What are the Days of Creation? 24-Hours or Something Else?
Prepared Remarks for Mars Hill Forum #147, April 24, 2009, by John C. Rankin
Tim Chaffey and I both affirm the Bible as the completely true written Word of God. Tim argues that the days of creation are 24-hour periods. I argue that their biblical reality is far deeper, and my goal here is an exercise in sound biblical thinking.
Among biblical Christians, there are two lead views of the days of creation, and I will present a third. First, the “day-age” theorists argue that the “days” are very long periods of time, based on their view on how the Hebrew word for “day” (yom) can be used.
But their problem begins with Genesis 1:5: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.” This language is not describing a long period of time; it describes a normal earth-bound 24-hour day. This seems to support the second view, that of the 24-hour theorists.
But again, there is a problem. How can we measure 24-hours apart from the earth spinning on its axis and rotating around the sun? The sun, moon and stars are not created until the fourth day. How can a 24-hour day be measured during the first three days without the means of measurement? There is something more at play.
The Framework Structure
To take the Bible literally, we need to know what literary genre is being used. Jesus says he is the “door,” and we know the use of “door” is a metaphor. Jesus is the opening, the way to eternal life, but he is not made literally of wood and brass.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says we are the body of Christ. He is not saying we are a physical body – that would be “literalistic.” Rather, this is a clear literary device rooted in a prior understanding of the physical body, where by analogy, we understand what it means for Jesus to be head of the spiritual body, and for us to be members of his body. This is taking the Bible literally.
The literal understanding of Genesis 1 also proves to be the literary device of the Framework structure, the third view. We can grasp what it means to be a member of the body of Christ due to our understanding of the physical body. So too, we can understand how Genesis 1 uses the structure of an earthly week for the purpose of orienting us to a deeper reality.
- The reality is that we are made for eternal life, and the purpose of the Framework structure is to give eternal structure to our earthly weeks. As image-bearers of God we are made to govern the creation under God, and gain the Sabbath rest for a job well done.
- This is the purpose of Genesis 1 – showing how God creates governing structures in the universe, first with the inanimate celestial objects, then with the lower forms of life, then with the higher forms of life (indeed, in also establishing the food chain), and finally with man and woman as God’s image bearers to govern it all.
- In this process, each form of life is directly created by God, and reproduces after its own kind. Finally, man and woman are made directly by God after his own kind. Thus, there is no macroevolution (the changing of one species into a new species).
- Genesis 1 does not impose on us a timetable for the physical creation in a literalistic sense. The evening and morning description in Day 1 is referring to an earthly day as a literary device in service to God’s eternal sabbatical week. Too, as Jesus says repeatedly, and as the book of Hebrews argues, the Sabbath is greater than the concept of a 24-hour period.
Nearly 40 percent of the Hebrew Bible is in poetic structure, and it serves the historical nature of the Bible with no sense of fiction as with pagan poetry. Genesis 1 is unique in the Bible and all history – in its content and its combination of prose within poetic structure.
Parallelism is the nature of Hebrew poetry – repetition as a teaching and learning tool. For example, Psalm 8:4 declares:
“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?”
The same thing is said in both lines, with different words, to emphasize the same concern. “Man” and “son of man” are parallel; “mindful of” and “care for” are parallel. We see this reality throughout the Hebrew Bible.
Genesis 1:1-3 is translated here from the literal Hebrew:
“In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth – in particular, when the earth was uninhabitable and uninhabited, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters – God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
The description of the uninhabitable and uninhabited (tohu w’ bohu), also defined by the darkness, is then addressed by the presence of the Spirit and God’s declaration, “Let there be light.” Then God follows through with six days of creation:
- First, the habitation is created out of the uninhabitable (the visible from the invisible, cf. Hebrews 11:3) in the first three days of creation. Second, the inhabitants are created to live in and rule over their respective habitations in the second three days of creation.
As the inhabitants are set to rule over their habitations, we see a clear parallel structure where in the first three days God sets up domains, and in the next three days God sets up rulers over those domains.
