“The place to start is in the Bible,” Christians say. I agree wholeheartedly. However, finding out “what the Bible says” isn’t always as easy as reading it in English, since that represents at least two phases of interpretation: 1) Scriptural translators render the biblical language (Hebrew, Greek, and a small amount of Aramaic) into a secondary language (like English); 2) Bible readers interpret what that rendering means to them in modern times. Because we’re influenced by how languages and concepts are communicated in our culture, by the time we deduce what a passage means both in English and to us, we can, at times, be very far removed from the original Hebrew or Greek writer’s intent.
Therefore, although I concur that the Bible is where we should start in researching matters of our home planet, I’m going to do something radical and pay closer attention to what was written before English and modern cultural influence came into the picture.
Proponents of the Old Earth view often subscribe to the “day-age” interpretation, which allows for the order of events from Genesis to stand, but does not force literal, twenty-four-hour periods when Genesis says something happened in or on a “day.”
Why not just let the Bible speak for itself? If it says “day,” it means “day,” so why question this?
Because, again, it says “day” in English, but that isn’t necessarily what is said in the original Hebrew. I admit—as one who has a college degree in biblical studies and theology and as a perpetual student of the Word—that one of the first lessons in the proper principles of biblical interpretation is that the Bible should be taken literally whenever possible, unless doing otherwise creates an absurdity. However, an absurdity is what becomes of many verses if literality were always the lens through which we read this precious text. We must remember that the Bible makes frequent use of figures of speech, euphemisms, hyperbole, allegory, and metaphors, among other linguistic and literary devices useful in the world of human communication, just like any language in the world today.
To Be, Or Not to Be, Literal: That Is the Question
Here’s an example I’ve used in several other books: Imagine that two thousand years ago I wrote a friend, saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs outside.” Today, if translated into a second language, that sentence could indicate the miraculous day Donna Howell saw canines and felines falling from the sky. Assuming it wasn’t a true miracle I had intended to write about, this would be an absurdity. The only way my letter could be received with the meaning I intended is if someone fluent in that second language were to understand the familiar, cultural expression and translate it into a phrase that conveys the correct idea: “It’s raining very hard outside.”
This is the difference between the methods used in translating the Bible, most often referred to as “literal,” “dynamic,” and “free” or “liberal.” A literal translation would be “felines and canines fell from the sky”; a dynamic translation would capture the author’s meaning based on cultural expression and context (such as “the rain was falling hard”); and a free or liberal translation allows the translator more subjectivity, often leading to an incorrect meaning, such as if the translator were to change all New Testament references of Rome to Washington, DC, as one translation has done.
This kind of sorting process is the first step translators must consider when bringing the Good News into a second language…but it is also the process each reader must use in daily Bible reading, especially when something initially appears odd. Otherwise, we would have a hard time explaining why Jesus calls Himself “bread” (John 6:51) when He is clearly not a baked good; why He says we must “hate” our family members in order to be His disciples (Luke 14:26) when He elsewhere perpetually speaks of loving; how He instructed us all to eat His flesh and drink His blood for eternal life (Matthew 26:26–28; John 6:54; and others), when cannibalism is regarded as a detestable act and the symptom of a curse in His Father’s Word (Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53–57; Jeremiah 19:9; Lamentations 2:20; 4:10; Ezekiel 5:10), and His literal body and blood are not available for all and forever (apart from the Catholic belief of miraculous transubstantiation, which I do not subscribe to); what could possibly be meant by letting the “dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:21–22) when the deceased can’t rise to carry their brothers and sisters to the grave, and so on. The list is a long one, and if literality were applied to every verse, the whole Bible—including many words from Christ, Himself—would be, as we’ve said, absurd.
Though it would be reckless to assume a passage is allegory, hyperbole, or a euphemism just because we don’t immediately understand what it says otherwise, there are times when nonliteral interpretations are best. Note that the translation method behind the beloved KJV is principally literal, and that version has been enormously influential in translational endeavors since, heavily contributing to why so many English Bibles of our time prefer the literal “day” over “age.”
The question for our purposes, then, becomes whether the writer of Genesis intended for “day” to convey a period of twenty-four hours (our current comprehension of the word) or a longer span of time. The answer lies in whether there is biblical, cultural, historical, and linguistic support for “day” meaning something other than twenty-four hours. Could it be that, much like our “canines and felines from the sky” analogy, the writer of Genesis used a common term that can dependably mean something other than what literal interpretations suggest?
