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In the Creation account in Genesis 1 (and 2), God's work of Creation is famously split into 7 "days". For example, the first "day" occurs in verse 5:

Genesis 1:5 (NLT)
God called the light "day" and the darkness "night."

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

I have seen claims that "day" refers to a literal 24-hour period, which is supported by the fact that the same Hebrew word is used for both occurrences of "day" in that verse. I have also seen claims that "day" just refers to some long period of time, which is in agreement with scientific evidence. Hence, my question is:

Considering context and wording, what are the main interpretations of "day" in Genesis 1?

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One thing to take into account: How do you define evening and morning? By the rotation of the Earth, correct? Well I don't know how fast the Earth was rotating when God was creating it so "evening and morning" doesn't necessarily mean 24 hours. –  styfle Aug 26 '11 at 5:56
    
@styfle: That's true, but that's not my claim. :P –  El'endia Starman Aug 26 '11 at 5:59
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Rhetorical question: If an author sits down to write for seven days in a row, how much time passes in the story? –  Muke Tever Dec 30 '11 at 13:53
    
@MukeTever: Nice point! –  Click Ok Jan 7 '12 at 17:35
    
Tangentially related, but there is a question over at BH.SE about whether Genesis 1:1 refers to just day 1 or all 6 days. –  Jon Ericson Feb 17 '12 at 3:15

11 Answers 11

up vote 28 down vote accepted

There are three primary views that explain the meaning of the word "day" in Genesis 1. I will describe each one, and some of the purported Biblical evidence supporting each, briefly here. After all, this is a topic on which many books have been written.

  1. 24-hour Day Theory

    This view, which is held by many Young Earth Creationists states that each of the 6 days were 24-hours long. Although they admit that the Sun was not created until the third day, this does not mean that the first two days could not have been 24-hours long, just the same.

    A small sample of Biblical evidence to support this theory includes:

    1. Genesis 1 mentions the passing of "morning" and "evening", this suggests literal days
    2. A study of other Biblical texts which use the phrase "evening and morning" (38 not counting Genesis 1) all refer to 24-hour days
    3. The Hebrew word for day (Yom) used in Genesis 1, whenever attached to a number elsewhere in scripture, it refers to a 24-hour day

    See the book Creation and Time: A Report on the Progressive Creationist Book by Hugh Ross by Mark A Van Beber and Paul S. Taylor for more discussion on this, and relevant topics. Note: not to be confused with the book Creation and Time by Hugh Ross, to which the aforementioned book is a rebuttal.

  2. 1000-year Day Theory

    Another view held by many Young Earth Creationists, it is essentially the same as the 24-hour Day Theory, with the exception that it acknowledges that God's perspective of time is different than the human perspective of time, in light of 2 Peter 3:8:

    But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

    Therefore, the Genesis 1 days may refer to 1000-year time periods, rather than 24-hour time periods.

  3. Day-Age Theory

    This view, a subset of Old Earth Creationism, is the view that the word "day" in Genesis 1 is metaphorical, and represents an arbitrary amount of time. Consistency with scientific evidence is frequently cited, but also often criticized by Young Earth Creationsts as taking too liberal a view of scripture.

    A small sample of Biblical evidence to support this view includes:

    1. The Hebrew word for day (Yom) used in Genesis 1 has many meanings: (a) Some portion of the daylight (hours), (b) Sunrise to sunset, (c) Sunset to sunset, (d) A segment of time without any reference to solar days (from weeks to a year to several years to an age or epoch) [i.e. "In my grandfather's day" or "in the day of the dinosaurs]

    2. In rebuttal to point #2 above, the argument is made that none of these 38 mentions of "evening and morning" use the same Hebrew word for day (Yom), so drawing parallels is inappropriate

    3. In rebuttal to point #3 above, the argument is made that when used elsewhere in the singular (as it is in Genesis 1) the Hebrew word (Yom) is always in reference to human activity, therefore drawing parallels to this usage in Genesis 1 in this case is also inappropriate
    4. The fact that the seventh day never ended suggests that we are still living in the seventh day, which would clearly indicate that the seventh "day" is many years long.
    5. The Genesis 2 re-account of creation has Adam naming "all the wild animals and all the birds" (Genesis 2:19-20 NIV) between his own creation and before Eve was created, thus all on the 6th day. This would be impossible in a 24-hour period (Young Earth creationists often argue that God may have given Adam supernatural speed or abilities, or that prior to the fall man naturally had greater abilities that might allow this task to be completed in one day.)

