Articles and EssaysTheology

The Meaning of Yom in Genesis 1 in the Light of Modern Biblical Scholarship

by Mark Koehne, Ph.D. [1]


Genesis 1 portrays yom (יום, day), when associated with an ordinal number, as a 24-hour period of time.[2] The way in which yom is portrayed in Genesis 1, along with other references to the use of yom in creation, presented elsewhere in Genesis and in Exodus, demonstrate this meaning.[3] Other interpretations of the meaning of the ordinal numbered yom in Genesis 1 are faulty. In the following, we will briefly present these interpretations. Then we will advance the most likely provenance and authorship of Genesis 1 and explain why yom in Genesis 1—apart from its obvious meaning as “daylight” in Genesis 1:5a—can only mean a twenty- four hour period of time. In presenting this Scripture study, we will apply the historical method as well as literary, genre, and redaction criticism.

Three exegetical positions dominate faulty interpretation of the above use of yom.[4] (From now on in this chapter, this Genesis 1 ordinal numbered use of yom will be referred to as just “yom” unless otherwise specified.) The first major faulty position defines yom as an indefinite period of time. The second views yom as part of a symbolic framework intended to highlight either the Sabbath (or covenant relationship with God), the creation of man made in God’s image, or the Jerusalem Temple. The third interpretation considers yom part of a symbolic narrative intended to refute Ancient Near Eastern creation mythologies. Some commentators combine the second and third positions.[5] I will begin by discussing the first faulty interpretation.

Faulty Interpretations

Interpreting yom as an indefinite amount of time post-dates the era of Church Fathers. It is a relatively recent position, especially accommodating to a macro-evolutionary worldview. Contemporary scholarly communities rarely embrace this position; rather, mistaken pastoral attempts at rescuing Christianity from an alleged anti-scientific interpretation of Genesis 1, positing six literal days of creation, represent endorsement of defining yom as an indefinite period of time. Christian apologist Rich Deem represents this “day-age” position, i.e., each day represents a certain though indefinite age of time.[6]

The second erroneous position is represented in base form as a “framework hypothesis.” Some scholars contend that the days in Genesis 1 are part of a symbolic framework to highlight either the seventh day of rest, or the creation of man on the sixth day, or the construction and function of the Jerusalem Temple. Arie Noordtzij (University of Utrecht) conceived one of the earliest versions of this hypothesis, the content of which was first published in 1924.[7] Typically, commentators espousing this view contend that the author of Genesis 1 uses the words “days” and “nights” in six days as a framework to symbolize creation through artificially constructed parallelism. In this, God establishes form—or realms—in the first three days, and creates inhabitants for each of the formed realms on days four through six. The following are proposed as parallel: light of day 1/light-bearers of day 4; creation of the firmament of day 2/living creatures of the waters of day 5; dry land of day 3/inhabitants of the earth of day 6. The symbolic framework hypothesis views this literary structure as a means by which the author accentuates the climactic point of the structure. This climax may be the sixth day, the crown of creation—man made in the divine image. This particular view also acknowledges the importance of the Sabbath, often considered to be written to validate Sabbath observance.[8] Or, proponents of this hypothesis may highlight day 7, God’s day of rest, and also the goal of creation—God’s covenant relationship with us.[9] Again, as in the prior view, this position often suggests that the Biblical author’s commentary of the seventh day also is an attempt to validate the Sabbath observance of Jewish law, predating the authorship of Genesis 1.[10] A third accent advanced by some is the construction and function of the Jerusalem Temple, apparently reflected in the author’s interpretation of the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 35-40) as a symbol of the Jerusalem Temple. Proponents of this view cite, for example, the parallel of creation beginning in the first year, to the establishment of the tabernacle (a symbol of the Temple) on the first day of the year, foreshadowing the Temple’s sanctification at the New Year Festival.[11]

The third faulty interpretation views yom as part of a symbolic literary genre refuting Ancient Near Eastern creation mythologies. Sometimes this position also presupposes the symbolic framework hypothesis. Four scholars or scholarly communities representing this polemic position are the late David Neiman, John L. McKenzie, Lawrence Boadt, and the Navarre Bible: The Pentateuch.[12]89

According to Nieman, Genesis is a narrative whose purpose is to object to surrounding Sumerian and Babylonian cosmologies. Nieman contends that these cosmologies are the earliest ones, and are similar to more recent ancient Greek cosmology, all of which present the universe created by the conflict and then equilibrium of elemental forces. Myth describes these natural phenomena with names and drama, engendering creation stories. For example, Marduk, the Babylonian chief god—a storm god—conquered the chaotic primeval sea, personified by the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, by shooting an arrow into her, splitting her into two halves—the solid earth below, and the watery heavens above. Mythology explains the natural world in a way “acceptable to common sense.” Pagan mythology, then, personifies and dramatizes natural forces, requiring equilibrium for creation.

