Question: How do we interpret the days of Genesis?

The Hebrew word translated "day" (yom) in Genesis 1 can mean regular "24-hour days" or "epochs." Considering that modern science teaches the earth is billions of years old, for some theologians this question is crucial. Greg Boyd (Inspired Imperfection) recalled a pastor once saying:

"If the earth wasn't created in six literal days, then the whole Bible may as well be a book of lies."
A strong statement and there are many Christians who (incorrectly) share such an all or nothing philosophy when it comes to the Bible, but we must be cautious in not confusing our own "interpretation of Scripture" with "What God says" on various issues. We certainly hope the two line up but humility requires keeping a sharp line drawn between them. Religious leaders overly sure of their convictions were not always treated amicably by Jesus.

There are three main Christian interpretive philosophies when it comes to the two creation accounts in Genesis. Since the Bible is God's word and is believed to narrate six days of creation, young-earth creationists tell us the earth cannot be billions of years old. Using Biblical genealogies, the earth is usually thought to have been created about 6,000 years ago. Not only did dinosaurs and humans coexist but all the animals we see in the fossil record were contemporaneous with humans. This view is combined with belief in a global flood which is where all these buried animal fossils are said to have come from (flood geology).

Old-earth creationists, on the other hand, recognize the overwhelming evidence for the antiquity of the earth and instead interpret the days in Genesis as long epochs. The earth is said to be 4.5 billion years old and Biblical Genealogies are often considered incomplete meaning Adam and Eve and the flood can be pushed back tens of thousands of years prior. Based on genetics I think a recent William Lane Craig book even pushes them back 700,000 years! These Christians also tend to recognize the insurmountable difficulties with a global flood and propose a localized interpretation of it instead.

Both groups of exegetes are proponents of what is called of Biblical Concordism. A concordist, very generally, is a "literalist" who believes whatever the Bible plainly says must concord with reality as we know it. Such interpreters do believe the Bible can have different genres and is capable of metaphors and other literary features but claim Genesis is narrated as a description of things that happened in the past. Since the Bible is written by God and God is omniscient, incapable or errors and unable to lie, it must be absolutely true and nothing science says, when properly understood, could ever actually go against it. If science runs contrary to scripture either our scientific understanding or our interpretation of scripture is incorrect. Scripture is often given priority over other modes of knowledge. Henry Morris wrote the following:
"But the main reason for insisting on the universal flood as a fact of history and as the primary vehicle for geological interpretation is that God's word plainly teaches it! No geologic difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inference of Scripture."
For some overly literal concordists, one gets the impression that if the Bible told us the sun was made from cheese and yogurt, or that Jonah swallowed the whale for three days, we might expect a response of, "God said it and that settles it."

Who has the better argument of the two?
Old-earth creationists have the better argument in terms of pure science. Things like radiometric dating, the transit times of light and earth's geological features clearly demonstrate a very ancient earth. Not only that but science and logistical arguments are strongly antithetical to a global deluge. Unfortunately, a great deal of old-earth creationists believe evolution did not happen because it cannot be harmonized with Biblical teachings and the chronology of Genesis. In terms of pure exegesis and interpretation, young-earth creationists appear to have the advantage. The Genesis flood is best understood as universal since it echoes and undoes the creative order established earlier and the "days" in Genesis 1 are probably best understood as actual days given the account is an etiology for the sabbath, and it mentions "evening and morning." Our ancestors didn't know the difference between young and old-earth creationism. Reading them with that lens and disputing the proper interpretation of the Hebrew word "yom" here is to miss the point entirely and fall victim to anachronism. The original audience and author would have clearly understood the idea of 6 days of work and 1 day of rest when the Genesis 1:1-2:4 was written and read. There is no reason to imagine or force any other interpretation on them, especially one generated by the findings of science 3,000 years later.

