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The Inerrancy and Historicity of Genesis 1-3, Part 3

Editor’s Note: In this four-part series on “The Inerrancy and Historicity of Genesis 1-3,” Dr. John Yeo will examine:

How Should I Interpret Genesis 1-3?

In the previous entry, I contended that the literary genre for Genesis 1-3 is “historical narrative.” In the present entry, I will be arguing for the literal 6-day, 24-hour view of creation. Having said that, I want to make clear from the outset that there are and have been many respectable evangelical scholars who have held to a non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1, and yet, believe[d] that the genre of Genesis 2-3 should be understood as “historical.” Some of these interpreters are well-known evangelical scholars (such as B.B. Warfield, R.A. Torrey, Gleason Archer, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Meredith G. Kline, Bruce Waltke, Mark Futato, C. John Collins, Wayne Grudem, Norman L. Geisler, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, etc.) who were/are devout Christian believers and committed biblical inerrantists—many of whom I have the highest regard.

I will also be using the “grammatical-historical method,” which “seeks to find the ‘plain sense’ of the biblical text by applying standard rules of grammar and syntax” and “to discover what it meant historically.” 1 This is accomplished by studying the “context” of the passage. Context refers to “the words and sentences surrounding a word or statement that help us understand the meaning of that word or statement.” 2 There is an “immediate context” (the words and/or phrases closest to the word or phrase in question) and “remote contexts” (the materials in the chapters surrounding the passage and the entire biblical book in which it appears). 3 Along with the context, the interpreter needs to determine the text’s genre (which we established for Genesis 1 as “historical narrative”), interpret figurative language (if present), and “let Scripture interpret Scripture” (a.k.a., the “analogy of Scripture”). 4 Note that “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (1978 [hereafter CSBI]) in Article 18 encourages the same basic approach: “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historicaI exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” 5

Note that CSBI in Article 12 also asserts: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” 6 Alongside the goal of biblical exegesis and the grammatical-historical method, CSBI helpfully emphasizes that scientific hypotheses about earth history may not be properly employed to overturn the clear teaching of Scripture with respect to creation and the flood. This is significant because CSBI is precluding the eisegesis (i.e., “reading into the text”) of scientific theories into the creation/flood narratives and, therefore, altering the “plain sense” of these important texts. While not identical, the sentiments of Article 12 are similar to the Reformation conception of “Sola Scriptura” (i.e., Scripture Alone), which the Reformers applied in order to prevent popes or church councils to establish, by virtue of their ecclesiastical authority, the official and acceptable interpretation of Scripture. In like manner, our interpretation of Genesis 1-3 should not be governed by external influences such as scientific theories, ancient Near Eastern cosmogonic myths, and philosophical notions that are inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. Note that “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics” (1982) Article 19 underscores this same perspective: “We affirm that any preunderstandings which the interpreter brings to Scripture should be in harmony with scriptural teaching and subject to correction by it. We deny that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, inconsistent with itself, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism, and relativism.” 7

Differing Views of Genesis 1 & 2

In the following section, I will present a terse summary of the three major views regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. 8

The Literal 6-day, 24-hour View of Creation

Proponents: Andrew Steinmann, Todd Beall, John Currid, Ken Ham

  • The days of creation are interpreted as literal 6-day, 24-hour periods as experienced phenomenologically (i.e., how creation appeared from the stand point of the narrator on earth).
  • The Hebrew word yôm consistently throughout the Old Testament refers to a literal, 24-hour day. In the absence of strong evidence to the contrary—which proponents of this view do not believe is evident in the text—there is no reason to conclude that the author of Genesis 1 is intending anything else than what is meant elsewhere in Scripture. While admitting the term may have a broader meaning it only does so when the context explicitly says that it does—Genesis 1 does not fall into this category.
  • The literal 6-day, 24-hour proponents appeal strongly to the history of interpretation claiming that an historical consensus exists favoring the literal 6-day, 24-hour view.

The Day/Age View

Proponents: Hugh Ross, Gleason L. Archer

  • The Hebrew word yôm can and does refer to a span of time other than 24-hours. The primary motivation of these scholars is the strong astronomical and geological facts concerning the nature of the origin of the universal, in general, and the earth, in particular. They claim that these facts are virtually irrefutable.
  • Scripture being a non-technical text in regard to science typically speaks of natural phenomena in descriptive rather than technical terms. Genesis 1 is no exception to this. The Hebrew use of yôm is flexible enough to allow for these “days” to be more than 24-hour days; they assert that vast ages of time, millions and billions of years, are summed up in this chapter. Hence, there is no contradiction between science and Scripture—the two are harmonious.

