Also in this series:
As I stressed at the beginning of this study, my focus is on what we can learn from the scriptures themselves rather than how we might find ways of conforming modern scientific discoveries to the Genesis text. If there is ever to be any hope of resolving this issue in the church, the solution will have to come from agreement based on a careful exegesis of the Genesis account itself, along with other applicable scriptures.
To begin with, all Christians should be able to agree that the days of Genesis are a form of revelation. While this may seem painfully obvious, I reiterate the matter here in order to bring some much-needed perspective to the controversy surrounding the creation account. Since no human observed the events of Genesis 1:1-27 and 2:5-7, those events could only have been relayed to man by means of revelation, whether by the hand of God himself or, as I think more likely, by angels. Further, as we have already seen, revelation often comes in the form of symbolism—word pictures that convey truth but are not themselves intended to be taken literally. I’ve already provided some examples of how revelatory symbolism can be misinterpreted, and even deliberately obscured by God until the time comes when it pleases him to reveal the full truth of it. These are well-established truths of biblical exegesis.
Thus, anyone who approaches Genesis with serious intent to understand it must bear in mind that, as revelation, the account may contain symbolism. The challenge lies in trying to identify the symbolism, if it exists, and to understand its meaning. It is altogether unwise to assume that the account is nothing more than literal, historical narrative. Again, I urge the reader to consider how Jesus rebuked his disciples for taking him too literally at times, and how it was actually necessary for him to open their minds and otherwise provide special explanations of his teachings in order for them to understand him properly.
So, with all of this in mind, let’s look at the various elements of the creation account and see what they have to teach us.
The Structure of Genesis One
With the exception of Day Seven, the days of the creation week follow a consistent pattern. Six times, God engages in a various creative activities, after which we are told: “And there was evening and there was morning. Day _____.” The “evenings and the mornings” are division points in the account, and this tells us something that is very important to our understanding of the passage.
In Hebrew culture, what we think of as a typical “full day”—that is, a twenty-four hour day—runs from sunset to sunset, or you could say “from evening until evening.” We don’t see that reflected in the Genesis creation account, however. We don’t read “And from evening until evening was one day,” or anything along those lines. Instead, each creative period is followed by an evening, and the subsequent creative period is preceded by a morning. Here is a chart that illustrates this a bit more clearly for the entire creation week:
Thus, we can readily see that the creation days of Genesis are not twenty-four-hour days. Read literally, they are six consecutive daylight periods, book-ended by evenings and mornings. Day Seven is a well-known exception to the rule in that it has no evening, but the illustration provided above shows that Day One is also an exception in that it has no morning. Thus, both the beginning and the end of the creation week are open-ended.
That each creation day specifically refers to the daylight hours is further substantiated by the description of Day One:
The earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 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, one day. – Genesis 1:2-5
Once light was introduced to the surface of the earth, God “separated” the light from the darkness. Given that light and darkness are naturally distinct from one another, we might well ask how God separated them, and the most obvious answer would appear to be that he did this simply by defining them, just as the text says. He called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Then we are told that there was an evening, followed by a morning.
Now consider this: what are “evening” and “morning”? What do these terms mean? They are times of transition between day and night, between light and darkness. Thus, the creation account itself begins by specifying what is meant by the term “day” in this context. It is the period of daylight between morning and evening. Nothing is mentioned as occurring during the periods of night in this account.
The Divine Pattern
The significance of all of this begins to settle in once you consider how the ancient Hebrews—as well as the vast majority of those who read this account for centuries afterward—would have related to it. For the most part, people in the ancient world worked in the fields as laborers, farmers, shepherds, herdsmen, and the like. For them, “morning” was when they woke and went out to the fields; “day” was when they actually labored; “evening” was when they returned home from the fields; and “night” was when they rested. Factoring this into the Genesis account, a picture begins to emerge. God is presented as an overseer who goes to work during the “day,” returns home at “evening” to rest during the “night,” and leaves his dwelling the next “morning” to complete another “day’s” work. I say “overseer” here because his work consists of giving commands, which are obeyed, and observing/approving the results. He is not presented as a common laborer.
The “days” of Genesis are thus strongly indicated to be divine ‘work days.’ Creation is depicted as six successive periods of work completed during the daylight hours, separated by six periods of rest during the nighttime, and ending with an extended period of rest when the entire project of creation is finally finished. The imagery here is unmistakable, would have naturally resonated with the ancient Hebrews who first received Genesis, and is supported by other scriptures as well.
