“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:11)
The keystone of whether the earth is relatively young or extremely old rests heavily on the understanding of the Hebrew word יום yom, which is translated into English as day. The Progressive Creation theory which espouses the belief of an old earth (approximately 4.56 billion years old), while trying to remain faithful to Scripture, contends that the days in Genesis 1 (1:1-2:3) are to be understood as long, indefinite periods of time.
The young earth view, however, claims thatcreated the heavens and the earth and all therein in six, literal 24‑hour days roughly 6000 to 10,000 years ago. Who is to say who is right? How can we determine what a day really means? Does day only and always refer to a period of 24‑hours or does it also refer to an indefinite period of time in which millions and billions of years could have passed allowing for the Progressive Creation and theistic-evolution theories?
Meanings of Day in the Old Testament
As with most misunderstandings in the Bible, the key to unlocking the puzzle lies in the context of the word. The word day is used in several different ways in the Bible. Occasionally, we see days referring to a time in the past. Judges 18:1, for example, states that “In those days…” בימים ההם bayamim hahem. This exact phrase appears 31 times in the Old Testament. It is a very common expression and is really no different than how we in English say “back in my day” or “back in those days” referring to a period of years in our lives but stating it in days. Hence, in this context, days are understood to be referring to time in the past that probably lasted several years though definitely not thousands or millions – something that is obvious because it talks about human history of which the Bible gives definite times.
Sometimes the biblical writers used the word day to refer to a specific time that has theological or eschatological significance such as “the day of the LORD” yom YHWH יום הוה. This expression, found 13 times in the Old Testament, mostly in the book of Isaiah, refers to a time in the future when God will judge the world and usher in a new age. This expression seems to speak more of an event of unknown duration rather than a specific amount of time, though a period of 24 hours cannot be ruled out.
At other times, days in the plural can refer to the span of someone’s life. In Genesis 5:4 we read concerning the days of Adam, “So all the days that Adam (yamei-adam ימי־אדם) lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.” Here day is used in reference to Adam’s lifetime, which is described as days, but then the text very clearly goes on to clarify what is meant by days – that is the years of his life or the summation of the days of his life. This is wonderfully illustrated by the Hebrew Title of the book of I and II Chronicles למלכי ישׂראל דברי הימים divre ha-yamim lemalche Israel, literally transliterated as affairs or matters of the days of the kings of Israel.
The final meaning refers to days of 24‑hours. The most basic way of defining a day was from evening to evening, which is indicated in the text by evening and morning. The ancient Israelites, contrary to us, started their new days at sunset. Thus, Friday night at sunset would already be considered the Sabbath and the day would end Saturday evening at around the same time.
Another way to indicate a regular day of 24‑hours is by hayom hazeh היום הזה which is translated as “the very same day.” In Genesis 7:13 we read: “On the very same day Noah […] entered the ark”. Likewise, Genesis 17:23 states: “So Abraham took Ishmael his son, all who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him.” In both of these passages, the word day makes reference to the same day – that is the 24-hour period they were currently in. It is clear that the word here does not refer to an indefinite period of time but rather to a 24-hour period.
Days with a Cardinal Number
When a cardinal number (one, two, three, four, etc.) appears in front of the word day, it refers only and always to one (or many) period(s) of 24 hours. There are numerous verses which elucidate this point. Genesis 33:13 states:
But Jacob said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are weak, and the flocks and herds which are nursing are with me. And if the men should drive them hard one day, all the flock will die.’
What Jacob is saying to his brother Esau is that there is a limit to how far little children and cattle can go in one day. The reference is clearly to one 24-hour period of time. Numbers 11:20 clarifies the usage even more. The children of Israel complained against the LORD because they did not have meat like they had in Egypt, the very place where God rescued them from. Rather than simply trust God for their needs or even ask for meat, they complained bitterly against God. In frustration with his stubborn children, He declares that they will have more meat than they know what to do with:
“You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the LORD Who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?’” (Numbers 11:20)
Here the meaning of day or days is clear. There will be not just one, or two, or five, or ten, or twenty days, but a whole month’s worth of meat. The meaning of the word day is augmented by the contrast with the word “month” chodesh חודשׁ, which only refers to the time of about thirty days or one cycle of the moon and never anything else.
