What Is the Meaning of “Day” in Genesis 1–2?

Herbert Wolf
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Even if we agree that the theological teaching of Genesis 1 is paramount, we must still strive to understand what this chapter tells us about the creation process and how it relates to modern science. A key factor in this study is the meaning of the word day and the major theories held by scholars.

The Twenty-Four-Hour-Day Theory

The most straightforward interpretation of “day” is to understand it in terms of the rotation of the earth. The description of each day ends with the statement “And there was evening, and there was morning” (vv. 5, 8, 13, etc.), which ties in nicely with the separation of light from darkness in day one. Each twenty-four-hour period is thus divided into “day” and “night” (v. 5). Although it may be difficult to comprehend how God could have accomplished so much in twenty-four hours, we recognize that He is omnipotent, according to verses such as 3, 6, 9. He spoke the word “and it was so” (vv. 7, 9, 11, 15, 24). On the seventh day God rested from His work (Gen. 2:3), and this is given as the reason the Israelites were to keep the Sabbath day in Exodus 20:11. Such a direct correspondence implies that the Sabbath was the same length as the seventh day of creation week.

Nevertheless, there are hints in Genesis 1 that twenty-four-hour days may not have been intended. First, we observe that the sun was not created until day four (v. 16), so how could days one–three have been regarded as solar days? This argument has been countered by those who say that the creation of the sun did take place in day one when God said, “Let there be light” (v. 3). Perhaps the sun was hidden behind thick vapor until the fourth day.

A second argument focuses upon the amount of activity that took place on the sixth day.[1] Not only did God create all of the animals, but He created Adam and told him to take care of the garden of Eden. Then God instructed Adam to give names to all the animals and birds, and as he did this, Adam noticed that there was “no suitable helper” for him among them. To rectify this loneliness, God placed Adam into a deep sleep, took one of his ribs, and with it created Eve. When Adam awoke he was delighted with his partner and said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). All of these events are virtually impossible to squeeze into one twenty-four-hour day, even if the animals were created instantly at the start of the day. It must have taken a long time to name the animals and birds, and Adam’s excitement in verse 23 implies that the creation of woman ended a lengthy period of loneliness.

The Day-Age Theory

Diametrically opposed to the twenty-four-hour position is the view that each day in Genesis 1 represents an indefinite period of time roughly equivalent to a geologic age. If, as science teaches, the earth is millions or even billions of years old, why compress the work of creation into six short days? Advocates of the day-age theory point to verses such as Psalm 90:4, which states that “a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by” (cf. 2 Pet. 3:8). The “day of the Lord” apparently refers to an extended period of time associated with the judgment of the wicked (cf. Isa. 13:6, 9). Since God is eternal, He might have chosen to create the world in six stages covering millions upon millions of years. An age by age creation could be implied by the wording of Genesis 2:1: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.”[2] Although the geologic ages do not correspond neatly with the six days of creation, scientists do agree with the general development of Genesis 1: the existence of vapor and a watery mass preceded the separation of land and sea prior to the appearance of life. Vegetable life came before the emergence of animal life during the Cambrian period, and mankind represented the latest and most complex form of life.

At certain points, however, Genesis 1 seems to differ sharply with modern science. For instance, if each day represents a very long period, how did the plants of day three survive if the sun was not created until day four? And how did the process of pollination take place in plants if insects and birds were not made until day five, two ages later?[3] We might also object that although the Hebrew word for “day” is a flexible one, it is stretching the point to make it refer to periods thousands or millions of years long.

The Intermittent-Day Theory

A third theory combines some of the features of the first two views, though with important modifications. Usually held by “progressive creationists,” this third theory “assumes that ‘evening . . . morning’ actually represents a 24-hour day that precedes each creative period that extends into the present and will be ended only in the future.”[4] In effect, each twenty-four-hour day introduces a new creative era in which God carries out the work of that day. At some point in that era a new “day” begins and launches additional creative activity, but it does not terminate the work of the preceding day or days. This is particularly significant for days three and five, which cause problems for the day-age theory. According to the intermittent-day hypothesis, fruit plants did not appear earlier than the invertebrates and some of the vertebrates of day five. Similarly, pollinating insects would have been created at the same time as the land plants, once again combining the activity of days three and five.[5] This hypothesis suggests that we are now living in the creative period that comes between the sixth and seventh days of Genesis 1:1–2:3. God is still at work, though His main activity is the redemption of mankind.

Although there are definite advantages to the intermittent-day theory, it does introduce a new set of difficulties. “Day” seems to mean “day” and “era” at the same time, but there is really nothing in the text itself that points to such an era subsequent to a “day.” In addition, this theory tends to ignore the division between the days, for the refrain at the end of each day’s description implies the end of that day’s activity. This is especially true of day six, where for the first time we are told that all that God had made was very good and the definite article is placed before the numeral: “the sixth day” (1:31). Chapter 2 begins with the summary statement that “the heavens and the earth were completed,” enabling God to rest on the seventh day (2:1–3).

