From the time of the early church to the present, Christians have understood the days of creation in a variety of ways. Here is a summary of seven different interpretations. I’ll share my own opinions here, as I promised; but I won’t pretend to know for certain which view is correct.
- Ordinary (24-hour) days
According to this interpretation, the days described in the first chapter of Genesis were 24-hour cycles of physical light and darkness that occurred over the span of one literal week, just like the ordinary days and nights we experience now. The ordinary days interpretation has been the most popular view for centuries, and the weight of tradition is mostly in its favor. It is especially popular in some protestant denominations of the church today, perhaps because it was explicitly endorsed by the reformers Luther and Calvin. Besides the weight of tradition, moreover, it also has the advantage of being the most literalistic interpretation. This is a strong argument in support of the ordinary days interpretation: we should respect what the Bible actually says, not try to force our own views into it!
On the other hand (and this is just my own opinion), it seems to me that proponents of the 24-hour days view are trying to force their own understanding of “day” into a context where it doesn’t quite fit. They interpret each day of creation as a 24-hour period—the length of time associated with the intervals of light and darkness that we human beings experience due to the rotation of the earth in sunlight. If the sun wasn’t made until day four, however, that measure of time is clearly irrelevant to the length of the first three days, or so it seems to me.
Defenders of the 24-hour view may respond to this objection by making additional hypotheses. Perhaps some non-solar light source (the radiance of God’s glory?) illuminated the earth for the first three days, so that each day corresponded to one revolution of the planet, just as it does in our own experience. That’s a nice idea, but it’s not what the text actually says. To respect the true meaning of the text, we must consider all of the text together, and we must not ignore the biblical, historical, and cultural context in which it was written. This may require giving up some of our preconceived notions about its “obvious” meaning.
- Instantaneous creation
A number of early Christian thinkers, and even some pre-Christian Jewish scholars, suggested that the “days” listed in Genesis 1 represent something other than temporal order. Philo Judaeus, an influential Jewish writer who lived in Alexandria during the time of Christ, believed that God created the universe instantaneously. He suggested that the patriarch Moses (presumed to be the author of Genesis) had used the days as a symbolic way of describing creation:
And he [Moses] says that the world was made in six days, not because the Creator stood in need of a length of time (for it is natural that God should do everything at once, not merely by uttering a command, but by even thinking of it); but because the things created required arrangement; and number is akin to arrangement.Philo Judaeus, The Creation of the World, chapter III. Available here.
The early Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) held a similar view. He argued that God created everything instantaneously in the very beginning (Genesis 1:1). Then God named and announced the things He had made in order of their importance or their dependence upon each other. The six days therefore signify priority in the sense of worth or importance, rather than temporal order:
For the creations on the different days followed in a most important succession; so that all things brought into existence might have honour from priority, created together in thought, but not being of equal worth. Nor was the creation of each signified by the voice, inasmuch as the creative work is said to have made them at once. For something must needs have been named first. Wherefore those things were announced first, from which came those that were second…Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, book VI, chapter XVI. Available here.
Augustine (AD 354 – 430), who is indisputably among the most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity, also endorsed the instantaneous creation view. In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine admitted that he wasn’t sure exactly what the word “day” was intended to represent, but said “at least we know that it is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.”St. Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, book V, chapter 2, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 148. He considers the interesting possibility that the light and darkness, which God called “day” and “night” (Genesis 1:5), might be spiritual rather than physical light and darkness.
In my own judgment, there is no scriptural reason to suppose that all six “days” of creation happened simultaneously, and the scientific evidence is unambiguously against this interpretation. Nevertheless, many of the insights offered by Augustine and other historical proponents of this view are worthy of serious consideration. Indeed, a few selections from Augustine’s commentary on Genesis will prove helpful later in this chapter.
On this view, the “days” of creation do represent chronological order, but the Hebrew word yowm is interpreted as a long age (or just a period of unspecified length) rather than a 24-hour day. On the basis of Psalm 90:4 and 2nd Peter 3:8, some of the early church fathers (e.g. Justin Martyr) and early Christian theologians (e.g. Irenaeus) held that each day of the creation story represents a thousand years.