Yes, it is possible. Some scholars believe it’s even likely, though presenting evidence in favor of that doesn’t always sit well with many mainstream Christian teachers. I’ve chosen to include this information here because of the heavy importance of the “day-age” interpretation on both Young and Old Earth sides. Let’s look briefly at the word, then I’ll explain why it could be interpreted either way. (By the way, though this series and the book Before Genesis are so different from any others on the topic [at least that I’m aware of], I’m nowhere near the first to suggest that either interpretation could be correct. Since the popularization of the Gap theory in the early 1800s, many scholars have said this fight between Old/Young Earthers over “day vs. age” is unnecessary.)
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The English word “day” in Genesis is derived from the Hebrew yom (pronounced “yome”; rhymes with “Rome”). As often as it is believed to represent a twenty-four-hour period, this word is used many times throughout the Bible to refer to the passage of time in several different ways. It can certainly mean a “day,” as in the period from dawn to dawn or sundown to sundown (however one wants to define the concept of a single day in relation to sunlight), but it can also mean: time generically, an indefinite period of time, a division of time, a year, the opposite of night, a working day, a day’s journey, a lifetime, or today, yesterday, or tomorrow, based on whether the word appears in singular form and its context.
That’s a lot of meanings packed into one tiny Hebrew word! This early in the discussion, it seems a little irresponsible to latch on to only one of these definitions and hold the entire cosmological-debate audience captive to that single interpretation. Don’t you think that if God, Himself, allowed that word to mean more than one thing in His revelatory Word, we should at least be open to allowing it as well?
Perhaps my personal favorite is 1 Kings 1:1: “David was old and stricken in years [yom].” If yom means “a day,” then David was “old” when he was a “day” old—i.e., he was a newborn. Since we know that’s absurd, we must allow that yom here means “years.” Another is Zechariah 8:4: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; ‘There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age [yom].’” Can you imagine the latter half of this verse with the standard “day” interpretation forced upon it?—“old men and women in the streets of Jerusalem, carrying a cane in hand on account of twenty-four hours.” It’s nonsensical. “Old” people carry canes due to their “age” requiring walking assistance. Nobody carries a cane at the cause of a “day.”
We see many examples in the Bible of yom in context of an indefinite period of time, such as “the day of the Lord” from many prophets (especially Joel and Isaiah, who were obviously not talking about a great time of judgment that will occur in twenty-four hours), and other uses that read figuratively of times in the past (such as 1 Samuel 8:8; 2 Samuel 22:19). (Have you ever heard your grandpa say, “Back in my day,” referring to an era of his life such as childhood or youth? If so, you’re familiar with this concept.)
Young Earthers almost always get to this point in the conversation and say, “Yes, but the context of Genesis forces a literal day because of the language used around chapter 1, verses 3 through 5.” This section of Scripture describes the creation of light and its separation from darkness, followed by God, Himself, calling the light “day” and the darkness “night.” The next words are: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” Thus, Young Earthers say, Genesis 1:3–5 clarifies the intended time span of yom throughout this passage, since that twenty-four-hour interval we know as a day in the Creation epic is described in such close proximity (and therefore the same context) as this description of light and darkness upon the surface of Earth. When we’re looking for context, we often don’t need to go any farther than the surrounding verses to see how a word or phrase applies, and, therefore, what it truly means in that passage. And whereas I would normally agree that this “close-proximity context clarification” is a good rule of thumb when attempting to find the true meaning of Scripture, we have proof in the same Word of God that this rule doesn’t always apply.
For instance: We also see yom twice in extremely close proximity in Zechariah 3:9–10, though it can’t possibly refer to twenty-four hours in both verses: “‘For behold the stone that I have laid before Joshua… ‘and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day [yom]. In that day [yom],’ saith the Lord of hosts, ‘shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine and under the fig tree.’” The “stone…laid before Joshua” in the first of these two verses is a reference to Jesus, the Cornerstone of the Church, followed by a future era of blessing for God’s people in the second verse. Jesus did “remove the iniquity of that land in one day” (the day He died), but the prophesied time of blessing as a result of His sacrifice is obviously an indefinite period much longer than twenty-four hours, which means this two-verse passage uses yom in both ways: 1) a single day; 2) an indefinite era. If yom can indicate two different time spans in such close proximity in Zechariah, could it mean two different stretches of time in similar proximity within Genesis, too?