Further proof that yom day refers to a 24-hour day when preceded by cardinal numbers is found throughout the Old Testament. God, in explaining the judgment coming upon the world, says in Genesis 7:4, “For after seven more days I will cause it to rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I will destroy from the face of the earth all living things that I have made.” God gave Noah another seven days – not long, indefinite periods of time, but seven 24-hour days, until the floodwaters would come. Verse 10 records that indeed after seven literal days, the waters of the flood came: “And it came to pass after seven days that the waters of the flood were on the earth.” Verse 11 surpasses the previous two in precision by telling us exactly when this occurred.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
This description is not just about some indefinite period of time. It was on the 17th of the second month, a very real time that the flood came. And then the record (verse 24) tells us specifically how long the waters were on the earth. “And the waters prevailed on the earth one hundred and fifty days.” One hundred and fifty days in the text is not some long, undetermined era. Some people would contend that the days of the flood are irrelevant since Noah was simply a mythical or an allegorical figure. However, if one accepts the words of Jesus and the New Testament, then one must also accept that Noah was a real person who lived through the worldwide flood. (See Matthew 24:37, 38, Luke 17:26, 27, 1 Peter 3:20, 2 Peter 2:5, Hebrews 11:7). Thus, because Jesus and the disciples accepted Noah as real, we must understand the days described in Genesis as being real, 24-hour days.
The list of verses in the Old Testament confirming that every time a number comes before day it is referring to a 24‑hour day is extensive. A few more examples clearly illustrate the principle. “Then he put three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks” (Genesis 30:36). “Forty days were required for him [Joseph], for such are the days required for those who are embalmed; and the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days” (Genesis 50:3). “And seven days passed after the LORD had struck the river” (Exodus 7:25). “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses. For whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel” (Exodus 12:15). “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none” (Exodus 16:26). “So Gad came to David and told him; and he said to him, ‘Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ plague in your land?’” (2 Samuel 24:13). Although there are too many verses to list them all here, throughout the entire Old Testament, in every case where a number precedes day, it deals with the literal usage of day rather than an indefinite period of time.
Days with Ordinal Numbers
A cardinal number before day is not the only way to express literal days. We see again and again that ordinal numbers (first, second, third, fourth, etc.) are also used in a literal sense when used with day. Ezekiel records that on a particular (literal) day of a particular month of a particular year God again spoke to him: “Again, in the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me” (Ezekiel 24:1, emphasis mine). Likewise, Ezra records the exact day when the temple was finished: “Now the temple was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius” (Ezra 6:15, emphasis mine).
We find in the book of Numbers a usage of ordinal numbers that is parallel to Genesis 1. In Genesis 1 we saw the chronology of creation described as one day and then the second day, the third day etc. In Numbers 29, God lists the various sacrifices and on which day they are to be performed for the feast of Tabernacles. Notice that the days listed have the same ordinal numbers[i] as used in Genesis.
On the second day (יום השׁני yom hasheni) present twelve young bulls, […] On the third day (יום השׁלישׁי yom hashlishi) present eleven bulls, […] On the fourth day (יום הרביעי yom harevi’i) present […] On the fifth day (יום החמישׁי yom hachamishi) present […]On the sixth day (יום השׁשׁי yom hashishi) present […] On the seventh day (יום השׁביעי yom hashvi’i) present seven bulls (Numbers 29:17, 20, 23, 26, 29, 32, emphases mine).
The days above were most certainly real and literal days in which specific things had to happen; they were not long drawn out periods of time. The text employs the use of ordinal numbers as does Genesis 1 but here we do not conclude that those days were indefinite periods of time; they were simply days. Thus even with ordinal numbers a day is just a literal, 24-hour day.
Days in Hosea 6:2
Certain Bible expositors have suggested that Hosea 6:2 uses days as ages of time (probably about 1000 years each) in relation to the nation of Israel and their national revival: “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.” While this is a provocative interpretation that cannot be disproved, the context does not demand such an interpretation and hence neither can it be positively proven. It could be that even here it is referring to two plus one literal days.
This survey of the usage of days in the Old Testament brings us back to the question of just how we are to understand the days of creation. We have seen that there are times when the word day is used for periods of time other than a literal 24-hour (though millions or billions of years are never implied). However, whenever a number is placed in front of the word day, the meaning becomes limited to that of a 24‑hour period, that is, a regular day just as we use the word today to describe a day. Therefore, looking at Genesis 1, are we to interpret those days as literal, 24-hour days or long, indefinite periods of time in which evolution may have occurred?
[i] The selected verses in Genesis 1 and in Numbers 29 are identical with the exception of the definite article ה (he – the). Genesis 1: יום שׁני (yom sheni). Numbers 29: יום השׁני (yom hasheni).