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THEOLOGY > God > Work of Creation > Literal or Symbolic Days 


Significant controversy has arisen regarding the days of the Creation week in Genesis. What is the proper understanding concerning the six days? Are they literal or symbolic? While some defend the literal interpretation, others feel that each day (yom) should be viewed as an undefined period of time, an epoch, an age—a creation day rather than a solar day. Much depends on the position taken on this single word.

Should the context, both immediate and larger, the usage of words, the etymology of words, and the total teaching of Scripture determine the interpretation given to a word? Or should consideration also be given to current thought and scientific investigation and theory? Is it true that “responsible geology must determine the length of the Genesis days” as claimed by Lewis and Demarest (Integrative Theology, II, 29)? To what degree should the believer look outside of Scripture in seeking to understand Scripture? Has the scientific age invalidated the worldview enunciated in Scripture? Is Scripture its own best interpreter? Or is the believer dependent upon the unbeliever for comprehension of the text? Is it true that Genesis cannot be understood without the insights provided by uniformitarian geology?

These questions do not bring into question the need of knowing the culture out of which the Scriptures came. Obviously, a correct interpretation is predicated upon the proper meaning of a word or how the word related to the culture of the period (see: Principles of Hermeneutics). For instance, to understand the word “church,” it is needful to know the etymology of the word, its use in Greek culture, and the manner in which Biblical writers employed the word. Finally, however—and most importantly—the precise meaning of any word is derived from the way it is utilized throughout the Canon.

There are compelling reasons for accepting the natural reading, the literal sense of the word “day” in the Creation account.

One, the ordinary reading of the account would indicate twenty-four hour days; nothing in the context indicates lengthy periods of time—the story reads with brevity and succinctness. The idea of an indeterminable length for each of the days is a concept imported to the account that is not intrinsically a part of the story. Surely, if the writer intended to covey the concept of vast periods of time for Creation, he would have chosen wording which would have conveyed that concept.

Two, precise limitation is placed on the word “day” in the text; the phrase, “the evening and the morning,” is used in regard to each of the first six days. This restriction, which is specific and defined, reinforces the idea of naturalness, rather than allowing for an extended age. This limitation emphatically defines and limits the extent of yom.

Three, the days are numerically numbered (at no place in Scripture does “day” mean age when numbers are used), indicating a known sequence and time frame. Numbering the days automatically causes the reader to think of the days of the week in a limited, consecutive sense, rather than in terms of vast geological ages.

Four, the literal week serves as a pattern for man’s work and rest and is so used in the Ten Commandments which utilizes the literal concept without questioning it. How could man be held accountable for working six literal days when God worked for some indefinite time, a fact which would undercut the example of six days as used by the Commandments? The command to man to work six days is based upon the actual work of God for six days.

Five, the idea of age is necessary to harmonize Scripture with a theory of science; the idea of age does not come from within the Scriptures but from outside the Scriptures. A foreign concept is introduced in order to modernize the teaching of the Scriptures with theories of science. As indicated previously, the question is essential and fundamental: which is normative, the Scriptures or science?

Six, historically, throughout Church history, the days have been viewed as twenty-four hour days. It is true that at various times, both ancient and modern, the days have been interpreted as extending more than a literal and precise twenty-four hour period. But the dominating view has been a literal week for the creation of the heavens and the earth.

Seven, the Sabbath, with its defined period of rest, loses meaning if the days were not twenty-four hours.

Eight, if the earth existed before Adam for millions of years as scientists claim, then there was the cycle of life and death, but according to Scripture there was no death before the Fall, at least for humans; death is the result of sin. Death is a fundamental problem for the theistic evolutionist.

Nine, the book of Genesis is a historical book. If the account of Creation is interpreted as symbolic, then where does the symbolism cease and the true history begin in Genesis? Does history begin with the Fall, with Cain’s murder of Abel, with Noah and the Flood, with the tower of Babel, or with Abraham and Sarah? At what point can the reader be confident that he is reading history, an actual record of events that transpired? Upon what basis does one relegate some chapters to symbolism and other chapters to history, when all of the chapters read as though the events they depict are historical? If Adam in Chapters 1 and 2 is not historical, then why should Cain and Abel be historical in Chapter 4? Why should Eve be rejected while Sarah is accepted?

Ten, obviously the author felt he was writing history, for there is nothing to suggest otherwise. Surely, if Moses could be questioned, he would affirm that he believed that what he wrote actually occurred. Nor does it seem plausible that he would indicate that what he wrote was symbolic and that the details therefore were neither vital nor historical.

It is true that the word yom (a word appearing in the singular approximately 1,200 times in the Old Testament) can be used in different ways in the Scriptures, in, perhaps, at least three different ways. One, the word refers to a twenty-four hour period of day and night. Two, the word can refer to the light portion, the day part, of a twenty-four hour period. Three, the word can be used of an unspecified period of time. But the above ten reasons are compelling reasons for limiting the word “day” in Genesis 1 to a twenty-four hour day, rather than the six days being six creative periods of indefinite length.

In connection with the word “day” some questions must be considered:

* If it took billions of years (ages) of evolution to produce what we see today, why did God say that it took six days? * Could God not have said “years” or “ages” as well as “days”?

* Had it been impossible to understand the Bible correctly prior to the advent of evolutionary theory?

* Did God keep the real meaning of Scripture hidden, waiting for secular science to tell the Church what God meant when God said “day”?

* Has the Church been wrong in its interpretation of Genesis prior to the modern era?

* Must believers listen to a modern scientist, who believes in a closed system, explain to them what the Scriptures, which espouses an open system, mean?

* Will facts and fossils be viewed from an uniformitarian-evolutionary perspective or from a Creation-catastrophic perspective? Facts do not speak; they must be interpreted. And the interpreter has a definite perspective.

* If the Bible is so drastically wrong, or at least misleading, in its teaching of origins, how can it be trusted in other areas?

* Will future theories of science impact present accepted Biblical teaching?

* If so, which takes priority: science or Scripture?

All of these questions lead to one conclusion: the theories of science should not dictate nor influence the meaning of Biblical words, such as “yom.”

For in six days
YHWH made the heavens and the earth,
the sea,
and all that is in them.
Ex. 20:11

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