By contrast, explains Nieman, the Genesis cosmologist posits one power only, i.e., God, and a good creation—not one produced by an ugly war among gods. The cosmologist assigns no names to the sun and moon, further underscoring the apparent polemic against contemporary cosmologies that regarded the sun and moon as gods. Of course, one could ask why it matters to the cosmologist that only one god created all, or how the Genesis 1 author knows this, or how we know that this author knows this. If history somehow suggested or even affirmed a good creation by one God, belief in this would be based on something more concrete and specific, and more scripturally coherent—a real event. Otherwise this belief is rooted in an attractive concept to some, but not a disclosed reality, not one that can be validated without an extra step validated by the earliest historical reality. Perhaps most importantly, one could question the assumption that Mesopotamian cosmologies predated Genesis 1.

McKenzie argues similarly for the polemic interpretation of yom in Genesis 1. For example—by comparison to the Enuma Elish[13]— he contends that tʹhōm (תהום) in Genesis 1:2,[14] which he incorrectly translates as “chaos,” is etymologically related to the Akkadian Tiamat, but no longer is personified as a god. Light also is not divine, but rather is the first element of creation. Man, created last in both accounts, is exalted in Genesis, made in God’s image. McKenzie suggests that the literary function of six days is not to express the actual time duration of the creation of the universe; rather it is to assert that the sacred week with its Sabbath, as a Hebraic unit of time, is an original work of creation. “How” it is such is unknown. Of course, if the six days are understood as literal time units, then Genesis answers the “how.”

The view that yom is used as a literary device in a polemical narrative assumes that the Babylonian and Sumerian cosmologies were written first. If this chronology is incorrect, so is the polemic position. Next, I will present and discuss the most likely provenance and authorship of Genesis 1 and then explain why yom in Genesis 1 means a twenty-four hour period of time.

Provenance and Authorship of Genesis 1: Current Erroneous Views

In most scholarly circles, commentators believe that Genesis 1 is the work of a priestly writer or a priestly school or tradition of writers. The Documentary Hypothesis (DH) occasioned this belief, which supplanted the testimony of the Old and New Testaments, including that of Jesus Himself (e.g., John 5:46), which affirmed that Moses authored or edited the substance of the Pentateuch (i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). This testimony and contention of Mosaic authorship/editing continued as a general consensus until a little over a century ago.

In a nutshell, the DH, developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to reconcile apparent inconsistencies in the Pentateuch, asserts that different authors, hundreds of years after Moses, wrote the first five books of the Bible. The supposed inconsistencies especially consist of different words used for God (e.g., YHWH—probably pronounced “Yahweh,” Elohim, and YHWH Elohim), and certain stories, explanations, and descriptions that are repeated (e.g., about creation and Noah). The different proposed authors or traditions engendered four hypothetical documents or sources. The first is J, the Jehovist or Yahwist, containing parts of the Pentateuch frequently using the divine name YHWH, written in the 9th or 10th century B.C. in the Kingdom of Judah. The second is E, the Elohist, consisting of those portions in which God is named “Elohim,” written in the 8th or 9th century B.C. in the Kingdom of Israel. The third is D, the Deuteronomist, author of much of Deuteronomy, written in the 7th century B.C. during Josiah’s reform starting in Jerusalem. The fourth is P, the Priestly source, an editorial group of Jewish priests who revised the Pentateuch, reflecting their concerns after exile in Babylon, c. 500 B.C.

Two significant scholarly variations of this, both of which are seriously flawed, are the following: Martin Noth’s version, which minimizes the Elohist’s contribution and also posits a Grundlage or common basis for J and E; and John Van Seeter’s version that eliminates E and radically changes the chronological order of the documents—D first, P second, and J most recent. A noteworthy scholarly alternative to the DH—but equally flawed—is Rolf Rendtorff’s Theme Complexes Hypothesis. Rendtorff dismisses the Documentary Hypothesis’s presentation of the validity of distinct sources and their trajectories, and instead argues for the historical development of six independent theme complexes: primaeval history, patriarchs, wilderness wanderings, the Exodus, Sinai, and the Occupation. Rendtorff’s view suffers substantially from the same defects as the variations of the DH discussed above.

The DH is messy and conflictual in its variants, to say the least. Typically, its adherents add new hypothetical sources to the pre- existing ones, e.g., multiple Js and Ds, or layers of redactors (editors). Among other flaws, the DH suffers from absence of any historical evidence to support JEDP—all are phantom sources, and reflect a demonstrably erroneous view of history: the DH assumes that very little history was written before 1000 B.C. In fact, much was written before this time, as archaeology attests. This makes all the difference.

Provenance and Authorship of Genesis 1 according to Historical Testimony and Logic

The DH or its variants probably are still the leading positions among most scholars today concerning Pentateuchal authorship. The DH/DH variants contend that multiple divine names in Genesis substantiate belief in multiple traditions and authorship, post-dating Moses or even—among other reasons misguided by historicism—demonstrating his fabrication.[15] However, a closer and more careful look at Scripture shows that “Elohim,” a divine title, is used to talk about God in general, and sometimes to refer to His transcendence (His greatness, power, and majesty above ours). “YHWH,” God’s personal name, built from the words He revealed to Moses in Exodus 3: Eyeh Asher Eyeh (איה אשר איה “I Am Who Am”) is used when referring to the personal God of Israel—the covenant creator/savior—and can emphasize His moral character. (See, for example, Genesis 1:1-3, 3:8-11.)