In Exodus 16, the children of Israel observe the Sabbath for the first time. Note the phraseology used in the account, where Moses instructs the people on when to gather the manna that God would send them to eat:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in my instruction…In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, behold, the surface of the wilderness there was a fine flake-like thing, fine as the frost on the ground… They gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat; but when the sun grew hot it would melt.
Now on the sixth day, they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning. So they put it aside until morning as Moses had ordered…Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.
It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day. – Exodus 16:4, 13-14, 21-30
This account is the first time in scripture where a seven-day week is described. No application is made to the creation account at this time, but God is clearly setting up a pattern for Israel to follow: six days of gathering, followed by one day where no one was to “go out of his place” (that is, to gather). The people were to rest from working on the seventh day because the absence of manna made it clear that God was not working either.
A short while later, having laid down this pattern, God explained the reason for it:
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 of the Lord your God; it in you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. – Exodus 20:8-11
Here we have the direct application that explains the wording of Genesis 1. God laid out a pattern for his people to follow, based on his own creative activity, and conveyed it to them in terms that conformed to their natural experience. Young-earth creationists often cite Exodus 20:8-11 in an effort to show that the fact that God laid out six literal calendar days of work followed by a literal calendar day of rest must mean that the creation also took place in six literal calendar days followed by one literal calendar day of rest. This conclusion rests on purely superficial comparisons of the texts, however, and the alleged parallelism does not hold.
Revelatory Symbolism v Exact Parallelism
Yes, the book of Exodus tells us clearly that the creation week was revealed as a pattern for the human work week, but a pattern need not be an exact match to the thing upon which the pattern is based. This is not only true in terms of general human experience but also within the context of scripture itself. Consider the celebration of the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), as first prescribed in Leviticus 23. God instructed Moses that the people were to live in booths (that is, tents) “for seven days in the year…so that your generations may know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt” (23:41, 43). So the Feast of Booths was patterned on Israel’s journey through the wilderness—a journey that eventually grew to last for forty years—but the feast that was patterned on those years lasted only seven days. Readers reflecting on this may also recall the famous Seventy Weeks prophecy of Daniel 9, where a period of “weeks” is explicitly stated to represent a time period lasting hundreds of years.
Further, if the days of Genesis are a literal, exact match to the timing of God’s creation week activities, why should the parallels stop there? Read literally, the days of Genesis 1 confine God’s creative acts to the daylight hours. Are we really prepared to argue that God only works during the daylight hours? Does he really work in six-day cycles? Does he begin his work in the morning and finish up by evening like a human laborer? Does he take off one day out of every seven? Does he go home to rest at night? And from what point on the earth is a divine work day to be measured? After all, dawn in one part of the world is seen as dusk in another. When one half of the planet is experiencing daylight, the other half is experiencing night. Yet, the events of Genesis appear to affect the entire globe all at once. For example, by necessity, when God was gathering the waters that covered the entire earth into one place, it would have been day on one side of the globe and night on the other; but we’re told that this event happened during the “day” and was finished by evening. That’s only possible if we’re speaking about a fixed location on the globe—or if the term “day” is being used metaphorically for the entire time that it took for this event to play out to completion.
Genesis 1:2 says that the Spirit of God was “hovering over the waters,” so we might infer that God’s presence was localized somewhere on the earth when he began the process of shaping the planet, but given that the entire earth was covered with water at that time, it could also mean that God’s presence effectively surrounded the earth—covering all of the waters everywhere. Based solely on the text, there is no way of knowing which it is. Even if his presence was localized in some way, however, his power was clearly acting over the entire earth throughout all of the creation days—during the night as well as the day, during both the evening and the morning.
It is also difficult to understand why the terms “evening” and “morning” appear at all in the text, if indeed we are looking at a strictly literal account. These terms denote periods of transition, from day to night, from night to day, from work to rest, and from rest to work. This entire frame of reference is solar, human, earth-bound, and naturally inapplicable to God, who does not require light to work, is not hindered by darkness, and does not tire or need rest. As with man, however, the works of God do have beginnings and endings, which might be well represented in human terms by “mornings” and “evenings.”
I remind the reader here that Moses, who wrote the book of Genesis, uses the terms “morning” and “evening” to symbolize the beginning and ending of life in Psalm 90. Consider also that Jesus himself—through whom all things were created (John 1:1)—uses the terms “day,” “night,” and “light” as symbolic representations in the context of kingdom work in John 9:3-5:
“We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
“Day” in this passage quite obviously does not refer to literal daylight hours but to a period of productive work for the kingdom of God. By necessity of the contrast Christ draws, “night” must therefore refer to the time when this work will cease, and within this particular context likely has to do with end of Christ’s earthly ministry, given his comment about being “the light of the world.” Thus, he is the “light” during this particular time of “day” when kingdom work is being done. In Luke’s account of Christ’s arrest, he says to those who were sent out to take him: “While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours (Luke 22:53).” Comparing these passages, it seems that the “night” referred to in John 9 is likely the “hour of the power of darkness” referenced in Luke 22, the effective end of Christ’s ministry.
