A long yom’s work

Updated 10-25-08

A somewhat hotly debated issue is the usage of the Hebrew word “yom” in Genesis 1.  “Yom” is translated in Genesis 1 as “day”.  Some Christians have gone so far as to say that “yom” always means a literal 24-hour day.  This is simply false.  Some Christians make a more intelligent argument by saying it can mean something other than 24 hours, but they claim in Genesis 1 it clearly is literal.

A word of caution before going further…Genesis 1 contains the phrase “and there was evening, and there was morning – the ‘nth’ day”.  The actual number of words in the Hebrew is much fewer than what one reads in the English translations.  The actual phrase is better described as “evening and morning ‘n’ day”.  This phrasing is unique in the Old Testament, occurring only in Genesis 1 to my knowledge, so making firm conclusions on its meaning is tenuous at best.

Eric Kemp at Intelligent Science makes the following argument:

It is true that the Hebrew word for day, yom, does not always refer to a literal twenty-four hour period (it can also mean from sun up to sun down and an indefinite period of time).  But when it doesn’t, the context always makes it clear.

Is the context for “yom” always so clear?  Let’s look at Genesis 2–also part of the creation story.

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven. (Genesis 2:4)

Did it literally take God only one day to make earth and heaven?  Recall that according to Genesis 1 it took Him 6 days

Genesis 2 uses “yom” again when God commands Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

Yet did Adam really die that day?  No; according to the Old Testament he lived for hundred of years after this event.  (Now, of course, there is another issue here–one could say that the death referred to here is not physical death but spiritual death.  That would not make reading this particular verse literally as much of a problem.  Yet most creationists actually don’t make this argument.)

Another argument often seen on creationists sites is that when “yom” is combined with “evening” (ereb in Hebrew) and “morning” (boqer in Hebrew), it is always referring to a literal 24 hour period of time.  Here is such an example from Eric Kemp again:

Yom is also used here with “morning” and “evening”.  Everywhere these two words are used in the Old Testament, with yom or without it, the text is referring to a literal evening or morning of a literal day. 

Moses, traditionally held to be the author of Genesis 1, is often also credited for writing Psalms 90.  In this Psalm, Moses compares human lives to grass.  He says that the grass sprouts in the morning and withers in the evening.  Evening and morning in this example surely do not refer to a 24-hour period of time. 

You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep; In the morning [boqer] they are like grass which sprouts anew. In the morning [boqer] it flourishes and sprouts anew; Toward evening [ereb] it fades and withers away. (Psalms 90:5-6)

The verse above does not also contain the word “yom”, but it does demonstrate that the words for “evening” and “morning” can be used for something other than a 24 hour day.

So what about when “evening” and “morning” ARE used in conjunction with “yom”?  Do they really ALWAYS indicate a 24 hour day?  Unfortunately there aren’t many instances of such usage.  But let’s continue our investigation with Daniel 8:

“The vision of the evenings [ereb] and mornings [boqer] Which has been told is true; But keep the vision secret, For it pertains to many days [yom] in the future.” (Daniel 8:26)

Daniel 8 is a hotly debated chapter in eschatological circles, but no matter how one interprets it, it is clear that this part of the vision in Daniel does not take place in a mere 24 hours. 

The reference in Genesis 1 to “evening” and “morning” on the first day also means we have to ignore the fact that there is somehow light and dark without there being a sun or other stars at that point–which is how one would normally gauge such times as “morning” and “evening”.  Also interesting to note is that the seventh day does NOT refer to evening and morning.  The seventh day of Genesis is not “closed”, yet the vast majority of creationists treat it like the other “days” mentioned in the creation account–as 24 literal hours:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.

Another creationist claim often made is that when “yom” is used with a number, it always refers to a 24 hour time period.  Again, Eric Kemp demonstrates:

Yom is also used in conjunction with a number; one, two, three etc.  Every other time yom is used with a number, it is in description of literal days.

In Genesis 1, numbers are used to describe the different days.  Genesis 1:5 states:

And there was evening, and there was morning—the first [echad] day [yom].

The word “echad” is used to represent “one” here.  It is also used in Daniel 11:20:

Then in his place one will arise who will send an oppressor through the Jewel of his kingdom; yet within a few [echad] days [yom] he will be shattered, though not in anger nor in battle.

