What is a "Day"? A short argument for old earth creation from Genesis 1, 2, and 3

March 22, 2019

For the last few decades, a heated debate has plowed through Christian theological circles down into small group discussion and Sunday school lessons about the  age of the earth as discussed in Genesis 1 through 3. This debate has stretched from exegetics to polemics as scholars dig trenches around their own idea of creation. From said trenches we have stooped to questioning the theological integrity of those who would disagree, even those with sound hermeneutical practice.

 
A dogmatic voice in this debate comes from Dr. Albert Mohler. Mohler is widely renowned for his defense of the trustworthiness of scripture and his Gospel centric understanding of it. Unfortunately he has also argued that a literal, 24 hour day, young earth view of creation is  crucial to the trustworthiness of the Gospel (Weinberger & Mohler, 2011). This claim has dark repercussions for anyone who would hold a varying view of scripture and implies that they cannot soundly affirm the gospel from their exegetical framework. It would behoove us to examine a simple, short claim made by Dr. Molher against a simple, short exegetical comparison in Genesis 1-3 to see if sound exegesis actually does require a young earth conclusion.

In a lecture given at the Ligioner conference in 2013, Dr. Molher made the following claim:


The first thing we need to note, as has been noted by even more liberal scholars such as James Barr, is that any natural reading of the text would indicate that the author intended us to take 24-hour days, calendar days, as our understanding. I am arguing for the exegetical and theological necessity of affirming 24-hour calendar days   (Mohler, 2013).


The important statement in this paragraph that should be contrasted with an exegeses of the word “day” in these 3 chapters of Genesis is that a simple reading of the text makes it obvious that the original author intended literal days. In reality, a simple reading of the text in its original language, and in the English language, proves that claim just doesn’t hold water.

The word “day” so confidently promoted as clearly meaning 24 hours by Molher and others in the Hebrew is the word “yowm” or “יוֹם.” Using a simple, easily accessible tool like Blue Letter Bible reveals that the word can be used to mean 24 hours. (click here to see for yourself). It can be used to mean calendar days the same way the word “age” can refer to the number of years I have been alive. It also has other common, inter-related but very different meanings. Another good comparison would be the word “moment” which can mean this very instant you’re reading this essay. It could also be used as a “moment in history” which has a very different and broad implications. It could be used as follows: “I’ll be there in just a moment.” Which is a short, but undefined span of time. We even understand this when we English speakers use the word “day.” We know this because I can tell you “on this day in history” and you know I mean a calendar day, but I can also say “in the day of Lincoln” and you know I’m referring to a span of years. But here’s where things get clear: the same Hebrew word (yowm) and English word in the KJV, NASB, and ESV ("day") used in Genesis 1 to mark creation segments is used in Genesis 2:4 when we’re told of the “day” God made the heavens and the earth and in Genesis 2:17 when we’re told of the “day” Adam and Eve would eat the fruit and die. Obviously one can’t believe God made the heavens and the earth in six 24 hour days while accepting verses later that he made them in one 24 hour day. The next use of the word is just as problematic for Mohler's view. God says to Adam that in the “day” (yohm) he eats from the tree he will die. If one keeps reading to chapter 3 it is apparent that what appeared to be a literal day by the phrasing in chapter 2 was not meant in any way to be a 24 hour span. Death does enter the picture, but it does not come within 24 hours of the fruit snack.

Now, one might respond by pointing out that between chapter 1 and chapter 2 the probable original author (from the oral tradition) changes from the Elohist to the Yawhist (1). The point here is not that this text could never mean literal 24 hour days. The point is that it certainly does not have to mean that or even "naturally" read that way, as Mohler claims. If you are one of the many believers with questions or tension about the young earth view, know this: you can be a hermeneutically sound, biblically faithful, and missionally fervent evangelical while still confidently maintaining one of the various old earth perspectives. Contrary to what Mohler (and many others) claims, scripture creates reasonable space for a non-24-hour view of the creation timeline.

(1). The Elohist and Yahwist refer to what many scholars believe to be two separate original authors of Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis 1 is dubbed the Elohist because the author uses the term "Elohim" as the name of God. Genesis 2 uses the covenant name "Yahweh." This is a significant distinction implying different relationships with God and timelines of authorship.

 

References

Mohler, A. (2013, June 25). Why Does the Universe Look So Old? (Albert Mohler). Retrieved March 11, 2019, from https://credomag.com/2013/06/why-does-the-universe-look-so-old-albert-mohler/
    
Weinberger, L., & Mohler, A. (2011, January). Creation and Redemption: A Conversation with Albert Mohler. Retrieved March 11, 2019, from https://creation.com/albert-mohler-interview

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