When we have both the creator and the one who wrote the account of the creation using the terms “morning” and “evening,” “day” and “night” in clearly symbolic fashion, is it really so unthinkable that those same terms at the very least could have been used to symbolize the beginning and ending of six successive stages in God’s works in the Genesis creation account? Only dogmatism would preclude at least the possibility of such an interpretation. Again, I remind the reader how God spoke to the ancient Hebrews in terms they could understand within the framework of their perceptions of the world. God did not correct their cosmology because it was not within the scope of his purposes in communicating with them. When Joshua commanded the sun and moon to “stand still,” he didn’t get a “syntax error” or “We’re sorry, but your call could not be completed as dialed,” because he mistakenly thought that the sun and the moon actually move through the sky. God did not interrupt and say, “Joshua, you need to rephrase your request because that’s not actually how things work.” Joshua’s intent was plain, and however it was that he made it happen, God fulfilled the request without correcting Joshua on the science.
The Seventh Day is Key
In Mark 2:23-28, the Pharisees question Christ concerning why his disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath, when men were not supposed to do any work. Christ responds with a story of how David violated the Law of Moses on an occasion when he and his men were in need, and then makes the following statement: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” His point is that the law, including the Sabbath commandment, was not given to harm man but to benefit him.
As already observed, God does not require rest as human beings do, yet Genesis tells us that he “rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” The word translated “rest” is shabath, which can simply mean to cease from activity, and thus need not necessarily imply actual rest as human beings rest from physical activity; but in Exodus 31, God elaborates on the Sabbath, saying to Moses: “It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor and was refreshed.” The word “refreshed” is translated from a different Hebrew word: naphash, which, according to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon means: “to take breath (when wearied [or, to rest, cease from working]).” In modern terms, we might say that the word means ‘to catch one’s breath.’ This word is found in only two other Old Testament passages: Exodus 23:12, where God reiterates the seventh day command so that one’s animals and servants can rest from their labors, and II Samuel 16:14, where David and his companions refresh themselves after a wearying flight from Absalom. Both of these additional occurrences of naphash are used in the sense of resting after becoming weary from some kind of exertion.
Thus, it seems clear that God did not present his seventh day rest to the Hebrew people as a mere period of inactivity, but rather, as genuine, restorative rest from labor.
So, I will ask the Genesis literalist again: does God need to rest as we do? My answer is no—God’s depiction of resting to be refreshed from his labors is not literal, but is instead a pattern he laid down for the children of Israel to follow, and is perfectly consistent with a metaphorical ‘divine work-day’ interpretation of the six creation days. Having portrayed himself as laboring “in the field,” as it were, from dawn to dusk for six days, God then portrays himself as resting to be refreshed from that labor on the seventh day. This is all revelatory imagery, as Jesus said with regard to the Sabbath specifically, “for man”—that is, for the benefit of man. In the creation account, God portrayed himself in very human terms for the benefit of the very human audience with which he was trying to communicate.
In light of this—how the seventh day rest of “refreshing” must be figurative, and how it molds seamlessly into the overall “divine work-day” narrative—may we not then reasonably conclude that the six “days” with their “mornings” and “evenings” are, in all likelihood, also figurative representations that portray God in human terms for the benefit of a human audience?
Is a Figurative Creation Account Deceptive?
I have heard young-earthers argue that if the Genesis creation account is not entirely literal, God would be guilty of deception; but does this follow logically or scripturally? Would it be deceptive for God to picture himself to Israel in human terms, and the creation as a figurative “work week”? Consider some of the following Old Testament passages where God is referred to as appearing human or acting in a human manner:
In Genesis 3:8, God is spoken of as “walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” In Genesis 18:1-8, the Lord appears to Abraham as a man in the company of two angels, who are also first spoken of as men. He eats and drinks with Abraham and apparently has his feet washed before going on his way to Sodom. In Genesis 32:24-32, the Lord once again appears as a man and wrestles with Jacob during the night. In Exodus 24:9-10, Moses, Aaron, and various elders of Israel saw “the God of Israel…and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire.” In Deuteronomy 23:12-14, God instructs the people to bury human waste outside the camp, and not to leave it in the open, because “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp…and He must not see anything indecent among you.” In Joshua 5:13-15, Joshua is confronted by a man who introduces himself as “the captain of the host of the Lord,” whose presence renders the ground “holy.” And for one last example, see Daniel 7, where God is referred to as “the Ancient of Days,” and is described as sitting on a throne, wearing a “white vesture,” and having hair like “wool.”