Many Christians today embrace the day-age view. Some of its contemporary advocates argue that this interpretation can accommodate the scientific evidence from astronomy, cosmology, geology, biology, and even paleontology.For a thorough defense of this view, see Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy, Second Expanded Edition (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2015). See also the website of Ross’s apologetics organization, Reasons to Believe, for further reading on the day-age perspective. In my own opinion, it takes a little too much shoehorning to fit the scientific evidence into a strictly chronological interpretation of Genesis 1, even if each “day” represents millions or billions of years. For example, the day-age view implies that the earth existed before the sun and stars were made, but evidence from astronomy indicates that stars formed before planets. Moreover, Genesis lists the creation of fruit trees on day 3, birds on day 5, and land animals on day 6; whereas the fossil record seems to reverse this order: the first land animals existed before birds, and the first birds existed before fruit trees.
On the other hand, the day-age view is more plausible when combined with other insights. For example, it can be combined with the idea of “functional creation,” which we’ll consider with the temple inauguration interpretation, below. If some of the creation events are understood functionally rather than materially (as explained in what follows), the day-age view might fit the scientific evidence after all.
- Intermittent days
According to the intermittent days interpretation, the days of creation were ordinary 24-hour days but were separated by periods of unspecified length. In other words, the days are not contiguous. Millions or billions of years may have elapsed between each of the six 24-hour days on which God spoke new things into existence. Perhaps the “evenings and mornings” mentioned in the Genesis creation narrative refer to these long intervals of time between God’s creative utterances.
Advocates of the intermittent days interpretation have argued that it fits the scientific evidence and that it might even explain some things that mainstream science cannot. In particular, some suggest that it explains the morphological discontinuities (sudden jumps) in the fossil record.For example, John Lennox makes this suggestion: “At each stage of creation God injected a new level of information and energy into the cosmos, in order to advance creation to its next level of form and complexity. On this view, therefore, the six creation days themselves could well have been days of normal length, spaced out at intervals over the entire period of time that God took to complete his work. The outworking of the potential of each creative fiat would occupy an unspecified period of time after that particular creation day. One consequence of this is that we would expect to find what geologists tell us we do find—fossil evidence revealing the sudden appearance of new levels of complexity, followed by periods during which there was no more creation (in the sense of God speaking to inaugurate something radically new).” Lennox, Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 55. As with the previous interpretation, however, I find the scientific support for this view dubious. The sequence of events described in Genesis doesn’t line up neatly with the order of events according to contemporary science, even if we suppose long eras occurred between each day of creation.
There is an interesting variant of the intermittent days interpretation, though, which is worth mentioning. In their book Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth, Robert Newman, Perry Phillips, and Herman Eckelmann suggest that each new day of the creation narrative marks the beginning of God’s work on another facet of the world—the start of a new creative project. This idea is similar to the day-age interpretation, except that God doesn’t stop working on one project when He begins the next: He continues working on all six creative projects until He rests on the seventh day. For example, God begins creating plants on day 3, but He continues creating new species of plants on days 4, 5, and 6. Each project overlaps with the following days, and God continues His work on all six projects until everything is finished; then He rests from all his work on day 7.
This interpretation still doesn’t exactly match the chronologies of contemporary astronomy, geology, and biology; but it may be possible to resolve the apparent discrepancies.