In both Old and New Testaments, authorship of most of the Pentateuch—but not Genesis—is attributed to Moses. Most likely this is because Moses redacted (edited) but did not write Genesis. Then who did? In 1985, Assyriologist and archaeologist D.J. Wiseman presented and refined the work of his father, P.J. Wiseman, who contended that Mesopotamian literary conventions of the 2nd to 3rd millennia B.C.—disclosed from ancient tablets engraved in cuneiform—reveal the literary structure of Genesis.[16]

Wiseman’s contention draws our attention to discoveries on the materials and methods of Ancient Near Eastern writing—a skill and social convention (mentioned numerous times in the Pentateuch) that many modern Scripture scholars, as mentioned above, did not believe existed in antiquity until about as late 1,000 B.C. (This is a major assumption of the Documentary Hypothesis, which consequently relegates transmission of Biblical “stories” to oral tradition.) Pictograph writing emerged in the 4th millennium B.C., while cuneiform writing commenced in the late 4th to the 3rd millennia B.C., depending on the culture. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of clay tablets written before the age of the Patriarchs (beginning with Abraham)!

Specifically, Wiseman (among other archaeologists) found that tablets typically contain colophons (subscript phrases) at the end, or the bottom of the written account, which served as historical markers. The colophon included at least the following: a content statement (the following example of which is in Genesis), “These are the begettings (origins) of” תולדות; information on authorship or ownership of the tablet; and sometimes a description of events that marks the time period. The colophons within Genesis are found in Genesis 2:4a, 5:1, 6:9a, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27a, 25:12, 25:19a, 36:1, 36:9, and 37:2a.

The content of the tablet would have been known well by the tablet’s immediate author/owner, and reflects a time before his death. If multiple tablets were used, the author employed “catch- lines” to connect one tablet to the next in sequence. In view of this objective criteria in determining the origin and structure of Genesis, this first sacred book consists of tablets, each written by an eye-witness to the content of the tablet. Gen 5:1 even refers to the written nature of its account (זה ספר).

This “Tablet Theory” of Genesis authorship explains the varied use of God’s titles and name. Elohim is used as the word for God in general, and to convey His transcendence, as we see in the first tablet, 1:1-2:4.[17] YHWH, God’s personal name, is used quite clearly to highlight God’s identity and role as a covenant creator/savior, and His intimate, covenant relationship to men and women. The name YHWH first emerges in Genesis 2, where it is combined with Elohim as YHWH Elohim, serving as a transition between the transcendent use of God’s name in Genesis 1, and His intimate creation of Adam and Eve and personal, covenantal encounter with them in Genesis 2. The first use of YHWH in dialogue is by Eve (Genesis 4:1) in ironic reference to God’s creation of Adam, from whom God brought forth a woman: “With the help of YHWH I have brought forth a man!” All additional uses, including by the Patriarchs, reflect the personal, covenantal meaning behind YHWH. Other titles for God, e.g., “El Shaddai” (“God Almighty”), appropriately fit their context and reflect a natural lingual diversity.

The Tablet Theory of Genesis authorship also quite naturally explains repetitions: tablet connectors, or “catch-lines” deliberately repeat certain words found in the colophon at the end of the previous tablet. For example, according to this literary convention, the first colophon of the first tablet (Genesis 2:4a) states: “These are the origins of the heavens and the earth.” The catch-line on top of the (no longer extant) second tablet (Genesis 2:4b) reads: “When YHWH Elohim made the earth and the heavens...” The Tablet Theory, in addition to catch-line repetition, explains content repetitions (apart from learning devices or poetic parallelism). An example: in the warning of the flood, Genesis 6:5-9a repeats some of the same content as 6:9b-13. However, the first section ends with a colophon, the author/owner of whom is Noah. Genesis 6:9b-13 is particular to the next tablet, written by another author (or possibly authors, in this case).

Genesis shows signs of minor redaction in various places, especially textual notes and explanations. Some of these identified ancient names and places that the Israelites, at the time of their entrance into the Promised Land, would not have known. There are several examples; the following three notes that identify place names are a small sample: Genesis 14:2, 3, 8—“Bela (that is, Zoar)...Vale of Siddom (that is, the Salt Sea); and Genesis 23:2— “[Sarah] died in Kiriatharba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.” As a prince of Egypt, from perhaps the richest cultural center of the world, Moses would have become learned in history and skilled in the language arts of antiquity. The Tablets of Genesis may have been written in Proto-Semitic—an earlier version of Hebrew—a language Moses would have grasped.[18] Moses, then, is the prime candidate for the Genesis redactor. Other evidence that strongly suggests that Moses compiled the Genesis documents that were written much earlier are the following: Babylonian words in Chapters 1-11; Egyptian words in Chapters 37-50; within the narratives, familiarity with details of events indicating eyewitness testimony; and internal evidence that Genesis originally was written in ancient script on tablets.[19]

Similarly, Moses is the prime candidate for authorship of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. First, the Bible itself, including Jesus, refers to this authorship. Second, the author of these books was thoroughly familiar with Egypt’s and the Sinai Peninsula’s geography, but was unfamiliar with Canaan’s geography—just as you would expect of Moses. Third, eyewitness details are reported, including chronological order of legislation.