Framework Interpretation

Proponents: Meredith G. Kline, Mark D. Futato, Lee Irons

  • These proponents argue on literary and exegetical grounds. They insist that the structure of Genesis 1 must take precedence over any apologetic concerns since this is the intention of the text itself.
  • The distinctions of the framework view are two-fold: 1) it holds to a non-sequential view of the days of creation, 2) it holds to a non-literal view of the seven days as a whole.
  • The Hebrew word yom has a metaphorical meaning: although it has a literal denotation (referring to an actual day), it has a non-literal connotation (moving it away from an actual day to an unstated time reference). The argument is further supported by an upper register/lower register view that affirms a heavenly perspective on the event. What is primary to the framework view is the theological connection of the message of Genesis 1 to the covenant community that has based its life around the Sabbath week.
  • There is a literary structure in Genesis 1 complete with two parallel triads. The first triad (Days 1-3) consists of the “creation kingdoms,” while the second triad (Days 4-6) consists of the “creature kings” who exercise dominion over those kingdoms. Based upon the analogy of the two triads, the uniqueness of the seventh day presents the Creator King as enthroned in His heavenly Sabbath rest over all creation. The parallel structure also indicates that the refrain “evening and morning” display a “semi-poetic” genre for Genesis 1. 9
    Creation kingdoms Creation kings
    Day 1 Light Day 4 Luminaries
    Day 2 Sky Day 5 Sea creatures
    Sea Winged creatures
    Day 3 Dry land Day 6 Land animals
    Vegetation Man
    The Creator King
    Day 7 Sabbath

What is the Meaning of the Word “Day”?

From the summary of the views above, the interpretive crux of the debate is clearly over the nature of the days in Genesis 1. Are they literal 24-hour periods, long ages of time, or non-literal, non-sequential “pictures” of God’s creative activity? In this section, I will argue that each occurrence of the word “day” in its immediate context of Genesis 1-2 has four distinct meanings. However, it is my contention that these differences do not point to an “agnostic” understanding of the word “day,” and, therefore, take it figurative as some of the proponents claim who are arguing for billions of years. It is my perspective that each occurrence allows us to understand the “big picture” of God’s creative activity within the period of 6 literal, 24-hour days. I will also highlight how the word is used within the broader context of Genesis 2.

Verse 5 “day” occurs twice in this verse.

  • After God creates light, He separates the darkness from the light. He calls the period of light: “day.” This is the first occurrence.
  • The second mention of the word “day” in v.5 comes after it is defined by the phrase, “evening and morning,” followed by the cardinal number “one” (literally “one day”). 10 The phrase “evening and morning, one day” is a unique Hebrew construction since the definite article is usually attached to the word “day” if it is to be translated as an ordinal number as in “the first day.” 11
  • The phrase in v.5, therefore, should be translated: “evening + morning = one day.” 12 The word “day,” in this context, is defined as an “evening,” (a period of darkness) plus a “morning” (a period of light) totaling “one day”—exactly the way the Jewish people currently divide a 24-hour day. Could Moses have been any clearer?

Verse 8 The text reads “evening and morning, a second day.”

  • Note that Moses did not employ a cardinal number (i.e., “two”), but an ordinal number (i.e., “second”) that follows the initial “one day” and asserts that another period of “evening and morning” has been completed. That is, this is a second period of time (i.e., “one day”) and is the same length of time as the first, i.e., composed of an “evening” (a period of darkness) and “morning” (a period of light). This reveals the sequential and chronological order of the creation narrative.

Verse 13 Note that this phrase and time period is again repeated for a third time: “evening and morning, a third day.”

Verses 14-19 On the fourth day, the luminaries are created in order to divide the “day” from the “evening.” In addition, the sun, moon, and stars are created to take the place of the stationary, supernatural light of days 1-3. Note that the plural form of “day” occurs within the purpose of the luminaries “to be for signs, seasons, days, and years.” The word “day” in this phrase clearly refers to a 24-hour period of time! This is clearly an etiological statement showing why the sun, moon, and stars were created and, indeed, we see them fulfilling their very purpose today.

