Did you know that no piece of ancient history is more scientifically grounded than the book of Genesis, including its description of the 24-hour days of creation?
During the last 150 years or so, no part of the Bible has come under more rigorous attack than the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis. Darwinists have made much of evidence that the earth could be anywhere from five to 15 billion years old. Yet a careful genealogical study of the biblical record combined with history suggests to some people that the earth has existed for a mere 6,000 years.
Before we address this discrepancy, let us first consider how the Bible, in its Genesis narrative, presents creation. What is the organizing principle of the biblical account of creation? How does the creation narrative present God's acts of creation to the reader? On what does God hang the creation epic?
The creation account hangs first on the 24-hour day, then on the seven-day week. (Genesis 1 describes the first six days of creation week; the first few verses of chapter 2 recount the seventh day.)
We learn from observation that the earth makes one revolution around the sun in a year. By rotating on its axis once every 24 hours, the earth produces the familiar succession of day and night. The planet spins like a child's top at a consistent angle to the sun, maintaining that angle while making its circular journey.
Earth revolves just rapidly enough to produce the 24-hour cycle (or, more precisely, 23 hours and 56 minutes). It revolves slightly obliquely to its plane of rotation, which makes for the four annual seasons.
What does Genesis 1 have to do with these natural phenomena? Can we take seriously the Bible's creation account?
"And God saw the light that it was good, and God divided the light from darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day" (Genesis 1:4-5).
We see from the account that God established the day-and-night cycle from the beginning. Day and night are functions of the rotation of the earth as it orbits the sun. Clearly the wording of Genesis describes the 24-hour period we are all familiar with. Notice further that God appointed the sun to separate light from darkness and to divide day from night (verse 14).
We can readily grasp the wording of the biblical creation account. It fits the context of something we experience every day. From birth to death we live in a constant succession of 24-hour days and nights. "The several pictures of creation history are set within the six work-day frames" (The New Bible Commentary: Revised, 1994, p. 82).
Ever since the realization by scientists that the earth's age may be measured in billions of years, well-meaning people have tried to reconcile the biblical account with such scientific findings. Some have theorized that the seven 24-hour creation days were really much longer-possibly epochs lasting thousands or millions of years. To support this idea, some have argued that the Hebrew word for "day," yom, means an unspecified measure of time in Genesis 1.
It is true that yom can mean an indefinite period such as in the English expression "at the end of the day." But the context of each of the six days of Genesis 1 makes it clear how long each day of creation actually was. The expression "So the evening and the morning were the first day" in Genesis 1 is repeated for every one of the other five days.
Here we see "evening" equated with nighttime and "morning" equated with daylight, and the two together make up one day. The wording "the evening and the morning" shows this is clearly talking about 24-hour days.
One rotation of the earth on its axis is the unmistakable meaning of day in the creation account. Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, the evening has always signified the beginning of a new day, a specific 24 hours.
However, since that particular expression does not close the account of the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3), some have tried to lengthen the creation Sabbath as well. They reason that the seventh day of creation has not yet ended, even after thousands of years. Thus the earlier six days of creation may have lasted for thousands of years as well. But does Scripture support this view?
The Bible interprets the Bible. Notice Genesis 1:14-19: "Then God said, 'Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day [yom] from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days [yom]and years;. .' Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day [yom], and the lesser light to rule the night ... and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the fourth day [yom]." It makes no sense for the meaning of day to change from a 24-hour day or the daylight portion of a day to an indeterminate period lasting millions or billions of years within a few sentences.
The account relaying the giving of the Ten Commandments confirms how long each of the creation days was, including the seventh-day Sabbath. Exodus 20:8-11 summarizes their significance:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work . . . For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth... and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it [declared it holy]."
In defining when we are to keep one of God's annual Sabbaths, the Day of Atonement, God tells us that, "from evening to evening [24 hours], you shall celebrate your Sabbath" (Leviticus 23:32). The same principle applies to the weekly Sabbath and all of the annual feast days. (You might want to write for our free booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest, to better understand this biblical command.)
