Does the Bible teach that creation took place in seven literal days? Or could it be read as teaching seven long ages of creation? This has been a great debate among Bible believers for centuries, causing some to view the Bible as conflicting with the findings of modern science. As a result, many Bible teachers have felt the need to insist that the creation days aren’t literal 24 hour days, in order to make Genesis conform to scientific facts. But two questions need to be asked. First, does Genesis really teach literal days or can it be interpreted as teaching long ages? That will be the subject of this article. Second, what exactly are those scientific facts about earth’s age and creation, and is it possible to have more than one interpretation of the scientific evidence? We will address the second question in future articles in this series.
There have been three main attempts to interpret Genesis as teaching non-literal days: The Gap Theory, the Day-Age Theory, and the more recent Framework Hypothesis. Let’s look at each of these briefly to see if they stand up to sound biblical and scientific study.
The Gap Theory:
This is probably the least popular of the three today, although it was more widespread years ago. Proponents of this theory teach that a large time gap can be inserted between the first two verses of the creation account in Genesis. They teach that the earth had a great cataclysm and so “became” formless rather than “was ” formless when first created, and was therefore essentially “remade” in six literal days. So all the geological ages are inserted in between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2.
One of the main problems with this idea is that such a cataclysm would have destroyed the very geological rock record that the Gap theorists are trying to accommodate. So the Gap Theory in essence destroys itself! Furthermore, the rock record speaks of a world much like our own today in terms of types of animals and environments fossilized, with the same types of suffering and death-neither conforming to a creation called “very good” in Genesis. It also conflicts with other Bible passages that teach that death started with man’s sin (Romans 5;12, 1 Corinthians 15:21), and that the whole creation took six days (Exodus 20:11).
The Hebrew words “tohu waw bohu” as in the earth “became formless and empty” as Gap theorists so translate, do not necessarily mean “became formless” but rather their meaning depends on their context in the chapter. In this case, the context (as well as the Hebrew grammar) does not warrant the translation the Gap theorists give it, but should be instead translated “The earth was formless and empty”, that is, just after creation. Obviously God did not intend that the earth remain that way forever! For more on the proper translation of the Hebrew in Genesis 1:2 and about the failure of the Gap Theory, see the preceding linked article from scientist and Bible scholar Dr. Jonathan Sarfati.
The Gap theory is unsound Biblical exegesis and a forced interpretation that largely has been abandoned by scholars today.
The Day-Age Theory: This approach attempts to interpret the six days of creation in Genesis as six long eras, or geological “ages”. I once loosely held that view myself as a theistic evolutionist. I say “loosely” because I don’t think I really had thought through the difficulties with it. At first, it seemed like there was a rough correlation between the days of creation and my understanding of the evolutionary scenario of the earth forming, then plants and lower animals, then higher animals and finally man. I even had a college professor who taught this as a way of reconciling the two. But although there is a superficial resemblance, there are several conflicts in the details of the sequences, such as plants before marine animals in Genesis, the reverse in the evolutionary story. But these problems aside, the more important question is, can the creation days of Genesis be properly interpreted as ages and not literal days?
There are good reasons to believe that a proper reading of the days of creation in Genesis makes them literal days, not long ages. Context is very important, because the word yom (day) in Hebrew can mean a solar day, daylight, or an indefinite time period. But in the majority of cases, this word is used to mean a literal day. Reasons to view the days in Genesis as literal include:
The first time the word for day is used, it is defined as a literal day, with a morning and evening.
When modified by a numeral (first day, or day one, second day, or day two, etc.) it always refers to a literal day (359 times it is used this way outside Genesis).
When modified by the formula of morning and evening it always means a literal day.
In Exodus 20: 11, the seven days of creation form the basis for the length and structure of our work week. There is no clue that the meaning of the days is switched from 24 hour days to long ages. Also compare Exodus 20:11 to a passage with a similar structure in Exodus 12:15 showing literal, sequential days: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses…”. Also see Exodus 24:16.
According to many experts in Hebrew, there is no plainer way to convey the meaning of literal 24 hour days than the way the days of creation are written about in Genesis. For an excellent article on how Hebrew experts view the days of creation see: 24 hours-Plain as Day
The objections about the seventh day being a long day because there is no morning or evening formula are irrelevant, since creation had ceased and there was no need to talk about the 8th or 9th day, etc. The seventh day can’t still be going on because God called that day blessed, but later on in Genesis the curse was applied to creation after sin entered the world.
The objection that Adam couldn’t have named all the animals in one day on day seven doesn’t fly either. It doesn’t say that Adam named all the animals, only those with which he was likely to have interaction, namely the “beasts of the field”, “birds of the air”,and “cattle” (domestic animals), etc. These probably did not include fish, insects, or other small wild animals. That makes sense since none of the latter would likely provide any kind of companionship for Adam. The number of Genesis “kinds” was much smaller than the number of today’s species, being a broader categorization, and Adam named only a small part of these. Even if Adam named over 2500 kinds of animals, it certainly wouldn’t have taken more than several hours, especially in his un-fallen state of being (see article: How could Adam have named all the animals in a single day?
Both Jesus (Matt. 19:9, Mark 10:6) and Paul (Romans 5:12, 1Corinthians 15:45) apparently take Genesis chapter one very literally.
Given all of the above reasons, it seems the best way to read the creation days in Genesis is to take them as literal, 24 hour days. For a good summary article with input from an Old Testament scholar, see Genesis means what it says!
The Framework Hypothesis: This is a relatively new way of looking at Genesis One that does not take the narrative as literal history, but rather as a theological “framework”. So the days may be literal, but they are not meant to be actual history according to this view. But there are some sticky problems with this popular theory:
First, just because there may be a theological purpose in the arrangement of the Genesis text does not automatically mean that it isn’t real history. For example, Genesis contains the genealogies of real people, of whom the real nation of Israel descended.
There is much internal evidence that the creation account in Genesis is meant to be read as history, not poetry. For example, in the creation narrative we don’t see poetic parallelism, such as in Psalm 33:9: ” For he spake, and it was done, He commanded, and it stood fast.” These are basically two ways of saying the same thing, and is common in Hebrew poetry, but not present in the creation account. Also, there is a word call the waw connective that is used in historical Hebrew narrative to communicate time sequences in the past. This waw connective is used 55 times from Genesis 1:1-2:3. This shows that Genesis is not to be taken as poetry but as historical narrative, as I wrote about in a previous article entitled: Is the Creation Account in Genesis Historical?
For an extensive scholarly discussion of the days of creation in Genesis, see Refuting Compromise by Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, pages 67-144. (1)
So does all this mean we should conclude that we can’t take the Book of Genesis at its straightforward meaning because it supposedly conflicts with science? Not so fast! In the next article in this series we will look at the supposed straightforward evidence of science!