What is a “day” in Genesis one?

earth In Hebrew, like in English, the meaning of the word ‘day’ is dependent on the context in which it is used. It can refer to a 24 hour period of time, it can refer to a period of daylight, or it can refer to a long undefined period of time. In English here are some examples: “There are 30 days (24 hour periods) in June,” “The park is open only during the day (period of daylight),” “They didn’t use computers in his day (an undefined period of time).” The word ‘yom/day’ in Hebrew is used with the same broad range of meaning and in Genesis 1:1-2:4 we have all three different meanings for the word ‘day’ being used. Genesis 1:5 “God called the light, ‘day’ and Genesis 1:14 “let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide between the day and the night” are both clearly references to daylight; also in vs. 14 we also have a reference to 24 hour periods of time “they will be signs for the seasons, and for the days, and for the years.” In Genesis 2:4 “in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” is clearly a reference to a period of time longer than 24 hours. The question that remains is what was the intended in remaining eight occurrences? There are significant textual issues that make the interpretation of these remaining ‘days’ in Genesis 1 difficult. While some of these issues are glossed over in our English translations, they shouldn’t be ignored by those trying to understand the meaning of the ‘days’ in Genesis 1. These issues have always been a factor in interpreting this text and are some of the reasons that questions about the proper understanding of the ‘days’ of creation have always been a point of contention. Let’s take a look at a few of the textual issues found in this text that have puzzled people for thousands of years.

יום אחד – one day

While most translations translate ‘yom echad’ as “the first day,” there are several significant issues with this translation. First, “first day” in Hebrew is “יום ראשון” (yom rishon) and not “יום אחד” (yom echad). In every other place, except one, we find that “יום אחד” has been translated into English with phrases like “one day,” “a single day,” etc…, the other exception is a reference to “the first day of the first month” in Ezra.  Second, while the definite article (the) is included in most English translations, it is not included in the Hebrew text of the first five days.

Note: For those who would like to see how “יום אחד” is translated in other places in the bible, here is a list of the other places where this phrase appears: Gen. 1:5, Gen. 27:45, Gen. 33:13, Num. 11:19, 1 Sam. 9:15, 1 Sam. 27:1, Ezr. 10:17, Isa. 9:13, Jon. 3:4, Zech. 14:7.

יום שׁני – a second day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום שׁלישׁי – a third day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום רביעי – a forth day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום חמישׁי – a fifth day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום השׁשׁי – day of the sixth

This is the first time that the definite article (the) was included in the Hebrew text. This difference shows that the author understood how to use the definite article and raises many questions about its absence in the first five days. One must wonder why the author chose to use a construct form only in this verse i.e. “day of the sixth” rather than “the sixth day.”

ויכל אלהים ביום השׁביעי מלאכתו – In the seventh day, God finish his work.

וישׁבת ביום השׁביעי מכל־מלאכתו – And he rested in the seventh day from all his work.

Twice we have the phrase “in the seventh day,” a phrase that includes both the definite article (the) and the preposition “in”; glaringly absent is any reference to the phrase “there was an evening and there was a morning” that closed each of the prior days. Both the author of the book of Hebrews and leaders of the early church recognized that these grammatical features implied that the seventh day has not yet ended.

ביום עשׂות יהוה אלהים ארץ ושׁמים – in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Here the text implies that God made the heavens and earth in a single day (note the exact same word ‘yom’ is used). If ‘yom’ should only be understood as a only a literal 24 hour period of time, then we have a significant conflict with the account of creation given in the prior 6 days.


Questions: 

  1. Why is the first day called “one day” and not “the first day?” Is this a clue that another day may have proceeded this day? Could there have been a “gap” between the real first day and the first day described in the account given in Genesis 1?
  2. Why is the definite article missing in the account of the first five days? Is this a clue that these days were not consecutive?
  3. If the missing definite article is insignificant then why is it included in the account of the last two days?
  4. What was the author trying to communicate by using the construct form in day 6?
  5. Does the lack of the closing phrase “there was an evening and there was a morning” in the account of the “seventh day” imply that day has not yet ended?
  6. If the all days in Genesis 1:1-2:3 are literal 24 hour days, why would the ‘day’ in Genesis 2:4 be figurative?

Interpreting the length and sequence of the days in Genesis 1 is not nearly as easy as some believe. There are many more issues involved than the few I have mentioned here. There is room for a number of different interpretations but no single interpretation is entirely without difficulties. It is important to remember that questions about the length of days in Genesis 1 have been raised long before questions about geology, evolution, or modern science ever entered this debate.Those who insist that the text of Genesis 1 clearly supports their view to the exclusion of all others, whether literal or figurative, have simply not done their homework.

 

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