The first two verses of the Bible are critical in this discussion. "The Genesis prologue presents those historical truths which are the necessary presuppositions for the valid pursuit of human knowledge" (The New Bible Commentary: Revised, p. 81). So let's take a fresh look at Genesis 1:1-2.
Both the New International Version and the older Scofield Reference Bible suggest that the expression "the earth was without form and void" (verse 2) can be rendered "the earth became without form and void." In other words, something spoiled the original creation described in Genesis 1:1 and made it necessary for God to restore order out of chaos-which He did during six 24 hour periods followed by a Sabbath rest.
The Companion Bible points out that, in the King James Version (and most subsequent translations), "the verb 'to be' is not distinguished from the verb 'to become,' so that the lessons conveyed" in these first few verses "are lost." It goes on to explain that without form (Hebrew tohu) "is used of a subsequent event which, we know not how long after the Creation, befell the primitive creation of Gen. 1.1."
(For a detailed account of the rationale and reference sources that point to the possibility of the rendering "became" instead of "was," see "Earth's Age: Does Genesis 1 Indicate a Time Interval?" in another mini study).
Suffice it to say here that God does not create by first making a mess (1 Corinthians 14:33). God told the cherub (angel) Lucifer, "You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity [lawlessness]was found in you" (Ezekiel 28:15). God is the God of perfection, order and beauty. It is either the angelic realm or man's world that makes the messes.
Comparing these different passages, we can infer that an original creation (Genesis 1:1) preceded the making of a gigantic waste by Satan (the former Lucifer) and a third of the angels (Revelation 12:4), who had become demons. Sometime later God accomplished a full restoration during six 24-hour days, followed by the day of rest that created the seventh-day Sabbath (Exodus 20:11).
The time gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 is an unspecified period that could encompass an untold span of years, accounting for the quot;deep time" that geologists and other scientists have discovered in the last two centuries. So the Bible itself solves the enigma. We do not need to artificially lengthen the seven 24-hour creation days to resolve the problem.
We can learn something every time we study the magnificent creation account in Genesis 1. Sometimes a word study or a different translation can shed new light on a passage and yield fresh understanding.
Consider the Hebrew word moed in Genesis 1:14. This word has a variety of meanings and is translated in several ways, including "season," "appointed time," "feast(s)," "congregation" and "assembly" in the King James Version. Translators generally look at the context of the verse to determine the appropriate choice of wording.
The context of Genesis 1:14-16 explains that God created the lights in the heavens to mark time. In recognition of this concept, most Bibles translate moed in Genesis 1:14 as "seasons."
It is interesting to note that this same Hebrew word is later used by God in Leviticus 23:2, 4 to designate specific periods-occasions designated as "feasts" and "holy convocations" when there were to be public assemblies for worship. In recognition of the future role moed would serve in designating feast days, the Revised English Bible renders Genesis 1:14:
"God said, 'Let there be lights in the vault of the heavens to separate day from night, and let them serve as signs both for festivals and for seasons and years.'"
From the outset of time as we humans know it, moed in Genesis 1:14 anticipates God's intentions for the good of mankind. God gave the Sabbath at creation just after He made man (Mark 2:27). But He revealed the biblical festivals much later to the "church in the wilderness" (Leviticus 23; Acts 7:38).
As is the case with the seventh-day Sabbath, the annual festivals are important for understanding God's plan for mankind. Yet mere knowledge of their existence is insufficient. By actively observing the biblical festivals each year, Christians act out the very plan of God, growing in understanding of God's purpose (2 Peter 3:18).
Their timing is interwoven with the seasons of the northern hemisphere. God's year does not begin in the dead of winter as on our humanly devised calendars, but in the spring when green plants emerge from the earth, birds are flying, and the creation in general brightens with resurgent light and heat.
The United Church of God publishes a booklet that explains the meaning of the annual biblical festivals. Please request your free copy of God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.