  • Verse 16 God made the “greater light” to “rule over the day” and the “lesser light” to “rule over the night (lit. evening).” On day four, God created the luminaries in order to continue the work of the supernatural “light” created on day one. Framework proponents object that the light is created without a source, but God is able to make light shine apart from a luminary object such as the sun. Revelation 21:23 states, “And the city [the New Jerusalem] has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (NASB).
  • Verse 18 the purpose of luminaries to divide between “day” and “evening” repeated.
  • Verse 19 “evening and morning, a fourth day”—implies that the first three days were analogous to solar days. In other words, the fact that the same unit of time is given for the fourth day (“evening and morning”) as it was for the first three days requires that the first three days were analogous to solar days.

Verse 23 The phrase and time period is repeated a fifth time: “evening and morning, a fifth day”

Verse 31 “evening and morning, the sixth day”—the definite article is attached to the ordinal number signifying that this day is special from the others. The significance of the definite article is related to the completion of the created order on the sixth day.

Chapter 2:2-3 (“day” occurs 3x): God ended His work and rested; God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it. The fact that God “sanctified,” i.e., made it holy or set it apart, shows us that this is not an ordinary day like the first six days of creation. Note that the repetition of the phrase “evening and morning” is missing. The perspective is no longer on earth, but it is in “heaven,” the place of God’s eternal rest. He had just crowned Adam as his viceroy on earth and now the seventh day is the day of God’s sitting on His throne as “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Thus, this has been correctly interpreted as an “eternal day” as God enters His “rest” in heaven. See, for example, Hebrews 4:1-11, where the seventh day of “rest” (i.e., entering heaven by faith in Christ) is still considered a reality for us today. The seventh day on earth, however, was clearly a solar day according to Exodus 20:8-11 and 31:15-17.

Genesis 2:4 “This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens….” This passage begins a more detailed account of creation on day six. Note also that the word “day” is not qualified by a number or a reference to time such as “evening and morning.” The preposition “in” is attached to the word “day” in the Hebrew text and is considered to be “temporal.” 13 As a result, the phrase may be translated “in the day” (ESV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV) or simply “when” (NIV, TNK). The use of the word, therefore, is a general reference to the entire creation week.

Implications of the Various Meanings of “Day” in Genesis 1-2

The word “day” has four different meanings in Genesis 1-2:

  1. A period of light, i.e., daylight.
  2. A period of “evening and morning,” i.e., a solar day.
  3. An eternal, heavenly day, i.e., the seventh day.
  4. A general temporal reference to the entire creation week.

The fact that there are four different senses of the word “day” does not deny a literal interpretation of the days of creation. In 2 Samuel 7, the Hebrew word for “house” is rendered three different ways: 1) palace, 2) temple, and 3) dynasty. David lived in a “house” (i.e., palace) and, therefore, wanted to build God a “house” (i.e., temple), but God said that He would build David a “house” (i.e., dynasty). Does this mean that we can deny the literal sense of the word “house” in 2 Samuel 7?

The answer is obviously “no,” since it is the literal/plain sense that leads us to understand what “house” means in each immediate context.  Likewise, each occurrence of the word “day” must also be read and interpreted in light of its immediate context.  This, I believe, will justify—from an exegetical analysis—the 6-day, 24-hour perspective.

Notes:

  1. A brief and adequate summary of the grammatical-historical method may found by: Bill T. Arnold & Bryan Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Second Edition; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 28-29.
  2. Ibid, 29.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 30-32.
  5. http://www.etsjets.org/files/documents/Chicago_Statement.pdf
  6. Ibid.
  7. http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_2.pdf
  8. Due to the limitations of a blog entry, it is not possible to provide a complete survey of all the current interpretations of Genesis 1-2.
  9. See Lee Irons with Meredith G. Kline, “The Framework View,” in The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation, ed. David G. Hagopian (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001), 184. For brevity, I have paraphrased the points given and included the triad illustration from p. 224.
  10. Numbers like “one, two, three, four, etc.” are cardinal numbers.
  11. Numbers like “first, second, third, fourth, etc.” are ordinal numbers. See for example, Andrew Steinmann, “אחד as an Ordinal Number and the Meaning of Genesis 1:5,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (December 2002): 581.
  12. Ibid., 583.
  13. Ronald J. Williams, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (Revised and expanded by John C. Beckman; Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 97. See §241.

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John Yeo

Dr. John Yeo serves as assistant professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Seminary. His primary interests lie within Old Testament interpretation and Biblical Theology.

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