“Echad” is also used here but is translated as “few” instead of “one”.  This verse is widely believed to refer to Seleucus Philopator, who reigned for several years, not mere days (though certainly a short period of time when compared to his father). 

Zechariah 14:7 also contains the word yom combined with an ordinal (again, the number one, echad).  (It is interesting to note that the NIV translates yom echad as “unique day” in Zechariah, but translates the same Hebrew phrase as “first day” in Genesis 1:5) The context of Zechariah 14:7 seems to indicate that the yom echad will be a period of time at least spanning one summer and one winter (see 14:8).

“Echad yom” is also used often in the Old Testament to refer to the “Day of the Lord”–a time period which is often not regarded as lasting one day, but for several years (some people insist it will last literally 7 years). 

I, for one, actually believe that the intent of the creation story is more important than whether one should read it figuratively, literally, symbolically, and so on.  Yet I find it interesting to engage in such discussion anyway, especially as such issues as the ones above and the ones in my previous post simply cast doubt on how the account should be treated.

Further thoughts from other commentators:

Some thoughts from Christian scholars:

Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pages 60-61, Baker 1982:
” There were six major stages in this work of formation, and these stages are represented by successive days of a week. In this connection it is important to observe that none of the six creative days bears a definite article in the Hebrew text; the translations “the first day,” ” the second day,” etc., are in error. The Hebrew says, “And the evening took place, and the morning took place, day one” (1:5). Hebrew expresses “the first day” by hayyom harison, but this text says simply yom ehad (day one). Again, in v.8 we read not hayyom hasseni (“the second day”) but yom seni (“a second day”). In Hebrew prose of this genre, the definite article was generally used where the noun was intended to be definite; only in poetic style could it be omitted. The same is true with the rest of the six days; they all lack the definite article. Thus they are well adapted to a sequential pattern, rather than to strictly delimited units of time.”

Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, page 271, Zondervan 1999:
“Numbered days need not be solar. Neither is there a rule of Hebrew language demanding that all numbered days in a series refer to twenty-four-hour days. Even if there were no exceptions in the Old Testament, it would not mean that “day” in Genesis 1 could not refer to more than one twenty-four-hour period. But there is another example in the Old Testament. Hosea 6:1-2 . . . . . . Clearly the prophet is not speaking of solar “days” but of longer periods in the future. Yet he numbers the days in series.”

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3 Responses to “A long yom’s work”

  1. Airtightnoodle

    You made the argument:
    “Is the context for “yom” always so clear? Let’s look at Genesis 2–also part of the creation story.

    This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven. (Genesis 2:4)

    Did it literally take God only one day to make earth and heaven? Recall that according to Genesis 1 it took Him 6 days.”

    You’ve actually showed exactly what I’m talking about. In both examples of context, as you point out later, numbers and “morning”/”evening”, “yom” means a literal day. In the context of Genesis 2:4 “yom” could definetly mean an indefinite period of time since it’s lacking the context of Gen 1. So yea, in Gen 2:4 the context is clear that “yom” could be a different period of time just as the context of Gen 1 is clear that “yom” could only be a 24 hour day.

    “Now, of course, there is another issue here–one could say that the death referred to here is not physical death but spiritual death. That would not make reading this particular verse literally as much of a problem. Yet most creationists actually don’t make this argument.”

    Let’s look at the phrase in Gen 2:16-17 again: “…for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” As you’ve pointed out, we could say that the death Adam and Eve died is a spiritual one, and your argument is void. But even if the death is physical, your argument still doesn’t work. The Hebrew is “die die” (muwth—muwth) with two different verb tenses (dying and die), which can be translated as “surely die” or literally as “dying you shall die,” indicating the beginning of dying—an ingressive sense—and finally culminating with death. At the point when they ate, Adam and Eve began to die and would return to dust (Genesis 3:19). So it both senses, Adam and Eve died spiritually and began to die physically.

    You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep; In the morning [boqer] they are like grass which sprouts anew. In the morning [boqer] it flourishes and sprouts anew; Toward evening [ereb] it fades and withers away. (Psalms 90:5-6)

    You said:
    “The verse above does not also contain the word “yom”, but it does demonstrate that the words for “evening” and “morning” can be used for something other than a 24 hour day.”

