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:

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.