These parallel days set forth the content, and purpose, of the Framework structure:
1. Day and Night (1:3-5) ↔ 4. Sun, moon and stars (1:14-19)
2. Sky and Sea (1:6-8) ↔ 5. Birds and fish (1:20-23)
3. Land (1:9-13) ↔ 6. Animals (1:24-25)
6. Mankind (1:26-28)
7. Sabbath (2:1-3) ↔ 7. God (2:1-3)
There are special factors that distinguish animals from mankind on the sixth day, and there are unique features on the seventh day, including the fact that it has no designation of evening and morning. This is an alarming disjunctive if the days were to be understood as 24-hour periods. Also, man is a creature of both the sixth and seventh days, made from the dust, but born of the Spirit to share the eternal Sabbath.
Looking at the Framework structure, we can note the following.
In Day 1, God set in place the “domains” of day and night, and in Day 4, he specifies the agents or “rulers” that separate light from darkness. Days 1 and 4 are parallel. The “greater” and “lesser” lights (sun and moon) are said to “govern” the day and night, and thus we see the sense of domains, and rulers over these domains, which the Framework structure defines.
- In Day 2, God set in place the domains of the sky and sea, and in Day 5, he specifies the agents that govern these domains, the birds and fish. Days 2 and 5 are parallel.
- In Day 3, God set in place the domain of the land, and in Day 6, he specifies the agents that govern this domain, the animal kingdom. Days 3 and 6 are parallel.
- Also on Day 6, God set man and woman in place to rule over the domains of land, sea and sky, and over the lower forms of life.
The points of parallelism between days 1 and 4 can be seen in comparing five clausal units:
|Day 1: Let there be light.||Day 4: Let there be lights.|
|Day 1: God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.||Day 4: … and to separate light from light from the darkness.|
|Day 1: God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”||Day 4: God made the two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the day and the lesser light to govern the night.|
|Day 1: And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.||Day 4: And there was evening, and there was morning – the fourth day.|
This parallelism of language is overwhelming, yet there are also four points of distinction immediately discernible:
- “light” to “lights,” singular to plural (i.e., from God’s definition of light, to his chosen agents of that light);
- “he separated” to “to separate” (i.e., from God’s definition of separation, to his chosen agents for making that separation);
- the introduction of “govern”; and
- “the first day” to “the fourth day.”
In other words, Day 1 and Day 4 speak of the exact same subject, but on Day 1 the language is in terms suited to define the “domains,” and on Day 4, the language is in terms suited to emphasize the “rulers” of these domains.
The introduction of “govern” on Day 4 identifies this crucial distinction in the parallel structure. It introduces the difference between the first three days (creation of “domains”) and the second three days (creation of “rulers” over these domains).
On Day 4, the sun, moon and stars are God’s agents that govern the day and night by separating light and dark, “ruling” in that given sense. They define and provide for the “evening” and “morning” of Day 1.
Thus, the order here is theological – showing how God structured domains and rulers as the glue that holds the created universe together – the essence of the Framework structure:
Days 1 and 4 are the first theological unit;
Days 2 and 5 are the second theological unit;
Days 3 and 6 are the third theological unit.
- The nature of Genesis 1 is theological order, where man and woman are made as the crown of God’s creation, to govern his good works. Theological order then provides the basis for chronological order – namely, the historical tracing of Adam to Jesus. Man and woman are made directly by God, and we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, according to the biblical chronologies and Jewish calendar, which place Adam and Eve at 3760 B.C.
Tim has written a critique of the Framework structure, and here are six of the many issues he raises:
- Tim says the Framework structure can be an attempt to harmonize old-earth ideas with Genesis, even with “the evolutionary origin of man.” I say no to such a view. The Framework structure does not address the age of the planet or universe, which may be younger or older. That is a scientific consideration, and the very basis for good science and the scientific method is rooted in the Bible. And as already noted, the Framework structure says no to macroevolution.
- Tim says “the Framework hypothesis turns Genesis into a sort of Aesop’s Fable,” and that it “actually attempts to downplay the biblical text.” On the contrary, the Framework structure is the most rigorous means I know to faithfully exegete Genesis 1 on its own terms, and the biblical order of creation is the unique basis for affirming verifiable history. No fiction.
- Tim says Exodus 20:11 states how God made the universe in six days, and this supports his 24-hour view of Genesis 1. However, Genesis 1 first defines what Exodus 20 refers back to later. The Framework structure shows how Exodus 20 refers to the theological order of the creation week, and not to a chronological order of 24-hour days.