    See the book A Matter of Days by Hugh Ross for additional discussion of these topics.

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+1 for a good reference –  DJClayworth Aug 27 '11 at 17:04
    
The day-age theory does not hold "Yom" to be metaphorical, but rather to be understood literally in one of its several meanings, specifically that connoting a long age. –  Lawrence Dol Jan 23 '12 at 23:25
    
@SoftwareMonkey: Even a "literal" interpretation of "Yom" requires a metaphorical interpretation of "evening" and "morning." –  Flimzy Jan 24 '12 at 1:31
    
@Flimzy: Not if you realize that Hebrew is a language much less precise than English, or even Greek, and the Hebrew words translated "evening" and "morning" have meanings much broader than the English words "evening" and "morning". Evening has connotations of obscured & disordered, while morning has connotations of clearly perceived and ordered. Taken together, the phrase has the connotation of progression from disorder to order, from chaos to organized. Also, the phrase "evening and morning" covers only the night-time hours; strange if what was intended was a precise earth-day. –  Lawrence Dol Feb 16 '12 at 22:03
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@Flimzy: No - it's an explanation of how words in an imprecise source language can have broader meaning than a single translation to a very precise target language is able to convey. For an ancient Hebrew yom can quite literally mean aeon, just as erev can literally mean disorder and boker can literally mean order. See softwaremonkey.org/Article/Religion/Old-Earth-Creation#Days for a more in depth treatment. It also illustrates how the meaning conveyed by a turn-of-phrase can be lost in translaion. –  Lawrence Dol Feb 17 '12 at 2:54

While it's true that the word for "day" denotes a word for a period of time that is usually used for a 24 hour period, that same word is translated "day" in the following verse and can only be interpreted to describe a literal 24 hour period. The following understanding of the creation account sheds light on the understanding and intent of the writer of Genesis.

Exodus 20:9,11 KJV

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: ...For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

The word is yowm (Strong's H3117), and is used both in the creation account and this verse. Your question pertains to Genesis 1, but certainly Exodus informs our understanding of Biblical text, especially since Exodus is not written in poetic language. The context of the creation juxtaposed with the literal seven day week and the Sabbath means both are the same length of time, and both are one literal day. While some argue that Genesis is not intended to be taken literally, this is not the case with Exodus.

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I have updated this answer to clarify the usage of the word "day" in translation. The meaning of "day" in Exodus or the other 3 books of the law are most relevant for our understanding of Genesis, since they were written at the same time, for the same audience. –  dleyva3 Aug 26 '11 at 15:39
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To say that it can "only" be interpreted that way is obviously incorrect, as many people interpret it differently. –  Flimzy Aug 26 '11 at 23:13
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I disagree, Flimzy, and I've included verse 9 of Ex. 9 to make it clearer. Taking these passage prima facie you would read it as a literal day, and in the context of the Ten Commandments even more so. –  dleyva3 Aug 26 '11 at 23:17
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I also disagree, Flimzy. The bible is to be taken IN CONTEXT, context within itself, the context within which it was written, the context of original language it was written in, etc. Taken OUT of context, Genesis 1 can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, given their own personal views. Taken in context, even just in the context of the bible itself comparing the same word (yowm/yom) used in Exodus as in Genesis, and the fact that they are both authored by the same man, gives significant weight to a specific meaning of the word. –  jrista Aug 26 '11 at 23:28
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This is a very bad answer. Not really an answer at all. It is clear FROM THE CONTEXT that in Exodus the word means 24 hours. There is not such context in Genesis, so it tells us nothing about the meaning. –  DJClayworth Aug 27 '11 at 16:58

There are few really clear contextual clues to the interpretation. The word can, and clearly does, mean either "24 hours" or "a period of time", in other contexts, and biblical interpreters have disagreed over which one it means here for a very long time.