We can understand the literary structure of Genesis, then, through the literary-cultural conventions of ancient Mesopotamia. But who did, then, write Genesis 1? Its colophon, Genesis 2:4a, unlike all the others in Genesis, lists no author.[20] Genesis 1—unparalleled and unique among all literature—is simple, direct, profound, and personally directed (Genesis 1: 28-30). Because it does not name the sun and moon, it is either an apologetic against other Mesopotamian cosmologies that worshipped the sun and moon by name, or Genesis 1 predates these cosmologies and any emerging polytheism in history, situating its origin exceptionally early in human history, at “the threshold of written history.” If so, this also could explain why Genesis 1 contains no mythological or nationalistic elements.[21]

As we have seen, however—according to objective criteria long since established by archaeological history—Genesis 1 reflects a written history stretching back to the 4th millennium B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia. The polemic view of Genesis 1, and the function it assigns to yom, is entirely erroneous because it falsely dates Genesis as post-dating Sumerian and Babylonian creation myths, when in fact Genesis 1 predates them by at least two thousand years! We may discern in the Mesopotamian cosmologies elements that resonate in Genesis 1; these cosmologies, by implication, are partial corruptions of God’s creation revelation in Genesis 1.[22]

The three-fold criteria of the historical method are authenticity, credibility, and material integrity. The Tablet Theory passes the test on all the criteria: historical eyewitness testimony (authenticity), agreement between eyewitness testimony and other sources (credibility)—such as the numerous ancient genealogies that trace their origins back to Noah, or even to Adam (e.g., the Chinese, and the Miatsu people of China), and intactness of the reports (material integrity).[23] We see this material integrity in the colophonic structure throughout Genesis, linking the family history narratives. Genesis 1, delineated by the peculiarly authorless colophon of Genesis 2:4a, is probably the most ancient of all written records, perhaps first etched in stone or clay in pictograph in Mesopotamia, then converted to Proto-Semitic cuneiform, and then redacted by Moses into Hebrew. Since Genesis 1 claims no human author, and no author could conceivably have written prehistory in its original form, we may logically deduce that God directly wrote Genesis 1. God’s direct authorship of scriptural material is not unprecedented: Exodus (24:12 and 31:18, for example) tells us that YHWH wrote the Torah (the Words, or Ten Commandments) with His finger. Would not Genesis 1 be just as appropriately and directly divine?

How would we designate the genre of the world’s first piece of literature? Adherents of the framework hypothesis or polemic interpretation of Genesis 1 may categorize its genre as narrative fiction or poetry. History itself refutes the polemic position because of its erroneous dating, among other reasons. Genesis 1 is not poetry, either. With the exception of one short poem—1:27— interspersed within Genesis 1, this first chapter of the Bible does not display features characteristic of Hebraic poetry.[24]101 Genesis 1 also is not a symbolic framework narrative. This interpretation of Genesis 1 suffers from serious internal inconsistencies that contradict the parallelism that the framework narrative is supposed to showcase. Three primary examples are the following. Light is not the realm of the light-bearers: the firmament created on day 2 is. The realm of the birds is not the firmament—the realm of light- bearers—but rather is the earth (1:22). The birds are underneath the realm of the firmament (1:22). Finally, the realm of man is not the dry land of day 3, but rather the entire earth (1:26, 28). These are the most obvious, basic inconsistencies.[25]

The colophon postscript of Genesis 2:4a discloses the genre of Genesis 1: genealogical historical narrative, as we see in the rest of Genesis as well.[26] This genealogical literary purpose of Genesis 1 eliminates, from the start, the framework hypothesis, which veers from the historical focus of its genre and suffers from the internal inconsistencies explained above. The literal-historical sense of Genesis 1, then, is a highly exalted yet simple, general depiction of what actually happened at the dawn of history.[27] This certainly also is how Biblical-era interpreters for thousands of years understood Genesis 1, as well as Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church.[28] There are no indications in Scripture to the contrary. Many contemporary Biblical scholars also acknowledge the literal presentation of history in Genesis 1 conveyed by the author.[29] The Catholic Church, in irreversible dogmatic statements on creation from Lateran IV and Vatican I—reflected in part in the Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 327—also implies this understanding of the historicity of Genesis 1.[30]

Yom in Genesis 1: A Twenty-Four Hour Period of Time

For at least four Biblical reasons, all of which pertain to Genesis 1, yom (except for its obvious meaning as “daylight” in Genesis 1:5a) means a twenty-four hour period of time. I will discuss these reasons below. Briefly, they are the following. First, its genre presents yom in this way, with no evidence to the contrary. Second, in the Masoretic Old Testament, yom associated with an ordinal number always means a twenty-four hour period of time, and the grammatical construction in Genesis 1 in relation to these ordinal numbered days suggests as well that yom is a solar day. Third, the primary objections to yom meaning a twenty-four hour period, referenced from Genesis 1:16, Genesis 2:4b, and 2:5—are obviated in the Hebrew and grammatical/literary structure within Genesis 1-2. Fourth, Exodus 20:8-11 and 31:16-18 decisively present the Genesis 1 yom as a solar day.