I’ll let you be the judge of that, but know that those who insist on Genesis 1:1–3 referring to twenty-four hours in forces a contradiction in the next chapter. Look at Genesis 2:4: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day [yom] that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” This one verse collapses all of Creation—the entire epic, involving heavens, Earth, and all six days plus the seventh day of rest—into a single day (yom). So, which is it? Was Earth created in one single yom as Genesis 2:4 states, or during the six/seven that Genesis 1:3–5 states? Again, regardless of their proximity, these two verses refer to the same biblical event/narrative. It’s a bit confusing to those outside the Young Earth group that so many ministries go out of their way to prove that “day” is twenty-four hours long based on Genesis 1:3–5, while they don’t often acknowledge the discrepancy of the same Hebrew word referring to at least a seven-day stretch in Genesis 2:4. It appears that Genesis, itself, forces at least the possibility that yom indicates to more than merely a twenty-four-hour period.
One clue in biblical interpretation that’s taken into account far less than it should be is considering how the Jews, themselves, treated certain topics during or around the historical period described in the Bible. In this case, the Jews didn’t consider a day to be twenty-four hours. The majority of Jews believed a day encompassed the hours when the light from the sun was upon Earth, since God treated “light” as a synonym for “day”; many times of the year, this would be from 6 o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock in the evening—twelve hours, not twenty-four.
A minority of Jews took the opposite approach by considering a day to be from 6 o’clock in the evening to 6 o’clock in the morning—again, twelve hours. (This issue comes up a lot in studies regarding the exact day and time Jesus was murdered in relation to Passover. It’s a long discussion involving the existence of two Jewish calendars at the time: the Judean calendar and the Galilean calendar. Since Jesus was a Galilean, He followed that calendar, having Passover Seder [the main Passover dinner] hours prior to His arrest, while the Judeans observed the Seder the following day, rectifying the discrepancy of how Jesus both a) honored the traditional Seder right on time and b) had to be taken down from the cross before the Passover in John 19:31. So, many observances on the earlier Jewish calendar fluctuated between the two.) Seasonal variations in the times of sunrise and sunset cause an additional problem. Because the sun doesn’t come up or go down at the same times during each season, if we insist on the Young Earthers’ definition of “day” being a synonym for “light,” since that’s the context God set as a precedent, now we have to parse out countless calculations of how the word fluctuates between seasons. A day in summer is several hours longer than a day in fall. We quickly see how arguing these distinctions would go off the rails and into irrelevant territory.
Taking this yet a step farther and applying it globally, as my thirteen-year-old pointed out just the night before I wrote this: “But, Mom, a day based only on sunlight also changes duration depending on where you’re at in the world. Some cities in Alaska are saturated in darkness for weeks at a time!” Excellent work, kiddo. You nailed it. If we’re going to argue that the Hebrew yom has to represent twenty-four hours in consistent relation to periods of light and darkness, then we have a lot of work to do in constructing what a day means to those in areas of the world with a different standard of God’s light/darkness precedent in Genesis 1:3–5, and then determine what that would have meant during Creation week—and from where? Eden? Did Eden, like Alaska, have longer stretches of darkness? Or shorter?
What a can of worms!
There is yet a bigger can to sort out: None of our discussion thus far has taken into consideration that the sun wasn’t even created until the fourth day! Without the sun to shed light on Earth during the first three days of Creation week, the entire case for this sunlight measurement context is a fallacy, since that basis of measurement wasn’t established in the moment God separated light from darkness.
But, to be fair, the subject of the establishment of light and sun is also an argument for the literal translation. Readers might note that God created light on the first day of Creation week, but the sun was not created until the fourth day. Yet, it is the sun that provides the photosynthesis for the survival of the plants God had already put into place on the third day. This forces two questions: 1) If light belongs to the first day and sun belongs to the fourth, what does “light” mean if it isn’t the sun?; 2) If “day” means an indefinite span of age or ages, how did the vegetational system created in age three survive without the sun of age four, especially for those who take “age” to mean millions of years? Surely the plants would have quickly died without their sunlight, which of course would have caused death to any living thing on Earth since they, too, require sunlight and food from vegetation to survive, right?
Well, that’s the argument offered by many Young Earthers to prove all of Creation must have happened in the shortest fathomable time. However, it can still go both ways: Most scholars understand this to mean God formed light waves/particles on the first day, while He assigned them to primarily belong to the orbital body known as the sun He created on the fourth day. (The moon obviously comes in at this point as well, but because its light is reflective, it doesn’t need its own breakdown.) If that’s the case, then the waves/particles of light He originally formed went wherever they were needed under His guidance and nurtured the young plants for as long as necessary for them to thrive in their earliest form until the orbital space bodies became the vehicles for distributing those waves/particles. So, both “day” and “age” remain admissible, and the debate between Young and Old Earth scholars rages on…
Moreover, our concept of time is largely irrelevant anyway. Don’t forget that a day to God is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day (Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8). In fact, so important is this distinction that Peter specifically goes out of his way to instruct the early Church to “be not ignorant of this one thing”! That is powerful, New Testament language that brings into perspective the convicting reality that “time is not the same to God as it is to man,” as one commentary put it.[i] Peter could have said any number of alternative things, but he chose to ask his readers not to be “ignorant” of the fact that God’s timing is not our timing. The Spirit of God who inspired the God-breathed Bible guided both Genesis and 2 Peter with the same level of authority (2 Timothy 3:16), and, without doubt, His comprehension of hours, days, months, years, and so on is never going to be limited to what we interpret, especially when the Hebrew word He chose has more than one definition. This added layer of conviction—by itself!—should be enough to put the day-age interpretation in its proper place in the cosmological debate.