- Here we hit the crux. Tim says that the “light” of the first day is a “directed” light that provides for evening and morning, for the measurement of 24-hour days in an uninhabited universe; and that somehow, the earth is rotating on its axis. However, the language in Genesis 1:5 and the rest of the chapter is the normal language used in all the Hebrew Bible for a 24-hour day being measured by the earth spinning on its axis and rotating around the sun. By definition, 24 normal hours cannot exist otherwise. Tim seeks to address this issue by saying that the light in Day 1 is somehow “directed.” But this is not in the text – he inserts such an idea. Only a localized and powerful light can provide for day and night – the sun, created on the fourth day. Also, the spinning of the earth on its axis requires the gravitational pull of both the sun and moon. If somehow a non-localized but “directed” light creates 24-hour periods, why is there any need for the sun, moon and the stars on the fourth day? As the Framework structure shows, the light on Day 1 describes the domain of day and night, and the lights on Day 4 are the agents that manifest localized light. Which reading of the text is literal and takes the Bible on its own terms, and which reading has to reach for an explanation? Which reading argues what the Bible actually says, and which reading argues from silence?
- Tim says that “death” did not enter the universe until Adam and Eve sinned. But the only death being referenced in Genesis 2, Romans 5 and 8, is the entry of human death – not the origin of animal death. As well, Psalm 104, a hymn of creation with various details from Genesis 1, never speaks of six 24-hour days, and prior to the creation of man it speaks of the beasts that prowl, and how “the lions roar for their prey, and seek their food from God.” Would a 24-hour theorist say that insects were originally created to live forever? What is the source for fertilizer? What is the nature of ecology?
- Tim says that the parallels in Genesis 1 are not always precise. How so? In some details rooted in the presupposition of 24-hour days? What about the overwhelmingly parallel structure in the text? What about the use of powerful literary devices in the Hebrew Bible?
If we grasp the nature of the Framework structure, in the original Hebrew, then we can sum up the following:
- God created the universe by his very Word.
- His purpose was to create man and woman in his image to govern his good creation.
- God directly created every form of life to reproduce after its own kind; we are made directly after God’s own kind; there is no macroevolution.
- Theological order is the purpose of Genesis 1, where domains and rulers are set in place as the glue that holds it all together, and where the structure of the week and Sabbath rest gives eternal structure and purpose to our earthly lives. Fill, subdue, and enter God’s rest.
- The historical lineage from Adam to Jesus is traced marvelously in the Bible.
- We are free to do good science, and explore the age of the earth and universe.
There are four salient questions for Tim:
- Do Days 1-3 define habitations, and do Days 4-6 define their inhabitants?
- Is the same true for domains and rulers?
- Can Day 1 be explained and understood apart from Day 4?
- If the light of Day 1 causes day and night, why the need for the sun, moon and starts on Day 4?
In my interactions with skeptics, I have seen relentlessly good fruit. In 1991, I had the world’s leading secular humanist on my radio show in Boston. On the way to the station he questioned me on the days of creation and macroevolution. I gave answer, and he had nothing further to say, becoming pensive.
In 2006, I addressed a forum at Columbia University with three Darwinian evolutionists, including the curator of zoology and ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History. He told me that my presentation was “the only intelligent one” that evening. Then, in a subsequent meeting, I wanted to talk about science, but he wanted to hear my testimony and the nature of my biblical faith.
Any serious biblical student will pay attention to the Bible’s powerful literary genres. In Genesis 1, the Framework structure shows that God made the good creation for man and woman as his image bearers to govern, including the delightful freedom to explore the works of his hands. Genesis 1 does not box us into an artificial timetable, but is attractive to all people who seek the truth, even the most hardened of skeptics.
As further illustration of a powerful literary device in service to simple truths, we can look at the great chiasm in the Flood narrative of Genesis 6:10-9:19. An ancient Hebrew reader would pick it up easily, but 3500 years later, English readers would not see it apart from a close study. A chiasm is a literary device where the emphasis is on the middle, or high point or points, of a sequence, not the first or the last point, and where the preceding and subsequent points are parallel. A is parallel to A’, B is parallel to B’, etc. The remarkable 31-point chiasm below serves the simple point that God remembers Noah – he keeps his covenant with the remnant family in a wicked age. As well, it is important to note that the chiastic structure is not the purpose of the text, but a natural literary device in service to the theological purpose at hand.
[Adapted from Garrett, Duane: Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1991), p. 26]
I invite you to spend time reviewing the details of both the Framework structure of Genesis 1 and the chiasm of the Flood narrative. As you do, I believe you will come to see clearly what I see in the biblical text.