For example, if we understand the word “vegetation” (Hebrew: deshe') in Genesis 1:11 to include photosynthesizing bacteria, and we take “flying creatures” (Hebrew: `owph) in Genesis 1:20 to include insects, then we can explain why fruit trees and birds both appear after the first land animals in the fossil record. God created the first forms of vegetation (cyanobacteria) on day 3 and the first flying creatures (insects) on day 5, but he continued making new kinds of vegetation (fruit-bearing plants, etc.) and new flying creatures (birds, bats, etc.) after creating reptiles and mammals on day 6. Newman, Phillips, and Eckelmann also propose a way of explaining what happens on day 4. They suggest that the sun, moon, and stars were created in the beginning, when God made the heavens and the earth; but no celestial objects could be seen from Earth until the fourth day because our planet initially had a thick, cloudy atmosphere similar to the planet Venus. It took a while for the earliest photosynthesizing organisms (created on day 3) to absorb most of the carbon dioxide from the air and reverse the greenhouse effect, so day 4 was the first day on which the atmosphere cleared enough to make the sun, moon, and stars visible from Earth’s surface.Robert Newman, Perry Phillips, and Herman Eckelmann, Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth, Second Edition (Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 2007), 120-121.
Those ideas, combined with some further insights that will be introduced below, might make it possible to reconcile
the order of events in Genesis 1 with the chronologies of contemporary science. Perhaps the days really do represent chronological order after all. On the other hand, as we have already seen with the instantaneous creation view, not all interpretations of the “days” are chronological. The following three interpretations suggest other possible meanings. These interpretations are compatible with the days being in chronological order, but they don’t require it. Any of the following three interpretations could be true regardless of whether the “days” correspond to specific times in Earth’s history.
- Literary framework
According to the literary framework interpretation, the days of creation represent logical order, not necessarily chronological order; they are used as a literary structuring device. There are several versions of the literary framework view. The most famous version is based on an insight due to Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), a Christian theologian and literary critic. In his book The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, published in 1782, von Herder notes a “parallelism” in the days of creation and suggests that they are used for a poetic purpose:
The works of creation must in some way be separated and classed in order.... In this whole
body of poetry, which I might therefore almost denominate the poetry of heaven and earth. The earliest picture of the creation is arranged after this model, and the division of the so called six days’ work has also a reference to it. When the heaven is lifted up, the earth is brought forth also and adorned; when the air and the water are peopled,
the earth also becomes inhabited.von Herder, The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, translated by James Marsh (Burlington: Edward Smith, 1833), 58. Available online here.
In the twentieth century, several prominent theologians and Bible scholars (including Arie Noordtzij, Meredith Kline, Herman Nicolaas Ridderbos, and others) defended von Herder’s idea that Genesis 1 is intended as a poem and that the “days” are used poetically. They pointed out that days 1-3 form a triad corresponding to days 4-6. The first triad concerns the creation of forms or structures; the second triad concerns the inhabitants of those structures.
When the creation story begins, the world is “formless and void” (Genesis 1:2). Then God forms what was formless during the first three days and fills what was void during the last three days. The separation of light and darkness on day 1 corresponds to the creation of the heavenly lights on day 4. The separation of sea and sky on day 2 corresponds to the creation of aquatic and avian creatures on day 5. Finally, the creation of dry land and vegetation on day 3 provided a habitat for land animals and human beings, created on day 6:
|Day 1: day and night
||Day 4: lights of day and night
|Day 2: sea and sky
||Day 5: animals of the sea and sky
|Day 3: land and vegetation
||Day 6: land animals and human beings
This is a remarkable pattern, not easily dismissed as mere coincidence. Perhaps the author of Genesis was using the word “day” only as a literary device and did not intend it to represent any specific period of time.
On the other hand, this interpretation is compatible with the days being ordinary 24-hour days, long ages, or even domains of spiritual light and darkness. Indeed, von Herder’s insight could be combined with any of the other interpretations discussed on this page. Though I find the framework view intriguing in its own right, I prefer to combine it with two other interpretations that I find even more persuasive. (I’m saving my favorite interpretations for last.)
- Temple inauguration week
John Walton, an expert in ancient Hebrew and professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, argues that
Genesis 1 describes the functional creation of the world, not necessarily its material (physical) creation. To understand the distinction between material creation and functional creation, consider the difference between creating a house and creating a nation. Creating a house involves the construction and assembly of physical materials; creating a nation involves assigning functional roles to the people living in some region of land. To create a nation, we establish borders and assign various roles to the people within those borders: lawmakers, law enforcers, judges, citizens, and so on. The physical world doesn’t change much when a nation is created. The land and the people already existed, but they are assigned new roles. Likewise, perhaps some of the events described in Genesis concern functional creation rather than material creation. For example, God might have materially created the sun, moon, and stars in the very beginning, when He created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1); but He assigned their functional roles later, on the fourth day.