Concerning genre, Genesis 1 is historical, as we have seen. Specifically, it is genealogical historical narrative. The rest of Genesis retains this genre. The colophons, marked by the content statement—the tolodoth (תולדות), “These are the begettings (origins) of,”—extend the genre throughout the entire book. The tablets follow a sequence delineated by the colophons; with the exception of Genesis 1, each colophon, or tablet postscript, names its author, just as did other tablets throughout ancient Mesopotamia, many of which are displayed in museums throughout the world. So, for example, according to the literary protocol of ancient Mesopotamian culture, Genesis 5:1 cites Adam as the author of the “book” or “written account” of Genesis 2:4b to Genesis 5:1, and Genesis 6:9a cites Noah as the author of Genesis 5:1b to 6:9a.

Genesis, then, refers to a conglomeration of highly notable authors. The obvious evidence of occasional redaction, explained above, as well as a likely translation from Proto-Semitic to Hebrew, strongly suggests the hand of Moses, by far the most likely candidate for such an extraordinarily important project. Genesis, then, is not a patchwork of numerous sources, traditions, and editorial hands sewn together well after 1000 B.C., producing a profound yet fabricated narrative. Therefore, Genesis also is not, in general, a genre mix. Its historicity, expressed in pre-modern strokes, is consistent throughout.

Considering its genre, words in Genesis, such as “yom,” should be interpreted as contributing to the historical narrative. Alternate meanings diverging from a solar day that harmonize with historicity do not emerge, except for yom meaning “daylight” in Genesis 1:5, as noted above. If words are used symbolically, the author would indicate or explain this, since it runs contrary to the thrust of historical narrative. Yet, Genesis 1 suggests no such alternate meanings.

The second reason yom means a normal solar day is that when, in the Old Testament, yom is paired with an ordinal number, it always does mean a twenty-four hour period.[31] In the following, I will very briefly summarize the work of two scholars, John Sarfati and Andrew Steinmann, who demonstrate this.[32]

In Genesis 1 days 1-7 are ordinal numbered (i.e., first, second, third, fourth, etc.).[33] In every one of 359 instances in the OT, apart from Genesis 1, when an ordinal number modifies yom, it always means a literal twenty-four hour day, or sunlight in a night- day cycle.[34] There must be an extraordinary reason to justify an exception in Genesis 1. However, the grammar and grammatical structure of Genesis 1 confirms this OT usage of an ordinal numbered yom in Genesis 1. The author (God, as stated by Dr. Sarfati) could have used many other words besides yom to refer to a long period of time, e.g., days (yamim, ימים), or generation/period (dōr, דור), or phrases such as “x myriad myriad years ago.”[35] In addition, an unusual grammatical construction defines yom in Genesis 1:5—apart and in clear distinction—from yom as “daylight” in the same verse. The verse, describing night and day transitions with darkness and light, reads “a first day,” underscoring and therefore delineating the duration of a solar day. Days 2-5 follow suit, omitting articles as well. However, as if to signal something particularly significant, days 6-7 insert the definite article on the ordinal number. This accentuates the importance of the sequence and highlights, of course, the culmination of God’s work in the creation of the first man and woman on the sixth day, and the Sabbath covenant on the seventh day. The third reason yom is presented as a twenty-four hour period is that the primary objections to yom meaning a twenty-four hour period, referenced from Genesis 1:16, Genesis 2:4, and 2:5[36]—are obviated by the Hebrew and literary/grammatical structure of Genesis 1-2.

Perhaps commentators opposing the interpretation of the Genesis 1 yom as a solar day refer to Genesis 1:16 more than any other verse to try to prove their point. It reads: “God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars.” Because a solar day could not possibly begin before the creation of the sun, the prior “days” could not be literal solar days, right? Although God could produce light from another source that would correspond in time- duration to a normal solar day occasioned by the sun, Genesis 1 resolves this apparent conundrum in another way. In Genesis 1:3, on day 1, God calls light into being and then separates the light from the darkness, showcasing the first evening and morning. This suggests the presence and operation of the sun. Genesis 1:14 and 1:18 again refer to separating light from darkness, day from night. This already happened, however, in Genesis 1:3. Did God’s first work fail, requiring another attempt? Or is Genesis 1 presenting the same operation, though further refined in a second phase?