    Actually, no it doesn’t. Moses is saying here that God has the power to make it so that humans are flourishing in the morning and gone or dying in the evening. This is not outside of God’s power. At no point does the context of this verse suggest anything longer than a day. I missed the part of your argument where you showed evidence that this verse refers to longer than a single day instead of just claiming it. I meant what I said, EVERYTIME evening and morning is used in the OT, it is referring to a literal day.

    “The vision of the evenings [ereb] and mornings [boqer] Which has been told is true; But keep the vision secret, For it pertains to many days [yom] in the future.” (Daniel 8:26)

    You said: “Daniel 8 is a hotly debated chapter in eschatological circles, but no matter how one interprets it, it is clear that this part of the vision in Daniel does not take place in a mere 24 hours.”

    As you said, this verse is talking about the future (eschatology). The funny thing about your argument here is that I don’t understand how you can expect people to overlook the plural context of the words “ereb”, “boqer” and “yom”. It says evenings, mornings, and days. The context tells us the plurality evenings and mornings which leads to a plurality of days. Gen 1 is a single evening, a single morning and a single day. Thank you for helping to show how the context shapes the meaning of “yom” and tells us in Daniel 8 that it is a plurality of days and in Gen 1 a singular “day”.

    “The seventh day of Genesis is not “closed”, yet the vast majority of creationists treat it like the other “days” mentioned in the creation account–as 24 literal hours”

    I’m not sure of your point here. The fact that day 7 doesn’t have a “morning” and “evening” attached to it doesn’t make it any less of a single day, especially since all the 6 previous days DO have those words attached to them, making them single days.

    “Echad” is also used here but is translated as “few” instead of “one”. This verse is widely believed to refer to Seleucus Philopator, who reigned for several years, not mere days (though certainly a short period of time when compared to his father).”

    You again ignore the plural article associate with the words.

    I find it interesting that you completely ignored my argument regarding Gen 1:5. This is where, at the beginning of the creation account, “yom” is defined. The verse literally says morning + evening = one day, using “yom” in both morning (the light cycle) and “day”. A reader, such as yourself, who wants to define “yom” as otherwise must ignore this definition laid down in Gen 1:5.

    “I, for one, actually believe that the intent of the creation story is more important than whether one should read it figuratively, literally, symbolically, and so on.”

    Phrases like this make me fear for the theological basis of your faith Airtight. As has already been shown, Jesus and Paul both found the creation account to be literal, and thought that it was important. Why shouldn’t you? You have yet to explore this question; if sin and death was already in the world before humanity, why do we need a savior? How is it that humanity is held responsible for sin and death although we’re not the ones that brought it into the world?

  2. “Let’s look at the phrase in Gen 2:16-17 again: “…for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” As you’ve pointed out, we could say that the death Adam and Eve died is a spiritual one, and your argument is void. But even if the death is physical, your argument still doesn’t work. The Hebrew is “die die” (muwth—muwth) with two different verb tenses (dying and die), which can be translated as “surely die” or literally as “dying you shall die,” indicating the beginning of dying—an ingressive sense—and finally culminating with death. At the point when they ate, Adam and Eve began to die and would return to dust (Genesis 3:19). So it both senses, Adam and Eve died spiritually and began to die physically.”

    Do you have a reference for this? I believe the only other place I’ve seen an argument like this is, of course, Answers in Genesis.

    “Actually, no it doesn’t. Moses is saying here that God has the power to make it so that humans are flourishing in the morning and gone or dying in the evening. This is not outside of God’s power. At no point does the context of this verse suggest anything longer than a day. I missed the part of your argument where you showed evidence that this verse refers to longer than a single day instead of just claiming it. I meant what I said, EVERYTIME evening and morning is used in the OT, it is referring to a literal day.”

    No, it isn’t outside of God’s power; I can agree with that. However, the comparison with grass suggests grass sprouts and withers within 24 hours. We know this isn’t the case; obviously there is something deeper than a straightforward literal reading of the verse…just like with the creation account. 😉

    “As you said, this verse is talking about the future (eschatology). The funny thing about your argument here is that I don’t understand how you can expect people to overlook the plural context of the words “ereb”, “boqer” and “yom”. It says evenings, mornings, and days.

    The context tells us the plurality evenings and mornings which leads to a plurality of days. Gen 1 is a single evening, a single morning and a single day. Thank you for helping to show how the context shapes the meaning of “yom” and tells us in Daniel 8 that it is a plurality of days and in Gen 1 a singular “day”.”

