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THE MEANING OF "DAY" IN GENESIS
by James Stambaugh, M.Div.
The length of the "days" of creation in Genesis has involved a
major controversy in Biblical interpretation among evangelicals
for over 150 years. Many have sought to redefine the term in
light of the naturalistic presuppositions of modern scientism.
Therefore, let us attempt, honestly, to examine the evidence from
The communication of language is through words and their
use. We must ask ourselves why Moses was using the words he did,
and not other words. What is the meaning he was trying to
communicate to his original audience and to us, as well? Why did
Moses use the word "day" and not the more generic term, "time?"
Is there any significance to the repeated use of numbers in the
account ("first day," "second day," etc.)? Why are these "days"
bounded by the terms, "evening and morning?" As we examine the
text of Genesis 1, answers to these questions become clear.
THE MEANING OF "DAY"
Those who argue that the word "day" means "long age,"
point out that the Hebrew word, YOM, can have a number of
meanings, only one of which is "day of 24 hours."(1) They
further seek to strengthen their position with the use of Psalm
90:4 and II Peter 3:8, comparing a day to a thousand years. Both
of these verses, however, are simply using figures of speech
(similes) to show that God is not constrained by the same time
parameters as are humans. These verses are really irrelevant to
the discussion of the meaning of "day," in Genesis 1.
It is recognized, of course, that the word "day" can be
used with a number of variations. It can have any of five
meanings: 1) a period of light; 2) a period of 24 hours; 3) a
general, vague time; 4) a point of time; 5) a year.(2) The
context determines which of these is intended by the writer. The
English language also can have up to 14 definitions for the word
"day."(3) The reader should be reminded that the purpose of
language is to communicate. Moses wrote in a language that was
meant to communicate to his readers. Words must be defined by
their relationship to one another.(4) Word meaning must be
determined from within its context. It will be shown how the
context defines the word in Genesis 1.
The use of a number with the word "day" is very
illuminating. This combination occurs 357 times outside of
Genesis 1. The combination is used in four different ways, but
each time it is used, it must mean 24-hour periods of time. If
the combinations had been intended to mean long periods of time,
both the texts and contexts then become meaningless. A typical
verse is Genesis 30:36: "And he (Laban) set three days journey
betwixt himself and Jacob." God frequently issued commands that
the people were to do or not to do certain things on a given day.
This use occurs 162 times. A good example is Exodus 24:16: "And
the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud
covered it six days, and on the seventh day He called unto Moses
out of the midst of the cloud." These are the most typical uses
of the word "day" with a number. Four times the terms are used
to show a starting point. Ezra 3:6 says, "From the first day of
the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings unto the
Lord." A number may also be used with "day" to convey an ending
point. An example is Leviticus 19:6: "It shall be eaten the
same day ye offer it, and on the morrow: and if ought remain
until the third day, it shall be burnt in the fire." It would
appear, then, that whenever the Old Testament uses a number with
the word "day," it means a 24-hour period of time without any
If the meaning of the word "day" with a number always
means a 24-hour period of time outside of Genesis 1, then it
should also mean a 24-hour period of time inside Genesis 1. The
words that Moses used to communicate what God did during creation
are very significant. If Moses had meant to signify that the
"days" were more than 24 hours in length, he could easily have
done so. If we are to understand what Moses wrote, then the
language he used must be understood in its normal meaning. The
normal meaning is that of 24-hour periods of time.
ABSENCE OF THE ARTICLE
Once we have determined the meaning of the term "day," we
need also to examine another problem connected with the days of
Genesis 1. Some writers have observed the absence of the article
from the mention of each of the first five days. They have
concluded that Moses must have meant to convey to his readers
that at least those days were long periods of time. They have
noted that the normal use of the article is to make the noun
definite.(5) Gleason Archer makes the following statement: "In
Hebrew prose of this genre, the definite article was generally
used where the noun was intended to be definite."(6) The genre,
or the form of the literature (i.e., history as opposed to
poetry) he is referring to here, is history. Let us see if he is
correct in this use of the article.
The reader must be aware of two points regarding the use
of the article in Hebrew. First, the article is usually present
in the historical sections of the Old Testament for the sake of
definiteness. But this is not always the case. Second, Hebrew
has more peculiarities in its use of the article than most
languages.(7) This should make the reader very sensitive to the
nature of the Hebrew language. The Hebrew language is one that
must be observed closely. The most common observation among
Jewish and Christian commentators is that the use of the article
on the last two days is to show the importance of the sixth and
seventh days.(8) This also is in full accord with the Hebrew
grammatical rule that the article may be used in this manner.(9)
On the basis of grammar alone, then, we are still justified in
our interpretation of "day" being 24 hours in length.