In Genesis 1:1, God creates everything—the heavens and the earth—from nothing on the first day, with one exception. The verb the sacred author (God) uses is bará (ברא), an exclusively divine, creative activity, in which God always is the subject. Nothing exists before “in the beginning”; the context implies creation ex nihilo, “out of nothing”[37] In Genesis 1, the only other “thing” God creates out of nothing after the first day is “the man” (האדם)— in total, the male and female—on the sixth day—ברא is used here in 1:27; the only other time it emerges in Genesis 1 is in the “formation” of the great sea creatures in 1:21: ברא usually means divine creation (without pre-existing matter), but may also mean “formation.” Here it is used as “formation” probably to induce verbal variety into the narrative. Viewed from the ongoing narrative in Genesis 2, God formed (2:7) the first man (mentioned also in Genesis 1:27). However, the first man—Adam (referenced in Genesis 3:17 as “Adam” without the definite article)—did not come to life until God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (2:7), i.e., infused the lifeless Adam with a soul, bringing him to life as a man, composite of body and soul.[38]115 Genesis 1:27, by using ברא, suggests a divinely creative act that is explicated in the most ancient piece of human authorship, Genesis 2.

However, in Genesis 1:16-17, in the Hebrew, God did not “create” the two great lights (the sun and the moon), he first “made” (asá, עשה) them—past tense, sometime before the fourth day command, let there be lights in the firmament.” Second, he “set” (natán, נתן) them in the firmament as a consequence of this command. Based on the narrative, God made the lights on the first day (after creation of all matter) when he separated day from night: the two great lights already governed the day and the night before God “set” them in the firmament, or made them appear in an apparently overcast sky. God already separated light from darkness on the first day.[39]116 In addition, in Genesis 1, asá functions to distinguish, as in 1:6-7: “‘Let there be a firmament between the waters to separate water from water.’ So God made (asá) the firmament...” In 1:16, lights are distinguished through the dissipation in the sky.

Another objection to yom meaning a normal solar day in Genesis 1 is Genesis 2:4b, which also uses the word yom. Some believe that here it means literally “in the day,” i.e., 2:4b: “in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” Interpreters supporting this view then point out that the author of Genesis 1 (who is, however, a different instrumental author than Genesis 2), because of the application of yom this way in 2:4b (which does not mention six days), does not intend yom to be taken as a literal solar day. However, a close look at the correct translation of the verse supports six days of creation, and the Tablet Theory, as well: “when (b’yom, ביום) YHWH God made the heavens and the earth...” B’yom, as Sarfati correctly observes, is a Hebraic idiom meaning “when.”[40] As a complex idiomatic construction, “day” becomes assimilated into a word chain that is the English equivalent of “when.” According to the colophonic structure of Genesis, 2:4b is the catch-line, or beginning, on the top of the second Genesis tablet, which begins by narrating the “making” of Adam, the culmination of the formation of the universe. The second tablet’s catch-line, using asá, is an appropriate transition from the first tablet’s colophonic ending, 2:4a: “These are the begettings (origins) of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” The verb used for “created” is bará, the same verb we see in in the very beginning of Genesis. The colophon quite predictably refers back to 1:1a: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Therefore, the colophon of 2:4a and the catch-line of 2:4b track God’s creation from nothing to his six-day making/formation of the universe. The wording of the colophon and catch-line tacitly refer to the creation and then formation of the universe in six days.

A third primary objection to yom meaning a twenty-four hour period of time is Genesis 2:5 which, according to some commentators, contradicts the sequence of creation in Genesis 1, therefore demonstrating the symbolic meaning of the six days. Genesis 2:5 reads: “ shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up; the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but a stream came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.” Based on a cursory reading, in many translated languages, God seems to have created plant life for the first time on both day 3 (Genesis 1:11-12) and day 6 (Genesis 2:5—plant life following the creation of man on the sixth day). However, even in English the solution emerges. The vegetation on day 3 are “every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it.” In Genesis 1:29, God tells our first parents about their food source: “I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food.” The vegetation on day 3 is their food source. By contrast, the vegetation referenced in 2:5, that would only spring up with rain and man to work the ground, are field shrubs (siakh ha sadeh, i.e., שיח השדה) and field grass (ehsev ha sadeh, עשב השדה), i.e., cultivated garden plants.[41]

The fourth reason yom means a twenty-four hour period in Genesis 1 is the reference to the six days in Exodus 20:8-11 and 31:16-18. Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of YHWH your God. You shall not do any work...for in six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore YHWH blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” In 31:16-18, the Israelites are to observe the Sabbath as a perpetual covenant, “for in six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day He ceased work and refreshed Himself.”

In these Exodus references, God ordains a rhythm of six solar days of work followed by a solar day of rest because He created the heavens, the earth, the seas, and all they contain in six 24-hour days. The form of the commandment makes no sense if the Lord intends to compare six indefinite, long periods of time—as in progressive creation or theistic evolution scenarios—with six solar days. In that case, He would have said:

“Work for six days and rest for one day, because in six ages of time God made the heavens, the earth, and the seas, and all they contain, and rested in the seventh age.”

But the text in no way suggests that God intended to convey this meaning.

Also, the Sabbath Commandment to the Israelites is only coherent if they are familiar with it enough to “remember” the Sabbath and the purpose of its consecration. This means the account of six days of creation, i.e., the Genesis 1 tablet, must have been in their possession and must have been taken seriously as the beginning of the history of their family and of all humanity.