    I should have been cleared on this part. The period referred to here in Daniel 8:26 is often assumed to occur many YEARS in the future, instead of mere days.

    Another similar example in Daniel is in 8:14–
    He said to me, “For 2,300 evenings [ereb] and mornings [boqer]; then the holy place will be properly restored.”

    Some interpret the period of 2,300 evenings and mornings as 2,300 days, while other calculate it as 1,150 days (2,300 divided by 2). Some interpret the 2,300 evenings and mornings as 2,300 years. It is not absolutely clear that the reference is to 24-hour days (this kind of confusion is not uncommon when dealing with eschatology, of course).

    “You again ignore the plural article associate with the words.”

    There is a huge difference, in my opinion, in years versus days…thus the use of “yom” is interesting, is it not?

    “I find it interesting that you completely ignored my argument regarding Gen 1:5. This is where, at the beginning of the creation account, “yom” is defined. The verse literally says morning + evening = one day, using “yom” in both morning (the light cycle) and “day”. A reader, such as yourself, who wants to define “yom” as otherwise must ignore this definition laid down in Gen 1:5.”

    And I see that you ignored…”The reference in Genesis 1 to “evening” and “morning” on the first day also means we have to ignore the fact that there is somehow light and dark without there being a sun or other stars at that point–which is how one would normally gauge such times as “morning” and “evening”.”

    “Phrases like this make me fear for the theological basis of your faith Airtight. ”

    I think your “fear” would be better spent on nonbelievers, Eric.

    You have yet to explore this question; if sin and death was already in the world before humanity, why do we need a savior?

    Actually I don’t recall discussing whether sin was around before humanity…

    Regardless of when sin and death showed up in history, we are all sinful and deserve to be separated from God. That’s why we need a savior.

  3. “Do you have a reference for this? I believe the only other place I’ve seen an argument like this is, of course, Answers in Genesis.”

    Are you doubting the veracity of the Hebrew or do you just not want to answer the argument? Yes, I believe the first time I saw this argument was on AiG. I’m not exactly sure which article however.

    “However, the comparison with grass suggests grass sprouts and withers within 24 hours. We know this isn’t the case; obviously there is something deeper than a straightforward literal reading of the verse…just like with the creation account.”

    Unfortunately your interpretation here is just false and un-Biblical. The Bible says “evening” and “morning”. Taking this just as the Bible says, we know that must mean a literal day, because that’s what it says. In order to read ANYTHING else into it, including a different meaning of “evening” and “morning”, you must force modern scientific ideas into the text. You just said it, “We know this isn’t the case”. Let me say this again, we also know “this isn’t the case” that human beings rise from the dead. You pick and choose where and when to force scientific thought onto Scripture, why not interpret the entire Bible through it? Please, don’t take this personally and understand how I mean this: The only difference between you and the atheist is that the atheist interprets ALL of Scripture through modern scientific thought, while you pick and choose.

    Also, you have so far ignored the uniformitarianism assumption that utterly blankets your entire theology and scientific thought.

    “The period referred to here in Daniel 8:26 is often assumed to occur many YEARS in the future, instead of mere days.”

    If I was attempting to describe to you something and I said it took “many days” and it actually turned out to take many years. Was I wrong in telling you “many days”? No, I wasn’t. Did I mean “days” figuratively? Nope. Could I have been more accurate? Surely. But I wasn’t wrong or figurative.

    “There is a huge difference, in my opinion, in years versus days…thus the use of “yom” is interesting, is it not?”

    The use of “yom” here, as you’ve just helped show, is that of many days that actually turned out to be years. Is “many yoms” or “many evenings and mornings” wrong or figurative? Nope.

    “Regardless of when sin and death showed up in history, we are all sinful and deserve to be separated from God. That’s why we need a savior.”

    Of course, but the Word of God states that the entire reason for man’s fallen nature and man’s need of a savior is based upon a literal interpretation of Genesis (as shown by Paul). Doesn’t this concern you that Paul is lying to you, or that he’s wrong? (and therefore Scripture is wrong about this issue?)

    You have AGAIN ignored my argument that the use of “yom” in the creation account is DEFINED in Gen 1:5. How can you ignore a verse of the Bible in order to continue to hold to your position?

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