It is perhaps significant to note that this disagreement has gone on for many centuries, and long before there was any scientific evidence to point to an old earth. What it is certainly not is an attempt to 'retrofit' an interpretation to Genesis in the light of new science.

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To say "This disagreement has gone on for many centuries" is a bit of an exaggeration of the true situation. It's really only been a disagreement the last few decades... Prior to that, it was more considered a mere curiosity by most theologians. Also, prior to the popularity of the Big Bang theory (the first real scientific theory that was able to put an age on the universe), many predominant theologians believed the "days" were metaphor, but that the reality was an instantaneous creation. So even the literal vs non-literal opinions have changed drastically through Christian history. –  Flimzy Sep 28 '11 at 9:47
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@Flimzy: Actually, there's been disagreement since the 2nd century, with multiple church fathers arguing that the creation was instantaneous and the "days" were a literary construct to denote the order and progression from least important to most important. (Which is a far more figurative interpretation than that argued by many old-creation proponents.) –  Lawrence Dol Jan 23 '12 at 23:21
    
@SoftwareMonkey: That's quite a different debate than the one that the OP was referring to. I also don't think the historical debate has been nearly as much a debate as the current one, and more a matter of discussion and curiosity. –  Flimzy Jan 24 '12 at 1:33
    
What I meant that for several centuries there was disagreement in the sense that people did not agree. The debate has indeed only become heated in the last few decades. –  DJClayworth Jan 21 at 19:09

The Hebrew word "Yom" can be translated as meaning any finite and bounded period of time; how it should be translated in a given context is dependent on that context. With reference to the creation account, one must also take into account the numerous other scriptures that speak of creation and their use of "Yom".

With relationship to the days described in Genesis, Jewish theologian and physicist Gerald Schroeder comments on the words "evening" and "morning" in his book "Genesis and the Big Bang" that the same words can equally be translated "disorder" and "order", respectively. This derives from the fact the the Hebrews saw approaching night as bringing disorder and approaching morning as bringing order.

Applying Gerald's ideas, one could possible read Genesis 1 as along the lines of "and there was disorder, and there was order, the first age".

Just food for thought. A more detailed treatment is available on my website: http://softwaremonkey.org/Article/Religion/Old-Earth-Creation#Days

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That is quite an interesting interpretation. –  Shredder Mar 26 '12 at 19:26
    
Something to add to that: "And the Earth was without form..." - I'm sure the earth had a shape, so form here must mean a state of order: "The earth was without order, as darkness was upon the face of the deep." If darkness means evil, one could also translate this to mean Satan and his fallen angels, as they were cast out of heaven and onto the earth. –  Shredder Mar 26 '12 at 19:32
    
Also, commensurate with order/disorder there is the idea of hidden/revealed, so the sense includes the idea of "there was hiding, and there was revealing...". Possibly as if, through creation, God is doing a progressive revelation ending with the pinnacle of man created in his image. –  Lawrence Dol Mar 27 '12 at 19:05

I'm not familiar with the NLT, but in the KJV it says it a little bit differently: "the evening and the morning were the first (second, third, etc) day." And that's all it says. It doesn't say that these days were 24 hours long. It doesn't even say that they were all as long as each other. In fact, you'd have some difficulty claiming that the first two "days" meant the same thing as they do to us today, because we mark days by the sun, which didn't show up until the third day!

(This isn't as absurd as it sounds, BTW, if you consider this an account of a vision of the Creation, shown from the perspective of an observer on the Earth's surface, and not out in space somewhere. "Out in space somewhere" makes sense as a point of view to our generation, but certainly not to a nation of shepherds with no concept of science fiction! From the surface, at the very beginning, it would take quite a while before the skies became clear enough to see the sun and the moon, even though some light would filter through long before then.)

The problem is, the text doesn't go into much detail as to exactly what is meant. Some people have suggested that the Earth was created on God's time, where "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years" (2 Peter 3: 8), which in turn could mean literally 1000 years, or simply "an arbitrarily long period of time."

Personally, I find it more important to believe that God created the world, that he put us here upon it, and that he did it all for a reason, than to worry about the details of exactly how it was done or how long it took. I figure if He were to try to explain how He did it to me, I'd end up completely lost within the first five minutes anyway!