The Third Approach to Genesis: Divine or Biblical Accommodation
Proponents of accommodation believe God spoke through the worldview and cosmogony of ancient Israelites. God did not feel the need to correct mistaken scientific beliefs as those issues were not germane to His purposes. Longman and Walton (Lost World of the Flood) write
"The Bible was written for us, but not to us. We have no reason to believe that God gave ancient authors special knowledge of perspectives on geology, cosmology, astronomy, or any other scientific information beyond that known at the time. Nor do we have any reason to think that God embedded such information in the human author's writings beyond the latter's conscious knowledge."
This view is possible since God is sovereign and can speak to us how He chooses but is also warranted by the fact that we know God did not make such corrections in many other parts of scripture (Is. 11:12, Psalm 16:7, Gen 1:6, Job 37:18, 1 Chron 16:30; Ps 93:1, 96:10, 104:5, Is 45:8, Mt 4:8, Dan 4:10-11, Rev 6:13-16, 8:10; Mt 2:10, Mt 24:29, Dan 8:10 and so on). God is very much okay with using phenomenological language when it comes to things like "sunrise" and accommodating the beliefs of his people to speak truth through them and move salvation history in the direction He wants. The Bible is unashamedly geocentric and this compelled John Calvin to once opine that people who thought the earth moved were possessed by the devil. We can forgive him of this understandable error and instead focus on a wonderful snippet of his commentary on Psalm 136:
"The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and, in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated persons, he made use by Moses and the other Prophets of popular language, that none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity . . . the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned."
God accommodated his message through time-conditioned revelation. He speaks to us through a language, culture, and worldview, all of which will be understood slightly differently from person to person. Interacting with people on their level, in their own culture and with ideas they can understand seems the most effective method of communication to me. God has to condescend himself no matter how he communicates with us sinful human beings. For a detailed treatment of Biblical accommodation and one attempt at appropriating the with the findings of critical scholarship, I'd recommend Kenton Sparks' God's Word in Human Words.

What Does Genesis Teach us?
I will offer a summary of some of what is found elsewhere on this website. We have already seen there are two creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 and the first one has an obvious literary structure of separating (days 1-3) and filling (days 4-6). In its original context, the audience of Genesis 1 would have been aware of many features of Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. The absence of conflict mythology or an origin story for God would have clearly stood out to ancient readers and hearers of this story. Genesis tells us a great deal simply by not including these elements and by comparing how it differs from other creation stories. It is in this context that Genesis 1 must be read and understood. From within this interpretive matrix, a clear statement of Jewish monotheism and the sovereignty of the Biblical God is given. That is the primary purpose of the first creation story bar none. God is the main subject not only of Genesis but the entire Bible. The word God occurs in the very first sentence and over 32 times in the 31 verses of Genesis 1.

The account plainly tells us God has no rivals, no prior lineage, there is a monopoly on power and only one true God. Unlike in the Atrahasis epic, God doesn't need a discussion amongst peers or the approval of anyone to create human beings. Humans weren't an afterthought! Unlike in the Enuma Elish, we weren't created after he proved himself defeating Tiamat the sea goddess in some cosmic struggle and gained the renown of the other gods. The sea monsters in Genesis 1:22 are just another part of God's good creation. The astral deities people worshipped were just lamps God made to demarcate the seasons. There is no conflict mythology in Genesis because the author is plainly telling us God cannot gain what he never lacked and there has never been a challenger worthy of Him. A rise in power is not possible for one who has never not been in power. Bill Arnold writes of Genesis 1:
"Israel's God has no rivals. There can be no struggle with forces opposed to his actions or corresponding to his power. There can be no victory enthronement motif because God's victory was never in doubt; rather, God has never not been enthroned. There can be no enthronement portrait here because God has not become sovereign; he has simply never been less than sovereign."
Those who subscribe to Biblical accommodation believe Geneses teaches us several theological truths about God and creation. If we impose modern questions on Genesis 1 (days vs epochs) we are missing its purpose entirely. Instead, we must view Genesis 1 in its ancient context and understand it as its original audience would have.

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