The length of a “day” is an important concept in the Bible. But what exactly constitutes a day? Is it literally 24 hours? Or could it represent longer periods of time? This is a complex issue with different interpretations. In this comprehensive blog post, we will examine the evidence in Scripture and insights from scholars to understand how long a “day” is in the biblical context.
The Bible frequently uses the term “day” in reference to periods of time during the creation account and other historical narratives. Some Christian groups, like Young Earth Creationists, interpret these days as 24-hour periods. Others, like Old Earth Creationists, understand them as longer, indefinite eras. This disagreement has significant implications for how we date the age of the earth and universe.
To gain clarity on this debate, we will survey relevant biblical passages while considering insights from Hebrew language and ancient Near Eastern culture. The goal is to comprehend what biblical authors intended to communicate to their original audience when using the term “day.” We will evaluate if this is limited to strict 24-hour days or allows room for interpretation.
- The Hebrew word for “day” (yom) can refer to 24 hours or longer periods.
- In the Old Testament, yom is used with “evening” and “morning” for creation days.
- But yom is also used more flexibly elsewhere in the Old Testament.
- In ancient Near Eastern culture, “day” was used flexibly when describing origins.
- So there’s biblical basis for interpreting creation days as longer eras.
- But 24 hour-days also fit the language and context.
- So Christian groups hold different views, all with reasonable biblical support.
Let’s now dive into the biblical evidence and scholarly research on this significant topic.
The Meaning of “Day” in Hebrew
First, we must recognize that our modern conception of a 24 hour “day” was not the only meaning of the term in the ancient biblical context. The Hebrew language is flexible in how it uses words. The primary Hebrew word translated as “day” is yom. This word can refer to:
- A 12 hour period of daylight
- A 24 hour calendar day
- A longer, indefinite period of time
Yom is used over 2000 times in the Old Testament. While it generally refers to normal 24 hour days, the context determines the exact meaning.
Scholars note that in at least 300 cases yom refers to a longer or shorter period of time in Scripture (Sailhamer, 1990). Let’s survey some examples demonstrating the flexibility of yom:
- Genesis 2:4 – “This is the account of the heavens and earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.” This summarizes the entire creation week as one “day.”
- Psalm 90:4 – “For a thousand years in Your sight are like a day that has just gone by.” Here yom equates to an indefinite long period.
- Joshua 1:14-15 – Refers to a 3 day preparation period before crossing the Jordan as “about three days.” Yom did not always mean a precise 24 hours.
- Zechariah 14:1 – “A day of the Lord is coming” refers to an extended event of judgment.
- Genesis 4:3 – “In the course of time” uses yom but clearly means an extended period.
These examples demonstrate that yom was used as a general term for a “period of time” rather than only a strict 24 hour day. But what about in the creation account specifically?
Use of Yom in Genesis 1-2
Now let’s examine how yom is used in Genesis 1-2 to describe each day of creation. Right away in Genesis 1:5 we read:
God called the light ‘day’ (yom), and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
Here, yom refers first to the 12 hour period of daylight. Then verse 5 concludes by summarizing this as the “first day” of creation week.
At face value, this gives the impression of a normal 24 hour day. Each creative day is bounded by “evening and morning”, suggesting a beginning and end to each period. This use of language mirrors how we describe a 24 hour day—evening comes first, then daylight, concluding with morning.
This pattern continues for all six creation days, implying standard 24 hour periods:
“And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day” (Genesis 1:8).
Based on this reasoning, the Young Earth view considers the creation days 24 hour periods. Old Earth advocates argue the language is still flexible enough to allow for longer eras. Let’s unpack their evidence.
Insights on Genesis “Days” from Ancient Near East
To further grasp what biblical authors meant by yom, we should look at evidence outside Scripture. The Old Testament was produced within the cultural context of the ancient Near East. So how did other ancient Near Eastern cultures use the concept of “day”?
Scholars note the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Sumerians used the term “day” flexibly in their origins accounts (Kulikovsky, 2009). For instance, when describing their gods’ creative acts, a “day” could refer to a long era or epoch of time.
The Sumerian tale of creation, the Eridu Genesis, uses the term “day” in an elastic manner to summarize lengthy periods of creation. Egypt’s Great Hymn to Aten describes different stages of creation as separate “days”—yet no one interprets these literally as 24 hours.
Since the Old Testament shares the linguistic and cultural backdrop of the ancient Near East, this flexibility may well inform the biblical usage too. The Genesis account may utilize “day” as a literary framework to categorize God’s creative activity, not stipulate precise 24 hour periods.
Other Old Testament Evidence
There are also clues within the Old Testament suggesting the creation days are not strictly 24 hours. Exodus 20:9-11 commands the Sabbath rest based on God’s creation pattern:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.
Here the text bases the Sabbath command on the creation week. But if the earlier Genesis “days” meant only 24 hours, then why is Israel commanded to work six normal week-days but rest on the Sabbath? The Sabbath was clearly not 24 hours. This hints the Genesis creation “day” was also not restricted to 24 hour periods.
We also see indications that the creation days are different than normal days. First, the sun which regulates normal 24 hour days was not created until the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19). If the first three creation days elapsed before the sun existed, then they could not be strictly 24 hours long.
Secondly, Adam’s creation spanned more than a literal day according to Genesis 2:7. Adam was created, named the animals, and then Eve was formed, all in the sixth creation “day.” This shows the creation days flexibly summarize God’s creative activity, not mere 24 hour increments.
Differing Christian Perspectives
Given the complex biblical evidence, Christians have come to differing conclusions about the creation “days.” Young Earth Creationists take the days as 24 hours fixed by evening and morning boundaries. But Old Earth Creationists think the language allows for longer eras. Which view has stronger support?
Young Earth advocates point to yom with evening and morning as the normal Hebrew way of describing a 24 hour day. Also, yom with a number (“first day”, “second day”) nearly always refers to a regular day in the Old Testament (YEC Ministries, 2022). This favors 24 hour periods in Genesis 1.
However, Old Earth supporters maintain that Genesis uses highly figurative and ordinary language together. So yom can still allow figurative meanings. Further, the comparison to the ancient Near Eastern culture suggests the Israelites would’ve understood yom flexibly in origins accounts. This favors longer creation days.
Looking at the evidence as a whole, we find reasonable biblical rationale exists for either view. Both Young and Old Earth interpretations have merit with different strengths and weaknesses. This prevents definitive dogmatism on whether the creation “days” are 24 hours or longer eras.
The variety of Christian opinions on the creation days demonstrates that faithful believers can interpret this issue differently. We should extend grace and intellectual humility with one another despite disagreements. The length of creation days is not core to Christian orthodoxy.
This comprehensive survey demonstrates that “yom” in the Bible can refer to 24 hours periods or longer eras depending on context. While the Genesis account uses evening and morning language, “day” also had flexible usage in the ancient Near Eastern culture forming the Old Testament backdrop. These factors mean the creation “days” may indicate 24 hour periods, but can biblically allow for longer indefinite lengths as well without doing damage to the text.
Theologically, either view can fit within an orthodox Christian framework that upholds God as Creator. As the great Reformer John Calvin remarked on the Genesis days: “it is too violent a cavil to limit the time of creation to a short period” (Institutes 1.14.1). Christians should extend grace to those holding different but reasonable perspectives on this complex biblical issue.