in which each "day" in the Day-Age Theory is a geologic age. The points of agreement between Genesis 1 and modern geology are as follows: (a) The ancient earth became increasingly ordered; (b) the conditions for life, such as the formation of land and water reserves in the atmosphere as well as the sea, preceded the existence of life; (c) simpler forms precede more complex forms; and (d) man appears as the highest product of the creative process.
Like the two previous views, this allows for the ancient earth evidenced by science. Yet there are some insurmountable problems. Here are a few: (a) The fossil record shows animals coming into existence before plants; (b) the appearance of the sun on day four bodes ill for the Day-Age Theory; and (c) Genesis 2 has the animals being created after man.
Some Day-Age proponents believe each age lasts one thousand years, basing this opinion on a literal interpretation of Psalm 90:4 or 2 Peter 3:8. But Psalm 90 does not say one thousand years are a day, only that they are like a day. Moses, to whom this Psalm is attributed, adds "or like a watch in the night." A Jewish watch was 4 hours. Why not therefore claim that one day = six thousand years (24 hours ÷ 4 hours x 1000 years)? Surely this isn't what Moses had in mind! By the way, whereas Psalm 90 emphasizes the swiftness of time (from God's perspective), 2 Peter 3 emphasizes its slowness (from our perspective). The widely popular Day-Age seems to concede too much, while lacking sufficient biblical support.
(5) Literary Theory
In this view, the days are not meant to be taken literally. Rather, they are a literary device for communicating the truth about creation. The account is construed as poetic, semi-poetic, or (at the least) highly elevated literature. (For another poetic version of the Creation, see Proverbs 8:22-31.) Further poetic or semi-poetic accounts of creation exist in Job 36-41; Psalms 8, 19, 33, 104, 148. Consider also the theological creation accounts of John 1 and Colossians 1. The Bible reader observes that there are a number of ways in which the Lord was able to—and did—convey the basic truths about the Creation. Every account is true; each conveys truth about the Creator and his creation.
The Bible reader observes that there are a number of ways in which the Lord was able to—and did—convey the basic truths about the Creation. In short, the original readers of Genesis, sharing the author's culture, understood exactly what he meant. The scheme is logical, not chronological.
(a) First, the Literary Theory recognizes providence. God was preparing the world for habitation. He did this with care, not haste. His wisdom is boundless, even if occasionally his biological ways are inscrutable (Romans 11:33-36)! Next, this theory recognizes a definite structure to the creation account, a definite schema." Consider how God's providence and forethought are portrayed, as each of the first three days corresponds to the following three.
Day 1: Separation of light and darkness. "Let there be Light." // Day 4: the Light-bearers
Day 2: Separation of waters into oceans above firmament / beneath world. // Day 5: Sea creatures & flying creatures.
Day 3: Dry land and vegetation. // Day 6: Creation of land plants and animals, plus humans.
(b) The days are a framework for the truth God is communicating to his people. The literary view doesn't claim that God couldn't have created everything in six days, or in one second, or in many eons! That's because this view is not tied to any particular assumptions about biology or the age of the earth. The Genesis writer isn't presenting a strict cosmological or biological sequence, but is showing how God prepared the world for human habitation. The literary view speaks clearly, regardless of the shifting sands of scientific opinion, for it stands above them.
This view shows that God is a God of order (1 Corinthians 14:33). It also teaches that the universe is not the result of chance, but of careful planning. There is a specific historical and literary context to the book of Genesis as a whole.
(c) The literary view is carefully constructed. Genesis never purports to be a scientific account of "what happened," yet it does contain a carefully constructed account based on the calculated use of symbolic numbers, especially three, seven and ten. Many biblical scholars have studied the text of Genesis as a whole, and chapter 1 in particular, and have discovered a masterful inner structure. As a number of Old Testament scholars have noticed (like Blocher and Wenham), many words and phrases appear a theologically determined number of times. The chance that this is coincidence is most unlikely "God said" occurs ten times: three times in reference to man and seven times for all other creatures.
- The verb "to be" ("let there be") occurs three times for creatures in the heavens, and seven different times for the world below.
- The verb "to make" occurs ten times, and so does "according to their kinds."
- There are three blessings.
- The verb "to create" is used on three occasions, three times on the third occasion.
- "And it was so" occurs seven times.
- "And God saw that it was good" occurs seven times.
- God either names or blesses seven times.
- The preceding three heptads are independent of the structure of the seven days!
- Genesis 1:1 has seven words, 1:2 has two times seven words, and 2:1-3 (which is the seventh paragraph) has five times seven words.
- The word "earth" occurs three times seven times, and "God" (’Elohim) five times seven times.
- The names of God occur seventy (seven x ten) times in Genesis 1-4, and prove the unity of the passage. One times ten times it is Yahweh (God's personal name; see Exodus 6:3), two times ten times Yahweh ’Elohim ("the Lord God"), and four times ten times ’Elohim ("God").
This is only the beginning. Special numbers and patterns occur throughout Genesis. These are not just coincidences—some of which are bound to occur, given the Law of Large Numbers. These are carefully constructed accounts, literarily complex and numerically significant.
(d) This view takes stock of the historical situation. The Literary Theory recognizes Genesis 1—and in fact the whole of Genesis—as a stinging condemnation of rival stories circulating in Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia and the rest of the Mediterranean world at the time. The seven-day schema stands in stark contrast to, and in judgment of, contemporary Near Eastern creation accounts, in which man is little more than an afterthought, as well as a source of irritation to the gods. How different the Genesis account is from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian or Egyptian stories!
(e) The Literary View recognizes that Genesis 1 provides a theology of the Sabbath, which would have been highly relevant to the ancient Israelites, who had just come into a covenant relationship with God. As for God's "resting," this is an anthropomorphism—something described for the sake of, or from the viewpoint of, human understanding. God was not tired. His cessation from creating was a "rest" from a human perspective. In the same way, the seven days are not literal days. They are described as they are in order to convey theological truths—not chronological truths.
In attempting to interpret Genesis 1 and 2 "scientifically," many men and women miss the richness of the descriptions, symbolism, numerology, poetry and careful construction of the account. Of the five major theories, the literary view best illuminates the features set out above—which tend to be minimized by the other approaches to the Creation account.
So which of the five views is right? You will have to weigh the evidence and make your own decision. In my opinion, contemporary religious and archeological evidence weighs more heavily in favor of the literary view than any of the other proposals. Yet the theological and scientific evidence is still in the process of being sifted by God-fearing men and women who accept the Bible as his inspired word. On the question of the nature of the "days," there is certainly latitude for differences of opinion—just as many topics in Genesis and the rest of Scripture are capable of bearing more than one interpretation.
The precise nature of the six days of creation is far from being an issue of salvation. And doesn't Romans 14:1 tell us not to pass judgment on others when it comes to disputable matters?
Read about this and other intriguing topics in my book, Origins - The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1-11, co-authored with Paul Copan. You will find it in my shop (click the book image here), and since you made it this far down the post and are obviously very interested in the topic, I'm offering you 20% off. Just use discount code BQRPSXGNN37K in the cart or on the checkout page.