This study asserts that the Genesis 1 yom—except for a single reference to daylight—means a twenty-four hour solar day. Other interpretations are erroneous for a variety of reasons. For instance, the framework hypothesis, typically understood, suffers from internal inconsistencies within its purported parallelism. The polemic position is untenable because it erroneously dates Genesis. Misinterpretations of Genesis 1:16, Genesis 2:4b, and 2:5 precipitate faulty views of yom in Genesis 1, such as the day-age interpretation. The Documentary Hypothesis and its variants may misdirect its advocates by misunderstanding the provenance and authorship of Genesis, and by interpreting along the lines of the framework hypothesis or polemic view. The ancient Mesopotamian provenance helps us identify and understand the genre of Genesis—genealogical historical narrative. This genre along with the following argue persuasively that the Genesis 1 ordinal-numbered yom is a solar day: the ordinal numbering of yom and the grammatical construction of Genesis; the Hebraic and literary corrections to faulty Genesis verse interpretations raised against the meaning of the Genesis 1 yom as a solar day; and references to the six days of creation and the Sabbath in Exodus 20 and 31.

We hope that gifted scholars who adopt erroneous interpretations on this matter reconsider and appreciate the tenability of creation in six solar days—the position embraced by the Church Fathers, Doctors, Magisterium, and sound exegesis.


[1] This essay was originally published as Chapter Eight of “I Have Spoken to You from Heaven”: A Catholic Defense of Creation in Six Days (Kolbe Center, 2015).

[2] For the sake of convention and simplicity in this study, we will transliterate יום as yom, even though yōm is more precise.

[3] Because of the preservation and reliability of the Masoretic (MT) text of the Old Testament, this study examines the MT Genesis.

[4] Our presentation of these positions are arbitrarily ordered. Of course, we assume the best scholarly intentions of these varied and often sharply contrasting views.

[5] Other erroneous views much less held by some modern commentators include, but are not limited to, a symbolic correspondence to each creation day, and gap creation—a gap of time between two distinct creations purportedly implied in the first and second verses of Genesis 1.

[6] See, for example, Rich Deem, Evidence for God from Science, Web.

[7] Arie Noordtzij, Gods Woord en der Eeuwen Getuigenis. Het Oude Testament in het Licht der Oostersche Opgravingen (Kampen, 1924), Print. Edward J. Young assesses this view and others related to it in Studies in Genesis One (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1999), Print.

[8] See, for example, Lawrence Boadt, “Genesis,” The International Bible Commentary: A Catholic and Ecumenical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century (ed. William R. Farmer; Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 362, Print.

[9] For example, see Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises (Cincinnati: Servant Books, 1998), 49, Print. Hahn respects the solar-day interpretation of yom in Genesis 1. As an aside, his contribution to covenant theology, both in scholarly and pastoral application, is exceptionally significant.

[10] An example: The Navarre Bible: The Pentateuch (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999), 38, Print.

[11] See, for example, Ronald Hendel, “Genesis, Book of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 2 (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 934, Print.

[12] See, for example, the following: Dr. David Neiman, Boston College, “Lecture One: The Polemic Language of Genesis,” Discovering Genesis and the Origins of the Biblical World (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society/Midnight Shadow Productions), DVD; John L. McKenzie, S.J., Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 157-160, Print; Boadt, 361-363; The Navarre Bible: Pentateuch—Texts and Commentaries (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999), 36-44, Print. Two very recent works that assume this polemical perspective of Gen I are Samuel D. Giere, A New Glimpse of Day One: Intertextuality, History of Interpretation, and Genesis 1.1-5 (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), Print, and B.C. Hodge, Revisiting the Days of Genesis: A Study of the Use of Time in Genesis 1-11 in Light of Its Ancient Near Eastern and Literary Context (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), Print. Hodge also accentuates an assumed polemic against Atrahasis, the 2nd millennium Mesopotamian flood epic. This assumption suffers from similar erroneous dating.

[13] The Enuma Elish, c. 1100 B.C., is a ceremonial recitation elevating Marduk as king of the gods, and invoking his fifty names. Only the very beginning refers to creation. By significant contrast, Genesis 1 is entirely about creation, and is not a poetic recitation.

[14] Tʹhōm (תהום) means primaeval ocean, flood, or empty wasteland, depending on the context. In Genesis 1:2, it means primaeval ocean. It does not mean or imply chaos. This translational error has resulted in numerous erroneous interpretations of Genesis 1. See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Volume 4 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 16891691, Print, F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver- Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 1062- 1063, Print.

[15] Martin Noth, in A History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), 173, Print, typifies this notion of Scriptural fabrication of aspects of the life of Moses. Noth asserts that probably Moses, among the circle of tribes in the southern part of East Jordan, “once held a leading position, perhaps even in connection with the gradual transition to their later abodes in the arable land of West Jordan, which came about initially through the changing of pastures. From this standpoint it would be quite understandable that Moses as a leader-figure initially gained entrance into the narrative elaboration of the theme “guidance in the wilderness,” and then he came to assume this role in the remaining Pentateuchal themes as well, with the exception, of course, of the “patriarchal” theme.

[16] P.J. Wiseman, Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis: A Case for Literary Unity (ed. D.J. Wiseman; New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), Print.

