Understanding the Biblical Account of Creation
The Mystery of Creation
There is no shortage of scholarly research on the opening chapters of Genesis, but even a cursory review of the literature on this topic quickly reveals that Christian scholars don’t all agree on the meaning of the text. The fact that there is little agreement on the meaning of this passage of scripture, however, is no license to ignore the insights of biblical scholarship. To the contrary, when the meaning of a scripture passage is difficult to discern, we should be all the more eager to seek help from Christians more knowledgeable than ourselves. Even when the experts disagree with one another, hearing their debates may enrich our understanding of God’s word. If nothing else, their disagreements can help us to be humble-minded and recognize how little we understand.
A detailed survey of the literature is beyond the scope of this book, but it will be worthwhile to consider some crucial points of disagreement. One issue concerns the meaning of the Hebrew word yowm, translated “day,” in the context of the creation narrative. This foundational issue will be our focus in the next few pages; other points of contention will be discussed later in the chapter. Much like the English word day, the Hebrew word yowm can mean different things depending on the context: daytime (as opposed to night), a 24-hour period (including both day and night), a workday, a day’s journey, a lifetime, an age, an era, etc. The word yowm appears 2,247 times in the Bible and is translated differently depending on the context. The New American Standard Bible (NASB), widely considered to be among the most “word-for-word” modern English versions, translates yowm into the following words, listed in order of frequency: day, today, time, year, life, age, now, period, lifetime, long, and numerous other words. (For a complete list with references, see here.) In most cases, the context clearly indicates the intended meaning.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations on this page are from the NASB translation. Its “word-for-word” translation style will help us to recognize subtleties that are missed in “thought-for-thought” style translations.
So, what does the word mean in the context of the Genesis creation narrative? Many Christians believe that it refers to a 24-hour period. This interpretation seems natural, given the author’s repeated references to “evening and morning.” However, there are a number of reasons to suspect that this might not be the intended meaning. Some clues have come from studying the historical and cultural context in which Genesis was written, as we’ll see later, but there are also important hints within the text of the Bible itself:
- Genesis 2:4 says “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.” Here, the same word “day” (yowm) includes all six of the days described in chapter 1.
- Genesis 1:16-19 indicates that the sun was made on the fourth day, which suggests that the first three days (at least) were not ordinary days of the sort we experience every 24 hours. Origen (AD 185-254), a prominent Christian theologian in the early church, rejected the ordinary days interpretation for this reason. He suggested that the whole creation story, including the description of the Garden of Eden, was meant to be understood figuratively rather than literally:
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, a moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? ... And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.Origen, On First Principles, Book 4, translated from the Greek in Coxe and Clark (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, available online here.
- In Genesis 2:17, God tells Adam that he must not eat fruit from a certain tree, “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Yet, Adam lived 930 years despite having eaten the fruit (Genesis 5:5). To make sense of this, some theologians interpret God’s warning in Genesis 2:17 as meaning that Adam would die spiritually, not physically, on the same 24-hour day when he ate the fruit. Others interpret the word “die” literally, in its biological sense, and reconcile these two passages of scripture by interpreting the word yowm to mean an era. The latter interpretation was endorsed by Jewish writers long before the time of Christ. The Book of Jubilees, an ancient Jewish text dated to at least the second century BC, suggests that each “day” of the creation story represents a thousand years:
And at the close of the nineteenth jubilee, in the seventh week in the sixth year thereof, Adam died... And he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; for one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens and therefore it was written concerning the tree of knowledge: “On the day that you eat thereof you will die.” For this reason he did not complete the years of this day; for he died during it. (Jubilees 4:29-30, LSV)
Irenaeus (AD 130-202), one of the first Christian theologians, agreed with this interpretation:
On one and the same day on which they ate they also died (for it is one day of the creation). … He [Adam] did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit.Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 23, in Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe(eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, available online here
- Genesis 2:20 says that Adam gave names to all the cattle, birds, and beasts of the field before Eve was created, and Genesis 1:27 indicates that both male and female human beings were created on the sixth day. It is difficult to imagine how Adam could have named all those animals in a single 24-hour day. There are nearly 10,000 species of birds in the world, along with thousands of species of cattle and beasts!See here for more details. To make sense of these passages, some Christians suggest that God gave Adam the supernatural ability to name things very quickly, or that Adam was only naming general categories of birds and beasts rather than naming all species, or that he only named the fauna indigenous to the Garden of Eden. Other Christians see this discrepancy as a clue that the word yowm might not mean a 24-hour day in this context.
- The sequence of events described in Genesis chapter 2 seems to differ from the order of the days listed in chapter 1. For example, in chapter 1 God creates the birds on day five (verses 20-23), then creates man on day six (verses 26-31); but the description in Genesis 2:19 gives the impression that God created birds after he made Adam. We could interpret Genesis 2:19 to mean that God created the birds first and then brought them to Adam the next day, so these two descriptions aren’t strictly inconsistent. Still, one might see this apparent discrepancy as evidence that there is a deeper meaning hidden in this passage of scripture. Some early Christian thinkers, including Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) and Augustine (AD 354 – 430), held that the sequence of “days” does not represent temporal order at all. On their view, the first chapter of Genesis is not intended as a chronology of events; the “days” represent a spiritual or logical ordering, not a chronological one. (We’ll consider a few such possibilities on the next page.)
- According to Genesis 1:11-13, plants blossomed and bore fruit on the third day. But Genesis 2:5-7 says that “no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted” when man was created. The latter passage refers specifically to cultivated plants (see verse 5), so there is no inconsistency here: God may have created all the seeds on day three, but some of those seeds—the ones requiring cultivation—didn’t sprout until later. However, some Bible scholars believe that Genesis 2:5-6 is meant to indicate a certain season of the year. Here’s a relevant quote from C. John Collins, an expert in Hebrew linguistics:
In Palestine it doesn’t rain during the summer, and the autumn rains bring about a burst of plant growth. So verses 5-7 would make good sense if we supposed that they describe a time of year, when it has been a dry summer, so the plants aren’t growing—but the rains and the man are about to come, so the plants will be able to grow in the “land.” … (The plants are missing, it says, because there’s no rain, and no man to cultivate and irrigate—something you can see in any uninhabited area in the Middle East.) … If we take the word “land” as “some particular land,” we get a clear picture for verses 5-8: in some particular land, in some particular year, at the time of year before the rainy season began, but when the mist (or rain cloud) was rising (which may suggest the beginning of the rainy season)—that’s when God formed the first human, planted the Garden of Eden, and transplanted the man there.C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 88.
If this understanding is correct, it suggests that the cycles of seasons had already been going on for some time before man was created.
- The description of day 7 lacks the refrain “and there was evening and there was morning.” Some theologians believe this indicates that the seventh day has not ended, and at least two other scripture passages seem to support the idea that the seventh day continues to the present time. First, Hebrews 4:3-11 says that God’s Sabbath rest (the 7th day) is something that we can enter today. Secondly, in John 5:17, Jesus responds to accusations of breaking the Sabbath by saying “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (RSV) As Collins observes:
If we want Jesus’ saying to make sense, we should take it as “My Father is working on his Sabbath, just as I am working on my Sabbath”; and we can account for that most easily if we take Jesus to mean that the creation Sabbath still goes on.C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 84-85.
So, were the days of creation ordinary 24-hour days, or were they long ages, or do they represent something else entirely? We’ll consider a number of possibilities on the next page.