The Framework Theory

In view of the chronological difficulties encountered in a study of the Genesis account, scholars have also developed nonchronological approaches to this chapter. One such approach emphasizes the symmetry that exists between days one–three and days four–six. Day one records the creation of light, whereas day four mentions specific “lights”—the sun, moon, and stars. Day two speaks about the sky and the waters, and day five tells how God made the birds and the fish. Day three emphasizes land, and day six describes the creation of animals and mankind to inhabit the land. In each case the first three days speak of the formation of a sphere or substance and the next three days tell of the particular bodies or creatures that correspond to these broader spheres.


  • Day 1—Light
  • Day 2—Sky and Water
  • Day 3—Dry Land


  • Day 4—Sun, Moon, Stars
  • Day 5—Birds, Fish
  • Day 6—Animals, Man

Day 7—God Rests[6]

The seventh day functions as a climax to the first six days and is set apart from the others by the summary statement found in 2:1. When God finished His work, He rested on the seventh day and “made it holy” (2:3) as a special day of remembrance.

If there is in fact a correspondence between the two sets of three days, such a structure would illustrate the beauty and symmetry of God’s creative work. It would also solve the problem of accounting for the existence of vegetation and plants in day three when the sun was not made until the fourth day. Yet the same reference to seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees in day three seems to correspond more closely to the days of “filling” that are supposed to characterize days four–six. In an attempt to refute the whole theory, E. J. Young also points out that the “seas” are not mentioned until day three, but fish are created in day five.[7] In fairness it should be noted, however, that day two— which should correspond to day five—does talk about both the waters under the expanse and the waters above it.

The Revelatory-day Theory

A second nonchronological approach to Genesis 1 is the view that God revealed the account of creation to Moses in a vision that lasted six literal days. God told His servant how He made the world in a sequence that was not necessarily chronological but topical and logical. According to this interpretation, the six days bear no relationship to the actual time involved in creation.[8]

The revelatory-day theory would sidestep most of the difficulties involved in reconciling science and Scripture, and there is little doubt that much of Genesis 1–11 was revealed to Moses by God. Yet when one reads Genesis 1 there is no hint in any verse that these are six days of visionary experience. Instead, we are given the distinct impression that each day is describing what God accomplished on that day, and when He finished His work He rested on the seventh day. The reference to the seventh day and God’s special blessing upon it is very difficult to fit in with the revelatory-day theory.

“Seven Days” in Ancient Near Eastern Literature

Although there are no references to seven days of creation in other ancient literature, a seven-day period is used on occasion to describe significant events. As in Genesis, it is sometimes difficult to know whether one should interpret such references literally or figuratively. In the Ugaritic Baal epic for example, we are told that the god Baal built a palace in seven days. Does this mean that since he was considered to be a powerful deity Baal constructed the palace in a one-week period, or do the seven days represent a literary convention only loosely linked to the actual time involved in the building process?[9] In another Ugaritic epic, the hero Keret takes a seven-day journey to the land of Udm, but unfortunately we do not know the precise length of the trip.[10] An interesting feature of “seven-day” references is the pattern that usually appears. Normally the days are grouped in three sets of twos followed by a climactic seventh day.[11] Although such an arrangement could be used to support the symmetry of two sets of threes proposed by the framework hypothesis, there is no example where the 2–2–2 pattern fails to make chronological progression. Of special interest is the observation that the numerals modify the word day almost precisely as in Genesis: “one day, a second day.” The definite article occurs only with the sixth and seventh days in the biblical text.

Scholars have also noted that the number seven plays a role in the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, which has been preserved on seven clay tablets. These tablets describe how the god Marduk was able to defeat the goddess Tiamat, the primeval salt-water ocean, and to make heaven and earth out of her dead body. Marduk later has Tiamat’s husband, Kingu, killed and from his blood creates man to perform manual labor for the gods. Outside of a few similarities, the Babylonian account differs greatly from the biblical text, and the seven tablets do not correspond very closely to the seven days of Genesis. The polytheistic backdrop, the battles between the gods, and even the reason given for the creation of mankind diverge sharply from Genesis 1.[12]

[1] R. J. Snow, Genesis One and the Origin of the Universe, ed. R. C. Newman and H. J. Eckelmann Jr. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1977), 125.

[2] The RSV ends the verse “and all the host of man.” The NASB and others have renderings such as “and all their hosts.”

[3] Wayne Frair and Percival Davis, A Case for Creation, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 1983), 128.

[4] Pattle Pun, Evolution: Nature & Scripture in Conflict? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 264–5.

[5] Ibid., 264.

[6] Kidner, Genesis, 46.

[7] E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964), 71.

[8] Cf. P. J. Wiseman, Creation Revealed in Six Days (London: Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1948), 33ff; Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 218–27.

[9] Ronald Youngblood, “Moses and the King of Siam,” JETS (fall 1973): 215–22.

[10] Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1915), 1:251, lines 105–8.

[11] E. A. Speiser in ANET (Pritchard), 2d ed. (1955), 94.

[12] Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, 96–97, 120–21.

For Further Reading:

An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch

by Herbert Wolf

The Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—are the vital first books in the Bible. Understanding their scope, meaning,...

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