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Here's NIV: "God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day." Looking it up in the Blue Letter Bible gives the Hebrew word used, which is usually used to denote a literal day. –  El'endia Starman Aug 26 '11 at 5:20
    
@El'endia: Fair enough, but keep in mind that Hebrew is a highly poetic language in general, and even literal words can have non-literal meanings sometimes. One famous example is the mistranslation that claimed Moses had horns when he came down from Mt. Sinai! (I'm not saying it wasn't a literal day, just that it wasn't necessarily a literal day.) –  Mason Wheeler Aug 26 '11 at 5:26
    
[nods] That's why I asked the question. :P –  El'endia Starman Aug 26 '11 at 5:28

There are two levels of meaning here. First, what does "day" mean in the context of the story, and second, what is the meaning of the story itself.

Suppose I asked, "What does the word 'trees' mean in the following passage?"

Judges 9:8-15 NRSV

The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, "Reign over us.' The olive tree answered them, "Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?' Then the trees said to the fig tree, "You come and reign over us.' But the fig tree answered them, "Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?' Then the trees said to the vine, "You come and reign over us.' But the vine said to them, "Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?' So all the trees said to the bramble, "You come and reign over us.' And the bramble said to the trees, "If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.'

It seems clear to me that the word "trees", within the context of the story, is not used allegorically. It refers to perennial woody plants. But that's not the main point. The whole story is an allegory. There are clues to this: The trees can talk; they desire a king.

Likewise, the word "day" in the context of the story of Genesis 1 refers to "evening and morning", not an unspecified time period. But what is the purpose of the story itself? That's the larger meaning that must be considered.

Like the story of the trees in Judges 9, Genesis 1 gives us clues that the story itself is not meant as history. For example, the first three days pass without the sun. Most Christians even in ancient times caught that hint.

But if the story is not meant as history, then what does it mean? I think dleyva3's answer, ironically, points us to the non-historical meaning. Genesis 1 is a liturgical story. Its purpose is to remind us, as we gather for worship every seventh day, that we are made in the image of God. The story reinforces that, not only by stating it outright, but by incorporating the sabbath day into the creation story itself.

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Having trouble replying to comments here, but I'd also like to point out that some interpretations place us in the Eighth day, which begins on the Resurrection. Some that did this still interpreted the Genesis days as literal Earth Days, but others did not, which may show that the treatment of 'day' in Genesis as 24-hours is simply an interpretive choice and has never been so clear as to be open-and-shut.

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The story in Genesis is 100% clear about what "day" means--- it means a day, like in normal language, and it should not be reinterpreted in light of scientific discoveries. It is not scientifically accurate, but reflects the false beliefs of that era, much like everything else in the bible.

The creation story has the following phases:

  1. God creates the earth and the sky, light, day and night.
  2. God beats out a celestial dome, and puts this dome over the (flat) Earth, and puts some water above the sky-dome and some water below.
  3. God pools the water under the sky-dome into seas, and leaves dry land.
  4. God puts plants on the dry-land
  5. Gods puts animals and fish, birds under the sky dome
  6. God makes people
  7. Done

In Genesis, the universe is consistently divided into three parts.

  • The "sky", which is a big dome made out of a malleable beat out substance, covering our heads with water on top of it, water that leaks down as rain.
  • A flat square Earth with four corners below, with sea generally covering the western part and land to the east.
  • An infinite sea below called "the abyss", which extends downward forever.

In the bible, the words "Tehom" (Abyss) is used to describe the infinite watery sea below. The word "Sheol" describes a similar idea of the underworld. An interesting quote is from Issac or Jacob, before he dies, he says "Oh breasts up above, watery abyss below", which suggests that the sky is considered like the breasts, and the abyss like the womb, thinking of the universe as a gigantic fertility symbol woman type thing. That might also be what the mysterious "El-Shaddai" means (God of my-breast(s)), it might mean "God of the Sky", where the sky is the breasts of the woman-figure.