Also, there is another reason for the absence of the
article. It appears that numbers in the Hebrew language have a
definitive quality in themselves. Kautzsch refers to them as
substantives,(10) yet the meaning is the same. A substantive is
a noun that one can touch, such as a chair. He cites many
examples where the number and noun occur without the article, yet
the meaning is definite. There are 13 other occurrences similar
to Genesis 1, where the noun does not have the article but is
with a number. In each of these other occurrences, the English
translation uses the definite article.(11) Therefore, we must
conclude that the absence of the article in Genesis 1 does not
mean that the days are long periods of time. Moses' point is
still very clear: The days are to be thought of as normal 24-
EVENING AND MORNING
The meaning of the term "day" must be seen in conjunction
with the use of "evening" and "morning." Those who would argue
that the days are long periods contend that these terms can have
figurative meanings.(12) But what is their meaning in the
context of Genesis 1? We must ask ourselves, how would the
people have understood these terms "evening" and "morning"? Is
Moses, and by extension, God, trying to deceive us by not telling
us the truth about the length of the "days?"
The Old Testament records 38 times when these two words
are used in the same verse. Each time they occur, the meaning
must be that of a normal day. Here are a couple of examples to
illustrate the point: Exodus 16:8 says, "And Moses said, this
shall be when the Lord shall give you in the evening flesh to
eat, and in the morning bread to the full." Also Exodus 18:13,
"and the people stood by Moses from the morning until the
evening." All the other occurrences are essentially the same.
So then, it would appear that when the words "morning" and
"evening" are used in the same verse, they must refer to a normal
STATEMENT BY GOD
God did not leave the length of the creation days open to
question. He told us the exact length of each day. In Exodus
20:11, He said that in "six days the Lord made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them and rested on the seventh day."
The context of the statement is an emphatic command. God
tells the people, "remember" and "keep" the Sabbath. God then
tells them how to keep the Sabbath in their daily lives. The
people can tell whether they are keeping the Sabbath if they are
resting on the seventh day. God then anchors the reality of the
present days to the reality of the past days of creation. God
has set the pattern of Israel's work week. The "days" are the
same kind of days that the people would have readily known. As
it has been demonstrated previously, "day," used with a number,
means a 24-hour day. It seems obvious that all throughout
Israel's history, the people have understood this to mean a 24-
hour day. Even those who hold to the long ages of Genesis 1
acknowledge the "days" of Exodus 20:8-11 to be 24-hour days.(13)
Therefore, the "days" of creation must also have been 24 hours in
What can we conclude concerning the length of the "days"
of creation? The usage of the word "day," with a number, means a
24-hour period. The absence of the article does not alter that
meaning. Further, the use of "evening" and "morning" indicates
that normal time is meant in Genesis 1. God, Himself, said that
the creation took only six days. We also must ask ourselves, did
Moses and God deceive us by using the word "day," when it really
was a long period of time? If our answer is yes, then we should
not use the Bible for any of our beliefs. For, if God can
deceive us concerning the events of creation, He might have done
that in regards to the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
The bottom line is that we then can have no confidence in God's
Word, if the long-day view is held. It is far better to believe
God at His Word, and take the creation days as 24-hour days.
* Mr. Stambaugh is Librarian at the Institute for Creation
(1) For typical arguments, examine Davis Young, CREATION AND THE
FLOOD (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), pp. 83, 84.
(2) THEOLOGICAL WORDBOOK OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, I:371.
(3) WEBSTER'S 20TH CENTURY DICTIONARY, UNABRIDGED.
(4) Beekman, John and John Callow. TRANSLATING THE WORD OF GOD
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), p. 69.
(5) Kautzsch, E. GESENIUS' HEBREW GRAMMAR, 2nd ed. (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 404.
(6) Archer, Gleason, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BIBLE DIFFICULTIES (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p. 61.
(7) Kautzsch, pp. 406, 407.
(8) One should consult Jewish commentators Cassuto, Rashi, and
Cohen. Some of the Christian commentators are Keil, Leupold, and
(9) Kautzsch, p. 408.
(10) Kautzsch, p. 432.
(11) The occurrences are Numbers 11:19; I Samuel 1:1; I
Chronicles 12:39; II Chronicles 20:25; Ezra 8:15,32; Nehemiah
2:11; Daniel 1:12,14,15; 12:12,13; and Jonah 3:4.
(12) Ross, Hugh. GENESIS ONE: A SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVE (Sierra
Madre: Wiseman Productions, 1983), p. 16.
(13) Archer, pp. 116, 117, also Henry Alford, THE BOOK OF
GENESIS AND PART OF EXODUS (Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1979),
pp. 313, 314.