As an apologist, one of my great pleasures is to get to answer questions from my brother's and sister's in Christ as well as unbelievers. One brother had the following question and I thought it was worth posting here with a reply. This is a subject that I feel needs to be given more attention by Christians.
My brother in Christ,
In response to your question:
"Explain to me the word day in Genesis, does it mean day or something else?"
This is a great question! I assume that you specifically have Genesis 1 in mind when you raise this question. If you have some other passage from Genesis in mind, do let me know.
As you are probably aware there are several different views on the subject of the creation account amidst those who are Christians. One view is that we should take Genesis 1 and 2 quite literally. That is to say that God created the earth and all that we know to exist in 6 literal days and rested on the seventh day. He made man out of the dust of the ground and Eve from the rib of Adam, etc.
Another view (that seems to be growing in popularity) is that the creation account in Genesis 1 & 2 is speaking figuratively and/or metaphorically. Under this line of thinking there is a large range of ideas about what Genesis 1 & 2 is really teaching and how we should interpret it. I won’t go into large detail about this as it does not specifically pertain to your question. However it is this second category where the question pertaining to the word "day" comes up. In the non-literal camp of the creation account, the majority of those who call themselves Christians believe that the earth is truly millions of years old as "modern science" boasts it to be. The problem that this creates for them is that if the earth is truly million’s of years old then the Genesis account cannot be taken literally. If God actually created the universe in the course of a week then the earth could only possibly be anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 years old depending on who you ask. But agreeably it couldn’t be in the millions.
It is because of this that the question regarding the word "day" has come up in Christian circles. Let me tell you here and now where I stand, and then I shall tell you why.
I believe that Scripture very clearly teaches that God made the earth and all it’s inhabitants and the stars in the sky, etc, in 6 literal, 24 hour days. So in short, yes the word "day" in Genesis 1 actually means "day."
While I have great respect for Wayne Grudem and some others who hold to a non-literal view of the creation account, I must strongly disagree and dare I say "refute" their teaching on this subject.
The Hebrew word that is translated "day" here in Genesis 1 is "yom." Now let me tell you that it is indeed true that the word "yom" does not necessarily have to be translated "day." It can also refer to an undetermined amount of time. This is true with many words in Hebrew and Greek, they can have different meanings depending on the context. But indeed context is everything. Let’s take a look at the Scripture.
"And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day."
Now let me just ask you, what does it sound like to you? I mean take the Hebrew word "yom" which can mean "day" or a undetermined period of time. Put it in context, what make sense to you? You see basically the non-literal camp tries to force the creation account to be an undetermined amount of time. That way they can say that each "day" is really a long period of time. An "age of time" if you will. This then allows each "day" that is referred to in Genesis to possibly be millions of years. This is how some Christians try an compromise with "modern science." They still credit God as the creator but they just claim that He took a very long time in doing so, and therefore they harmonize their view of the Bible with science.
Many people point to the Scripture verse that says "For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night." Psalm 90:4. They try and make the point that God can refer to creating something in a day and have it really be a thousand years because it is all the same to Him.
This, however, is a terrible argument. The above verse tells us how a thousand years seems to God, it does not imply that God doesn’t know the difference. God breathed out this Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17) in Genesis 1 & 2 just like the rest of the Bible and when He inspired the text He did so in a simple and straightforward way. There is surely a lot that God chose not to describe about the Creation account, it is after all a very short account when you think of the vastness of creation. But what God did say, He said clearly.
The context of Genesis 1 makes it ever so clear that God referred to days as we know them. "There was evening and there was morning, the first day." Would it make sense to insert "There was evening and there was morning, the first million years."? Or the "first undetermined time period?" It’s rather absurd to even talk about it.
In Exodus 20 when God gave the Ten Commandments, look what He says in regard to the Sabbath!
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."
You see that even when God speaks to His people directly, giving them the 10 commandments, he refers to the creation account in a literal fashion. The very reason why the Jews took the Sabbath laws so seriously as to stone the person in their midst who ignored the law is because they took God for what He said. They did their work in 6 days and rested on the seventh because that is what God Himself did. Had you asked Moses what day meant (The one who probably wrote Genesis) he would have told you... "a day."
Indeed this is how "day" (yom) has always been understood by orthodox Jews, by believing Christians up until just recently. There has never been this question until very recent history. This should lead us to ask, "Why should we have any reason to understand it differently now?" My personal answer is, we don’t. But let’s be honest, the reason the question about the word "day" has come about is because to many Christians feel the need to try and make what the Bible teaches line up with modern Science. This I believe is extremely dangerous.
In fact it is due to this need to harmonize the Bible and science that we now have what is called "theistic evolution" as a theory some "Christians", if you can call them that, now hold to. The idea of course being that God guided/created the process of evolution. This view is completely incompatible with Scripture hands down. However it is this kind of thing that comes up when we start to "fictionalize" the creation account and insist that we cannot interpret it in a literal fashion. The very idea that we should change our interpretation of Scripture based off of what Modern science teaches is foolish. In fact I think it is such human wisdom that we are warned against in 1 Corinthians 1-2.
The brightest minds once thought the earth was the center of the universe, and they thought that the world was flat, all these things that were once modern science were found weighed and wanting eventually. True science always agree’s with the Bible. That is why there will never be found a "missing link" that conclusively proves evolution.
One other thing to keep in mind when discussing the creation account and how old the earth is, etc. God made Adam with an appearance of age. It’s clear that Adam must have been made a full grown man for him to "know" his wife. He certainly did not start out as a zygote, or embryo. In turn then, it makes just as much sense that the earth, plants, animals and everything else would also have an appearance of age. This would mean that when scientist measure the layers of the earth and guesstimate it’s age, they might be right if it weren’t for the fact that God made the earth to have such an appearance to begin with. Not to mention the possibilities of a world wide flood and what that might do to the physical appearance of the earth and it’s layers.
There is certainly a lot more we could discuss on this issue, and I do recommend that you read the differing views that are out there. But you must ask yourself a couple of questions.
1. What does the Scripture seem to clearly and plainly say? God is not trying to be tricky in what He says to us.
2. Does the narrative context of Genesis suggest that we should look at the creation account as metaphorical or as poetic rather that literal?
3. How have followers of the living God always understood this word "day" (yom) and is there any good reason to understand it differently now?
4. Would anyone understand the creation account to mean an undetermined amount of time if it weren’t for "modern Science?"
5. Should our interpretation of Scripture be conditional on human wisdom, especially that human wisdom that has not been proven?
It’s clear to me that the non-literal view of Genesis 1&2 comes from a foolish need to compromise with worldly wisdom. Where does this compromise stop? Should we take Genesis 3 non-literally also? Perhaps sin isn’t as serious as the Bible seems to say. Perhaps Christ has not raised from the dead and Hid crucifixion was metaphorical and symbolic as the "Jesus Seminar" claims. No the Bible is straightforward and means what it says. Though there are certainly places where there is Hebrew poetry like Psalms, and there are times where authors use hyperbole, and exaggerate, and use figurative and comparative language, we must be consistent in our interpretation of Scripture. We must always let the context define our interpretation, and we must always interpret the Bible by the Bible rather than by "modern science."
What does day mean in Genesis? It means day.