These incidents illustrate that the Hebrews were well able to conceive of God as taking human form and acting in a human fashion, including walking, sitting, eating, and drinking, and there is no hint that they found this deceptive. Indeed, given other passages such as the Lord’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush, and references to him appearing in “similitude” (Hebrew – temuwnah, “form, image, likeness, representation, semblance”), it is likely that they understood that those who had encountered God personally had not seen his true form, but rather, a form he chose to take.
In Psalm 22, David describes the sufferings of Christ in the first-person, as if he were speaking of himself. Is this deceptive? Why would the Holy Spirit inspire a man to describe things that never happened to him as though they had, and without any clarification that he was speaking of events yet to come? It’s likely that even David himself didn’t entirely understand what he was writing at the time. Were the parables of Jesus of deceptive? No one seriously argues this. Even though the stories he told were not strictly true in their details, they illustrated truths using familiar settings and characters. The use of parables was a common teaching method throughout the world in those days, and continues to be so to this day.
We might well ask why, if the days of Genesis are not literal, “regular,” twenty-four-hour days, but figuratively represent six periods of creative activity, does God does not simply say so and put the matter to rest. In reply, I will point out the following:
First, when Genesis was written there was no controversy to address. As some Bible teachers have phrased it, scripture was written for us but not to us. The Genesis account was written to the ancient Hebrews. It was communicated on their level of understanding, within a worldview that was familiar to them, and for specific purposes.
Second, as God did not find it necessary to delve into advanced cosmology in his other dealings with men, so it was not necessary to his purposes when proclaiming himself the Creator of all things and laying out a pattern of work and rest for Israel to follow.
Third, he provides enough information that anyone who is curious and is willing to study can discern the figurative nature of the presentation. The writings of ancient Jewish and Christian authors alike demonstrate that careful thinkers did indeed pick up on the clues and devote much thought to them. Perhaps this was a form of incentive that God provided for men to study his word.
Fourth, scripture reveals that God is sometimes willing to speak in oblique terms, using representations that confuse and upset people, and without explaining himself as we might expect. Consider Christ’s “bread of life” discourse from John 6. Here, Jesus so confused and frustrated his audience that even many of his own disciples turned away in consternation and no longer followed him. He could have clarified the discourse with a few words—explaining the spiritual application of what he was saying—but he did not do so.
Fifth, as stated previously, God reveals spiritual truths in his timing and to the audience of his choice. It may be that the beginning and the end are tied together in some way that will be not be fully understood until all prophecy has been fulfilled, and who is to say when that will be?
Truth in Figurative Terms is Still Truth
Based on pure exegesis, the Genesis creation account and related portions of scripture strongly suggest a figurative representation of God as an overseer at work on a vast project that is completed in six stages, each with definite beginning and end points, and all of which are followed by a period of rest. The imagery would have been clear to the original audience, which was intended to receive it as a straightforward pattern to emulate in their own lives. Although it is figurative in some ways, the account teaches truth concerning God as the Creator and the general plan by which he implemented his creation. Teaching science and providing some sort of exact timeline (such as each “day” corresponding to a certain number of years) are not in the view of the text, and there is no need to impose these things on the account in order to make it understandable or somehow more relevant. The text is capable of speaking for itself.
Young-earthers may not be persuaded by the interpretation I’ve suggested here, but I hope that they will at least admit that this view is a plausible alternative, particularly when weighed against the problems I’ve outlined with a strictly literal view of the account and various other “oddities” in the text that were covered in previous articles in this series. One need not be on a mission of “compromise” with modern scientific theories to suggest that there is more going on in Genesis than at first meets the eye.
*Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are taken from the NASB.
 Old-earth creationist Richard Snoke holds to this idea, believing that the focal point is the land of Israel.
 We could speculate endlessly on this. It may have been a localized effect, the way that darkness covered the land of Egypt except in Goshen, where the Hebrews lived just prior to the Exodus. Another example is the darkness that fell on the afternoon of the crucifixion. Given that it was a sign to those who witnessed the event, there is no reason to automatically suppose that it was a global phenomenon.
 Numbers 12:8, Deuteronomy 4:12, 15.