There is yet another contributing factor—from the scientific platform, this time. According to scientists, a day wasn’t considered to be a twenty-four-hour period anywhere on the globe in the beginning, anyway. Certain experts—such as planetary scientist Takanori Sasaki of Kyoto University in Japan during the Intercontinental Academia conference in 2016—have recently calculated Earth’s earliest days to potentially be just four hours long, though, he reports, human life had not yet inhabited this planet at that time.[ii]
But Donna, I don’t care what science says happened in the beginning. I don’t believe in the Big Bang, and we weren’t there to see the origins of the universe, so anything science says about that moment is the result of guessing games.
That argument might hold some validity if it weren’t for the fact that the length of a day is even now fluctuating, affecting modern calculations of time as reported on satellites, cell phones, GPS navigational devices, etc., proving the speed of Earth’s rotation is not steady and never has been perfectly so. It is simply an observable truth to anyone who watches the clock closely. Our atomic clocks and equipment producing “precise astronomical measurements” are showing that “a day is very rarely exactly the magic number of 86,400 seconds” (twenty-four hours); in fact, the speed of Earth’s rotation had been steadily slowing since well before we had the technology to observe it “due to friction effects associated with the tides driven by the Moon.”[iii] However, surprisingly, since the 1960s, Earth’s rotation has been speeding back up.[iv]
Most scientists attest that, only thousands of years ago, a day was still very close to twenty-four hours. But if there’s even a chance that Earth is older than thousands of years, then when God called the light “day” and the darkness “night,” it was so long ago that we can’t be sure how many hours we’re even talking about…and none of this conjecture even touches the aforementioned yom discrepancy of Genesis 2:4 (which collapses all six days into one yom)!
After considering all the evidence and details, I feel strongly convicted to concede that yom can be allowed to mean “age” in Genesis (though I don’t insist that must be the only possibility). From that perspective, each day of Creation was an incalculable period of time.
Now, to discuss why a number of Old Testament theologians (like Mike Heiser—discussed more in the next section) say it doesn’t matter at all whether yom meant “day” or “age”: If Earth was created billions of years ago and Adam came about much later, just after the planet was “without form, and void” (Genesis 1:2), then, as mentioned just before the last section, both day and age fit the following scenario: 1) God created Earth; 2) a crucial war between the forces of good and evil caused mass destruction as attested in Scripture (we’re still getting to that), creating a planet that was “without form, and void”; 3) God chose—at a certain point, and for a duration of His choosing (days or ages) between the “void” world of Genesis 1:2 and the “good” world of Genesis 1:31—to create a better place, upon which we now live.
Would He have chosen to spend ages or days to recreate the fallen, nearly destroyed planet of the “void” era? We don’t know, but if our theory is correct, then He had billions of years between “void” and “good” to get around to doing it in His timing, which will never conform to our own ideas of the linear progression of time, anyway. In my own humble opinion, it’s not worth fighting about when yet another, more important word related to dating Creation needs to be addressed.
UP NEXT: In the Beginning, God “Created”…
[i] Green, Michael, 2 Peter and Jude: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 18 (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Press; 1987), 157.
[ii] “When a Day Lasted Only Four Hours,” March 2016, Intercontinental Academia, last accessed February 27, 2023, http://intercontinental-academia.ubias.net/nagoya/news/when-a-day-lasted-only-4-hours.
[iii] King, Matt, and Christopher Watson, “The Length of Earth’s Days has Been Mysteriously Increasing, and Scientists Don’t Know Why,” August 5, 2022, The Conversation, last accessed February 27, 2023, https://theconversation.com/the-length-of-earths-days-has-been-mysteriously-increasing-and-scientists-dont-know-why-188147.
[iv] There is no single, authoritative source to attribute to this. Simply Googling “Earth rotation speeding up in modern times” (or something equivalent) will lead a researcher to a plethora of online science journals noting this change and offering up countless reasons for why Earth has apparently increased rotational speed since the 1960s.