These ideas are normal everyday 10th century BC cosmology, and it is essentially the Babylonian conception of the universe. If you impose an anachronistic scientifically accurate rereading of Genesis, it stops making sense, and becomes a lot less interesting or readable. The stories are not meant to be read with a modern picture in mind.

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Do you have any outside references for this? Taking a look at this may help you understand what we look for on this site. –  El'endia Starman Jan 5 '12 at 21:16
    
This comes from doing my own translation of Genesis from Hebrew to English. –  Ron Maimon Jan 5 '12 at 23:29
    
Ah, I see. If you could go into more detail with how (and where) you translated the Hebrew into English, that'd be great. –  El'endia Starman Jan 6 '12 at 4:44
    
It's right here: en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_%28Wikisource%29/Genesis . I am fluent in Hebrew, since I was born in Israel, but I have no sectarian religious education, nor do I practice any religion, so I don't have biases--- I read it and translated it, being fluent in the language it isn't so difficult. There are (a very few) gross mistranslations in other versions, which I footnoted. Generally, I was shocked that KJ is so darn accurate. I did something like 5 books (genesis, exodus, leviticus, and a few other minor ones). No other Hebrew speaker seems to be active on the site. –  Ron Maimon Jan 6 '12 at 7:41
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Not practicing any religion does not mean you are not biased -- it just means you are biased against it. Such is quite evident from your writings. Also, while it certainly lowers the learning curve, being fluent in modern Hebrew is hardly the same thing as being a Biblical Hebrew scholar, nor are you the only one around these parts with a working knowledge of the Bibles source languages. –  Caleb Jan 7 '12 at 11:07

If you take the story literally, it's clear from the context that it must be a 24 hour day. For example, night and day is mentioned, where night clearly means darkness. A day really means 1000 years, for example, then the story says it was dark for a large portion of that "day" = 1000 years. Say this is 300 years. Then, there was darkness on the earth for 300 years. All the life God just created would die in the extreme cold that would happen in 300 years of darkness, not to mention plants couldn't live without the light from the sun even if they could survive the cold. And, since the "day" and "night" were caused by the sun shining on that portion of the earth, or not, respectively, God would have had to slow the rotation of the earth considerably for that to be possible. For one, it doesn't make sense that God would later speed it up. For two, I'm sure that would throw off all sorts of things, which would also make life not possible.

If you don't take the story literally, then who cares if that word means day or not because it's just a symbol any way.

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I would like to present this article:

"In the Scriptural record the account of each of the six creative days concludes with the statement: “And there came to be evening and there came to be morning” a first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth day. (Ge 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31) The seventh day, however, does not have this ending, indicating that this period, during which God has been resting from his creative works toward the earth, continued on. At Hebrews 4:1-10 the apostle Paul indicated that God’s rest day was still continuing in his generation, and that was more than 4,000 years after that seventh-day rest period began. This makes it evident that each creative day, or work period, was at least thousands of years in length. As A Religious Encyclopaedia (Vol. I, p. 613) observes: “The days of creation were creative days, stages in the process, but not days of twenty-four hours each.”—Edited by P. Schaff, 1894."

We cannot be sure of the exact time God spent creating the earth. What is time to someone who always was and always will be? When we are able to speak with God again, then maybe he will answer this question.

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I believe that all the suggestions for the 3 different types of period of time are possible. A day in the Lord is different to the day of man being a thousand years in our time. If a reference to God doing something would more likely relate to his time than to mans meaning a thousand years. When Adam was naming the animals would be in the lords time as the fall had not taken place so may have taken many days in the time of man. Adams mortal life did not begin until the fall and happened when cast out of the garden of Eden. No one knows the time period from before the fall to the time he was cast out of the garden of Eden. I feel that it is more likely to be a thousand years for each day creation or maybe a period of time. I suggest it took a while as things of such a grand nature do not happen quickly like preparing and planning for a weeding or party can take longer than the weeding itself. Scientist seem to think it would be a long period of time so makes the 24 hour day seem less possible to me.

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Welcome to the site, David! I recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites?, and What makes a good supported answer? This site values questions and answers that are objectively verifiable. Opinion answers with "I believe, I feel" are discouraged. –  Steve Jul 23 at 13:41

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