The word translated “made” throughout the creation story in Genesis is the Hebrew word `asah, which can also mean prepared, ordained, or appointed.The word `asah can mean many other things as well. See here for more information about its meanings and uses in the Old Testament. (The word “created” in Genesis 1:1 is a different word, bara', which means to shape, fashion, or create.) The word `asah is used to express that God appointed Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, for instance (1 Samuel 12:6). Similarly, the Hebrew word nathan, translated “placed” in Genesis 1:17, can mean gave or assigned.See here for more information about its meanings and uses in the Old Testament. So, Genesis 1:14-19 could be translated as follows:
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. God made appointed the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made appointed the stars also. God placed assigned them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day. (Genesis 1:14-16, NASB with edits indicated)
The idea that the sun and stars existed prior to the fourth day of creation (but were appointed to serve a specific purpose or function on that day) might help resolve some of the problems with the ordinary days, day-age, and intermittent days interpretations. Walton’s view, however, goes a little deeper than any of the aforementioned ideas. In his book The Lost World of Genesis 1, Walton argues that the ancient Hebrews—the audience for whom Genesis was originally written—would have understood the creation story primarily in functional terms. Of course they knew that God created materially (physically) as well, but Genesis 1 does not tell the story of material creation. Instead, it portrays the world as God’s temple and describes the inauguration of the functional elements within that temple. The crucial clue about the meaning of the creation story is what happens on the seventh day:
A reader from the ancient world would know immediately what was going on and recognize the role of day seven. Without hesitation the ancient reader would conclude that this is a temple text and that day seven is the most important of the seven days. In a material account day seven would have little role, but in a functional account... it is the true climax without which nothing else would make any sense or have any meaning.Walton, The Lost World of Genesis 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 72.
The key to understanding the creation story, Walton explains, is “the piece of information that everyone knew in the ancient world and to which most modern readers are totally oblivious: Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple... We might even say that this is what a temple is—a place for divine rest.”Walton, The Lost World of Genesis 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 72. The main point of the creation story, therefore, is that the world is a temple in which God rests. The ancient Hebrews understood this, as evinced in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. (Isaiah 66:1-2)
The material creation of the temple is beside the point; what matters is how it functions as a temple and how we understand our role in it. According to Walton, Genesis 1 “should be understood as an account of the functional origins of the cosmos as a temple,” not the physical creation of the world.Walton, The Lost World of Genesis 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 84. God may have materially created many of the physical components of the heavens and the earth long before the inauguration week of His cosmic temple. For instance, He may have created the sun, moon, and stars millions or billions of years before appointing them to specific roles in His temple. Thus, “the seven days are not given as the period of time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple.”Walton, The Lost World of Genesis 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 92.
I find many of Walton’s insights compelling. As with the literary framework view, however, the temple inauguration view can be combined with other interpretations. Walton suggests that the days of creation could have been ordinary 24-hour days that occurred over the span of a literal week, even if God created the physical universe billions of years prior to that week. On the other hand, the days could have been long ages, or they might even represent something other than chronological order. By itself, the temple inauguration view doesn’t shed much light on the meaning of the days in the creation story. Although the temple inauguration view helps to illuminate the purpose of the creation story as a whole, the significance of the days and nights remains a mystery.Borrowing an idea from Moshe Weinfeld, Walton speculates that Genesis 1 might have served as the liturgy for an annual, week-long festival celebrating God’s creative work (p. 91). This idea might explain the significance of the days, but Walton admits there isn’t much evidence to support it. What was God’s purpose in conducting His work over six days, or why does He describe it to us in that way? To understand the Biblical story of creation more fully, I propose to combine Walton’s insights with yet another interpretation which answers that question.