[17] For convenience throughout this discussion, we refer to this first tablet as Genesis 1.

[18] Genesis 1, however, probably first was written in pictograph, and later converted to Proto-Semitic.

[19] Wiseman, 74-85. The antiquity of the Genesis calendar, seen, for example, in its system of numbering months, is arguably pre-Babylonian Mesopotamian. See Bill Cooper, The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis, 2012, Kindle.

[20] Genesis 5:1, 6:9a, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27a, 25:12, 25:19a, 36:1, 36:9, and 37:2a.

[21] Wiseman, 90.

[22] This is true also of numerous flood accounts, the oldest known of which— written upon the 2100 B.C. Akkadian flood tablet—most closely resembles the account and monotheism of the flood narrative in Genesis 9. See Cooper, The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis.

[23] Regarding these ancient genealogies, see, for example, Bill Cooper, After the Flood (Chichester, England: New Wine Press, 1995), Print, and Ethel R. Nelson, Richard E. Broadberry, and Ginger Tong Chock, God’s Promise to the Chinese (Dunlap, TN: Read Books Publisher, 1997), Print. Two seals testify to knowledge among the ancients of the origin and fall of the human race through Adam and Eve. One is a cylinder “Temptation” seal (ca. 2200 B.C.), written in Akkadian, depicting a seated female and male, both reaching for one of two fruits (from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?) from a seven-branched tree in between them. A serpent looms behind each of them. The second seal, the “Fall” seal (ca. 3500 B.C.?), is a Mesopotamian depiction of a naked and cowering male and female, behind whom is a serpent. See Bill Cooper, The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis.

[24] All Biblical Hebrew poetry consists of parallelism in two- or three-line verse units. Only Genesis 1:27 within the chapter is composed in this way. See Adele Berlin, “Parallelism,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 5 ed. (David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 155-162, Print, Theodore Hiebert, “Poetry,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (ed. David Noel Freedman; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1065-1066, Print, McKenzie, 680.

[25] See Young, 68-73, for a full discussion of inconsistencies entailed in this hypothesis.

[26] CCC #390 correctly points out that Genesis 3 uses figurative speech. The few but salient, figurative passages are either strictly metaphorical (such as Genesis 3:1 and 14), or constitute a literal as well as pronounced spiritual sense of Scripture, such as the allegory of salvation in Christ found in the tree of life (e.g., Genesis 3:22, in reference to Genesis 2:9, and—in respect of the unity of Scripture—Revelation 22:14, 19).

[27] Genesis 1 is not, of course, a modern scientific treatment of the physical realities described. Creation is a supernatural sequence of physical and spiritual events.

[28] Examples abound in Scripture. Just a few are 2 Maccabees 7:28, Tobit 8:6, Hosea 6:7, Matthew 19:4-5; Romans 5:12-14. Among Church Fathers, only St. Augustine favored a symbolic interpretation of (much of) Genesis 1, which he still rendered as history. This interpretation did not incorporate the framework hypothesis or polemic position, and postulated that God created everything instantaneously.

[29] Chapter Three of “I Have Spoken to You from Heaven” cites a few examples of such scholars—James Baar, Hugh Williamson, and Emmanuel Tov.

[30] For a thorough treatment of this topic, see Chapter Five of “I Have Spoken to You from Heaven,” “Sacred Tradition and Magisterial Teaching on the Meaning of Day in Genesis 1.”

[31] In addition to the forthcoming examples, see Kenneth D. Mulzac, “Day,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 324, Print.

[32] See Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Compromise (Brisbane, Australia: Creation Ministries International, 2004), 327-328, Web, and Andrew Steinmann, “As an Ordinal Number and the Meaning of Genesis 1:5,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (2002): 577-584, Print.

[33] I depart from Sarfati on one very minor point. He designates yom ekhad (יום אחד) as “day one”—“one” understood as a cardinal number. In Biblical Hebrew ekhad can be an ordinal or cardinal number, depending on the context. In Genesis 1:5 it is an ordinal number. See Koehler-Baumgartner, 30, and Brown- Driver-Briggs, 25.

[34] The 359 cited instances exclude the Deutero-canonical books.

[35] Sarfati, 327-328.

[36] “Day-age” proponents often employ these references to argue their position.

[37] The context, the Masoretic text accented with a disjunctive Tiphcha, and all ancient versions of Genesis construe “In the beginning,” B’reyshēt (בראשית), in the absolute state, i.e., “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Therefore it should not be read, “when God created the heavens and the earth,” implying the possibility of existing matter, since this first clause is followed by “the earth was formless and void.” See Young, 1-7.

[38] Though describing Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:7 by including the infusion of the soul does literally go beyond the text, it does not contradict it and offers a sound explanation, corroborated by the analogy of faith.

[39] Regarding the use of these verbs, see Brown-Driver-Briggs, 678-81, 793-95, Koehler-Baumgartner, 733-34, 889-93.

[40] Sarfati, 70; Brown-Driver-Briggs, 400.

[41] Brown-Driver-Briggs, 793, 967, Koehler-Baumgartner, 889, 1320-21.

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