- Analogical days
C. John Collins, a professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary with a PhD in biblical Hebrew linguistics, argues that the Hebrew word yowm (“day”) in the creation narrative should be understood to mean an ordinary day rather than an era. However, the word is not being used literally in this context, but analogically. God is explaining His creative work to us by drawing an analogy between His actions and our familiar experiences.
To understand this interpretation, it will be helpful to consider another example of analogy in scripture. When the psalmist sings of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Psalm 136:12), we understand that he is using an analogy, portraying God’s actions in terms of concepts familiar to us. Of course it would be silly to think that God has hands and arms just like ours, if we can imagine how an incorporeal, omnipresent being could have arms at all. Likewise, we shouldn’t naively assume that God experiences time in the same way we do. Surely his “days” are different from ours, as scripture makes clear (Psalm 90:4, 2nd Peter 3:8).
Because our understanding is limited, God portrays himself to us in ways we can comprehend. More than a thousand years before the scientific revolution, Saint Augustine made a similar point in his commentary on Genesis:
Above all, let us remember, as I have tried in many ways to show, that God does not work under the limits of time by motions of body and soul, as do men and angels… Hence, we must not think of the matter in a human way, as if the utterances of God were subject to time throughout the various days of God’s works. For Divine Wisdom Himself, taking our weak nature, has come to gather the children of Jerusalem under His wings, as a hen gathers her young, not so that we may always be little children but that, being infants in malice, we may cease being children in mind.St. Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, book I, chapter 18, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 41.
Jesus frequently used analogies in his teachings and parables. It makes sense that God would also portray his creative actions to us using analogies that we can easily relate to our own concepts and experiences.
According to Collins, the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 1 draws an analogy between God’s work and ours by portraying God “as if he were a workman going through his workweek,” resting between each workday, then resting in enjoyment of his completed work.C. John Collins, Science and Faith:Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 89.
The refrain “and there was evening and there was morning,” repeated six times in the creation narrative, indicates the night—a time of rest—between workdays. (There is no refrain on the 7th day, because that day is already a day of rest.)
I find this interpretation compelling for three reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it helps to illuminate the purpose for which God is describing his creative work to us. “The purpose of the analogy is to set a pattern for the human rhythm of work and rest,” Collins observes.C. John Collins, Science and Faith:Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 89. This role of the creation narrative is made explicit in Exodus 20:8-11, where God explains that His creative work sets an example for us to follow. Secondly, the analogical days interpretation doesn’t rely on hypotheses that go beyond what the Bible actually says. It doesn’t require us to suppose that some non-solar light source illuminated the earth before the sun was made or that clouds obscured the sun, moon, and stars until day 4, as suggested by other interpretations. Thirdly, it is compatible with all scientific evidence, because it makes no claims about the exact nature of the days of creation. Understood analogically, the creation story doesn’t tell us whether God created the universe in a few 24-hour days, or over long epochs, or instantaneously. The analogy doesn’t give us that information, just as the analogy of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” doesn’t tell us whether God has literal hands and arms. God could have created the universe in any way He chose, and we’ll have to examine His creation carefully—scientifically—if we want to learn the details of when and how He did it.
Even when combined (as I have proposed) with the temple inauguration view and the framework view, the analogical interpretation still leaves many questions unanswered. How does time really work, from God’s perspective? Were the “days” of creation 24-hour periods, or long eras, or neither? Are they listed in chronological order, or functional order, or both? The analogical days interpretation doesn’t even begin to answer these questions. Some Christians may find this unsatisfying, but I see its failure to answer these questions as an advantage of the analogical interpretation, rather than a defect. Perhaps God isn’t interested in explaining to us the precise details of how or when He created the universe. That’s not the point of this scripture passage at all. So, what is the message of this passage of scripture, then? What are we to learn from it? We’ll consider that question on the next page.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all possible interpretations. There are many variations of the views listed above, and it is also possible to combine the above interpretations in a variety of ways. For example, one might combine the literary framework view with instantaneous creation, or combine the day-age view with the analogical interpretation.